Tips of the Trade: Theatre Reviewers

Jane Edwardes, chief theatre critic, Time Out

It’s extremely difficult to get started. Bombard people like me and be persistent. You need to go and see things, then write trial reviews and send them in. There’s also a lot of luck involved. Stay alert in the theatre. A common mistake is that people try to get everything down. Just try to focus on, say, a couple of aspects of the play and your writing will have a lot more clarity. “Fine” and “great” are a bit meaningless, so try to avoid them. Back up what you have said. Say what exactly is good about the play and if you’re slagging something off, always explain why.

John Thaxter, freelance theatre critic,The Stage

It’s simple – be mad about theatre. You can’t write about it if you’re not passionate and have a good depth of knowledge. Also get an engaging first sentence and grab the balls of the reader as soon as you can.

Get hold of a copy of Theatre Criticism by Irving Wardle. It really is an excellent book and has helped so many people in their writing. Sit in the front row, get spat on and get involved, but whatever you do don’t take notes. You mustn’t put the actors off. Try to write the copy as soon as you get home. That way it’s still fresh in your mind.

Michael Billington, chief theatre critic, The Guardian

It may sound obvious, but the best way to be a critic is to get into print. Make sure someone knows you can write and once you’ve got proof, it’s amazing how much people notice. Have a structure in your head about what you are going to write. Work to the space you’ve got and try to get an opening sentence. Get one that reads well and you’re away. Don’t write vague phrases and avoid meaningless adverbs. Your choice of word has to add something to what it is you’re describing. Be totally honest to your own reactions and you won’t go far wrong. There’s a certain amount of “invisible pressure” when you start out as a critic to like certain things, but dishonesty makes for a bad review.

Linda Murdin, Freelance theatre critic, The Yorkshire Post

Always sit on the end of a row. That way you can beat the crowds. But never leave before the end of a production, no matter how dire it is. Things can change very quickly – you just never know. A good general rule is that a review must cover three things. It must be fair to the production, fair to the readers, and must stand on its own as a piece of writing. People think writing about the theatre is glamorous, but it’s not just swanning around. At the end of it, you have to write an informed and informative piece. And finally, be accurate. Always check and re-check the names of the cast, characters and actors.

Kevin Bourke, theatre critic, Manchester Evening News

Always know what you are talking about. By this I mean don’t assume the audience is going to know what you are talking about, but equally don’t write down to them either. Your job as a critic is a balancing act between writing for the general public and for people with a specific interest. Above all else, what you write has got to be an entertaining read.

Interviews by Sam Jessop

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