Just before my holiday I agreed to write a short story review. Having missed my first choice of books I wasn't bothered which of the others I was offered. I'm free to report as I find and the only rule is I shouldn't know the author.
It's easy to imagine writers tempted to indulge in mutual back-scratching.
This letter condemning some over-generous theatre critics makes a similar point. Not having seen the 'glowing reviews', I was surprised to read that 'Plague Over England' was heaped with praise. I wouldn't go so far as to call it 'truly terrible' play. But like the writer, I've seen enough plays to know a bad one, and for all its worthy aims and thorough research, Nicholas de Jongh's piece had serious flaws. Episodic, and with too many minor characters it lacked suspense.
Its only human to take a kindly view of a play written by a friend and it's hard to see how this play could have been reviewed by a stranger to the well-known Evening Standard critic. However, I agree that reviewers have an obligation to be objective, especially when they could benefit, as the writer suggests, from favours returned. I'm not quite sure how, because it isn't made clear in the letter.
I don't review plays anymore, but when I did I knew about of time and effort, not to mention talent, involved in bringing a work to performance. It's rare to condemn a play outright, because there's nearly always some aspect that's well done. With such a wide range of things to consider - acting, set, lighting, costumes, etc, it's almost impossible to find nothing to praise. It seems to me the critic risks a loss of credibility with his readers, though, if he fails to point out serious flaws in the writing.
For me, 'Plague over England' was a timely reminder of how attitudes change and how easy it was, and is, for the establishment to demonise particular groups. I'm reminded of the recent case Hollywood delegates to Iraq to appologise for all the middle-east villains cropping up in recently. (I suppose they'll all have to be European, now)
I'm even more convinced, though, that the part of John Geilgud was severely underwritten. I read in 'Peter Hall's Diaries' that in 1970 Michael Feast had an opportunity to observe the original - he played Ariel to Gielgud's Prospero in a version of 'The Tempest' directed by Hall. I even found myself thinking of ways the character could have been shown to be very well-known and admired -a scene with fans at the stage-door, for instance, or a TV interview before his arrest for 'importuning'. That's a sure sign that a play's inadequate - when you can think how it could be improved.