‘Unprofessional’. ‘Amateurish’. ‘Unrefined’. Technically, all these are perfectly accurate descriptions of many a student performance, in which no amount of enthusiasm can hide a glaringly greenhorn effort. Including words such as the above in a published review, though, will leave even the most ruthless critic feeling like he’s just kicked a puppy for wagging its tail too hard at the dog show. Whatever Edward ‘Attila-would-have-been-a-theatre-critic’ Albee might say, most reviewers are not actually sadists, and as such most will find the ‘kicked puppy’ feeling problematic. It’s a critical quandary – how far should we excuse inexperience, even when it plays out as ineptitude? Is there such a thing as ‘cruel to be kind’ if the subject in question is just a harmless, have-a-go Hamlet? And at what point does making allowances become plain patronising?
For the equally inexpert student reviewer, it’s as much an issue of one’s own reputation as it is of the reviewee’s. As someone with aspirations to ‘proper journalism’, it can be tempting to assert oneself as a ‘serious writer’ by raining criticism all over a production’s proverbial parade. After all, there’s nothing like a good, pull-no-punches approach to show you mean business. A guaranteed way to pare your nib for a razor-sharp review is to go into a student production expecting a cast and crew to display skills which the professionals dedicate whole careers to honing. So, keeping the ‘would I be impressed if everyone was getting paid’ criteria can be quite a good weapon in the critical arsenal. However, the flip side of this is that the university thespian and the student journo share a common bond: neither is entirely sure what they’re doing quite yet, and as such it’s hard not to be just a bit sympathetic. As a writer, I certainly wouldn’t want my articles judged as if I were on the Guardian’s payroll, so surely it’d be hypocritical of me to assess any amateur dramatics along similar lines?
Well, maybe, but in both cases saving the blushes of those being judged benefit nobody in the long run, most of all those others with nothing to blush about. We’re lucky at Oxford to turn out shows which are fantastic productions in their own right, not just above-par student am-dram. Damning a few unsuccessful shows for being amateur in comparison is the necessary cost of allowing Oxford’s serious theatrical accomplishments to stand tall on a levelled playing field. Of course, there do have to be some sensible limits. The ‘impoverished student’ stereotype can very often be well extended to cover hard-up production crews, and as such critics probably shouldn’t quibble with a few props bought on the cheap, just so long as those props are well utilised. Similarly, the (superifical) believability of the cast merits serious leeway, as do the efforts of the make-up artists who have to try to make a tousle-haired nineteen year old into a convincing octogenarian. A harsher criteria, however, rightly faces the octogenarian performance itself. Mistakes with unfamiliar electronics are understandable, but jarring production design isn’t, however proficient. In short, technical inaccuracies of all sorts are generally forgiveable. Slip-ups in an otherwise good show may be unprofessional, but so long as they’re not entirely distracting they’re of trifling importance, even if they betray inexperience. In tribute to Paris Fashion Week (a theatrical event if ever there was one) I’ll borrow a sartorial metaphor: where the cut of the pattern is sharp and the styling original, a few frayed edges should, if anything, add to the character of the whole outfit. Flawless tailoring is unrealistic from those making no claims to that level of expertise, but the idea behind the get-up has to be good to start off with in order for it to work. Preferably, a fresh design will be carried off by a cast with the sort raw talent that is largely unaffected by age, experience or whether there’s a pay packet involved or not. As every fashion model knows, it’s as much about how you wear the clothes as it is about the outfit itself.
With these caveats, I think the thespian and the critic can agree on the ‘professional criteria’ debate’. Both parties can agree to excuse petty proficiencies, if compensated by that je-ne-sais-quoi which shines through even in an ‘amateur’. An unoriginal review or article is pretty unforgiveable (my own critics can pause here to savour the irony if they so wish) but most reasonable readers will allow the student journalist a few grammar issues which you’ve never find in a broadsheet. In the same way, it’s a bit ridiculous to deride an actor for a few fudged lines, even if they would have been perfectly delivered on stage at the National. Potential is palpable, but most other things are relative and anyway, we are all just students in the end.