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An extra star for effort (and encouragement)?

Should critics offer an easier ride to some kinds of theatre than others in order to offer them much needed support? In Monday’s Guardian, Lyn Gardner wrote of a regional show she’d reviewed and awarded what she says she had “hoped was a fair three-star review.”

But it wasn’t enough, apparently: as she goes on, “Shortly afterwards, the director sent me an impassioned email, pointing out that some regional theatres were in desperate trouble, touring costs had doubled in the last five years, and unless critics supported new writing, theatregoers outside London would face an endless diet of Jane Austen adaptations and Coward revivals. His view was that a three-star review would mean that ‘no one comes’, while four stars means ‘that they will judge for themselves’.”

So, Lyn wonders, “Could giving the show the benefit of the doubt, and adding an extra star, be the right thing to do?” Of course, the simple answer is critics are not marketing mannequins, there to do the job of trying to ‘sell’ shows; we’re responsible, first and foremost, not to the theatres, but to our readers, who might spend their money on the basis of what we write.

As Lyn concludes, “I want to support regional theatre, which often does an amazing job on minimal resources. Of course I want to see it thrive - or, like those who work in those theatres, I might be out of a job. I don’t want the gap to widen between the kind of work you can see in London and that on offer in the rest of the country. But flinging around stars isn’t going to help. The person who takes a chance on your four-star review and thinks you wasted their time is an audience member lost for ever.”

It’s precisely the same conundrum I face when it comes to reviewing new musicals: I want to support them, or else, to paraphrase the regional director above, we’ll be doomed to endless re-runs of Annie (which I’m seeing this Friday, in fact, in Leeds) or, God forbid, jukebox mash-ups like Rock of Ages which seem to be critic-proof.

But there’s no point at all sending people to poor musicals, or they may never support them again. And there are times, to be honest, when my own patience runs extremely low; if anything, it is possible that I apply an even more exacting standard to them than some of my colleagues, since I feel the stakes are so high.

Leaving Goodbye Barcelona the other night at the Arcola, for instance, a new musical which attempts something original but ends up (as I wrote in my Stage review) putting the “hackneyed into Hackney where the theatre is located”, a colleague commented that she wanted to at least recognise it for being ambitious. But where the gap between noble ambition and actual achievement is this high, I’m afraid I could only conclude, “This surprisingly pallid, painfully predictable musical needs a lot more development before it could hope to go further.”

Ultimately, of course, it’s about being as fair as possible, whilst also as honest. There are times when I fear I am being too honest; when I reviewed another new musical Ex at Soho Theatre, I’m afraid I pulled no punches when I described it in my Stage review as “limp, lacklustre and frequently cringe-making”, and quoted one character saying, “Go now, before somebody starts singing”, before adding, “It’s the only moment when I felt like heeding his advice.”

I’ve previously blogged about its producer’s defence of his show, in which he offered his own Twitter review of my review by asking, “Are you blind and deaf? What Soho Theatre were you in last night? The Soho Theatre I was in contained a funny play, with lovely songs, greeted with joy by the audience.”

It could be that I was wrong, though actually I was one of the kinder reviews it received: in Lyn Gardner’s one-star pan, she called it a “dire four-hander, which promises a smart-talking, sexually upfront modern Private Lives but instead makes you think about permanently ending your relationship with theatre”, and concluded, “there is little a hard-working cast can salvage from a show that puts the ex into excruciating.”

In another one-star review in the Sunday Times, David Jays commented, “Young’s script, flat as a discarded Magners, has songs set to Ross Lorraine’s lounge-bar melodies (sample rhyme: handsome/pants on), while the production slumps into a stupor. Chew your arm off to escape.”

All credit, then, to the scriptwriter Rob Young for his absolutely reasonable and reasoned response on my blog, and at the time he was writing (before the Sunday Times review appeared), he commented, “What we have here are two heavyweight critics who didn’t like my show, at all. I’m cool with that. It’s their job to give their opinion and they can’t like everything. To be fair (is fair objective?) some critics did like it and last night we had a standing ovation. That’s not just me being defensive, it’s true (honest). Could the show have been better? Hell yeah. Were some of the critics a tad cruel? Gleefully so, and that’s why we read ‘em. Did the passionate producer spring to its defense? Gallantly! It’s all part of the healthy discourse of theatre. And I love it. Sure, it would have been nice if Mark had said my show was ‘better than sex’ but then again, I have no idea how good his sex life is. It’s all subjective. Go see Ex yourself and make up your own mind, that’s what I say (but then again, I would).”

That’s a writer with a healthy view towards critics, and I’m happy that he’s not cowed by us: as he concludes, “And if you don’t like Ex, there’s always next time. Next time being December 19th when my new play, Crush, opens at the Finborough. It has no songs whatsoever.”

9 Comments

I realize that this is a blog and is meant to provoke discussion, but are you really being fair to "Ex"? I haven't seen it, but if a show gets to opening night and gets reviewed , isn't it enough that it gets some bad notices in the wake of opening? To blog about it once and quite your bad review and then quote the other bad reviews in the course of a blog is I suppose fair. But that was last week, and now again this week to quote your bad review and other bead reviews in the wake of a reasoned and good humored response from the playwright is downright perverse. The playwright did you a good turn and didn't come out punching and so now you kick him again? Not fair. It's hard enough trying to make a living being a playwright but to now have to read your bad review three times in less than two weeks seems to be unreasonable. Poor Rob Young - he can't win. Especially because we're not talking about something vile such as Rock of Ages which has seemingly millions of pounds available for promotion to overcome bad notices. "Ex" is a small show, on a limited budget with a short run - it's may not be good, but in my mind you're kicking a wounded puppy here.

Another rock/hard place scenario for our current hard times, yet we all need to be realistic about this...

Yes, if critics are honest about new work, and it isn't quite good enough to start with, do they give it the benefit of the doubt on the grounds it could evolve? I remember responding to a critic from The Stage who saw my first professionally- written play, not by direct contact, but by taking what he said about the flaws of the piece and re-working the text, simply because his notes made perfect sense. Yet, I don't feel every new play can get that lucky - and should the effort and constructive criticism be applied to all new pieces, especially the weaker ones? No-one sets out to produce a bad piece of theatre, yet sometimes it's just bad luck, wrong circumstances, or a duff call that will scupper a project from the outset or during development.

Similarly, I'm sure critics would agree that in being invited, they are being asked for an honest opinion, and good critics will say helpful things with genuine heart, even if it's " this show cannot be redeemed". As long as it's said with constructive honesty, then isn't it better critics try to find the plays that can break into the bigger leagues to over-throw the Austen musicals and Coward revivals. And cannot the reviews themselves, rather than add an extra star, make an effort to mention the positives in say a three- star write-up, to allow the production companies to cherry-pick the old "quotes for the posters" rather than skew the star ratings? A three-star rating is pretty strong, but if it does mean the difference between audience attending or not, then surely find the positives to talk about in a good show would be the way forward without the need to give it a bump? In addition, going back to my point at the start, give a show four stars to help it out may be admirable, yet will the show evolve to the point of deserving it? I would hope so. :)

It's a tricky thing - if we really all want to support new theatre, new writing, regional work, touring productions, then we all have to find fair and encouraging ways to do it, both on the production and critical sides of the fence, and sometimes together.


@Laurence Kupp: Actually, I think Mr Young comes out of this pretty well. Not everyone re-visits a blog they've read already and would have seen his comment, so I felt it deserved wider circulation.

There's also been more review coverage since my original posting went up, with both The Guardian and Sunday Times reviewing it, so it only supports my original point.

But then there's also a wider argument here which I explore in this blog entry, about just how far critics should go in support of new work. Maybe your point is that we shouldn't go too far in trying to attack it again once the point is made, which is fair enough. You previously said in a blog reply that "Mr Shenton is a huge supporter of new musicals (sometimes unwarranted)", so perhaps just as my support is sometimes unwarranted, so is my lack of it at times.

@ Mark, I believe it would've been enough in this blog to simply have hotlinked to your previous blog rather than re-quote extensively from your review and other reviews. My point is your right to attack if you feel it is warranted but then , leave it alone unless there is some deeper moral outrage involved. I hate Rock of Ages and am happy to see attacked again and again but that's only because I know these attacks seem to do nothing to harm it. I wasn't fond of Ghost , so I'm happy to read bad reviews of it , knowing all to well that they are laughing all the way to the bank. But sometimes shows that mean well such as dare I say it? Lend Me a Tenor , take their critical brickbats and then struggle at the box office. You know they are struggling, I know they are struggling- why remind people of their mixed notices? Why not just leave them to their fate. Give them a chance to find their audience. However, Ex has avery limited amount of time and you've had your say ( 3 times now) so let them finish their 4 or 5 week run with whatever audience and marketing skills and limited budget that they have. I'm not asking you to cut them some slack critically but once you've had your say - that should be it. OK?

The question Mark poses is an important one, and one that sadly has been overlooked by the responses. Do we, or rather should we, hold the regions to a different standard when reviewing? This question might fairly be extended to asking whether we should hold the fringe to a different standard?
The answer, of course, is no, and it would be misguided of us to attempt it.
When audiences are paying to see a show, they deserve an equitable standard of performance and quality.
I have read reviews of shows that were awarded five and four stars while out on tour, only to limp their way to a three star review in town - the idea that regional theatre is of a different standard to West End theatre is insulting. Similarly, actors these days seque seamlessly between the fringe and the West End, as do other creatives. That we expect a lesser quality of the fringe is untrue. Certainly, we must take into account the amount of money available, but it would be a foolhardy critic who judged a show, any show, solely on how much has been spent on it.
As for the problem of funding, and whether regional theatres, and fringe theatres, who rely on audiences in order to break even, then the difference between 3 and 4 stars is an important one - but to 'upgrade' a show at the expense of the audience would benefit no-one in the long run. I'm afraid I agree with Lyn and Mark - reviewers are there to review the show that is in front of them; not to encourage or placate a creative team or company. Awarding extra stars arbitrarily demeans the role of the critic. An audience is usually intelligent enough to make up their own minds.

There's much merit in what @Laurence Kupp says (you've made your point, Mark - we all know Ex was a horror, there's nothing to be gained in rehashing your criticisms (or has this become more about Graham Crowley's petulant response?)) but, on the other hand, it's not the critics' job to promote productions. They attend to report and review objectively. One hopes that, at a certain level of the media, influences such as advertising being pulled because of a bad review would play no part.

The problem is exacerbated because theatres and producers these days seem to have relegated the promotion of their work to a minor back-office function and little or no budget is allocated to it. Can anyone over the past couple of years not have noticed the sudden passion for free or minimum wage interns to handle press and marketing? We're not talking here about bringing the bright young things in to supplement the more experienced (and therefore not minimum waged) hands and learn on the job, but replacing them altogether. And yet there seems to be endless pots of money for "cultural facilitators", "outreach" managers, and any number of highly-paid fluffy, peripheral roles that, in my opinion have brought little benefit to the performing arts. A good case for performance-related packages there, perhaps?

I believe that, rather than sitting around with their begging bowls waving for both funding and plaudits, producers need to get back to basics, re-examine - or even adopt in some cases - realistic business models and start producing quality theatre rather than nonsense like Ex and Roxanne Silbert's current car-crash outing of Measure For Measure. There so much relevant and inspiring theatre not being made because of overhyped toot like this and their failings need to be exposed accordingly. Critcs should not be the tub-thumpers of the producers unless the production genuinely deserves it.

While I personally loathe formulaic trash like Rock of Ages with a vengeance, such money-spinners hopefully encourage a theatre-going habit and stop the lights going out, so we'd be remiss to dismiss them entirely.

Was it the Headlong / NT tour of Earthquakes in London which prompted Lyn's piece? If so, I'd suggest it's a good example of touring new work with the publicity advantage of a fistful of positive critical and popular responses already available from the original London showing. Anyway, any formula for enhancing star ratings for new work on tour would be unworkable because, for example, a "regional bonus" extra star awarded on review in Plymouth wouldn't be appropriate for the subsequent touring week in Richmond, Surrey.

A critic has to tell the truth etc ... but I would be kinder to a show that didn't have a massive budget or had a new young writer. Viciously bad reviews would be like kicking a puppy.

But Karen, how does a critic ignoring obvious flaws and only talking up the positives help the young writer or low-budget show? Surely without informed criticism, they simply keep on making the same mistakes. It's rare that a review is totally negative - the art of the critic is to balance the negative with the positive.
I worked as a theatre critic for some 20 years. I was forever getting lambasted for criticising youth and amateur shows (and a lot of professional ones) honestly. My response never wavered: "Are you charging people to watch this? If so, you have no right to expect anything other than honest and justified criticism."
Before embarking upon knee-jerk reactions, practitioners might be better served by asking if the critics maybe have a point. "Can this be improved in a way that I didn't previously see because I'm too close to it?"

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