Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Reviewing the Fringe: a review (Part II)

Part II : Execution Style; some thoughts on bad reviews

Bad reviews are when writers really get to strut. I’ve done some movie and music reviews in the past where I’ve gone giddy with delight while giving something a kicking.

Yet this Fringe I’ve only given one bad review, and that was a 2-star job. So why’s that?

One reason is simply that I had a good Fringe and enjoyed the majority of shows I saw. Another reason is the editorial policy of my kindly publishers, The Skinny. They basically warned us all that if we saw someone die on stage, it would be uncool to dance on their graves (they’re very anti-strutting).

But I do worry that I’m a bit too nice to comedians. Without breaking into autobiography, back in the 90s I got to spend a lot of time around comics and I learned two things about them:

1) They’re generally quite nice, warm people. The post-Tony Hancock myth of comedians being miserable gits offstage is generally nonsense. Comedy is a very tiny world and being able to get along with people is an essential survival skill.

2) It is impossible to overstate how important Edinburgh is to them.

I admit that whenever I’ve watched an act at the Fringe, I’ve been very aware of these two points. In this rather eye-catching, zero-star review of Robert White, the reviewer says “The reviewing convention is that a comic gets one star just for showing up and doing their show”. Not for me. I give two stars for completing the act, and deduct one if the act really annoys or offends me. (I gave Robert White three stars, by the way, but he didn’t walk off when I was there.

Is this the right way to be? I don’t know. My two-star review could have been a one-star. It was an act called Silence Of The Trams, a sketch troupe made up of what felt like a bunch of jobbing local comedians (I later discovered that they were… jobbing local comedians).

It was funny in places. It was boring in more places. Some bits were just excruciating. One sketch, portraying a first-time London comedian dying at the fringe, was so unknowingly self-referential that it made my toes curl. I checked my watch at one point and swore out loud when I realised there were fifteen minutes left.

So why didn’t I go for the jugular and shred them? Editorial policy; the fact that there were some good bits; the desire to reserve the 1-star rating in case I saw an act I really hated. But I do know that a part of it was simply the fact that I liked the guys. I liked them for pulling a show together and making an effort, even if it didn’t come off.

I wonder about how reasonable that is. If it was a movie, I would have stuck the boot right in.

The second bad act I saw were an Australian outfit called The Nelson Twins. I saw them on the first day of the previews, and wished I hadn’t bothered as they ploughed through a tedious set of one-liners delivered in a monotone and mainly dealing with incest and beards.

I chickened out of reviewing them. I had paid for my ticket so I was under no obligation, so I decided to just pretend I had never been there instead of slamming them. Some else did though, and you can read their review here. Worryingly, I still reckon I would have given them 2 stars. They seemed like really nice guys.

Reviewers should, in my opinion, be massively subjective. Trying to be balanced makes for dry, dusty writing. Better instead to be completely true to your own opinions. Be passionate and hope that your voice connects with people. I adore Mark Kermode, not because he’s always right but because he’s such a devoted cineaste.

But maybe it’s a little too subjective to feel respect for anyone willing to stand up and have a bash at making me laugh. I would probably be a better reviewer if I didn’t pull punches.
Not that I’m certainly not going to go seeking out bad shows just so I can practice being nasty. I’ll keep doing it my way for as long as The Skinny will have me. And of course, this means that if I ever do give a 1-star review, you know I really hated it.

In part 3: a discussion of the worst possible review for comedians, reviewers and readers – the three star review.

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