The Critic

John Hill
The Calder Bookshop and Theatre
The Calder Bookshop and Theatre

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Gemma Pantaleo as Alex and Gary Heron as Hugh Credit: The Calder Bookshop and Theatre
Gary Heron as Hugh and Gemma Pantaleo as Alex Credit: The Calder Bookshop and Theatre

Hugh Moncrieffe has written his autobiography, he is home after the launch party. There are copies around and he puts up the publisher's poster, perhaps to impress guests he is expecting.

He is even more pleased with himself when, among a succession of mobile phone calls, there’s some pretentious Franglais, a reference to a wager still being on and the news that he is the potential candidate for a safe seat in Parliament. This leads to some Malvolio-like moments when he imagines his success before we hear what appears to be an answerphone instruction to leave a message from his ex-wife Suzanne.

There is the first of a number of blackout interruptions before the action continues with Hugh getting more relaxed in jogging pants and kimono and spraying himself with cologne (he’s expecting a visitor). While he’s waiting, he opens some mail and files one letter in a box labelled “Death Threats”.

That’s ominous and indeed, as Hugh, Gary Heron manages to suggest that his bonhomie and apparent confidence could only be skin deep. You may well wonder why his autobiography is called Alternative Therapy.

When Hugh answers the door, it isn’t the lady he is expecting but a stranger who is wielding a pistol. He is soon cowering before her, pointlessly protesting that he’s been on Question Time. So starts their confrontation. Is intruder Alex after revenge or extortion?

Soon, he is handcuffed and chained by his foot to some piping and she will go on to extract a hammer and plastic sheeting from her holdall, though later trying out various golf clubs as the weapon to wreak revenge with; but what is she avenging?

At first, this seems to be because of the way he treated his ex-wife, with whom she now seems to be having an affair. She certainly knows Suzanne’s anatomy in detail and, of his inadequate husbandry, declares, “you couldn’t find her clit with a Sat Nav!”. It is also on behalf of his son, David, whose play he panned.

Yes, Hugh is the eponymous Critic! The premise is that a bad review from a lead critic can wreck a show (and indeed as chief theatre critic of The New York Times Frank Rich earned the title “Butcher of Broadway”) but the charge against Moncrieffe is that he did it deliberately, part of an ongoing betting game with rival critic Brodie, and Alex is another of his dramatist victims.

Gemma Pantaleo’s Alex, her voice sometimes tailing away, is driven but uncertain, let down by whoever is at the other end of her phone conversations. It is a sensitive performance but the plot seems to emphasis her confusion and inconsistency—aren’t they meant to be funny?

Not since the days of Tynan and Hobson have British theatre critics exercised that kind of power influence, but Internet bloggers and fakery make this a serious subject. Alex’s backstory reveals repercussions which are treated sympathetically; both characters badly need therapy.

John Hill calls his play a black comedy, but it doesn’t get many laughs. Director Sally Ripley makes things too naturalistic, which draws attention to the play’s unrealities. Gary Heron hits the right note, on the edge of becoming a comic creation. If the rest of the production matched that and let itself be more Grand Guignol, it could be both blacker and funnier.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton