When it comes to reviews, there’s no right or wrong, as I’ve often said here before, though it doesn’t stop me wondering what kind of madness is about when I disagree so vehemently with some of my colleagues, as happened this summer over The Female of The Species and Zorro. Who was out-of-step with the prevailing wind, them or me?
But what’s good is that there is a broad spectrum of opinion being expressed - and there are, at least at the moment, still a wide number of press platforms available in which that can happen. And indeed, some of these are now expanding: once critics would have their last word in their reviews; now, these are just the springboard for challenges elsewhere, and critics are fighting back, with a ferocious new dialogue taking place with readers, practitioners and even each other in the blogosphere.
I know I’ve been party to this on this blog myself - but now the battles are going even more public.
Michael Billington gave David Hare’s new play Gethsemane at the National an admiring four-star review; this led to the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish issuing a lengthy reply to Billington’s suggestion that the big question that the play throws down, “What is a Labour government for, if it doesn’t carry within its portfolio a map of Utopia?”, in which he says, “But to many of us, idealism has been precisely the problem”; and then Billington, in turn, replied in a blog of his own, that went to great lengths to dissect each of Cavendish’s arguments, including one that “that political theatre has lately been ‘ineffectual as a podium for oppositional thought’”.
But whatever the state of play, the reviews about the play have clearly created a dialogue for oppositional opinions - and have intriguingly ranged from the five-star (Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com) all the way down to one-star (Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times).
A similar dialogue has erupted around the issue of the current state of children’s theatre, with the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner taking issue in a blog about Dominic Cavendish’s Telegraph review of the Unicorn’s recent production of Red Fortress, in which Dominic declared, “Once upon a time children’s theatre was all about flying carpets and feats of wonder - now it seems to be about bringing kids down to earth with a disenchanted bump.”
For Lyn, however, “Theatres are so worried about upsetting parents and the media that they operate within a straitjacket of self-censorship,” and, she goes on, “As a result, we are shortchanging our children by offering what is - with a few brave exceptions - a diet of theatre (often adapted from bestselling books) that is indeed mostly ‘about flying carpets and feats of wonder’. In doing so, we are giving them a distorted view of reality and theatre. The parental instinct to protect children is a natural one, but just as we must not be ruled by fear and must let our children go out on their own and make their own decisions, so should we let them go into that safest of arenas - the theatre - and confront the issues that they have to face in the real world.”
The battle hasn’t stopped there - now Dominic has, in turn, replied in another Telegraph blog, “What immediately riled me was the casual insinuation that if children’s theatre is insufficiently challenging that’s partly down to parental conservatism…. Whether or not you think it’s the role of theatre to confront kids with what many of them already have to grapple with on a daily basis - instead of offering entertainment and even escapism - those remarks seem to come perilously close to saying: if children’s theatre ain’t good enough, that’s your fault, folks. I’d hate to lecture parents like that….”
Dominic, it turns out, was one of the few critics to rave about last week’s opening of Treasure Island, too, giving it a generous four-star notice (against several one-star reviews, including my own in yesterday’s Sunday Express as well as the one I also did for the London Paper, and Georgina Brown in the Mail on Sunday), for which he makes an interesting defence in his blog entry, too: “Reviewing children’s theatre is - surprising to some as this may be - one of the trickiest aspects of the job. Even though I’ve got young kids myself, and have developed a fairly shrewd idea as to what I think would enthuse and excite them (it’s not rocket-science, it usually involves a dynamic, clear, and boldly imaginative kind of storytelling), I can get caught out. Sometimes children will appear bored during shows they emerge raving about - sometimes they seem enthralled only to reveal themselves later as wholly bemused. I had a big hunch watching Treasure Island the other night at the Theatre Royal Haymarket that my seven-year-old son would respond in delight to its rambunctious spirit; in this my four-star verdict diverged sharply from that of critics on other papers who, one notes, don’t have kids in the targeted age-range.”
While Christopher Hart in yesterday’s Sunday Times was accompanied by 11-year-old Sacha whom he duly quoted from in his review, it’s unfair to dismiss other critics for failing to have children in the targeted age-range (if that’s indeed the target of this piece, which has diligently never specified one), as if they cannot therefore judge it appropriately. We are asked all the time to see things outside of our immediate experience - the job would be undoable if we were expected to have a personal connection to everything we see - but in fact Georgina Brown, who does have two teenage children, might have had one, and yet she, too, didn’t like it at all.
Yet, even when a show like Imagine This mostly create a wave of critical consensus about how well-meaning but misjudged it is, you can always count on one or two critics to diverge from the path; and - as well as someone on the freesheet London Lite who gave it four stars - we also yesterday had Tim Walker, who has previously suggested that it’s inhumane to send critics to musicals at all, humanely finding plenty to admire, even “adore” as he put it, in his four-star notice.
And then there’s the artist’s own response: after the recent mostly negative notices for Rupert Goold’s new production of King Lear in Liverpool, Pete Postlethwaite - who played the title role - responded on Radio 4’s Front Row last week by agreeing that they were justified.
In a report on the BBC website, he admits, “We were overwhelmed, I think, by the ideas. I think what suffered was the performances.” And since the opening, several elements have now been “jettisoned”, he said. “Things have gone that we found unhelpful, distracting, not true to the story… Rupert’s been bold enough to say, ‘Right, that didn’t work.’…. “Let’s face it, it wasn’t all bad, there was a lot of really good stuff going on, bubbling underneath that just needed releasing.”
And the reviews, no doubt, have played their part in releasing it, and the production from some of its reported excesses. I’m glad I am waiting till it comes to the Young Vic to see it.