Waiting in queues is usually dull. But on the fringe, I love queues, largely because they are such a terrific source of unexpected information.
There is much talk about word-of-mouth hits in theatre, but in Edinburgh you can see the phenomenon in action. It’s like a city-wide game of Chinese whispers. One that can cause confusion if you get your No One is Coming to Save You mixed up with your Everything is not Saved.
Take the time to talk to people in queues and ask them what they have seen and enjoyed, and it is surprising how often the same titles begin to emerge. Three mentions of the same piece within 48 hours is often enough to make me book a ticket. I reckon it’s much more reliable than social media where companies talk up their own shows. Not that I blame them.
But if queues are a good way of winkling out those under-the-radar hits that you’ve not yet seen, it is much harder to get a handle on those you should avoid. When writing a round-up of shows earlier this week, I prevaricated over whether to include a show I really hadn’t liked, although I admire the company enormously.
‘Is telling people what to avoid as helpful as pointing them towards the shows you rate?’
Whereas during the rest of the year a theatre reviewer on a national publication will write about pretty well everything they see, the rules of engagement shift in Edinburgh. It allows for some flexibility in writing about the stuff that is more deserving of attention.
Last year a debate erupted around whether critics had a duty to review every show they saw if they had accepted a free ticket. I won’t re-rehearse the arguments because I wrote about it extensively at the time. But while not writing about a show you don’t like, or like less, may seem like a kindness to artists, does it really serve audiences?
Is telling people what to avoid as helpful as pointing them towards the shows you rate? Particularly when a negative review might steer people towards another show that might make them feel their money has been better spent. It is easy to spend £45 a day at the fringe on tickets.
At a discussion on criticism at Fringe Central yesterday (August 15) publicist Paul Sullivan recalled when, long ago, The Scotsman would publish a ‘page of shame’ on the last day of the fringe, listing all the shows it had given one star. That may sound cruel, but he pointed out that such was the public interest that many of those shows would sell out on the final day, so at least finishing the festival on a high. The sad truth is that a five star or a one-star review is much more likely to be read than a reasoned three-star.If, of course, the show gets reviewed at all.
Once upon a time, The Scotsman reviewed almost every show on the fringe. But research by Brendan Miles at List Magazine, presented at the panel and charting mainstream review coverage from 2012 to 2017, identified a whopping 38% drop in review coverage by paid reviewers working for national publications on the fringe. That is at a time when the volume of shows has been rising.
Just as during the rest of the year, regional and emerging work suffers when review space is cut. During the fringe it tends to be shows without a publicist performed outside of the main venues that miss out. Coverage of Traverse shows is not cut, but shows that are outliers.
Whether these outlying shows are good or bad, we will never know, because being reviewed confers visibility. One good review for a show often has a snowball effect, resulting in more reviews, and more good reviews means more promoter and producer attention.
But increasingly a substantial number of companies will arrive in Edinburgh in August and leave without any media attention at all. And it could be that their show was a stunner. Even good word-of-mouth in the queues can’t make up for that and it means artists, audiences and the industry are the losers.