Opinion: Do Critics Review The Show Or The Performer?

Are critics reviewing the performance we see or the performance that should be taking place? It’s an issue that has troubled me for a while and came to a head this week when I reviewed James Acaster. I called him a “comic genius” so somebody quite fairly asked me why I had only given him four stars rather than five. 

I explained that while the show is clearly brilliant a couple of things did not seem to work on the night I was in. In the middle Acaster fluffed a gag and towards the end he had a problem with the microphone stand. I didn’t mention these hiccups in the review as his show is so sophisticated they might have been scripted (particularly the second hiccup, which fitted in with narrative. If the first gaff was intended it didn't really work so he gets marked down either way), but for me they slightly took the shine off an impeccable performance. It was as if I was seeing a great gymnast slip. I couldn’t give them full marks could I? Even though on another night they might be perfect.

The problem cropped up again a couple of nights later when I went to see Alfie Brown. He was also going great guns until he clearly started to get irritated by a sniffing woman in the front row. After he had asked her politely to stop blowing her nose over his punchlines a woman a few seats from me shouted out “Stop picking on her, she may have hay fever or something”. 

Brown was probably more broadsided by the chastisement than the snuffles. He got some good ad libs from it, but I’m not sure if the show ever fully recovered. So do I review the show that I saw or the show that this was clearly shaping up to be and will no doubt be on other nights? If it was a football match you review the player’s performance in the match you see, not their potential. But somehow stand-up seems different. These are usually scripted shows. A football match is almost more like improvisation - using your armoury of skills, but not necessarily knowing what might happen next.

This issue was then brought into focus when I read the small print in a press release about the forthcoming West End transfer of Showstopper! The Musical. This is the impro hit in which a new musical is created every night based on audience suggestions. In a move I’ve never encountered before the producers are asking critics to attend two performances, “to fully appreciate the uniqueness of each performance.” This could, however, be interpreted another way. They want critics to see two performances so that if they have an off-night the first time they might at least see them firing on all cylinders in the second one*.

I can see the logic of this. In fact shows that are nominated for the main Foster’s Award are seen twice by the judges, but second opinions are very rare in comedy**. And in journalism in general for obvious reasons. I'm looking forward to my editor's face at the Standard when I ask for two fees for two visits to Showstopper. It feels like Showstopper wants two bites at the cherry, whereas most shows only get one. I would imagine James Acaster and Alfie Brown might like me to come back on another night too. 

*Someone told me that Daniel Kitson's Tree was completely ruined for them because on the night they went Kitson berated a fan for having their phone on. It scuppered the momentum of his show and made my friend feel awkward.

**Actually I now remember that I did once go to a show twice. I'd missed the first few minutes due to Arsenal playing at home and causing traffic chaos and I gave the show 1 star. They complained so I returned the following night just to check in case I had missed something crucial. It was still 1 star.


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