Most publications give all kinds of reviews, from the glowing to the scathing. There’s nothing wrong with that format, but that’s not an option for me. Being a writer and director myself, the thing I want to avoid at all costs is mutual mud-slinging. And the best way of doing this is by concentrating plays that are good, or at least show potential, similar to what Fringereview does.
This does not, however, mean unreserved sycophantic praise. If a play is a load of rubbish, I wouldn’t try to find something nice to say; it probably won’t get a review at all. Where a play shows potential, I will still highlight both the good and the bad – not because I want to pick faults, but because I want future productions to be better.
Here are the general rules you can expect me to consider when deciding what to recommend:
What I do review:
Short answer: anything I see that can be considered theatre can get a review. It is not necessary to have invited me on a press ticket, but I will happily accept any offers and I will go out of my way to see such plays – they have made a firm indication they want a review. If you would like to invite me for a review, come this way.
Beyond press tickets, there are really no rules except that I mainly see what I want to see. I see most of the major productions done by the major new writing theatres, but unlike many north-east review publications, that it not automatic, and if I have doubts over whether I’d like something, I’d give a small production that few people have heard of a chance over a big production that already has plenty of publicity. It will mainly come down to what takes my fancy, be it publicity, plot description, past record of company or writer, or just a whim.
Geography has a lot of influence over what I review. I live in Durham, so most of my reviews are of plays performed in the north-east, preferably places that are easy to reach by public transport. I always go the Buxton, Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes each year, so I cover a few plays there. Then there is the odd play I see in other parts of the country – sometimes I go specially for the play, but other times I’m visiting for different reasons and seeing a play whilst I’m at it.
Ultimately, I want to provide something different to other productions, that all tend to review the plays programmed by the biggest theatres at the expense the plays that aren’t. My coverage can instead be considered a cross-section of what’s out there. But every time I get to rave about a small production that no-one else has heard of, it’s worth it.
What I don’t review:
Although a lot of people do both performing and reviewing without giving much thought to it, I try to keep some professional distance between the two. As a rule of the thumb, if I know you well enough that I’d be uncomfortable reviewing your play if it was bad, it is not appropriate for me to review you at all.
At the time of writing, these are the main exclusions:
- Anything I’m involved in, no matter how small my involvement – that goes without saying. If you want to know what I’m up to, you can look here.
- I am a director of Durham Dramatic Society, so I cannot review their plays for obvious reasons. I also don’t review hires – whilst I realise some people might appreciate a review, it would not be appropriate when I represent a company making money from you.
- Theatre companies that I am currently working with, or recently work with, can’t be reviewed, especially if I’ve been paid – a review where I stand to benefit personally is a big no-no. At the time of writing, the main exclusions are the Royalty Theatre, Mankind and Theatre Elysium. (Hires of The Royalty are okay.) However, I can consider different kinds of publicity, such as previews, interviews or guest posts, provided I can disclose my affiliation without it looking too much like favouritism.
- If I know you personally for reasons other than theatre connections, it is probably not appropriate for me to review you. I’ll judge this on a case-by-case basis. If you have a bit part in a production let by someone else, I can probably let it go. If you are the writer, director, or a major player, I probably can’t. Same generally goes for anyone I’ve been in a recent production with, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
- Very occasionally, I choose not to review a play if it’s too similar to an active project I have on the go. Even if your play isn’t in direct competition with mine, it’s not fair to review a play if I’m thinking “Am I better than them”?
However, outside of reviews I can relax the rules a bit. If I loved a play that I couldn’t review, I may be able to cover you later with recommendations or end-of-year-awards. If I ever get lots of requests to review plays that I can’t fairly cover, I may look at recruiting some other reviewers. But that will be a long way off, if at all.
In general, I don’t review plays that are work-in-progress or script-in-hand – I can’t really give a fair review if I’m not sure what the finished product will be like. But a good work in progress might bag you a recommendation if and when the real thing comes.
In theory, this is a theatre blog and comedy is out of scope, but there’s a big overlap between the two, especially at festival fringes. Just make me laugh and you never know.
When I write reviews:
Unfortunately, I have a life outside of this theatre blog, and often backlogs will build up. I do manage to catch up eventually, but sometimes reviews come out months after I saw the play – and apparently this happens often in theatre blogs.
Plays that provide me with press tickets usually get to jump the queue: that’s a fair return favour. If I’ve not reviewed you within two weeks of seeing something on a press ticket, chase me up on it.
I will also sometimes let a play jump the queue if it’s still running and I think it deserves some more publicity. Obviously how much I liked it comes into play – beyond that, I will consider how whether there’s enough of a run left to make a difference, how audience numbers are doing, and how much other coverage the play is getting.
There is a special rule with festival fringes that I embargo some or all reviews until the end of the fringe concerned. At Brighton (and Edinburgh, if I ever do that), I embargo plays at the same venue chain; at Buxton, I embargo all the plays. This is because there is so much socialising that goes on during fringes, it’s awkward if I’ve got people breathing down the back of my neck waiting for reviews. The embargo is sometimes waived if I see something exceptional.
But in general, it’s ready when it’s ready. If you want it ready sooner, give me a press ticket.
And now, the rules of the review:
Rules. As if you can make rules for something as subjective as a review. Nevertheless, I will try.
As I said, this was meant to be a blog for plays that are good – however, I’m aware that some groups value constructive feedback more than praise. So I tend to work to the rule that I will write a review if I can say something nice, or say something constructive. Hopefully both. But if I can offer neither, a public review helps no-one. I apply this more rigorously to small productions though. I don’t want to demoralise a new group starting off, but I gave few qualms about giving an absolute kicking to a big production that should have known better, especially if the rest of the arts media is calling them geniuses.
I value originality over production values. Both these things count in your favour, but I’d much rather see someone achieving great things on a minimal budget over reasonably good things on a big budget. If you want to wow me with production values, you can, but West End-level special effects on a regional budget impresses me a lot more than West End-level special effects on a West End budget.
I encourage risk-taking. If you take a gamble that didn’t quite work out, you may still get praise if this could be something great with a bit more work. If you made some needless mistakes, however, what it could have been might become a disappointment. Whatever the outcome, this always interests me more than a play that was produced well but played it safe and stayed formulaic.
I review very few traditional amateur dramatic productions. This is not because they can’t be any good, but because it’s very difficult to produce something that stands out. If you hire your scripts from Samuel French or Nick Hern, that means it’s someone else has almost certain done the same play better – and with some many groups so averse to anything more adventurous than doing what a script says, it’s very rare to stand out with any sort of originality. If any amdram groups want my attention, you probably need to get a bit more adventurous. In fact, you should be doing that anyway.
Shows seen on press tickets get a chance to show me what they can do and get a prompt review, but there is no special treatment for the review itself. Although it is tempting to up the praise in order to encourage more press ticket (and I sadly have some evidence, off the record, that this goes on), I credit my readers with the intelligence to notice that. I do not want press ticket reviews treated with extra suspicion because they were on a press ticket.
Similarly, no special treatment because you’re a flagship show of Live Theatre or Northern Stage. I want to support north-east theatre as much as anyone, but unconditional praise has little weight outside the north-east and does a huge disservice to everyone else hoping to be noticed. But this means that when I saw a flagship show is great, I meant what I said.
If I see political theatre, I will judge it based on how well the point was made, rather than whether or not I agree with the point. And it will need to be a good play in its own right. It’s a pretty dumb idea to only see plays that spoon feed opinions to you that you already hold, but if that’s what you want to do, I can’t help you. That said, I don’t see much political theatre because my expectations are pretty low, with much of what I’ve seen in the past making arguments that are crap, or incomprehensible, or condescending. Convince me you’re not falling foul of any of the first three mistakes on this list and I might take you more seriously. But I am theatre reviewer, not your campaign team.
If you’ve done any non-traditional casting, such a a black actor playing a character who’s normally white, or a woman doing a character that’s normally male, I normally won’t comment on it. Those kind of discussions can end up dominating the review, and I don’t think it’s fair on the actors concerned to allow this to distract from whether the play is any good. I will consider making a bigger issue of it if the actors themselves make it clear they want this talked about, but if in doubt I’ll stick to the play. As a rule of the thumb, if I didn’t say anything about it, that probably means I was fine with it.
Finally, I generally don’t go through the performances of all the individual actors. That’s far too big a can of worms – if some actors were weaker than the others, that would be easy to spot, and if I only write about the good ones, it’s obvious who I haven’t written about. If you absolutely must ask about the performances of individual actors, I can consider private feedback, but that could get very messy very quickly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Firstly, a reminder: if you know I saw your play and I didn’t review it, that does not automatically mean I hated it – there are plenty of other possibilities, in this page and elsewhere, for why I didn’t do a review.
But whether or not you got a public review, anyone who wishes to ask me for private feedback is welcome to do so. Sometimes, I hold something back from a review because I considered it unfair to air in public; other times, I can’t go into all the detail I want because it would bog the review down; and other times people ask for clarification. But you are the ones who have put in the most work to producing it – if I can help make it better, I want to.
Please be aware that I can’t re-write your play for you – if your play needs fixing, you are the only person who can know how to fix it. Where I may be able to help it to give you my perception, maybe helping you see what’s coming across and what isn’t. I might have some suggestions for how to do things different, but they are only suggestions – you know better than anyone what you are trying to achieve, my suggestions should only be taken on board if you think it will help.
But this does sometimes happen, and just sometimes, I get to see a play again after it has been reworked, and been pleased to see how it’s come along. I’m not trying to impose myself as a play-fixer for all plays I see. But for anyone who asks, I’m happy to do what I can.
Right of reply:
I’ve come to the view that it’s generally better for performers to not engage with bad reviews, at least not in public view. Good reviews are easily promoted, and bad reviews are easily buried. Obviously, if someone’s said something absolutely outrageous you can make a big song and dance over it, but if it’s simply a difference of artistic opinion – even a dumb-ass one – arguing too much draws more attention to it.
However, if you choose to reply to one of my reviews, I will not only support your right to do so, but I will defend your response from anyone who attacks or patronises you for wanting to have your say. Everyone else: if you behave like that to someone exercising right of reply, your comments will be deleted quickly.
Factual inaccuracies will be corrected without quibble. Where possible, I want to let the performer have the last word. If you want to criticise me as a reviewer, that is your right, but I’m less likely to allow you the last word if I need to answer back. Anyway, I now have a proper comments policy if you want to read it, but the simple rule is to be nice to each other.
Right, that’s your rules. Now give me something good to review.
Last updated 9th January 2019