Chaired by Mark Shenton (Sunday Express), this was a panel discussion with producer Nica Burns (Nimax Theatres), Jonathan Church (artistic director, Chichester Festival Theatre), playwright David Eldridge and actress Hattie Morahan.
Discussing whether and when they read reviews and what effect they had either on that or future work, it was interesting to hear how critics had influenced individual careers.
Jonathan Church declared that he had always felt critics were fellow travellers and it was clear that these industry professionals saw critics as having an important role. Hattie Morahan, talking of reading reviews of other people’s work, tended to gravitate towards certain critics with whom she was familiar, but now found herself increasingly going online.
David Eldridge always reads reviews but as a writer saw it as part of his job to take responsibility and be protective of actors and others. Recognizing the importance of a healthy critical culture, he used to take criticism to heart but doesn’t feel the same way because of the confidence in his own work brought by 15 shows.
There was criticism of the prevalence of the single press night and the pressures it brings and its unbalanced audience, but spreading critics over several performances has its own problems too.
It was acknowledged that critics sometimes spot what isn’t working, and Church commented that even if they got that wrong it might point the director towards another aspect that was the real problem.
There seemed a consensus that critics were needed and most did a good job. As Nica Burns remarked, they were important for selling a show and people have a desire for serious critical assessment that takes in the history of playwriting and how we got here.
Times have changed and and it is vital that such changes get to a wider arena. Critics are needed who contribute to the growth of theatre and the debate about what theatre should be. “We need people who write properly, who lay their argument out—and I fear that is what we may be going to lose. I would fight to retain it”
Theatre folk come out strongly in favour of critics. They feel hostility, as Hattie Morahan put it, when a review is criticising something about the actor’s personal appearance or when the critic has not made the effort to engage.”