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29 June 2011
Critical embargoes and the Barbicanís slumber party ó 10.30am update

Mark Shenton: The Stage

What’s the difference between a tweet, a blog, a review and a feature — and which one does an embargo apply to? I’ve been exploring the changing dynamics of the interactions between the theatre and the reviewing/reporting media, whether by professional paid writers or by unpaid
 enthusiasts, for some time now, and just yesterday was writing about how press releases now routinely follow the news, rather than actually break it, since Twitter so often gets there first.

I’ve also previously pointed out another obvious fact: that 
bloggers (and bulletin board posters) also don’t have to wait for an officially 
sanctioned date for when reviews can appear, since of course they buy their
 tickets and so don’t have to wait for the official first night. But the
 distinctions are starting to blur, and even collapse.

An extreme example, of course, was Spider-man -
Turn off the Dark, where - following the third postponement of the
 official opening, the critics (including myself and the Telegraph’s Charles
 Spencer from Britain) simply turned up anyway and bought a ticket in early
 February and reviewed what was then, over two months into previews, still a

With the producers selling their tickets at full price and no 
concessions made for that previewing status, it seemed only the right and 
proper thing to do: critics were the only people who seemed 
to be barred by professional etiquette from commenting on what was then an
 unfolding - and more importantly newsworthy — fiasco.

But if we sought to buy back (in every sense) a bit of our power on that occasion - and were 
rewarded, for our efforts, by even more delays to the formal opening, with the
 next March date also cancelled and finally moved to earlier this month - there
 are other occasions when it’s becoming impossible to tell what is a review, 
commentary or feature.

Duckie’s latest Barbican show, Lullaby, has invited critics in to see the show to three separate performances, Sunday, last night (when I saw it and have just returned from seeing, or rather sleeping through - no, not a dereliction of duty, but entirely the point of the
 show!), and tonight.

The Barbican press office issued a request last week, explaining that the final press 
performance is Wednesday June 29. “Critics reviewing that performance will
be leaving the Barbican the following morning, i.e. Thurs 30 June, after 
breakfast/showering. In the interest of fairness please could I request that 
your review does not appear online or in print until after midday on Thurs 30
 June, to allow critics, who attended the final press performance, time to get
 home and write their reviews.”

Of course there have already been extensive preview features in the Daily Telegraph and Observer explaining the impetus and intention behind the show that whetted my appetite.

But on Monday, John O’Mahony went one stage further, with a 
blog on The Guardian website that actually explained exactly what happened on the

And how is what he wrote different to a review? “If
 anything, the show itself works far too well. Performers in oversized 
baby-grows prance around singing songs about rotating octopi or lull us with 
surreal adult bedtime stories. My original plan had been to write this blog
 actually during the show, scribbling away under the duvet with a torch, like a 
little boy illicitly reading comics after lights out. But even before the
 interval - during which brandy nightcaps were served - I was already dropping 
off, lulled by the over-articulated, children’s telly anti-charm of the piece
 (as well as the unfeasibly soft and comfy mattresses). The last thing I remember
 was a shoal of huge, transparent tropical fish floating above the bed - though
 might that have been a dream?”

So much for embargoes. But I will continue to respect the
 one set and even though I’ve just come home from seeing it, I won’t be
 reporting here on what I experienced (or didn’t, when I was sound asleep), apart from making one observation: O’Mahony reports someone commenting over breakfast after he saw it, “I woke up in the middle of night. And the whole theatre was snoring in unison, completely synchronised!” Last night, there was no snoring at all — or perhaps I just didn’t hear it because I was.

Yet if O’Mahony used a critical vocabulary and references in his blog that makes it
 indistinguishable from a review, that means the rest of the critical fraternity are being caught napping in every sense by withholding our reviews till the sanctioned date. But amateur bloggers have no hesitation in
 labelling what they write as reviews, whenever they post them.

The world changed a little forever with the Love
 Never Dies debacle, which the West End Whingers famously saw an early
 preview of and gave their instant verdict to, dubbing it Paint Never
 Dries. That phrase, of course, came to be attached to the show like a 
bad smell, pursuing it whenever it was written about. 

And last weekend, the Independent’s Arts editor David Lister
 even went so far as to attribute 
the show’s entire failure to them.

He writes, “Forget the stories that the initial 
reviews were poor. They were the usual mixed bag, with this paper actually 
giving the show a five-star rave. When the production was tweaked recently by 
impresario Bill Kenwright, it became even better, as a quote from my own review
 of the tweaked production says on the posters. This show is not closing because
 of anything the recognised critics may have written. It is closing because of 
three words used by an anonymous blogger. This phantom blogger (if Lord 
Lloyd-Webber will excuse the description) attended a preview, disliked it, and
 posted a blog before the show had even officially opened under the name West
 End Whingers. He (or perhaps she) pungently nicknamed the musical ‘Paint Never 
Dries’. The joke, just the right length for a headline, was picked up by a 
number of newspapers and spread rapidly on the net. To the fury of Andrew Lloyd
 Webber, the agenda was set before the opening night. Those three little words
 appeared in article after article, and Love Never Dies never 
really recovered.”

In describing the lazy journalism that saw those three words 
become a headline story, however, Lister proves the laziest of journalists,
 too, in not seeking out the identity or even gender of the Whingers, or indeed
 even noticing that there are two, not one, of them (the giveaway clue is in the 
fact that they dub themselves the West End Whingers, not Whinger).

In fact, a
 cursory glance at the site reveals that their names are male, and their names
 are Andrew and Phil. 

I know them both; their identities are hardly a secret anymore. So do lots of West End producers and press agents. But even more interesting, Phil tells me that he’s actually met Lister, too. So either Lister is suffering a bad attack of amnesia, or that inconvenient fact gets in the way of the
 narrative he’s seeking to tell so he’s chosen to ignore it. 

That narrative, of course, is of a reduction in the power of 
the critic and the increasing power of bloggers: and, he claims, “West End producers are panicking. They may have never loved the 
established critics, but they knew their foibles; they knew where they were 
coming from, and they knew they would usually wait for the official first
 night.” (Not, of course, if they work for the Independent, ironically — it was Lister who sent a critic, uninvited, to the very first public performance of Butley at the Brighton Festival recently, as I wrote here at the time)

Yet, he goes on, “The bloggers don’t abide by rules; their views are utterly
 unpredictable, and they have a large readership.”

 And this, he says, points to the democratisation of criticism. “Every theatre goer has a right to express 
their view about a show. No one group of writers has a monopoly on criticism 
any more. I firmly expect to see positive blogs and tweets quoted on the
 billboards outside theatres in the future. And no amount of threats will keep 
the negative ones away for long. The new age of criticism is here. And Andrew 
Lloyd Webber, as so often, is in the vanguard. He has just become the first

Lister is, in fact, again out of touch. Tweets have indeed already 
been quoted in press ads and front-of-house boards for West End shows,
 including the recent run of In a Forest, Dark and Deep at 
the Vaudeville, as I wrote here 
at the time.

And as I said, “The question, however, is whether anyone will
 believe them, let alone buy tickets based on them. It’s widely known that even
 press quotes are often heavily massaged and manipulated to fit the message that 
the producer is trying to sell; but there’s nothing to stop Twitter or bulletin
 board quotes from being entirely self-generated. I spotted this once before,
 when a PR agency called The Outside Organisation hilariously if rather
 dubiously quoted their own then Managing Director on their publicity for a 
client’s show. ‘The perfect night out - scrumptious food, a terrific show, 
impromptu dancing to end the evening… Heaven!’, Penny McDonald was quoted as 
saying. So if you don’t get the quotes you want, you obviously make up your
 own, and by naming yourself as the source, you’re presumably in the clear. Or
 are you? Surely there’s an implied inference that a quote is independent, and
 not on the inside - even if, in this case, inside means being Outside.”


All bets are now off. It turns out that the reviewing embargo has either been broken or lifted, as reviews have now appeared in both the Daily Telegraph and Financial Times so far. As well as a blurring between blogging and reviewing that I’ve mentioned above, critical confusion clearly reigns on the reviewing front, too, now. 

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