Critiquing a Theatrical Performance

Going to the theatre is an important cultural pastime in Western society. Primarily the theatre’s job is to entertain, inform, and challenge its audience. It is possible to go to a theatrical performance and enjoy it without having any formal drama or theatre studies training. However, studying drama and theatre practice may help you to appreciate some of the complexities of dramatic form and style as well as developing an understanding of the production values associated with a performance. An audience member might enjoy a play more if he or she knows something about it prior to watching it in performance. Having an understanding of things such as the basic plot, the period in which it was written, and how it has been performed might help to make the performance clearer.

You can prepare yourself for a performance by undertaking a little bit of research.  For example, some of the things that you might like to do prior to going to a performance would include reading the play, reading reviews of the production, finding out who is in the play and what types of plays they have been in before, and learning a little bit about the playwright and the period in which she or he wrote the play.

Live theatre has the potential to stir up a wide range of emotions within audiences. If you are a student of theatre, often you will be asked to analyse how these emotions have been generated.  This is no different from what your friends expect from you. For example, if you go to a see a play and you go up to your friends and say “I saw this great play last night”, they will ask you questions like:

“Why was it so great?”
“What did you like about it?”
“What was it about?”
“Who was in it?”
“Would I like it?” (“Why?”/”Why not?”)
“What scenes did you like best?”

Your friends will not let you get away with saying something as banal as “it was just really good”. They want to know the details. When you start to focus on the specific details of a production you will begin to have a deeper appreciation of why you liked or disliked a particular performance.

As a student of drama you will often be asked to critique a performance either in a written essay or orally in a class context. When you are critiquing a performance you should try to think beyond making simple value judgements and try to explain your impressions using examples from the performance. Try to put the production into a wider cultural context. Think about what the play is trying to say to its audience.

Look for significant details to illustrate what you say about aspects of the production. Try to focus on the details that help to highlight the major themes or characterisations within the performance.

Describe the Performance Space:

Think about the location of the performance.

What type of plays are typically staged in that space?
What types of theatre companies tend to use this space?
Is the space suitable for the type of play chosen?
Is the space suitable for the performance style adopted by the artists?
Are there any unusual characteristics of the performance space?
Does the performance space say something particular about the play?

Level and Ability of Acting

Is the company an amateur, a student or a professional one?
You should remember that you can’t expect the same level of expertise from an amateur company as you can from a professional company. You can suggest that a professional production does not reach an acceptable level.
You can comment on how good or bad the acting was but make sure that you support your view with an example from the play.

Don't just write: "Jane Smith was awful in Romeo and Juliet"
Instead write:"
Jane Smith presented an awkward Juliet who scarcely knew her lines, missed crucial entrances, and was never quite sure which costume she was supposed to be wearing".

Suitability of Cast

What do you think of the casting of the play?
Was it appropriate?
What do you know of the actors’ past performances?  (eg. Are they renowned Shakespearean actors?)
Were there influencing factors on the casting (eg. it is financially a good thing to cast TV personalities in live theatre even when they are inappropriate because the have popular appeal)

Overall Response

Did you like it? (why?/why not?)
Does it work as a piece of theatre? (even if you did not like it)
Can you compare this production to other similar productions?

The Audience

What sort of people made up the audience?
Was it a full house?
Did the audience as a whole seem to like the production? (eg. You can tell by the applause, etc).

Actors’ response to the Audience

Was there an interaction between the actors and the audience?
Was this effective?


What was the scenery like?
Did the actors use the set used effectively?
Did the set contribute in any way to the establishment of the themes or ideas presented in the play?
Was the set suitable for the style of production?


What were the costumes like?
Were the costumes used effectively?
Were they appropriate to the style of the production?
Did they add anything to the performance? (eg. Did they help to illustrate particular characteristics?)


How was the lighting used to create the mood?
Did the lighting help to reinforce the underlying messages of the play?
Were there any particular moments when the lighting played a critical role in the performance?

Music and Sound

Was music used to heighten the dramatic effect of the play?
How were the sound effects used in the production?
Did the music or sound effects help to reinforce the underlying messages of the play?

Social and Political Messages of the Day

What is the play really about?
How does the play work as a cultural event?
Does the play have implications for our society beyond the boundaries of the theatre?
Does the play discuss issues that are important to you or to the wider community in which you live?
Is this an appropriate play to perform at this time?
Does the play make some significant comment about the society we live in?
Does the play make direct or indirect reference to current social or political events?
Are the themes of the play relevant to a contemporary audience?
Which characters did you empathise with?
Who do the characters remind you of in reality?  Do they act in a way that makes you think of important contemporary real-life characters?