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Reviews, fees and freebies

Do you have to be paid a fee by a publication in order for your review to be critically valid?

Personally I don’t think it matters in the least whether you’re writing for a national newspaper, your own website or a small organisation which doesn’t pay for reviews.

The important thing is that you can, and do, provide an informed critical assessment of the show.

Age and experience are advantages, of course, but we would all do well to remember that even Michael Billington once saw Macbeth for the first time. And I expect he formed an opinion, even then. The industry needs a mixture of seasoned critics and young fresh ones.

I review three or four shows (and concerts) most weeks. Some of the outfits I work for, and with, pay a fee and others do not.

For me it’s all work and I make no distinction. Fortunately I get enough paid writing work to enable me also to accept some voluntary reviewing. I do every job as professionally and promptly as I can irrespective of who the client is.

I review amateur theatre, including student shows, sometimes too. Why not? Companies and colleges are often welcoming of rigorous, honest, professional feedback. They can learn from it and it shows they’re being taken seriously.

In many cases the fee for reviewing is so modest that it’s almost an irrelevance, anyway. The Stage, for example, pays £25 for a standard review – even less for pantomimes and certain other sorts of show. And it isn’t alone.

By the time you’ve travelled say, two hours to the venue, watched a two hour show, travelled another two hours home and then used at least an hour to write the review you have spent 7 hours working for around £3.50 an hour –  less than half the national minimum wage.

And yet, in the opinion of some critics who have shouted quite loudly on social media in recent weeks, working even for a derisory fee makes you a “professional” and therefore worth heeding.

I review theatre and other performance mostly because I like doing it and it forces me to see a wider range of work than I probably would if I were simply choosing shows for pleasure.

And it’s always good to have your horizons widened. Don Giovanni in a gay nightclub with all the genders reversed, for instance, Freud the Musical and, only a week or two ago, a debbie tucker green double bill at Chichester.

I’m also keen to support worthwhile organisations such as Musical Theatre Review and Sardines magazine which are run by just one or two very committed people who need some professional contributors – and there’s more to “professionalism” than the size, or existence, of the fee.

What bothers me far more – so I’m very strict about it –  is the relationship between me as a critic with the producer of the show and its PR machine.

It is standard to be given one or two tickets, a programme and often a drink. Accepting that is part of the deal and no one should ever feel under any obligation to review favourably because of it.

The producer, directly or indirectly, invites critics and has to take on the chin what they write.

So I get very cross indeed if they carp afterwards. I have, almost unbelievably, several times been approached and asked if I will change negative or condemnatory opinions. Well of course, I won’t.

If I’ve misspelled a name or something then that’s fair enough, let’s correct it. Otherwise I stand by what I wrote. Always.

And sometimes I’m asked, by producers, to attend shows in very inconvenient places or at difficult times. So I explain that although I have publications which would probably take a review I cannot justify the time and expense.

Occasionally that has triggered an offer of a rail fare, accommodation or both. Well no, I’m not going there. I will review only if I’m totally at liberty to be completely disinterested and impartial.

If I’d accepted further freebies from the company I’d feel awkward if its show forced me to write a hatchet job.

I am A Professional. And I’ve capitalised it deliberately. So are many other reviewers who aren’t necessarily always paid a derisory fee.



Author information
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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