'I watched the play under adverse conditions - the curtain was up'
"You know, I go to the theatre to be entertained… I don’t want to see plays about rape, sodomy and drug addiction…I can get all that at home." Peter Cook’s famous line - thought to have been written by Alan Bennett - comes from Beyond the Fringe, his breakthrough satirical revue in 1962. It neatly preempted the critics who were sharpening their knives ready to prick the satire boom, led by Cook and his Cambridge coterie. But it’s not often that the actors get the last word. We've been trawling the archives of theatre reviews to find the most damning appraisals. They range from the dismissive single word write-ups to brutal dissections - without anaesthetic - of the performers, playwrights and sometimes the audience. Particular venom is reserved for musicals. And in this the man they called The Master, theatrical all-rounder Noel Coward (right), surely deserves the title The Monster for this savage review of Gone with the Wind...
"If they'd stuffed the child's head up the horse's arse, they would have solved two problems at once." That was Coward's verdict on the opening night in London of the musical version of Gone With the Wind which was marred by an obnoxious young actress, and a horse that relieved itself onstage.
The sound of musicals. Dying.
Good Vibrations (pictured below) "... audience members strong enough to sit through this rickety jukebox of a show, which manages to purge all catchiness from the surpassingly catchy hits of the Beach Boys, will discover that the production does have a reason to be, and a noble one: Good Vibrations sacrifices itself, night after night and with considerable anguish, to make all other musicals on Broadway look good." New York Times review, 2005.
Dracula "But that music! It is like a long, uniform sausage made of sawdust, cut into uneven slices (rhythm) with singing sometimes yelled, sometimes whispered (variety). It is not so much composed as ground out, enough to give monotony a bad name and make one yearn for the melody of an interrupting cell phone." American critic John Simon sank his teeth into this Broadway production in 2004.
"A ’70s-nostalgia wallow and peacenik hagiography implicitly pegged to the war in Iraq. Advance hype on this show was misleadingly dire. It’s not the car crash that flop vultures have hoped for, but that’s only because its engine never starts." In 2005, US critic David Cote junks another musical, this one with John Lennon songs.
In My Life "...gobsmacker about a young man with Tourette syndrome and a brain tumor. In the show’s takeaway number, a swishy angel sang 'There’s a little rumor / Someone’s got a tumor,' then danced with a skeleton. Delusions of grandeur clearly attended the clueless construction of this musical... " David Cotes again being picky.
Bat Out of Hell (pictured top) "Unfortunately, I winced through some of the worst, most ill-judged choreography I have ever seen on the London stage, which was only outdone by a truly dreadful book groaning under the weight of one of the most painful plots and scripts I have ever endured." Stefan Kyriazis, Daily Express, June 2017, letting fly.
Then there are some reviews that don’t mince words, because they hardly have any
A Good Time "No." A single word was all one critic spared in assessing A Good Time at the Duchess Theatre in London at the turn of the 19th century.
Humourist Dorothy Parker (below) was queen of the devastating one-liner:
The Lake, starring Katharine Hepburn
"Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Parker came up with that 80 years ago and it's still one of the most oft-quoted put-downs.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
"The only thing I didn’t like about The Barretts of Wimpole Street was the play."
Redemption "If you don't knit, bring a good book...I went into the Plymouth Theatre a comparatively young woman, and I staggered out of it three hours later, twenty years older, haggard and broken with suffering." Take that Leo Tolstoy.
Some critics don’t aim for the jugular. Wilde turns the spotlight 180 degrees and Coward goes below the belt.
Lady Windermere's Fan, by Oscar Wilde. "The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster." Attributed to Wilde after a poor reception to his play in 1892.
"For God's sake, go and tell that young man to take that Rockingham tea service out of his tights." Coward’s sharp words to the choreographer when a male dancer in one of his plays forgot to wear the proper support.
Moose Murders "The standard against which all other disastrous plays are judged." A BBC reporter on what has the unenviable reputation as the worst play in history. It closed after one performance at the Eugene O’Neill theatre, New York, in February 1983.
Regional newspaper critics are usually less brutal than their national colleagues, especially when reviewing amateur productions. There are exceptions however. Former Coventry Telegraph journalist Peter McGarry, one of the country’s most respected theatre critics, recalls that his predecessor often drew blood with his typewriter. Peter said: “When I took over reviewing for the Telegraph, I looked at previous examples by my predecessor David Isaacs who had a reputation for going for the jugular. "The one I have always cherished came from a review of a local musical society show: 'There are some people who should never be allowed on a stage. Unfortunately, they are all members of the Guildhall Operatic Society.' With 30 years of cuttings to look back on, it’s not surprising to find that Peter himself could dish out a bruising, particularly to professional theatre productions:
You Must Be the Husband ( a touring farce at The Belgrade) "There is one basic problem with this play. It's awful. There are worse ways to spend a summer evening. But I can't think of any." His assessment created a storm of protests from the Coventry public and a letter from the star, Jeffrey Holland.
Gigi (Bedworth Civic Hall) "We have to cope with choreography that's flat, chorus work which at times is quite dreadful and backstage scene-changing which sounds like the circus moving in."
Cabaret (Belgrade Theatre)
"Remarkably, Miss Davis stepped straight from drama school into this formidable leading role. But her portrayal is very much that of someone who has stepped straight from drama school into a formidable leading role."
Sometimes the stage can bite back
The late John Hurt enjoyed spectacular success on film and in the theatre. But in his youth he took a mauling after appearing in Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. “This critic gave it a good trouncing,” he recalled many years later. "He wrote for the Express. I read the review at five in the morning. We'd been partying on the stage after the first night and sent somebody out to get the papers. Everybody was drunk. I decided to write him a letter: Dear Peter, Whooops. Yours sincerely, John Hurt. And foolishly, I sent it off. “I got a letter back saying: Dear Mr Hurt, thank you for your short but tedious letter. Yours sincerely, Peter. “So I sent a letter back, saying: You win. “Eventually, we met and had lunch. It was very funny; we laughed about it a lot. But I would generally advise against retaliation: critics are writers and if you say something on impulse, they've got all the time in the world to think of some witty riposte.” American playwright David Ives, however can give as good as he gets, and deserves the penultimate last word on the subject: "Ultimately one has to pity these poor souls who know every secret about writing, directing, designing, producing, and acting but are stuck in those miserable day jobs writing reviews. Will somebody help them, please?" Ouch!