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Reviewing Reviewed

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Yesterday I had a day off. I didn't see any plays, write any reviews, do any interviews or research any features. Instead, I saw lots of comedy, all of which made me laugh muchly and was a balm to my theatre-addled brain. Feeling refreshed by my time off from actual reviewing, I got to thinking about the reviewing process itself. Here are my musings.

First, positive reviews. It is easy to write a positive review (which is probably why there are so many of them knocking around that the star system has become virtually meaningless at this festival). You come out of a show feeling good about what you've seen and about the state of theatre in general, and are glad that you are in a position to spread the word. You sit down at your laptop and enthuse for a couple of hundred words, enjoying the act of remembering your earlier enjoyment.

Then there's the added pleasure of knowing that what you write is likely to make the company very happy, not to mention the PR and the venue. And if you're giving the show four or five stars, there's the additional possibility that you will be quoted on the company's marketing in the future and that everyone who reads it will be struck by how insightful you are. (To be clear – I don't give positive reviews to make companies happy – it's just a rather nice byproduct. I am, however, thrilled for people to be struck by how insightful I am.)

Then there are bad reviews. These are more difficult. You emerge from a show you've hated, or even just been bored by, and feel deflated that rather than forget it immediately and hurry on to your next venue, like all those happy-go-lucky Fringe punters, you are required to sit down and spend more time thinking about it.

A bad review takes much longer to write than a good one. This is as it should be. The impact of your negative comments is not just confined to ticket sales; every critical word will be pored over by the individuals you're writing about and you owe it to them (whatever you feel about the work) to make sure that your response is fair, reasoned and free from spite.

It's much easier to be funny about a show you've disliked, and it's tempting to give readers the blood they're baying for and make yourself look clever in the process, but this is never an acceptable course of action. There are very many amateur critics at this festival who would do well to consider that the shows they are thoughtlessly panning do not exist in isolation: behind each one is a team of people who have put in a huge amount of time, energy, money and heart. God forbid that anyone should give a bad show a good review for fear of offending its creators – constructive criticism from reviewers can be of huge benefit to a creative team, and it's important that audiences know what they're getting into – just make sure that whatever you write is for the right reasons.

So, onwards and upwards. Fingers crossed for a five-star day.

 – By Jo Caird  


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