Opinion: Reviews in the regions – The Editor

The chance to complain? The British love it, says IAM editor Maria Roberts.

In Manchester we use the phrase ‘mollycoddling’ which means to indulge and protect someone. For example, I’m a mollycoddler and I like to be mollycoddled.

I fully expect friends and family to wrap me in a blanket. Work, less so. Last month a little fracas raged in the British press over accusations that critics were mollycoddling theatres and pampering them with good reviews of mediocre shows.

The debate was started by The Spectator reviewer Lloyd Evans, and then picked up by Lyn Gardner writing for the guardian. After watching Pastoral at Soho Theatre, Evans was inflamed by the 4* theatre reviews splashed across the English papers.

Evans wrote: ‘…the most amazing thing about this mirthless, ill-structured prison sentence of a play is that it attracted rave reviews from three of the national dailies, and from a well-regarded online site as well. It boasts a handful of four-star notices alongside glowing accolades like ‘splendid’, ‘wondrous’, ‘a master-class’. Utterly baffling. Are these people on drugs?’

Gardner took a tamer approach: ‘…are critics more inclined to rave than they once were?’ she countered. ‘Perhaps recession has encouraged kindness, although it’s no kindness if people spend their money and are then disappointed.’

Well that’s if you dislike disappointment. Some people thrive on disappointment. Such as… well, everyone I know.

In Britain a good whinge is worth its weight in gold. We moaned before the Olympics, we moaned before the Royal Wedding, all the  Queen’s Jubilee celebrations (where the best thing that ever happened was a downpour of rain, then we really had something to moan about), and we complain endlessly about Wimbledon (unless a Brit is winning).

That’s leaving out, of course, a raft of moans about British summertime, British wintertime, British weather, the economy, agriculture, industry and so on. Even this blogpost is one long whinge.

In fact, saying: ‘That was the best peformance I’ve seen in years. I particularly liked the aesthetics of the lighting and the Wagnerian leitmotif was so pleasing’ is a sure way to lose friends – except in London and the Home Counties, where such commentary goes down well with a splash of Malbec. And then they’ll complain about the quality of the Malbec.

So perhaps the potential moan-factor of a production should be taken into account. Perhaps vitriol has more mileage and is, therefore, a valuable word-of-mouth marketing tool – a curmudgeonly complainer can go on and on and on about something for weeks, months, years.

 To demonstrate:


Regular theatregoer Jackie (enthusiastically): ‘I can’t believe I wasted £20 on tickets to see that play, don’t go and see it.’

Regular theatregoer’s best friend (incredulous): ‘That play you hated, I went to see it and it was even worse than you said.’

Regular theatregoer’s best friend’s better-paid work colleague (with pride): ‘I can’t believe I wasted my £35 going to see that s&*^ play you said you hated. I hated it even more than you hated it and we had the best seats in the house.’

Regular theatregoer’s best friend’s work colleague’s mother (satisfied): ‘That play you hated? Well, I got my tickets half price, I took your father the day before he died, it was the best night out we ever had.’

Five months later:  

Regular theatregoer to new man on a first date (seductively): ‘So, David, tell me… what’s the worst play you’ve ever seen?’

18 months later: 

The best man at regular theatregoer’s wedding (with gusto): ‘Jackie and David first bonded over their mutual hatred of a rubbish 2012 production of A Winter’s Tale.’ 

And so it’s with interest I’m watching our home city prepare for its largest cultural event, Manchester International Festival.

Soon the national press will descend upon a range of venues to give their take on the shows. Over the years MIF has grown to meet the hype, attracting big names like Kenneth Branagh, Willem Dafoe and more. The good thing is that, regardless of press reviews, if the Manchester public moans about the productions, the team can raise a glass. Compliments here are often backhanded.

Summer in Manchester also welcomes 24:7 Theatre Festival, a new writing affair that has attracted a larger audience year-on-year, even though it presents just new and embryonic work.

People are interested, and that’s what matters.

This week, as our city gets ready for a cultural explosion, we talk to the Royal Exchange Theatre, an established theatre reviewer, a festival director and an independent producer and ask for their opinion – Do regional theatre productions receive the criticism they deserve?

Kevin Bourke, former critic of the Manchester Evening News gives his view on what really happens in the regions.

You can read his IAM blog here.

David Slack executive producer of 24:7 Theatre Festival writes here.