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Opinion: One Minus Plus One Equals “So What?” My Defense of the National Theatre’s Policy

plus one Concrete jumble. The brutalist bastion of British arts that is The Royal National Theatre. Photograph: Courtesy of Man Vyi.

Only a week after #Tarentogate, the critical world is yet again in a flap as the National Theatre announced that it is to discontinue their plus one policy.

There really is no rest for the wicked this month for theatre critics. A little more than seven days after Danielle Tarento’s comments sparked a slew of outrage from independent critics, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, has gotten the backs up of the “proper writers” by rescinding the privilege of a critic being able to bring a plus one to a performance. The papers are up in arms about this, so it’s nice to see it’s not just us lowly bloggers that are getting the thick end of it this month.

Settling the Score?

“I’m not going to ‘boo-hoo’ or cry martyrdom along with Cavendish and his ilk because they’ve had a privilege taken away from then. They’re still able to review the National Theatre’s shows for free and be paid to do so: it’s not like they’re being barred.”

plus one

Concrete jumbo. The brutalist bastion of British arts that is The National Theatre. Photograph: Courtesy of Man Vyi.

The apoplexy of the critical elite is crowned by claims that Norris is hitting back for a quagmire of bad reviews for the National Theatre’s recent season. Evening at The Talk House, Wonder.Land and Carol Churchill’s Here We Go have been slated by critics, to name but three stinkers. I, for one, was far from enamoured by Here We Go, but I also know some critics who are fans of Churchill’s work that thought it was rather marvellous: so go figure. As reported in The Telegraph, it is suggested that the policy is “sour grapes” and “revenge” for the recent critical raking of Norris’ season over the coals. But to me it just sounds like a Fleet Street pitty party, especially as the article is rounded off by Dominic Cavendish’s exceptionally tinny whine. If John Cage had written a piece of experimental music that consisted of someone throwing toys out of a pram for several minutes, this would be pretty much it.

Head of Press at the National Theatre, Vicky Kington, states that the decision may be to enable more independent critics and bloggers to start attending press nights at the National Theatre.

“Whilst it’s vital that we maintain and nurture the highly-valued, long-standing relationships we already have with the press, we also need to reach new audiences through wider engagement with broadcast, print and online media.”

Whilst I’m not taking this as gospel (it comes from a press officer, after all), it actually seems like a pragmatic and forward thinking decision by Norris and the National Theatre, if not a little late to the party. As an independent critic myself, it’s no surprise that I wholly support this change of heart, especially as the National Theatre have had a “no bloggers” policy for some time (although, several respected small publications have been accepted onto their press list, regardless). But the fallout of such a pioneering decision is a bitter pill for the national critics, as the National Theatre may well be finally acknowledging the importance and influence of online media when it comes to theatre criticism, and that we’re starting to be on par with them. If they want to boycott the National Theatre due to the retraction of their plus one privilege, then good: more shows for us to cover. I’m not going to “boo-hoo” or cry martyrdom along with Cavendish and his ilk because they’ve had a privilege taken away from then. They’re still able to review the National Theatre’s shows for free and be paid to do so: it’s not like they’re being barred. Instead, I will openly applaud Norris and Kington for widening their support of the new critical landscape, and opening up the nation’s stage to a new breed of critical opinion.

Doing the Maths

“By giving everyone a plus one you literally half the number of publications that you’re able to invite to any show.”

plus one

A rattle of a battle. Scene from ‘Wonder.land’. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Theatre.

To understand why I’m not at all upset by Norris’ decision on critics no longer having a plus one, I think it’s important to understand how offering a plus one works and the impact it has. Press officers and PRs generally get an allocation of a show’s capacity for which to fill with members of the press. Therefore, by giving everyone a plus one you literally half the number of publications that you’re able to invite to any show, and therefore are limiting the coverage for a show. In saying that, there are plenty of PRs and theatres that still manage to get a notable spread of coverage for a show in spite of ensuring every critic is honoured with a plus one. Pioneering PRs like Kevin Wilson, Chris Hislop, and Chloe Nelkin have really been breaking boundaries and changing perceptions about the online critical community by insisting they’re included on press nights and often give them the same plus one perks as their professional counterparts. But it’s in the PR and the theatre’s interest to try and maximise the coverage they can get for any given show. Therefore, by taking away plus one privileges for critics, the National Theatre is able to potentially double the number of publications reviewing a show and thus widen the potential audience and/or buzz. Even if the reviews are negative, as Oscar Wilde is often misquoted as saying, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

It is also worth bearing in mind that each plus one is also an income that the theatre does not make. A critic doesn’t pay for their ticket, and neither does their plus one. So for every extra seat a publication is taking up, the less money the show is making on that particular evening. When you consider that critics are often allocated some of the best and most expensive seats in the house, you can imagine that press nights could potentially be run at a considerable loss, depending on the size of the theatre. You’d think that given how much people moan how public funds are being spent on shows at the National Theatre, from a cynical cost reduction point of view this move should be welcomed with open arms, especially with the monumental hacking of arts funding being made by the government.

I will be upfront and admit that I, more often than not, don’t get a plus one to the shows I review. I have come to stop expecting them, apart from certain PRs that I know a plus one is offered as standard. I’m actually not bitter or annoyed by this. This is mostly because I cover smaller shows than the critics at national newspapers (although, not always) and when the theatre you’re reviewing at has less than 50 seats, it’s no real surprise that you’re on your tod. Even theatres that are shy of 200 or 300 seats, like the Southwark Playhouse, it’s not a given that you’d get a plus one. If I do get a plus one, I’m really keen to ensure that this privilege is taken full advantage of, and often get grumpy when friends cancel at short notice, because a plus one is a real honour. My only tiny grumble comes from when PRs don’t give independent critics a plus one but give them to members of the national press; but even then it’s no water off a duck’s back, really. I’m very grateful for being given the opportunity to see a show, and this is just something I’ve come to expect and accept. After all, I’m still there and respected, so biting the hand that feeds me would really be no use at all. When Norris’ decision reveals how sacred the plus one can be to Fleet Street critics, its apparent that catering to their expectations means you get national coverage, so you can’t blame PRs for this behaviour.

Bug Bear Necessities?

“Myself, and countless other independent critics and bloggers, can produce good quality criticism without being coddled by a companion. So why does Cavendish feel he cannot?”

Plus one

Here we go down the pan. Scene from ‘Here We Go’. Photograph: Courtesy of Tristram Kenton

Cavendish’s requiem for the plus one at the end of The Telegraph’s article does raise an interesting question: is a plus one crucial for a critic to critique a show? Absolutely bloody not! If that were the case, many of the shows on the fringe wouldn’t be reviewed at all, and bloggers and independent critics simply wouldn’t exist. Whilst I do agree with Cavendish that having a plus one to bounce a response and thoughts about the show off of can certainly benefit a review, it is not at all a keystone of critical practise.

I have mentioned before that criticism is all about balancing an emotional and analytical response to a piece of art. Part of that emotional response should certainly be taking into account the responses of those around you. I often find myself making quick observations of the audience at any given show, especially if I’m unsure of my own response to a piece of theatre, in order to inform and/or temper my own. When reviewing family or children’s shows, this is even more crucial, as children will often respond in surprisingly different ways to adults, and they’re the primary audience after all. But even with adult theatre, gauging the response of the entire audience is as important. I actually enjoy covering a show on a performance after press night because it means I’m surrounded by a standard paying audience who often respond very differently to critics, therefore giving me a much better idea of how a general audience might react, conversely or in concord with my own response. In lieu of a plus one, I have often found fellow independent critics at shows a delight to talk to, post-show or even during the interval, to get a different point of view that can benefit a review in the same way as having a plus one does. If Cavendish feels he cannot produce a reputable review if he doesn’t have a plus one, then perhaps he should consider whether he’s worthy of his mantle of being one of Britain’s top theatre critics. Myself, and countless other independent critics and bloggers, can produce good quality criticism without being coddled by a companion. So why does Cavendish feel he cannot?

All in all, I stand with Norris and the National Theatre’s decision to drop the plus one privilege and potentially open themselves up to a wider range of critical voices, and not just because this is set to benefit myself by hopefully getting to officially review a season at a theatre that has produced some phenomenal and much loved work. This could also be an incredibly welcomed ratification that the online critical community is burgeoning and offering as vital an opinion on the arts as those who have established themselves at a national level: the momentum we’ve been creating is now more difficult than ever to ignore.

For more information about upcoming and touring shows produced by the National Theatre, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.