Are theatre critics writing for audiences?

Matt Trueman ruminates on what star ratings mean to audiences

The other week an old friend asked me for theatre tips. As any critic will tell you, it comes with the territory. Just as actors endlessly face the question, 'Will I have seen you in anything?' so critics are continually asked for recommendations. What’s good at the moment? What should I see? What mustn’t we miss? A quick brain scramble later and something great comes to mind.

This time, though, my friend wanted suggestions not for himself, but for business associates flying in from America. He signed off with a sentence that stopped me in my tracks: "It’s been ages since I last went to the theatre because I never trust my judgement enough to pick a goodie."

One of the main reasons I write is to point people towards the theatre I love

That struck a real chord and, if I’m honest, I get it. In London especially, there’s a lot of theatre to choose from and, let’s face it, much of it’s mediocre. Add in ticket prices (or at least the perception of them) and the fact that little in life is as agonising as bad theatre, and I can totally see why someone might stay away.

The thing is that wariness about picking a poor show reflects rather badly on critics and criticism. Either it implies that he’s not reading any or else that we, as a group or as individuals, are not much use at all when it comes to picking shows. The professional recommendations we write up every day are, this implies, not much cop when it comes to finding the good stuff and avoiding the bad.

That’s saddening: one of the main reasons I write is to point people towards the theatre I love.

I had my own experience of this last week in New York. Despite swearing off theatre for the week – this was a holiday – I caught a couple of local critics raving about a show on Twitter: "Go, go, go". Given the strength of that recommendation, I duly bought tickets and spent a full 90 minutes both regretting that decision and silently seething at those critics.

Audiences have more choice than ever and theatre has to match up

The easiest thing in the world, as a critic, is to over-praise. That takes two forms: runaway raves or let-offs. I tend to be more guilty of the latter – giving poor shows a pass. Someone, I’ll think, will enjoy this even if I don’t. Or: there’s something in this, sluggish and slapdash though it is. It’s not great but it means well. By the next morning, shows I’ve endured more than enjoyed can wind up with a three-star write-up – not without criticisms, but not warning people away. Maybe it’s me, I think. Me and my 300-plus shows a year. Me and my standards. Me and my tastes.

It’s easily done. Indeed, I was guilty of it for a few dispiriting weeks earlier this month. Night after night felt like an endurance test as slog followed slog. After a week of grouching, you start to question your own state of mind. You start looking for something, anything, to celebrate. You let shows off the hook. The truth is that helps no-one – not readers, not artists, and certainly not criticism.

We live in a moment of default enthusiasm; a confederacy of praise. It’s a moment where good-as-theatre-goes is often good enough. It shouldn’t be. Critics must remember that we’re after great art and great ideas. Audiences have more choice than ever and theatre has to match up. A night in with Mad Men or Moonlight is a great night.

In New York, I happened to pick up a book: a Kenneth Tynan collection, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping. He introduces it as a collection of enthusiasms, a celebration of artists and productions he loves. That may be a surprise, he notes, given his reputation as "a congenital knocker." He continues: "The fact, as any critic will confirm, is that most theatrical productions, like most books and most television shows, are extremely dreary." A useful reminder if ever there was one: there’s no harm in high standards.