Last month the Evening Standard announced that it was terminating the contracts of its two full-time theatre critics – Henry Hitchings and Fiona Mountford – seeming to add the latest nail to the coffin of professional theatre critics. Last year the Guardian did the same to Lyn Gardner, who topped the Stage Newpaper’s poll of most trusted critics, and the same is being seen across the mainstream media, whether based in print or online.
The reasons for this are manifold. In print, the increasingly prohibitive cost of producing newspapers and magazines is leading to reduced pages and increased advertising space, and the arts pages are almost always the first to feel the squeeze. At the same time, online news coverage is increasingly driven by the need to generate clicks or attract advertisers, and it seems that reviews just don’t deliver enough of that. Finally, and most powerfully, the astonishing rise of social media has seen a democratisation of theatre criticism. If you want to know how good the latest big West End show is, do you wait for a broadsheet or magazine review or do you head for Twitter? Why read one long review when you can read hundreds of short ones? When Hampstead Theatre opened their downstairs studio they decided not to invite critics to any of the shows there – rather they would let word of mouth, or word of screen, drive the public view of what to see.
As both a theatre director and a columnist I have a stake on both sides of the debate. Theatre criticism, for me, is an important part of the industry. A review helps theatremakers hone their craft with feedback from a knowledgeable source, provides a lasting record of a fleeting event, and most importantly helps audiences decide what to see.
In years gone by, a major critic could have the power to make or break a show. Press night performances were held earlier in the evening than regular shows so that the reviewers could phone in their review in time for the next morning’s papers, and shows that failed to meet the approval of the press could find themselves closing the following night. At the same time a rave review the next day could yield a sell-out run for a producer.
Then there are the shows that defy the critics, with public opinion outweighing the impact of a negative response from a small number of published pundits. The world’s longest running musical, Les Miserables, was described by the Observer as “witless” and by the Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama” when it premiered in 1985, but it has now been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries, with no sign of its appeal decreasing.
Ultimately, and ideally, the industry has room for both approaches – like a political system where we can elect individuals to lead us based on considered opinion, or we can take the view of the majority via a referendum to decide a way forward.
Social media offers the referendum model. Shall I see this show? Ask the wider public and let them guide you. The alternative is the elected leader model – being guided by a handful of reviews from critics who have followed a particular company or writer, who track current changes in the industry, and whose writing builds a clear picture of their personal taste. By declaring their taste consistently, like publishing a manifesto, they allow readers to find and follow those with whom they share similar views.
In theatre, as in politics, both can go wrong – we can disagree with the many or with the apparently like-minded few – but until recently in theatre (thank goodness) we have been able to each decide which model we feel most comfortable with. When choosing what to see we have been able to follow the crowd or find those whose opinions we trust the most. However, if recent actions at the Evening Standard, the Guardian and more represent an unstoppable trend, we are facing a future of theatre criticism by 140-character online referendum, which surely cannot be a good thing.
James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre