The Edinburgh Festival revolves around performers and shows. Without them, there is no festival. But there is another gravitational well about which the punters also orbit: the reviewers, and there are no shortage of them.
The national newspapers send their correspondents, but there are also a great number of small independent publications that spring into life for the month of August, or specialise in covering fringe theatre: Fest, the Skinny, Fringe Review, Fringebiscuit, Fringe Guru, WhatsOnStage, Three Weeks and Broadway Baby to name but a few.
These publications rely almost entirely on volunteers for reviewers; many, perhaps most, are students; but almost all are essentially enthusiastic amateurs. Three Weeks and Broadway Baby are the most prolific, with more than a hundred such reviewers apiece.
I speak to Dan*, a former Broadway Baby reviewer who was working for the site two years ago. “There was no training, really,” he tells me. “They had a meeting, that was it. There was no vetting, and the standard of reviewing [on all these sites] vary. Some of them shove four or five stars on anything. There is a guy who does a look over the thing, but it's just basic sub-editing to make sure it's not offensive. Three Weeks, for example, has a bit of a reputation for being open to anyone who's written an article at university, or anyone who can nearly string a sentence together.”
Levi Bailey, the managing editor of Broadway Baby, does tell me that the site aims to “make sure [reviewers] are from a background where they've already been trained”, but nonetheless a quick glance across the review-sheets that the two big sites print daily will show some people who seem to be writing from a position of genre-bias, appear to have fallen in love with their own critical phraseology – a quick glance at today's reveals “being locked in the cabinet would have been more fun” – want to air their own theatrical theories (“I have always been of the opinion,” one particularly memorable review opened dictatorially, “that Shakespeare cannot be read but must be performed”), or are simply written with such poor attention to grammar, syntax and vocabulary that any theatrical judgement must be put in doubt simply by association.
“Another problem with a lot of the sites like Broadway Baby and Three Weeks are that a lot of them are trying to prove their writing flair, so they want to try out new things,” Dan tells me. “Everybody wants to be Will Self up here.”
Often, this all means there is little love lost between performers and reviewers. A bad review can dent a young production's chances of commercial success, while a good one can often guarantee it. Especially in the internet age where a young theatre company's Google rankings are as important as word-of-mouth recommendations, the power to make or break a show is a lot of responsibility to place in the hands of someone who is essentially an unqualified amateur.
Tom Eccleshare and Valentina Ceschi are the theatrical duo behind Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, a beautiful but unusual production which has suffered at the hands of some reviewers. “Now I like mime,” a Broadway Baby review of their show opines, “but I do have an issue with a mime that lasts twenty minutes.” Thus are Tom and Valentina are afflicted by the reviewer's short attention span. Is this fair?
“We knew that the piece would be divisive, [but] we didn't find any bad reviews for a while and our sales were really good, so we thought maybe no news is good news,” Ceschi tells me. “Then we found them all at once. It was really upsetting. After a while, if you keep reading them there is a danger of believing what you read.”
“You're doing it every night and now you have those words in your head, and as soon as you hear somebody shuffling in the audience a voice in your head goes: 'ah, there you go. They were right.'”
On the other hand, the duo tell me, despite the critical hostility, their audiences have been positive – and large. “The thing with a bad review,” says Ceschi, “is people might not really see it. It's the good reviews that people are looking for. If the show has good word of mouth, and if the audience response has been positive, that's the most important thing. If you got 5-stars to whack on your poster it's going to be eye-catching, but there's a limit to the damage a bad review can do.”
A galaxy of stars is a real boost to a young company, however. By now, many shows will have had several reviewers in, and those that have been rewarded with good ratings will be sitting around diligently stapling printouts of those stars to their flyers and posters. But there is a lot of pressure on reviewers to give out good reviews. “People just aren't as careful with the star rating,” says Dan, “but it's the star ratings that sell shows. People put them on their flyers, but if everyone's got five stars, maybe they become valueless.”
Some shows are clearly worthy of the reviews that will adorn their posters by the end of the month. Others are doubtless less deserving of praise. But reviewing theatre is always an exercise in subjectivity, and because there are so many reviewers and so many publications at the Fringe there can be no real consistency; one reviewer may be in the habit of heaping praise but be measly with stars; others might give stars out like tic-tacs; others still might simply be prejudiced against a performance because the room is too hot. Sometimes a production just is unlucky.
Then again, the young critics are in a bind. Should they shy away from telling the truth in order to spare the feelings of strangers? Ultimately, a critic must reward and damn with as much fairness as they can muster, but this is very difficult without context and experience.
Tom Martin, editor of Twitter-based site Fringebiscuit, has also struggled with this process. “Because we're running a young writers' training scheme we try to engage with the thought process more. We want to make sure our writers are checking themselves.” At least three pairs of eyes see every review: the two editors and the reviewer. If a review doesn't ring true, or suffers from prejudicial bias, they will send it back to the writer. “It's about making sure that not only is the writer working on all cylinders, but the production is fairly represented. We want to make sure that they engage with it on fair terms. Of course, sometimes some productions just are really bad – but that's OK.”
“There have been some reviews for both shows,” says Eccleshare, “and not necessarily the more positive ones, that I've thought have really attempted to engage with the show, and make an intelligent response to it. [That's better], even if that's not necessarily positive.”
“Ultimately,” says Dan, “whether someone's had training as a reviewer or not, their opinion as an audience member will be just as valid.”
*name has been changed.