Critics VS fans: Who holds the power?

I’ve noticed that theatre critics and the power which they wield has been the subject of some discussion of late, following the poor reviews given to the new musical Water Babies which recently opened at the Curve Theatre, Leicester. On one side, the critics have come under fire for not supporting new work and subsequently having a big hand in ‘killing’ shows, while on the other, it’s argued that critics simply don’t have the influence to affect the eventual outcome of any show.

So which side is right? At risk of being accused of sitting on the fence here…I would say that both have valid points regarding the power of the theatre critic.

I would start by saying that I do not believe that bad reviews alone can lead to a show being labelled a flop. Of course, any new production hopes for a good write-up from the critics, but honestly, it’s akin to handing in a piece of homework you’ve worked hard on and are proud of and hoping that the teacher awards you a good grade for it. Everyone likes to be praised for their efforts, but although a ‘bad grade’ would of course cause disappointment, it won’t stop you from believing in what you created. A good review from the critics is validation for the cast and creatives more than anything else, and if they don’t receive that validation then it’s disappointing, but not the be all and end all. I would say that a show puts more value in the opinions of the theatre-going public than the critics.

There have been many instances when critics have panned a show in direct opposition to the consensus of theatre fans, who have responded to it in a far more positive manner. This has led to many questioning the relevance of critics and asking if they are perhaps out of touch with what the audiences of today want.

I think most would agree that the opinions of theatre-goers must take prominence over those of theatre critics as, bottom line, it is ticket sales which make or break a show. If fans are buying tickets to see a show then it will succeed, so their opinion has to be worth more: are critics a factor in determining the way fans go when forming their opinions though?

The point of a review is to either encourage or discourage people from going to see a show. A critic writing a bad review is not necessarily coming right out and saying, “don’t buy a ticket for his show”, but they are basically implying that with every negative comment made. A critic will write their review based on their own enjoyment of a show, but most try to give an unbiased run-down of its various aspects which is not coloured by their own particular likes and dislikes. There have been occasions when a critic appears be less than objective in their review, but generally, they are not damning without good reason and they don’t deliberately try to ‘kill’ a show.

Theatre fans have an interest in reading the reviews after press night, but the question is whether the opinions of the critics actually carry much weight with fans. If a show receives bad reviews, will the fans listen to the critics and be put off from seeing it or will they still go despite what they say? I do think it’s harder to ignore bad reviews if they come enmasse as the voices of many are louder than the voice of just one, but it’s my opinion that theatre-goers today don’t listen to the critics as much as they used to anymore.

For every professional review, there are ten more from fans who have seen the show and posted the results of their own experience on social networking sites or forums for fellow fans to see. For most theatre-goers who are debating as to whether to see a show or not, I would say that when holding the collective thoughts of the critics in one hand and those of the fans in the other, they will pay more heed to what the fans have said in making their decision.

The job of the critic today is to guide rather than lead, but more than that, their most useful attribute now is probably as publicists. Gushing comments make great quotes to use in trying to sell a production and lots of stars look very good on show posters too. It reaffirms what producers are trying to get across…that this is a show worth spending your money on to come and see. That being said, in a time when the views of theatre fans are probably held in more esteem than that of the critics, it is their words which may carry more selling-power and could prove just as useful in terms of publicity. The Book of Mormon realised this and encouraged audience members to tweet their thoughts on the show, going on to then use a collection of them in an advertising campaign which proved popular, and more importantly, successful. More and more shows are using quotes from fans as promotional tools, and while critics’ stars are no doubt still valuable assets for promotion, once again they are being challenged by fans to stay relevant.

Hype surrounded new musical Water Babies long before it opened in Leicester, and talk of a West End transfer has been floating around for just as long too. Whether it sinks or swims ultimately rests on more than just the opinions of the critics and I don’t think their decidedly star-less reviews have sealed its fate. That being said, I do believe that many critics are unduly and unnecessarily harsh in their reviews and that new work would maybe stand a better chance of success if they gave it a little extra encouragement by putting more emphasis on the positive than the negative. The critic’s pen still holds power and to say otherwise would be remiss, but the ink is wearing a little thin on the page however and I would say that more space on that page is probably given over to the fans than the critics.

By Julie Robinson @missjulie25

Thursday 15th May 2014

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