As August approaches and preparations for the Edinburgh Fringe swing into gear, another chancer emerges trying to squeeze a few pounds out of impressionable performers.
The website Mumble is charging £30 to £50 for “a digitally sophisticated Skyflyer”, which boils down to asking cash-strapped artists to pay to have their shows reviewed.
The process has – rightly – been branded “exploitative” and “unscrupulous” by one fringe producer. But, defending it, Mumble’s editor Damian Bullen said: “If you’re trying to sell your house in a crowded market, you get the surveyors in. The same applies to the Edinburgh Fringe and its thousands of shows.”
Bullen clearly knows as little about selling a house as he does about running a reviews website: purchasers tend to pay for a survey, so in this bizarre analogy this would perhaps equate to audiences paying to read a review, which is the far more ethical practice newspapers have been following for centuries.
But even on that level it’s a poor comparison: chartered surveyors and their opinions have legal standing. They have qualifications and are employed to record the condition of a house in a systematic and scientific way.
There are some industries that have adopted the model that Bullen believes he is trying to introduce to Edinburgh: Good Housekeeping, for example, charges companies to have their products tested at the Good Housekeeping Institute. A high rating can boost sales.
But, to state the obvious, there is a big difference between the brand equity of Good Housekeeping and, well, Mumble.
But even if there weren’t, there’s another fundamental difference: what Good Housekeeping is doing is testing – working out the real suction power of a vacuum cleaner, or what temperature an oven actually goes up to – it is not supplying a subjective and impressionistic response to the performance of a household appliance on a particular evening.
Theatre reviews have value on many levels – not least for marketing – but it is foolish to pretend they are empirical judgements based on broadly accepted and defined measureables. At their best, they are highly informed, subjective opinions on a work of art that can enrich other audience members’ appreciation and understanding.
Reviewers need paying and – as this week’s developments at the Evening Standard show – the publications that employ them need to see a sustainable future in theatre criticism or it will continue to dwindle, but this is not the way.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith