This is an article I’ve been thinking of writing for some time, but with a few comments lately about the ethics of reviewing, it’s spurred me into action. This is primarily aimed at my own reviews – however, most of what I say will will usually apply to other reviews too.
When I started this blog off, I never expected bad reviews to be an issue. Being a performer myself, I wasn’t comfortable with badmouthing fellow performers, so I used the tagline “review of stuff that’s good” and adopted a principle of only reviewing things I liked, similar to FringeReview’s policy (who, incidentally, also prefer reviewers to be performers themselves). However, what was a simple policy in theory has turned out to be more complicated in practice, especially after I started getting invited to reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. One thing I quickly learned is that most people prefer a middling review to no review at all – some people like constructive feedback, some people want reviews on the record as evidence that they’re out there. And when you’ve got a ticket for free, it’s harder to justify writing nothing in return.
So the principle I operate on now is that I write a review if I can either say something good or say something helpful, or both. Only a small number of plays I see are neither of those. Nevertheless, there is the old saying of “There’s nothing so damning as faint praise”, and if a review showing mild enthusiasm for certain aspects is next to a review praising another play in every way possible, I can see why it might be a disappointment. The only way I can see of avoiding this would be to be equally positive about everything I see. But I don’t think I would be doing anybody any favours if I did this. Once people cotton on to fact you say everything is awesome, praise becomes worthless, whether or not it was earned.
It’s never easy to predict how people will react – some people have been thankful over reviews I thought was only lukewarm, and other people have seemed disappointed even when I thought my review was quite good. But whatever your reason is, if my review was less than you were hoping for, this article is for you. This article is also for anyone who gets a less-than-enthusiastic review from anybody else. The short answer often given is that it’s only one person’s opinion, and that is correct. But looking a bit deeper, what does that mean for you? Continue reading →
COMMENT: There are valid reasons to criticise independent reviewers – but writing “entertaining” reviews at the expense of saying anything helpful is worse than anything so-called pop-up reviewers are accused of doing.
Even though this piece is a blanket attack on people like me, I’m going to refrain from making personal attacks back. Unlike Kate Copstick and Paul Whitelaw, who both squandered all my respect a long time ago, Liam Rudden, by all accounts, is highly thought of as both a theatre maker and an arts journalist. And yet the way this article is written, it reads like a hit piece sanctioned by the fringe editors of The Scotsman with Liam Rudden acting as a proxy. So let’s respond. Continue reading →
COMMENT: The Scotsman is a highly-regarded arbiter of high-profile fringe theatre, but the service they offer groups on their first fringe venture is a different matter.
Edinburgh Fringe is about to begin. And where there’s an Edinburgh Fringe, there’s Edinburgh Fringe shenanigans. This year, the first shenanigan to hit the headlines is The Mumble, who charge people for reviews. I am in agreement with, well basically everyone, that you should have nothing to do with them, especially if you are starting off on the fringe circuit. The good news is that few people appear to have signed up to their schemes – most people, it seems, know better to put their trust in someone with such a dodgy reputation.
However, I am coming to the view that there is another publication you should be wary about, and unlike The Mumble, they are very highly regarded; and plenty of performers, beginners and veterans alike, invite their reviewers along. And that publication is The Scotsman.
It’s not got to the point where I’m telling everyone to have nothing to do with them. Their Fringe First awards are something to take seriously, and if you’re already a big name and you’re in with a shot of awards of that prestige, The Scotsman is as good an option as any. But if, like the majority of performers who read this blog, you are trying to make a name for yourself, it’s a different story. Any review request is a gamble, heavily swayed by a reviewer’s personal tastes that you have no control over. But this particular gamble is one where the odds are not in your favour. There is a high chance a Scotsman review will be useless, or worse than useless.
Quentin Letts has the right to say what he likes about a play. The rest of us should exercise our right to not listen to him.
Okay Quentin, you win, you bastard. I’ve been ignoring you for months knowing that any response to what you write is exactly what you want to happen. But since everyone else (pretty much) took the rage-bait, it won’t make any difference – you’ve already got the attention you ordered. I’m relenting, damn you.
So, as it’s pretty much impossible to not have heard already, the thing that set this all off was a review he wrote (content warning: Daily Mail sidebar) of a production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich, where he questioned whether an actor, Leon Wringer, he believed to be miscast got the part because he was black. Cue outrage from everyone. Now, I have a rule that when someone is getting dogpiled, however much the brought it on themselves, I try my best to be fair. For what it’s worth, I can’t comment on this particular production having not seen it; but in the six years I’ve been running this blog I’ve seen a lot of plays cast ethnic minority actors in a part previously assumed to be white, and I’ve never once felt the play was worse because of it. However, that’s just my opinion, and if Mr L genuinely thinks otherwise, he is within his rights to say this.
However, I don’t actually believe what he writes has much to do with what he really thinks. For one thing, his reasoning was pretty flimsy. You might just have an argument if they cast someone who couldn’t act, but Letts’s argument is that the male love interests weren’t sexy enough. Physical attraction is subjective enough as it is, but to then extrapolate that into saying someone was a racial quota filler? Even Quentin must have known how weak an argument that is. And for another thing, Quentin Letts has a long track record of saying things that get reactions. He’s made a series of borderline pervy comments in reviews, but this passage from a review of Salome (content warning: more Daily Mail sidebar) takes the biscuit: Continue reading →
COMMENT:However much reviewers may try otherwise, you cannot eliminate subjectivity from a review. We should learn to embrace it instead.
One of the topics of discussion that’s been cropping up frequently ever since @NICritics took to Twitter is the concept of an “objective review” as opposed to a “subjective review”. As with many debates, this can mean different things to different people, but probably this can be summed up by the idea that a subjective review is just somebody’s opinion, but an objective view is immune to personal biases. And on the face of it, surely you’d want the latter? Why take the opinion of just anyone when you can have someone who’s considered all the facts?
To some extent, this is worthy thing to strive for. Anyone can write a review of “It’s good cos I like it” or “It’s bad cos I don’t like it”, but that’s not terribly helpful. Some reviews digress into personal opinions all the time. That’s not automatically a bad thing – bloggers are at liberty to write whatever they like and everyone else is free to read or not read the review. This can even happen in professional publications; Charlie Brooker, for instance, did this all the time when he wrote Screen Burn for the Guardian, but he got away with because he had a strong personal reputation for being insightful and entertaining, and anyway, Charlie Brooker is right about everything. However, that’s an exception, and in general you expect a certain amount of professionalism from the reviewer – if one reads a review from ThreeWeeks or BroadwayBaby, one expects it to be about the play, not the reviewer. Continue reading →