I review many dozens of professional shows every year ranging from tiny scale two-handers on the extreme edges of the fringe to West End blockbusters and big touring shows. Fortunate to have a range of outlets and editors, I also cover a fair amount of classical music including opera and ballet.
When it’s professional work being reviewed I work to a set of criteria, usually suggested by, or agreed with, the editor in question. In most cases we attach a pretty clear star rating along with the comments. I think my critical judgment is fairly sharp although the joy of the whole criticism industry as that often we don’t agree with each other. Sometimes we disagree diametrically and that doesn’t, obviously, mean that anyone’s pro critical opinion is any better or worse than anyone else’s. The deal and the modus operandi is both open-ended and clear.
I do have a difficulty, though, with reviewing non-professional work which I quite often do. One of my outlets specialises in it – and, anyway, I believe quite strongly that these for-the-love-of-it people have worked very hard on their show and deserve informed feedback. The companies must think so too or they wouldn’t invite people like me.
Well, you simply can’t apply the same criteria. Although the standard of am-dram has generally risen enormously in the last generation or two, they are still amateurs. Most of them have had no training. They rarely have voice coach support and they get to rehearse for fewer hours and less intensively than the professionals do. Objectively, the standard is often lower but to praise something which may not actually be very good in order to encourage (or not upset – some of them are very volatile) these worthy folk seems unacceptably patronising.
In practice, the best community or amateur theatre – both straight plays and musical theatre – comes from companies which hire in a professional director. Someone like, Chris Cuming, for instance, who does a lot of this work, knows exactly how to coax the very best performance out of every single cast member some of whom will end up achieving things they never dreamed they could. Witness some of Cuming’s work with Cambridge Theatre Company.
Or sometimes there’s someone in the company – such as Lynne Livingstone at Shakespeare at the George, Huntingdon who trained as an actor but whose day job is now something else. She directed Richard III last summer and the end product was pretty accomplished.
Sadly, it usually does nothing for standards when someone in the company, who’s done a bit of acting, fancies trying her or his hand at directing. Non pro companies need very strong, skilled, experienced direction if they are to produce watchable theatre.
So I’m left – notebook and pen on my lap – with a problem. I solve it (sort of) by focusing on aspects of the show which really work well and ignoring the rest of the production. Thus there are always some individual actors whose work deserves commendation. Often the choreography, set or band are good. Only if a directorial, casting or other key decision is woefully misjudged do I mention it and then only briefly. And, thank goodness, we don’t put star ratings on non-pro shows.