A Critical Approach to Theatre Criticism

This week, our theatre is host to DULOG’s production of Dogfight by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duchan, adapted from Bob Comfort’s 1991 film of the same title.

The initial premise of the film and show is not, perhaps, the most obvious foundation for an all-singing, all-dancing musical. In a world of casual cruelty and looming war, three marines compete to bring the ugliest girl to a dance on their final night in San Francisco in a blatant and fairly outrageous act of misogyny. However, in terms of both valuing and reviewing theatre, somewhat separating a piece from its either problematic or questionable content is an important balance to manage. After all, so many of the best musicals are born from the most bizarre of contents – founding fathers of America, anybody?

In a review of Dogfight’s most recent UK run at the Southwark Playhouse last year, one critic was seemingly blind-sighted by this issue, causing outrage in the theatre community as his heavily critical review considered the warped ethos of the musical’s characters synonymous with the quality of the show. Such an attitude not only fails to give any assessment of the talent demonstrated in the production – which, for the most part, is what readers are looking for when deciding what to see and what to miss – but also assumes a lack self-awareness and critical judgement on the part of both the production team and audiences, as if both parties were as susceptible to copy-cat behaviour as the soldiers of Dogfight.

Image by Molly Goetzee

In this case, moreover, it also does a great disservice to the musical’s ultimate message. It is a story about learning, forgiving and breaking out of a herd-like mentality to establish unexpected and much deeper connections. With music from the composers of La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman, it is a sure-fire winner, so long as audiences and reviewers look beyond its surface level content.

When considering pieces like Dogfight, the power and importance of discussion beyond the walls of the theatre becomes very clear and, of course, is a subject to which reviews make a substantial contribution. Contrary to this, in 2017, David Mamet made a divisive attempt to prevent post-show discussion of his work entirely by fining theatres that did so $25,000. His justification was that he considered theatre not just a newspaper editorial, but rather a place to deal with spiritual rather social issues: “to celebrate the mysteries of life”, not to try and uncover them.

Yet in so many of the worlds’ greatest plays, the social and the spiritual are indivisible. From Hamlet to The Cherry Orchard, Death of a Salesman to Look Back in Anger (which is coming to the Assembly Rooms with Elysium Theatre Company in May), art has forever explored, challenged and celebrated the overlaps between public and personal domains, often encouraging a reassessment of our values and priorities as individuals and a collective. Some works have even actively sought audience opinion within the texts themselves; in James Grahams’ Quiz (2018), audiences were asked to vote on the credibility of the play’s events using devices attached to their seats.

What we can gather from this melee is that theatre criticism is a bit of a maze. To review the content or the production? To go deeper than a star-rating for instant dismissal or praise, or to keep things simple and avoid finding meaning where there is none? Reviews: to be or not to be at all? Ultimately, reviewing a piece of art is as subjective as it gets. Perhaps the most important recommendation any theatre critic might give is to take their words with a pinch of salt – and go and see what you think for yourself.

On that note, tickets to Dogfight are available here.


By Elvira Parr