By Amy Price
Theatre reviews are funny things. They are rarely ‘front-page news’, and yet there is an urgency with which they must be written and published. Opening nights in Durham are rapidly followed by closing nights – shows last a maximum of a week, if not only two nights – leaving producers to fiercely chase up reviewers from each different reviewing platform until they have some snippets to proudly put up on Facebook.
However, there are some quite fundamental difficulties in writing these reviews, which puts a strain on their integrity. So many reviews are bland, whilst so many others are unnecessarily cruel. Palatinate’s own Stage section has sometimes come under fire for being uncritical in its approach.
Why is it so hard to write 500-750 words about a Durham Student Theatre production?
The ‘Durham bubble’ is partly to blame. Despite Palatinate’s policy that “no reviewer should be personally invested in a production”, it is highly unlikely and impractical to expect that a reviewer will not know anyone at all involved with the show. It is actually very challenging if you unexpectedly find yourself having to review your estranged college wife or your second-cousin-twice-removed in a way that won’t cause any upset. Objectivity is nigh on impossible when you have to see your subjects off-stage; you really don’t want to be the bitch who pointed out the blocking was a bit crap…
Perhaps Palatinate must also admit fault with itself here. Since the introduction of ‘preview pieces’ to promote shows, contributors have worked increasingly closely with production teams. It is not uncommon for a writer to be interviewing the cast at the beginning of a week, and then reviewing them at the end of the week. Even if you do not really know the people you have met, the blood, sweat and tears shed over the projects have certainly been made personally known to you. The previews have a value in promoting student theatre to the student body via the student’s newspaper, yet the cost of this is the writer having to flip from friend to foe.
Moreover there is a little voice in the back of your head that questions whether you are in any position to judge the performance. Every production demands high levels of commitment from its cast and crew, so what gives you the right to tell them these efforts have been wasted? You struggle to find good amongst the bad, trying to placate them with the fact their curtain-call was well-timed, whilst simultaneously questioning whether the director’s vision was even vaguely appropriate.
Equally, it is easy to be impressed by hackneyed theatrical flourishes. Kudos is given to over-done, stereotyped theatre that lacks imagination, because a reviewer may feel it should be credited as they can’t quite express why it wasn’t good.
Then there is the degree of judgement. No student production is going to be worthy of the West End, and it seems unfair to judge them against normal theatre standards. They don’t have the budget, the performance space, or technical capabilities to be able to create National Theatre-esque shows. A reviewer therefore cannot help but be more lenient. Especially when you see what a production is trying to achieve (regardless of whether it actually succeeds).
Nonetheless, this becomes a trap that so many fall into. By giving credit for effort as opposed to effectiveness, a poor show can be given a good review; ‘Oh it was unpolished, but Sondheim is notoriously hard so well done anyway’ is as luke-warm as writing can get. ‘Student Theatre’ becomes an excuse, an expression associated with the painfully amateur.
This may all seem quite pessimistic. But reviewing is vital to the Durham Student Theatre scene. Theatre criticism can help to validate the hard work that goes on, and recognise the performances that go above and beyond their ‘am. dram.’ origins.
It’s about balance – that a review is about respect, and that it should acknowledging the good and the bad in a fair and reasonable way. But maybe this is a tepid conclusion in itself? Maybe this article should be more divisive so that this makes for a better read.
I guess it depends on just how much ‘drama’ you want.
Illustration: Mariam Hayat