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Matt Trueman: Critics need to regain confidence to shout beyond the echo chamber

Is it just me or are we losing lone voices? Read the review round-ups that roll out after big openings and, more often than not, you find a chorus of opinion – be it approval, ambivalence or despair. It’s rare to find a properly dissenting voice.

Admittedly, the format leans into critical consensus. Round-ups are inherently reductive, trimming us down, bundling us up and slicing through the critical spread in search of common ground. In cherry-picking choice phrases, they overlook argument and analysis for verdicts: likes and dislikes, pros and cons. Weighed against the rest, dissenting voices look outnumbered, not like outriders. They’re easily dismissed – especially given the sort of mainstream, big-money shows rounded up.

Even so, fewer productions split the critics these days or spark cultural, critical tug-of-wars. Is that the culture, I wonder, or is it the criticism? If reviewers aren’t striking out on their own, does that mean that artists aren’t either?

Because a cautious culture leads to cautious criticism. There’s less to object to, less to fire you up, and less to distinguish between good and bad. Everything becomes much of a muchness and calling it all out is hard to do. Critics are sympathetic to systemic issues: funding shortages, diversity drives and efforts at accessibility. It’s harder and harder to fight for your art – especially knowing your taste won’t be to everyone else’s.

It may be that there’s been a surge of criticism (great) and every show can flag a wealth of friendly reviews to drown out opposing opinions. Or maybe that there’s more theatre than ever, too much for any one critic to take in, so we all end up in silos, reviewing the artists we most respect – Doranites in Stratford, Van Hovians at the Barbican – and everyone gets a thumbs up. Maybe us critics are more aware of the oddity of imposing our own particular tastes on anyone else.

Either way, lately I have found myself out of step with my critical colleagues on several occasions and I’ve questioned my own judgement as a result. I didn’t think All My Sons [1] was all that, I wanted Small Island to find its form and take flight and A German Life seemed, to me, less than the sum of its platitudes. Call it a loss of critical confidence, but, each time, I’ve ever so slightly pulled my punches.

A German Life at the Bridge Theatre, London starring Maggie Smith – review round-up [2]

When I told a friend, she framed it psychologically – in terms of risk and reward. Right now, she said, the risk of speaking out on your own is enormous. Step out of line and slip up, and the stakes are sky-high – just look at social media with its pile-ons, personal attacks and call-out culture. Flip that around, however, and the rewards of fitting in are just as high: likes, retweets and click-throughs aplenty. Social media’s a spin cycle, promoting popular opinions and sidelining outliers.

The echo chamber has become only more echoey. Once we valued lone voices and alternative views – the hot take reigned supreme. Remembering that made me want to re-find my own.

Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman [3]