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Matthew Hemley: Reviewers should not expect plus-ones – they’re a perk

London Coliseum, home of English National Opera. Photo: Shutterstock
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When the National Theatre announced plans in 2016 to take away critics’ plus-ones at its press nights, the move caused unrest among established reviewers. The NT said it wanted to open up review tickets to those from online and broadcast outlets. But a letter from the Critics’ Circle warned this so-called “breach of a long-established protocol” would “spread to other theatres”.

Ultimately, the NT listened to these concerns and soon reinstated plus-ones, but this week the issue is back in the spotlight, as English National Opera revealed it is ditching plus-ones for established critics. Its intentions are noble: it wants to broaden the range of critical voices in opera and to offer 10 tickets to members of the general public, who will be given the chance to review the 2019/20 season.

ENO ditches plus-ones for critics as it launches drive to find new voices among reviewers

Surely no one would argue against the idea of diversifying criticism of the arts? ENO’s move is bold, but necessary at a time when arts journalism – and in particular criticism in national newspapers – seems more under threat than ever.

It’s a shame, then, that some established opera critics can’t get behind this proposal. Instead, there were knee-jerk reactions and cries from leading reviewers that the decision would impact on their working lives, mainly by denying them the chance to catch up with friends while at the theatre.

“This process is repeated multiple times a week. To take away second tickets not only isolates us from the typically – and crucially – social process of culture-going, but also from our partners and friends,” said Alexandra Coghlan in the Observer. Expect a revolt, yelled another. It’s all very dramatic.

Let’s not forget that we’re talking about ENO, a company that has a handful of press nights per season. It’s not as if critics are expected to attend a different production there every night, on their own. In any case, some people like to attend shows solo. And it’s a job at the end of the day, not a jolly.

Plus-ones are a perk – and a lovely one at that. But they shouldn’t be seen as guaranteed. It will be interesting to see what ENO uncovers through its new process. Perhaps it will find voices who can speak to those people less familiar with opera, and who might be able to say in a simpler, possibly less technical way, whether a production is worthy of their time. Let’s wait and see.

Matthew Hemley is news editor of The Stage

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