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Mark Shenton: Can expectations change how much you enjoy a theatre show?

Theatregoing means making choices: about what to see, of course (and what to see again [1]), but also, by extension, what to miss.

There are some shows I delay seeing until after the canaries have been sent down the mine first. By which I mean waiting to see whether my critical colleagues come up gasping for breath with distress or exhilaration. I’d so disliked Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns at its Almeida premiere [2] that there was no way I was going to risk seeing her recent entry The Twilight Zone there without reading the reviews first. And after reading them, I was in no way persuaded: even, or especially, the good ones made me want to give it a wide berth.

As Tom Wicker acknowledged in his review for The Stage [3]: “Mr Burns proved critical divisive and some people might be sniffy about the ‘niche appeal’ of this production, too.”

But, he then went on to assert: “They will be wrong. The Twilight Zone is a playfully great piece of theatre about the power of imagination: about how people use storytelling, particularly science fiction, to navigate new frontiers and question society. There’s a good reason that theme tune lingers.”

I’m always happy to be proved wrong, but given that I don’t have the cultural vocabulary of having ever seen the original TV series it is based on, and don’t care at all for science fiction, I felt it would be entirely outside my frame of reference.

Not that theatre that divides audiences and critics is a bad thing: you just need to work out how to navigate the reviews to make up your own mind as to whether something will appeal to you.

And, actually, sometimes a full round of negative reviews can act as a challenge: it’s why, after its critically lambasted premiere at Edinburgh last summer, I was particularly keen to see Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide [4] on its current brief transfer to the Old Vic. But then I saw the new running time: it previously ran at Edinburgh in two three-hour parts, but now in London it is running in one three-hours-50-minute showing. That prospect has defeated me and I will now pass on it.

I’m not instinctively against a theatrical marathon: I’ve just made plans to re-visit the National’s Angels in America [5] when it moves to Broadway next month, and that runs for over seven hours. But it earns that stage time.

If a slew of bad reviews can encourage me to check out a show to make up my own mind, a show that has been unanimously talked up can create its own serious resistance. Matilda the Musical [6] is being advertised with the press quote, “Believe the hype” from the New York Post. In that case, I entirely agree. I recently revisited it at the Cambridge and it’s every bit as marvellous as it was when it first opened.

On the other hand, could Hamilton possibly be as good as everyone says it is? When I interviewed Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater where it originated, he told me that he would try to over-praise it to friends heading in to see it. “I’d say it was the best American musical ever written, that Lin-Manuel’s achievement was comparable to Shakespeare.” And then he delivered the punchline: “People would come out and say it was better than I said.”

Hamilton: Making a ‘miracle’ of modern musical theatre [7]

And that’s also the experience that Guardian columnist Rhik Samadder has had. As he recently wrote [8]:

There’s a level of saturation that occurs with any hot-ticket cultural item, past which I cannot fully enjoy it and often fall into a perverse boycott. Unread Harry Potter books, unseen Game of Thrones seasons, unheard Beyonce albums – they all come laden with a sense that anyone who continues to live life in their absence has failed. Get to heck then, I think. I won’t. Hamilton passed that point in 2016

When he discovered that it was a musical about an 18th-century treasury secretary, he dismissed it instantly, saying: “It sounded marginally less entertaining than a puppet show about the life of Lewis Hamilton.”

He finally went, though, and, after a litany of complaints about the security detail to collect his tickets and the pervasive marketing and merchandising, he exclaimed: “It became really unbearable about an hour in, when I understood that the show is as good as everyone says… That was the most horrifically irritating thing about seeing Hamilton; being in the presence of something extraordinary, a modern classic, and realising I was wrong. It’s the worst.”

And that’s also the holy grail we all seek in going to the theatre regularly: a sense of epiphany and euphoria.