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Reviewing The Reviews: When Do You Cross The Line?

Reviews are great, aren't they? They let people know what a show is like, hopefully encouraging them to get tickets and see it themselves. The best reviews are written in a way that make you feel like you were there yourself. But when do these reviews cross the line? Is there an etiquette system that should be in place with things that should never be said in them? And crucially - who is reviewing the reviews?

Recently, I have seen comments in reviews I haven't agreed with. Some of these have been quite public with cast members getting involved in calling them out - there are also others that haven't been talked about. I am someone who believes in standing up for what's right even though that can get me in trouble at times, so I wanted to talk a bit about what I believe reviews should look like and what really isn't ok.

While I still feel like the new kid on the scene when it comes to reviews, it has been two years now and having written hundreds of reviews myself, I have set beliefs of what I will and won't say. I'm still going to keep integrity and am not going to lie if I didn't enjoy a show but there is a fine line which reviewers have a duty to never cross, though I fear this line is getting more and more blurred.

At the end of the day, reviewers are there to do just that - review the show. Critics don't need to just criticise. Nobody is saying you need to sugar-coat everything or even lie - if you didn't enjoy a show, that is your right and of course you can say that. But I believe this should be constructive, not cruel. If there are elements of a show (or even entire shows) I don't like, I talk about them but there are ways to do this which are helpful and not nasty. While I know sometimes the intent of this is to get more clicks on the website as a 1 star review will get more views than a 2 star review, what exactly are you achieving by doing this? I personally would never want to review something that stops people buying tickets – if I don’t like a show personally, I encourage people to see it for themselves and make their own minds up. If they disagree with me, I love hearing it – the beauty of theatre is how subjective it is. No matter how many people read your review, your opinion isn’t worth more than anyone else’s – be that fellow reviewers or audience members. Everybody’s feelings are valid.

Theatre has been through so much over the past 2 years with a lack of support from the Government, so why are people close to the industry determined to kick it while its down? Here’s a crazy idea – how about celebrating the Arts and lifting people up for a change? Again, that’s not to say you must love everything – that wouldn’t be realistic and loving everything means you lose what you stand for, but try seeing the good in things as well as pointing out the bad. Ultimately, reviews should be fair and balanced – sadly, this isn’t always the case.

When you are reviewing a performer, you are reviewing their performance. To review them individually, this should be based on their capabilities as a performer only. If you didn’t enjoy their performance, say it. But what you should never do is make personal comments about their appearance or identity. That really shouldn’t need to be said but in the past I have seen several occurrences of performers being berated for their size, race, sexuality or identity. What does any of that have to do with the performance? And is it really fair to comment on it? What are you hoping to achieve by saying it?

Comments like that are reminiscent of playground bullying. Sadly, it seems certain people don’t grow up and take their bullying with them into their careers – undoubtedly encouraged if the publication they write for loves spreading hate, misogyny and racism themselves. I won’t name names but Letts just say there are a few repeat offenders out there.

You can disagree with casting all you like, but when you have a platform you have a responsibility to choose your words carefully. If you are so careless as to spread hatred in a review, that really says more about you as a person and how dark your heart is. It is worth remembering that your words are going to be seen, your reviews have influence and people are going to remember your words, for better for worse.

I get that times are changing quickly and the older generation may struggle to understand adapting terminology – apparently pronouns are an alien concept for some of these older reviewers. So how about attempting to understand and asking questions if you don’t, rather than wish it was like the good old days when you could say anything you like without being called out for your repulsive words and actions? I am incredibly thankful that the industry is becoming more diverse and inclusive – I love to see a show that represents the times we live in. Though sadly, this representation doesn’t extend to the more prominent reviewers who are still predominantly cis white men.

So what am I hoping to achieve by saying this? My hope is that people will choose their words more carefully and think of the repercussions that their cruelty can cause. When you have been writing for a prominent publication for a while, you can lose sight of reality and feel like you’re untouchable yourself. I would remind you of the responsibility you have with your words, and appeal to the human inside you (if that person still exists) – remember words can hurt, and why would you even want to spread more misery in an temperamental world? Nobody doubts the talent of these writers who have been doing this for decades, but perhaps you could be more considerate to others in the future?

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