There’s recently been some debate about the quality of theatre reviewing in St Andrews. An important question has been raised: are we afraid to write bad reviews?
The answer is yes. Sometimes, we are. The theatrical community in this town is a small and close-knit one. Theatre writers tend to be theatre practitioners as well. When we go to see a play, we generally recognise one or two faces in the cast. After a couple of years we may well know every face, including the director, the producer, the technician. It is incredibly hard to review a production in St Andrews without reviewing a friend. That is a difficult thing, and it is understandable that writers flinch from it.
St Andrews is called ‘the bubble’ for a reason: it’s an unusually small university town in which six degrees seems a remarkable amount of separation. This also means that we can’t necessarily be judged by the standards of ‘the outside world’. Though we should never be falsely kind, it is necessary to be tactful. There is an important distinction between being negative and being constructive; it is possible to write a negative review of a piece of theatre without hurting feelings, and that is a skill some reviewers lack. A negative piece of criticism could put someone off performing or producing again, but constructively-phrased, it could aid their growth.
There may not be an abundance of two- or one-star reviews of Mermaids productions, but I see this as evidence of the quality of theatre we produce. We are in a unique and privileged position, with access to funding, venues and actors at no personal cost. Few of us are likely to be supported with such ease and generosity again in our lives. We have an abundance of enthusiasm and an abundance of talent. I see nothing negative in that.
I am concerned that encouraging the appearance of more ‘fair’ reviews in our publications will do only that: encourage the ‘appearance’ of fairness. I don’t want anyone to feel they have a point to prove, to show they’re an impartial reviewer who’s doled out star ratings from one end of the scale to the other.
As a matter of fact, from now on, I’ll be discouraging star ratings for The Tribe’s theatre reviews. They’re reductive, unhelpful and unnecessary for a town in which a show can rarely be reviewed before the end of its run (certainly by issue-based publications like The Tribe). The substance of a review should not be able to be summed up in a few punctuation marks.
St Andrews does not have a theatre writing problem; we are lucky to have such a talented group of strong, opinionated writers who write for nothing more than the chance to see a good play. We work for free. And I think that’s amazing.
Image by Helen Miller