Reviews come in lots of shades of grey. Thanks to the virtually all-pervasive system of star ratings across the reviewing landscape — though not, as I’ve pointed out before, in The Stage itself! — we’ve become trained, both as readers and reviewers, to reduce the judgements we read or make to a simple code; though as I’ve also said many times before, there’s no universally applied index to explain the calibrations that make up the differences between each register on that code.
There is, however, at least a black-and-white sense at either extreme of it: a one star review tells you to avoid at all costs (at least in the opinion of that critic). And that’s where its often helpful to read the review in the context of other reviews, too.
The National’s current hosting of Cillian Murphy’s amazing solo turn in Enda Walsh’s Misterman, for instance, has run the gamut of reviews from one-star (Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail) to five (Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage). Michael calls it “a must-see performance by a superb artist, every bit as compelling and extraordinary as that of Mark Rylance as Johnny Rooster in Jerusalem”, while Quentin writes, “Misterman may make us think about people with mental illness. It may tell us something about small rural communities. There again, it may simply bore the Y-fronts off us and send us from the Royal National thinking ‘thank goodness that load of pretentious piffle is over’.”
Again, reviewing the RSC’s current King John at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre, Paul Taylor’s one-star review for The Independent says that director Maria Aberg’s “interpretation trades by and large in desperately unfunny, reductive grotesquerie that reeks of a lack of trust in the play and an under-estimation of the audience”, and concludes, “As people in the stalls bat away the barrage of pink, purple, white and torquoise balloons released at the start of the second half, the proceedings resemble the finale of Slava Polunin’s Snowshow without the intellectual gravitas. Abysmal.” Yet in a four star rave for the Sunday Times, Maxie Szalwinska declares that Aberg’s “bold, irrreverent, retro-styled show rekindles a Shakespeare most directors don’t want to touch,” and instead of “abysmal”, concludes with “furiously enthralling.”
Meanwhile, furiously appalling is OperaUpClose — who began so promisingly with their Olivier winning La Boheme that transferred from the Cock Tavern to Soho Theatre — who have just earned a one-star pan for their new production of Carmen from Kieron Quike in the Standard, who wrote, “Short and comically dreadful, Opera Up Close’s Carmen foregoes half the music of Bizet’s work, along with all drama and spectacle. What remains is a version that barely reminds you of its original — a plotless, try-hard mess.”
It sounds like the current stage version of The Great Gatsby at Wilton’s Music Hall also encourages its audience to try hard to enter into the spirit of things: according to Lyn Gardner’s two-star Guardian review, “This stage version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s story aches with promise unfulfilled. The audience is encouraged to dress up 1920s style; there is alcohol served in jam jars, and Boston baked beans on the menu. You could be forgiven for thinking you had slipped back in time to bootleg party circa 1922. Stand in Grace’s Alley and peer through the window of Wilton’s famous Mahogany Bar and you glimpse the past.”
But, she goes on, “It is the building and the peripherals that are the stars here, making Peter Joucia’s awkward staging of his own limp version of the narrative seem like an afterthought, an inconsequential sideshow to the drinking and dancing, the chance to dress up and take photos.”
The same show, however, received a five-star rave from Jeremy Kingston in The Times, which refers to “Peter Joucla’s exhilarating staging” and concludes, “It is the lively interaction by the ensemble that makes the evening such a joy. I hope that its stay at Wilton’s is not the last we see of this gorgeous show.”
Of course, it’s no surprise that the same show can draw such strikingly different reactions: critics, like the public we serve, don’t share the same tastes. But it also proves that reviews can’t be read in isolation. You need to read more than one to get a fuller sense of whether you might agree or disagree with them.