STAND back, clear the decks. Showbiz munchkin John-Michael Howson, just back from a glorious overseas jaunt, has launched a few missiles at the critics who mauled his latest show, More Sex Please, We're Seniors.
''They miss the point!'' he roars. ''It's not a musical, it's not a play, it's old-fashioned vaudeville drop-your-pants musical comedy. These critics probably don't remember Graham Kennedy and Rosie Sturgess doing the Wilsons. Bawdy stuff.
''The audience is light years ahead of the critics, they're having a ball because they get it. But the critics, who are aged somewhere between 12 and 20, seem not to know anything about various styles of theatre. I didn't write Noel Coward, or Arthur Miller. I wrote old-fashioned bawdy comedy. You know what, I suspect this is tall-poppy - because I'm fairly outspoken on 3AW, it's payback time!''
What a withering assassination it was while Howson was trotting about the US. ''Dead on arrival,'' declared Curtain Call after the opening three weeks ago. ''Wrinkled, flaccid and frail,'' said The Age.
''Flabby dialogue,'' said the Herald Sun. ''How could so many people get it so wrong?'' wailed The Australian. Surely there was no surviving that sort of assassination?
Well, remarkably, the show has not only survived but, says producer Malcolm Cooke, it has built audiences every week. ''We had 350 at the matinee last Saturday, and over 300 at night. This has been our best week,'' he said.
There have even been standing ovations of a kind. ''The seniors hold their arms up and clap over their heads,'' says Cooke, a man whose showbiz experience dates back to the Beatles' Australian tour of 1964.
When The Age caught a matinee crowd at interval last week the More Sex patrons seemed to be tickled pink. Val Porter, 72, and 68-year-old pal Val Lucas declared the show ''fantastic'' and said it ''relates to all our ailments''. Ken Newton, 80, and wife Ruth, 76, also applauded. ''All this goes on with our own friends,'' said Ruth. ''You couldn't take offence.''
The firestorm of bad reviews for More Sex came despite the vast TV and stage experience of Howson, and the four stars - Michael Veitch, Tracy Harvey, Mark Mitchell and Jane Clifton. Veitch, who was a theatre critic for several Melbourne newspapers, admitted he had ''cocked up'' some of his lines on opening night and had been fair game for the reviewers. ''But 90 per cent of publicity these days is word of mouth, and that has been good. We topped 400 one night,'' he said.
Melbourne theatrical producer Jim McPherson says the days were gone when a single media critic could close a show. ''Once upon a time if Len Radic didn't like a play or Neil Jillett didn't like a ballet, it didn't go too well, but now there are crits coming from everywhere - you have social media, online crits, and the circulation of the papers generally is down.
''When we launched Menopause the Musical at the Comedy in 2005 there was not one review that rated it a must-see and there were a couple of crook ones. But we ran the full six weeks … It ended up running for five years around Australia, sold 990,000 tickets and grossed $38 million!''
On the other hand, Sydney producer John Frost saw his $5 million musical An Officer and a Gentleman go down in flames early this year after a welter of bad reviews.
The More Sex season finishes at the Comedy Theatre on December 9 so patrons should shake a leg (or walking cane) if they want to catch it.