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Is theatre reviewing teachable?

Critics Kate Maltby and Libby Purves at Critics Circle Awards

Last week two unrelated things happened to make me think hard and afresh about theatre reviewing – of which, of course, I do a great deal.

First, playwright Finn Kennedy complained on Facebook that too many reviewers of his work scatter their writing with so many spoilers that potential ticket buyers are probably put off. Could someone, he wondered, half jokingly mentioning Lyn Gardner, run a course for aspirant reviewers? Also half in jest I told him I ran one for young wannabe critics at the Lighthouse, Poole last year.

Not that it’s a craft which can be taught fully. As with any other form of writing it’s creative and some people are more natural at it than others. It also helps, I’m convinced, to know something about theatre and to have some experience although never undervalue the freshness of a young reviewer who is seeing, say, Macbeth or The Rivals for the very first time. You can share tips though and not giving away the end of the story in a new play should definitely be one of them.

A couple of days after that conversation came the annual Critics Circle awards at which Glenda Jackson (King Lear), Billie Piper (Yerma). John Tiffany (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) were, among others, commended for their various achievements last year. Because I had volunteered to help (wo)man the sign-in desk and stayed upstairs in the foyer at Prince of Wales theatre during the ceremony to field the latecomers, I saw every single attendee arrive, including most of the A team of seasoned critics as well as the award winners.

What an interesting bunch they are – these people who are almost household names in their own right because they write frequently and eloquently in national newspapers. Most are over 40. Many are much more. Yes, they’ve seen Hamlet and Three Sisters a few dozen times. Most have degrees from “elite” universities. Some have written books about theatre. They know what they’re talking about and their judgement is always sound even when I don’t agree with what they say and they disagree with each other. There are no rights and wrongs in criticism – just reasoned argument and comment seasoned with gut feeling. And that was something I tried to convey to “my” would-be critics in Poole.

So can you learn how to do it? I think you probably need some sort of flair at the outset. Then if you practise – just as you would your cricket batting technique or your flute scales – you can hone your skill and learn to do it better. Read lots of reviews by the best known critics too but not until you’ve written yours if you saw the same show. Notice how they do it but don’t slavishly follow anyone else’s style. Really good critics develop a style of their own.

And the process is ongoing. I think you continue to develop new insights and to find original ways of expressing them as long as you go on reviewing.

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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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