News that Maureen Lipman has written to the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer last week objecting to his critique of her performance in Trevor Nunn's production of A Little Night Music might usually have made me scoff. Vanity and thin skin, right? It's hardly stuff to have you cheering from the stalls.

But Lipman, who has a hefty 40 years of theatre behind her and an Olivier knocking around, didn't object to Spencer's analysis of her performance (of which there wasn't much), but did take him to task for passing judgment on her looks (of which there was plenty). To him, Lipman is a "wildly unlikely grande horizontale" and too "angular" to have played a woman who is supposed to have slept her way through the royal families of Europe.

Really? Are theatre critics now doubling up as judges on beauty pageants? Of course, this is Charles "pure theatrical Viagra" Spencer, and it's not the first time he's seen fit to rate actors via his own personal lust-o-meter. That drooling assessment of Nicole Kidman aside, Spencer often lingers on the looks of female performers. Thus, Kelly Reilly as Desdemona becomes the woman "for whom the phrase 'sex on legs' might have been invented"; Archana Ramaswamy, the lead in Tim Supple's Indian A Midsummer Night's Dream, is rendered "sensationally alluring", and Joan Collins's cleavage "holds the promise of pneumatic bliss … a thing of beauty … a joy for ever" in a revival of Full Circle. Mr Spencer, put it away.

As Lipman, whose portrayal of Madame Armfeldt is described elsewhere as "exquisite" and "especially enjoyable", pointed out to Spencer, Camilla Parker Bowles, Wallis Simpson and Dorothy Jordan have all set the hearts of kings and princes a flutter without possessing what convention might consider faces to launch a thousand ships.

It's naive to assume an actor's physical appearance doesn't affect their career (most crudely in the division of roles into "leading" and "support"), but that's not to say that gross sexism of critics – and, let's be clear, it reeks of the worst kind of schoolboy tittering – should be tolerated, and in the case of Spencer, encouraged. When was the last time Charlie laid eye on theatreland's leading men and assessed their sagginess, their paunches, or their suitability to pair off with any number of dazzling females? Did he bridle at Harold Pinter, then 71, playing a 40-something husband to 28-year-old Indira Varma in One for the Road? Retch on seeing Roger Allam juggle three beautiful fiances in Boeing Boeing?

More to the point, when did any of our female theatre critics – from Lyn Gardner and Susannah Clapp to Jane Edwardes and Claudia Pritchard – feel it necessary to include their personal lust or disgust about the men they review on stage? I'm betting the answer is never. For these critics, burbling about the beauty (or otherwise) of actors would be considered crass unprofessionalism – and rightly so.



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