"You will find nothing that’s bohemian and precious little that’s rhapsodic here," declared The Guardian when Ben Elton’s musical with songs by Queen first hit the West End in 2002. "Shallow, stupid, and totally vacuous," thundered another critic. Even Caitlin Moran, writing for The Times, reckoned that if Freddie Mercury was still around, he would have spent the evening in the bar rather than the auditorium. "I’m sure that Freddie would have bunked off halfway through."
Despite the sulphurous reviews, the crowds have flocked, meaning that Robert de Niro—who had money in the original production—must have gotten his money back several times over. Now We Will Rock You is back again, opening at the Coliseum in early June. Apparently, 20 million people have seen this show in 28 countries since its London premiere, and while it is perfectly possible that all 20 million of them are wrong, this is clearly a show that has proved itself critic-proof. And which has brought huge pleasure to many.
It's not alone. You only have to look at the original reviews for Les Miserables at the Barbican in 1985, where the RSC opened it before it transferred to the West End, to realise that while critics often—but not always—get the measure of a show, they are not a good barometer for what the public will like. "Watching it is rather like eating an artichoke: you have to go through an awful lot to get a very little," wrote one critic. I am sorry to say (I only learned to love Les Miserables a decade later via my childminder’s passion for it) that I joined in suggesting that the evening was "a load of sentimental old tosh."
From We Will Rock You, photo by Johan Persson.
Clearly, it must have been an evening when I was suffering from terminal highmindedness, because I have since seen it and wept. Or maybe somebody else’s enthusiasm for it made me see the merits I’d overlooked the first time around. Not for nothing did the late Irving Wardle once describe being a theatre critic as "conducting your education in public."
Hindsight is, of course, always a wonderful thing. Who knew that The Mousetrap would run for so long in the West End? Definitely not its author, who had no faith in it. She gloomily predicted it would only last six months. As to Wicked, it survived reviews on Broadway, which described (or denounced, might be a better word) it as "bloated" and with "no dramatic logic," to conquer the West End.
Or take The Birthday Party, the first play by the then-unknown Harold Pinter, which opened to puzzled and lukewarm reviews in 1958. None of the critics liked it ("Sorry, Mr. Pinter, you’re just not funny enough," declared the Evening Standard), not even Kenneth Tynan, who two years previously had championed the similarly less than well received Look Back in Anger with the words, "I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger." Ah, there’s the unmistakeable sound of true passion again.
From We Will Rock You, photo by Johan Persson.
But in the case of The Birthday Party, it was the Sunday Times’ Harold Hobson who proved the crucial champion, slipping into a midweek matinee in the company of just seven other members of the audience and subsequently describing Pinter as "the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London." Hobson was doing what all good critics do, which is to champion the new and act as a midwife to it.
Does that mean that he was always perceptive and welcoming? Of course not. In 1959, Penelope Gilliatt declared, "One of the most characteristic sounds of an English Sunday is that of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree." But that would be true of any critic, and indeed of any audience member. What we like at the theatre depends very much on our personal aesthetic and taste, individual interests, what we have seen before, and a propensity to engage with the new or like what we already know. A critic is no different from any other audience member; all they can do is respond with their full heart and soul to what they see. Because all of us, whoever we are, bring ourselves to the theatre with us.
For Queen fans, the way the story works and how it is staged may matter far less than it does to the average theatre critic. They buy a ticket because they love Queen, not primarily because they love theatre. The show is the vehicle, not the main driver, for them. So, it’s not that they are right in their response and the critics are wrong, or vice versa. It’s simply that both groups are approaching the show from entirely different perspectives. There is room for both views, and London’s theatre is all the richer because of it.
Cover image from We Will Rock You which opens at the London Coliseum on Friday 2 June 2023 for a limited run.