At the risk of appearing pernickety (or, intriguingly, for American readers, persnickety) there are theatreland words and phrases I truly loathe.
Jostling for silver, instead of the word ‘actor’ comes the sneer that is ‘luvvie’ versus the now impossibly arch ‘thespian’, a faux-antique usage that sounds as if the speaker is using tongs. Both are ghastly. But my pet-hate gold medal goes to ‘comedic’.
No one beyond the most rarified corner of academia would consider routinely replacing ‘tragic’ with ‘tragedic’, but about a decade ago the word ‘comedic’ began raising its (very) ugly head. Sorry, but its use is pretty much entirely pretentious since the unadorned ‘comic’ would almost always be more fitting… except that ‘comic’ doesn’t sound intellectual enough. And, yes, I know there’s a correct use of ‘comedic’, but the overwhelming majority of those who use it don’t appear to know how that works.
As for least favourite phrases, almost up there with the description of characters ‘going on a journey’, is the parroting of ‘Well, the critics think…’ Eh? Critics are writers who are paid to be opinionated, not perpetrators of group-think. Not only is total agreement decidedly rare, each critic is proud of his or her individual position. That’s why (almost) all of us subscribe to the unwritten rule of first-night chat – inspired by the White Queen’s position on jam in Alice Through the Looking-Glass: you can talk about last night’s show or tomorrow night’s show but never tonight’s show.
That’s why, on the rare outbreak of mass-shared opinion, marketing companies seize the opportunity to slap “The critics are unanimous!” on post-opening posters because the unanimity itself is remarkable. The rest of the time, there are as many viewpoints and shades of enthusiasm as there are reviewers.
Look at the response to the musical of The Bridges of Madison County. Trevor Nunn’s Menier Chocolate Factory UK premiere elicited one-star reviews in the Times and Evening Standard, while the Observer gave it five. In between came every shade of grey: in the print titles alone, the Financial Times and Daily Mail were on two; our own reviewer Paul Vale, the Sunday Times, the Guardian and Time Out were on three; while the Daily Express and the Independent went for four. For once, the term ‘mixed reviews’ – usually a euphemistic cover for ‘poor’ – was wholly accurate.
Which brings me to the zenith of my theatrical loathings: star ratings. It’s a battle I fought – and won – on the Observer. I dissuaded the paper from running star ratings. The policy held for more than 10 years. They are the bluntest of instruments. Is the best way to analyse (in this case) almost three hours of music and drama – the show’s book, its lyrics, its score, let alone its execution by onstage and offstage performers, plus the entire design team and the show’s direction – to reduce it to a thuddingly simplistic scoreline of marks out of five?
‘Publishing a star rating at the outset is like giving away the murderer at the top of a whodunnit’
I’m not suggesting every review needs to discuss every element of a show, but a well-written one should be like a juicy thriller: grabbing you at the outset and, at best, taking you through a critic’s argument about the experience of watching it. Final judgement should be just that: final.
Publishing a star rating at the outset is like giving away the murderer at the top of a whodunnit. Before you even read the review, you are told what to think. That means thoughtful, developing engagement with a viewpoint is reduced or shut down. It gives the critic’s game away and is thus a disservice to the work and to the reader. It actively encourages you not to read the review.
Furthermore, amid the eye-widening range of opposing judgements on Bridges, there is the awkward issue of across-the-board agreement over one central element of the production. Even the one-star reviews hailed the substantial saving grace of the standout performance by Jenna Russell whose truthful, ideally underplayed sincerity gives the evening a tender, still centre. They hated the show, but loved her. Almost never off the stage, she’s giving a five-star performance. Surely that means it should average out at three stars?
Proponents of star ratings argue that one-star and five-star reviews encourage reading. True enough: raves and assassinations make for good copy. But flawlessly stunning shows and worthless nonsense crop up very rarely. The rest of the time, unless you are interested in knowing more, the sight of two or three stars induces “meh” and the desire to move on.
Why do star ratings exist? Newspapers use them because reviews are a low editorial priority and stars plus a short review are an easy way to save space. The exception is The Stage, whose reviews are of welcome length, which mitigates the impact of the rating.
Ultimately, marketing departments love them most. Goodbye to editing of reviews for poster quotes, hello to constellations of stars on adverts. Don’t bother with argument, detail or nuance – just hand audiences and readers an easy conclusion. It’s the triumph of laziness.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at http://thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict