Last week I went to the opening night of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre. CLANG. Sitting in the front row, I was overwhelmed – and helicopter-windswept – by what I had seen. As I dabbed the tears from my eyes (no, I was not the woman mentioned in Michael Billington’s review) I reached the conclusion that it was one of the (if not the) greatest shows I’d ever seen. I left that theatre elated. In fact, the fireworks over the Thames at the after-party were an accurate visual representation of how happy I was feeling. (NB: I wasn’t at the after-party. I was on a bus driving past. Not so CLANG.) Then, being of the social media obsessed generation that I am, I began scrolling through my feed on the aforementioned bus home to see what everyone else had to say. I anticipated a lot of re-tweets – surely everyone would have been as thrilled as I was!? However, I was saddened when this wasn’t the case. Everyone seemed to be of the opinion that I was born in the wrong decade and should have seen the Drury Lane production. WHAT!? 

I understand, of course, that many people would have seen the 1989 production and had the response that I had on Wednesday night all those years ago. I also understand that it’s impossible not to make comparisons when forming an opinion on a piece of theatre. But what confounded me is how those comparisons went on to be the overriding thought in a number of reviews released that night. Who do those comparisons help? What’s the point of telling someone that something they can no longer see is better? It felt like the polish had been unfairly stripped from my first Saigon experience. So, because I’m dramatic (and I still had “This is the hour…” underscoring my thoughts in my head) I declared to my friend “I’m going to write about this” and went to bed.

The following day, social media had gone a bit ‘comparison’ crazy and the Public Reviews twitter posted this as their topic of discussion for the day:

Public Review

Great minds think alike, Internet?

 

And Mark Shenton wrote a brilliant blog for The Stage on the subject:

“I realise that, as I discovered on Twitter last night, some of my readers* would not even have been born when the show first opened 25 years ago. So they will be taking it in for the first time, and comparisons, for them at least, are pointless. They have to take the production, as it now stands, purely on its own terms.” 

*RIDOUT!

Now, I’ve had nearly a week to think on this, after my heated (awful pun intended) Saigon reaction, and these are my thoughts:

I think reviews should be written about the piece in hand and should provide current, potential audience members with an educated response to the piece that they are able to watch. So until time travel exists, I don’t care for multiple references to ’89’s superiority.

However, the Public Reviews topic mentioned that perhaps people should hang up their critical hat if they can’t avoid comparing new productions to the past. This I do not agree with, and mostly because their use of the term ‘critical hat’ threw me. To criticize is to express a judgement and when we form judgments, we compare. Everybody does it. It’s really a question of who those criticisms and consequent comparisons serve. Perhaps the creative and production teams will welcome the comparisons to the original production in looking for ways to improve but potential audience members gain nothing other than resentment for this kind of ‘review’. This is where, I believe, the confusion lies. Is there a difference between ‘theatre critics’ and ‘theatre reviewers’ and should there be? In terms of content, there’s a huge difference between the academic and specialized pieces that ‘critics’ write and the audience focused works of ‘reviewers’ – increasingly found online. That’s why we see so many online review sites and bloggers being used in the promotion of pieces at the moment whilst broadsheets tend to stay on the stands and online criticism remains unshared. Critics are still part of the discussion of a show (eg. “I’ve read great/awful things…”) but the opinion of the audience and their subsequent tweets seem to be of a far higher value. The Les Mis Effect, if you will.

Personally, I avoid reading reviews until I have seen a show myself because I want to be able to form my own opinion without the influence of another’s thoughts. But I always read reviews by other bloggers/online publications afterwards and always read the pieces by theatre ‘critics’ too. I like to see how my thoughts matched, or differed, from those of the critics and I love the debates that ensue. I have adored the discussions I’ve had over this past week about what people think about all these Saigon comparisons and widely ranging reviews. Surely that’s what it’s all about – getting people talking about theatre and thinking about it critically.

But some criticism – whilst being valuable in its provocation of debate – is not, in my opinion, reflective of the piece. Case in point – a 2* review of Miss Saigon in The Observer:

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/may/25/miss-saigon-review-celebration-masquerading-tragedy

Now, love ’89 or not, a 2* review of the production currently gracing the stage at the Prince Edward is not called for. I wouldn’t wish a 2* on the worst shows I’ve ever seen (and I have some in mind). This could have been someone’s first impression of Miss Saigon and it’s pieces like this that make me reach for the phone and tell my Dad (the only person I still know who actually judges whether to buy a ticket based on reviews he reads in the paper) to ignore what critics say. It doesn’t make me feel good – telling people to ignore theatre criticism – but it’s a painful necessity if it means that people will go and see something that is thrilling packed houses but wasn’t necessarily a critic’s cup of tea.

Perhaps the future holds the need (or just a want, in my case) for a clearer line to be drawn between ‘reviews’ and ‘criticisms’ in publication. I’d still read both and both need to exist but it could be hugely beneficial for prospective theatre goers to only see the opinion of people who’ve attended the theatre for enjoyment (rather than with a critical eye) before they’ve seen the piece themselves. I know, I’m not being very realistic in thinking that we can keep people from reading critical comment before buying theatre tickets but hey, this is Dreamland (second awful pun intended)! You never know, it could be the support that new writing needs before it gets snubbed by critics at the first hurdle – but that’s a whole other debate for another day

Until then, I think reviewers need to take a leaf out of my Dad’s book. His ‘Miss Saigon’ review read: 

I can’t fully remember the original (it was 1989!!) 
Take note people, it was 1989! Move on. 
cont…
It was every bit as good. All of the leads were excellent, particularly The Engineer and Kim. The audience were so enthusiastic. You’ll definitely love it (and you’ll blub – no question!).
Nailed it, Dad. When in Doubt, ask a Ridout. 
Happy seeing Miss Saigon!
(Day seat queue for £20 front row tickets. Arrive before 7am – it’ll be worth it. I promise.)
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Pre-show.

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Post-show.

 

“But I know, I have a heart like the sea. A million dreams are in me…”
“Good Jesus, John, who is she? “
Eva Noblezada, THAT’S WHO.
– Rebecca Ridout
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