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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 13th March 2004

Oliver Twist / The Skin of Our Teeth / Calico

The Spectator - 13th March 2004

At last month's Critics Circle Theatre Awards I was singled out for abuse by Michael Coveney, The Daily Mail's drama critic, for my habit of abandoning plays halfway through. I was tempted to get up and leave before he reached the end of his speech, but since his remarks received a thundering round of applause I didn't think that would get much of a laugh. Instead, I decided to respond to his attack the next time I was obliged to write about a play I'd walked out of. Last week I walked out of all three plays I was supposed to be reviewing so now seems like a good time.

There are a number of arguments I can put forward in my defence. For instance, I could point out that, unlike Michael Coveney, who usually has a bit of space to devote to each of the plays he sees, I have to round up several productions in just 750 words. If the play is any good I'm happy to see it through til the bitter end, but if it's a real stinker--and you can nearly always tell it's a stinker after the first five minutes--do I really need to see the second half in order to be able to warn Spectator readers not to touch it with a ten foot pole?

I could go on to quote Philip Larkin, who said that the discovery that he could walk out of a play in the interval was one of the great moments of his life. Indeed, if I was feeling really cavalier, I could even quote Sidney Smith. "I never read a book before reviewing it," he said. "It prejudices a man so."

But the truth is, I know Coveney is right: this practice is indefensible. Last year I adapted my own book for the stage along with a playwright called Tim Fountain and I would have been horrified if I discovered that any of the reviewers who panned it had walked out in the middle. As a critic, I'm obliged to extend that courtesy to others.

While it's true that 95% of plays that fail to ignite in the first half don't take off in the second, there are a tiny number that not only suddenly take flight but do so in such a way that you completely re-evaluate everything that's come before.

Even if that wasn't true, I'd still be obliged to see the plays I'm reviewing in their entirety because, goddammit, that's what critics are supposed to do. That's the job I signed up for and it's no good complaining that I don't get paid enough or I don't have enough space since I knew what the terms were when I agreed to do it. If I can't be bothered to stay in my seat I should make way for someone who can.

Quite apart from the principle of the thing, there's the shame of being caught by one of my colleagues. When I did a bunk during the second half of The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh's new play, Nicholas de Jongh put a call in to Londoner's Diary and, this week, the press officer at the Young Vic called my editor at The Spectator and said she hoped I wouldn't be reviewing The Skin of Our Teeth since I'd left after the interval. This is not a reputation I want to have.

So, really, I agree with Michael Coveney. I think critics should see productions all the way through and whenever I enter the theatre I fully intend to do so.

The problem is, about 25% of the time, the play is so cosmically boring, so mind-numbingly tedious, I simply can't bring myself to go back in for the second half. I know I should; I just can't. There's something so debilitating about a bad play; it sucks the air out of you in a way that a bad book or a bad film just doesn't. I wanted to stay for the second half of Calico, I really did. I was just afraid that if I did so I might lose the will to live.

Indeed, given how strongly I believe in the Coveney principle, and given how keen I am to avoid the wrath of my colleagues, the fact that I walked out of all three of last week's plays should give you some idea of just how godawful they are. I know I'm not qualified to review The Skin of Our Teeth, but I can tell you that for the hour or so that I stuck with it the jokes were so laboured, the plot so thin, the performances so irritating and the pretensions of the playwright so colossal, that I had to run screaming from the theatre.

I realise I've come to rather a paradoxical conclusion. Even though I think that only those critics who see plays from start to finish should be allowed to pronounce judgement on them, my failure to do so is actually a more reliable barometer of a play's shortcomings than anything I'm likely to write. Of course, that's assuming my boredom thresh-hold is about the same as the average Spectator reader's. Is that a wild assumption? Maybe, but if you go and see any of these three plays, remember: you have been warned.

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