The reviewing and rating of shows at the Edinburgh festival is an incredibly important part of how the festival functions, but the quality of reviewing leaves a lot to be desired.
Every year, fringe performers pay large fees to fringe venues in order to perform in them and pay large portions of their ticket sales to promoters and to agents. Most of this is in an attempt to craft a following, either for the television agents who comb the fringe for new padding for the BBC3 television schedule, or to generate enough popularity among a comedy-going audience. For newer comics it can be a heavy investment that can pay off; stand-ups like Jason Manford can now pack-out stadiums, others can be content with selling-out the fringe without the need of pesky flyerers or promoters, some fringe veterans sell-out runs on reputation alone.
One of the most important elements of this word-of-mouth process is the thousands of reviews produced the by pop-up press that exists for the duration of August. Edinburgh's flyer litter gets some new friends among the temporary publications circulating across the Windy City's pavements; Broadway Baby, Edfringe Review, The Student Festival, and the glossy king of fringe publications; Fest. In addition to this the Edinburgh Evening News, Scotsgay, the Scotsman, and the Guardian step up their game, giving extensive fringe coverage. Over the course of the festival the posters of most fringe acts progressively become adorned with four and five-star review stickers, indicating their increasing critical reception.
However, the quality of this temporary Fleet Street leaves a lot to be desired. Aside from the major publications, whose coverage is more professional but limited the majority of reviews are provided by an army of volunteer looking desperately for writing experience; generally inexperienced students.
This isn't problematic for larger acts at the fringe, which are guaranteed to be seen by major publications. Whilst this doesn't necessarily guarantee getting a well-written or thought out review, it gives much better odds. But for those performers in smaller venues, or those in free fringe venues, the sheer volume of things happening at the fringe ensures they will be relegated to the lesser publications. Publications such as Broadway Baby and the New Current, who endeavour to review as much as possible, end up posting barely edited reviews from weak writers, inconsistent, littered with typos and barely establishing an opinion, merely listing features of the show.
In the following paragraphs I've deliberately left out identifying features of my anecdotes in order to 'protect' those involved.
A short trudge in the quagmire of fringe reviews finds some absolute horror stories. There is for example, the three star review of a show to which there was 'never a dull moment'. The review which marked a show down for 'being on at the wrong time', something which performers have little-to-no-control over ultimately. The review which spelt a performer's name wrong.
Venture onto the websites who are reputable, and you find a reviewer who in their bio proclaims to love Theatre, and proves it. Making a habit of giving four and five star reviews to every piece of theatre they review, and two to three stars to every comedy performance. You can also read reviews of comedy which are just bland lists of material with terrible adjectives shoved in random places, and mention nothing about delivery, originality, complexity, or structure.
At one point, counting the number of cliché's or totally useless pieces of information was funny, but then it gets tedious. There's the endless slew of reviewers who claim something might not be 'Everyone's cup of tea'. That something's good if 'you're looking for something X at Y time'. That it'd be fine if the comedian looked a different way.
Then there's the plethora of words used incorrectly, in addition to being featured in every theatre production with a good review, there's the review of the comedian which is described as 'Shakespearean'. The use of 'Shakespearean' may be as bad as the use of the word 'postmodern'. It makes one feel bad for Shakespeare, a victim of his own success. No one goes around describing things as Brechtian when they aren't.
Whilst the presence of this mass of bad reviewing seems harmless, it can be legitimately damaging to comedians in a number of way. A bad review for someone on the free fringe or in a small venue may be the only one they receive, and if it's unjustified it might do unnecessary harm to their career. A comedian that I spoke to who was performing on the free fringe this year said it was annoying that all the reviewers who were coming to see his show were students who knew next-to-nothing about comedy, he would appreciated some useful feedback.
Not all reviews at the fringe are bad, by all means. Some of those students who want writing experience, a category I presently find myself in, are really very good. There is however, an overwhelming majority of excrement that does the fringe and its performers a great disservice.