How to be an Edinburgh Festival reviewer

Every year there are more critics at the Edinburgh Festival. Soon there will be more than there are shows. When that happens they will have to take to the stage and review each other. Eventually, the whole process (and possibly the whole festival) will implode and all that will be left is a giant meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square with a few charred fliers and scratched lanyards covered in radioactive dust.

This week, for the eighth year running, I’ll be one of this army of notetakers in comfortable-yet-smart-yet-waterproof shoes, getting on the train at Kings Cross (yes, some of us live in London I’m afraid) with a suitcase full of big coats, out-of-date Microsoft products, and stars. Awaiting our arrival will be audiences, primed to see who we give these stars to. In some cases they will be so dazzled by them that what happens on stage will seem far brighter (or duller) than it actually is.

Those putting on shows will also be waiting to see what we think of them – many ready to hurl a disproportionate amount of praise or abuse in our direction depending on whether we “get” (i.e. like) or don’t “get” (i.e. dislike) their work. Everyone else will be, at best, ambivalent to us as we embark upon three weeks of frantically typing in bars and cafes or from the pavement, like nothing else – not even the massive meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square – matters. Because if the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t a competition for who can be the busiest I don’t know what it is. Oh yes, it’s an arts festival. Or is it dream lottery? Or a chance for Foster’s to sell you beer?

It’s actually all of these things, and more. But perhaps most importantly it’s really good fun, especially if you’re reviewing it – even more so if you’re getting paid, and more so again if you’re getting paid properly. I mean, really, what better job is there than doing something you love all day in a place where large numbers of people are doing the thing they love, and then writing about it? For a month!

If you’re lucky enough to be joining me and many others for the first time as part of this disparate, fractious, paid, under-paid, not paid, experienced, not experienced, enthusiastic, cynical, happy, not-so-happy group of people classified as fringe reviewers – welcome.

There is an elaborate and often difficult to figure out hierarchy among reviewers at the festival. The ones who work for certain newspapers can be disparaging about the ones who work for other newspapers, and the ones who work for other newspapers can sometimes seem to think very little of the ones who work for websites (unless they’re websites they like, and then that’s OK).

At least once a day you might end up in a conversation about what qualifies someone to be an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer. People may even ask you directly, usually because they’ve had a negative review or they’d like your job. Of course, there are no qualifications (BA theatre critic?) in the same way there are no qualifications for people who read scripts or commission TV shows or decide you’re going to win or lose this competition or that competition. Someone in a position of power just decides that you’re able to do the job in the same way whoever’s in charge of them at some point just decided they could do their job.

And if you can’t get someone to publish you (or even if you can), you can always publish yourself online. Newspapers are cutting back, websites are growing. Of course it’s more difficult to get people to listen to you from a small blog with an out-of-the-box turquoise font than, say, the front page of Scotsman – but at least no one’s stopping you from giving it a go due to lack of space, budget or appreciation of your genius ideas.

The Edinburgh Fringe is all about artists producing their own work. And more and more people who write about this work are publishing their own reviews. The spirit of the fringe – that everyone can have a go – has spread. And while some people might be horrified by that, I’m just happy there are other people sitting on the pavement typing. It makes us more visible to passing buses.

So, if you’re coming to review the festival for the first time – or if you’ve been before but would like me to tell you how to do your job – here are my tips for being an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer:

* If you’re under 30 you might want to try and win the Allen Wright Award. Or you might not. But you probably will.

* If you’re over 30 you might want to moan about being too old to enter the Allen Wright Award – or the fact you didn’t win it in 1997. Or you might rise above all of that. But you probably won’t.

* People putting on shows are not your friends – unless they are your friends, and then you should avoid reviewing them (that is, if you want to stay friends).

* Your opinion is your opinion. Other people will have different opinions, but they can’t tell you you’re right or wrong because that’s why it’s called an opinion.

* Sometimes there will be a general consensus regarding which show’s a multi-prize-winning work of a creative god, and which isn’t. It may be disconcerting that everyone disagrees with you. But it may be that you’re ahead of your time.

* At some point you’ll give a show a number of stars you later think was too generous or too conservative. Either way, everyone will have hundreds of the things by the end of August. By this point you might (rightly) question what stars mean anyway.

* Three shows is an ideal number to review in a day. Four is do-able. Five is too many. Seven is dangerous.

* You will write something nonsensical. You will forget to eat. And drink. You will leave all your money in a venue that looks just like another venue. That’s what happens when you see seven shows in a day.

* If you want to see and hear interesting stuff out and about, don’t wear your press pass around your neck. People will know you’re from the press.

* At some point there will just be you in the audience. You will feel awkward, but not as awkward as the performer.

* You might notice other reviewers taking notes. Chat to them. Chat to everyone. They will tell you stuff. But wait until the show has finished first.

* People will refer to you using only your surname. i.e. “Stott says this to that.” If you’re a woman and you’ve written something they really hate they will precede it with “Ms.”

* Be prepared for every performance you see to be amazing. Many of them won’t be, but at least you’ll have given them all a fair and equal chance.

* Sometimes the characters actors play are more appealing than the people they are in real life. That is the power of acting.

* Don’t say anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. At some point, that someone will want to chat to you about it. And then you’ll have to say them to their face anyway.

* The Festival is one of the few places where many people get to do a job they love – at least for three weeks. Others are simply working to earn money and be a part of it. So be nice to the bar/ restaurant/ café staff. Serving you falafel is probably not their dream.

Making sense of the Edinburgh Fringe Guide

A blog originally published in 2013. I was going to write a new one, but my friend said “why don’t you just update that other one you did that was really funny” – and how could I say no to that? (Although I also wrote a new one anyway…)

***

Choosing what to see at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a stressful process for a lot of people, particularly my Dad. Throughout August he emails me saying things like: “We want to go and see four- or five-star theatre show at 3.30pm on Sunday 12th August at the Pleasance Dome, or within a five-minute radius, and it can’t be like that dreadful boxing one that won all the prizes you sent us to last year. Do you have any suggestions?”

By this point, I’m usually seeing lots of shows for The Scotsman and, as a result, have lots of recommendations. However, I can’t remember when or where any of them took place because venues, times and titles are a jumbled mass of numbers and letters rolling around my head like lottery balls. So I just email him a single word: the name of my favourite. It has really stuck in my mind and I’m pretty sure will win all the prizes. Why wouldn’t it? It’s by the company who did that wonderful boxing play.

It’s around this time of year that lots of lists come out called things like ‘Top 20 things to see at the Edinburgh Fringe if you can’t be bothered to read the programme’. They predominantly suggest you go and see shows by companies or individuals who have done good stuff in the past, similar to the way banks only lend to people who can already prove they have lots of cash. These shows are ‘a safe bet’. However, safe can mean predictable and, in some cases, disappointing. For instance, you’re unlikely to appreciate a harrowing expose of sex trafficking, no matter how well done, if what you really want to see is a musical starring ex-soap stars.

Reading the Fringe Guide for yourself avoids this. It means you will be more likely to find and see what you want; less likely to have to buy your ticket now (or last week). However, it’s a time consuming process. I know, because I do it every year. It’s boring! Don’t even try and read more than ten pages without a break. But, in the end, it is worth it. Out of the hundred or so shows I see each year most of the ones I choose are good, and the ones I like best are often on few people’s lists except my own.

In 2008, I was one of the first and only critics to see Little Bulb’s debut show Crocosmia, performed in a hotel room. There were two other audience members. Their last show, Orpheus, sold out Battersea Arts Centre. A picture of their 2013 one, Squally Showers, topped the Guardian’s ‘to see’ list. In 2007, I saw one of the first performances of the recently formed 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It went on to win multiple awards and tour the world. The company didn’t have critics at their follow-up show in 2011. They didn’t need them.

Seeing a great show before anyone else is brilliant. You can take your time and choose where to sit, you won’t have someone else’s head blocking your view because there is no someone else, and the cast will probably chat to you at the end because they’ll be so grateful you came. “Why did you come?” they’ll ask, impressed that you’ve managed to find a venue listed 5km off the edge of the festival map. “Oh, I just read about you in the Edinburgh Fringe Guide,” you’ll breezily reply. None of this is going to happen when they’re selling out the National Theatre and appearing on BBC Breakfast.

While you will never again have the chance to see Little Bulb or 1927 in a quiet, unassuming atmosphere uncluttered by expectation in the way I originally did, reading the Fringe Guide will increase the likelihood of you having a similar experience with another currently unknown company.

But be warned, the Fringe Guide is a bewildering place: hidden gems are submerged in a cauldron of false advertising and unsubstantiated claims. In order to find the really good stuff, you’ll need to weed out the really bad stuff. To help, I’ve created a dictionary of the kind of terms you’ll come across here – words and phrases describing shows, and what they really mean:

Edinburgh Fringe Guide Dictionary

Immersive
You will probably end up on stage.

Site-specific
There isn’t a stage

One-on-one
Talk about your life with a strange man

Interactive
A strange man will try to snog you

A classic dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century
A pointless new setting for a familiar old tale

A rollercoaster ride of emotions
Lots of people crying for no obvious reason

Tackling issues
Talking about issues

Heart wrenching
Self-conscious

Poignant
Slow

Loveable
Annoying

Experienced
Boring

Burlesque
Stripping

Hilarious!
Painful!

America student company
Cheerful, rich teenagers on holiday

Iraq
Play written in 2003

London Riots
Play written in 2011

Ban the Bomb
Play written in 1963

Brechtian
Don’t go if you like Brecht

Beckett-like
Weird and confusing

New writing
Play by someone no older than 25

Monologue
Long

Verbatim
Saying other people’s words for them

Giving people a voice who don’t have one
Writing other people’s words for them

Science meets theatre
Someone like Brian Cox

Theatre meets art
Someone like Tracy Emin

Suitable for under 4s
Don’t go on your own if you’re 43

Suitable for over 14s
Don’t go on your own if you’re under 4

Adults only
Sex

Starts at 1am
Probably good

Free food!
Croissants

Multimedia
A projector

Five stars (audience member)
The critics gave it two

Five stars (unnamed source)
Everyone hates it

Five stars (well-known critic)
You will be left feeling mildly disappointed but predominantly smug

Won a prize in 2002
And hasn’t won one since

The critics loved it
We care what other people think

The critics hated it
Fuck other people

Adapted from a radio play
Was better as a radio play

Is on the telly
And should have stayed there

Anti-establishment
Mainstream

A play about tuition fees
Created by people who don’t want to pay them

A lot of hard work has gone into it
It’s not very good but please be sympathetic

Robert Burns
You will only see this play at the Edinburgh Festival

There will be a Q&A afterwards
No one will ask questions except the director

You will laugh until you cry
You may cry but not in a good way

You will cry until you laugh
Could be interesting

Good luck!

If you still can’t face the idea of reading the Fringe Guide and were really hoping this blog would be another list of recommendations for shows from someone who has yet to see any of them, please continue reading.

Shows I fancy seeing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014

I’ve made a list of things I think sound good. They are mostly theatre shows because this is predominantly what I review. I chose them after reading the Fringe Guide and researching them online.

The list is based upon my own personal preferences and prejudices because you have to start somewhere.

Pretty much all of the shows are new because I don’t review things that have been on at previous festivals.

If I’ve missed something off it’s either because I want to see other stuff more or because sometimes I miss things. You can decide which.

Theatre

Absolutely
One-man real-life story about growing up and joining Cirque Du Soleil. Sounds a likeable guy.

Alison Jackson: A Story in the Public Domain
New opera from the photographer and filmmaker (who does the royal look-alike pics). Summerhall.

And this is my Friend…Mr Laurel
About Laurel and Hardy’s relationship. Written by Gail Louw (good reviews for other stuff, prize at Brighton Fringe). Performed by Jeffrey Holland.

Animal Farm
New production from Guy Masterton and Tumanishvili Film Actors Theatre in Georgia.

Are You Lonesome Tonight
About whether or not a woman is Elvis Presley’s daughter and why we believe some things and not others. Summerhall.

The Art of Falling Apart
About walking out on modern life. People liked previews in Liverpool. By company that did Insomnobabble, also popular.

Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve F*cked
Sounds less in yer face than the title would suggest. Writer Rob Hayes (won Tom Erhardt Award).

Baba Brinkman – The Rap Guide to Religion
New one combining “hip-hop, comedy and behavioural sciences.”

Banjo Man
One-woman show about performer’s father who played the banjo on 90s hit ‘Swamp Thing’, his life and sudden death.

Barge Baby
New one by company from East15 who did The League of St George last year. About a family home turned bitter.

The Bastard Children of Remington Steele
About some orphans who believe their Dad is 70s TV character Remington Steele. Escalator East/ Arts Council.

Beans on Toast
New one from Patch of Blue. Relationship story about memories, with folk music.

Beats North
About the way we interact with music. Won a Northern Stage award.

Beowulf: The Blockbuster
A father and son’s relationship via the legend. Development initiative connected to Fishamble and others.

Berkoff the Inimitable
Steven Berkoff is painted by an artist while doing dramatic monologues. Sounds like the most self-indulgent thing ever, but also kind of fascinating.

Blackout
Verbatim piece about recovering alcoholics. Been on earlier in the year. Sounds good.

Blind
Beatboxing show about the things young people are hearing today. By The Paper Birds.

Bloody Trams
Second instalment of Traverse rapid response piece to the Edinburgh trams

Bonenkai
New show about forgetting everything, by Northern Stage associate company.

Boxman
New one-man show from Ruaraidh Murray (Bath Time, Big Sean, Mikey and Me) who is excellent.

Britannia Waves the Rules
About soldiers in Afghanistan. Won a Bruntwood award. Royal Exchange. Summerhall.

Broke
Another one from The Paper Birds. Exploring a nation in debt. Sounds good/ topical.

Burger Van
Company won an Arches Brick Award last year. This one features puppets and live music and is about “the meaning of life.” Appears to take place in a phone shop. BAC/ Farnham Maltings.

The Capone Trilogy: Loki
The Capone Trilogy: Lucifer
The Capone Trilogy: Vindici

New collection of plays from Jethro Compton, formerly of Belt Up, who did the Bunker Trilogy last year.

The Carousel
Sequel to The List, which won lots of prizes. This one’s about the memories of a woman’s dying mother.

Chef
About how a woman went from a haute cuisine chef to running a prison kitchen. By Sabrina Mahfouz. Good reviews for other shows.

The City
“Hip-hop fable” in which “Humphrey Bogart meets Jay-Z”. Sounds splashy. Time Out Tel Aviv apparently liked.

City of the Blind
New political thriller from David Leddy to be viewed by smartphone or tablet.

The Collector
Satirical ghost story set during the US-led invasion of Iraq. By comedy writer Henry Naylor.

Conformation
New collaboration between Fringe First-winners Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin. “Examines the mental processes that govern our deepest beliefs.”

Crazy Glue
Silent physical theatre couple relationship comedy/ tragedy. Good trailer.

Cuckooed
True story of how Britain’s biggest arms dealer, BAE Systems, came to spy on comedian Mark Thomas.

The Despondent Divorcee
Set in a 1940s hotel with live jazz music, following a woman’s suicide. Not sure story sounds as strong as production values, but interesting to see.

Dr Longitude’s Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie
New one from Les Enfants Terribles.

Domestic Labour: A Study in a Love
New love story from 30 Bird (Plastic). Summerhall

The Domino Effect
Fringe First winners Fin Kennedy and Mulberry Girls School return to Fringe after five years.

Donald Robertson is not a Stand-Up Comedian
New show from Gary McNair about what to do if everyone hated you. Traverse.

Dracula [one by Action to the Word]
New version with live music by Action to the Word who I think did a Titus Andronicus at c venues that I liked in 2011.

The Duck Pond
Retelling of Swan Lake with live music. People enjoyed at Student Drama Festival.

Eggs Collective Get a Round
Three female cabaret performers, singing and comedy. Sounds light and entertaining.

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland
About mental illness and a mother and son relationship. Good reviews when on earlier in the year. Summerhall.

Every Brilliant Thing
New one from Duncan Macmillian and Paines Plough. Summerhall.

Factor 9
New one from company that did The Tailor of Inverness. About NHS infected blood products scandal. Summerhall.

The Fair Intellectual Club
Based on a group of real-life women who decide to educate themselves at the time of the Scottish Enlightenment. By Lucy Porter.

The Flood
New one from Badac theatre. This one’s set in WWI.

Fragile
Semi-autobiographical play by Bafta-winning writer about sexual abuse he suffered as a child and how he dealt with this. Well-reviewed in Birmingham when on a few months ago.

Freak
New play by Anna Jordon, winner of this year’s Bruntwood Prize, about 30-year-old man and 15-year-old girl. Theatre 503.

The Generation of Z
Immersive interactive site-specific zombie apocalypse play from New Zealand. Looks and sounds pretty cool/ scary.

Good Timin’
About Ian Mclaughlin’s journey to find his missing father.” Live Theatre and Northern Stage.

The Great Gatsby
“Theatrical experience” version of the novel. Takes place in a pop-up specially designed space. Might be cool.

The Handlebards: Macbeth
The Handlebards: The Comedy of Errors

All-male Shakespeare tour on bikes, where they carry everything they need around with them.

Hand Made in China: Moons, Migration and Messages
Interactive show for two people. “Music, mooncakes and a rickshaw”. Summerhall.

He Had Hairy Hands
New show from Lowry associate company who did ‘The Boy Who Kicked Pigs’ which had good reviews. This one is a detective werewolf mystery.

The Height of the Eiffel Tower
One-woman show by Neighbours star Morganna O’Reilly. “Like Summer Heights High,” says a review.

Hibrow In-Conversations
Two surprise guests chatting in a weekly talk “about life, art, the festival and everything else.”

Hiraeth
About leaving a family farm. By company that did Fringe First-winning ‘Bound.’ Ideastap prize winner.

The Hive
About connecting in a world reliant on technology. Physical theatre. Looks evocative. Not sure what story is.

Horizontal Collaboration
New one from David Leddy with actors reading script for first time every night. Sounds exciting. Traverse.

How Does a Snake Shed its Skim
A one-woman show in which a woman tries to be more than one woman. Sounds interesting. Summerhall.

How to Achieve Redemption Through as a Scot Through the Medium of Braveheart
About “identity, belonging and machismo.” Sounds amusing/ interesting. Ideastap prize winner.

How to Disappear Completely
Lighting designer Itai Erdel uses lights to tell the story of his mother’s death. Aurora Nova.

Hyde and Seek
By writer nominated for a fringe first 15 years ago. Reworking of Jekyll and Hyde with live music.

Icarus
Based upon the real-life people who signed up for a prospective one-way trip to Mars.

I’m not like Other Girls
Woman’s comic journey from a misogynist to a feminist. Can’t find any info on this, but like the idea.

I’m not Pale, I’m Dead
One woman show about a ghost. Winner of Adelaide fringe and Beyond Award.

The Importance of being Earnest as Performed by Three F*cking Queens and a Duck
New one from gay LGBT Australian theatre company Outcast who do fun romps that end up being surprisingly heartfelt.

The Initiate
New play about a British taxi driver who decides to rescue a couple seized by Somali pirates. Sounds exciting. Paines Plough/ Summerhall.

Invisible Walls
Experimental-looking piece that seems to be about surveillance and integration. Audience get put in a box. Summerhall.

I Promise You Sex and Violence
And who could say no to that. Relationship play from David Ireland/ Northern Stage.

Jim
Winner of Daily Mail Edinburgh Festival Fringe Award for a student company. About father and son’s relationship.

Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult
Sequel to Tim Fountain’s other Julie Burchill play.

Kim Noble: You’re Not Alone
New one from artist and comedian (Kim Noble Must Die). Traverse.

Kingmaker
New one from the company that did Coalition a few years ago, which was good.

Klip
Danish company creating meaning out of chaos. Sounds interesting. Summerhall.

Land of Smiles
Sounds like an interesting new perspective on the trafficking of women in Thailand, exploring how they are seen as victims by well-meaning people trying to “save” them.

Landscape with Skiproads
About collecting objects and how objects define us. Summerhall

Leaving Home Party
One-woman show about “finding your place in the world.” Sounds nicely observed. Escalator East to Edinburgh. Summerhall.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore
The audience get given protective clothing to stop them getting covered in blood. Sounds like an experience.

Life on One Wheel
Experimental piece about life’s journey, using a unicycle.

Letters Home
New “theatrical journey in and around Charlotte Square” by Grid Iron.

Light
New one from Theatre Ad Infinitum (who did Ballad of the Burning Star last year), based upon Edward Snowden.

Light Killer
Philosophical experimental piece about light and the human body. Summerhall.

Lippy
About four women who made a suicide pact and “the ethical implications of putting words into someone’s mouth.” Traverse.

Little on the Inside
New one from Alice Birch and Clean Break. Summerhall.

Live Forever
One-man comedy play set in the Britpop era. Liverpool Playhouse.

London Life
Likable WWII-style harmony group. Show based on magazines of the time.

Looking for Paul – Wunderbaum
About the question: what is art? Sounds confrontational and provocative. Also apparently blurs lines between reality and fiction. Summerhall.

Love. Guts. High School
One-woman debut show about a school crush. Time Out Chicago liked.

Lungs
Duncan Macmillan and Paines Plough. Been on before. Had lots of good reviews. Summerhall.

The Man Who Almost Killed Himself
A “comic true story” about a Ugandan man’s failed attempts to kill himself. Plus live music. Summerhall.

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho
This is a fabulous play – funny, political, astute and sad. Imagines what would have happened if Thatcher had supported gay rights and become a cabaret star. Seen before.

Men in Cities
New one from Chris Goode. About “how we live now.” Traverse.

merry christams, Ms Meadows
New one from Belarus Free Theatre. About places where being different is a criminal act.

Milk Presents: Self Service
New one from company that did ‘Real Man’s Guide to Sainthood.’ Great at doing fun, original and high-energy stuff. Northern Stage.

Mush and Me
Romance between a young Jewish woman and a Muslim man. Ideastap prize winner.

My Obsession
Paul Merton and Suki Webster in a new play about a stand-up comedian and an obsessive fan.

My Uncle’s Shoes
About a travelling clown teaching his son his skills.

#My Way
Love story about a Sinatra-obsessed teenager who falls in love with a girl who is permanently on Instagram. Young Pleasence.

Nancy Dell’Olio: Rainbows From Diamonds
Nancy “reveals her secrets to surviving with glamour.” I need to know what these are.

Near Gone
“Two performers, hundreds of flowers and a heartfelt story of survival – with gypsy music.” Sounds ethereal. Summerhall.

Night Bus
New one written and performed by Linda Marlowe and Sarah Louise Young.

The Noctambulist
Winner of Durham Drama Festival Award. About a scrounger boy who meets a girl delivering a vegetable box. Sound like interesting characters.

Now’s the Hour
New show from Scottish Youth Theatre about the Scottish Independence Referendum. Production process being filmed by BBC as part of a documentary.

The Object Lesson
About our relationship with everyday objects “the stuff we cling onto and the crap we leave behind.” Summerhall.

Outings
Based upon real-life stories of coming out as gay. Rotating cast of actors and comedians.

Out of Water
Takes place at sunrise (6.30am) and sunset (8.30pm) at Portobello Beach. With “singers and swimmers.” Summerhall. Only on 3 days though.

Paper Play
“A satirical adventure tale, told by children, about the rise and fall of print journalism.”

Pentimento
New play by actress Densie Stephenson about her mother losing her memory and being taken over by her ancestors.

Pioneer
New one from Curious Directive who did ‘Your Last Breath’, which won lots of prizes. This one is about the first humans on Mars.

Pondling
About a schoolgirl growing up, from Irish writer. Sounds like a well-observed look at loneliness and objectification.

The Post Show
A comedy spoofing a post-show discussion. Like the idea. Kickstarter video has some funny bits too.

The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant
Pro-independence play from Alan Bissett with actors including Elaine C Smith,

Raymondo
New one about “brothers, escape, survival and love” by Annie Siddons. Summerhall.

Red Jungle Fowl
Satire about patronising students deciding to help Brazilian young people. Good idea. Company had good reviews for other work.

The Road to Skibbereen
About “what happens when the roles of carer and cared-for are reversed.” Won a prize from Liverpool’s new writing festival.

The Secret Wives of Andy Williams
From same writer as ‘The Bastard Children of Remington Steele.’ This one looks like it might be entertaining. Nice trailer. Escalator East to Edinburgh.

Send More Paper
“A true story of mischief, love, deceit, murder, sex, murder, love, passion, poison, murder, food and, er, murder.” Northern Stage.

A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts
Show that changes every night as a different actor is randomly cast in the lead role and has to struggle to complete tasks. Northern Stage/ Lyric.

Show Off
New one from surrealist group Figs in Wigs who I like. This one’s about a variety show.

Show 6
New one by Mark Ravenhill, still to be written. Performed by Lyric’s Secret Theatre.

Signal Failure
About relationship between a girl and a stalker on the London Underground. Something to do with Githa, which I enjoyed?

Sirens
New one by controversial Ontroerend Goed. Interesting to see what the company do next.

Sister
On earlier this year at the Arches and sounds good. About two sisters: one who is gay and the other who is a sex worker.

SmallWar
Stories of people in WWI. Traverse.

Somebody I Used to Know
One-on-one show about whether “technology really brings us closer together.” No other info.

Sophie Wu is Minging, She Looks Like She is Dead
Actor from Fresh Meat doing one-woman show about growing up/ bullying. No other info.

Spine
Short play (by Clara Brennan) from Theatre Uncut, developed into a longer version. About relationship between a teenager and an older woman under a Tory government.

Spoiling
Political satire imagining a newly Independent Scotland, by new writer John McCann. Traverse.

Standby for a Tape Back-Up
New one from Ross Sutherland who did ‘Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke’ which was great. Remixing old TV footage to turn it into a dialogue with his late grandfather.

Swimming
About teenagers escaping a small-town seaside resort, by great newish writer Jane Upton.

Swing
The fabulous Fishamble. About “dancing and music and love and feeling like an eejit.” Sounds brilliant.

Symphony by Ella Hickson, Nick Payne and Tom Wells
Short plays with live music.

Tales from the MP3
Young people perform one another’s real-life stories while listening to original recordings on MP3 players. About breaking down identities? Summerhall.

Talk About Something You Like
Comedy about insanity. Escalator East to Edinburgh.

Theatre on a Long Thin Wire
You, in a room, with some music, a phone and a voice. Interactive. Summerhall.

13 Sunken Years
About a mother who disappears from a Finnish Town. Stellar Quines (The List).

Title and Deed by Will Eno
Had a good review in the New York Times. About being in permanent exile.

Torsten The Bareback Saint
Erasure’s Andy Bell in a new one-man show using his new album to create a “theatrical song-cycle of musical missives.”

Travesti
Verbatim piece about women’s experiences performed by men. Interesting to see if it does/ says anything new.

True Brits
New play about the time between the 7/7 attacks on London and the successful Olympic bid, by Vinay Patel. Hightide.

Unfaithful
New one about “the brutality of betrayal” by Owen McCafferty. Traverse.

Voca People
Comic vocal group doing an eclectic selection of songs a cappella-style. Looks frivolous but fun.

We Have Fallen
“A story about coming home and why we choose to fly.” Ideastap prize winner. Artistic director Jacqui Honess-Martin has also written a genuinely entertaining blog about arts funding.

When it Rains
Projections and live actions (looks similar to 1927’s style)

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s play to be read by a different actor every night. Sounds interesting.

Wingman
A new father and son comedy from Richard Marsh. I’ve enjoyed all of his other shows. Fun and clever.

Wireless Theatre Presents: Couples Who Changed the World
Live radio recordings of different new plays. Any different from going to a recording at the BBC? Interesting to see if there is a bigger point.

The World Mouse Plague
Man arrives home and battles with mice. Political allegory? Summerhall.

Wuthering Heights
Award-winning, all-male version. Sounds cool. Summerhall.

Cabaret

In Vogue: Songs by Madonna
A man doing Madonna songs on the piano.

Children’s Shows

Duck, Death and the Tulip
About dealing with death. Summerhall.

Our Teacher is a Troll
Dennis Kelly/ Paines Plough. Been on before (2009)

Comedy

Adam of Riches
New one from Adam Riches.

Bridget Christie: An Ungrateful Woman
New one about women’s rights.

The Canterbury Tales Remixed
New version of Baba Brinkman’s (first?) show.

Frisky and Mannish: Just Too Much
“Pop-comedy-mashup-infotainment.” Always wanted to see them. .

The Horne Section: Milk the Tenderness
“Songs, jokes, guests, tenderness and milk.”

Off the Top
New one from Baba Brinkman and neuroscientist Heather Berlin exploring “the brain basis of improvisation.”

Osborn and F***Storm 3001 – Daniel Kitson, Alum Cochrane and Andy Zaltzman
Two new shows, both of which are sold out (as usual with Daniel Kitson). But some tickets will be released on the day.

Ria Lina: School of Riason
Enjoyed her last show. Funny, clever, sometimes has a ukulele. This one is about home-schooling her children.

Ruby Wax: Sane New World
About “how to survive the 21st-century”.

Simon Amstell – Tour Previews
Always good.

Worst Show on the Fringe – Free
A daily line-up of people who have received one-star reviews. Sounds like it could be funny or painful. Or both (but probably more painful).

Zoe Lyons: Mustard Cutter
About “everything from pan pipes to the price of lobster.”

Dance, Physical Theatre and Circus

Bromance
Sounds like a fun, mainstream physical theatre/ circus show.

Circa
Looks like a bombastic, large-scale mainstream circus/ cabaret show.

iLove
A “ravishing male love duet” created when the dancers were in love. Now they have split up.

Malasombra
A show for “adults and heavy-metal kids.” About how you might feel if your shadow overtook your soul. Summerhall.

Origin
Uses a football-like structure three metres in diameter and “draws inspiration from many sources including string theory, cell biology, evolution and cultural myths.”

This is Contemporary Ice Skating
Canadian competitive figure skaters who have “broken out” and developed their own new style (sounds a bit like Blades of Glory/ Strictly Ballroom.). And there’s an ice dancing party for everyone afterwards.

Musicals and Opera

The Horror! The Horror! – The Final Curtain
New one from Theatre of the Damned who did As Ye Sow a few years ago, which was pretty scary.

Spoken Word

Grave Invaders
New one from rap-poet-teacher Mark Grist and MC Mixy who are great, along with stand-up poet Tim Clare. About their journey to visit graves of dead poets.

Paxo
Former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman in his first Fringe show.

Tube Orchestra Challenge
One-man show from Geoff Marshall who holds the record for travelling around the London Underground in the quickest time. Might be interesting.

Forest Fringe

Everything, but especially:

Molly Naylor, If Destroyed Still True
Enjoyed her show in 2012 (My Robot Heart). This new one is about “the relationship we have with our teenage selves.”

GETINTHEBACKOFAVAN
New one Bryony Kimmings.

Hannah Ringham and Glen Neath’s Wedding
Enjoyed the money one they did a few years ago.

And finally…

Here are some shows from my friends that sound/ are great, but while I would like to see them I won’t be reviewing them as that would be weird:

All Back to Bowie’s (theatre)

Dani Frankenstein: Shut Up & Dance (comedy/ musical, free fringe)

Drink Carlin Seriously (comedy)

Guilt and Shame: Going Straight (comedy)

The Ruby Dolls: Fabulous Creatures (theatre)

Enthusiasm, Brent Forrester and the 344 bus

“Sally Stott is more enthusiastic than experienced… and probably isn’t being paid very much.” This is what someone who is very experienced and not especially enthusiastic said about me when I first started reviewing theatre plays (although despite his concern about my supposed lack of income, he didn’t object to me buying him a drink). Years previously, I had failed to get a job as a literary assistant in a big agency. Why? Because, as I overheard the interviewer later say, I was “too enthusiastic.” It was, after all, “only a job.”

As time passed, I inevitably got more jobs and more experience, as pretty much everyone who lives and works in a city for a certain amount of time does. However, while I like getting paid to do cool stuff as much as anyone else, I intend to never become more experienced than I am enthusiastic. Even if I end up with so many interesting and well-paid jobs that I have to increase my levels of optimism to a point where no one can bear to be in the same room as me, I will strive to maintain this imbalance – because if you can’t be increasingly passionate about whatever it is that you spend most of your life doing, what can you be?

“You love everything,” people sometimes say when I like something that they don’t. “You hate everything,” I sometimes say when they dislike something I love. While they might feel that I am too free with my praise, I sometimes suspect they are too sparing with theirs; that their emotions have been dulled by years of trying to find what’s wrong with things rather than what’s right. It’s easy to dismiss enthusiasm as naïve and childish while applauding criticism – however unfounded – as the mature and adult response, one based on thought and analysis rather than low-brow emotions. And yet, emotions are a large part of what both art and life are all about.

In the UK, it sometimes seems like being cynical rather than enthusiastic is the default position. There is a driver on the 344 bus, which (when I’m not cycling) takes me from Battersea to Central London, who says “hello” to every person who boards. This may not seem unusual to anyone who lives in the north of England – where both he and I are from – but in London it’s pretty rare. You can see it on the confused faces of the passengers. “Please do not be alarmed that you have a cheerful and polite bus driver,” he said a week last Friday to the bewildered top deck, “You can write about it in your diaries.” Or blogs.

Later that same day, I go to a talk by American screenwriter Brent Forrester, organised by the BBC Writersroom for comedy writers and producers – and gate crashed by some of us script readers – where he talks about the importance of “relentless positivity.” It’s something he sees as invaluable for generating ideas when writing as part of a team, which he has done a lot of, having worked as a writer and showrunner (someone who leads the group writing process) on The Simpsons and the American version of The Office. He explains that while it’s useful to ultimately decide which characters and stories have potential and which don’t, “an over-developed critical mind can end up permanently destroying ideas.”

Brent has just returned from running a four-day residential for BBC Comedy writers where they have been working in small groups to come up with ideas for new shows. He observes that sometimes British writers can put one another down and sees this as a “cultural thing” that doesn’t help team writing. He later talks about how he has experienced working in “cold, quiet and serious environments” and how this doesn’t lead to creativity. He also highlights how executives who sit in on writers’ meetings create a formal mood that isn’t conducive to developing good work in a relaxed atmosphere (this causes a few uncomfortable glances around the room).

While the people left the 344 bus on Friday looking happier than when they got on, we script readers left Brent’s talk feeling more inspired and upbeat. “Great question,” we spent the afternoon saying to anyone who asked anything – great or otherwise – in our basement reading room, in the same way Brent had to everyone who put their hand up in his post-talk Q&A.

American people have a reputation for being constantly positive and while it’s something that’s easy to sneer at, it’s also pleasant to be around and – if Brent’s dazzling writing career and cheerful persona are anything to go by – leads to a successful and happy life. He is a hugely experienced writer, but it was his infectious energy that everyone was talking about for the rest of the day, rather than his CV. Having worked on numerous great shows, I imagine if someone said he was more enthusiastic than experienced he’d take it as the compliment it clearly is.

Should writers ever give up?

“Never give up” is the kind of thing you often hear people say, whether it’s Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness or someone who likes your script but not enough to actually produce it. However, in real life, unlike the movies, when things don’t go to plan no subtle background music kicks in to emphasise that in half an hour’s time you will bounce back and achieve your dreams.

As a writer, you’re often left to get on with never-giving-up on your own, perhaps accompanied by the odd screenwriting book, which will also tell you to never give up – partly because its writer wants you to buy another book called Never Give Up on Buying Books About Never Giving Up.

I have a collection of scriptwriting books from the 1960s to the 1990s. I often wonder what happened to all the writers who used to own them. Did they never give up? One of the books Writing for the BBC (by Norman Longmate) had nine re-prints over 30-odd years. Thousands of people must have owned a copy. They can’t all have got commissions: if they had, there would be so many dramas, comedies and short stories on the BBC that there wouldn’t be room for anything else. Either these writers stopped writing or they continued with little or no recognition, perhaps for the whole of their lives. Is that sad? Or inspiring? Or a bit of both?

There are lots of stories about famous writers and artists who were initially rejected but persevered and went on to become very successful: Stephen King, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna are just a few. Jarvis Cocker was singing about waiting for his life to take off, back in 1992 after over a decade of being in Pulp. It wasn’t until 1995 that the band had a number one album. It would clearly have been a mistake for him to have given up, but of course it’s easy to say that with hindsight.

Never give up, never surrender,” characters in the comedy Galaxy Quest say whenever they face a seemingly impossible situation, as if a go-getter attitude alone can break down locked doors or blow up enemy spacecraft. However, in real life persevering against the odds can seem like a never-ending and not particularly fruitful process. David Ferguson sums it up brilliantly in an article for The Onion. “Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life,” it begins, continuing: “…pursue those dreams when you only have enough energy to change out of your work clothes and make yourself a half-assed dinner before passing out.”

A while ago I asked agent Jean Kitson about whether writers should ever give up. She said this: “The absolute worst that can happen is that you’ll spend a chunk of your time doing something creative that you love, and for a lot of people it may never go any further than that. But if you don’t consider your writing a waste of time in itself, if it’s feeding a need in you, then it is not wasted.”

After entering the Alfred Bradley Award on three previous occasions, Ian Townsend finally managed to win its special Writersroom prize this year. I asked what had stopped him from giving up. “I always believed I was a writer,” he says, “it’s not just something I do, it’s who I am. I was determined to prove a lot of people wrong – and also a few people right! – and demonstrate what I was capable of.” Having things he wanted to say, rather than entering competitions for the sake of it – as he had in the past – also helped. “It focused my writing,” he says, as did getting feedback on his work. “Many people told me I could write, but it wasn’t until somebody told me what was wrong with my writing that I took a chance and grew, as did my confidence and self-belief.”

I imagine that most people who write scripts want to see them produced but, as Ian points out, getting a commission isn’t the only way to achieve this. “I self-produced and put on my own plays for years,” he explains. However, his journey hasn’t been easy. “I will be honest, the last two years have been a real struggle financially,” he says. “There have been low times of giving up and thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?'” Like most writers, he has sometimes doubted himself and his work. “I have stopped before,” he says, “then something has sparked me into life – an idea, a story, a glimpse of success – and then I’m off again.” Would he have carried on forever, even if he hadn’t been recognised by an organisation such as the BBC Writersroom? “I love writing,” he says, “In short, probably!”

Although it obviously helps, you don’t have to be produced, paid or even read to keep writing, if that’s what you enjoy doing. People might reject you but they can’t stop you. After not getting past the initial round of a recent Writersroom sift, a new writer called Emma commented: “I’m delighted! It’s my first ever rejection slip; in my mind, that’s an important milestone. It means I finished something. It means I submitted it. It means I exposed myself to scrutiny. It’s an achievement! I’m over the moon, and it’s inspired me to crack on with my next one…”

Perhaps the reason why there are so many films about heroes fighting to achieve their dreams is that their stories are far more appealing than ones about people giving up. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters would have us believe that you can have anything you want if only you work hard enough for it. Maybe that’s why writers, who perhaps battle with rejection more than the rest of us, keep creating them. “Do, or do not,” George Lucas has Yoda say in The Empire Strikes Back. “There is no try.”

Written for BBC Writersroom

 

 

 

Why I won’t stop wearing make-up (for charity or anything else)

“But you look beeeeaaaautiful, babes!” Facebook friends might say, as if I need telling this. Or at least they might if I had posted a no-makeup selfie – which I haven’t. Rather than being peer pressured by the numerous ‘nominations’ I’ve had over the past few weeks, I am sticking to my usual method of charity fundraising, which is running around Battersea Park in the mud and rain with over-competitive commuters, before getting a cold. It’s more fun.

Many people commenting on the no-makeup selfies (on Facebook and elsewhere) seem to think that it’s impossible for women to both own mascara and be happy with who they are.  For me, wearing make-up isn’t any more of a statement about my self-esteem than wearing a jumper. They’re both a way of looking presentable, similar to brushing my hair or tying my shoelaces. Some days I want to wear make-up, some days I want to wear a hat.  What I put on my head has got as much to do with anyone else as what I put on my face, and the phrase “it’s for charity so it must be good, right?” isn’t going to change that.

“But men don’t wear make-up,” you might point out. Well, maybe they’d look better if they did. Saying that, if the male backlash selfies (criteria: vast amounts of rouge, powder and lipstick) are anything to go by, most haven’t got a clue how to put it on. But, with time, I’m sure they could learn. Afterall it can’t be that hard, right? We girls can do it.

I don’t have a problem with anyone, male or female, trying to look good. It is possible to do other things as well (most people manage) and it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re self-obsessed or vain. And even if you are, when would it ever be OK for friends and strangers to tell you this? At the very least, it’s pretty rude.

There’s a misconception that all women think they look dreadful without make-up and that their insecurity levels go up and down depending upon how much foundation they’ve got on. In fact, a study by psychologist Nicolas Epley showed that women (and men)  believe that they are better looking – and better at everything – than they really are.

When I was a fashion student desperate to do something more controversial than sew sequins onto Lycra, I decided not to wear-up make-up for a week. It was boring. I needed it to look the way I wanted in the same way I needed red shoes, zebra print leggings and jacket covered in tiny mirrors (oh, why did I get rid of that…). The heavily made-up 90s pop/punk band Shampoo also did same for a magazine article. It made me think: if you were properly punk, Shampoo, wouldn’t you have just told whoever suggested that to fuck off?

In particular, I object to guys – who don’t have to put up with half of the crap that women do – telling me that I shouldn’t wear make-up. It’s as patronising as them telling me that I should. No, we’re not crumbling on the inside because we decided to put on a bit of lipstick this morning, thank you very much. In fact we feel great. And we look great too – better than you, and that’s partly because we’re wearing make-up.

Dear men who hate cosmetics: Rather than putting all of your energies into telling women how they should behave and look, as men have since the dawn of time, maybe you should be campaigning for it to be more acceptable to wear make-up yourselves? Put on some mascara, eyeliner and foundation (do it properly, don’t make yourself look like a clown because you’re not ‘brave’ enough to apply concealer in a non-ironic way), post a picture on Facebook and I’ll let you know how good, bad or beeeaaaautiful I think you look. Because you need me to tell you, right?

Theatre: Frankenstein

With plenty of purple velvet, strobe lighting, smoke and a pre-recorded soundtrack accompanying every scene, this adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel is billed as ‘The Modern Prometheus’.  It’s like director Simon James Collier was planning to premiere something at Westfield Vue, but instead ended up in the theatre above the Lion and Unicorn pub.

Take away the many distractions – including scenes with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the author herself – and Adam Dechanel’s adaptation (part 1 of a Gothic Trilogy) is actually pretty literal. Victor Frankenstein, his love interest/ adopted sister Elizabeth and friends deliver their thoughts and handy plot information into the mid-distance as if each of them has swallowed the book. In trying to fit in every scene, the production struggles get to the essence of the tale – namely, what it means to be human or a monster – until some way into Act II.

It’s difficult for the cast to create anything other than melodrama when delivering their lines to soaring music. Sam Curry brings the twisted body of The Creature to life in a way that is fittingly gruesome. But a temporary wooden stage, which clunks every time the performers jump on and off it, otherwise feels unfortunately appropriate.

Lion and the Unicorn Theatre, London. Until 15 March.

Written for The Stage. 

What qualifies us to be script readers?

People are often asking what qualifies us to read their scripts. Why are we script readers for the BBC Writersroom and not you, or someone else? Have we been to university? Do we have nine GCSEs at grade A-C? Are we all ‘failed’ writers? If you’ve just received a “sorry you’re not progressing any further” email from the Script Room, I can imagine we might come across as a malevolent force, not unlike Sauron from Lord of the Rings, standing between you and your dreams of a red-carpeted shire.

While sifting hundreds of scripts over the past few weeks and trying to decide what makes a good scriptwriter, I’ve also been thinking about what makes a good script reader. In the comments section of a recent Writersroom blog some of you were doing the same, posting feedback on the feedback one of us readers had written (sadly, not me).

In a world where everyone sees themselves as an expert, whether they’re phoning in to a TV talent show, writing a theatre review or arguing about films in the pub (all of which I do), what makes one person’s opinion better than another’s? Is it that a television producer, newspaper editor or the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing, Kate Rowland, trusts it? Is a good opinion one that reflects the majority of other people’s? If so, what about Vincent van Gogh? He, along with many others, was only properly recognised after his death.

When he was working in the Writersroom, Paul Ashton used to describe script reading as “making subjective decisions based upon objective criteria”.  For instance, most people would agree that interesting characters, strong dialogue and a compelling story are desirable things to have in a script – so much so that they have become clichés, regularly wheeled out in seminars, feedback letters and How to Write Your First Blockbuster books.

However, objectively providing examples of the above characters, dialogue and stories is a lot trickier. While many people (including The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) loved the Coen brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis, I found it slow and indulgent to a point where I’d quite happily never see another dark-haired, guitar playing bloke with a cat ever again – and that includes my boyfriend.  Does this make me a bad script reader? Does it mean I could be that person who rejected the Coen brothers?

No, thinks my colleague Eric*. We were having a debate in the last Script Room and he rightly pointed out that we readers are a lot more generous assessing scripts from new writers than we are when we talk about produced films. He felt that since we are purely looking for potential in the Writersroom, this meant we could be more objective.

“Potential”, is a word that the Writersroom’s new Development Producer Abigail Gonda also used when we readers reported back on our annual test script. She wanted, she said afterwards, to see if we could spot it. Interestingly, while a few of us gave the script different verdicts, the majority said it was a “yes” and virtually everyone agreed on what aspects worked or didn’t. Maybe we are robots or clones after all! Or maybe there was simply a general consensus – and that’s the best you’re going to get from “subjective decisions based upon objective criteria.”

“Script readers are typically highly educated,” says Creative Skillset’s description of us. They also point out: “The work is not always well paid [but] is a useful entry route into Script Editing and Script Development.”

All of us in the Writersroom are already (when we’re not script reading) doing the jobs we want to do, whether this is writing, script editing, performing, directing or other things. Amongst us are individuals who regularly write for the BBC, have created their own series and even starred in an Oscar-nominated film. We don’t need a foot in the door. We’ve already got two feet, two hands, a body and a head well beyond the reception area. However, since script reading isn’t well paid, a lot of people see it as an entry level job – which is perhaps the reason writers are sometimes suspicious about whether we’re qualified enough.

So, if we don’t get paid very much and we’re not hatching a plan to break into the Director-General’s office and tip him off his chair, why are we reading scripts in the first place?  One of my colleagues, Caroline*, said this: “On sift days, our lunchtime conversations pretty much always revolve around what films, TV or theatre everyone has seen recently and what was good or bad about them. It’s clear how passionate everyone in the room is about great drama.”

When I ask Caroline what else “qualifies” her to be a script reader she points out that she has “thousands” of script reports on her computer. Mine is the same. All of us have been reading scripts for years; some of us decades. We enjoy scripts, talking to each other about them, or things related to them, and discovering good ones. Perhaps this is what qualifies us the most – along with an ability to stay open to potential even if it’s 3pm and we’ve overdosed on custard creams.

Over the years, I’ve read on other script reading panels and have rarely met readers as qualified, experienced and careful with writers’ work as those in the Writersroom. Working with and talking to them inspires me to be better at everything I do, whether this is script reading or anything else. That’s why they have to remain anonymous. If they didn’t Hollywood, Channel 4 or the Coen brothers might come along and snaffle them up!

*Eric and Caroline are pseudonyms.

Written for BBC Writersroom

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