Debate: Student Reviewing Does More Harm Than Good

Are student reviews bad news? HARRY MICHELL and AMI JONES battle it out.

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HARRY MICHELL, director, actor and playwright, argues that it does.

Student reviews are necessary. They are a source of great publicity and, whether or not one would like to admit it, generally dictate a show’s success. However, the current approach to reviewing, taken by many student critics, has become an indulgent and even harmful practice.

A review should be centred solely on the production itself. This is a privilege acquired through the investment of hours upon hours of work, energy and emotion, given by unpaid amateurs, regardless of the quality of a show. A review should not be about the critic – there are plenty of other outlets for students to present their own ideas and promote themselves.

A review should tell us about the play, where the production succeeded or fell short. The critic should be almost invisible, and certainly impartial. This means abstaining from reviewing plays you’ve auditioned for, or with which you have close social affiliation; abstaining from reviewing genres or playwrights that you personally dislike; and abstaining from using drawn out, extended metaphors in a bid to boast rhetorical prowess.

Most of all, a review should never ‘attack’ a show, nor actively insult a production. This brings in far too much of the personal critic. Unless a show is actively offensive, the review should remain neutral in its evaluation. Excessive vehemence implies  superiority in the reviewer, a superiority which makes me question why they themselves don’t stage a production instead.

Some may suggest that what I find indulgent or destructive, others find entertaining, that reviewers have a right to aim for high readership. But the best reviews I’ve read in Cambridge are those which  manage to give informed, detailed and disinterested information on what did and didn’t work about a show. After all, this is what you’ll find in any professional newspaper.

Just because we’re all amateurs, doesn’t mean we  have to settle for cheap gimmicks.


Controversy: The Review

AMI JONES, The Tab’s Theatre Editor, argues that student reviews make a valuable contribution to Cambridge theatre.

A beautiful thing about the Cambridge reviewing culture is that it isn’t one-way. It’s a dialogue. A review out of line with general opinion is marked as such within minutes of publication with a storm of comments.

If your show got slammed in The Tab and you’re not getting audience, it’s probably because everyone’s been telling each other they agree with the review, not because Cambridge is filled with mindless dogmatic followers of one person’s online opinion. And – as a review by a certain rival publication last week has conveniently shown – a strong response to a negative review often provides more publicity than a positive review.

Reviews bruise egos, yes. So what? I’ve been reviewed badly as a director and criticised as an actress. I got over it. The delight at getting handpicked out of dozens who auditioned, the thrill of being on-stage, the buzz of applause – performers get all this and more. They can handle criticism.

With theatres all over the country being closed down, Cambridge actors are unbelievably privileged, and it is a mark of the standard of student theatre here that there is a lively forum for opinions. And let’s face it, where else are you going to get them? The ADC bar is hardly known for its sincerity. And yes, reviewers try to write in funny/stylish ways. That’s not indulgence, that’s good journalism – no one reads boring reviews.

You are the ones who want us to exist. Every show has the right to refuse press. And every reader has the right to deny us hits. A review on its own means nothing – it only gains influence through how seriously its readers choose to take it. And readers do take The Tab‘s reviews seriously. Telling.

If you believe student reviewing is a bad thing, I welcome you to prove it and vote with your clicks. I doubt you will.