Monday, June 25, 2007

Theatre reviews - What are they for?

The last few weeks have seen number of spats amongst theatre folks and professional critics, and most recently with AA Gill suggesting that the print media's current crop of theatre reviewers don't have a sufficiently entertaining writing style. Lyn Gardner has already given a good response, and although I'm concerned by the energy being expended on this that could be used more creatively, I think it does raise an interesting question - What are theatre reviews for?

At View From The Stalls we've always been quite clear about what we aim to do, and it can be pretty easily summed up as giving a genuine reaction to the theatre we see. We aren't in any way academic or have a vast knowledge of theatre - we're just your average theatregoers. We don't analyse performances in great depth, discussing themes and motifs, our reviews usually focus on a "What was good / What was bad" format, but hopefully in sufficient detail to give an idea if the show is worth seeing and also with the aim of providing constructive feedback to those involved with the production.

Gill suggests reviewers would benefit from following the lead of restaurant critics and being sharper in their writing, and while websites like the West End Whingers are a joy to read, to encourage print reviews in this direction would likely lead to reviews with a wonderful turn of phrase at the expense of a fair review of a show. Surely the purpose of a review is to convey information about the production, and the reviewers reaction to it - witty comments and put downs have their place of course but should never be the driving force of a review.

So, what do you want from a review - to be entertained by the reviewer or just to be given a fair idea if the show will entertain?

7 Heckles

Bluedog said...

I just want a guide as to whether the show is any good or not.

It really helps over the years to get to know which reviewers are on a similar wavelength to yourself.

I can usually, but not always agree with star ratings awarded.

And sometimes I am at odds with the whole Scottish pack: I hated "The Unconquered" by Torben Betts despite trying really hard with it. The Scottish reviewers gave it "Best New Play" which was simply unbelievable. I agreed with The Times who reviewed it in London who said it was really awful and gave it a token one miserable star.

But the critics do have a bit of power. Dundee Rep famously banned Joyce MacMillan from its doors years ago following a scathing review she gave them. She has been allowed back since (it happened about 25 years ago).

Statler said...

Thanks for your comment. Interesting that you mention "star ratings" as it's not something I have a lot of time for. It's such a blunt instrument, and I often find it difficult to reconcile the written review with the rating.

As for "The Unconquered", I didn't see that one but had a similar experience with "Aalst".

I think the critic's power is a little more limited up here in Scotland where people are a little more willing to bet £10-£15 of their money against a critics opinion, than to risk the price of a ticket in London. When preparing our plans for the Fringe I didn't find myself particularly influenced by critics reviews - much more so by suggestions from a variety of blogs.

There have been a few times when a review has brought a show to my attention and I've then booked up, but I can't remember a time when I've decided not to book for something I was interested in after reading a 'poor' review.

Statler said...

As well as the Whinger's commentary on all of this Andrew Field provides an entertaining take on Gill's piece.

S said...

'put downs have their place of course but should never be the driving force of a review.'

Absolutly! You get the feeling with Gill that his wole article/career is one big put down.

You also ay that with fringe stuff you are more likly to go to trusted blogs. Exactly, becasue you're in the know. Most people aren't.

I've written a response to Gill on my blog too.

Anonymous said...

I really don't know what you people are for? Why are you writing all this? You don't create anything, you just react. Surely your time would be better spent doing something else. Digging the garden perhaps or helping the aged. Why on earth should anyone care whether a critic gives an opinion you agree with or not? So what... you hated The Unconquered whereas most people loved it? Why bother to write about it? You have that sad contemporary disease of believing that your opinion matters and then posting it on the web. Write a play that's better is the obvious response rather than sitting about at a PC all day and bleating.

Waldorf said...

Mmmmm. Surely the aim of any author/writer/artist etc is to have people react to their works. Most of the time they want a positive reaction, some even may desire a negative reaction - but all crave a reaction. In fact one of the worst things you can probably say about any artistic work is 'It did nothing for me'. Perhaps no-one does care whether we agree with a critic, but you obviously took the time to post this comment - so it seems you did care. That's the whole point - you found this blog, you saw something you wanted to mention, you commented. Exactly the same process as a reviewer writing up a performance.

As we didn't review The Unconquered we can't say whether it was worth writing about - perhaps it wasn't. And yes, one of the criticisms of the blogosphere is that anyone can give an opinion, but (and it's a big but) what weight you should give this is up to you. That's why certain critics build up reputations - their opinions become valued by their readers.

Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting thread this is turning out to be.

When a bunch of enthusiasts gets together - face to face or online, they like to talk about their shared interest, be it vintage lawnmowers, Scottish politics or in this case ..... theatre. Of course this activity does not create anything in the physical sense, but shared enthuiasm glues people and society together.

If we take the line that the Anon poster is advocating, we should not even be able to have a post football match discussion, on the grounds that it would be totally non-productive.

This blog is about the theatre, and this thread is about critics. My opinion of The Unconquered differed from the vast majority of critics - not a problem for me - my own problem was I just didn't get my head round the play.

I still find critics useful as a rough guide, but will in fact book tickets well in advance of a play's run and critical opinion for a company I trust to produce consistently interesting work, a particular actor or writer I like, or simply a play I want to see.

And, yes .... in Scotland it costs far less to take a risk and see new writing and different experiences. We are very lucky.