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Fair reviewing?

I review a lot of professional theatre. I also cover amateur shows, including student ones.  Regularly doing both throws up some thorny problems.

If you are watching a show created by seasoned professionals featuring highly trained, paid actors whether you are at the National or the Brockley Jack, the Palladium or the Pleasance you expect a certain standard. And as a critic, you have no hesitation in saying so when any aspect of the show falls short. So far, so straightforward.

“Amateur theatre” on the other hand, is a very broad church and comes at many levels. At one end of the scale are the enthusiasts in the village hall whose work is a bit like The Play That Goes Wrong but much less funny. Worthy as it is –  and I’m delighted they’re having fun and developing through taking part –  I have learned to avoid this sort of show because I simply don’t what to say or write about it afterwards. By any objective standards it’s dire.

At the other end of the spectrum come the non-pro companies (I’m thinking of Cambridge Theatre Company, whose Priscilla Queen of the Desert I saw last week, for example) which often have trained actors in the cast. They employ professional directors and musicians and hire proper costumes. They also attract high calibre non-pro performers usually from a wide area if there are open auditions and the result is a very creditable show which is actually comparable with middle grade professional work.

And the key word is “comparable”. Should one apply the same set of criteria to every show irrespective of who’s doing it? Well you can do that with factors such as audience engagement or clarity of story telling. You can’t do it with the quality of Actor A’s full belt top C or Actor B’s comic timing or the staging and choreography because of course, the professionals will almost always, by definition, be better. On the other hand it feels very patronising to me to regard or declare something as “good considering it’s ‘only’ amateur”. Surely we critics owe it to these people to treat their work with respect and that includes being adversely critical where it’s called for although, it has to be said, amateurs don’t always understand that and can get very huffy.

I honestly don’t know the answer to this. Meanwhile I try to plough  a fair furrow and to offer constructive criticism to all.

Three cheers for Lord Andrew Adonis, former education minister. He seems to be waging a one man campaign to highlight the obscenity of over paid academics. Last week he pointed out that at University of Bath, 67 members of staff earn more than £100,000 pa. 13 earn in excess of £150,000 and last year the vice-chancellor, Glynis Breakwell took an 11% rise which takes her annual salary to £451.000 plus benefits such a historic house to live in. And Bath is one of our smaller universities. Adonis has recently published figures, nearly as damning, for several other universities too. All this at a time when students are struggling to pay fees which are now well over £9000 a year in most cases. Of course the same principles apply to drama schools which have merged with universities  – empire building, often personal fiefdoms, at the expense of students who simply want to train for the profession they love. I think it’s time all higher education institutions were required by law to make their accounts as transparent as possible. And that would include a printed or digital copy sent to every student so that they can see exactly where their fees are going.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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