Hannah Filer as Charlie Clench in 'One Man, Two Guvnors'Paul Ashley with permission for Varsity

I’ll admit it: I can be a little bit of a bitch. When I’m reviewing plays, that is (the rest of the time, I’m an utter delight). If something isn’t to my taste, I’m going to let you know. Mercilessly. If I think it is offensive, outmoded, or, worst of all, fails the audience, I’ll meticulously document the precise ways it wasn’t up to scratch, even if that means directors want to scratch my eyes out. And you know what? I’ll do it with a pun.

According to comedian Daniel Sloss, if someone’s only artistic achievement is getting fired from McDonald’s for spitting on their first burger, they have contributed more to the world than a critic ever could. To reach for a weighty philosophical tome, Anton Ego of Pixar’s Ratatouille takes a similar line. He asserts, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Peter O’Toole, “the work of a critic is easy… But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” They’re right. It’s easy to be a critic. It’s hard to be an artist. So how can a critic be trusted to thrust our opinions upon student theatre?

"It’s easy to be a critic"

I’d argue that we don’t have a choice. Every audience in every theatre is already a critic. Criticism comes naturally to us. Even if it’s a couple of minutes grumbling over a pint after a trip to the ADC, what you’ve just seen onstage will stick with you, forcing you to think about it, to analyse it. That’s criticism, baby. As for reviewing? Reviewing is just making it to your laptop in time to get that criticism down. There’s more pressure to be pithy, and less gesticulating with the aforementioned pint; but wherever you do it, the fundamentals are the same. Calling the legitimacy of reviewing into question brings the whole, glorious process crashing down. Are you really saying theatre isn’t worth talking about?

"Calling the legitimacy of reviewing into question brings the whole, glorious process crashing down"

I can already hear your next criticism. But Molly, you cry, clutching a particularly vitriolic one star review, do you have to be so harsh (re: bitch) about it? My answer: absolutely. The problem is, we’re forgetting that we’re students. I haven’t trawled Cambridge newspaper archives (because I have an already-neglected degree and a dust allergy), but I’m willing to bet that if I did, I’d find scathing reviews of Cambridge students who went on to become some of the biggest names in entertainment. I’d wager a bucket of Camdram credits that, across a three year degree, even Emma Thompson flubbed a line or two. John Finemore must have dashed off a sketch that didn’t quite hit the mark. Hell, I bet Mel and Sue took a while to perfect their comedic chemistry, way back in 19B.B. (Before Bake-Off). Tom Hiddleston would probably cringe to watch his turn in the Cambridge Greek Play. One term in Cambridge theatre was enough for Olivia Coleman. Okay, I’m guessing here, but my point stands. No one is perfect when they’re twenty-something, much less twenty-something and scrambling to finish their coursework. The Cambridge theatre scene should be a messy, grimy hodgepodge with blocking that occasionally makes us wonder whether the director has ever actually seen a stage. Most of Cambridge theatre is probably going to be – and I say this with the greatest level of respect, professionalism, even, dare I say it, affection – a bit shit.

"Why would I insult their potential by tailoring a review of their performance to student theatre standards when they’re clearly capable of more?"

For those of you frothing at the mouth right now, I hear you (please don’t ransack the ADC props department for weaponry and chase me down Kings Parade). You’re probably wondering why I would review Cambridge theatre if I’m oh-so-down on it. I’m obviously biased to a ludicrous degree, incapable of viewing even your thespian brilliance without tearing it to shreds before the first board (or suspiciously sticky floor of the Corpus Playroom) has been trod. My answer is simple. Yeah. Okay. Ya got me. I’m biased. I go along to any student theatre expecting something rough around the edges. Mentally, I knock one star off if a performance is the pinnacle of student theatre but lacking the spark that would make it a five star performance in the ‘real world’. Because here’s the thing. I think we (yeah, ‘we’; I’ll throw myself in here too) should be held to the same standards as all drama. It’s where Cambridge’s best and brightest are heading eventually. Why would I insult their potential by tailoring a review of their performance to student theatre standards when they’re clearly capable of more? A metric which took a piece that met the highest standards of student theatre as a five-star, perfect, sell-out production, would fail to distinguish a piece which broke through such bounds, if, or when, such a piece was performed. If I’m sitting spellbound in my ADC chair, watching one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, it would be a shame for my hypothetical five star review to be indistinguishable from something that’s a great offering for student theatre, but firmly within our expectations of (c)amdram.


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I’m thinking of the production of One Man, Two Guvnors I had the pleasure of reviewing last summer. “Corden could never,” I said, flippantly placing the production above the Tony Award-winning production starring James Corden. I stand by it. That production could have stood against any piece of professional theatre. I also stand by the fact that if I didn’t go along to ADC shows while in possession of the fact that this is still student theatre, I would have failed to notice that a show like One Man, Two Guvnors was something more.

I have one more thing to say in defence of the critic. I actually disagree with Sloss and (sacré bleu!) Ratatouille. I reckon the critic can create something of artistic value. They might even be an artist themselves, if they’re up to scratch. I’ve read reviews that have genuinely moved me. I’ve seen two hours of drama condensed into one pithy comment. It’s not unheard of for a comedy review to be funnier than the comedy itself. Reviews aren’t a parasite, clinging to theatre’s pongy underbelly. They’re a part of theatre. So when my next one star review rolls around, remember: it’s only because I care.