Criticising the Critics: Why reviewing performance is impossible

In my day job I work for an exam board and coordinate practical drama exams (my life is surrounded by DRAMA!) and I recently attended a training day for our examiners, it became clear that analysing performance is actually impossible, unlike other performance exams such a music it feels utterly subjective, even guidance seems impossible to decipher, especially in the brief time examiners have to analyse a performance. It made me wonder; how exactly does a critic judge a good performance.

As someone who writes and reviews I wish there was a guide book for critics, detailing what requirements a play must have to get 5 stars because I highly suspect they just make it up as they go along. It doesn’t help that there seems to be a lot of love for large theatres with star names and very little time or tolerance for smaller theatres above pubs.

My suggestion is a marks system-which I have stolen from one of my job’s exams!

A production is rated out of 100 on;

  • Group dynamic
  • Individual performances
  • Staging
  • Design (including set, props and costume)
  • Technical (including lighting and sound)

It makes far more sense for a critic analyse all these important elements separately rather than be blinded by the star name, the incredible set or how good the interval ice cream was, I would ideally include this in all reviews. Video game reviews use a similar out of 100 rating system and it is pretty clear that anything under 60 is probably not worth someone’s time but it has its flaws. What do I know about technical or design beyond “The lighting was good, I could see the set” or “the set was pretty”. It could be argued “What do I know about a good play!”


I am not suggesting we remove all reviews but there needs to be a consistency, too many reviews which seem like 2 stars at best are then given 5 star reviews. I know there is probably some politics I am not privy too but it is alienating theatre goers, confused by why they’ve just paid £50+ to see something utterly dreadful, muttering “but Michael Billington said it was good” as they leave the theatre.

One response to “Criticising the Critics: Why reviewing performance is impossible”

  1. There’s an argument with criticism of the arts that the consistency comes from the critic themselves. You the reader have to get to know the critic well enough to understand whether you might agree with their point of view or not.

    That aside, it would be nice to see people outside of niche trade journals/websites critiquing costumes, sets, lighting, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: