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A critical review of the professional theatre critic

The relevance of the professional theatre critic is an area of discussion which has arisen at certain intervals over the past few years; I myself have written on the subject in previous articles. Recent actions by the media have ignited the flames of this hot topic once again, and with so many opinions flying back and forth, it’s difficult to say who is standing on the side of right in this instance.

One of the recent actions I refer to is the dismissal of Libby Purves as chief theatre critic for the Times, a position she has held since 2010 when she took over the job from 20-year veteran Benedict Nightingale. The news broke last month that editors were terminating her contract, meaning that, effective from 11th October 2013, she would no longer be writing reviews or features for the newspaper. Purves was insistent that the decision had not been hers, saying that: “It is not my wish at all to stop. I’ve enjoyed this very much for three years…I would hate to think that the Times would be any less full of theatre review,” (16th September 2013, The Stage). Another action by the media which relates to this topic was the announcement which pre-empted the news of Purves’ dismissal; that art critics at the Independent on Sunday were to be axed after a decision to move away from comprehensive reviews of music, stage, books and film. Whether or not the two were linked as part of the same issue is a matter of debate, but Purves did comment that she didn’t believe her firing had anything to do with the downsizing by the rival publication.

These events are nothing new to the arts world, which has seen the number of critics featuring in national newspapers steadily dropping over the years. Kevin Wilson of the self-named Public Relations company was quoted in the Guardian last month in regards to the story on Libby Purves, saying: “It’s a real shock to everyone in the industry. Unfortunately arts criticism is becoming a minority interest in the eyes of newspaper owners.” Is it just the media bigwigs who have this opinion about the place art critics hold in the world today though?

Theatre fans have been questioning the relevance of the professional critic for some time now. Time and again, the critics’ views on a particular production have widely differed from that of the theatre-going audience, with the West End production of Rock of Ages a recent example. The show was slammed by critics, who dismissed the jukebox musical as a weak production with an even weaker plot which was thinly held together by a collection of popular rock ‘n’ roll songs. The reviews were disregarded by theatre fans however, who still flocked to see the show. In opposition to the critics, the overriding opinion was an overwhelmingly positive one and their love of the show saw it extended past its original booking period.  Rock of Ages hasn’t proven to be a long-runner in the end though, closing after 2 years in the West End. So who was right in this instance?

The example of this show is just one in a long line though, and others go to show that sometimes the initial opines of the theatre fans are far more accurate than those of the industry professionals. Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and We Will Rock You all received less-than flattering reviews from critics when they first opened, but all three are still going strong today; Les Mis and Phantom are even the West End’s two longest running musicals, having both surpassed the 25 year mark. If fans had listened to the early reviews and taken the word of the critics at face value, they would have missed out on theatre history in the making,

We are living in a time in which everyone has an opinion, and thanks to the far reach of the internet, they can express it freely and widely. These days, you don’t have to be employed by a newspaper or other such media to be able to review a show. Everyone is doing it! Go online and it won’t be hard to find a multitude of theatre-based blogs and websites on which the latest West End productions are being reviewed. Even the social networking sites like twitter are full of regular theatre fans posting their views of shows they have seen. With such a variety of critical viewing to be had it can be confusing as to who is best to listen to, if indeed any of them are. Theatre fans are regularly credited as being more ‘in touch’ with today’s theatre offerings, but do they really know better? Reviewing is, at the end of the day, just an opinion, but the problem with listening to the opinions of the theatre-going audience is that they can sometimes struggle to provide an unbiased review of a show. A particular cast member is often the most common cause of this, with fans offering up high praise of a production just because their favourite performer happens to be in it. In contrast, professional theatre critics are referred to as such because they are just that: professional. They write their reviews based solely on the performance they have seen and untouched by bias. They review the production as a collective, taking in every element from the design to the lighting, the score to the plot and the choreography to the cast’s performance – the entire cast, not just one favoured member. They do this day in and day out, their experience and expertise lending them an air of knowledge that regular theatre fans cannot match. Of course, this doesn’t make them perfect at what they do. I have on occasion seen instances where it appears a theatre critic disparages a show simply for the sake of it. As I mentioned earlier, reviewing is simply offering up one personal opinion, and whether the reader chooses to listen or not is completely up to them.

Critical reviews can be beneficial to more than just the theatre-going audience though. Often, no-one considers the cast and creative team working on a production when the reviews come out. Everyone on a show, whether they’re on the stage or behind the scenes, puts untold hours of hard work into making a performance happen. The creation of a show, before it even plays its first preview, is a long and arduous journey for all involved. It starts at the very beginning, when the book is being written and the score composed, and moves on to so many decisions about lighting, staging, costumes, choreography, and not forgetting, casting too. Even when everything is set in place, there are days and days of rehearsal to struggle through before those curtains are finally ready to be opened and the finished product put before an audience. That first performance is a nerve-wracking time for the cast and creatives, who have poured their blood, sweat and tears into this show that they believe in wholeheartedly and must now get their audience to believe in it too. Applause and messages of supports from fans are wonderful displays of approval of course, but it is press night and the resulting critics’ reviews that are the best assurances that all their efforts have paid off. Everyone working on a show craves the thumbs-up of the theatre critics and a bad review can be a huge blow to the confidence they had in it, and in themselves. Nobody likes to be criticised after all. The validation of a professional theatre critic’s good review is something to be craved, and whether they admit it or not, the approval of the critics is more substantial to them than that of the audience.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion at the end of the day, and you’ll always do better to make up your own mind than let others sway you with their thoughts. People are so caught up in who’s right and who’s wrong in the reviewing world, but I say treat every one, whether they be a professional critic or not, as nothing more than a guide and all will be fine. Can the professional theatre critics guide your way better than the regular theatre-goers? I’d say yes, they probably can, and that is where their relevance in the world of critical reviewing lies. The art of theatre is subjective, but the art of reviewing, always, is to be objective.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 25th October 2013

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