Chris Goode recently wrote beautifully about one of those silly lists which lists “influential” movers, shakers, and, unaccountably, actors, in the theatre world. The Evening Standard Awards are a much less muddled affair. This is, after all, simply a list of the things some people thought were best. From which shortlists and eventually winners will be picked.
Apart from serving to highlight how much I have managed to miss at the theatre this year, the lists and categories really illuminate precious little. Unlike the Oliviers, there are, to my knowledge, no restrictions placed on what can be nominated, but unlike the Critics Circle Awards, there is a far smaller panel making the choices. Indeed the Evening Standard Theatre Awards judging panel is a curious collection, comprising as it does Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard, Georgina Brown of the Mail on Sunday, Susannah Clapp of The Observer, Benedict Nightingale of The Times and Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph. Heaven forfend that I should kick off the Dead White argument all over again, but there are considerations here that should be looked at. For a start, they are all senior critics, Taking a wild stab, I’d say the youngest (one or other of the two women) was probably closer to 50 than 45. Not a problem in itself, but they are also all first stringers. That is to say, the senior (or indeed only) critic on their paper.
The way that newspapers in this country seem to organise their arts coverage often appears to be as rigidly hierarchical as an old-fashioned prep school. There are hierarchies of theatres, and hierarchies of critic. Given that papers will run one or two, maybe three reviews a day, and there will be a corresponding or higher number of openings, these generally appear to be divvied up through a process of matching a theatre’s rank to that of a critic. Generally speaking, depending on the paper, the West End comes first. A massive new musical with star names and big budget will take precedence. Frankly, no one with any sense will open against it. It often strikes me the National should use such occasions to open their more experimental offerings to the (usually younger and far more receptive) second stringers.
After the West End comes the National or the RSC. And not close behind the other major subsidised and boutique London houses like the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Almeida and so on. After these come the leading Fringe venues like the Bush, the Soho and probably still the Gate, maybe now also the Arcola and Chocolate Factory, which is fast overtaking the Gate in terms of critical acclaim. The BAC probably still fits in on this rank, but thanks to Artistic Director David Jubb’s determination (until Masque of Red Death) to make the damn place almost critic-proof by limiting a majority of runs to about three nights it hardly ever manages to get coverage for its wide variety of work. Behind these venues will be places like Theatre 503 and that other new writing venue in south London that I can’t remember for the life of me. Behind these - if it’s a really slow night, you might find a critic venture out to the Old Red Lion, The Hen and Chickens or the Pleasance. But the show in question would have to have a pretty impressive press agent to get a national broadsheet through the doors without a major name of some description.
Outside of this London ranking, regional coverage by first stringers seems to be increasingly dying out. Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Sheffield all now seem to be largely the province of second stringers, or regionally based critics, while Scotland, outside festival time appears to have been handed pretty much wholesale to critics based in the country.
To return to the point: there is, then, a rather obvious problem with the Evening Standard’s Awards if its whole panel consists entirely of first-stringers. They will only have seen a tier of work that is deemed “top rank”. Fine, one might say, awards are elitist, and so only the top rank should be under consideration. Except that no one is even pretending that the “top rank” is top because it is best. It is top because it is largest and most expensive.
So what to do? Well, for a start, why not introduce a couple of second stringers onto the panel. Lyn Gardner and Dominic Cavendish would do nicely. Interestingly, they would also bring a whole new ethos to the table. After all, there is, perhaps, on the current panel’s line-up, something of a tendency toward the comfort-zone in terms of taste. Sure, all matters of taste could be considered comfort zones of a sort, but I would argue that the comfort zones of Cavendish, and especially Gardner are still a good deal more, how to say this tactfully? adventurous?
So there we have it: The Evening Standard Awards, through presumably no deliberate malice aforethought, managing to preserve a vision of theatrical excellence that is predicated largely on grounds of size and expense.
To round off, I’d like to echo Chris Goode’s comments by highlighting some of the seemingly odd choices in the “Promising” playwright and “Newcomer” categories. Surely by now Dennis Kelly has done a lot more than “promise”. Christ, whatever it was he promised, he more than delivered both before and after Love and Money. And Matt Smith, while quite brilliant in That Face, was also brilliant in Chatroom / Citizenship at the National in 2005, wasn’t he? Still, maybe “slightly established” is the new “new”. Which doesn’t bode well for the new.