My friend sat me down, and smirked.
‘Tim. You reviewed a play the other night.’
It was a Monday. Of course I had reviewed a play the evening before: in the cut-throat world of Oxford drama, that’s what Sunday night is for. A slightly desperate night of agonising typing, re-typing had followed. I had a finished piece. I had a review.
‘I have a friend in the production’
Warning bells begin to sound. Everybody in Oxford knows someone in a play. And Thesps aren’t always overly grateful for critics’ contributions. Some angry phone – calls have taught me that.
‘He says you just sat there and stared. He says you didn’t laugh once, then just left. Like a machine.’
Now hang on. I want to tell the unheard story, the one behind the words on these pages. The reviewer’s story. Finally, I’m going to step out from behind the mask (expressionless! I’m… quite… friendly) and pull apart the myths.
Reviewers are just people. Most of time, we are people who love the stage as much as the actors and directors, people who read plays and night, and dream of being the new Charles Spencer (without actually having to be Charles Spencer. Urgh).
And, I hate to say it. We get things wrong as often as we get them right.
When you have come, alone, to a room in a college you’ve never entered, and are sat, next to the director, producer, cast friends and various backstage people, facing a production that is the very sum of their ambitions and dreams, it can get a bit tense.
You can feel as tense as any of the actors. Stage reviewer nerves aren’t as widely recognised. And (I’m beginning to warm up now – be grateful I only have limited space, because I CAN go on), we can never get it right. If we give a good review, we don’t get any thanks.
Of course it was good, they think, it was our play! If we give a bad review, then it is because we are idiots who fail to understand their vision. Oxonians! Spare your sympathy!
I hasten to add that’s it’s far from all bad. You see some of the best plays around, and for free. Indeed people go out of their way to make you comfortable, to be friendly.
It’s slightly desperate, but it’s much appreciated. Sometimes you come across an absolute gem, and all the trudging back and forth, the hours and editing your review to fit word lengths and deadlines, are suddenly worth it. Productions like this term’s The Bald Primadonna and Dirty Linen absolutely reaffirm my faith not only in humanity, but in student theatre.
A critic travels all over Oxford, meets incredibly talented people, sees colleges and plays he wouldn’t normally see. I want to end this column on a high. I want to salute the opportunies of Oxford theatre.