A young actress attacked me at a party recently. I had let slip that I write about the theatre. Her face twisted with aggression. Surely it was unethical, she said, for “one person’s opinion” to stand in judgement over a show? What qualifications did I have? How could I review theatre when I had never acted? (I kept quiet about my rare amateur performances, so daringly wooden that I could be mistaken for part of the set.) I responded, trying to suppress my irritation. Did she really want plays to be assessed by committees? Which qualifications was she thinking of exactly? Could only trained chefs review restaurants? Nothing I said mattered. She knew, deep in her heart, that I was scum.
I have some sympathy with her. While a student, I worked on a number of productions. I wrote four plays which were performed at the Edinburgh Fringe (no great distinction-it is an unregulated festival). I know the anxious wait for a review to be published and then the sick feeling of wishing it never had been. (“All the characters come to seem rather tiresome, particularly when they are shouting at each other.”) I am still involved, in a minor way, with a few small theatre companies.
Yet I am, against my best intentions, a theatre critic for, amongst others, London Metro and Radio 4’s Front Row. I enjoy what I do and I would defend it. But I remain torn. I don’t find myself unable to criticise things, but I find bad reviews linger with me after I have filed the copy or made the broadcast. I don’t presume that my comments carry much weight. But I can easily imagine what it feels like to be told that your passionately-felt play is “awash with confusion” (a pulled punch, honestly) or that your emotional range is small (sorry, Jack Davenport). I find myself prey, in other words, to critic’s guilt.
The animosity I encountered at that party is as old as theatre criticism itself. Stephen Fry, who famously did a runner from Simon Gray’s Cell Mates after his performance received a slew of bad reviews, put critics first on his list of most hated things in the television programme Room 101. According to Dominic Dromgoole, in his excellent new book, The Full Room, critics are on the edge of psychosis: “Sitting, night after night, watching a variable phantasmagoria pass by,…