Magazine article The Spectator

The Wrong Note

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wrong Note

Article excerpt

There is a kind of noblesse oblige about weekly magazines not attacking each other's internal editorial policies, but something is going on at the born-again Punch which I believe needs to be rapidly discussed and demolished. Yes, indeed, I spent 15 years there as arts editor and drama critic; but that was in another life and besides the wench is dead.

The current issue carries a full-page review of Beauty and the Beast in such detail as to make it clear that their new critic, William Fiennes, must have attended the first preview rather than the first night, which occurred this week too late for The Spectator's current deadline.

By simply buying himself a ticket, Fiennes got in fully ten days before any other national or local paper or magazine. Does this much matter, given the current Punch circulation? Yes it does, however few readers are involved.

.Shows, even after long Broadway runs, are famous for changing drastically during any preview period, so what Fiennes saw may well not be much like what his readers get to see; for all its obvious shortcomings (unusually nervous actors, untypically supportive audiences of friends and backers), the press night is a simple device to ensure that all critics get an equal deadline.

This is already imperilled, as in all other performing arts, by the growth of the `preview' which is now often almost indistinguishable from the 'review'; but, in a desperate chase not to be left behind, if all publications start echoing Punch and reviewing as soon as a theatre opens its doors, the system will become a free-for-all in which the reader will suffer most.

There has always been a lot less to Terrence McNally's Master Class (Queens) than meets the eye; the snob hit of a couple of seasons ago on Broadway, it allows one tumultuous diva (originally Zoe Caldwell, then as now in London Patti LuPone) to pull out all the stops in a bravura performance largely created to cover up the cracks in the play. Quite soon they'll have men in drag playing Maria Callas in this thoroughly shaky script, and if you don't believe me then consider the fate of Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage in which two men are indeed touring the British provinces as I write.

The problem with Master Class, as with the Marlene Dietrich salute which is now its neighbour on Shaftsbury Avenue, is that nobody seems to have quite decided in rehearsal whether we are dealing with a concert or a critical biography or a fan magazine brought to flickering life. The gimmick with Master Class is that we are supposed to be the audience who in 1971 were permitted to attend some Julliard School sessions in New York at which Callas, now in semi-retirement, passed on the tricks of her trade to young wannabee opera stars.

The trouble is, of course, that we are not that audience and LuPone is not Callas, though the confusion seems to be considerable. The fact that the West End is fast becoming a kind of animated Madame Tussaud's, in which we now have the cultural version of Sunset Boulevard with LuPone warming over her doomed star from that earlier show, is not the only problem here. So gingerly and tentatively does McNally step around the Callas truths that were it not for the occasional blast of her voice we might as well have been to an evening with Gracie Fields. …

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