Mark Shenton discusses future of theatre critics

In his latest blog for The Stage, Mark Shenton discusses the future of Theatre Critics.

Now having reviewed for the local press this is a subject close to my heart.

Now I know that in the views of some publishers ‘the arts’ are lurking on their priority list somewhere just below WI cake sales and possibly just ahead of the annual tax inspectors conference. What never ceases to amaze me however is the lack of any theatrical knowledge required for wannabe critics. You wouldn’t send someone who has no interest in football to cover the big local derby but any passing bod seems fair game for theatre critics.

So who do we get? – a pick from one of the following:
a) Whatever junior reporter just happens to be free that night and isn’t needed to cover the more important annual general meeting of the local branch of Trainspotters Anonymous
b) Friend of reporter who is covering the annual general meeting of the local branch of Trainspotters Anonymous, who has always wanted a free night out at the theatre
c) Someone who was once third dancer on the left for the local am-dram production of Sound of Music On Ice
d) Mother/Father or Daughter of one of the cast/directors/writers

While they may be enthusiastic the actual value of any review to the theatre is questionable – many times I have read with interest the review of the fellow critic who sat in front of me and wondered if they actually understood a word of what was being said. Reviews tend to fall into three groups

1) The school report “I went to the theatre, we had some ice cream, the seats were nice, the play started, the set was pretty and the lighting colourful, some actors did some acting and dancing and singing and we all laughed/cried (delete as appropriate) and then went home. PS the ice cream in the break was lovely”
2) The recycled press release “Schindlers List the Musical is an instant classic, this thought provoking play will delight theatre audiences up and down the country. Director Sebastian Shakespeare direct from his acclaimed production of Titus Andronicus in Latin will give you one of the most unforgettable nights in the theatre.”
3) The family postcard “Despite only having two lines in the entire 14hour production of Tantalus, John (or little Johnny as we affectionately call him) is undoubtedly the star of the show. His costume – sewn with great love by Aunty Joan (thank you!) was perfection. I don’t know what the rest of the show was about as I left to take Johnny home after his scene but you should go see this wonderful child, sorry show”
Now I exaggerate of course but I have seen reviews scarily close to all three of those examples.

Do they give the theatre or production any true value? Yes they may contain ‘rave’ quotes but unless justified will damage reputation for any customers who book on the back of the recommendation to find that the show is in fact a turkey that even Bernard Matthews would reject.

An even more worrying trend if for local BBC websites to invite theatre reviews from the public in return for two free tickets. Anyone can apply with no selection criteria.
This ‘user generated content’ can of course produce some worthy submissions and give an accurate reflection of a play but how often? Judging by the evidence of content from the local BBC site the quality and more worryingly knowledge of the ‘critics’ leaves lots to be desired. Plays credited to incorrect authors, plot devices missed and whole sections covering the leads role in EastEnders rather than the play in question.

So while West End and National Critics may be under the spotlight, perhaps its also time to consider the state of theatre critics in the regions.

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