Edinburgh diary: Who are these reviewers, then?

Without the deluge of daily reviews, the Edinburgh Festival would be very different. Nicky Woolf meets the people who write them.

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.

You should always read the reviews. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories