‘Don’t criticise what you can’t understand’: Are critics beyond reproach?

In London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Debbie GilpinLeave a Comment

Are critics beyond reproach? Absolutely not. Does that mean they’re fair game? No. Everyone likes and dislikes different things; I’d find it hard to believe there’s a single show out there which has universal approval (or disapproval), as people have different tastes and also different things they want to get out of a trip to the theatre.

Very often I find myself disagreeing with fellow critics over their verdicts, whether positive or negative – and even the finer details, rather than simply the star rating. We might all love a show and give it the same rating, but potentially for completely different reasons. It’s interesting to see these varying sensibilities all laid out together, and it’s a great spark for conversation.

I admit that there have been a fair number of occasions where I found it almost impossible to understand why so many people love some shows (e.g. Bat Out of Hell) or how others could hate something you love so much (e.g. Girl From the North Country). Standard responses are to have a little bit of a rant via a Twitter thread or Facebook status, discuss it angrily (but privately) with friends, or engage in conversation with fellow critics to see how wide-ranging the spectrum is.

What you absolutely do not do is throw your toys out of the pram and go directly for the critic in question. I’ve had a fair few occasions where my skin has needed to quickly thicken, whether it’s spotting people talking about you and your review (Twitter showing posts people have liked can ‘assist’ here), others leaving comments on your post (which I actually have to approve before it’s visible, just FYI), or someone sending an essay of an email completely out of the blue, overreacting to your old posts, making things incredibly personal and ruining a friendship.

This is a lesson a section of All or Nothing fans clearly haven’t learnt yet. Up until its first West End stint (at the Arts Theatre) in February this year, the reviews had been almost unanimously positive, heaping praise on all aspects of the show. You may remember my response after its initial opening at the Vaults two years ago… My style & writing maturity have definitely come on leaps & bounds since then, but still I got across my point that t he show was poorly written & essentially a vanity project for Carol Harrison. Anyway, this year it seems as if more critics are coming round to my way of thinking, with a couple of well thought out pieces from Nicky Sweetland (for West End Wilma) and Fiona Mountford (in the Evening Standard), to name but two. It’s the latter that has recently caused a temper tantrum amongst mounting numbers of All or Nothing fans.

‘I do wonder when the West End will realise that it has, quite simply, tried audiences’ patience enough’. My review of the ‘gruelling trudge’ that is Small Faces’ musical All or Nothing: https://t.co/QvXCzLFG1D

— Fiona Mountford (@FionaLondonarts) March 29, 2018

Admittedly, a review is no place to launch into a critique of ticket prices and toilets – however accurate & useful (in its way) to paying customers – but the rest of the review is a good example of concise analysis. Mountford praises the performances of the Small Faces classics and wishes there were more of them & sooner (I guess they still insist on including a full song from Oliver! in the show?), whilst stating that she found issues with the writing: it does have a confusing end, and characters other than Steve Marriott need more development.

Here is a taste of the replies she’s received on Twitter – using screenshots for posterity (all can be seen below the original tweet):

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I’m not surprised people have gone to the ‘standing ovation defence’ – i.e. it’s popular, so you must be wrong – or taking issue with her mentioning the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon but completely missing the point (Mountford was actually contrasting the quality of award-winning Joe Penhall’s writing with Carol Harrison’s output). I’m not even surprised that their executive producer has decided to get involved, given Mollie Marriott previously tweeting about Sunny Afternoon “poaching” one of their actors (she has since deleted it).

 

What annoys me the most is people saying she’s not done her research or doesn’t know the band’s story – SHE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO! That is what this kind of show should be for. It’s to make sure their story is told and brought to new audiences. It should be accessible to people who weren’t around in the 60s. Instead, the narrative is no help to newbies; if you don’t know that Steve Marriott died in a fire (like me) then the ending is confusing. There are too many references that exclude people who either weren’t around or haven’t done in-depth research about that era – this is objective & something you can’t argue with, I’m afraid. You shouldn’t even need to buy a programme to know what’s going on, let alone conduct a research project beforehand.

I’d also like to point out that London crowds obviously aren’t “still flocking to see it”, as tickets for the run at the Ambassadors (not a massive theatre – capacity 444) were reduced by 70% while it was still playing at the Arts. It is, and always has been, overpriced.

I’ve gone slightly away from the point in my thoroughness… By all means, engage with critics publically if you disagree; if you’re civil enough you might start a conversation, rather than get ignored (or blocked) when you’re downright rude. I know exactly what it’s like to be defensive of a beloved show, and it’s great to be so passionate about something, but targeting people who disagree with you isn’t going to further your cause – if anything it could actually damage it. It’s frustrating when people don’t subscribe to your point of view, but you’ve just got to deal with it. Love the things you love and support them to the hilt, just draw the line at attacking people for being different.

Debbie Gilpin on FacebookDebbie Gilpin on Twitter
Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.
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Debbie Gilpin on FacebookDebbie Gilpin on Twitter
Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.