Thursday, 26 June 2014

Five Reasons why The Edinburgh Fringe is Crap

Every year, the Fringe Society announces that it is now bigger and better. Better seems to mean that there are more shows so, tautology aside, the Fringe - which was started off, to quote wikipedia, 'when eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in 1947' to provide an alternative to the mainstream productions - the Fringe is now 'the world's biggest arts festival.' So instead of being the place where the obscure, the challenging or the experimental can happen, it's the aesthetic equivalent of a student disco on a Friday night. The beats are predictable, the outfits almost fashionable and the only thing that anyone cares about is being pissed or picked up.

Of course, I don't really mean it. But I am going for some click-bait. So here's my handy guide to the Fringe's utter crapness.

Star ratings are more important than critical assessment.
A few years back there was a campaign to address the problems of 'star inflation' (critics marking shows up to get attention). Since one of the leaders in this campaign puts has posters for their shows that assign over 40% of the space to previous star ratings, it was lucky that it never went beyond Facebook moaning. 

But it does highlight a particular problem. There are so many publications, and so many reviews, that is difficult to tell what the ratings mean these days. One publication now marks out of seven stars, meaning that the former gold standard of five stars is as trustworthy as Tony Blair's opinions on the Middle East. The most successful business in Edinburgh during August is printing, as companies put in bulk orders for sheets covered in stars. 
The downside is, no-one reads the reviews. I might as well replace my finely crafted opinions with guest slots from rubbish villains from comics.

Student Companies don't distinguish themselves from professional companies.
I love drama by young people, but I don't want to critique it in the same way as I do professional companies. It has an entirely different set of intentions. I've discussed this elsewhere, but the short version is that, last year, I saw a few student companies whose advertising suggested that they were the next step down from the RSC. Watching these works suggested all sorts of ways that I could critique their work - to their advantage - but I had to give them the same sort of review I would give to the RSC. I just hope I didn't destroy anyone's ambitions: the lesson is: don't pretend to be something you cannot be.

There is too much comedy.
I don't mean in the comedy festival. I mean in the theatre section. The idea that theatre ought to be funny works up to a point. That point is when actors mistake getting a laugh for connecting with the audience. 

There is too much Shakespeare.
If you need me to justify this... you don't actually go to the theatre. 

Radical interpretations one year become the establishment the next.
Yep, from content to form, once an idea is given a Fringe First, expect it to come back in spades the next, and be agitating for its own section the year after. This refers especially to: gender swap versions of Shakespeare; feminist versions of Shakespeare; confessions of sexual failure or excess; lectures about science; comedians doing theatre (thank you Mark Thomas). This year, a Fringe First will go to a play about sex work. I have fifty quid on it down at Ladbrokes. Next year, the Fringe Society will have a workshop called From Pro to Professional: Making Your Sex Work work for Your Script.

Disclaimer: I just made this all up. I love the Fringe really. Mind you, I think all these points are worth debate. Try to show you've read the whole piece, trolls, by not making an ad hominem argument about my cynicism. I am actually being cynical about cynicism, see?


  1. All your points are valid, and there isn't one I disagree with. Too much comedy theatre, too much mainstream content choking the experimental. It has become far, far too costly to take a company to the Fringe with little audience left (not to mention ad space, column inches, reviewers) to make the financial risk worthwhile for small, experimental companies.

    I've heard different sides of the 5- vs 7-star debate and I'm still very much of the opinion that it's confusing and detrimental to both audiences and companies to rate against a scale that isn't industry standard. On top of that, critics and publications that rate on a 7-star scale just end up looking cheap and far less credible because they're not following common practise.

    I agree on the student theatre note, too. Though, having been on the side of handling press and marketing for student and amateur theatre (Fringe and otherwise), you're often damned either way. I know this doesn't apply to all, but it's often very difficult to even get critics or reviewers in for those kinds of shows, regardless of the quality, and so talking about your company as if it is professional (or at least NOT talking about it as if it is student/amateur) can feel like the only way to be taken seriously enough to get reviewed in the first place. Sometimes, a review that is less-than tailored to your company's own circumstances and resources feels better than failing to get anything.