Don't believe the hype: theatre in trouble over misleading billboard

Advert used critic's praise to promote 'Shawshank Redemption' the play – when he was really referring to the film

A West End theatre could be the first to come a cropper over the practice of taking selective quotations from reviews to give the misleading impression that critics have been raving about the production.

Trading standards officers have opened an inquiry into an advertisement displayed on a billboard outside the Wyndhams Theatre which suggested to passers-by that a critic had praised the play being staged inside – when in fact he had advised people not to waste their money going to see it.

Most discerning consumers realise that the single sentence from a review splashed on a billboard, or on the cover of a book, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Taken out of context, a few words can suggest that a critic is encouraging people to enjoy a work, which they actually think is rubbish.

In a review published in September, Charles Spencer was so unimpressed by this production of The Shawshank Redemption that he advised anyone thinking of going to see it to buy a DVD of the film instead. Mr Spencer is not, generally, a fan of plays that are no more than stage adaptions of popular films.

He also disagreed with those who think that the 1994 film of the same name is one of the greatest ever made, although he conceded that it is "a superbly gripping, genuinely uplifting prison drama". The play, he thought, was inferior "in almost every respect" and the set was "blandly predictable".

Walking past the Wyndhams Theatre soon after his review had appeared in The Daily Telegraph, Spencer was surprised to see himself quoted on the billboard outside. The theatre had taken the words "superbly gripping, genuinely uplifting prison drama" as if they referred to the stage production, and had ignored everything else he wrote.

Reacting to the fact that the play's run will end early on Sunday, Spencer said: "I'm delighted that The Shawshank Redemption is shutting up shop. It was nothing like as powerful or moving as the film [and] I have another reason for wishing it ill, and that is the dishonesty of its advertising."

The practice of ripping a few words from a critic's review has annoyed people for years, but until recently it was not illegal. But in 2005, the EU introduced the Unfair Consumer Practices Directive, which was incorporated in British law in 2008. The new regulations make it an offence to sell someone goods that they would not have bought otherwise by using advertising or sales patter that contains "misleading omissions".

Sue Jones, spokesman for Westminster council's Trading Standards, said: "It is not acceptable for any theatre to mislead the public. Nobody has filed any complaints in this instance, but now we are aware of the issue we will be contacting the theatre concerned and ask for an explanation of the wording. If we are not satisfied with their response we will not hesitate to take further action."

The Independent view

The following is taken from Paul Taylor's review on 14 September:

"The writers, Owen Neill and Dave Johns, have argued that theatre is a medium that uses metaphor better than film. Their handling of this resource is shaky and limited. Ferdia Murphy's set... looks like a giant budgie cage. Crucially lacking is any palpable feel of the slow passage of time... Peter Sheridan's production never finds the right recurring rhythms with which to convey this."