A friend of mine asked me recently ‘Do you ever write bad reviews? You seem to like most of what you see?’ It’s a valid question; scanning my back-catalogue (on OnStage and AlwaysTimeForTheatre.Wordpress.com) shows far more praise than criticism, but there are of course very good reasons for this.
Reason 1: Appreciation of the Hardworking People in the Theatre Industry
I do not shy away from being critical; there’s something ingenuous about being blindly positive about every show, and omitting gripes somewhat negates the self-assigned role of honest critic. I just don’t feel the need to be hyper critical or biting in my criticism and find it distasteful to read tactless, purposefully acidic reviews. Perhaps that’s the sensitivity in me; my refusal to consider actors and directors and the swathes of other creatives who work damn hard to produce their performances, as anything other than people.
Reason 2: Silver Linings go a Long Way
I’m not saying that performers and creatives should be protected from negative opinions, or even deeply negative opinions- that would be ridiculous, but I’d like to be treated with the respect of a silver lining if I were in their shoes (however flawed my performance, direction or design), so I treat the subjects of my reviews with that same courtesy. I enjoy theatre and I want that enjoyment to fill my writing as opposed to filling my writing with moody or pedantic irritations. My criticism is countered with positives wherever possible, and it takes something very heavily flawed to leave me with nothing at all to praise; 100% negative reviews seems wholly unnecessary to me- there’s always something that worked, however much some may protest.
Reason 3: Tact Can Be a Beautiful Thing
If I think a show is genuinely heavily flawed, I will say so, and I will make a judgement about either recommending with caution or tactfully omitting the recommendation line, allowing instead the review as a whole to reflect my inability to recommend it. Why be heavy-handed and say ‘Good God! Run for the hills! Flee! ’tis terrible! It will keep you up at night, such is the atrocity of the closing monologue!’ when you can make your point with a dash of sensitivity while not at all endangering honesty? The odd harsh remark is not off limits, but it must be genuinely warranted and it must never be about attacking an individual at an unacceptable level of negativity, especially when it is purely for the sake of generating readership. I will make a harsh remark if I feel it carries merit, but I’ll choose tact over actual cruelty, any day of the week. My criticisms are for the most part very restrained, with a few playful, benign quips- and adopting this style means that I can criticise and commend shows, while entertaining my readers but without losing my humanity.
Reason 4: Standing Strong when Faced with a String of Successful Shows
The other important factor to point out is that I’ve been lucky enough to see a wonderful range of genuinely great theatre recently. I’ve seen many productions carrying far more merits than flaws and although I am known in social circles to be prone to a little dramatic hyperbole (dramatic? A lover of theatre? Shocking!) my glowing praise is, like my criticism, honest, justified and thoughtful. They haven’t all been five star hits, but they have been presented in my reviews primarily on the greatest of the strengths in their productions. The people who have worked damn hard on a production also deserve praise when the show has been a great success; it’s not a case of ‘well the last three were all great and the last two got standing ovations…so I guess this review has to be tepid at best, or they’ll think I don’t know a thing!’ Working in the arts must be both a delight and a gruelling nightmare; such is the nature of the beautiful, demanding beast. So when we see success on a stage, even if it’s miraculously the fifth great show in a row, we need to stand strong and share that praise at the right level, not water it down so that a critic’s back catalogue can show greater variety.
Reason 5: Criticism for Good
I’m neither a hypocrite nor deluded. I have of course written a number of reviews which are more negative than positive, and of course, for some, my honesty in those reviews may seem harsh in places; I won’t deny that sometimes honesty requires tough love. I do feel though, that they are shaped for progress and development rather than a carefully crafted kick in the shin. I do criticise and I do accept that some shows are genuinely bad overall- sometimes even awful; but as I said above, they’re never so awful that nothing can be held up as a minor success on a sinking ship. That one actor carrying the rest of the under-prepared cast, or the excellent set design capturing imaginations while some of the performances might be making the audience think about their ironing piling up at home; there’s ALWAYS something to praise. Most importantly, any criticism I write is never blindly critical; it is justified clearly, fairly and thoughtfully, and I will never mislead readers.
An Answer in Brief, then…
I get the impression that there’s some sort of unspoken ratio in terms of the PH reading across so many reviews, with any imbalance in either direction (ironically) attracting criticism on the grounds of there being too much of the same, with an implication that the reviewer is not ‘serious’ or discerning enough to be honest. So let me say this as a parting note: I won’t ever limit the depth or breadth of my praise for fear of appearing undiscerning or disingenuous; when I praise, I mean it, so why would I restrict it? There are two things that my reviews will never be: crushingly rude or unnecessarily scathing. There are three things that my reviews will always be: fair, honest and determined to find a silver lining, no matter the height of the flaw floodwaters. I don’t work for a specific publication, so I have no specification to follow; I freely judge merits and flaws, justifying those judgements with honesty. I’d like to see more acknowledgement of the fact that it’s possible to write a string of glowing reviews when a glowing review is deserved; that there’s no need to dilute praise in order to show variety in the writing of reviews; and finally, that it is possible to entertain and inform without outright, unwarranted samurai slicing when it comes to reviewing.