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Critics, huh? Yeah? What are they good for? Absolutely nothing?

Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a newsletter about theatre written by Fergus Morgan.

This is the free, Friday issue, which usually contains a Q&A with an exciting theatremaker or an essay on a theatre-related topic. This week, I’ve raided my contacts to find out what theatre people really think about reviews and the people that write them. After that, there are your usual three show recommendations for next week: two in London, one in Scotland.

In case you missed it, here is Tuesday’s issue of Shouts And Murmurs, which is a weekly, silly round-up of the most interesting reviews, interviews and articles on theatre elsewhere…

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Image: Pixar Creative Studios.

Theatre criticism has had quite the time of it lately, as covered in Tuesday’s issue of Shouts And Murmurs.

Firstly, there was a hullaballoo across the pond when Broadway musical Lempicka misquoted The New York Times critics Ben Brantley and Jesse Green. Then there was the case of the Canadian company lifting lines from an AI-generated review. Then there was The Spectator theatre critic Lloyd Evans and his horny trip to Cambridge.

All of which has got me asking: what is the point? If theatre reviews are only any use if they provide stars and pull quotes to be slapped on posters; if theatre reviews can now be convincingly mimicked by Hong Kong-based news aggregators; if a man like Lloyd Evans can have his thoughts on a show printed in a national magazine; if this is what theatre criticism amounts to these days, would we be better off without it?

Obviously, I have thoughts, but I’m not going to go into them here. I am a theatre critic of sorts. I have spent the last ten years of my life reviewing theatre. For me, considering the value of theatre criticism is considering the value of my professional life thus far. And I’ve done far too much of that sort of thing in this newsletter of late.

Instead, I asked others what they thought about theatre reviews. And, to make sure they were honest, I promised to keep their comments anonymous. I raided my phone book and asked playwrights, producers, actors, agents, directors, PRs, marketing people, and more what they really thought about reviews. Did they read them? Did they respect them? Were they useful? How were they useful? And, boy, did they have some opinions, let me tell you. Here are a few, starting with the most important…

My mother…

“Yes, I read reviews. I don’t always respect them, though. Mainly I read them beforehand to decide whether I want to go see a show or not. I do pay attention to star ratings. I wouldn’t go see a show that had only got three stars. Sometimes I read them afterwards to see what the critics think and if I agree with them. I respected Michael Billington. I respect Lyn Gardner. I like Dominic Cavendish’s reviews sometimes, as well. And I respect your reviews, too, darling, obviously.”

An artistic director…

“It is hard to know to what extent reviews sell tickets. I always look to see where reviews are from and who wrote them, but this might be because of insider knowledge. Speaking with audiences over the years, they don’t seem to distinguish if a review is from The Guardian or Fringe Carrot Reviews. That said, unlike in New York, there are only a few critics here that considerably drive sales. A confluence of good reviews landing simultaneously does that more.”

“At big festivals, I use critics almost as an extension of my programming teams. There are two or three with whom I have such trust and aligned taste that a four-star or five-star review from them all but guarantees my interest and attendance. That does throw up questions of how theatres can support the wider critical landscape, balancing the need for distance but relying on them to extend your eyes.”


“I do read reviews, both personally and professionally. As a PR, reviews are essential, and our clients want their shows reviewed. They are still a key asset and a key part of our job. We have to accept that reviewers’ opinions are subjective and respect what they say. I believe people do value honest criticism, but there can often be frustrations thinking reviews have political or biased intent behind them.”

“Things have certainly changed in that the national press don’t rule the roost anymore. There are valuable publications who we also want to cover our clients.”

“The majority of mainstream critics in big papers seem really unversed in experimental performance and live art. I think that is a real shame.”

A critic…

“I wouldn’t usually read other reviews before writing my own. Given the deadlines, that isn’t possible. I have in the past, though, when writing with a slightly longer deadline. It can be helpful to have an argument in your head to work out why something did or didn’t land for you when it has been received differently elsewhere. For professional purposes, I’ll also look back at former reviews when preparing to write about a revival. They can be illuminating about questions to keep in your head when you watch a production.”

“Honestly, I’m reading fewer reviews in full than I used to. Partly, that is a paywall problem, but partly it is because the writing isn’t always as stimulating as you’d hope. Do I value criticism, though? Big yes, when it is by writers who have the superpower of paying attention and knowing how to think about what they notice. For me, Susannah Clapp is the don of turning that into highly-charged writing. There are also critics I like who review shows I’m unlikely to see: Helen Shaw and Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker, or Natasha Tripney in her Substack.

An experimental theatremaker…

“I think there are two ways in which reviewing has been helpful to me. There is a slightly intellectual but exciting function whereby the artist generates content in their idiosyncratic way, then the critic pulls out the ideas, explicates, ruminates and prods those ideas in a critical reflection that is a piece of art in itself. Then there is a more commercial level in which criticism has helped me understand how appealing my work is to a “mainstream” audience. I do have to think about the financial sustainability of my career and that is a useful reflection to have sometimes. It helps me inform decisions about what I do in the future.”

“The problem is that in contemporary reviewing, there are no examples of the former function anywhere and the focus feels entirely on the latter, more commercial function. The majority of mainstream critics in big papers seem really unversed in experimental performance and live art. I think that is a real shame.”

“I’ve never understood artists who are like: “Fuck the critics! What do they know?” These are people that go to the theatre more than anyone. They usually know a lot!”

A marketing specialist…

“With my ticket-selling hat on, star-ratings absolutely help. Being able to plaster marketing materials with them can make a huge difference to sales. Effectively, it is a shorthand way of telling an audience, who may be limiting theatre trips due to the cost-of-living crisis: ‘Yes, this is worth your limited money and time.’”

“Personally, I worry that this contributes to a culture of undervaluing criticism itself. A thoughtful review can be the best way of understanding how an audience is interpreting a work, and where it can be strengthened. I’ve worked with companies who have used critical feedback from a run at VAULT Festival or at a pub theatre to strengthen a piece for larger stages or for Edinburgh, and in doing so they’ve elevated the work into something extraordinary and career-defining.”

A playwright…

“I’ve never understood artists who are like: “Fuck the critics! What do they know?” These are people that go to the theatre more than anyone. They usually know a lot!”

“I put a lot of stock in reviews. That can be painful, though. I once had a one-star slating at a crucial point in my career and it devastated me. I’ve also had five-star reviews that are poorly written and don’t go beyond the surface level. That’s a confusing feeling. You feel a bit icky when they show up on the poster. I’ve also had three-star reviews that are so insightful that I’ve been blown away by them. And I’ve had plays where no critics have come and it feels like they never happened.”

“New work has felt a lot less bold in recent years, and I think that one of the least-talked-about reasons for that is the hollowing of our critical culture. Just as arts funding has dried up, so has funding for the more interesting criticism that went with it. Can you imagine the discourse around Three Kingdoms happening now? People would just two-star it and move on. It is a tragedy. If the big buildings had any sense – and money – they would find a way to rebuild that critical culture.”

An in-house director of marketing and communications…

“It doesn’t matter what the critics think” is a phrase you hear a lot working in the theatre industry. They are words spoken from a place of self-preservation. I disagree. Critical acclaim – and its opposite – can still hold great sway on the success of a production. Perhaps individual reviewers do not wield the same influence that they once did but a critical mass of opinion carries power like nothing else. I am always a bundle of nerves the morning after a press night, knowing that the views of a few individuals can shape my next few weeks of work.”

“ I remember the one negative line a reviewer wrote about me five years ago more clearly than what I had for breakfast this morning.”

An actor, writer and poet…

“I have found that it is best I don’t read reviews. That is not to say that I don’t value constructive criticism. I just need it in a safe environment from someone I trust. The feedback I get from peers and mentors during the process of making work is incredibly important. Once the performance is up on stage, though, I do not find reviews useful from an artistic point of view. Maybe that is because I remember the one negative line a reviewer wrote about me five years ago more clearly than what I had for breakfast this morning. It has been a challenge to maintain any level of self-worth in this industry as it is. To get to the point of sharing work is such an achievement.  I try not to cloud that achievement with the negative or positive comments of someone I don’t know. All that being said, I do not have the self-discipline not to google reviews eventually. Then I hate myself afterwards.”

A director…

“I definitely read the reviews for shows I’ve directed. I think most people do even if they say otherwise. Sometimes I try not to, but I always do. I respect well-written reviews but I get really aggravated when they are badly written. So much goes into creating a show and it is really disappointing when a response is hurried and under-baked. It is how we end up with such lazy descriptions of designs – “simple and effective,” for example – that make the design team feel deeply underappreciated.”

A designer…

“I have mixed feelings about reviews. I have had a lot of the infamous “simple yet effective” ones, but recently I have had some that have really interrogated the design and analysed it with some interesting, beautiful language. They have made me step back and think about aspects of the design in ways I hadn’t considered myself. They have made me see that, when done well, criticism can be useful.”

““I can make most reviews useful in some way. In a sector where pull quotes and star ratings draw they eye, you have to.”

An agent…

“For my clients, I read every review carefully. And, yes, they are useful, for sure. Ultimately, for better or worse, they are the legacy of how a show was received and that is what helps us as agents to champion and advocate for the show. Good reviews from major papers are most useful. That said, shows are made up of many different components and, as an agent, you are probably only promoting one aspect of that production, so good reviews are not entirely necessary, but they do help.”

An editor…

“Do people read reviews? Definitely. They tend to perform better than news stories. Of course, in an era of algorithm-fuelled social media, outrage will always deliver more engagement than apathy. As a rule, a three-star review will not get as much traction as a two-star review. Followers are not always excited to read a stream of positive superlatives, either, and a four-star or five-star review may perform just as well – if not worse – than a three-star review.”

“The fixation on reviews by producers, publicists and marketers does feel pronounced. Of course, reviews are incredibly important in the theatre community, but should they be the be-all and end-all of coverage? Definitely not. They are useful for honest accounts of a show’s quality, for singling out individual creatives, and for records that can be consulted retrospectively, but a show’s worth can be communicated to the public equally well through interviews and other features.”

A producer and executive director…

“I read reviews but I don’t always respect them. I know a handful of reviewers who I feel actually interrogate the work and the artist properly. They see the inner workings of the huge machine it requires to make theatre. Those are the people I respect. I may not agree with them but I respect their opinion. I’m not interested in reviews that are just a synopsis of the show or someone being plain rude.”

“I can make most reviews useful in some way. In a sector where pull quotes and star ratings draw they eye, you have to. I don’t love pulling the quote “full of joy” from a two-star review – that’s a made-up example – but I will. I do care about star-ratings. I am often wound up when I read a piece of text that reads as four-stars, but I only see three. That really winds me up. It pits producers against reviewers. I’d love to have more of a dialogue with reviewers to enhance the relationship generally, but it must be impossible with the amount of work you are invited to.”

A thoughtful and handsome theatre journalist that publishes a newsletter on Substack that could do with a few more paid supporters…

“Judging by the responses above, reviews do still have an important part to play in the theatrical ecosystem. Collectively, they still have the power to shift tickets. They still bring emerging artists to the attention of the wider industry, too. And, when they come from the pen of an intelligent, observant, conscientious writer, they are valuable to the artists that are prepared to read them, too.”

“That said, not all critics are intelligent, observant, conscientious writers: some are Lloyd Evans. There is also an acute pressure on producers, PRs and marketing people to put reviews to profitable use: thus the bastardised NYT quotes on Lempicka’s poster. And there is also a palpable and damaging dearth of imaginative, long-form criticism that exists outside this pressure. There is no money in that kind of thing anymore, if there ever was. The money is in getting the most engagement possible for the least investment: hence a Hong-Kong based news aggregator using AI to write reviews of a theatre show in Toronto.”

“Ultimately, theatre criticism, like theatre, I suppose, is a fluid, nebulous thing that is shaped by the context in which it is written. Once, that context allowed for dozens of salaried reviewers and a vibrant critical discourse. Today, it is an internet algorithm that leaves little room for considered and creative criticism and rewards sharp judgements, star ratings, and anything about a show with someone from Bridgerton in. Sorry, that sounds miserable, doesn’t it? This is anonymous, right?”

“If I had to find a silver lining in all the above responses, it would be that there is clearly a collective recognition that theatre criticism is important to the industry – commercially, creatively, archivally – and an interest in safeguarding its future. Whether that interest will ever actually amount to anything concrete, I don’t know.”

Free subscribers to The Crush Bar receive these emails every Friday. Paid supporters also receive Shouts and Murmurs on Tuesdays.

Testmatch, I Hope Your Flowers Bloom, and Why I Stuck A Flare Up My Arse For England.

Three shows to see next week

Testmatch – Orange Tree Theatre, until May 18

I spoke to writer Kate Attwell about her play Testmatch back in August 2021, when there was so little theatre happening that The Stage let me write 2400 words about cricket. (I’ve just read that again and I think it might be the best thing I’ve ever written.) Testmatch had its UK premiere postponed during Covid. Three years later, it is finally opening at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in a production from English Touring Theatre that subsequently transfers to Bolton’s Octagon Theatre. The time-hopping play uses women’s cricket as a lens to explore colonialism, corruption and misogyny. The Guardian’s Kate Wyver gave it four stars and called it “a smart, messy, angry reckoning with history.” You can get tickets via the button below.

Book tickets here

I Hope Your Flowers Bloom – various, until May 24

Raymond Wilson’s semi-autobiographical storytelling show I Hope Your Flowers Bloom was a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Now, it is touring Scotland throughout May, visiting Cumbernauld, Glasgow, Greenock, Moffat and New Galloway. Not much happens in Fiona Mackinnon’s production – Wilson just tells his audience about his life, basically – but, according to The Stage’s Tim Bano, it is “a really smart, tender exploration of a kind of masculinity that is rare to see on stage” in “gorgeous, poetic prose.” You can get tickets for its tour via the button below. Wilson simultaneously has a “surreal chaotic comedy” called Lewis Capaldi Goes Tropical opening at A Play, A Pie and A Pint in Glasgow on Monday. You can get tickets for that here.

Book tickets here

Why I Stuck A Flare Up My Arse For England – Southwark Playhouse, until May 4

No explanation necessary. You can book tickets via the button below. It is also well worth catching Adam Scott-Rowley’s You Are Going To Die at the same venue.

Book tickets here

Free subscribers to The Crush Bar receive these emails every Friday. Paid supporters also receive Shouts And Murmurs on Tuesdays.

That’s all for this issue

That is it for this week. If you want to get in touch about anything raised in this issue – or anything at all, really – just reply to this newsletter or email me at [email protected]. Or you can find me on Twitter/X, where I am @FergusMorgan.

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