Writing this on the final official day of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I’m sitting in my small yard under a clear blue sky. It is the August bank holiday for most of the UK but not for us here. Never say that the Scottish weather does not have a sense of humour.My personal circumstances in the past year has been none too bright. Having being made redundant from the oil business (along with tens of thousands of others) at the end of 2015, frankly it has been a struggle to find a paid position. I have been through all the usual routes, had my C.V. checked and redrafted and done voluntary unpaid work to keep my profile up. None to any lasting avail. So when I was approached to do some review writing for the Fringe, I was both surprised and thought “Why not?”
It would be fair to say that this opportunity did not come through my work as a geophysical engineer. As part of the 2015 general election, all the candidates were interviewed on local radio. One of the guys who carried out the inquisition, Dan Lentell, has kept in contact since. Owing to my blogging activity here, he must have seen some transferable skills. I was therefore asked to to sign up as a contributor to the website edinburgh49.com and send in some material for their +3 page. Press accreditation was part of the deal.
The world of theatre is new to me. By shear coincidence, last winter I was fortunate enough to meet a stalwart of the business, Jack Klaff, who I got to know a little over a few days. As it happened, Jack had put together a panel of top media critics which gathered for a discussion of current issues at Summerhall on the 15th of August. This, I decided, would have be a must see event before I wrote a single word . It was a good decision. Hearing the combined wisdom of professional critics helped me put together an initial framework in which to operate. It also enlightened me as to the challenges that is being faced by criticism in the 21st Century. In the 1980s, a critic writing for the press was paid 10p a word and could make several hundred pounds a week. Nowadays, with the press losing money, theatre criticism is often unpaid by the big online websites and is being cut completely many of the long-established papers. This is important because artists need criticism. This isn’t only for the publicity involved but to improve their material. Independent voices and a disinterested opinion are important: especially for artists who are starting and those branching out into different fields of the industry. Artists come to the Edinburgh Festival not to make money - all but the biggest names lose cash hand-over-fist. They come to make a name and in the hope of a good review, or failing that, at least an honest and informed one.
Armed with these new insights, I went that evening to my first ever show as a reviewer. Clare Plested in her character-based comedy Flock Up. I like Clare and like what she is doing. There is huge potential there. The show has its issues though and I hope my review reflects accurately both the positives and negatives involved.
The second challenge that I have had to address is writing to format. Being a newbie, it took time for me to understand what was being asked and the reasons behind them. This sometimes led to exasperation for the editors because of lack of mutual understanding and, on occasion, my failure to account for every detail. It was a tough learning curve. However, I wish to record here my public appreciation and thanks for their support, criticism and patience. As the process went on, one would like to think the quality of my submissions improved. Thank you Steve Griffin and Dan.
When I went into this, I knew from the start that reviewing shows would not be an easy gig. It takes time: a lot of time. I live in Edinburgh but even so, the process of obtaining tickets, travel and being at a venue ready to work is not being on a jolly. When watching a show, it is not simply a case of sitting back and enjoying. Notes have to be taken: recording the act, the staging and technology involved. One has then to digest the material, consider the themes, message and intent of the writers and whether the artists successfully portrayed this to the audience. Then comes the actual writing: the task of informing the readership of what it is like to be there, as well as conveying, with both intelligence and kindness, own’s own view. I am certain that all this would become faster and smoother with experience but even so, this old dog has many tricks to learn. Reviewing is certainly not a process to be entered into lightly.
Reviewing has also led me to a renewed admiration and appreciation of what the artists go through. Showtime is just the pinnacle of their labour and being live in front of an audience is a culmination of months, perhaps years of effort and hard work. In this at least I have some direct experience. It is said that politics is show business for ugly people and through my own background, I am aware of the depth of knowledge and experience that is required to be in front of an audience and give a reasonable account of oneself.
It is my political experience that can sometimes also lead to insights on the more negative side of reviewing. The one show I saw and paid to go to was Jonathan Pie - Live. Pie is a character created by actor and writer Tom Walker. Pie’s rants on You Tube became famous last autumn at the time when Westminster was voting on whether to enter the war in Syria. I decided not to revue the show and just kick back and enjoy it because I was with company. Besides, I had just seen Guy Masterson and didn’t want to risk messing up that write-up by over-burdening myself. The show was fantastic and, what is more, Walker was unexpectedly very kind to my own party, the Liberal Democrats. Next day, I noted this on a Libdem Facebook page and while most people took it at face value, others were decided sniffy about Walker. Apparently the character of Jonathan Pie got his big break on Youtube from R.T. (formerly Russia Today) and some consider Walker to be disloyal to the UK for taking Russian money. Walker is seen by some to be a willing tool of Russian propaganda. A cynic might suspect that the two-stars awarded to his show by the Guardian (among others) is a reflection of this. It was no two-star show I saw that evening and many other people I have spoken to who saw it seem to agree.
But what do I know? I’m just a beginner.