Looking for controversy? These 2013 ‘Marmite’ style plays don’t do average reviews.

If you’re a fan of the theatre then chances are you’ll have experienced that feeling of excitedly buying tickets for a new production… only to find that the reviews are almost unanimously bad. If you’ve booked a hotel and train tickets down to the smoke, the barrage of bad reviews only makes it all the more painful.

But, obviously, you go to see the play. And you love it. Everyone in the audience seems to love it. A standing ovation is forthcoming.

You criticise those negative reviews for souring your big night at the theatre, and wonder what these crazed, internet dwellers were thinking.

A huge polarisation of reviews colours everything fresh that hits the public, from films to novels to restaurants – you only have to look at Trip Advisor to see diamonds amongst the rough (or vice versa).

But when it comes to theatre, the gloves are well and truly off. With people often paying the best part of £100 to see a hotly anticipated play, the reviews are nothing short of brutal. How often do you see a 3 star review for a play? How often do people weigh up the bad and the good to come out with a ‘so-so’ verdict in the world of theatre-going? Rarely, which leaves us with so many skewed reviews you’d have thought the 5-starrer and the 1-starrer were living on different planets.

But that’s what’s wonderful about theatre, the level of passion which gives people a Marmite style approach to the whole thing.

Barking in Essex:

Language may not be suitable for under 18’s

The controversial Barking in Essex was pulled to pieces by the critics, with the overriding opinion being that excessive and tiresome swearing were used to try to lift a sagging script. Many long-standing fans of the all-star cast (Lee Evans, Sheila Hancock and Keeley Hawes) also seemed to feel that their favourite actors barely managed to rescue the play. It wasn’t good.

Now, my own review would be 3 stars.

It was entertaining because the wonderful Lee Evans brought some genuine laughs – even if they were more about his physical comedy than the actual script. The stage design was also excellent, with the creation of a grand home and funny little props accentuating the tackiness of the characters:

The bad:

“A HUGE disappointment – 1 star rating as the review wouldn’t allow me to give NO stars!…Barking in Essex – you must be barking mad to see this!”

“There was not a single laugh out loud moment and the over-use of swearing just made it coarse and tedious”.

Contrasting with the good:

“I saw the show recently and absolutely loved it, I laughed until I cried as did many of those around me… It’s sharp, funny and keeps you guessing.”

Now with Barking in Essex, this huge polarisation of views can be expected to an extent, it’s liberal on the swearing and focuses on an Essex crime family – with all the Essex stereotypes that go with it. But it’s interesting that no-one seems to appreciate it for its merits alongside condemning its script, it’s love/hate with very little in between.

The Duck House:

The Duck House, as you probably already know/have guessed, focuses on the MP expenses scandal, probably accounting for why some found it hilarious while others just seemed to find it a bitter reminder of the Great British rip-off. Sketch-show veteran Ben Miller heads the cast and his performance is widely praised; however, with the play coinciding with the proposal for an MP pay rise, the play struggles to keep it light amidst a genuine public gripe.

The bad:

“Political dramatic irony was overused for cheap laughs… As the plot began to unfold it became predictable and crude”.

The good:

“Ben Miller was brilliant as were all the cast… Excellent entertainment, go and see while there are still tickets!”

So it’s clear that enjoyment of The Duck House really rests on the viewer’s view of the scandal. A point to mock relentlessly or something that’s just too shocking to joke about?

But what would theatre-land be without plays that hugely divide public opinion? After paying out cold, hard cash for the privilege of viewing such plays, it has been suggested that audiences will dutifully laugh and engage with the play where necessary.

I’d be inclined to disagree. View any play with strong themes/strong language and close-to-the-bone topics and the glaring gap between the 1 and 5 star reviews will prevail. Until theatre becomes as cheap as the cinema, punches will not be pulled when it comes to opinion.

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