On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the Lowry in Salford to see a production of Cabaret. It was a bit of a mixed bag – a lot of things I liked very much, and two central performances (Will Young as the Emcee, and Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles) that didn’t work for me on any level. I came home, wrote a review – in which I explained in some detail what I liked and what I didn’t, and why – and put it up on this blog, then went to bed.
That’s when the fun began.
Now, OK, I certainly didn’t mince my words in the review. What I saw, I’m afraid, was a mostly very strong production, with several excellent supporting performances and one – Sian Phillips as Fraulein Schneider – for which there are not enough superlatives, but whose two above-the-title stars – Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan – delivered work that wasn’t just poor, but barely of a professional standard. Mr. Young is a pop star, and a very good one, and he sang well and hit all his marks, but he basically delivered a learned-by-rote imitation of the actor who originated his role in this production’s previous incarnation, and it just wasn’t very interesting to watch. Ms. Ryan was far worse – her un-performance was a stilted, wooden, dead-behind-the-eyes horror of epic proportions. She hit all her marks and most of her notes, but she wasn’t believable at all, and the excellent work from the supporting actors and the ensemble made her seem even worse in comparison. So yes, I came in for the grand slam – but I spent more time talking about the things I actually liked about the production.
Then the emails and comments started coming. I’ve left a couple of relatively mild comments up, although I closed comments on the post (I don’t like doing that, but I got to a point where enough was enough) – they’re childish (‘totally biased’, ‘biased, almost hateful’, ‘this person clearly has an agenda’ – because, obviously, anyone who strongly dislikes something you like must be bitter or biased or possessed of some kind of ulterior motive), but they don’t contain any direct insults, although the spelling and grammar are entertaining. The ones that just said ‘loser’ or ‘hater’ went straight in the spam file.
And then there were the tweets (none of which were from people who follow me) and the emails. A dozen or so of each, each more hilarious than the last (and, later, one polite, friendly, calm message from a lady named Rosemary who, while she didn’t agree with my assessment of these two performances at all, made her case without resorting to cheap namecalling – I enjoyed writing back to her, and it was an interesting conversation). Again, the words ‘hater’ and ‘loser’ and ‘biased’ were regular features; one enterprising individual suggested I should write Mr. Young a personal apology, another charming person suggested I was a ‘fucking idiot’, a couple used the word ‘cunt’, and one particularly hysterical (I assume, I didn’t read beyond the first line) email was headed “Who the FUCK do you think you are?” These messages, of course, were all deleted, and I used the ‘block’ feature in Twitter more in a single afternoon than I think I have in the past two years.
When I looked at the blog stats, I saw something interesting: that particular post had had significantly more readers than I’d usually expect to get on a given day (there are all sorts of things I could do to try to get more readers, I suppose, but that’s not really why I write here). A significant number of them had clicked from a Will Young fansite – BabyDevoted, an unofficial site which, the front page clearly informs you, has no connection to Will Young (if the obnoxious emails I received are any indication of what the people who post there are like, he’s probably quite relieved about that). I certainly never posted a link to the review there – anyway, their forums appear to be closed to visitors. I put it up on Twitter and Google+ (public) and Facebook (in my case, not public), but didn’t post the link anywhere else.
Now, of course, once you post a link anywhere online, it can travel, and you don’t have any control at all over where it might end up – and that’s true even if you post it on a Facebook timeline whose privacy settings are fairly tightly locked down. And, certainly, I imagine that anyone who identified themselves as a Will Young fan would be less than delighted by what I wrote about his awful performance in ‘Cabaret’. But, really – ‘hater’? ‘loser’? ‘fucking idiot’? ‘cunt’? Some people need to get a sense of proportion. Particularly given that, in this case, one or some or all of these people must have looked for this review that they found so upsetting. It’s childish of me, I know, but I keep seeing this picture of a gaggle of foaming-at-the-mouth Will Young fans sitting in a circle passing round the smelling salts. If they get this upset over a review, God knows how they’d cope if they were faced with any kind of actual crisis.
The thing is, I enjoy interacting with people here – most of the time. Some interesting conversations, and a few really great Twitter/Facebook friendships, have come out of responses to stuff I’ve posted here, and I’m really happy to have met those people, if only online. And, honestly, I’m more amused by all of this than anything – really, I have no influence. None at all. I’ve been (albeit briefly) on both sides of the theatrical fence, and it’s certainly no fun getting a bad review, but getting bad reviews is part of the deal, including from people whose writing has far more reach than mine does. I do also get – really – that sometimes you read something annoying online and a red mist descends – but there’s a fair distance between a red mist descending and sending a complete stranger an email with the F-bomb in the header. At least, there is if you’re over the age of about twelve.
I’m not a professional theatre critic. I don’t get press comps (I have, in the past, reviewed for a website and received press comps, but not in this country, and not for a while now). I pay for the tickets for the shows I see, and I make my choices carefully – theatre tickets are not cheap, and I don’t get out the plastic and pay for a ticket unless I’m reasonably sure I’m going to enjoy the performance. In this particular instance, I wrote an angry review of two performances (in a production, don’t forget, which I otherwise liked very much) very specifically because tickets are not cheap and the work these two actors delivered was not worth the money, and because – rightly or wrongly – I perceive a certain amount of cynicism in the increasingly common practice of casting TV actors and pop singers in touring productions of musicals in the hope that their C-list celebrity will draw in the punters, with little regard as to whether they are capable of giving a competent account of their roles. It’s not, actually, that I have any problem per se with pop stars or TV performers getting big roles in stage musicals – I’ve seen people from both arenas do very, very well on the musical stage (Vanessa Olivarez in the Toronto production of ‘Hairspray’, Marcus Brigstocke in the UK tour of ‘Spamalot’). I simply have a problem with spending a chunk of money on a ticket and seeing crap.
Another common theme of the first couple of lines of the emails (I didn’t read much further) was that the review was ‘subjective’. Well, duh. Whether they’re written by a blogger, or Michael Billington, or Ben Brantley, or God, that’s what reviews are. It’s one person’s opinion, that’s all – nothing more, nothing less. And that, actually, is what makes this whole petulant hissy-fit from some of the more childishly extreme members of Will Young’s fan community so hilarious: Michael Billington or Ben Brantley, if they write an unfavourable review, might have a noticeable effect on a production’s box-office performance. I don’t. I know how many readers I get here, I do this for fun (and, when I write about theatre, to keep some record of the shows I’ve seen), I’m not particularly looking for a wider audience (at least, not here), and I’m certainly not under any illusion that I’m delivering some kind of Big Objective Truth for an adoring readership. I react to what I see, I hope people are entertained by what I write here if they find it (and I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I have to say, here or anywhere else) – but it is, in the end, just one opinion. It simply isn’t worth getting that upset. It certainly isn’t worth getting worked up to the point where you send a complete stranger an email calling him a cunt.
And, really, if you object to something someone writes online, the best way to bring them around to your way of thinking probably isn’t to send them a badly-spelled, rambling email in which you call them names and swear at them. That, I’m afraid, is pathetic, and it will have precisely one effect: it will just make the recipient laugh. At you. A lot.