Friday Briefing: Going beyond my critical zone

Friday Briefing: Going beyond my critical zone and being honest in my reviews

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Getting out of my comfort zone

For over 40 years now (since I moved to London at the age of 16), I have so doggedly devoted myself to going to the theatre that I've largely missed out on life outside of it. I recently wrote here of discovering the joys of television, in which I said: "Thanks partly to being married to someone who does enjoy television, and partly thanks to the availability of programmes on Netflix and other streaming platforms, I'm now in the process of catching up on (some of) what I missed. I could very well never leave the house again, were it not for the fact that there's still theatre to see."

But this week I was invited to present an award at the National Dance Awards (I'm pictured here with Gavin Sutherland, musical director for English National Ballet, who I presented with an award for Outstanding Contribution), held at the Barbican on Wednesday in my capacity as president of the Critics' Circle (which represents critics across every arts discipline, from theatre and cinema to visual art, music, dance and literature), and realised that there's another art form I've also almost entirely missed out on, and that's contemporary and classical dance. Of course, much of this work often feeds into the theatre - British choreographers like Matthew Bourne and Kate Prince have regularly crossed the divide, working in musicals as well as crafting original dance works - but I don't usually see their craft in the latter.

At the dance awards, each award was introduced by fantastic video footage that gave a taster of the work of each nominee, and showed me some of what I've been missing; and last night, as it happens, I booked myself in to see Message in a Bottle, the latest show from Kate Prince's ZooNation set to a soundtrack of songs by Sting. I have to admit right here and now that Sting was the attraction for me: I just love his songwriting, especially after his beautifully crafted score for the 2014 Broadway musical The Last Ship (which has subsequently toured the UK but not been seen in the West End yet). I suspect I am not alone in being drawn to see it for this reason, and is another brilliant example of cross-pollination between the arts and how the audience for one form can be widened by embracing work from another.

It reminded me of another jukebox 'dansical' I first saw on Broadway in 2002 - Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out, set to songs by Billy Joel, that gloriously told a powerful narrative purely in dance (to live accompaniment of Joel's songs, sung by an onstage pianist). But this time Prince mainly uses Sting himself, in versions of the songs some of which have been re-recorded by him with new arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, who comments in a programme note: "When you see Kate's choreography, danced to the music of Sting's magnificent songs, there's a magic in there... it hits you in a way that it might not have if you were just listening to it with headphones on."

So one art form not only feeds another, but amplifies and enriches the meaning of the other. And while I'm trying to actively reduce my theatregoing, it made me think that I need to get out more, too, but to different things.

Critical honesty

I've also previously written about how much personal information critics should, or should not, divulge in their reviews. Though I hate the kind of narcissism, particularly in restaurant reviewing, where critics make themselves the central character in their reviews, I also think it's dishonest not to insert yourself into the story, if you have a personal connection to it. The reader deserves to know exactly why it impacted on you as it did, so that they can make a judgement on whether it might affect them in the same way.

Very often I hear audiences saying that the critics must have seen a different show to them, but in fact what they mean is that we saw it through a different lens of experience. If I explain as clearly as I can what that lens is, then the audience is better equipped to know who I came to the judgement I did and act accordingly.

This occurred to me again not once but twice this week: first when I saw the new production of Caryl Churchill's A Number at the Bridge, about the relationship between a father and his son(s), and it affected me even more than when I saw the original production back in 2002. That's because I'm currently doing my own investigations into my family of origin and some of the trauma I was exposed to and continues to affect me now, through the help of a brilliant twelve-step programme. I duly mentioned this in my review, though I was careful not to breach the principles of anonymity that surround the fellowship by actually naming it and drawing public attention to it. It is, however, MY story and I can discuss my relationship to the play in the light of that.

Less controversially, when I reviewed the import of Be More Chill from Broadway, I was able to more freely reflect on its target audience -- and point out that I was obviously not amongst them. So should a teenager have reviewed it instead of me? Their perspective would undoubtedly be valuable. But in addressing my own comments, I made precisely clear that I recognised that I wasn't one myself. Which is ultimately all I can do - lay out the facts, and allow my readers to decide for themselves. Each of us can only ever engage with the world on our own terms; but readers need to know what those are. 

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Originally published on

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