Part-way through The Courteous Enemy, playwright Dan Sinclair poses an intimidating question: “Can there ever be a good critic of culture and art?” Well, I’ll do my best. This invigorating production is based on one of the most notable creative showdowns of the twentieth century: a weeks-long spat, on the letters page of the Observer, between famous critic Kenneth Tynan and absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco. It’s fun and free-wheeling, but shows a real sensitivity for its subject matter too.
Sinclair’s script picks up a few absurdist motifs of its own – including boldly-proclaimed non-sequiturs, precisely-choreographed movements that defy analysis of their meaning, and a gun that’s actually a banana. But there’s a generous dollop of low-brow humour as well, best epitomised by its inventive new meaning for the phrase “yankee doodle-doo”. Combined with crisp comic timing and some neat surprises, it’s a winning combination.
Among the cast, George Firth stands out as Tynan. Tie rakishly undone, cigarette in hand, Firth makes Tynan world-weary, cynical, self-important and condescending – yet far from dislikeable, and driven by his own specific type of integrity. Her physical performance is particularly fine: the aw-diddums expression as Ionesco lists his complaints is a true joy, and I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she recites Tynan’s most cutting phrases while contorted like a wraith from a fairground ghost ride.
It’s not perfect. The casual stereotyping of the French, while unambiguously intended as a satirical critique of British press attitudes, was nonetheless a little tiresome. There was one important plot detail I didn’t understand – why the accidental publication of a photograph had a seemingly unrelated geo-political effect – yet it wasn’t quite nonsensical enough to qualify as absurd. And, with the line between comic exaggeration and just plain over-acting always a thin one, there were a couple of moments early on when I felt they crossed over.
But overall it’s a sharp and smart production – first and foremost entertaining, but with true insight at its core. Whether good critics exist I’ll leave others to decide, but there’s no doubt this is an excellent show.