We are reviewing the situation

Theatre criticism, unsurprisingly, offends pretty much everyone involved. The journalist who dares hint at any form of negative opinion is condemned for being narrow-minded and unjust, and the threat of appearing biased looms like a doom-laden thundercloud over any poor university student who fancies themselves as a bit of a Sheridan Morley. If your best friend has a sister at Durham whose tutor’s niece got into Balliol and is playing Ophelia in the Hamlet you’ve reviewed, you cannot commend her performance. Similarly, if it’s common knowledge that you and your college dad don’t get on, you cannot point out that his Oedipus had an unfortunate stutter without the danger of being vilified for a lack of objectivity.It is still worse if you yourself have drunk from the cup of ‘thesp’. In this situation, you may blithely agree to review an upcoming production only to find, upon arrival at the press preview, that it’s being put on by a director you’ve previously worked with, and features a cast of friends, all of whom see you every evening in the thesps’ gathering ground, the Far from the Madding Crowd pub. What if you don’t like it? Will you ever get a good role in Oxford drama again, if you say that these people couldn’t act their way out of a gold-sequinned ethno-rah handbag with a copy of Stanislavski ostentatiously poking out of it?The answer seems clear: don’t review plays. It’s universally acknowledged to be a complete waste of both the performers’ and the journalists’ time. No half-hour press preview can give you a proper sense of what the finished production will be, when it is put on in an uninspiringly bare lecture room in Oriel by a stressed cast who are clad, not in their costumes (which the RSC wardrobe department won’t lend out until show week), but completely in black. Not only will you offend everyone from the director to the marketing manager with your lukewarm critique of their efforts, you won’t even have got it right, since the whole play will have exploded in the final week of rehearsals with the arrival of the set, costumes, sound and lighting, into a bearable and even enjoyable show. But someone has to write these reviews, otherwise no student theatre-goer will know whether the week’s dramatic offerings are worth seeing or not, right?The problem that arises from the reviewing concept is that both the reviewers themselves and the productions they review really seem to believe in the power of theatre criticism to make or break a show. Thesps who have been critically savaged in the student press are treated almost as war-victims by their thesp colleagues. Not to mention the critics who have been ostracised for being too critical of student drama, or for showing bias towards productions with which they have a personal connection.Reviews, though, mean very little, if we’re being honest. Of course, if an aspiring Emma Thompson receives glowing praise from Cherwell, it will be a quote they exploit on their theatrical CVs for years to come. But who really takes any notice of what we reviewers actually say? We might as well tell people to deep fry their own grandmother, for all the influence we have upon our readers’ decisions. So, student directors, turn to the example of Chekhov for comfort when your play has been torn apart by an Oxford English student with an attitude: his 1895 production of The Seagull was so badly received that he left the auditorium halfway through in shame. And I believe he survived the temporary setback.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005