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Lyn Gardner: With no five-star shows yet, I’m still searching for THE fringe show of 2018

Mary Jane Wells in Heroine at Assembly Hall, Edinburgh. Photo: Greg Macvean

“At this point, you might be thinking you’d like to exchange your ticket for Thor and Loki, the musical,” says US soldier Danna with a wry grin. Danna is the central character of Mary Jane Wells’ one-woman show Heroine [1] at Assembly Mound, and she lays out her stall at the start of a harrowing show, told in graphic detail, about her experiences of being a lone female soldier in a US army company.

She gives us a choice about whether to go or stay and listen. I’m glad I stayed, although I’d also say that Thor and Loki [2] is not to be sniffed at just because it’s a comedy musical: Harry Blake’s witty tale tells us as much about misplaced masculinity as many more serious shows on the fringe.

Wells’ offer is to do with the difficult, sometimes very challenging nature of the material she presents. But it is not an uncommon feeling to find yourself watching one show on the fringe and yet not quite suppressing the feeling that you wish you had chosen to be at another one. Particularly with lots of good or quite good shows but few standout hits. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some very nice shows. I just haven’t seen the show.

It’s a rare fringe when I don’t write a couple of five-star reviews, but not this year. At least not so far. But there is still a week to go, and I might yet strike it lucky. But the writing for the 2018 festival may be on the wall when six out of 14 Fringe Firsts awarded so far have gone to the Traverse [3].

The off year of the biennial British Council Showcase often turns out to have fewer theatrical fireworks, as if a British Council year makes everyone up their game. Some established companies will only come to Edinburgh in a British Council year, not least because even if you are not part of the showcase there is a greater chance of getting some international touring dates.

There are some very good shows here this year – Dressed [4], The Ballad of the Apathetic Son, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True [5], Island Town [6], Square Go [7], Blackthorn [8], After the Cuts [9] and A Fortunate Man [10], Trojan Horse [11], The Reluctant Fundamentalist [12] all spring effortlessly to mind – which I guess is quite a haul. I have a particular place in my heart for Poor Michelle’s quietly haunting Violet which has sadly already finished its run at Zoo.

Although just as the fringe firsts are dominated by one venue, the list above is dominated by Summerhall [13]which, like the Traverse, is a curated programme. Between them, the two venues have collected nine out of the 14 Fringe Firsts. Increasingly these two venues hoover up the critical coverage and plaudits.

The truth is, in the less heavily curated spaces there are a lot of shows that seem good in the context of the fringe, but that may not stand up to scrutiny outside of the festival season. That’s particularly true of issue-based work or true-life stories or campaigning shows that are effective at creating a sense of rage about injustice. But some of these shows don’t necessarily turn the issues into engaging theatre and great storytelling. They often have their hearts in the right place but not their dramaturgy.

The ‘ra-ra’ of the fringe and the heaping on of the stars can create too much expectation around work so that if it pops up again on the touring circuit in a few months, it disappoints. The framework of the fringe is a tricky one for critics to negotiate. Are you reviewing shows within the bubble of the fringe or against exactly the same criteria and within the same context that you unconsciously apply all year long?

I always think it’s better to be a little bit stingy with the stars, particularly when all around you are throwing them about like confetti, but of course no company will thank you for a three-star review, however complimentary you are about the show.

Lots of shows on the fringe are small or fragile, not necessarily because of their length, but because so many of the companies are still developing skills and presenting work in quite difficult conditions. Over-praising at this stage can leave it exposed and piles the pressure on companies to gather even more stars in subsequent years or feel as if they have failed. It is a rare company such as Breach – here this year with the superb It’s True, It’s True, It’s True  – that has been able to pull one Edinburgh hit after another out of the hat.

Breach Theatre: ‘A really exciting company that will only get better’ [14]

Maybe there is a new Breach still lurking out there undiscovered. I hope so. Many critics have now gone back to London, but I’ll be out and about with the rest of The Stage team this week hoping to find those elusive gems.