Car crash theatre: Why won’t the critics defend quality in the West End?

Apparently, Lindsay Lohan has finished her West End stint as Karen in David Mamet’s ‘Speed the Plow’, and she is so delighted with how it all went that she is now contemplating a second Mamet play.  ‘One Mamet down’ she tweets, ‘Next stop Oleanna’.  Oleanna?! It’s a play we saw more than twenty years ago with Lia Williams and David Suchet, and a classic that deserves a revival.  We’d have gone again.  But as we are not interested in indulging a Hollywood star as she ‘learns her craft’ in front of paying audiences, we’ll have to give it a miss and wait another twenty years until one of the huge number of lesser known stage actresses who might have done the part justice gets a chance.

No, this is not a review.  We did not see this production of ‘Speed the Plow’.  But what really fascinates us is watching the critics as they squirm while trying to decide how exactly to review a performance which has been overshadowed by the actress and the publicity juggernaut she comes with.  They are choosing their words very carefully, but unqualified superlatives are notably absent.  Mark Shenton started the ball rolling early by declaring her casting a new low for the West End, but ends by saying that ‘now that the run has ended it is time to give credit where credit is due’.  Credit where it is due.  Of course!  But what for?  The amazing reviews she got perhaps?  Proving that lack of experience is no bar to delivering a stand-out performance?  No, she played out her full run, he says.  Perhaps he is being facetious.  This, he points out, may all be an elaborate ruse by the producers to lower expectations so far that people will be pleasantly surprised that she can even stand upright on stage.  As Stage colleague Richard Jordan puts it ‘Have critics been brainwashed into praising Lindsay Lohan?’  Well, er, no, not really, unless by praise you mean ‘damning with faint praise’.  Lindsay Lohan’s performance ‘Isn’t really that bad’ screams the headline for the Vanity Fair review.  The Hollywood reporter declares her ‘Okay’.  Quentin Letts is perhaps the most withering, declaring her acting as ‘that of a not specially gifted schoolgirl.’  The attempts at self-conscious humour are pretty cringeworthy.  Although not as embarrassing as the attempts of some critics to conflate her physical attributes with acting ability.  Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph describes her as ‘Attractive, leggy and arrestingly husky of voice’ and bizarrely gives her age as if he is writing for the tabloids.

It seems rather ironic that critics, currently bemoaning their fate as they become ever more marginalised in the papers, are determined to brush this debacle under the carpet with a few sarcastic comments rather than tearing their literary hair out with rage at the greed and arrogance which brings unqualified ‘stars’ to the West End to steal the jobs of those better than they are and charge premium prices just to add insult to injury.  The question doesn’t seem to be, ‘Should this be happening?’ but ‘How badly did this particular star do compared to all the other ‘names’ of mediocre talent who have graced the West End stage?’  Perhaps they hope it will all go away if they ignore it, like a child throwing a tantrum, but given the growing popularity of car-crash TV where the sight of celebrities doing anything new (and preferably humiliating) is more important than whether they do it well or badly, there is no reason to assume the West End will be immune in future.  We’ve had the casting show blight, now it’s another rash of ever more inept stunt casting.

Another interesting aspect of the coverage is the patronising assumption that Lohan has been ‘used’ in some way.  It’s sad to see her face plastered all over the publicity, indicating that the producers didn’t think Mamet or the two main stars were enough of a draw for the show – but she has to bear some responsibility for her actions.  Being ‘vulnerable’ is not the same as being stupid, and she cannot have been in any doubt that she was hired primarily for her star name.  She seems sincere in her desire to prove worthy of the opportunity she has (undeservedly) been given.  Sadly, however, instead of heaving a sigh of relief after a distinctly luke-warm set of reviews and being grateful that she ‘got away with it’ without too many personal attacks, she has decided that this is a green light to continue her quest for a stage career by going from a minor part in this three-hander, to a two-hander in which she would be very much the equal partner.  If the critics had done their jobs properly, she would not want to set foot on a West End stage again for a very long time.

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2 Responses to Car crash theatre: Why won’t the critics defend quality in the West End?

  1. jeb54 says:

    Reblogged this on Je Suis, Ergo Sum and commented:
    While I attempt to escape the winter doldrums and finish a review of The Invisible Hand at New York Theater Workshop, I suggest you consider the December 15 post on the rageoffstage site, which comments on the recent run of an American celebrity in a David Mamet play on London’s West End.


  2. jeb54 says:

    Hear, hear!

    As usual, my attention has been divided lately, and I was not aware of this case of celebrity casting before reading your post. I can’t say I’m glad to learn about it, but I am glad to see your response.

    On an unrelated note: I recently launched a blog, where I comment on theater (when I manage to see something) as well as other subjects. You can find it at


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