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.”