Last year I was appointed the theatre critic of The Spectator, and in that capacity I’ve now been to most of London’s theatres. My God, the seats are uncomfortable! I was warned before I started that it’s considered a bit of a no-no to fall asleep during a performance, particularly if you’re intending to give the play a bad review, and at first I thought there was no danger of that. How could you possibly fall asleep on seats that would have shamed the lower decks of a Roman slave galley? Amazingly, though, I’ve found myself drifting off from time to time. For instance, I managed to get forty winks at the Riverside in Hammersmith not long ago in spite of having to sit on hard plastic for about two-and-a-half hours. Of course, it helps if the theatre’s almost empty. On the other hand, the fewer the people, the more likely you are to be noticed, particularly if you snore. I awoke with a start recently during an ill-attended evening at the Aldwych to discover the leading man glaring at me. It didn’t help that my notebook and pen were resting on my tummy, gently rising and falling as I snoozed.
An inability to stay awake is a real handicap for a critic. Some years ago, I enjoyed a brief stint as the deputy film critic of The Guardian, and I remember being shocked to discover that all the other critics were usually sleeping soundly when the lights came on. Indeed, I wrote a piece for the magazine I was editing at the time castigating them all for this terrible dereliction of duty. How dare they be so contemptuous of contemporary Hollywood movies when they hadn’t actually managed to stay awake during one for several years? After the piece appeared, I was sent to Coventry by my fellow critics—quite rightly I now think. What an appalling sneak! These days I often notice my fellow theatre critics snoring away, but I wouldn’t dream of naming and shaming them. This isn’t simply because I’m often in the land of nod myself, though obviously that’s the main reason. It’s also because I now think of my colleagues as comrades-in-arms, fellow battlers against the interminable boredom of the West End.
The hard part about being a theatre critic is that the vast majority of the plays you see are absolutely awful. That’s the stuff I find myself sleeping through. The good part, though, is that you occasionally see something absolutely spellbinding. Humble Boy is such a play. Currently playing at the Gielgud, it’s just picked up a Critics Circle Award for the Best Play of 2001, and it’s an absolute corker. I can’t recommend it highly enough—no, not even that hoary old cliché is a high enough recommendation. It’s so good that as I sat through it last Wednesday, I felt my breast swelling with patriotic pride. To think that an Englishwoman—Charlotte Jones, as it happens—could have written something so good! She really is world-class. If an Englishwoman can rise to this sort of artistic height, there must be a bit of life left in the old country yet. Charlotte Jones should be made a Dame immediately.