Right of Reply / What do you mean, flaws?: Clare Bayley, critic turned writer, accepts criticism with (qualified) good grace

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The Independent Culture
It's sod's law for a critic that people only ever remember the bad bits about reviews of their work. You can write a rave with one small quibble about a certain performance, or a quirk of the plot, or even (this really happened) a wig, and five years later you meet the person concerned and they still bear you a terrible grudge. This is hard for critics to understand since, contrary to popular belief, they are generally enthusiastic beings who want to enjoy the plays they see. It quickly becomes comprehensible when you are on the receiving end. My play Northern Lights has been blessed with a clutch of good reviews, but inevitably there have been cavils.

If you dish it, you've got to be able to take it, as Jack Tinker advises.

Critics are probably better prepared for criticism than others because it's hard to be precious when your copy is at the mercy of editors and subs. As a practising critic, you also understand that comments are not personal.

But as a playwright you find that those tiny, throwaway quibbles go round and round inside your head. It's crucial that they are backed up and explained.

Sarah Hemming, on these pages, described Northern Lights as 'a powerful first play' but it 'has flaws'. Flaws? A bad review would have left it at that, leaving the playwright in an agony: what does she mean, 'flaws'? Are they little flaws or big flaws? Is the whole play a complete disaster?

Mercifully it was explained: 'It is rather slow to start . . . there are too many similar scenes.' This leaves the director, Shabnam Shabazi, and me with the opportunity to take the criticism on board.

Specifying the flaws can go too far, however. Graham Hassell in What's On objected to some of the 'weaker incidental writing' and proceeded to list the offending lines. It's hard to know what to do with that type of criticism. Cut the lines? Since I know the reviewer I could have rung him up and cursed him, but the actors still have to make some sense out of those lines every night.

In general, it is the actors who suffer most from reviews, because if their confidence in their performance, or the play or the production is shaken, they can't just retreat to the nearest bar every night at eight o'clock.

Ironically, even the good reviews can be problematic. 'Performances of searing honesty,' Michael Billington said, but that searing honesty has to be maintained night after night.

What is the function of a review? Whatever editors may say about the prime importance of the reader, reviews are crucial to the writer and the creative team. As writers, reviewers are concerned with the same things as playwrights: structure, form, content and language. All the reviews considered Northern Lights as a piece of new writing. This is the best you can hope for - a useful dialogue conducted in print. If Jane Edwardes thinks the scenes are too short, or if Billington identifies 'implausibilities', it's worth thinking about. It's not just praise that is useful - you get that from your mother. Besides, nobody respects an uncritical reviewer - sod's law again.

'Northern Lights' is at the New Grove Theatre, Drummonds, 73-77 Euston Rd, London NW1 (071-383 0925) to 5 November

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