A reviewer’s life can be a difficult one (yes, bring out the tiny violins), with regular late nights at shows and tight deadlines to submit work to. I’ve just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe, where I saw 24 shows and reviewed 14 of them, all in the space of eight days, but even when life is less busy and I’m writing only two or three times a week, it can still be tough to get words onto paper on demand.
Some comments on my A Younger Theatre reviews have prompted me to write this blog and explain the intrinsic difficulties of the job. I’ve recently completely questioned my writing style and wondered whether I am qualified to be critiquing performances, but as The Stage journalist, Mark Shenton, pointed out to me, there are no particular credentials or training required to be a reviewer. In fact, the only mark of a good critic is well-written criticism.
I thoroughly enjoy reviewing and that’s why I do it, as very little of my work is paid. Getting free theatre tickets is wonderful and I love nothing more than when I see something amazing and can share my excitement with readers and potential audience-members. But I do sometimes struggle to review less positive performances.
I go into every show hoping to enjoy it and with an open and optimistic state of mind. Believe me, I’m as disappointed as any of the show’s performers and producers when I write a bad review. I try to be as positive as I can, but where there are flaws, I feel that it’s important to state them. I try to be constructive and offer feedback that can prompt improvement and I also avoid being personal about individuals wherever possible. It is upsetting therefore when I read comments about my reviews saying that I have no sense of humour or haven’t understood the show, as I really do try to consider all the elements on display and offer a well-thought-out portrayal of the performance.
I’ve sometimes lost sleep worrying if comments I’ve made are accurate. Generally, I fear that I’ve been too critical of a show or performer, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve been overly enthusiastic. My intention is always to be honest but kind; I want the reader to gain an understanding of the show in question and to be able to make an informed decision about whether to go and see it, but I don’t want to be unnecessarily cruel. I’m still learning how to strike a balance between focusing on positive aspects and also highlighting any problems that I can see in a production. I used to compare my writing with more experienced critics and if we differed, thought that I must be incorrect. But I’ve changed my view now; I don’t always say the same as others but theatre involves personal taste and I believe that as long as I am able to explain why I think and feel a certain way, then my opinion is valid. I do read people’s responses to my reviews and take them on board, but I can only ever reflect the show as I see it.
Of course, my writing isn’t perfect. I’ve made incorrect assumptions that a performance is bad (or good) for a particular reason only to discover later that something else is to blame. For example, I once criticised a choreographer’s work but realised afterwards that it just needed a different lead dancer to shine. I also mistakenly stated in Edinburgh that an improvised show was not improvised, and had to swallow my words when a second performance proved it was. This is the problem with, and delight of, live theatre – that it is transient and variable. Each review reflects just one performance on one day by one group of performers. Whilst I hope this is a good representation of the show as a whole, I never know. Going back to the same production later in a run or at another venue can make it feel completely different.
At the end of the day, I hope my reviews are fair and well-informed but that people bear in mind that they come from my own unique and personal perspective. When I get it wrong, all I can do is apologise and hope there are still readers keen to see what I write next.
Image credit: Waferboard.