In the lyrics of the Beatles’ song Penny Lane there’s a nurse who’s ‘selling poppies from a tray and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway…’ And aren’t we all? But the role of the theatre critic is more than posing with a pencil like a cigarette holder in the stalls. Mark Fisher takes the reader behind the scenes, as it were, to share his deep knowledge gathered over his years in the business.
Fisher offers a metaphorical paintbox to choose from and concludes that ‘There are no rules. All you can do is get out there and paint.’ There may be no rules but across the 20 chapters Fisher offers a series of guidelines that cover the wide spectrum of issues and angles that should be considered when taking on this role viewed by some as being a bit of a jolly. Au contraire! The quote from Kenneth Tynan that ‘A critic is someone who knows the way, but can’t drive the car’ is an apt metaphor for the job and Fisher gives a set of ‘driving lessons’ in the form of rigorous workshop style exercises at the end of each chapter.
Whether your remit is to encourage ticket sales or to give oxygen and encouragement to a touring show, Fisher reminds that what is written should be interesting and entertaining. Loosely in the spirit of the Morecambe and Wise sketch with André Previn where Eric played Grieg’s notes but ‘not in the right order’, a good review is a response to and not a replica of a show.
The reader is reminded that a critic should be informed by wider social connections, genres, movements as well as the world of arts science and politics. They should be alive to the influence of an audience whether it be high clapping partisan crowd or a tight lipped unamused one, as well as to considering the effect of the physical space where the performance takes place.
Fisher taps in on the expertise and acknowledges the influence of theatre critics from past and recent history as well as of contemporaries to the craft. Particularly poignant is the story from one of our colleagues who experienced a Killing Me Softly moment while reviewing a show. This personal experience is used to remind us of how to ‘[turn] …vulnerability into creative energy’ by allowing space between the raw emotion that a play can induce. It takes confidence to tap in on emotion then to capitalise on that to create a more cerebral piece.
It also takes confidence to find that important first sentence to entice the reader, then a voice and style to keep them reading. Fisher draws a light hearted analogy of wanting to look your best at a party by laying out clothes from an extensive wardrobe to decide on the most suitable outfit and just as when making a sartorial choice, that instinct can be the best guide when starting an article.
Shakespeare told us that ‘all the world’s a stage’ and now all the world and his wife are theatre reviewers, thanks to the blurring world of Twitter, TripAdvisor, blogs and even comments spaces. These spaces are open to everyone with access to the internet but Fisher reminds that a reviewer and critic has to question the ‘why’ of liking or disliking. Their opinions have to be backed up with clear, reasoned argument. They have to be honest without being rude and be able to rise above his or her own prejudices, and we all have them. Some shows may not be to a critic’s own taste but this book reminds that the same methods and disciplines apply when writing about them.
Reviewing or criticising can be scary thing - a stepping on to another stage that’s not half as scary as the real one but still a public forum. Fisher takes a kindly non- hectoring tone to impart his experience and research in this entertaining and informative must- read for budding, blooming or even slightly bloomed theatre critics. It is clearly written, widely researched and in the typically even handed and generous style of the author, holding either pertinent reminders or revelations of how to practise the craft of writing for theatre from the cerebral Colossus to bears of little brain.
It is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
ISBN: HB 978-1-4742-4629-3