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 Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including 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.

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