Are critics too generous?

Richard Armitage in The Crucible at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Richard Armitage in The Crucible at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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You don't expect critics to necessarily agree, and we often don't: I've often pointed out here how one critic's one star pan is another's five star rave. But a consensus regularly emerges around some shows, even if there are dissenters to the prevailing view, and I do sometimes wonder if some of us aren't being overly-generous.

Of course, one of the problems about going to the theatre as often as most of us do is that our senses can simply become blunted, and when something stands out from the pack, there's a palpable sense of relief that we've actually had such a good time. That automatically seems to add a star to our ratings.

But is this really fair on our readers, the ticket-buying public, who may have other tastes? I've wondered this twice this week, after seeing Richard Bean's Great Britain open at the National on Monday and again today after last night's opening of The Crucible? Great Britain is, in my opinion, perfectly enjoyable but pretty obvious; yet it garnered a solid run of four star reviews from the Telegraph, Guardian and Evening Standard, as well as Whatsonstage; there was even a five star rave from Libby Purves on her Theatrecat blog, though she qualified it by adding that the fifth star "is for pure opportunist cheek."

I'm sure these reviews would have helped the decision, the very day they appeared, to confirm its immediate transfer to the Haymarket after its season at the National.

An even bigger roar of critical approval greeted last night's opening of The Crucible, with five-star raves from the Telegraph, Times and Time Out. Yes, it's very good – but five stars suggests the truly exceptional. Of course, that's always going to be a very personal decision, and it is clear, for example, that Time Out's Andrzej Lukowski was very moved: "The lengthy first half flew by, and yet I was grateful for an interval just to steady myself; by the end I was pretty much broken."

In between seeing these two productions, I had travelled to Birmingham on Wednesday to see Cape Town Opera's touring production of Show Boat. And during moments of musical ecstasy, I found that I had to steady myself, too. But by the end, I had to acknowledge that the show is pretty much broken, so my initial five star euphoria slipped to four in my published review. And I had the same feeling on The Crucible: as much as I admired the visceral charge that director Yael Farber brought to it, there are also overblown performances and some distracting directorial intrusions that also brought it down to four for me.

5 Comments

  1. For what it’s worth, I think a lot of critics just liked The Crucible more than you did (I don’t really feel like there was any overriding reason why critics would have been willing themselves to believe this particular production was better than it was).

    But with Great Britain there was quite a brouhaha around its release and I wonder if maybe there was an element of people making allowances for the means by which it had been produced, plus a sort of genuine desire to see the whole ‘project’ become a success, plus maybe a view on the politics of it all…

  2. Listening to Yael Farber’s interviews it seems to me that what you see as overblown and distracting was probably a deliberate choice and if it worked for some critics they would not have a reason to reduce their rating. All it means is that some people found things as you did and some did not. They can’t really invent problems that don’t exist for them. Does something have to be perfect to be exceptional? As I see it, flaws are not necessarily a deal breaker if the good things are good enough. A flawless production with no problem I can identify may still only be good but not exceptional. Reviews are always going to be subjective as well as objective.

  3. You’re obviously mixing up Lilly Purves’ distribution of her five stars. You relate to a totally different article and not to her review about “The Crucible”!

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