Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reviewing the Fringe: a review (Part IV)

Part IV: Leading the cheers

And so we bring this fascinating thread of blog posts to an end by looking at the good stuff: four and five star reviews.

Trying to figure out the difference between a four and a five star review was one of the big headaches of the Fringe. A good headache, and one I suffered often because I was lucky enough to see some cracking shows.

My first review was Sarah Millican. She went on to be nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award, so her show can’t have been that bad. I really enjoyed it and was extremely impressed by her stage craft: underneath some fairly ordinary material is a world-class understanding of how to keep an audience laughing. I debated about whether it was a four or a five star show and ended up consulting the editor. I told her the show was “guaranteed great time” but not “show you’ll tell the grandkids about one day”. She recommended four stars. The Skinny set the bar pretty high.

(I had a very brief Twitter exchange with Sarah about this review. I told her that I thought she was phenomenal and she replied with “Phenomenal is 5 stars”, which I’m choosing not to interpret as snippy)

Once the bar is set though, it’s still a judgement call on whether you give 100% or hold something back. Often, I ended up comparing shows to each other. For example, Alex Horne and Helen Keen both had similar shows this year, Odds and It Is Rocket Science, involving multimedia and a lot of science. I loved them both and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either one. But Odds felt slightly like an episode of a TV show, while It Is Rocket Science felt really fresh and original. So Alex gets four and Helen gets five, but there’s not really much in it.

I was similarly fond of both Jason Cook and Paul Sinha. Again they had similar shows, using dramatic experiences from the last 12 months as a framework, with lots of general stand-up thrown in the middle. But Jason used his experience as a theme, while Paul constructed a quite brilliant essay on intolerance in modern Britain. I came out of Pauls’ show feeling like I had witnessed a really important new voice emerging, so he got the five stars.

It’s random and arbitrary, but that’s the nature of reviewing, which is probably why artists hate being reviewed (unless they’re getting unqualified praise). But in some ways, this problem is the most enjoyable one faced by reviewers. I said before that I think reviews are at their best when they’re subjective and personal; making that decision between four and five stars give you that option to say that you really, really loved something and you desperately want to share it with others.


Thanks for reading all of this, if you have. Of course, I’m not remotely qualified to give definitive advice on reviewing. I just wanted to record some of my thoughts, which should also make a handy set of notes if I’m lucky enough to be doing it again next year.


  1. it's been interesting, and good to see ya still using your comedy smarts - college wasn't a complete waste of time!!