Blogger etiquette: reviewing a preview

Like most theatre bloggers, I regularly write about shows I’ve seen at a preview performance. Mostly, it’s a matter of convenience – theatre blogging isn’t a job for me so I can’t guarantee to get to every performance exactly on its press night – and there is also an element of trying to get a review out there as early as possible in a run to maximise its relevance.

I got a message on twitter this morning from a member of the cast of Men Should Weep taking issue with this:

you 'reviewed' a preview. which isn't the show. hence the term preview. critics understand the process, and the difference.

It seems that I wasn’t the only one with whom this cast member was unhappy. Life In The Cheap Seats got a similarly themed message in the early hours of this morning.

I’m all for performers engaging with bloggers – I think it shows that they care about the work – so I don’t object in the least to this person reaching out to say they didn’t agree with my review and that they thought I hadn’t given the show the chance it deserved.  We can agree to disagree.

Nevertheless, it raised an interesting query: are we bloggers within our rights to review previews?

The narrow answer is that of course we are. Unlike the critics who dutifully wait for press night, we are paying customers and we can write about whatever we like whenever we like. As @webcowgirl says “I pay, I write“, and I struggle to say that she’s not within her rights there.

The reviews I write are deliberately personal and subjective – the entire premise of this blog (and the reason I don’t, for instance, give star ratings) is that I never pretend to be an arbiter of taste. I write what I think, and I always try to do it as if I were writing to a friend asking what I thought of a show. Would I recommend Men Should Weep to such a friend? No. Would I refuse to answer because I’d seen a performance three days before the press night? I doubt it.

There is, however, an argument that even bloggers (even bloggers like me) have a duty to our readers to write a review which is representative of the show that they will see if they go out and buy a ticket (or the show they will miss if they don’t). Does attending a preview allow a writer to make this judgement?

The cast member in question is clearly of the opinion that it doesn’t. She bluntly states that a preview “isn’t the show”. Fair enough, that’s her view.

I’m less sure. If it “isn’t the show” then what are we all paying to see? Previews run for a week and while they’re cheaper, they’re not that cheap: at £28.50 for a ticket it’s not like we owe them a favour. Shouldn’t the thousands of people paying up for preview seats get to see “the show” too? Is a preview really so unrepresentative of the show that no conclusions can be drawn from it? I note, for instance, that the cast of this show have had no issue retweeting positive comments about it based on previews, so they must attach some credence to what these audiences think.

In any case, is the performance that proper critics see any more representative of the run going forward than a preview? In my experience press nights are some of the most unusual and unrepresentative performances I’ve ever seen – Rory  Kinnear advises actively avoiding them.

Leaving the principle aside, I come back to wondering whether I have done this show or my readers a disservice by reviewing an unfinished product (albeit a finished product that the creators were willing to show to paying customers)? I can’t be sure, but I really don’t think so.

I fully recognise that things change during previews. Staging tightens up, lines are cut, performances bed down. If I’d called the staging clumsy or lines misread or the performances unpolished then I could understand why the cast might feel they hadn’t been given a chance to ramp up to opening night, but that wasn’t the issue at all. In fact, my review was (uncharacteristically) polite about the production itself, saying it would be “difficult to imagine a more thoroughly designed, directed and performed production of the play” but taking issue with the text and the tone – things which two more run throughs before press night weren’t going to fix.

Do I understand where the tweeting cast member is coming from? Sure, if I’d worked hard on something I’d want people to judge the finished product.

Should I have refrained from reviewing a preview? I don’t think so. The tone of my review makes it very clear that it is a subjective view of a particular performance. Half of it is an anecdote about my being confused about which play I was even going to see, for crying out loud, so there’s a good level of self-deprecation in there anyway – I don’t think anyone could claim that I was representing myself as the absolute authority on the quality of this theatrical work. (For that I, of course, defer to the twin guardians of our national theatrical estate, Messrs Billington and Spencer)

Should I have stated more clearly that I was writing about a preview? Maybe – but given that my concerns were largely unrelated to issues with the production or performances themselves, and focused more on the play, I don’t feel too bad about it.

Maybe I am wrong about Men Should Weep. Maybe the reasons I didn’t like it (a bit boring, quite depressing) were ironed out before Billington et al got to see it. Maybe.

So here’s my offer: if the NT press office comp me a ticket I’ll steel myself and go see it again (taking my total investment in the play to five and a half hours, admittedly a fraction of that of the cast but still quite a long time) with an open mind and write honestly about whether my views have changed. I’m sceptical, but genuinely willing to be proved wrong. Otherwise, I’m afraid my previous review stands and I make no apologies for it.

Bloggers, actors, critics: what do you think? Am I out of line here?