The London stage has become increasingly fashionable. In certain circles, acquiring tickets for productions at the Donmar has roughly the same cachet as carrying a Birkin bag. This is why Vogue has a new association with the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, taking place on Sunday night.
The awards are a high point of my year. My role is an enviable one. I am one of the judges, which means seeing a great deal of London theatre without having to dash up the aisle with the rest of the critics as they rush to file copy at the end of the performance. In the interval, I follow the etiquette of chatting about everything except the play. You must never ask a critic what they think.
The greatest advantage for me on Sunday is that I have no fear of meeting victims of bad reviews, for I have written none. If the RSC chooses to portray old men being gang-raped and dwarves pleasuring bishops in Marat/Sade, they will hear no complaint from me.
Other people’s theatre awards are decided by a balancing of interests and public opinion. Ours are left to the critics, and so can be both more inspired, and more bonkers. At the critics’ lunch, which takes place about six weeks before the ceremony, a kind of coalition politics is the only way through. My job is to look for diversity of representation. You can’t just give everything to Matilda, however blissful this musical is. Alliances are formed and then dissolved. I found to my surprise that Charles Spencer of The Telegraph and I were suddenly a united face of puritanism against the collective hedonism of the other critics. Elsewhere, there were leaps of faith that the rest of us grudgingly admired. Susannah Clapp, of The Observer, is a particular radical. But critics are not stereotypes of their papers. In my experience, they are independent and fearless. This does not mean they are always right but I promise you they are honest.
I loved The Iron Lady, which I saw at a screening this week, but it was not a revelation. It has been enjoyable, though, watching leftwing women trying to reconcile their loathing of Margaret Thatcher with Meryl Streep’s magnificent performance. The loophole, I realise, is to say, as Streep does, that you do not agree with Thatcher’s views but admire her female struggle. This won’t do. Thatcher’s character was inextricable from her views. As Streep says in the film, it is ideas, not feelings, that motivate her.
It is also misleading to try to forgive her as “everywoman”. She was no more representative of her sex than was Elizabeth I. She was exceptional. But watching her I feel the same emotional gratitude that I imagine many African-Americans felt when Barack Obama was sworn in. We all follow in her footsteps, described recently by Matthew Parris as “small, fast, almost panicky … like a partridge conscious of pursuit but unwilling to do anything so undignified as take flight.”
As women, the film’s writer Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd give it a particularly astute female perspective. At one point, a woman’s shoes are shown among the ranks of shiny male brogues. Lloyd also shares with Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker, an ability to express the intimate shock of an explosion. The Brighton bombing has a defining impact in the film, as it did in reality.
Harriet Harman famously left out Margaret Thatcher from a list of women who had succeeded in politics. She later excused it as an oversight. A liberal girlfriend of mine has no qualms about wishing Lady Thatcher dead. It is curious that it has taken Hollywood, a bastion of liberalism, to sell Thatcher to Guardian women. The rest of us never needed convincing. We love her just the way she is.
We live in a pretty, slightly smug-looking London square of little pastel-coloured, terraced houses. When next door went powder blue, we dutifully matched up with baby pink. The other neighbour is sugary yellow and so on. So we watched with complacent interest recently as the house opposite tried out swabs of colours before repainting. The palette of the square makes decisions easy enough. But, to our horror, the house then went a vivid darkish green, not pastel-coloured at all. It was not only bold and defiant but extremely successful. It looked cool and modern and, by contrast, the rest of us suddenly appeared simpering and foolish. Aesthetic breakthroughs are commendable but spare a thought for those of us left scratching our heads and wondering what on earth happened.
In order to stave off nightmares of Sir Mervyn King shaking his gory locks at me, I keep a list of plucky businesses or manufacturers that are doing well in the recession. I do not count bailiffs or pawnbrokers. My favourite British success story at the moment is Aga’s advanced Total Control version, which you can switch on and off. With your iPhone. The waiting list is months. The mixing of heritage brands with new technology is particularly pleasing. Another small business I have fallen in love with produces local pamments, or tiles, in Norfolk, for churches and houses. It has all the right associations: local materials and craftsmen, professional pride, something of lasting appeal and no plastic packaging. Other commercial success stories make me more uneasy. My local hairdresser has just qualified as a “hair extensionist”, which is where the big money is now. She makes about £400 per session and can barely meet the demand. When I ask her about the source of the hair, she is a little defensive. She says it comes from China and is “ethically sourced”. This, I guess, means it is voluntarily given rather than hacked from heads. But there is still something unsettling about eastern women sacrificing their beautiful hair to their western counterparts.
Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard