The End of the Fringe: The Reviewers (or “How To Be A Theatre Critic at the Edinburgh Fringe.”)

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The Edinburgh Fringe is always filled with injustice and this is usually dispensed by critics whose reviews mix casual cruelty with a virtually insolent disinterest in the actual art of theatre. This year, however, things have changed. An anonymous blogger, the Critic With No Name, has taken on the establishment with his determination to review student theatre and review it “objectively.” Across the Fringe, everyone is grateful.

But enough of me. What about “The Reviewers,” this brand new musical by Adam Holland Wells and Elizabeth Sybil Charlesworth?

It bade adieu to the Fringe on Saturday, but it is worth reviewing outside of the everyday context of the Fringe because it essentially submits a review of the critic from the stage. So, if you can excuse a little self-indulgence, let us seize this opportunity to consider why anybody would write theatre criticism for the Fringe and how they should go about doing it.

As we file up the stairs into Greenside @ Nicolson Square, I suddenly realise that I have no memory of ever sitting through a musical before. I must have done this – I have done everything! – but I feel as competent to judge a musical as I would an exhibition of synchronised swimming. If we abandon whatever rules and standards are used to review musicals, however, then “The Reviewers” is a lot of fun. It is massively exuberant from start to finish, largely because it is more committed to taking the piss out of musicals than out of its purported subject of Fringe reviewers. This show is postmodern but in an easy, family-friendly way. It is no surprise to learn that “The Reviewers” comes from Nottingham, the capital city of student theatre, since it displays all the usual efficiency and lightness of a Nottingham New Theatre production. Holland Wells and Charlesworth are both Nottingham alumni.

So I’m sitting here watching a guy dressed as Zorro (Lyle Fulton) singing about how he’s fighting for objectivity. I’m soaked in horror, shivering as if something is dancing on my grave. Reviewing this show is going to be like eating my own face. Still, it could be worse: I could be instead identifying with the arch “Queen of the Mile” theatre critic Keira Cochrane (Maddie Hardy), whose five star reviews cost five hundred pounds. I don’t wish to do any legwork for the lawyers, but who is this character based upon? The real-life queens of theatre criticism (and this production is set in an alternative reality in which musicals have the status of Fringe theatre), Joyce McMillan and Lyn Gardner, are amiable, liberal figures who generally award everything three stars. The name of the fictional Keira Cochrane echoes that of the Scotsman’s harridan Kate Copstick, but perhaps there are also shades of the equally-alliterative Scotsman hack Sally Stott, who earned a rebuke from Tychy in 2010 over her one star review of a Nottingham New Theatre performance (she did not give the ablest impression of having seen the show).

Yet “The Reviewers” is not greatly interested in being satirical on this front, not least because it rejects the customary narrative of declining newspapers versus user-generated media (Cochrane is an internet entrepreneur). This musical instead evokes a fairytale Fringe, in which shiny-faced kids have dreams and a critic is the wicked witch. The cast end up singing the ho-hum moral that reviewers’ stars are unimportant and that objectivity is not really very practical.

Unfortunately Cochrane dies by her own hand and the Critic With No Name will have to fill her shoes at next year’s Fringe. So where does he go right and wrong as tomorrow’s critic?

Wrong: Never award stars. The Critic With No Name adorns all of his reviews with stars, whilst I am such a ferocious critic that I have never awarded a single star throughout my entire career. Stars are part of the infrastructure of the Fringe – punters want to see a review which contains some stars and a handful of robotic adjectives (“magnificent,” “spellbinding,” “mesmerising,”) before they splash the cash. But stars are not a part of serious criticism. They give the unhappy impression that the Fringe is a gigantic public examination system, with all the candidates being laboriously graded. Moreover, for any critic who claims to be “objective,” stars can never be objective. Imagine that you see the most amazing, unbelievably powerful show and you decide that this simply must have five stars. What happens when the next show is twice as good? Every critic has to be a distinguished writer of prose and a judicious use of the English language will always shed more light than some spangly stars.

Right: Remain anonymous. Tychy is technically pseudonymous but I am incognito when walking the Fringe. Last year I deleted my Facebook account, firing hundreds of Friends, so that no photographs of me would be available online. The Critic With No Name falls into the biggest elephant-trap in the jungle when he befriends Laura (Aimee Gaudin). It would be very easy for a production to send a pretty girl with a sad story to me; she would sit on my knee and tell me how she was failing her degree because she had spent all of her time in rehearsals. I would boast to myself that I remained objective, but subtle readjustments would have been already made deep in my subconscious. Certain sympathetic endorphins would be released when it was finally time to review her show.

Wrong: Never accept free stuff. When Giles (Eoin Buckley) rages that he is going to identify the Critic With No Name by checking all of the tickets in the house, this means that the Critic has accepted a complementary one. If you have not paid for your own ticket, with money that you have spent hours working down the coal mine to earn, then you are fatally disconnected from the act of criticism. Neither your gratitude at a stunning performance nor your rage at an hour of pretentious gibberish will be totally real.

Right: Prioritise the obscure. You haven’t heard of the university which is sponsoring this play, they don’t have a website or a Twitter account, it’s being performed at eight in the morning in what looks like the parlour of a family-run Bed & Breakfast, and no other critic has turned up to review it. This play is accordingly a priority; the writer might be the next Shakespeare. If it’s a disaster, then you cannot expect to win every time that you place a bet in the Fringe casino. If your review only gets three hits (the writer, the director and a random one, the stats tell you, from sub-Saharan Africa), well it might still pay off one day when the writer finally lands a script commission for Doctor Who.

Right: Be a nice guy. The Critic With No Name is a nice guy. He is fighting for justice and to make the world a better place. If you are going to be a superhero theatre critic then, like him, you need to sing your heart out.

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