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Mark Shenton: How much notice should you really take of the critics?

A scene from Cleansed at the National Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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The critics don’t necessarily go along first. By the time The Book of Mormon opened in the West End in 2013, there had been the pre-emptive strike of the US hype, followed by a tidal wave of endorsements of the British production solicited by the show itself from the public on Twitter and then used in full-page ads, all this was before the British critics went anywhere near it. The reviews could, in a sense, be rendered redundant, or at least defused.

But then I’ve always said that we’re only ever part of the conversation – not the beginning and end of it.

 It will certainly be interesting to see what tactics the producers of Hamilton adopt when it moves here next year: the show is the biggest news of the decade on Broadway, where you can’t buy a ticket at the box office window until 2017 (though you can get a ticket for this Saturday, if you are prepared to pay over the  odds – way over the odds. On Ticketmaster’s resale site, I found a pair of tickets for the show for $3,920.80).

Some London critics, if they’re lucky enough, may have seen it already in New York (though dealing with the show’s publicist there is almost invariably met with a blanket ‘no’; just the other day, David Smith — the Guardian and Observer’s fine North American correspondent, based in Washington DC, wrote a two-page feature on the show in The Observer, comparing the different versions of America represented by the musical Hamilton and the onward rise of Donald Trump, and even he’d not been able to get tickets to see it – though he covered the show’s appearance in the White House, so he got quite close to it). But whether or not London critics get to see it, they’ll have inevitably heard the hype, and the show will have a lot to live up to.

The public, too, invariably sees shows through the filter of what they’ve already heard, for good or ill. And it was fascinating to catch up this week with Cleansed, the National’s controversial revival of Sarah Kane’s play, that divided some of my colleagues so fiercely when it opened last month, with reviews ranging from one star (Quentin Letts and Ann Treneman) to five (Ian Shuttleworth). In some ways, knowing the full shock value of the show – Letts itemised its horrors to the minute they occurred – defused it for me; I actually saw more walk-outs at Jane Horrocks’s cabaret If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me at the Young Vic the other day than I saw at the National, where I only counted three escapees. It was also interesting to see Dominic Maxwell, Treneman’s critical colleague on The Times, in attendance at the show; clearly he wasn’t heeding her warning to avoid it.

And that’s the thing: a one-star review is sometimes a challenge and a provocation as much as a criticism. It dares you to see a show for yourself. I get far more reaction from a one-star review than I ever do from a five-star one: when I retweeted another one-star review of the same show from a fellow critic, an actor in the show wrote to me angrily to complain: “You’ve now tweeted four times mentioning how bad you think the show is. That is unacceptable and just plain rude, and mean to the cast and creatives.” Some of his fans duly jumped to his defence, too.

I get it that an actor doesn’t want to be reminded that they’re in a stinker – they have to go out there and perform it every night, after all – but actors all too readily retweet their favourable notices, again and again, so why a ban on all negative commentary? It’s all part of the conversation.

And a friend who saw the same show after he already knew my review texted me afterwards, “Expectations being very low it turned out that we had a really good time, much of it, I’m sure, being down to a great cast… We were all at a loss as to why the reviews were so bad. Perhaps a Saturday matinee watching a few pretty boys on stage is enough for some ageing queens!”

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