News Column

Retiring, the Telegraph's theatre critic Charles Spencer? You must be kidding

September 2, 2014

Michael Billington, theguardian.com



I'm genuinely saddened to hear that Charlie Spencer is stepping down as the Telegraph theatre critic. For one thing he was a good friend and colleague. But I think the theatre industry and Telegraph readers will sorely miss a critic who was fearless, forthright and breathtakingly honest in expressing his opinions. The last thing you'd ever say of Charlie was that he was mealy-mouthed.

He's always been, above all, a first-rate journalist with the priceless gift of readability. To test this I turned up, at random, a review he wrote a year ago of a show at London's Tricycle theatre called A Boy and His Soul. It begins: "I'm 58, short, white, overweight, heterosexual and British. Colman Domingo is 43, tall, black, lean, gay and American. Yet watching this one-man show Domingo sometimes felt like the brother I never had." Who could resist reading on after an intro like that?

Charlie also brought a passionate intensity to the business of reviewing plays and was never afraid to admit to his prejudices. He would often begin a review by saying, for instance, that he found MoliÈre unfunny or Arthur Miller sententious. But, more often than not, he would go on to say he had experienced a total volte-face in the light of an outstanding performance or production. Charlie was no respecter of established reputations. But, if he was moved or startled or shocked into a new recognition, he would let his readers know with his usual candour.

My opinions have often diverged from Charlie's, and I think it's fair to say we approached plays from different political perspectives. But we've always got on well and shared the highs and lows that the job entails. I remember a recent evening when we both had to do an overnight review of the National's latest King Lear. It was well past 10.30pm as we hurtled up to the National's offices to write against a fast-approaching deadline, and I recall Charlie looking at me in mock despair and saying: "What the fuck are we doing?" Needless to say, he turned in an immaculately written review for the next morning.

Criticism is a strange business. But one of its many charms is that it induces a sense of solidarity among the men and women who practise it. And, while we jealously guard our opinions on the night, we love nothing better than to discuss what we saw the evening before. I shall miss Charlie for the nightly exchange of news, gossip and ideas. And, while I respect his decision to retire after 25 years, I part company with him only when he says: "Critics can go on too long". Like his many admirers, I'd say Charlie didn't go on long enough.


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Source: Guardian Web


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