Reviews: What are they good for?
Mark Danciger sheds some light on the complicated issues facing student reviews.
There is nothing more divisive in the Cambridge theatre world than a Tab review.
Positive reviews have the power to make a show sell out almost instantly. On the other hand, a damning review can irreversibly damage the reputation of a show throughout Cambridge, as Frankenstein found out earlier this week. Similarly, they can have powerful consequences for the army of thesps and techies involved in any show – a glowing review can leave an actor elated, a terrible one can make them question whether the gruelling production process was worth it.
In some ways, then, it’s unsurprising that those involved in shows might feel squeamish about their shows being reviewed – it can often feel like a lottery, that at the end of the day is safest simply not to play. Some shows, such as Sweeney Todd, are going as far as actively denying reviewer tickets to the Tab. But is this justified?
It’s clear reviews are an integral part of the Cambridge theatre scene. Just as many in the ADC are trying their hand at theatre to get a sense of whether they are interested in a career treading the boards, so too are there several budding theatre journalists in Cambridge, who want a chance to experiment with reviewing.
Everyone should have the chance to experiment with different potential career paths in Cambridge. That’s an integral part of the mini ecosystem that is Cambridge- a microcosm of the wider world, where everyone can try playing different roles, whether it be a politician, a thesp or, yes, a reviewer.
But the function of reviews goes much further than this. What those deeply embedded in the Cambridge theatre scene often forget is that there are legions of students in Cambridge who love going to the theatre, but aren’t interested in creating shows themselves. It is impossible for these students to see every show, not just because it would be prohibitively expensive, but also because there’s simply too much on. A review serves as a guiding voice for these students – as a reviewer, you act as a member of the audience, giving your honest opinion on the value of the show.
The classic retort from those who dislike reviews is that a review is just an amateur opinion, with no special insight into the theatre world. But this is the greatest strength of student reviews. When a potential audience member reads a review, they are reading the opinion of someone just like them. And of course, there are several reviewing outlets in Cambridge, and so audience members always have a variety of different opinions to read.
Of course, student journalists need to mature, and think in more detail about how the reviewing system should work. It’s not ok for reviewers to write a lazy and halfhearted review, whether it be positive or negative. Showering a show with undue praise or criticism unfairly skews the opinion of a prospective audience member of the show. It is also doing a discredit to the performers – praising an actor when he was really only mediocre can make an actor complacent, whilst tearing their performance to shreds can irreparably damage their self-confidence. Perhaps more training in the nuances of review writing is needed.
Not letting your show be reviewed means that you are doing your audience a disservice.