If you are thinking about entering Stagedoor's review competition you may be wondering: how do I write a theatre review? What’s the magic formula? I should know the answer to this question because I’ve been writing theatre criticism for over 30 years, but I can honestly say that every review I write feels different and every single one feels as if I am doing it for the first time. In fact, I often think that I couldn’t have kept doing it for 30 years if I thought I actually knew how to do it and had a formula I could follow. I am learning on the job.
You can have driving lessons and pass a test that says you know how to it, but nothing really prepares you for when a deer suddenly leaps out from the side of a Highland road on a dawn morning. When writing theatre criticism, you are constantly being surprised by deer, as theatre morphs and changes, form is interrogated, whose story is being told shifts and who is doing the telling shifts too. Theatre is a live thing and a good critic is alive to that.
So, there is no right or wrong way to write a theatre review, just as there is no right or wrong way to write a play or make a piece of theatre. A review can be anything: a pithy 500 characters on Stagedoor, a column in a broadsheet newspaper, a stream of consciousness written in the margins of the programme on the way home on the tube, a haiku carefully crafted over several days.
One of the beauties of theatre criticism—unless you are being commissioned to write it by a particular publication which will have their own distinct house style for reviews—is that you can write in whatever form you want. Most excitingly, you can if you desire, match the form of the review to the form or content of the show you’ve seen. Be bold. Experiment. Take a chance. Review Hamilton in rap form; outdo Beckett for poetic spareness.
If there is no right or wrong way to write a review—merely conventions of what we expect a theatre review to look and sound like— it’s worth remembering that when you are writing a review that there are no right or wrong answers either. You are not taking an exam. Writing a review is simply writing your personal response to the performance that you have experienced, whether that is online or in the theatre.
Honesty is the best policy. Just because a play is written by someone whose work has been previously lauded, whether they are Pinter or Pirandello, debbie tucker green or Simon Stephens, or because the play has been hailed a classic, doesn’t mean you have to like it. If you love musicals but have never got to grips with Caryl Churchill or vice versa, don’t get angsty about it.
Your personal aesthetic is one of the things that makes you who you are. Don’t be embarrassed because you love what you love and hate the shows that everyone else thinks are cool. A review in which you express your passions, and sometimes your prejudices, and nail your colours to the mast is always going to be a better read than one in which you hedge your bets and keep peering nervously over your shoulder in case your friends or professional critics think differently. It doesn’t matter what they think.
So, for the Stagedoor competition, I’d advise keeping it snappy, keeping it passionate, review something you either love or hate (reviews of shows that you thought were just so-so are hardest to write) and make it distinctive but not snarky. It’s your review so it should reflect you and your unique voice. Most of all, I’d say have fun writing it. I look forward to reading what you post on the site.