The West End has come roaring back over the past few weeks, welcoming audiences to massive, high-budget, spectacular new shows like Cinderella, Frozen, and – latest of all –Back to the Future. It all feels pretty much miraculous, especially when you consider what these shows are up against. They've had to postpone their opening nights three, four or even five times. They're having to fight for audiences in a London that's almost devoid of the international tourists who normally set box office tills ringing. And they're also vulnerable to the pingdemic: the long-awaited government insurance scheme covers them in the event of another lockdown, but doesn't offer payouts if cast members catch covid.
Shows taking the risk on reopening have been rewarded with a smattering of four and five star reviews. But are they deserved? In The Guardian, Vanessa Thorpe argues that "The arts have had it tough, but critics need to take off the kid gloves", pointing to the glowing reviews for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella as evidence that "reviewers are being too kind as the shadow of the pandemic finally lifts". Similarly, in Unherd, Dorian Lynskey wrote that "critics have never been so weak or timid", lamenting that there's no appetite for takedowns these days, as "critics are too easily lumped in with the trolls and “haters” who plague your timeline".
It's certainly true that very few of the major newspapers has dared slap a scathing two or one star review on a big West End opening since the pandemic started – which is tragic for anyone who enjoys the delicious thrill of a vitriolic review, like West End Whingers' notorious 'Paint Never Dries' review of one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's other recent attempts on theatreland, or the pastings for the Spice Girls "tawdry, lazy and unedifying" (The Daily Telegraph) musical Viva Forever.
But if critics aren't actively enjoying sticking the knife in these days, maybe that's because the barriers of opening a new show in the West End are currently so high that only the best, surest-to-please productions are making it through: there's just no room for oddities like The Knights of the Rose or ill-thought-out cash-ins like Viva Forever.
And although shows only pick the best reviews to slap on their poster, there are still plenty of meaningful critiques being made: the secret to getting a full picture is to look beyond the star ratings, and read as many perspectives as you can. On Stagedoor show pages, we feature all the critics' reviews: not just the glowing ones.
Back to the Future opened last night, and the reviews prove that critics aren't just mindlessly chucking gold stars around, like tipsy nursery school teachers with a roll of stickers. Read a range of reviews, and you'll get to decide whether you agree with The Telegraph's five star rave, which calls the show a "feelgood triumph", or The Times' two star pan, which claims it "stalls like an old DeLorean".
The real issue right now isn't "critics going soft", it's a loss of the platforms where new writers can sharpen their skills, and interrogate theatre beyond the biggest shows. A Younger Theatre recently announced the very sad news that it was going on an indefinite break, due of lack of funding, following in the footsteps of other shuttered publications LGBTQ Arts Review and Witness. Meanwhile, cash-strapped mainstream publications are covering less fringe and off-West End work than ever.
We need more critics and more perspectives - especially ones from writers who aren't (like most broadsheet critics) white, middle class and over 50. Stagedoor is adding new critics alongside Lyn Gardner, so we can offer even better coverage of London's theatre scene. Watch this space. And listen out for the sound of knives being sharpened...