"The Front Row Will Be A Duller Place Without Him" - Farewell Johnny Fox

By Londonist Last edited 43 months ago
"The Front Row Will Be A Duller Place Without Him" - Farewell Johnny Fox
Johnny Fox, Londonist's head theatre critic has sadly passed away.

As one of our writers commented yesterday, it's a strange coincidence that Johnny Fox — Londonist's long-time stage critic, editor and incorrigible wag — should pass away while the lights are out in London theatres.

Usually in these circumstances, you might muse on how 'the curtain has fallen on a great life' or say something about 'swan songs'. I'm not sure Johnny would have liked that. He'd prefer us to recall his scathing one-liners about plays he was less than enamoured by: "One song sheet shy of a pantomime" or "As a succession of wrong choices, it is a quite breathtaking example because the book, lyrics, acting, music, choreography, and staging are universally atrocious."

He'd like us to spin a few risque yarns too. So we've asked Johnny's fellow writers, colleagues and friends to remember this force of nature, and great friend of Londonist.

Will Noble, Londonist editor

Londonist has made a donation in memory of Johnny to Acting For Others, a charity providing support to theatre workers in times of need.

Johnny at a 'learn to play' day at Howarth of London in 2012

"Our last exchange included some bitchy comments about Elaine Page"

I knew John from my days with the London Gay Men’s Chorus, so 15 years give or take, and I treasured his ability to induce a group of performers, about to enter stage left, to corpse moments before curtain up with a well-chosen pithy comment, leaving us to regain composure as best and as quickly as we could. One example, when told that a larger fellow singer had been laid low by a supposed flesh-eating virus and was now back looking unaffected: “well it can’t have been very hungry, can it?”

He did a routine in one of our shows with guest Sandi Toksvig — an updated version of Santa Baby in which he persuaded Sandi to change a lyric to reference the previous year’s special guest. On a mention of Debenhams by John, Sandi’s response was “Not even Rula Lenska shops there.” It brought the house down.

He got me reviewing for Londonist a couple of years ago when I posted on Facebook that I was attending a show called OthelloMacbeth — an urban mashup of the classics for moderns — at the Hammersmith Lyric. I got a FB message just before curtain up: “we couldn’t get anyone to go to the wilderness of W6 so could you just knock up a couple of hundred words on the tube home?” I complied, not quite knowing what I was doing or letting myself in for, and found myself asked to join the On Stage roster.

John could be intolerant and argumentative, but he was also a very caring man who minded deeply about words and their meaning. He was also quietly generous — financially and with advice — to many people without ever talking about it. Typically, his last illness was borne privately and with fortitude. Our last exchange included some bitchy comments about Elaine Page — one of his favoured targets — and several mutual acquaintances, he asked how my house moving plans had been affected by the pandemic, and we agreed to meet up for a theatre and supper trip when he got his dispatch papers from matron. How I wish that could have happened.

I shall miss his wit, always on-point if sometimes off-colour comments on a range of subjects under the sun, and deep knowledge and love of theatre in all its forms.

Au revoir, Monsieur ‘Olt et casse ton jambe...

Mike Clarke, Londonist theatre writer

Johnny laughing his head off in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel in 2014, probably over a story about a particularly risque game of Hungry Hippos. Image: Andrew Smith

"The conversation featured the most vivid depiction of a tarpaulin that we have known"

Johnny Fox joined the first leg of our epic amble exploring where London's rivers meet the Thames in 2014. We met at East India Dock and Johnny turned up looking extremely spry in shirt and shorts. He rarely made it to Londonist gatherings, so it was a real treat to have him with us.

It was a particularly funny and enjoyable walk, fuelled by a (vile) bottle of home-mixed alcohol treat, Seaweed Sherry, created by then food & drink editor, Ben O'Norum, and plenty of pub stops.

The first was most memorable. Midday at what was then the Great Eastern pub at Mudchute, we were the only people in the small beer garden until we were joined by an ageing biker couple who were staying at the pub.

We're pretty sure it was Johnny that struck up the conversation and elicited the now-infamous 'Hungry Hippos' story. A biker tradition at a festival called PiLs (Perverts in Leather), it involves a circle of bikers getting high, getting naked, then playing a version of children's board game Hungry Hippos with players snaffling Maltesers up off the floor with their mouths. The conversation featured the most vivid depiction of a tarpaulin that we have known.

This photo was taken directly after that pub visit and we are pretty sure that's the topic of conversation making Johnny laugh so much.

A few of us saw Johnny before Christmas. He popped into the Phoenix Artist Club to meet us ahead of heading off to the theatre. He taught us how to mix his new favourite drink: lime, soda and Angostura Bitters (lots) and that's how we would like to toast Johnny Fox.

Lindsey B, Matt S, John W, Andrew, Michelle & Ben - former colleagues and friends

"Ninja knife crime in Muswell Hill", as Johnny captioned this one

"He was effortlessly brilliant, a well of West End lore and legend"

As a theatre critic, you never quite know who you'll be sat with in the stalls — but it was always a pleasure to be near Johnny. And especially so if the play was a stinker. A quick-whispered critique from him was like witnessing Zorro's rapier etch his initial: precise, hilarious and merciless in equal measure. Johnny helped me make it through any number of turgid Chekhovs and laboured Lloyd Webbers. Always fun: a bit of light celebrity spotting at the start; a swift and savage off-the-cuff review at the interval (which you always wanted to write down and steal); then a wry smile and a warm hug, if you were lucky, on the way out.

He was effortlessly brilliant, a well of West End lore and legend, and never one to compromise. The front row will be a duller place without him.

Stu Black, former Londonist writer and editor

Write Paul Ewing (left) with Johnny at St James Theatre

"Behind the often viperish exterior, was gentleness and sensitivity"

Johnny's quick-fire, frequently eviscerating wit was legendary. You never wanted to be on the wrong side of it. He was an exquisite, fearless writer. He wasted no words. If he hated something, he would delight in ripping it to pieces. But he was seldom wrong; his critical faculties were impeccable. I shall remember Johnny for many things: his intense dislike of Elaine Paige - or 'Miss Bickerstaff' as he called her. His scathing comments on those he dated. His uncompromising views on politics and vacuous celebrities. The shameless gossip. He shared all of this with me via WhatsApp — and how he made me laugh! I will treasure those messages. But, most of all, I shall remember Johnny Fox as a kind and exceptionally wise man.

Behind the often viperish exterior, was gentleness and sensitivity. Johnny understood that younger gay men needed a mentor. If he liked you, he was always there.

He was an indomitable character. It is extraordinary that he is gone.

Alex Hopkins, Londonist theatre writer

Johnny's final review for Londonist was for the Boy Friend at Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Manuel Harlan

"He told a story about lending David Davis 50p for a condom"

He was one of the small handful of contributors to have written an article that caused Londonist to be threatened with legal action. This was in the days when I was 'weekend editor', and I remember approving the (seemingly fairly innocent) piece, before the shit hit the fan. (It was a mostly-positive review of a 'supper-club' restaurant, but it also made some comments about the proprietor, with whom it turned out Johnny may have had a previous dispute.)

He also told a story about lending David Davis (the MP, and former Brexit Secretary) 50p for a condom machine on an occasion in the 1970s. And some other story about giving a blow-job to someone famous and one of his fillings falling out.

Dave Haste, Londonist beer expert

Johnny with Michael Ball. Jonny's caption on Facebook runs: "Had fun at Hairspray in Wimbledon but then this fat bloke in the bar wouldn't leave me alone."

"I was more than a little nervous to meet him in person. I needn't have been"

Johnny Fox was the most forthright person I’ve ever dealt with in a professional manner. In a time when emails between journos and PRs can all too often feel like a game where each side is playing at being friendly with one another, his frank emails in my inbox were a refreshing break. Still, as he was so unafraid of a fight his reputation preceded him at Londonist Towers, and being just the intern I was more than a little nervous to meet this Londonist mainstay in person down the pub. I needn’t have been. That night, he was pure unabashed fun.

Since then I can count the subsequent times we met on one hand, simply because Johnny was always so busy. I still don’t quite understand how he did it, attending nearly everything London’s theatres had to offer. And I mean everything, from the biggest West End blockbusters, to a random zone 4 pub theatre.

It isn’t just those who knew Johnny personally who will feel his loss keenly, it’s also those theatres both big and small, whose work he worked so tirelessly to see covered.

Harry Rosehill, Londonist editor

"I remember when we saw Daniel Radcliffe in the Old Vic's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and took turns falling asleep through it." - colleague Franco Milazzo, on a night out with Johnny

"A night out with Johnny was always unpredictable but never ever boring"

Over the last decade, he has been my confidante, my mentor, my gossip buddy and my friend. Johnny knew many, many people but we had a unique relationship: at Londonist, he was my colleague and later my editor. On my own site, he was a reviewer since 2013. We occasionally and jokingly greeted each other at shows by calling each other 'chief' or his pet name for me ('the fat Sicilian' - I've been called worse).

Londonist has never been afraid of publishing challenging views which made it a natural home for a man who was opinionated to his core. His reviews were smart and witty pieces and his views were verbal grenades thrown into the usually genteel and 'luvvy' environment of London theatre. One catty comment led to him being blacklisted by a large PR firm and another saw him being barred by a central London theatre for reasons I can't make public unless I want to be banned too. He consistently kicked against the offensively inoffensive views expressed by fellow critics: "there are too many bland blogs which are merely trying to ape Billington or Lyn Gardner, and not enough people are brave enough to shout in the voice of Catherine Tate's Nan "What a load of old SHIT" at Rufus Norris."

Sooner or later, all PR firms learned that giving Johnny a ticket for press night was inviting the Fox into their precious hen house.

When our paths crossed, we always had an enjoyable time together despite, or maybe because, of the often-dull shows we watched and we were each other's plus ones through dire musicals and terrible plays. I remember when we saw Daniel Radcliffe in the Old Vic's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and took turns falling asleep through it. He invited me to an awe-inspiringly awful musical then walked out at half-time and left me to watch the remainder in horrified fascination.

A night out with Johnny was always unpredictable but never ever boring.

Franco Milazzo, Londonist theatre writer  

"His knowledge of, and passion for, the London theatre scene was second to none"

Johnny was a member of the Londonist team long before I joined, and his reputation for razor sharp — and often very un-PC — wit preceded him. His waggish putdowns, always accompanied by a playful twinkle in his eye, could turn an average night in the pub into a raucous one. One Londonist meet-up in a craft beer-centric pub particularly comes to mind, for Johnny's horror, not only that the venue didn't serve his beloved negronis, but that the unfortunate bartender didn't appear to even know what a negroni was.

His knowledge of, and passion for, the London theatre scene was second to none, and his colourful and often controversial way of wording things led to many a debate among Londonist's editorial team over the years. In his role as theatre editor, he made a few ripples among the theatre PR world too (his penchant for decent seats on press night was a recurring theme), and while his name may have been a cause for mild alarm in some circles, it'll be remembered for all the right reasons — his charm, passion, humour and generosity.

Laura Reynolds, Londonist editor

No 'curtain has fallen' metaphors here. Image: Shutterstock

"The opening line 'What's the going rate for beaver?' led to a spontaneous guffaw"

I met John at the London Gay Men's Chorus. We took to seeing theatre instead of singing on Monday nights. After all, his voice was like Ethel Merman, and he said I sounded like Mitzi Gaynor (if she was under the note). Theatre was a safer choice as we both loved to go out and see it and then write and talk about it on the internet. Even if we saw a show that wasn't that great, we would always shrug and say it's a night out.

Initially, the shows were mostly fringe before he became Londonist's stage editor and sweet-talking the PR people. This period included the joy of seeing Sweeney Todd in a Tooting pie shop before it became a runaway success. Or a show about a gender reassignment called Rotterdam that would head to the West End and New York. Over cocktails of dubious colours and strength, we discussed the merits or otherwise of the shows we had seen.

We rarely took notes. There was one point when John tried to do that. But when he went to the bathroom, I wrote in his note pad "biscuits, milk, a tin of meat for the cat". Instead, we would talk about the show on the way home. Sometimes the banter would then find its way into the review.

We also travelled to Winchester and Poole to speak to young people starting out as journalists about how to make a living doing it. Basically, we said using pictures of dogs that you should get a real job and do this in your spare time. Preferably with someone who makes you laugh. The dogs were meant to be us.

A particular highlight was opening night at Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. The opening line by Alex Gaumond was "What's the going rate for beaver?" led to a spontaneous guffaw by John... It could be heard throughout the venue and triggered a series of laughs across the audience for the next few minutes.

John's review didn't quite capture that moment, but his post-show confession did.

Paul Ewing, Londonist theatre writer

A headshot of Johnny from 2008, to which his caption reads: "The teeth are real, but the smile's false"

Other ★★★★★ reviews for Johnny

"Johnny was always a pleasure to work with, and I will greatly miss his cheerful updates on the theatre world." - Lise Smith, Londonist theatre writer

"A grand character indeed - so very glad I had the chance to work with him even in a small way. He won’t be forgotten!" - Will Tizard, Londonist theatre writer

"He was a force of nature as a theatre editor! What I really admired and respected about Johnny was his ability to look humorously through the affectations of showbiz, and all the many dramas that brings, while at the same time retaining such passion for it. That was quite infectious — and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who was inspired to write with more withering wit having known him." - James FitzGerald, Londonist writer

"He was such a character, a huge personality and extremely kind and accommodating to work with. I’m devastated." - Phillipa Ellis, Londonist theatre writer

"I admired the confidence and level of self belief in his abilities as a critic that summed Johnny up. He's seen and done it all, and he knew the level of respect he deserved. I still aspire to have the same level of wit, intellect and confidence in my critique as he did in his." - Tabish Khan, Londonist art critic

"Johnny was very spirited – and I didn't always agree with his views – but he was always incredibly supportive to me. He mentored me a lot and encouraged me to write outside my comfort zone. I wish I'd taken up the chance to meet him in person." - Hannah Foulds, Londonist writer

"I hardly knew Johnny personally — I think I met him briefly three times — but he certainly made his maverick presence felt via social media! I disagreed with him on pretty much everything he said politically (in the widest sense) but he knew how to put his point across pungently. I think he enjoyed provoking people out of their complacency — especially political correctness. And of course he knew his theatre well and was a sharp commentator on performances. It's a strange coincidence that Johnny should pass away while the lights are out in London theatres." - Neil Dowden, Londonist theatre writer

"I've known Johnny for about six years and was really in awe of him. As a fairly militant leftie liberal versus someone outspoken with his more right leaning slant, we were improbable friends but I was really a big fan of his wit and the underlying kindness that he sometimes kept hidden. He sent me some really warm and helpful messages over the years and was a great support. I'll miss him." - Chris Bridges, Londonist theatre writer

"He always wrote to PR companies to introduce me as one of the family of reviewers, which I always appreciated. He was also incredibly knowledgeable about the theatre. I remember one time, soon after I had joined his merry gang, writing to him to with a review of a new American play that I was unsure about. Not only did he help me see the play with new eyes he offered a long explanation of realism in American theatre. He seemed to have seen and remembered everything and clearly loved the theatre world. He will be sadly missed." - Matthew Holder, Londonist theatre writer

"Having only joined as a theatre reviewer for Londonist in December, I sadly never got the chance to meet Johnny. That said, even through talking via email and social media, his infectious, amusing and always acerbic personality radiated and I was so looking forward to enjoying a drink with him. Johnny gave me the opportunity at Londonist and provided invaluable advice, which I shall continue to draw on going forward. - Jonathan Marshall, Londonist theatre writer

Last Updated 20 May 2020