Industry newspaper The Stage is running a competition to find an undiscovered talent in theatre criticism. Good! Could it be you? You can apply here.
These days it seems anyone with internet access can pass themselves off as a critic, and some of the less scrupulous online websites and magazines take on reviewers who don’t know the first thing about what criticism is. Noël Coward said of acting that the most important rules were to remember the lines and not bump into the furniture. We can’t offer anything so pithy – but we’ll have a go…
By far the most common and egregious error prevalent in criticism (and alas it’s also rife amongst the critics of the printed press – some of whom are even paid for their two hundred words) is passing off personal opinion as a review. “I didn’t like it, therefore it’s a bad show.” Hmmm. So what if you didn’t like it? What does that matter? Keep your ego out of your review!
If you’re tempted to enter this competition – and we hope you are – we dearly hope you are the type who understands that the core of criticism is to examine the content of a show and decide who the target audience is and whether or not the show succeeds in what it sets out to do. It’s perfectly possible to loathe jukebox musicals yet give one a glowing review if you see an exceptional example of the genre. Your personal taste has nothing to say about whether or not a production has merit and whether or not it ought to be recommended to a particular audience.
The second most prevalent example of bad criticism is to pass off as a review a plot summary followed by a warm or hostile personal opinion. Back of the class. The key is always to keep your ego out of it, to ask yourself what the production is trying to achieve and whether or not the message of the piece comes across clearly (never whether or not you personally agree with the sentiments or if you would have expressed them differently). Your job is to inform, not to instruct.
Criticism isn’t a dying art – there are more critics for everything now than ever before – but the overall quality may be threatened. Hopefully competitions such as this one in The Stage will help real talent to rise and for the medium standard to rise.
Theatre is precious. Deconstructing it correctly is important.
Do you agree?
Theatre and book critic for Entertainment Focus, freelance writer and one third of the Doctor Who podcast The Complete Menagerie (Almost).