When I was younger I’d get all excited about a new movie or show opening. I’d open the papers to look for the reviews with bated breath. I wanted the show to be well reviewed but I was anxious that I wouldn’t enjoy it if it was. I was aware of a gap between what the reviewers appreciated and what I did. If they liked it too much would it be hard work, you know, slow and atmospheric, or bizarre and inexplicable? Would a good review make me feel uncultured or ignorant if I didn’t get it? Conversely, if they didn’t like it and I did, I was made to feel the same way. What’s wrong with melodrama anyway?
After doing a few reviews more than usual this year, I’ve come to believe that a good reviewer needs to talk to the prospective audience of the show. Who are they? Will they like it? Is it appropriate to all members of a target group or family or non-targeted audience member?
Where and by who the production has been staged should influence how the performance is judged. An inner-city boutique theatre will have nuanced choices of material it stages and appeal to a particular market. Suburban, community theatre’s will select different stories with a wider appeal. Each offering should be judged on its own parameters.
If the performance is well-subsidized and offered by trained professionals then more can be expected from its production values. If the performers are drama students learning the ropes there is a different expectation – a greater responsibility is invested with the director.
The reviewer also needs to look towards the playwright. Has the director achieved the intensions of the story? Is the story relevant? If it’s a classic play, has the production touched its modern audience? Has it reached across time and given the audience an understanding of the past that resonates today?
The budget of the performance will dictate set, sound and costume design. How these challenges are met can influence the telling of the story. The decision to have a bare set because the actors, a pretty costume, a prop or two and a good script should stand on their own doesn’t always work. Really good actors, well practised in their craft can make this look easy, but it’s not. Sometimes borrowing lavish costumes that set a particular time or reality but restrict movement – so that they remain pristine – isn’t a good choice. A bare set highlights the oft asked question – what should I do with my hands? and where to stand without devolving into a tableau of talking heads.
The aim of the performance is to immerse the audience in the reality of the story. All of the elements of staging – performers, the stage, set, costumes, props, sound design and lighting should support that reality.
The actor is crucial. Every performer no matter how big or small their role is, is crucial to creating and maintaining the theatrical illusion. How they all interact with each other – listen to each other before reacting or responding, reinforces the world of the play. If they get up from one side of the stage and walk to the other mid speech – what are they responding to? what is their motivation? Can we see what’s going on in their head? Do we as audience members feel their agitation? Or are we wondering what the actor forgot? A big pitfall, oft stated is putting on an accent or a disability. Nothing breaks the illusion than an accent that is dropped and picked up and dropped throughout the play. Maintaining an altered state over the course of a performance is really difficult.
As a reviewer it can be difficult knowing how far to delve into criticism. A play is a good one if its target audience enjoyed it. It’s a really good one if it realises the intent of the playwright as well. It’s a great one if it does this and ticks all of the production value boxes.
So what is a good review? Like a good play, a good review will talk to the play’s audience. One that can predict the enjoyment and/or edification of the target audience.