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Theatre criticism is a quick and dirty act – our views change and so do plays | Theatre

Should have been allotted the full five stars … Wise Children by Angela Carter.

I went to see a play for the second time recently and changed my mind about it. If that sounds like an innocent statement in itself, it is surely a mea culpa for a critic who delivered a damning star-rated judgment the first time around.

Or is it? The production was Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, which is currently at the Royal Court. I reviewed it in October 2021, when it was first mounted at the New Diorama theatre, and I was unequivocally disappointed. All the more so because I was sure I was going to like it, having been blown away by Cameron’s previous drama, Typical, streamed during lockdown. That play drew on the last day in the life of Christopher Alder, and I was so moved by its story, so exhilarated by its language, that it took me several cups of tea to calm down afterwards.

For Black Boys … is an ensemble piece about masculinity – the ways in which young Black British men can be reduced on a daily basis and the effects of this othering. I read the script before watching it and saw its power on the page. But in its original incarnation, it looked to me like a play in need of serious development, as I wrote in my review.

Does my change of mind, on second viewing, render me a flibbertigibbet whose critical judgment changes with the wind? In my defence, the Royal Court itself said Cameron’s play had been considerably developed since last autumn and what I saw last week looked like a different show in many respects. While the cast remains the same, Cameron now co-directs the production with Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu (its original director). The lighting is astounding. So is the choreography. Lines are spoken with poise and power. The entire thing is well-paced, sharply comic, full of pain and beauty.

Dramaturgically it is remarkable to see how far a show can come in its development. This is ultimate proof that a two-star show has the potential to be a five-star hit if it is given the time and resources. Brilliant young playwrights should be allowed to fail too, as the writer Samuel Bailey recently pointed out to me (he is also a fan of Cameron’s work). In this instance, Cameron has not failed better but blown the roof off.

Still, a part of me wonders why some theatres invite in the critics when a show is clearly still working itself into being, especially one by an emerging playwright for whom a review might be defining. By contrast, I have been asked to some opening nights on the proviso that I don’t review the show, either because it is still developing, as in the case of the Young Vic’s excellent experiment AI, or because of its urgent subject matter, such as the Royal Court’s Maryland, which dealt with violence against women, in the aftermath of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, and felt as much like a piece of activism as theatre. That is something theatres could do more often to protect young writers.

Should have been allotted the full five stars … Wise Children by Angela Carter.
Should have been allotted the full five stars … Wise Children by Angela Carter. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

But to return to the incriminated critic and my apologia: if a critic changes their mind, do they discredit themselves? No, because theatre reviewing is by its nature only ever an overnight response. A quick and dirty critical tradition, it is a very different proposition to book reviewing, for instance, where critics are given days, if not weeks, to formulate their views. Theatre reviewing is a more gut reaction, less penetrating because of its narrow deadline.

Some of the best plays defy easy reductions of their meanings and there are many shows whose themes I have not managed to fully unpick in the allotted 12 hours or so after coming out of the theatre. What frustrates me the most are my memories of reviews that rise up, refusing to be forgotten, for shows which might have been imperfect but should have been allotted the full five stars: Pass Over, Wise Children, Notes from the Field, Shedding a Skin. Imperfection, I have realised, is no bar to brilliance.

Of course star ratings can swing the other way too: I disliked Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem when I saw it in 2009; the casual racism and misogynistic bile spilling out of the mouths of the characters at the start alienated me and I did not remain open to the magic of the play’s other two acts which I only recognised in its current revival. The play still riles me for the same reasons – as well as a sense that it glories in insularity and sentimentalises a certain kind of Britishness – but I can better appreciate its craft and performance the second time around.

Second viewings are intimidating because they put our initial judgments to the test. Will we like the play, film or book as much or as little as we did or were we “wrong” the first time around? Neil Gaiman recently said he finds it hard to read Enid Blyton to his children which is “weird because I remember just how much I loved Blyton”. Whatever he adored then, he said, is no longer there now.

For many decades, I considered Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights my favourite novel, based on a first and only reading at the age of 15. My reluctance to re-read it over subsequent decades was out of fear I may have got it wrong as a teenager, and that I couldn’t trust the judgment of that younger self. But when I did pick it up again, in my 40s, I loved it for many of the same reasons – its outsider spirit, dark romance and wildness – as well as some new ones.

It is a reminder, for me at least, that what we liked the first time around is usually what we will like the second and third time, and that the first response is a valid one, even under pressure of a deadline. But Gaiman is proof that not everyone is the same and Cameron shows us that some work has a magnificent capacity to transform, so the critic’s opinion must follow.