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Lyn Gardner: Context is key to good theatre criticism

The Vault Festival is a chance for many young artists and fledgling companies to perform in central London with limited financial risk
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All theatre has a context. The shows of Kneehigh mean something different when they play to a local audience in Cornwall than when they tour the country. Sometimes productions seem to be speaking directly to their local community, in the case of wonderful revivals such as Gemma Bodinetz’s production of Fiddler on the Roof in Liverpool a couple of years back, or Sarah Frankcom’s heart-breaking take on Our Town staged in the wake of the Manchester Arena attack.

But productions even have a context within a season of work where, with good curation, the shows start to bounce off each other; pieces of work that at first look, appear to be poles apart start to connect with each other. Its particularly apparent during festivals, whether the Manchester International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe or the Vault Festival, which I’ve been immersed in during these first three weeks.

As my fellow The Stage writer Fergus Morgan has outlined, Vault “has grown from humble beginnings to become one of the linchpins of the theatrical year”. For many young artists and fledgling companies, it is their one chance to perform in central London with limited financial risk. The location is crucial because it means that programmers and reviewers are much more likely to cover the work.

For many it is becoming a significant alternative to the Edinburgh Fringe, particularly as the costs of putting a show on at Edinburgh continue to rise while the possibility of getting a review, or being spotted, diminishes. To see a Vault show, often programmers and reviewers just have to pop up the road.

Vault’s context is that many of the companies performing are right at the very start of their careers and most of the work is fledgling. It is seldom fully formed, which presents challenges for reviewers that are seldom acknowledged.

If shows exist in a context – even if the context is simply that this is an unfunded company’s first show, or a well-supported and acclaimed company’s 37th show – then it seems to me that the reviewing has to shift to respond to that.

The old idea that a review is a tablet of stone written by an objective reviewer has been shown up for the nonsense it is with the arrival of a much broader range of voices who acknowledge that theatre reviewing is rooted in personal response.

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There may be reviewers that over time you start to trust over others, but every reviewer brings their own particular baggage into the theatre with them, whether that is political affiliations, sexual orientations, or personal aesthetic. Alice Saville’s thoughtful Exeunt piece about being a queer critic reviewing queer stories at Vault is an honest demonstration of the complexities of that.

But if Saville is up front about what she brings to the show, a great deal of reviewing seems designed to ignore it and further ignore the context in which it is being seen. The mainstream newspaper reviewer who parachutes into the Vault Festival, sees a single show and treats a first play by a fledgling director in the same context as a production they saw at the National last week, is in danger of doing more harm than good.

Not least because it is making all sorts of assumptions about excellence and quality and how we measure those things. It assumes that a new piece of work at Vault – presented by an unfunded company and staged with minimal time for rehearsal and presented in perhaps less than ideal conditions – can be starred in exactly the same way as a new piece of writing at the Royal Court or a major regional theatre where the resources behind that production are very different.

A critic can only ever review the show that is put in front of them. But just as the work is made and curated in a context, so a reviewer also has to respond to it in context. One of the troubling things about the decline of mainstream theatre coverage, particularly outside of London, is that the ad-hoc reviewer sent almost arbitrarily to see a show that happens to catch an arts editor’s eye is unlikely to be able to contextualise it within the rest of that theatre’s programme. Only a regular critic can do that because they have seen a body of work sometimes stretching back over a long period of time.

It is only when you see a significant amount of work in a festival, or at a particular theatre, that patterns and meanings start to manifest themselves. Stars are the bluntest instrument in a critic’s toolbox, one which may sometimes help the marketing department, but is seldom helpful to those making the work. A lack of context makes those stars blunter still.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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