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Mark Shenton’s top 6 critic-proof shows

Kerry Ellis, Nigel Clauzel, Tony Vincent and Hannah Jane Fox in We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre, London, in 2002. Photo: Tristram Kenton Kerry Ellis, Nigel Clauzel, Tony Vincent and Hannah Jane Fox in We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre, London, in 2002. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Tom Hiddleston has just begun performances as Hamlet at RADA’s tiny (160-seat) Vanbrugh Theatre – a show that, as Matt Trueman has already noted is “unusually exclusive”. While 780,000 people have seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet (so far) in its screen incarnation, just 3,360 will see Hiddleston’s. And that doesn’t include critics, since they were not invited. As Trueman points out, “The production is not holding a press night, nor giving critics comps, but we were invited to enter the ticket ballot and report if we wished.”

It definitely didn’t need critics to help sell tickets – but then neither did the Cumberbatch Hamlet, which also sold out is entire run before it opened. Of course, critics are not just glorified sales agents –  people who, in return for the modest production investment of a pair of tickets, are expected to help “sell” a show. We like to think we serve a wider purpose, offering a historical record of a show and a place for artistic validation (or not) of the enterprise.

Here are six more shows, though, that have proved critic-proof, yet we’ve reviewed anyway.

1. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Jamie Glover, Rakie Ayola and James Howard in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Jamie Glover, Rakie Ayola and James Howard in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

When a stage version of Harry Potter was announced, all hell broke loose in terms of global interest in the property, not least because it was no simple stage version of an existing story but a continuation of the story, which picks it up 19 years after the last book ended. As each successive booking period has opened, the entire inventory of tickets has sold out the same day it has been put on sale. Critics were hardly necessary. But we were welcomed anyway– its creators craved not just audience approval, but critical approval as well (and they got it).

2. We Will Rock You

When this Queen-inspired jukebox musical, which folded the British pop band’s repertoire into a new futuristic story concocted by Ben Elton, first opened at the Dominion Theatre, many critics – including me – wrote it off. “Only hard-core Queen fans can save it from an early bath,” wrote Robert Gore-Langton in the Daily Express, while Charles Spencer suggested in the Daily Telegraph that far from being guaranteed to blow your mind, it was instead “guaranteed to bore you rigid”, concluding: “The show is prole-feed at its worst.” Well, there were either more hard-core Queen fans than the Daily Express expected, or it reached a wider demographic of what the Telegraph dismissively called ‘proles’, because it ran for more than 12 years in one of London’s largest theatres – and even won a special audience award at the 2011 Olivier Awards in a public vote for people’s favourite show.

3. Bat Out of Hell

Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington in Bat Out of Hell. Photo: Specular
Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington in Bat Out of Hell. Photo: Specular

This musical, based on a pair of Jim Steinman 1970s rock albums, got what I thought were mystifyingly positive reviews overall – but it wouldn’t have mattered either way. As Andrzej Lukowski noted in his Time Out review: “There is absolutely nothing I could possibly say here to dent its popularity… and it’s very hard to imagine that ticket-holding fans of Steinman and Meat Loaf’s Wagnerian rock will be arsed about the fact that it’s not exactly Hamlet in the plot department.”

4. Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage

When this stage version of the 1987 film of the same name first came to the West End’s Aldwych Theatre in 2006, it was an instant hit, opening to advance sales of £11 million – reportedly a then-record. It wasn’t that good, but it ran for over five years, and has since been back in the West End in two limited seasonal runs at the Piccadilly Theatre and is still out on yet another UK tour, playing in Blackpool this week.

5. The Mousetrap

Now in its 65th year, no one can remember any more what the reviews of this Agatha Christie thriller said. The show has become a London institution, like the Crown Jewels or Tower Bridge, and will likely outlive all of us. Yet Christie herself originally predicted it would only run for eight months – and even though audiences, as at Harry Potter, are urged to keep the secret of its plot, all-round provocateur (and one-time critic) Toby Young once breached it, saying in a column: “It seems to me that the only way to stop The Mousetrap from running for another 50 years is to ignore this plea and make sure everyone knows exactly who did it.”

6. Hamilton

Here’s another imminent import from Broadway where the reviews are not going to matter a jot. First of all, Hamilton is a show that has already engendered massive word-of-mouth – and secondly, pretty much everyone who sees it recognises it as the game-changer it is. It won’t need the reviews it gets here, but I suspect they’ll be raves nonetheless.

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