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Toby Young
Saturday 15th June 2002

Julie Burchill is Away / Art / A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Spectator - 15th June 2002

I was hoping to write my first ever review from the other side of the footlights this week. About three months ago Julie Burchill asked me if I'd be prepared to make a cameo appearance in a play that had been written about her by a young playwright called Tim Fountain. It was his idea, apparently. He thought that if I put in an appearance on the press night it might help Julie Burchill Is Away get some publicity. He wanted me to play Daniel Raven, Julie's 27-year-old boyfriend. I fell out with Julie in 1995 but our feud ended last year when I paid tribute to her in an autobiographical book and she responded by giving it a good review. I told her I'd be delighted to help.

At first, I patted myself on the back for being such a nice guy. It's a terrible chore, I told myself, but I'm happy to give a leg up to a struggling young playwright. But as the press night drew near, I got more and more excited. I began to talk about getting into character. I asked Daniel's sister, the journalist Charlotte Raven, to tell me about him. I forbade my wife to mention the Scottish play.

Then, at the end of last week, Tim Fountain emailed me to tell me my services were no longer required. My single, solitary line had been cut and the play had turned into a one-woman show. "It was really kind of you to offer," he wrote, "but it just didn't work." I was crestfallen. It took a superhuman effort of will not to email him back and beg him to reconsider. I didn't care about not having a line. Couldn't I just have a non-speaking role? PLEASE LET ME BE ON STAGE.

Well, I'm happy to report that even without me in it Julie Burchill Is Away is a cracker of a play. The character on stage is almost spookily like the woman I considered my best friend for 10 years. This is a tribute both to Jackie Clune, who captures Julie to a T, and to Tim Fountain, who's done an excellent job of reproducing her dialogue. About half her lines have been taken directly from her columns, but the remainder have been culled from actual conversations Fountain has had with her. I don't know whether she allowed him to tape-record these encounters, but the character he's created is the woman I knew and loved. In Tim Fountain, Julie Burchill has found her Boswell.

In one sense, the portrait is quite flattering. Daniel Raven isn't the only thing that's ended up on the cutting room floor. Gone is the braggadocio, the endless self-justification. Gone, too, are Julie's more unattractive opinions, such as her knee-jerk defence of Stalinism. This is the first woman of Fleet Street at her most brilliant, skewering whole philosophies with one well-aimed jab of her stiletto. At times, it's almost like watching a stand-up comedian. One hilarious remark after another flows from her mouth.

But Fountain has also captured Julie's maudlin side and we're left in no doubt that the woman we're watching isn't nearly as happy as she claims to be. Jackie Clune deserves a lot of the credit here, too. Without laying it on too thickly, she manages to get it across that beneath Julie's brassy self-confidence is a much more delicate, uncertain creature. To describe has as a lost soul would be going too far, but we do get a sense of someone fundamentally restless and lonely. Between them, Jackie Clune and Tim Fountain have managed to distill the essence of one of the great personalities of our age.

My one criticism of the play is that I'm not sure it's really about anything other than Julie Burchill. The opposite is true of Art, which has just been replenished with an entirely new cast of not-quite-famous television actors. They make a decent fist of it, particularly Ben Cross as the surly philistine who holds no truck with modern art, but the characters are so one-dimensional they're not given much to work with. This is, above all, a play of ideas; the characters are secondary. Perhaps in France, where ideas are taken more seriously than they are here, this doesn't matter, but I found my attention wandering. With no one on stage to care about, there's no real drama. Art only lasts 90 minutes, but it felt twice as long.

The production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe is a mixed bag. The mechanicals, particularly John Ramm as Bottom, are first rate, but the main players are a disappointment. I know it's ungallant to say it, but the two lead actresses aren't nearly attractive enough to play the roles they've been cast in. For instance, the scene in which Titania falls in love with Bottom loses some of its comic richness when the actor playing Bottom is actually better looking than the actress playing Titania. Still, I can't talk. I expect the real reason Tim Fountain cut me out of Julie Burchill Is Unwell is because I'm not attractive enough to play Julie's boyfriend.

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