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Phil Willmott: Is it okay to challenge a bad review?

The Stage is looking for an enthusiastic and talented BAME journalist at the start of their career to join its news desk for three months. Photo: Mitrija/Shutterstock

I’m surprised to be posing this question, as until this week a more prescient one seemed to be ‘how do the next generation of theatremakers get reviewed at all?’

Diminishing broadsheet arts coverage of anything beyond the West End means you’re unlikely to get a print review if you’ve no track record. A new play by an unknown writer at an unfashionable venue? Forget it. And there are no listings magazines anymore so you’re reliant on bloggers who, alas, no one reads, except their cat and your cast. Still, the star ratings and quotes are useful when they’re good and you can build up a critical mass that may help sell your show.

When they’re not good the big problem is search engines. Because whether you’re reviewed by the esteemed critic of the Daily Planet or ILoveElphaba.com, when Joe Public searches for your listings on line the first thing he turns up could be some snotty review.

In olden times if you’d been on the receiving end of critical bile, people would console you by reminding you the newsprint would be wrapped around someone’s chips tomorrow and forgotten in a week. Not any more. Since the advent of online reviews an unfortunate critique is with you for life.

One of my survival jobs is editing the content for a couple of commercial websites and I dispatch writers to cover as wide a range of productions as possible, as well as reviewing myself. I always insist that anyone who writes for me is a working theatre professional and tries to find the positive.

I was rather surprised then when a regular critic I use submitted an absolute stinker, one-star review. Her reasoning for concluding this was clearly set out and she felt strongly, so I published it. I knew it would sting the production – I’ve been on the receiving end of enough critical venom over the years to sympathise, but we shake these reviews off, don’t we? It’s what we do.

A few days later my critic contacted me concerned that she’d been getting angry posts from the producer on her Facebook page and he also sent me and my boss long emails complaining about his production’s treatment. To be honest his show’s reviews had been pretty harsh all round but not quite as on the nose as ours had been.

I rather admired him for acting on the impulse to protect his product and employees. This was his first experience of theatre. I found his directness rather refreshing. He wasn’t to know answering back to the critics is still generally frowned upon.

But why is it?

Judi Dench once said that press nights for the production team felt like throwing your baby to wolves. Reading a spiteful review is like having to smile while someone slags off your family. The producer was protecting the show, company and investment he loved – why wouldn’t he bite back when they’d been attacked? I offered to publish a rebuttal on the site if it was well reasoned. It was, and I did.

But when amateur enthusiasts are as likely to review your work as Fleet Street experts (albeit self-proclaimed) and when most readers, if we’re honest, skim newspaper reviews and skip to the pithier comments, are you entitled to tell the blogger to fuck off as publicly as they rubbish your work when you think they’ve been unfair?

In the past, robust responses by Steven Berkoff and Dominic Dromgoole to harsh reviews actually enhanced their reputations, but one’s a celebrity and the other very powerful. It might not go down so well if you’re starting out.

I tried to get an extra star from Lyn Gardner

A few years ago I tried to get an extra star from Lyn Gardner in the Guardian; she hasn’t reviewed anything I’ve directed since. It’s not really a problem for me – I’ve had my time in the sun, but if new theatre artists were to rattle a newbie blogger, they’d run the risk of irritating someone who may become as powerful as Gardner. On the other hand these are a dying breed so perhaps that needn’t be a consideration.

I recently noticed there was someone booked to review one of my press nights who I consider to be asinine and bitchy. It crossed my mind to drop said critic a note along the lines of ‘you usually hate my work, I usually hate yours, your coverage is for a paper no one into the arts reads – what’s the point? Take your jaded cynicism and review elsewhere.’

If I’d done this, say, 10 years ago it probably would have caused a showbiz diplomatic meltdown. These days, when a critic’s livelihood is as hand-to-mouth as that of the artists they review and few have the tenure or power to draw an audience, maybe no one would care. Or if they did, perhaps it wouldn’t matter.

I won’t write that note. I’m too old-school and used to the idea that if you stick your head above the parapet in life you have to be prepared for someone to take a shot at you. But I don’t think it’ll be long before the power balance between the reviewed and reviewer becomes more of a two-way conversation.

It’ll be interesting to see if that’s healthy and promotes the arts (which is, after all, what we’re all striving for) or whether it’ll just create a muddle in which it’ll be hard for tomorrow’s innovators to make an impression.

Emerging artists are struggling to build a profile right now so I don’t see how a more dynamic artist-critic dialogue can make things any worse for them.