Reviewing at the fringe

The act of reviewing is something hard to think critically on, and is viewed entirely differently by reviewers, performers and audiences. Being at times all three of these I am now attempting to organise my own thoughts on reviewing, reviewers and being reviewed – particularly in the context of the fringe festival.

The fringe, as I have previously discussed, is a space open to playfulness and to experimentation. It’s a welcoming space with no boundaries of discrimination towards varying levels of professionalism; at the fringe can be found companies who have been around for years and those who are only just starting out. This makes the job of being audience member, performer and particularly reviewer that little bit harder. As performer you need to be prepared to learn from unfavourable commentary – hopefully still written in a helpful manner – to not be precious about the work you create and to want to let your experience at the fringe help your work to develop and grow. As audience member you need to be aware of the status of the show you’re going in to; this does not mean you must lower your expectations and be happy with a substandard performance if you’re watching a relatively new company or piece of work, but that a certain amount of taking it for what it is is required. But how are audiences to know the status of a piece of work? The answer to this partly comes down to the reviews. It is the job of the fringe reviewer to both comment on the standard of the work, but also to know where this stands in the oeuvre of the company presenting it.

But what does this actually mean, should the fringe reviewer be more lenient for fear of damaging delicate artists at the start of their careers? It’s interesting because as a reviewer and audience member I do sometimes think that fringe reviews are too nice, and dish out far more 5 stars than anywhere else. On the other hand, as a theatre maker with a very baby company I understand the importance of the review to not completely slate a production but offer a nurturing hand in the form of constructive criticism…

I do wonder whether the star rating is in fact suitable for the fringe, and whether reviews might be more beneficial to all involved if they were carefully crafted and constructively critical documents of the event. Of course, were the star rating to disappear it would be much harder for audience members to decide what they want to see – they’d actually have to read the review. And too often I think reviewers seem to rely on the star rating to speak for them, not giving enough care to what is actually being said (and I’m not discounting myself from any of these criticisms).

The thing is, the reviewer at the fringe is a very important person not only for the comments they offer on work seen but for the role they play in defining the space of the fringe. The review is, in the end, along with photographs and videos one of the only ways we have of documenting that anything like a fringe festival actually took place (although various social media platforms are altering this). This is just an exaggeration of what theatre reviews always do, documenting what it was like to be at that performance on that night, but with the fringe festival the review plays a part in carrying the space of the fringe through time to somehow help that particular festival in that particular year exist forever…

…an idealistic notion perhaps, but nevertheless there is some truth in it. Certainly the fringe review needs to embody the spirit of the fringe. My company Witness Theatre made its professional debut at this year’s Brighton Fringe with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Amazingly and totally unexpectedly we played to sell out houses every night, without any review behind us at all. The choice of play probably had a lot to do with this, but it was nice to see people had faith in a young company. The reviews we received were varied,they are all three stars but the differences between them seem to support the argument for getting rid of star ratings. Links to all the reviews can be found below:

I think it’s interesting to compare the three when considering the question of reviewing the fringes. One in particular stands out to me as being an example of very well crafted review that bears in mind its position as part of a fringe festival. Needless to say, there is a lot that we as a company will be taking from these reviews in order to develop our future work. Some are better than others at offering a record of the particular show on the particular night, but I’ll leave that to you to ponder on.


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