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Critics - Who Needs 'em?

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"I never listen to critics, why should I take one persons word as golden?"

That's what a friend said to me recently when talking about a very negative review of a show they wanted to see.
It got me thinking, do critics really have any power anymore over an audience and especially over a show? I'm a critic and I adore what I do but at the same time because I own a production company that has to deal with critics and reviews when we have a new play opening, I also find myself questioning the point of critics (you can imagine my head is rather confused!).
It used to be that if you got a bad review from a major critic (especially in New York) that your show would close faster than Gone with the Wind did in London. Critics would have producers nervous, praying for a rave or at least a positive that they could pull some good press quotes from. Today though it really seems to be getting less and less important. Audiences will see what they want to see, no matter what anyone has to say (look at Wicked and We Will Rock You that were both slammed by the press).
I do find it interesting though when I review a show, sometimes my review has gone live and within a few hours people can be commenting under my review that ‘I’m wrong, I don’t know what I’m talking about’ (after 15 years in theatre I would hope that I do). I never question my reviews (even if many disagree) because that’s my personal opinion, that’s what I’m sent to do.... and therein lies the issue.
A critic is just one person, many times a writer will review things he or she has not chosen and would not normally pay to see, some critics could watch something that requires prior knowledge of a genre, writer etc. but do not possess it and so on and so on. Recently one of my productions of a Charles Busch play was highly praised by a critic but the same writer commented that that play itself was awful. This was a piece that never received a bad review in any other country but this one person hated it. Another play opened recently on the fringe scene to some wonderful reviews but one publication ripped the show to pieces, pointing to its strengths (that all other critics had picked up on) as its weaknesses. These critics however are not ‘wrong’ they just see something different in a show, I mean art is after all subjective and theatre is art.
It’s always very interesting checking all the reviews for the same production that opens, I can guarantee that you will always find that some of the reviews could not be more different. Look at Legally Blonde that hits Manchester soon - wall to wall raves.... almost. Yet, good old Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail hated the show and ripped it to pieces (the show went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Musical a few weeks ago). It’s also interesting looking back at some critics reviews and seeing a pattern emerge. One national critic seems to hate anything that is designed to be pure fun, yet holds a major post on a top paper and seems destined to slam all the shows that are not Sondheim etc.
I try to review lots of different things, I do a lot of fringe as well as commercial musicals and plays, even circus shows. However, I will never put down to review an opera for example or a musical that I already dislike..... what is the point?  It’s unfair of me to judge an opera if I dislike it and if a show has led me to want to stick pencils in my ears every time I hear it (I’m looking at you Cats) then it’s best that I let somebody else take the review who has not seen the show.

What’s great here at Whatsonstage.com however is that it has many critics to take the many different jobs that they can judge fairly. This means I don’t have to cover an Opera or Cats because somebody else who appreciates that style of theatre can go and write an informed opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying critics should only review things they like, what would be the point? I’m saying that critics should only be covering ‘types’ of theatre or ‘genres’ that they have background knowledge of or a good understanding of the intentions of the piece.
Today I think the power of the critics pen has got less and less, after all anybody can be a critic today, all people need to do is sign up to a theatre site (like here or Broadway World) and post your opinions on a message board for all to read.  I have to say that these are the reviews that I really listen to. Theatre fans tell it like it is, they don’t pull any punches and they tend to also find the positive in even the biggest disaster.
So are critics still needed today? Absolutely, whilst their opinion may not have as much clout as it used to it still provides a general opinion and also lets people know that the show exists.  hilst big West End shows have started fearing them less or really not needing them to keep their show running, the small Fringe companies know that a positive review can help move the show to another venue and generate more interest. 

In other words, big shows can spin whatever a critic says, whilst small companies rely on a positive review to help them move upwards. We should always have critics, as good writers inform us of their opinion and more importantly let us know the show is out there.
So when you want to watch a show and you read a review for it, always remember that this is just one persons opinion, not the final word..... it’s just a published one.

- Craig Hepworth


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