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The Green Room: What do you think of UK theatre criticism?

Michael Billington, the theatre critic. Photo: Daniel Farmer While established newspaper critics such as Michael Billington are highly knowledgeable about theatre, online reviews may vary greatly in quality. Photo: Daniel Farmer

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…

Albert_Parker

Albert Parker is 58 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Rosemary Crackers is 50 and has worked extensively in TV, film and theatre for nearly 30 years

Ivan Low, 47, is a production manager who has worked widely in the UK and abroad with theatre, opera and dance companies

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End

Peter_Quince

Peter Quince is a 71-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Eoghan Barry is 30. He has worked as an actor on fringe projects and work for young people, and more recently has been working as a writer

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays and toured both nationally and internationally

Beryl I find it weird that one opinion has that much sway. The choice is yours – to read or not.

Rosemary I don’t ever read reviews.

Eoghan Some reviewers don’t seem to care about theatre as a whole, just whatever article they’re writing at the time. It needs to be a true commitment. They might claim to know about theatre but don’t want to see anything that isn’t a Noel Coward revival.

Peter The standard has declined because of all the amateur reviewing online. People like Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner at least know about theatre. Some of the online reviewers are semi-literate.

Albert At least the growth of online reviews has slightly diminished the power of the major critics. Any management can find a good review for any pile of crap now. And reviews now come out much quicker.

Adam It’s always been an odd relationship. Most actors despise critics, but we need them. It’s like politicians and the press.

Albert We don’t like individual critics just as they don’t like individual actors. Live with it.

Eoghan Now, almost as a rule, I go to any show that Quentin Letts gives one star to.

Albert I used to love reading Bernard Levin’s reviews in the Sunday Times slagging a show off. A really bad review is much more exciting than some of the bland ones you get today. Often I read a review that gets four stars, yet you couldn’t tell from what was written.

Peter I think you learn which critics have similar taste to you.

Adam I worry that it’s a job for life. So you have the same white, predominantly male, set of critics who stay in the job for years.

Rosemary It’s not on for reviewers to come to previews and then publish their reviews after press night. I’ve been in shows that have made wholesale changes during previews.

Beryl People are interested in reviews, but actors should pay less attention to them.

Adam Much as we might hate it, people having opinions about our work and writing about it is part of creating art.

Rosemary Art is subjective.

Albert Everyone has an opinion. But to get the word out that something is good, people’s opinions need to be shared – just as we now read reviews about which refrigerator to buy. Before spending £200 on a trip to a West End show, I’d quite like to take in a few opinions.

Rosemary Whether something is ‘good’ is a matter of opinion.

Eoghan If a newspaper’s reviews carry such weight, then the reviewer should be credible.

Rosemary I like to read about the play and who is in it. But nobody can say if something is good or not.

Albert Yes they can. That’s the whole point. You can say it and I can disagree with you. And on the basis of that disagreement I can make my decision.

Rosemary How can you disagree that something is worth one star if you haven’t seen it? And why would you go if it gets one star?

Adam We have to accept that people criticising our work is okay. We’re not immune to having our work evaluated, even though we might disagree with the evaluation.

Peter Local theatres where a loyal audience goes to everything are a little different. But otherwise people want an idea of what they’re getting before they shell out money.

Jon Peter mentioned online criticism – specifically theatre blogging. What impact do you think it is having?

Adam It opens up the theatre criticism world to younger people and more people of colour.

Peter They vary greatly in quality. Within a sentence you can usually tell if this is someone whose opinion you care about.

Albert Just as the internet exposes us to all sorts of things we’d rather not see, so it can expose us to all sorts of opinions from people we’d rather not hear. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there.

Adam The landscape has definitely changed in the last few years. The online blogs have diluted the impact of the traditional press.

Albert The Guardian cutting Lyn Gardner’s theatre blog is a real shame.

Beryl She champions new work, which is really important.

Adam I don’t know how some of the smaller theatres in London get any kind of coverage any more. When I wanted to know what to see, I’d go to Time Out Critic’s Choice, but that’s gone. And like Albert, I think theatre is hugely expensive and I want to know that what I’m seeing is any good.

Eoghan Some online reviewers are trying to build up their portfolio and get a start in a business that’s becoming increasingly squeezed by cuts at media outlets. Fair play to them for trying to make their own work, and for giving diversity to what is often a white, male-dominated area.

Ivan It does appear that certain companies are favoured by newspaper critics – before the houselights even go down. I’m all for more online ‘punter’ reviews. And we should let children review pantomimes and theatre made specifically for them.

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