The Guardian Theatre Blog recently highlighted The New York Times Critic Watch, an experimental attempt to find out what a review really does for a play. The people behind the project ask a lot of questions including “What does a review do for the play independent of the production?” but they go about their experiment with a lot of numbers. If their questions went beyond theatre and if they looked at it as subjectively as the reviews themselves, they might be onto something.
When I interviewed Ovalhouse artistic directors Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe about their Lady-Led Season, I asked them how they’d like it to be remembered. Rebecca’s answer highlighted the intelligence of the audience. “We’re more sophisticated consumers of media now,” she said “we don’t need to talk about theatre in simplistic ways. I’d like this season to be recorded as a ‘turn’, so we can identify that this is how we’ve tended to talk about it in the past, and this is how it’s changing.” Rachel added: “I’d like it to be recorded as a series of questions. I’d like people to say ‘why do I feel like this when I hear this word?’”
Ultimately though, reviews are how we have chosen to record those transient moments on stage. In doing so, our appreciation for the descriptive word stretches far but I think sometimes we fail to realise the importance of our choice words as a record of how theatre, its content and its language, is received in our times. And it’s their status as a record that makes reviewing the reviews (particularly those of new plays) so important. Theatre critics, especially those published in national publications do – however reluctantly – identify with a cross section of society (that’s part of the reason they are paid to write for large readerships) and comparing and contrasting their reviews reveals how society deals with new ideas. Granted, this way of looking at reviewing the reviews is reductive and subjective and it gives way more weight to a critics opinion than perhaps even they would like, but that’s why we need a varied bunch of critics out there: so that when we do compare their reviews, it shows they’re not all the same.
The Guardian’s What to Say About column takes a stab at collating reviews, but it’s generally meant in jest and misses an opportunity to be a real game-changer, choosing instead to be cursory and occasionally amusing. It tends to follow hype and covers big West End revivals or shows with celebrity names attached. It also tends to look at what has impressed the critics rather than – as Rachel might – look at what questions it has made them ask.
I’ve only seen the What to Say About column prove its potential on one occasion: when it looked at the reception of Bola Agbaje’s Off The Endz. The play, which opened in February 2010, looks at the aspirations of three adults, having grown up on The Endz as part of black community in London and the reviews revealed an interesting picture of how theatre aficionados receive black/urban identities.
On the other hand, Whatsonstage.com often produces a much better comparison in their Reviews Round-Up piece. Theo Bosanquet among other WhatsonStage.com writers, usually (though not always) selects quotes that reflect on the content of the production that has impressed the critics and gives their take on the wider context of the play. See his selection of quotes on Tricycle Theatre’s Riots for a good example.
I’ve haven’t quite got round to it yet but a recent play that really deserves its reviews reviewed is Fog at Finborough Theatre. Here are two quotes that struck me:
Michael Billington in the Guardian
“I found it hard to credit the friendship of Michael, an aspiring, Oxford-bound psychology student, and the hapless Fog….Like one of the white boys in Roy Williams‘s Lift Off, he affects the Jamaican patois of his one friend, Michael. His tough-guy stance and gangsta-rap speech, however, fool neither his pugilistic dad nor his sister, Lou”
“On the back of the play text it says Fog is about two contrasting families one white and dysfunctional and one black and aspirational but I don’t think this is its strength or really the heart of it. It is Fog’s story and a story about the impact of abandonment and the care system.”