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Andrzej Lukowski: Overnight print reviews have long passed their own deadline

Tom Hiddleston

There is something thrilling when a play has been deemed of significant interest to the population at large that critics all write overnight reviews, old-school style. But does this make for good copy?

Typically, a show only receives this rarefied status because there is a major celebrity in it. As 95% of Western culture involves judging celebrities, it’s a thrill to get involved for once. And it’s a thrill (sort of)to be doing so at turbo speed: discovering I can cobble together a coherent review in minimal time always has the nostalgic tang of doing ‘actual journalism’.

There is no industry-wide decision as to which celebrities get the treatment, but as a rule it’s pretty obvious. This year we’ve had Cate Blanchett starring in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other [1], and the Gillian Anderson-fronted All About Eve [2]. This week, we’ve had the Tom Hiddleston-starring Betrayal.

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other starring Cate Blanchett – review round-up [1]

But is a review dashed out in an hour really going to be as good as one written under a more generous deadline? Sometimes, maybe: I know some critics who think British deadlines are the enemy of decent reviews, but they can underestimate the quality that can be mustered with the adrenaline pumping. Nonetheless, there is something obviously counterintuitive about the idea that the more important the review, the less time will be spent on it.

I’m not going to name names, other than to say that I absolutely include myself here… but the reviews for When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other felt largely rushed and insubstantial, dwelling on details such as a strap-on Blanchett wears briefly at the end rather than attempting to grapple seriously with the work. That’s not to say it was a great play, but for all its faults the show was clearly a reasonably significant cultural event that probably deserved a bit more thought than it received.

Of course, you might reasonably point out that back in the heyday of the print press the knife-edge filing of overnight reviews was standard practice – 35 years ago, The Stage reported on Max Stafford-Clark’s controversial decision to scrap early press-night times at London’s Royal Court [3], with the understanding that an 8pm start, as opposed to 7pm, would probably mean no coverage in the press the following day.

From Our Archive: 35 years ago in The Stage (February 16, 1984) [3]

But times have changed. A lot. Deadlines tend to be far more forgiving these days, with the inexorable rise of the web both giving (there’s not so much rush to be in print the next day if the review goes up online) and taking away (there’s less space for print reviews and circulation is in freefall).

It has also paved the way for the rise of standardised review embargoes, where critics are allowed in early and their reviews all go online at an agreed time on opening night, with print following. On Broadway this is pretty much standard for everything; over here it’s become the norm for any big show that has a long preview period, eg major musicals.

So what we’re left with is a weird multi-speed system in which some reviews are bashed out in an hour, most in a few hours, and some over a few days. While I’m not sure anybody is totally happy with it, it sort of works, and the fact is that if nothing else changed there would be no chance that journalists would cease this practice of their own volition, because nobody wants to get scooped by a hated rival and told off by their editor. Getting the review up first may also mean it monopolises those precious clicks.

‘There is something obviously counterintuitive about the idea that the more important the review, the less time will be spent on it’

But if the industry wanted to change, it absolutely could, simply by slapping embargoes on everything, as is the case on Broadway. Maybe nobody in the industry sees a problem, maybe there is a fear of being seen to dictate to journalists; perhaps it’s just a British love of an old-fashioned opening night and all that entails.

The fact of the matter is that, like a lot of things from last century, the overnight review is teetering towards becoming an anachronism – less important in the web era, and threatened as an art by the increasing use of embargoes, it is no longer anything like standard practice and becoming increasingly less so.

They could die out in five years; or they might carry on indefinitely here and there on grounds of tradition. At the time of writing, I’m mentally limbering up for Betrayal, and I daresay it’ll be a hoot to see who is first to knock a coherent opinion together. But I won’t miss the overnight tradition when it’s gone.

Andrzej Lukowski: If you’re going to break theatre review embargoes, have some balls about it [4]