What are reviews for?

When you take on the position of editor of any paper, you’re suddenly forced into taking a much more critical approach to a paper than you do when you simply idly pick up a copy of a paper to have a browse through. You have to take real are to consider font spacing, column width and image resolution, page dynamics, headline positioning and spell-checking. But of course, the most important thing you have to worry about is content.

So, as editor of the Stage section of a paper, the first thing you think about is, naturally, reviews.

Then, in the process of looking at reviews that have been sent in, you start to philosophise (or at the very least, that’s what I do). So, I ask again, what are reviews for? Why do we trust some other person’s view more than our own, in judging what has to be one of the most inherently subjective experiences in the world? I’ll always remember the first play my whole family went to go and see at the National Theatre in London; my sister and I both came out, and said to our parents simultaneously “I hated it!” “I loved it!”.

Should we really be trying to pull apart plays and examine their every minute detail? Why not, instead of relying on the opinion of others, go and see a production and make your mind up for yourself? In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no need for reviewers. Who needs a stage section? Maybe all there should be is listings of productions; no bias, no personal touch.

There is however one major factor that I’ve left out of consideration in our particular case. That being, we are students. If a fiver intended to purchase a ticket to the BT’s latest offering is better spent with the latest offering of the Tesco’s baked good aisle, we want to know.

Beyond just the student perspective, reviews are also, to be frank, interesting. Glowing or cutting, (particularly cutting), they’re fun to read. People being witty about bad plays is just as compelling reading as people writing about actor’s fiving the performance of their lifetime. The lines attributed to Samuel Johnson come to mind: “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” There’s something unashamedly fun about bad work being criticised well.

It’s tricky to gauge whether a review is the best way to get to an idea of what a production is like. Pictures can give you greater accuracy, trailers give you the director’s enticement. But reviews are evocative, because they not only take into account the play, but also the space it is being acted in. They are the closest you’re going to get to the experience of a play without taking the plunge and actually committing to a ticket.

At best, reviews can be entrancing, they can give you real insight into both the play, and just as interestingly, the play through someone else’s eyes. Other people pick up on details you would never have otherwise noticed, which you can then compare with your own gamut of things that you noticed; the colour symbolism of an actor’s shoes, or the meaning of the light’s flickering in the middle of Act 2. A veritable smorgasbord of snippets of the production are passed over to you; the tone of an actors’ voice, the smell of the theatre, the technical skill in the stage set up. At worst, reviews are dismissive, and snobbish. They refute plays not on their merits or failings but on presupposed notions of what plays SHOULD be, how actors SHOULD realise their characters. They’re selfish reviews; more about the person watching than the production being watched. What’s worse, these reviews are not only the product of narrow-minded critics, but they additionally breed narrow minded criticism in their readers.

Reviews provide a sounding board for our own opinion about a production. You can agree, disagree, elaborate or elucidate. Reviews also aren’t just for the average reader, they also work to push actors and directors to put out their creative best, to challenge and inspire. A good review is a validation of all the hard work put into birthing some dramatic creation. A bad review is a bolstering cry to push the next night to be better.

The act of reviewing is also a useful one, because it encourages you to actively appreciate different aspects of a production. Whereas before you might not have noticed the ensemble acting, now you keep a weather eye out for what Roman Centurion No.2 is up to next to the column, or how well the sound engineering has created the desired ambience.

Reviews are a force for good, so long as standards of reviewing are upheld. They encourage rigour, inspire reflection, and spark debate.

And if you feel personally affronted by reviews, you can always ignore it. Max Reger famously had a more offensive strategy, replying to a reviewer of his with the line: “I am in the smallest room of the house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.”