Features Published 17 September 2018

Theatre reviews, decoded

For your entertainment, three Exeunt writers reveal the hidden meanings behind the shorthands that theatre critics fall back on.
Exeunt Staff

This may not be an actual theatre review. Photo: Niabot, via Wikimedia Commons

Putting your experience of a show into words is a messy business. A mass of feelings and memories and criticisms has to be poured into the modest vessel of a theatre review, and a lot gets spilled. Critics often fall back on neat phrases to gesture at flaws they’re reluctant to spell out, or to wave impotently at a whole mass of ideas that would take a PhD thesis to explore. For your entertainment, three Exeunt writers are here to crack the code, and reveal the true meanings behind some of the shorthands that critics fall back on when deadlines, wordcounts and writers’ block bite.

“evocative” – it made me feel things, but they are either too personal or too nebulous to reveal, and I’m too lazy to interrogate them further (Fergus Morgan)

“atmospheric” – I know I was meant to feel something but I was also thinking about chips (Francesca Peschier)

“enigmatic/gnomic/impenetrable” – I had absolutely no idea what was going on, and am currently having an existential crisis centred on my unsuitability for a career in theatre criticism (Alice Saville)

“in the era of #MeToo”
– it had women in it and the reviewer is a lazy fucking bastard (FP)

“iffy” – completely fucking inappropriate (FM)

“problematic” – why oh why did they write this in the year of two thousand and eighteen (AS)

“dated gender politics” – I wanted to take out every single male cast member with well-aimed copes of SCUM Manifesto (AS)

“anarchic” – they threw stuff at us then implied we were all awful people for paying £15 to come watch them in a theatre, when clearly we should be out blowing up a bank or something (FP)

“meta-theatrical” – wait, so it’s theatre, that knows it’s theatre? My brain is melting… (AS)

“on-the-nose political references” – there was almost certainly someone wearing a Trump wig (AS)

“gig theatre”
– there was singing with stand up microphones but not that much dancing, and this reviewer feels it was a bit too cool to call it a musical (FP)

“simple but striking” – I liked the set but it wasn’t like it shot fireworks or anything, just some well nice chairs (FP)

“poor production values” – In trad theatre: someone slammed a door and the mantlepiece fell off. In live art: the ‘Windows’ logo kept popping up on the projector screen (AS)

“slick” – they moved boxes/chairs around quickly in between scenes (FM)

“bad sightlines”
–  I couldn’t see a bleeding thing, so 90% of this review is guesswork based on the movements of the top two inches of the actors’ heads (AS)

“visceral” – I needed an extra word to make sure I hit the wordcount, so I used this one (FM)

“soothing”/”ponderous”/“lulling”/”soporific” – the reviewer nodded off (AS)

“interminable” – this reviewer remained awake, but was so bored they spent 90% of it planning their funeral (AS)

“X actor was wildly charismatic/magnetic” –  the closest most critics will ever get to a public declaration of love and/or blind lust (unless it’s a certain right-leaning newspaper, in which case the thigh-rubbing starts here) (AS)

“uneven performances”
– oof, there were some painful moments but I don’t want to lay into specific actors because they were probably paid around 33p for their performance and rehearsed in an asbestos-infested shed (AS)

“devastating”/”a gut-punch” – this opened up an existential void which could only be filled with a swimming pool-sized vat of post-show wine (AS)

“coruscating”/”febrile”/”invidious”/”meretricious” – I sure as hell couldn’t define these words but using them makes me feel alive (AS)

“joyous” – trite as it sounds, this reminded me why I love theatre (AS)

For more trope-identifying silliness from Exeunt, read our piece on (Mostly) Irrational Theatre Dislikes. Or browse our more sensible features coverage here. We promise that 99% of the time, we take writing about theatre very, very seriously.


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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