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Reviewing Situations

March 30, 2011

Today I got an email from a fringe theatre company, asking for a listing and inviting me to the play. As usual, I said ‘yes’ to the first, but ‘sorry, I’m busy’ to the second. Further correspondence repeated something I’d heard a few weeks ago from another fringe theatre company, “We can’t get anybody to come and review us.”

Considering there are several thousand theatre blogs out there, and many hundreds of theatre websites, that really is quite sad. Now, I admit that Theatremonkey is probably one of the older ones, but some facts are common to all. The main one being that sadly, time and space are simply limited, and few can ‘do it all.’ I also have a second problem in that if I reviewed one, I’d offend twenty more that I couldn’t fit into my schedule. For that reason, I decline them all – but do let the company know afterwards if I was ‘in’ and what I thought of the show (apart from that, Mrs Lincoln – as the old joke goes).

It got me thinking about professional reviewers (never ‘critics’ – at least, not to their faces) and the simple problem that there are so few of them and they can only see one production at a time. More than that, as I said once in a  Podcast interview, I do feel it is easy to see too much and become jaded. Certainly, having watched my recording of “Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera” from BBC4 last night, I can only think that those who praised it had certainly consumed one ‘Magic Flute’ too many in the week before… but I digress.

Quite often I do get the envious refrain, “lucky you to be given tickets.” It’s true, and is a lovely aspect of my work, which also drives my accountant crazy as I can’t offset them against tax… digressing again… BUT, as with all things, comes responsibility.

Aside from remembering to be polite to your host for the evening (and those who know me know I’m variable on that), watching a production to review is very different from just being a paying member of the audience.

Obviously, with Theatremonkey in mind, I’m checking all the stuff the site covers before and during the main event. Beyond that, there’s still a mass of stuff to remember. “Watch the entire stage, not just the principals” is one, “Lighting and Sound” another, “pay attention to the subtext as much as the actual text” a third.

I don’t ever take notes while the curtain is up (many professionals do – which tells you something about the gulf between us), but I usually have scads of mental notes to put down if I can during the interval… or forget totally on the tube home.

When writing up, there’s the consideration of how the production stacked up against previous ones (if it’s a revival), how the cast / director / designers compare with previous work, and even how the Theatremonkey ‘house style’ should shape my opinion when I write it. Oh, and let’s not forget the written rules on libel and the unwritten ones about being fair, objective and putting opinions over in a way that will keep you on the ‘invites’ list.

It’s surprisingly hard to do, and takes time – even with practise. The best professionals have years of memories to rely one (even I now scare myself that I can remember stuff ‘first time around’). So really, it’s rare to find a critic in your audience simply because they are a bit of a rare species to start with; and, considering all that they do in their job, that isn’t surprising – now I come to think of it.

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