Sock it to ‘em

Omicron-cancelled events and surprised marionettes

Man About Town

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


A miracle recovery

The Omicron variant (which itself sounds like an undistinguished Netflix action film, probably starring Jason Statham) has swept the country as vigorously as Dick Van Dyke went for the chimneys in Mary Poppins, leaving boredom and fatigue in its wake. 

Book launches, like every other kind of social merriment, were duly cancelled. At least I managed to make it to a couple in the dying days of 2021, when people were allowed to converse in person without festooning themselves in masks. 

One especial highlight came at the launch of Andrew Roberts’s excellent new biography of George III. So lavish was the hospitality and so thick with cabinet ministers was the crowd that one distinguished publisher promptly collapsed to the floor. 

The cry promptly went out “Is there a doctor in the house?”, as several PhD recipients confidently sallied forth, the immediate qualification was issued, “a medical doctor!” Thankfully, the hardy man of letters was soon back on his feet, revived with a glass of Veuve. Old King George would have approved, I think. 

Spinning webs

I was unable to share in the excitement that there is yet another Spider-Man film. The main appeal of the latest is apparently that multiple Spider-Men (Spiders-Men? Spiders-Man? It remains etymologically ambiguous) can co-exist in the same dimension, thanks to some jiggery-pokery dreamt up by Benedict Cumberbatch with a silly Fu Manchu beard. 

However, I am hoping that this “shared universe” idea can now be extended to adaptations of great twentieth century literature. I look forward to the Netflix series Decline and Fall and Dance! (To The Music of Time), in which Captain Grimes and Kenneth Widmerpool compare notes on how to be a rotter, and get away with it. Then there is the eagerly awaited Howards End of the Affair, featuring a stirring mixture of Catholic guilt, repressed passion and snobbish speculation about rising property prices in the South-East. I expect Julian Fellowes will be on hand to write the screenplay. 

Talking of lord fellowes of Belgravia-cum-Hollywood, I was disappointed to discover that his new Downton Abbey film has been delayed until March: everybody likes a turkey at Christmas, after all. 

I must also confess that I was surprised to discover that it existed at all, believing that it was little more than a spook story dreamt up by parents to threaten their children with, in the event of their continued bad behaviour. “Eat your greens or I’ll make you go and see Downton Abbey 2.” 

Now that it is indeed coming to a cinema near you on 18 March, I will redouble my threats to my daughter. No doubt I’ll end up paying for it in the long run with years of therapy, but for now the prospect of her being forced to endure yet more of Michelle Dockery’s impersonation of an indecently surprised marionette is enough to ensure good conduct until the spring.

What’s in a name?

I note that Rufus Norris’s Christmas musical at the National Theatre — book by his wife Tanya Ronder, lyrics by him — had to cancel most of its festive performances because of t’Omicron. While I offer my sympathy towards all the cast and crew, I can’t help thinking that naming the show Hex proved to be a spectacular example of nominative determinism. In the spirit of New Year good cheer, I suggest that Norris think about programming some similar plays that might offer clues to his future stewardship of the National. 

While Death of a Salesman and Accidental Death of an Anarchist might be a bit strong, I look forward to seeing Travesties, The Malcontent and All That Fall in the future repertoire. Should Norris decide — quelle horreur! — to
resign and spend more time with his lyric books, I hope that his successor begins his or her regime with All’s Well That Ends Well. 

As the continued scandal about the Sackler family and its involvement in the opioid epidemic rumbles on, many buildings and institutions that bore the Sackler name have quietly changed theirs. Yet in Oxford, just behind the Ashmolean, the Sackler Library continues to house its collection of classical and archaeological tomes. 

Surely it is time to change its name to honour a leading classicist, a fearless fighter for truth and, of course, a distinguished alumnus of the university? I expect that the Johnson Library — as it must surely be renamed — will become legendary throughout the land, and not just for the acts of carnal embrace taking place behind the water coolers on the third floor.

Side by side with Gilliam

I am delighted to see that the enterprising Theatre Royal in Bath has stepped in to rescue Terry Gilliam’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, which it will now stage from August this year. Rather than the hysteria with which Gilliam’s appointment was greeted by the woker-than-thou Old Vic, due to the director’s “unspeakable crime” of recommending a Dave Chapelle Netflix special, the level-headed chief executive Danny Moar’s reaction to its cancellation was to email the show’s producers and say, “some of the greatest evenings I have ever had in the theatre have been at Sondheim musicals. Please could I have the show?” 

From imbecility arises opportunity. It will be a smash hit, and, in the process, a fitting tribute to Sondheim, who made it clear before his death in November that he continued to support Gilliam’s apparently visionary ideas for its staging. I can’t wait.

I proudly showed my wife my last Man About Town column. Her judgement was damning. “Masturbation. More masturbation. Whinging. Flatulence. Untruths. Self-aggrandising nonsense. General wanker.” I hope that she meant at least some of this kindly, but I suspect that I shall not be showing her this one. Perhaps it’s time to adopt a pseudonym. Is “Rufus Fellowes” taken?

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