A Review of Reviews
Throughout their history, theatre and theatre reviews have had a tempestuous relationship.
For theatre, the review is a double edged sword, leaving shows at the mercy of the opinions of relative (or sometimes complete) strangers who don’t know the work, the process or what you wanted to achieve.The critical reaction to a production can leave it dead in the water or launch it into the stratosphere.
I’ve been in shows that have received mixed reviews before. But “Brexit the Musical” is the first show I’ve been in which has had the full range of stars: 1 – 5. With those reviews came elation and vexation in equal measure. Not just from the alternate bruising and messaging of egos, but from the seeming arbitrary nature of them. Such mixed reviews raise the question: if this show can apparently be both awful and amazing, then what is the point of these reviews?
Let’s start with Fergus Morgan’s 1 star review in The Stage as an example. It was, in his opinion, “lazy, witless and…dated.” He left having seen only the bad in his opinion. Rather than looking for any good that kept the audience coming, or even admitting that he didn’t know why our show was so popular, he chalked our success up to marketing and audience stupidity. Long story short, Morgan, along with those audience members who walked out, didn’t get what we were trying to do.
On the other hand, Ellen Orange from Voice Mag got it completely. She understood that our musical was meant for people to laugh at, not to be an intellectual commentary on the nuances of the Brexit fallout. With nothing to criticise, Orange was fully on board and the 5 stars she gave us showed it.
Then there’s my final example: Ann Treneman’s 4 star review in The Times. This review was the story of a critic who turned up expecting to be disappointed and left pleasantly surprised. Whilst acknowledging the musical’s flaws and giving her opinion on what improvements it needed, Treneman came to the same conclusion as the majority of our audience: the show is what the public needs right now – something to laugh at.
These three reviews, and all the others “Brexit the Musical” received, are vastly different in content and opinion. And that is often the case with show reviews. A production can be slated in one publication and acclaimed in the next. With such varying view points on one show, what are reviews there to achieve?
One thing that is often forgotten is that reviews don’t exist in a vacuum. Morgan asserts in his review that “fringe comedy is supposed to be daring, sharp, original, up-to-the-minute.” Thus, when he judged “Brexit the Musical” to be lacking in these qualities, he panned it. Similarly, Treneman observed in her review that the show is “a step above normal Edinburgh Fringe fare just by the fact that it has a proper band,” an impressive, novel aspect of our piece that helped to win her over.
But what’s that to the average punter? How do they know what musical comedy on the fringe is supposed to be like? The expectations of a seasoned theatre goer don’t necessarily have a baring on the experience the majority of the audience has.
And then there’s the influence of the reviewers own mind. People are judgemental by nature and although some can have there minds changed, initial judgements are hard to shake. And that comes through in the writing.
It would seem, then, that reviews are not that helpful. For artists or audiences. How can you filter out whether criticisms are legitimate problems with a work or down to personal taste? How can audience members know which opinions to trust when deciding what to see?
Would a more analytical approach to reviewing help both artists and audiences? Possibly. But personal opinion will always seep through. Plus opinion, as contentious at it may be, does make for more engaging reading. However, the problem may have a much simper solution.
Maybe the real issue here is the star system.
Our 1 star review shook me when I saw it. Seeing that star and the one line summary left me feeling ashamed, doubting all the hard work we put into making this show. How could the industry newspaper slate a sell out show unless it’s actually terrible? But then I read it. And on reading, it seemed clear to me that when Morgan sat down in the auditorium, he wasn’t planning on having a good time and he got what he came for.
Reading a bad review is nowhere near as crushing as seeing that single star branded, searing next to the show title. A person’s opinion of your work can be heard, evaluated and then taken on bored or disregarded as you see fit. The star system gives a work more than a mere opinion. It is a judgement. A grade. In a world where success is defined by test scores and accolades, the number of stars a show gets feels synonymous with its worth.
But art of any form doesn’t work like that. What is trivial to one person can have deep resonance for another. An artistic triumph can be pretentious vanity through different eyes.
Stars are useful on the surface. They’re a ready made visual marketing tool (if your show gets 3 or more). Audiences can see at a glance if a show is deemed good or bad by the powers that be. Even as an artist who knows a show is more than its stars, I still find them intriguing when new shows open. But should stars mean more than the reviews? Or does reducing art to visual test scores do more harm than good?
Maybe it’s time for reviews to stick to opinion, and allow the audience to determine a show’s worth.