I know quite a few people who are professional stand ups, actors, writers and directors. Occasionally, they are all of those, and more. What unites a great many of them is their shared hatred of reviewers. If it’s not hatred, then it’s a sense of bored dismissal, an agreement that reviewers generally don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Their dislike includes the reviewers who actually like them, and give them positive write-ups, which seems at least fair. Another thing that all these performers share is the knowledge that I myself am an occasional reviewer, which as you might imagine, comes up reasonably rarely in conversation, presumably in a failed attempt to avoid any awkwardness.
And anyway, critics need to be really careful which actors they piss off.
What then, is the point of a reviewer? Or perhaps more crucially, what is the point of being a reviewer? Is it just to see shows for free? Absolutely not (Obviously it is that a little bit). Is it a misplaced confidence in the importance of your own opinion and voice? Ditto, and (ditto). For me, it’s increasingly about my own learning. I myself am an actor, director, writer (at least that’s what I tell myself), and it’s fascinating to see what other people are doing with the same ideas that I’m working on in any given year. Plus, it’s just interesting to have a conversation about whatever it is you’ve just seen. It doesn’t even matter that, in the whirlwind of the internet, not many people are going to listen. Let’s be honest: that’s how usual conversations work, too.
There are certainly different types of reviewers, ones that are funny, ones that are incoherent, ones that simply retell the plot of what they see, and ones that are desperate to show off how much they know. I’m still trying to work out what kind of reviewer I want to be, and I suspect that up until now I’ve been all of those things. Well, perhaps not the first one. What I think a reviewer has no choice about is that they have to be interesting to read. That’s all a review is, after all: a collection of words in the same space. And as such, the only purpose – the only point – is to have those words read. So they may as well be at least not boring.
And in writing, the biggest crime is to be boring.
To that end, I try to impose upon myself certain rules when writing a review. These rules do not (and should not) apply to every single reviewer, and indeed I’m pretty sure I’ve failed at a couple of these rules in more than a few reviews, particularly when it’s the middle of the fringe festival and I’m trying to write six reviews in half as many hours and my thesaurus has given up trying to give me alternatives for ‘compelling’. But as self-imposed rules go, I think they’re pretty sound, and I share them with you now in the interests of making myself a better writer, and possibly filling up another blog entry.
- Say Something Nice. I think it’s extraordinarily rare that you’ll sit through something that doesn’t have something to recommend it. It may be a production that has somehow missed the central message of its own script, but there may be a supporting actress that is always magnetic to watch. I’m not saying that you have to lie – after all, there are potentially audience members who are reading your review in order to sway their decision as to where to go tonight, and it won’t do anyone any favours if you say only good things when it’s actually a pretty shoddy production – but if you can’t find something positive to say (even if it’s a piece of backhanded hackery like ‘I liked what they were trying to achieve’), then you’re probably in the wrong job. Your parents managed the old ‘well, the set was impressive’ lie at your first production of Jocasta Baby Killer, so you can find something nice to say about the LX design. Oh, and by the way: when I say that you might be sitting through a bad production – do sit through it. Until the end. Yes, I know audiences say that life is too short for bad theatre, and if you leave early you might get hold of the good bratwursts before the stall sells out, but they have the excuse of being the public, and the public are expected to be rude. If you’re reviewing – for a newspaper, or for an online blog read only by you – you stay until the bows. It’s the only way to write an accurate review.
It’s always possible to say something about the costume and makeup choices.
- Say Something Quotable. This gets at the heart of what the point of a reviewer is, I think. Your words are your stock in trade, even if you’re an unpaid freelance. I have read plenty of beautifully written reviews, full of fulsome praise, excitedly claiming the show as the best thing the reviewer has seen … but the review itself is useless. Because of the way that the sentences are structured, there’s nothing that the media team can cut and paste to use on posters. And, despite what you may think, most groups are wary of editing quotes from reviews to make more sense in shorter form. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, however. It still has to be true, however. You need to tread a very fine line between being nice and quotable, and just hacking out a line that’s so relentlessly positive that you know it’s going to be used on the poster. Just remember, if it’s on the poster, your name is attached to it.
Don’t get too seduced by seeing your quotes on people’s posters, though. The audience are there to see their work, not yours.
- Say Something Funny (Or Interesting). I have problems with this, I admit. Despite that, I think it’s the most important of my own self-imposed rules. Local press are notoriously bad at filling up most of their word count with a bland synopsis of the plot. That’s not a review: that’s a bland synopsis of the plot. What I try to do in my reviews (and probably increasingly fail at, the deeper into a month long fringe I get) is to have a discussion. There are plenty of reviewers who are excellent at reporting what happened on stage, or how successful the costume choices were, and on occasion, I will be one of those reviewers. But I also like to be a bit chatty in my reviews, veer off subject slightly (as much as my editor will allow me), and discuss my own, personal reaction to what I’ve seen. I don’t mean that I’ll use the word ‘I’ in my reviews (the reviewer is the least interesting aspect of their own review), but I like to treat the reviews as an extension of the types of conversations I imagine audience members to be having on the way out of a show. At the most extreme end of this rule is benign arrogance: I would like to think that one day, some readers are reading my reviews for my voice, regardless of what show I’m reviewing.
Stand-up. The only artform left where people actually pay to see you deliver your unwarranted opinion in the back room of a pub.
- Say Something Helpful. This is probably the most contentious of my self-imposed rules and certainly the one that I do the least. It again hits back at the heart of what the point of being a reviewer is. Is it liking the sound of your own voice? Or is it being some sort of half-assed dramaturg? Those two possibilities, I admit, are not exactly alien to one another. There is certainly some kind of arrogance in anybody – a reviewer, an audience member, an uninvited harasser on twitter – telling you that you ‘should have done it like this’ Presumably the stand up, the writer, the actors company, whatever – has spent several months making their show the best it can be. The last thing they need is some hack (who hasn’t spent several months making their show the best it can be) coming in and giving their unwarranted opinion. And yet. If there is an aspect of the show that frustrates you – pace, a sexist script, or a confusing ending, for instance, then I think it’s appropriate to discuss that in your review. After all, it is entirely possible that you are absolutely correct in your judgement, and if that’s the case, it’s only fair on both the audiences, and more importantly, the performers, that you bring it to light. If you’re wrong, then fair enough, all the other reviews will highlight that, and you will be ostracised as you deserve. But if you are correct, it may well be that your review is the first time they’ve had a problem that has been nagging them all through production defined, and your critique may be the thing that jumpstarts them from a mediocre show to a great one. And you will have helped, perhaps. Just remember point one. Say something nice.
And if you can’t say something nice …
- Don’t Say What It’s About. I hate spoilers. I have a whole essay to bore you with another time about spoilers. It’s cheap, nasty and lazy. Essentially, by giving away parts of the plot – particularly the surprising and exciting bits – you are highlighting that you don’t actually know what to write about, that you don’t have an opinion. When you give away plot points in your review, you are filling up your word count by basically cutting and pasting the good work that someone else has done, and passing it off as your own. This is very cheap writing. I understand that some reviewers want to show off that they’ve ‘got it’, or that they have understood the more obscure references (I myself have sailed perilously close to this more than once), or indeed to communicate to the performer that they laughed (or cried) in all the right places. I understand also that it’s challenging to talk about a show that you’ve really loved (or hated) without discussing what’s happened onstage. But, not to labour the point too much, if you are telling me what the story is, then you are not discussing the production. If you are telling me the plot (Prince’s dad gets killed, he fails to do anything about it for three hours), then you are not telling me anything that I couldn’t read in a script, or probably in the company’s own flyer. I recognise that you don’t want your review to be too opaque or obscure, but if you can’t write five hundred words without giving away the ending or blowing all the best jokes, then perhaps reviewing isn’t for you.
I’m serious about the no-spoilers thing. Imagine how AWESOME this film would be if you didn’t know about that iceberg.
Sorry. Forget I mentioned an iceberg.
So. Those are the rules that I attempt to impose upon myself in each review. As I’ve indicated, I more than occasionally fail. But I do try. It’s important to remember that reviews are not disposable and throwaway, despite what my performer friends might say and hope. It’s important to remember that the reviews one writes will actually be read by at least one person. And as such, there’s a certain responsibility. Now, that’s a rather portentous and pretentious line on which to end, but it has the ring of truth to it. Reviewing isn’t just about the sound of your own voice and seeing lots of shows for free. (I’ve already told you it is, a bit.)