What's the Point of Critics?Date: 26 May 2003
As We Will Rock You marks its first year in the West End, Mark Shenton, a critic both for a national newspaper & this site, raises a cheer for the Queen musical that defied him & his colleagues by turning into a blockbuster hit.
"Only hard-core Queen fans can save it from an early bath," wrote my Daily Express colleague Robert Gore-Langton of We Will Rock You when it opened last May, while I myself called the musical a "grim spectacle" and "tacky, trashy tosh" in the Sunday Express.
Those were some of the kinder comments. The Daily Mail's Michael Coveney named it a "shallow, stupid and totally vacuous new musical". The Mail on Sunday's Georgina Brown agreed that this "dire, dull show" could "easily be summed up in two words: rock bottom". And the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer opined that, far from being guaranteed to blow your mind, We Will Rock You was instead "guaranteed to bore you rigid", concluding "the show is prole-feed at its worst".
Well, there are either more hard-core Queen fans than the Daily Express expected, or the Ben Elton-scripted musical is reaching a wider demographic of what the Telegraph dismissively called 'proles', because here we are, a year on, and not only is the show still running, but it's a big, thumping hit - as its box office and sweep of this year's audience-voted Whatsonstage.com Awards readily show.
Rebuke to power
Seldom has there been a bigger rebuke to the so-called power of the critics. "The most powerful people in theatre?" was the headline in a recent issue of Theatregoer magazine, emblazoned over a photograph of a representative gaggle (or should that be scribble?) of ten of my fellows (seven men, three women).
Actually, the answer to the question posed in that article is partly contained in the number of people shown. Even acting in consensus (as critics rarely do but mostly did in the case of We Will Rock You), there's usually too much of a spread of opinion to be truly decisive. This is very different to the situation in New York, where there are far fewer daily newspapers (a mere four against our 11 London and national dailies and eight Sundays), of which only one really counts in the critical stakes: the New York Times.
Even in New York, though, the critical grip and grit is slipping. With the ascendancy of the Internet, websites and bulletin boards - of which, Whatsonstage.com's own Discussion Forum, is a prime example - offer a voice to the people that really matter: the public. Everyone, now, is a potential critic.
Of course, the difference with professional critics (we like to think) is that we're paid for our opinions - for our expertise, trust-worthiness and (sometimes) wit. We're also not anonymous (as most posters on bulletin boards are) and therefore accountable to our readership. But the truth is that critics are only ever a guide - and an unreliable one at that - to public taste, and that, ultimately, it's the public who decide every time. So, despite glowing critical raves from many of us to the Broadway imports Kiss Me, Kate, The Full Monty and Contact over here, none of them survived to see their first birthday in the West End.
The reverse, in fact, often applies: the public vote with their feet (or perhaps seats!) for shows critics detest. It was once famously said of Man of La Mancha that it's a show no one likes except the public, and so it has proved again in its current Broadway revival. But critics frequently don't even agree amongst ourselves, let alone with the public. The current revival of Arsenic and Old Lace received a four-star rave from the Daily Mail's Coveney, and a no-star pan from his Mail on Sunday counterpart. On Jerry Springer - The Opera, we've once again seen divisiveness, with Robert Gore-Langton giving it a single meagre star in the Daily Express and myself offering a five-star praise in the Sunday edition!
Shared misery & ecstasy
At least we couldn't be accused of collusion. Though on some nights there's inevitably a sharing of misery (a colleague at Arsenic and Old Lace aptly, to my ears at least, groaned, "I'm losing the will to live!") or ecstasy (the collective smiles at Anything Goes said it all), the effect (and effectiveness) of the wide range of possible opinions is to variously dilute the power of any one of them.
But just how wide-ranging and representative are critics of the wider population they serve? Maybe theatregoing is a predominantly middle-class (and dare I say it, middle-aged) pastime, in which case critics reflect its major demographic all too precisely. But if the theatre world is seeking to address a wider embrace nowadays, it's perhaps problematic that the major national critics are still drawn from a narrow field of mostly male (there are only three first-string women critics on national papers, though quite a few more second stringers), mostly middle-aged, mostly middle-class, all-white, and mostly Oxbridge graduates. I can tick those boxes myself, even if, at just 40, I'm loath to push myself too quickly into the middle-aged one! To demythologise the theatre - and the theatre criticism that is its permanent record - it might be interesting to have a fuller cross-section of the public at large represented amongst our number.
Informed opinion & bad form
It's naïve to expect objectivity when it comes to theatre criticism, and of course, what we write is always a matter of (more or less informed) opinion. But certain expectations do go with the job: that you turn up, stay awake, don't leave before the end, and don't disturb other members of the audience. Which is not to say that those expectations are roundly met.
At least two respected critics can be counted on to fall sound asleep at every show they attend. And the bad form doesn't stop there. In the past couple of months, I saw one daily critic spend an entire evening with a laptop open and typing a review ready to file it at curtain down. Another critic brought attention in a show review (later taken down from the paper's website, and replaced by a second critique by its arts editor) to his own bad behaviour, which included audible sighs, snorts and grunts during the performance and then booing the curtain calls.
Such matters are, no doubt, between the critics concerned and the editors that employ them; but the public also has a right to know that the people they're trusting to be their eyes and ears are actually doing their job properly.
One of the main functions of a critic, I sometimes think, is that we see all the shows so you don't have to. We can guide you how not to waste your money, in our opinion, or more rarely, encourage you where to spend it. It's up to you whether you heed us. Given that it's largely a matter of whether our tastes coincide with yours, the most reliable guide to any of this is to find a critic you largely agree with and then follow them. Or not. The audiences flocking to We Will Rock You have obviously chosen to ignore the critics, and so the show rocks on.
The upcoming Whatsonstage.com Birthday Bash Outing to Queen's We Will Rock You takes place on Wednesday 18 June 2003. Our thrice-increased allocation of 450 tickets sold out within 24 hours of booking opening.