TCS guide to theatre reviewing

13 October 2007

TCS Guide to Reviewing

If you want to become a TCS Theatre reviewer and join in the fun, send a sample review to

These guidelines are here just to help channel a potential or current reviewer’s enthusiasm and critical insight into a disciplined and carefully constructed appreciation of the play.

General Specifications:

– All reviews should be 400 words long and – if of a Tuesday performance – submitted by 1pm Wednesday. Reviews of Wednesday late shows should be submitted by 1am Thursday. Reviews of shows performed at other times should be with the editorial team as soon as possible and by 1pm Wednesday at the very latest. (On an aside: all features are arranged with Cat but these should be in as soon as possible and by Monday evening before the issue in which they are appearing, at the very latest.)


– Reviews should be eye-catching, attention-grabbing, exciting and approachable. Make sure your opening does your review justice; difficult, boring and slow beginnings will turn readers off.

– The beginning of the review should also include a précis or summary introduction to the play, to help place the review in context. How much of this is needed depends on the popularity of the play.

– It is essential to distinguish between the play as text and as production. You should be reviewing the production, which is a director’s particular interpretation and the actors’ performances of the text. Keep reference to the text to a minimum, although it is, of course, acceptable as the production is inevitably informed and influenced by knowledge and understanding of the play as text.

– Always make sure to mention the director’s name at least once. It is their interpretation of the play you are assessing and thus they are integral.

– When referring to actors make sure you give their full name on their first mention (latter mentions can just include surnames), as well as which character(s) they played.

– A review ideally should be more than just a single person’s perspective and should incorporate elements of wider audience response.

– Reviews should also not focus solely on the acting but should consider any striking wider design features as well.

– If possible, and interesting for the reader, try putting the production in a wider context, such as the artistic frame of reference.

– Try and find the detail that unlocks the whole: often describing one moment will shed a surprising amount on the overall production.

– Think about the general structure of the review: its start, middle and finish. Ideally bring your review carefully to an overall conclusion rather than letting it just drift off at the end.

– Star ratings are important; they are one of the main reader focuses on the page. Be careful about giving extreme star ratings; most plays don’t deserve one or five stars. In order to be more subtle half star ratings can also be used.

– Always make sure to contact one of the TCS editorial team if there is a problem. We’re very happy to discuss any issues and look at multiple drafts if need be. Don’t worry, we don’t bite!


– Avoid excessive verbosity: reviews should be written with a diverse readership in mind, not with a thought to showcasing one’s own linguistic dexterity and penchant for archaisms. Obscure, esoteric terms and excessively convoluted sentences are out.

– Don’t overuse first person (‘I’). Some personal experience is acceptable if relevant but should be kept to a minimum. The phrase ‘I think’ should be avoided at all costs as it undermines the reviewer’s conviction and detracts from the actual performance matter.

– Few if any plays are flawless, therefore it is necessary to highlight less satisfying parts of the production. Yet this should be done as part of a constructive critique, not as a savage attack. Critical comments designed merely to mock the performance will be removed and if the overall review is distinctly non-constructive in its approach it will not be printed and the reviewer will not be asked to review for the TCS Theatre Section again.

– Never mention if you are friends with the cast, and avoid cliquey references to aspects of the production, the performers or the society funding it

Aside from these basic guidelines it is vital that the reviewer responds honestly to the experience, employs whichever style they find most suitable and has fun with it. It is also very useful to read some professional criticism in papers like The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

Any questions, just ask.

Hannah, Cat and Marsha

But it’s all very well to say do this and don’t do that. Here’s what we mean: an example of an excellent review.

On Wonderland

Kandinsky theatre co., Edinburgh Fringe 2007, Smirnoff Baby Belly, 50mins.

In the warren-like confines of a damp Edinburgh cellar, a slight and shaven-headed woman sits in a bathtub. We, her audience, are inevitably slow in finding our seats (giving me plenty of time to gape at her child-like feet) but for the next hour Kerry-Jayne Wilson will tell a story so captivating I wish we’d run.

Wilson plays Moia, an unremarkable Northern Irish girl with an unusual outlook on life. Micropsia (more commonly known as Alice in Wonderland syndrome) is an optical condition that makes objects that are close look far away, and vice versa. Our journey with Moia starts when, aged five, she has a fit that triggers the syndrome. Through Moia’s untrustworthy eyes we are taken on a simple journey through family strife and growing up – reaching, crucially, the time of Moia’s first alcoholic drink. From this point onwards On Wonderland is (in theory) a painfully high concept piece. Lewis Caroll’s Alice enters her Wonderland through drinking a potion labeled ‘Drink Me’; Moia drinks, is raped and runs away to London.

Thankfully, the sparse script and performance really do their jobs. Gavin O’Carroll’s unfussy and uncluttered prose avoids cliché and literary allusion without losing the power and interest of Moia’s story. However, it is Wilson’s performance that really gives On Wonderland its magic. Much has been made this festival of multi-character acting (see Iris Bahr in Dai), and On Wonderland features a set of easily caricatured characters – the Spanish roommate, the shop girls, the kindly doctor – but Wilson never obviously departs from Moia’s wide-eyed and fragile point of view. In a play so obviously about one woman’s perception of the world, this is a wise move by director James Yeatman; such an enthralling performance is best left unimpeded by what would feel like unnatural mimicry.

The only jarring note comes, unfortunately, from the lighting design. To begin with the eerie light of a single desk lamp inside the bathtub only to resort to clunky ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ states seems a vast oversight considering the subtleties of the script. Similarly, the venue does little justice to the power of the show – the need for an intimate space is understandable, but not at the expense of the audience’s (craned) necks and (strained) eyes.

Since 2005, young company Kandinsky have earned a strong reputation with their science-meets-art monologues. With On Wonderland in 2007, however, it is Kerry-Jayne Wilson who deserves all of the misty-eyed admiration and rapturous applause she receives from this audience. An understated and enchanting performer, Wilson is one of this festival’s hidden gems.