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Mark Shenton: How far should producers be allowed to twist reviews in publicity material?

Shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe frequently cover their posters with star ratings to sell more tickets
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We critics have long accepted our role in the forever-hungry theatre publicity machine. In return for the access we are (mostly) freely given to see and review shows, we allow our words, when favourable, to be quoted in ads and on front-of-house boards.

Just occasionally, a company will also use unfavourable words against us, too. The other day, Antler Theatre, an associate company at the Bush, tweeted: “‘I went beyond irritation into impatience and boredom’ ** One of our favourite pull quotes so far from Ann Treneman at The Times, what an absolute treat.”

As Australian critic Ben Neutze wrote in the Daily Review in 2015: “It’s always exciting to be quoted, as a critic, even if it’s just in the publicity material for an artwork you’ve reviewed. Although most critics will fiercely defend their position as being outside the marketing ‘ecosystem’, we’re usually more than happy for publicity departments to use our words and names if it will help to sell tickets for a show we believe is worthwhile. That, in itself, is perhaps the greatest joy of arts criticism – that you’re able to make recommendations to a wide audience and support the work that you love.”

However, there’s a basic protocol that we will be quoted accurately and that our words will not be taken out of context. And by and large, this is adhered to – and if a quote needs a tiny bit of ‘massaging’ in some way to fit the promotional narrative, ad agencies typically at least ask for permission first.

But it’s not always the case: in 2012, The Guardian’s rock writer Michael Hann found himself quoted outside the Shaftesbury Theatre for Rock of Ages. He’d actually given it a one-star review, saying: “It’s a very peculiar show indeed, with an unvarying and unpleasant tone of careless sexualisation. Rock’n’roll debauchery is presented as the pure and innocent way of dreamers.”

But outside the theatre, it merely extracted the words “rock’n’roll debauchery”, as if they were spoken in praise. As Hann said in a subsequent Guardian column: “I didn’t really mind. In fact, I rather admired the resourcefulness on display.” But he also contacted the Advertising Standards Authority, and found that theatre hoardings “aren’t actually ads and don’t fall under its purview”. So, as he wrote: “The only way to avoid being quoted misleadingly, so far as I can tell, is to make sure your opinion of any piece of art is completely unequivocal. That’s why, from now on, I am refining my reviewing into one-word summations of what I see or hear: ‘Great’, ‘Okay’ and ‘Crap’. And, yes, I know which one of those you might choose to use for your own billboard about this piece.”

Of course, this reductionist way of reviewing is already happening: it’s called star ratings. And a supposedly unambiguous way to trumpet critical success is for shows to simply list their four and five star reviews, with the outlets named so the reader knows that they came from credible sources. At Edinburgh, this is typically stretched with a plethora of rave star ratings credited to outlets no one has much heard of. But at least there’s an independently verifiable way of checking out the truth of that advertising.

However, last weekend I came across an ad for a new touring production of Grease that will hit the road next year. It is based on a version that was launched in 2016, which received four-star reviews in the Times, Telegraph and Guardian. However, for this new revival, Arlene Phillips has replaced Nick Winston as choreographer – although many other creatives remain the same. Given that a key creative component has now been changed, is it still okay to use the old star ratings?

There are even worse examples than this. Earlier this year, Richard Jordan wrote in The Stage that quotes for revivals of Hello, Dolly!, The Iceman Cometh and Carousel were all using pull quotes from reviews in the Boston Globe, New York Times and Daily News, respectively – but they were not of the productions then on the boards. As Jordan said: “These quotes are from the original productions and nothing is written to let the casual observer know. Is this an example of brilliant producer showmanship, or an intention to mislead the public? Even when these new revivals have received excellent notices, the effusive quotes do not always replace those made about the original productions. They are simply added to them.”

But some producers occasionally have fun with their quotes and accolades, in a way that might be misleading but isn’t dishonest. As Jordan also pointed out, the Broadway transfer of The Play That Goes Wrong mischievously trumpeted its Tony success for winning awards in all the categories it was nominated in. It failed, of course, to mention that the design category was the only one in which the show was actually nominated.

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