Tuesday 2 September 2014


[written for Time Out]

Last night I was riffling through my old Hotmail account looking for an email sent before the days of widespread Twitter use, and I came across this blog which I wrote for Time Out five years ago. Since Time Out pretty much junked all their old online, pre-takeover material, it seems fair enough to repost it here. I found what’s changed and what’s stayed the same fascinating (most of the links are now broken, btw):

In my twelve years of coming to the Fringe, a good deal has changed. The proliferation of the mobile phone, the seemingly unstoppable rise of the super-venues, the arrival of the internet... all have subtly altered the way we experience Edinburgh.  But this year, it feels like the biggest sea-change is in Fringe coverage.

For a while now, the dominance of the national press has been being challenged, first by independent free reviews papers such as Three Weeks and Fest, and now by a growing proliferation of internet reviewing sites. This year it seems that the papers have been largely superseded by the online world.

There are a variety of factors at play here. The most significant is the dwindling coverage by the print media, speeded this year by the lack of resources occasioned by the recession.  Put simply, there are fewer professional critics on the ground and for less time than in previous years. Then there are the issues of speed and space.  Newspapers are only published once a day; they only have so much space that they can allocate to reviews; pieces get commissioned and then gather dust waiting for room to print them.  Online sites can be updated at any time of day and night and there are no space restrictions.

However, online review sites tend to rely on volunteers to provide their copy. As a result, quality tends to vary a wildly.  This year Three Weeks, for example, is fielding 80 reviewers. A lot of companies now just quote the name of a publication and the number of stars awarded to their show. With 80 possible levels of experience to choose from, this renders the Three Weeks banner completely meaningless as their reviewers range from incisive and astute to hilariously incompetent.  At the same time, reputation of the Scotsman’s coverage has also diminished, with certain contributors becoming a watchword for ropey prose.

All this has prompted a certain amount of hand-wringing.  If reviews are reduced to a star-rating awarded by a complete unknown, how can such information be of any use?  The answer is that star-ratings should be largely ignored in favour of reading the actual reviews.  These give a much clearer insight into the critic’s rationale.  They should, at the very least, foreground the rationale behind the rating, but sometimes, the writing itself is laughable enough to bring a critic’s judgement into question.

The so-bad-it’s-good show has long been a staple for Fringe ambulance chasers, but now the jaw-droppingly dreadful review has become required reading for jaded aficionados.  The best one-stop shop for truly dire prose is One4Review. It’s hard to tell whether it’s intended as a spoof or not. My favourite is perhaps this assessment of Becoming Marilyn or this beautiful illustration of why punctuation matters disguised as a review of Why do All Catherines Call Themselves Kate? Elsewhere, the surprisingly dogged literalism in this write-up of Glyn Cannon’s Coffee should give those who demand more objectivity from their reviewers pause for thought. [God, I wish those reviews were still online]

However, it’s not all dispiritingly hilarious prose.  The winner of this year’s Allen Wright award for young critics went to Matt Trueman writing for website CultureWars.  Granted I’m the theatre editor for CultureWars, and as such more than a little proud. However, it is interesting that of the Allen Wright shortlist, he was the only critic not bounded by word counts or having to give a star-rating.  Depressingly, this means CultureWars gets quoted on far fewer flyers.

Performers’ grumbles about critics are well known. In Edinburgh the boot is on the other foot.  Artists hand out the tiniest fragments of critics’ work stapled to their flyers shorn of all context or nuance – “...brilliant... **** - Three Weeks”, “Perfect... *** - The Scotsman” etc.  This helps no one.  Not the critic, not the artist, not the publication and certainly not the poor members of the public who are trying to work out what to see.

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