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Ask Lyn: How often do critics change their minds?

Ask Lyn: How often do critics change their minds?

Ask Lyn: How often do critics change their minds? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, I saw in this week’s Stage Savvy newsletter that you didn’t give a favourable review to Les Miserables when it premiered, but you have since changed your mind. Does this happen often?" - Josh, Streatham

Dear Josh,

It happens all the time. Everyone should have the chance to see the error of their ways, and that includes theatre critics. What most people think about a show isn’t laid down in print or floating around the internet forever so they can recant their opinions in private. I sometimes come across old reviews I’ve written, and gasp out loud: “Lyn, how could you have thought that?” But that of course only comes with the wisdom of hindsight, and distance from the original occasion.

There are numerous examples of critics hating shows that have turned out to be huge successes, or that heralded a significant talent, from the poorly-received premiere of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party to the infamous reviews of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at the Royal Court. The latter led to a frenzy of recanting and self-flagellation. Nobody likes to be seen to be on the wrong side of history. In the case of Blasted I think it was as much the tone of the reviews as their content that caused such a furore.

But, of course, writing theatre criticism isn’t about trying to predict the future, nor is it about getting things right or wrong. It is merely an individual’s opinion, based on their experience of one particular night in the theatre. Necessarily that opinion comes laden with responsibility because both good and bad reviews can contribute (although I think seldom decide) the success or not of a particular production. So, while it’s an individual opinion, it is one that comes freighted, not least with the privilege of having a platform in the first place.

Photos by Johan Persson.

Great Aunt Cecily says that when trying to decide whether we should have boiled eggs or scrambled eggs for our tea, my indecision is final. But I think that applies to what I think about Hamlet too. It’s always worth remembering that a great deal of what we think about particular plays comes handed down to us wrapped up in dominant notions about what is good art and the long performance history that has won that work a place in the canon.

Go see a classic for the first time and you have to fight your way through all the thickets of cultural history that choke it, but I think as critics part of our job is to do that, and to do that in the context of changing social attitudes and political scenarios. Our response to a particular piece will be affected by the time in which it is written and produced.

So, no, I wouldn’t see being prepared to change my mind and re-evaluate my opinion over a particular show as a weakness or an inability to make up my mind, but rather an essential part of my job.

A review is only ever the start of a conversation, not the final word, and the best and richest conversations are always those where those involved don’t stick doggedly to their original opinion but are prepared to reflect, consider, listen to other outlooks and that means sometimes changing your mind.

Oh, I would add that getting a chance to listen to the soundtrack on repeat (in the case of a musical like Les Mis) almost certainly helps. In the case of musicals, familiarity is less likely to breed contempt than pleasure.

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Lyn Gardner

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