The Line
Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 23 November, 2009

As I mentioned last issue, the latest disagreement in which a critic or critics find themselves under fire was occasioned at the press performance of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Line at the Arcola.  Wertenbaker accused critics of being drunk following that afternoon’s Evening Standard awards ceremony.


I was also at that performance, though not at the awards ceremony (I never get invited to those jollies… but I’m not bitter, dear me, no…), and was not only awake but adrenalised throughout, having just lost all my bank cards in a pickpocketing incident on my way to the venue.  (Charles Spencer mentions this in his own review, of which more later.)  I can report that I saw no critic either asleep nor unspecifically misbehaving as Wertenbaker alleges.  I did see one person in the front row whose eyes were closed for much of the evening: it was Wertenbaker’s own agent, Mel Kenyon.  Wertenbaker is simply not in the best position to evaluate her own work.  She says, “It is a complicated play, it’s difficult, you have to pay attention to it.”  This suggests to me that she is under the illusion that simply alluding to an issue or theme – art versus life, Degas’s patriotism or anti-semitism etc – amounts to dealing with it meaningfully.  It’s rather like the notion that has afflicted many governments (notably Tony Blair’s) that announcing an “initiative” is tantamount to solving the problem in question and there is no need to monitor actual developments in the area.

But, having aligned myself with the critics in this respect, I now have to disagree in another.  Charlie Spencer’s opening remarks about the area in which the Arcola Theatre is located have been considered by a number of commentators to be the remarks of an unreasonably timid suburbanite, and I rather have agree with that assessment.  He cites my own pickpocketing misfortune as an instance of the area’s “menacing” character, even though it happened on a bus on my way there rather than in the area itself; I “regard it as par for the course” not because I was in or near Dalston, but because I happen to look like an easy target for such crimes.  (The same thing happened to me once before, in the far more upmarket area of Holland Park, which I’ve never known to be considered as “menacing” except perhaps by those who got on the wrong side of the late Harold Pinter.)  Charlie’s remarks about “terrifying hooded youths” and a proliferation of kebab shops have been interpreted by some as outright racist; I’m sure he didn’t mean them that way, but as Dalston is an area with a high black and Turkish population it’s not hard to see how someone can come to that conclusion.  Charlie is rightly proud of his long and assiduous career as a theatre reviewer including years spent on the beat for the Evening Standard and The Stage around venues of all sorts and in all areas; I’m sure in those days he wouldn’t have been at all unsettled by a broad, straight main street such as the A10 (the former route of the Roman road known as Ermine Street) or disconcerted by the presence of a gentlemen’s hairdresser’s or two.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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