Opinion: Should Performers Listen To Critics?

There is a long-held assumption among performers that critics get into a huddle during an interval and decide what they are going to say about a show. That way nobody risks going out on a limb and getting it wrong. If they all agree they must all be right. Right?

Except, of course, critics never collude. Or if they do they are doing it without me. When I go to a big comedy show in a theatre writers tend to stand around awkwardly in the interval and if we talk at all we make a point of talking about anything but what we’ve just seen. Trust me. It’s partly about self-preservation. Nobody wants to share a smart observation they think others might have missed.

Which brings me to Tape Face, which opened at the Garrick this week. Judging by the reviews you’d have thought we had been looking over each other’s shoulders as we took notes. We all praised it, but one other thing stood out. Almost everyone pointed to the length of the show, which was close to two-and-a-half hours. The Times called it “baggy” from behind their paywall. I felt it was a “unique two hours that could have been an even more striking ninety minutes.”

One maverick felt the longer 75-minute first half was pacier than the shorter second half but even they thought it was "excessive" overall. It definitely seemed like a consensus that it needed trimming. Nobody - freeloading journos or paying punters – would have felt shortchanged if this show had been two fifty minute halves plus an interval. 

Now maybe critics like a short show so that they can get home to work/get to the pub before last orders, but they are also professional enough to judge whether a show is the right length. I saw a dry run for this West End show at the Shaw Theatre last November and said the first half was overlong then. There are even two points around an hour when there are blackouts where it would have been perfectly natural for an interval. The was no narrative arc that desperately needed to be developed or resolved before the half-time oranges.  

I’m not necessarily saying that Tape Face should have reworked a hit touring show solely on the basis of what I wrote on this website in November, but there does seem to be critical agreement on this. Didn’t anybody else mention this to him? I was told that his wordless show doesn’t have a director but he does have a team that works with him. Were they - no pun intended - struck dumb? Didn’t they want to get to the pub before last orders?

So should a performer take any notice of what a critic writes? I sort of think they should. In some ways I see myself as offering a free set of director’s notes. They can ignore them if they want of course, but critics do know a bit about what they are writing about. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a few comedy writers have recently been trying to supplement their income by offering to advise-slash-direct Edinburgh shows. Something I think our reviews do for free. Pointing out what works, what doesn't, what's hack, what's smart, etc.

I can only think of one example where a performer has changed a show after reading my review. That was John Robins a few years ago, who agreed with me that his Fringe show didn’t have a very strong ending and wrote one. To be honest it was early in his Edinburgh run and he probably knew it himself already. My review just confirmed what he thought.

But maybe performers should take more notice of critics more often. After all, if they do what we suggest even if the show doesn’t improve how can we give it a bad review if we see it again - it would just make our initial opinions seem misguided. And no critic would want that. Win win. 

Update: by coincidence I just came across an example of a comedian changing his show following a review. After the Guardian's Brian Logan gave Jonathan Pie a negative write-up Pie decided to add a bit more to the show - slagging off the Guardian.


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