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Jo Caird: What Do You Want in a Theatre Review?

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What do you want in a theatre review? There aren’t really any hard and fast rules, but some combination of the following points is usually about right: a summary of the plot, a rundown of what works and what doesn’t about the production, details of a particular actor’s outstanding performance, a bit of history to put the play and playwright in context, a line of dialogue quoted perhaps to give you a sense of the play’s tone. If the review is nicely written, so much the better.

All critics have their own way of doing things, tending to focus on certain elements of a production over others. Publications’ style guidelines differ too, meaning that a critic writing for different publications will tweak his or her style according to where the review will appear. Regular readers get used to their favourite critics’ ways of doing things and learn to read between the lines of a review, appreciating the finer nuances of the points made because they are familiar with the particular writer’s taste.

But even if there’s no such thing as a perfect review, there are plenty of things to steer clear of. Bad grammar, spoilers and clichés are both inexcusable and easily avoidable. Any decent writer with a basic understanding of theatre should be able to produce 400 words of prose about a show without giving away its ending or resorting to the use of phrases like ‘beg, steal or borrow a ticket’ or ‘must-see’ (before you go combing through my portfolio for clichés, I admit to having resorted to the latter in the past. Sometimes when it’s late and you’re pushing a deadline it’s possible to persuade yourself that a cliché is admissible. Do as I say, not as I do).

A less obvious, but equally unhelpful, no-no is referencing past productions of a play or performance. As already noted, supplying some historical information is fine. If a play hasn’t been performed for a number of years, for example, it might be useful for readers to be told a little something about how a previous production was received. What the lay reader doesn’t need to know is that the production being reviewed isn’t a patch on a 1967 version performed in a barn in Somerset, or that the actor playing the lead doesn’t handle the play’s language with the same lyricism that ­– insert famous actor here ­– did back in 1981.

In the right context – a feature, blog post or theatre book – this might be fascinating stuff, but in a review, the point of which is to help theatre-goers decide whether or not to go see a play, referencing productions and performances that most readers won’t have seen and will never get the opportunity to see just feels nostalgic and a tad self-satisfied. Film reviewers do this all the time, but that’s fine, because readers are able to watch those films again and make the comparison for themselves. Theatre critics need to remember whom they’re writing for: helpful reviews are those that focus on what the reader wants and needs to know about a production; anything else is just showing off.


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