Feature: Should regional reviews be reviews from the regions?

Is a theatre show ever ‘locked down’ or does it develop over time as the cast dig deeper and gain more of an insight into the piece? Theatre practitioners will often tell you that a show is never finished and that it matures over time as the company become more aware of each other’s timing and a sense of trust develops.

It’s a process that some companies even go out of their way to encourage. The RSC, for example, has in recent years employed an ensemble of actors working on a range of productions over a year or two year journey, building on a sense of trust and understanding that sees the plays evolve over a period of time.

Touring shows also need to adapt to each new venue and audiences. Although the piece may on first appearance look similar week in, week out, the nature of live performance means each audience reacts slightly differently and the interactions between cast and audience adapt to reflect that.

Should a theatre review therefore reflect those changes or should we only review a show once, on its London opening? It’s clear when reading reviews from across the country that, while key elements repeat in those reviews, local tastes and interpretations are also reflected. It offers a breadth of opinion that chronicles a shows development over time.

The strength of regional theatre is one of the shining jewels in the British theatre crown but should reviews continue to cover touring product or just reprint the original London reviews?

The Children’s Touring Partnership’s production of Bristol Old Vic’s adaptation of Swallows And Amazons is currently touring the country and has received acclaimed reviews nationwide. A day before the show opened at its latest stop at Cambridge Arts Theatre, though, the venue tweeted a review of the show from Cambridge News.

It’s a glowing review, with Jennifer Shelton of Cambridge News declaring ‘…it’s a triumph for the simple pleasures of childhood and the magic of theatre.’ But how did this ‘local’ review appear the day before its arrival in Cambridge?

It seems Shelton had reviewed the show while it was running in London from 15 Dec – 14 January. There’s no mention in the Cambridge News’ published review that this was in fact a review from a different venue, some three months earlier.

Does it matter? Cambridge News seems to think not. Replying to comments querying the review on the publication’s website, the reviews author replies:
“I am reliably informed that the touring production is the same as the London show which I attended at the Vaudeville. I don’t think anyone who goes to see this production on my recommendation will come away disappointed or feeling they’ve been mis-sold – it really is a lovely piece of family theatre.”

The paper also claims that it’s a standard industry practice. In a further comment, the paper’s Features Editor, Paul Kirkley, states: “This is common practise in the industry – you wouldn’t expect a film critic to point out he saw the film on DVD and not in a cinema – as long as it’s the same show, the location is not relevant.”

Is it standard industry practice though? Doesn’t comparing a review of a live theatre experience with a pre-recorded media miss the point? Live theatre is just that – live, with each performance a unique performance. What sort of message does this move send regional audiences; are we in fact telling them that London opinion is the only valid response to a piece of theatre.

Perhaps, though, it is becoming industry practice. Theatre critic Mark Shenton tweeted this week that the US entertainment newspaper Variety had reprinted a year-old review from the London staging of One Man, Two Guvnors to cover the show’s opening this week in New York.

Now the differences between a London and New York audience must be even more notable than those between London and the UK regions but it does highlight a seemingly growing worrying view that a regional review doesn’t need to be written in the region.

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