Misquoting reviews to be made illegal

Exclusive: Theatre producers who misleadingly quote reviews in show publicity material face the threat of legal action from the end of this year, when a new EU directive comes into force in the UK.

From December, legislation designed to make “sharp” practices unlawful in all types of marketing will mean managements who mislead the public by selectively quoting from reviews will face the prospect of civil, or even in rare cases, criminal sanctions.

According to Simon Gorham, solicitor at Boodle Hatfield, material will be deemed punishable under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive if it fulfils two criteria. Firstly, it must fall short of the standard of care reasonably expected of a producer, and secondly, it must be shown to have influenced consumer behaviour. Misquoted theatre reviews must be shown to have had an impact on audience members’ decisions to purchase tickets.

Gorham said the new directive meant producers would have to be more careful in the future when using selective quotes, because from December there would be a “real risk” of a clamp down, with the Office of Fair Trading or Trading Standards looking for an early test case.

“The key is that the legislation says that any omission of relevant information is also unfair. However, someone would need to make a test case to see exactly what the impact will be,” he explained. Gorham added that the sector would only find out come December how strict the interpretation of the legislation would be.

Theatre critics complain that the practice of tweaking or “blatantly misquoting” reviews is relatively common and that while gentlemen’s agreements are in place, in practice they do not always work.

Stage and Sunday Express critic Mark Shenton complained: “We talk about this at the Critics’ Circle quite often. It will be good that our right for a come-back will be enshrined in law. It has worked as a gentlemen’s agreement up until now, but not all producers are gentlemen.” However, he added that certain producers would check with critics before using even shortened versions of their reviews.

Other critics also cited a number of examples of their quotes being used misleadingly. Times critic Dominic Maxwell said his review of Saturday Night Fever which had read “if it’s an all-out retro romp you want, this only fitfully delivers” had been edited to “an all-out retro romp” in publicity material. According to Gorham, this is the kind of practice which could come in for scrutiny.

Meanwhile, critic and playwright Lloyd Evans, who co-wrote A Right Royal Farce with Toby Young, said he had once misquoted another critic to provoke a reaction and generate publicity, editing a review which said “[the pair] fancy themselves God’s gift to comedy” to read simply, “God’s gift to comedy” in publicity.

“We were hoping that he would see this and raise a noisy complaint, thus generating more publicity for the play,” said Evans. “Unfortunately, he didn’t take the bait.”

Despite these examples, producers insist that the practice is becoming less common. Society of London Theatre chief executive Richard Pulford said that in the last five years, the society had only received two official complaints.

Nicholas Allott of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd said producers would often compress reviews, but it was good practice to check with critics before doing so. He said that using quotes from reviews misleadingly was less common than ten or 15 years ago.

“If you take liabilities you’re asking to be shot down,” Allott added. “It’s a running gag, but what this [legislation] is saying is that the gag must end.”

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster