Review Manifesto


From 2010 to late 2013 I served as the Times Chief Theatre Critic, a taxing and fascinating job.  From Palladium to pub backrooms, from Belfast to Bath, it was a constant challenge to describe and judge a British theatre which is unquestionably on a roll: surfing a wave of creativity, technical ingenuity, anger, humour, absurdity, emotion, political observation and human understanding.

I was always a theatregoer but while doing this job I felt more than just interest and pleasure (and occasional exasperation).  It seemed that honest vivid reviewing was a kind of duty: not merely a service to readers and potential ticket-buyers but to the art of theatre itself.  Producers, directors, designers and especially actors may sometimes not like what critics write, but they know that we are taking them seriously.  Not showing off, not wilfully misunderstanding, not dismissing whole genres or styles because we don’t naturally enjoy them.   We’re watching, trying to get the point, and reporting – as Tynan once put it, “honestly, accurately and gaily” what it felt like to be in that playhouse on that night.

I enjoyed the job.   When on Friday 13th September (a nicely dramatic date) I was told that the Times no longer wanted me to do it, I had so many messages of support and such a reluctance to walk away, that I decided to carry on anyway and see how it went. So this site, free of access, will carry as many reviews of important, interesting, or unusual shows as I can reasonably manage (and may give space to other critical voices from time to time). They will be the same as a newspaper review: reasonably brief, tightly edited, informative, sometimes perhaps amusing. Previewgoers’ tweets, blogs and rumours are fun online, but I wanted to respect embargoes just as print does, and to record the experience and quality of shows at the moment their producers believe them to be ready.
I will aim to get most reviews online as if for an overnight press deadline, within a couple of hours of the curtain call.  As this is not a general theatre information website (there are several excellent ones already) it will not carry photos, videos or interviews, and I hope this will make it fast-loading on any device for the benefit of late-night travellers stuck outside Milton Keynes or holed up in a business b & b with a dodgy phone signal. After all, I have been in that plight often enough these past three years.

A word about star ratings.  They are too blunt an instrument to judge an art as diverse as theatre, and I always hated them.  I would prefer people to read the words.  Often a four-star review contains clear clues that you personally might hate the show, and a two-star from an obviously jaundiced critic who nonetheless describes it well can make you go and have a look.
However, as one-to-five ratings are liked by theatres and some readers,  I will carry on.  I shall, however, ignore the ridiculous belief that “nobody reads three star reviews”,  and the equally ridiculous idea that you shouldn’t admit to having more than two or three five-star experiences a year. This causes an absurd pile-up of four-star reviews and makes the system less and less useful.
But, as a small gesture of independence, ratings will be expressed on this site not as five-pointed stars but as mice. Feel free to translate them.  I look forward to those evenings which get us right to the cheese…
5 Meece Rating
Libby Purves      11 October, 2013