Writing Reviews of Fine and Performing Arts Events
Ian C. Johnston
[This document is in the public domain, released July 1998, and may be distributed without permission or charge, provided the source is acknowledged]

A review is, like the normal college essay, an expository argument. You are presenting your opinion of what you have seen and are seeking to persuade the reader to share that opinion. Like any argument, a review must have a clear logic (based on a firm opinion, or thesis), with an introduction and a sequence of paragraphs presenting well organized evidence. The following notes may help you produce a better review. There is a sample short review at the end of these notes.

First of all, remember that you are writing the review for someone who is thinking of going to the event and would appreciate some advice and for someone who has seen the show and is interested in reading what someone else thinks about it. Neither of these people needs a descriptive rehash of the event. What they are looking for is an evaluation.

It is customary to open a review by indicating the name, place, and time of the event you are reviewing. Identify those responsible for putting on the event, indicating (usually) the general content of the show. You should do this briefly, with no digressions. The introduction normally closes with the writer's overall opinion of the event (the central opinion), which is, in effect, the thesis of the review.

Your coordinating opinion at the end of the introduction must present your considered opinion of the whole experience. Normally this opinion will fall into one of three categories: (a) unequivocal praise (everything is splendidly successful), (b) unequivocal criticism (everything is a mess), and, most commonly, (c) a mixed opinion (some things work well, but there are also some problems). A statement indicating your reaction must appear early in the review (at the end of the first paragraph).

Once you have introduced the event and your opinion, in the sequence of paragraphs which follows (the argument), you will discuss one element of the event at a time, seeking to indicate to the reader why you feel about the production the way you do. You will not be able to cover all aspects of the event, so select the three or four most important features which helped to shape your reaction most decisively.

Remember that the purpose of the review is not (repeat not) simply to describe the event or the background to it (e.g., to retell the story of the play, to provide details about the paintings, to give a history of the author or the organization sponsoring the event): your task is to describe why you feel about it the way you do. A very common mistake with review assignments is for the writer to digress into all sorts of other matters. So if you find yourself retelling the story of the play or talking at length about the writer or painter or anything not directly relevant to the argument, the review is going astray).

Be particularly careful with plays. The review is not a literary interpretation of the text (although that may enter into it briefly). The review is an evaluation of the production, which is an interpretation of the play (note that the terms play and production mean significantly different things: the production is what you are concerned with, so in your review refer to the event as the production, not the play-unless you wish to say something about the script).

Discuss only one aspect of the event in each paragraph. Begin the paragraph by announcing how this aspect affected your response (e.g., "One really successful part of this play is the set design, which really brings out well the complex mood of the piece" or "Many of the paintings, however, are not very interesting, with banal subjects very conventionally presented." Then in the paragraph discuss only that announced subject. Do not change the subject in mid paragraph. If you want to change the subject to discuss another aspect of the event, then start a new paragraph.

Once you have introduced the subject of the paragraph, then you must introduce evidence from the show and argue how that evidence shaped your reaction. The quality of the review stems in large part from the way in which you do this. If, for example, you start the paragraph by saying that the supporting actors are not very good, then you must provide evidence (facts) from the production. And that evidence must be detailed (see the next point).

The question of detail is all important. For example, if you say something like "The main actress is very good, but the male lead is not up to her standard," you have expressed an opinion, but we need more detail. What does the main actress actually do on stage which makes you think this way about her performance? What does the male lead do or not do which makes you think this way about his performance? Note the difference between the above statements and the following:

The main actress is very good, especially in the way she controls her gestures and her voice at the key moments of the production. This is especially apparent in the final scene, where she sits down throughout, yet manages with the gestures and the controlled anger in her voice to convey fully just what the character is experiencing. The male lead is not up to her standard. He moves much too woodenly and speaks as if he is having trouble remembering his lines. He needs to inject some real feeling into many passages, particularly in his declaration of love in Act II.

Notice that in this second example, there is enough detail for the actors whom you are praising and criticizing to understand why you feel the way you do, so that, if they wanted, they could do something about their performances (whereas if all you say is "good" or "not so good" they have very little to go on). Your review will not be successful if you do not get into this sort of detail. This means that you should discuss fewer things in a review than you might want to in order to give a full treatment to what you do discuss.

This level of detail applies also when you are reviewing art. Don't just sum up a painter or a work of art with a word or two of general praise or censure. Provide the supplementary details (taken directly from the works you are looking at) so that the reader understands the particulars out of which your opinion arises. What this means, in practice, is that the review should consist of relatively few but substantial paragraphs rather than of many short paragraphs (in a 1000 word review, for example, you might have room for perhaps three paragraphs of argument after the introduction).

In organizing the review, you can choose to discuss what you want to. And remember that many things enter into the event apart from the most immediately obvious: the setting (the arrangement of the space), the price, the treatment of the audience or viewing public, the audience, the incidental music, the hanging of the paintings, the acoustics, and so on. At times these might be worthy of mention (if they affected your response significantly). However, some issues are central to the event, and you can hardly choose to ignore them. For instance, in a review of a play, you must make some detailed mention of the acting. In an art show, you must spend considerable space discussing specific paintings (even if you cannot deal with them all). In a review of a musical performance, you must discuss the quality of the playing or singing or both.

As you write the review, identify the people involved as you discuss them. "Mona Chisolm, who plays the heroine Janice, is well matched with Brad Ashley, in the role of Fred. . ."; "The direction, by Alice McTavish, is crisp and effective. . ."; "The first violin, Michael Tisdale, has difficulty in some places. . . ." You do not need to identify everyone in the production, but identify those artists you do discuss.

It is customary in many reviews to keep to the present tense when you are discussing what is going on in the production (even though you saw it in the past). So, for example, when you discuss what the actors did, keep to the present tense: "In the opening scene the actors seem quite nervous, but they gather confidence as the play progresses. The director needs to pay some attention to improving this part of the production." Similarly, in discussing works of art, stay in the present tense when you are discussing what is in particular works: "The colours in this work clash unexpectedly, but this makes the picture, in a curious way, effective, because it highlights the central focus." Use the past tense to discuss when you saw the play (i.e., in the opening paragraph), but stay in the present tense throughout the discussion of the work or works.

Usually you should offer a short conclusion in which you represent your overall opinion, together with some facts about the continuing run of the production.

One final piece of advice. A review is much easier to write if you attend the event with some others and discuss what you have seen together immediately after the experience. Your confidence in your own opinions and your command of the particular details needed to back up your feelings will grow fast, if you take the time to discuss your reactions with others. And they will be the source of some useful ideas.

Attached to these notes is a short sample review of about 1000 words.

Sample Short Review of a Dramatic Production

[Note that this is a review of an imaginary production. Pay particular attention to the way in which the writer introduces the review, establishes a central coordinating opinion, deals with one aspect of the production in each paragraph, and provides particular details to support the opinions which appear in the opening of each paragraph. Note also the use of the present tense in discussions of what goes on]

This week at Malaspina University-College Theatre, Mountain Valley Theatre Company is offering its latest production, No Time Like the Present, an engagingly written and, for the most part, successfully delivered comedy with some bitter sweet overtones. The play is something of a gamble for this young company, because the production style is mildly experimental in places, but, in spite of some unevenness in the playing and a few difficulties here and there, the production is well worth seeing.

The main asset in this production is the acting of the leading players. As Montague Jack, a middle-aged drifter down on his luck, Jim Beam provides an entertaining charm and a level of assured skill, both of which establish the character convincingly. His slow drawl and lazy, graceful movements, which explode into an extraordinary athletic energy in the brawl in Act II, keep our attention and provide an important dramatic quality to the production. His performance is matched by Nora Roberts, who plays Alice, the owner of the local saloon. She establishes, above all with her wonderful facial expressions and her gravelly voice, an authentic sense of someone who has seen it all but is ready for more. I particularly like the opening conversation between them in Act I, where they both convincingly come across as two experienced road warriors testing each other out in full knowledge of what they are doing. The easy pace and significant physical interaction between them (for example, in the business of the whiskey bottle) evoke the characters and the mood perfectly.

The quality of these two leading players carries the main weight of the experimental dream sequences, when for a moment the action is suspended and we are taken directly into the buried fantasies of people who have almost forgotten how to dream. Ms Roberts is particularly good at conveying the lyrical quality of her monologue: the intense longing in her voice and body movements generates a powerful sexual tension which suddenly illuminates the complexity of a character we may have been tempted to take too lightly. Mr. Beam delivers the goods here, too, although he has less to work with. The quality of his expressions as he works through his memories and hopes is very impressive.

The supporting cast is not up to the quality of the principal players. Too often the acting is rather wooden (particularly in the case of Alan Blake, as the Sheriff, who moves as if he is reluctant to be there and speaks in a monotone). The lesser players seem to have some trouble establishing convincing accents (which move from the Southern States to Ireland and back to New England via Scotland). However, Jennifer Braxton gives a wonderful but all too short cameo appearance as Wilma the inebriated singer. The quality of her voice really does suggest that she could deliver the goods if her neurons were all firing correctly, and she refuses to ham up the drunkenness, so that the comedy is always surgically precise (and all the funnier for that).

The direction (by Terry Stapleton) is, for the most part, deft. There are places, however, where the pace needs picking up (for example, in the long scene at the opening of Act II). And the blocking does get occasionally repetitive. Why, one wonders, are the chairs always arranged in the same position? There is room for considerably more visual variety than we get. The slowness of the scene changes is also irritating. However, the comic scenes are well managed, and there is a good deal of very interesting business in the use of various props (e.g., the fake six gun and the old guitar). And I particularly like the way in which the director has controlled the tone of the piece, allowing the ironic resonance to manifest itself without overwhelming the comedy. We really do get a sense of how ridiculous these people are, and yet we also care about them.

The major technical aspects of the production are good. The set (by Ryle Cannon) is splendidly evocative of a seedy old saloon. The colour of the wood and, above all, the floor provide just the right sense of a place which saw its best days long ago. I do wonder a bit about the stuff on the walls; the picture of the football team seems quite out of place and the antlers don't look as if they come from South Texas. Maybe I'm being too picky here. Lighting (by Patricia Foudy) is functional but unexciting (except in the dream sequences where the backlighting is spectacularly effective).

Other aspects of the production, in general, work very well. The costumes (by Christine Thompson) are really splendid, especially the shoes. The incidental music (composed by Claudia Smith and played by Wes Matchoff and Gloria Minoff) provides just the right introduction to the play and adds interest to the excessively lengthy scene changes. Like the production itself, the bluesy-funk style establishes some entertaining ambiguities, and Gloria Minoff's voice is very easy to listen to. I have some reservations about the make up on the older towns people (Mabel Courtenay, in particular), which seems to highlight the fact that these are young actors pretending to be older folks (ditto for the hair).

No Time Like the Present, for all the criticisms one might like to make about this or that aspect of the production, is well worth the price of admission. It will make you laugh and yet leave you wondering about the way in which underneath the laughter there may be, as in much of life, a significant sadness lurking. The production continues its run at Malaspina University-College Theatre for the next two weeks.

(943 words)