10 rules to make sense of reviews at the fringe

All the different fringe publications logos

Edinburgh Fringe is getting underway, which means that reviews of shows are starting to come in. And if you’re new to all of this, this might seem like an easy way of sorting out the good shows from the dross. After all, if you’re doing this properly you should know that – in theory at least – anyone who wants to take part in the fringe can do so. Inevitably, some of them are going to be good and some of them are going to be crap. Surely the reviews can ensure you see the good stuff and avoid the turkeys?

Not quite. Making sense of star ratings and reviews is a lot more complicated than most people realise. A play you loved might be getting two-star reviews, and a play you hate might be getting four- and five-star reviews; that’s happened to me on many occasions. Performers and venues, meanwhile, naturally do their utmost to promote the good reviews and bury the bad ones. Such are the intricacies of reviews, one might be tempted to give up on using them altogether and go back to guessing. But there are ways of making the most of reviews; some are difficult to master, but others are tips every novice should know.

One caveat before I begin on this: I cannot claim to be the best expert in this. Being a reviewer myself (albeit one who oeprates outside the main publications), I have learned a bit about how this works, but where I have little experience is using reviews as an audience member. I will very occasionally allow reviews to influence whether or not to see a play, but once I’ve decided to see one, I try to disregard reviews so that I can make up my own mind with as little influence as possible. I’m open to input to anyone who’s had more experience of doing this. In the meantime, however, this is best you’re going to get, so either use it or don’t. I don’t care.

(Most of what I write here also applies to the Brighton Fringe. Use your common sense to adapt it accordingly.)

Part one: the basics

If you’re new to this, start here. These are some principles which are pretty obvious when you think about it, but it’s easy to forget this if you’re buried in the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh for the first time. If you read this now, it might save you from kicking yourself later.

Obvious rule 1: Reviewers have different opinions

First thing’s first. Every review publication will have some sort of vetting procedure for recruiting reviewers, from the most prestigious broadsheets to the obscure online publications. Obviously some publications can be choosier than others. But no matter how good your reviewers are, the fact remains it comes down to one person’s opinion of whether he or she enjoyed the play. That opinion might not be shared by other reviewers, and frequently isn’t. And the view might not be shared by you.

This tip alone won’t help you pick a show – it’s just a broad statement of principle to be aware of. The next few rules might help you deal with this. But the worst possible thing you can do is convince yourself that your verdict must be wrong if you disagree. If you go to the fringe with the intention of fitting in and only liking shows that the experts say you should like, you might convince others you’re cultured, you might even convince yourself, but you certainly won’t have an enjoyable fringe.

So, how can you deal with this? You can do things such as …

Obvious rule 2: A four-star rating stapled to a flyer doesn’t mean much

Anyone who has spent more than 8 seconds on the Royal Mile will have had the experience of having a flyer thrust into their hand with a new four-star review stapled to it. Or it might be five. Or there might be more than one. This is an activity that takes place on an industrial scale, with backroom teams going into stapling frenzy when the first review comes out. However, when you’ve hung around the Royal Mile a little longer – maybe 12 seconds – you’ll notice that loads of shows have exactly the same claim. That’s when you get a little more cynical. That’s not to say these star ratings are fake – shows that do that are generally rumbled, exposed and disgraced very quickly – but it does raise questions of how reliable these really are.

Fact of the matter is, in Edinburgh at least, it’s not that difficult or remarkable to get a single good review. There’s loads of publications reviewing plays with different opinions, and the four-star review could mean i) the verdict of the only reviewer to see the show so far; ii) the best of a bunch of average reviews; or (less often) iii) an outlier in a bunch of bad reviews. The show could be as good as the review says it is, but the chance of the show being good is only moderately better than a show with no reviews at all.

A flyer with lots of good reviews stapled to it, however, is more reliable, because:

Obvious rule 3: Look for consensus

A single review isn’t that reliable, but what’s a lot more reliable is lots of reviews saying the same thing. If a show that is consistently getting 4* and 5* reviews, that’s a pretty good sign it’s going to be good. If it’s consistently getting 1* and 2* reviews, that’s not so good. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play that’s broken this precedent.

In general, if a flyer or poster with lots of stars stapled to it, that’s a pretty reliable indication it really is good, but remember that they will only be showing the good reviews. If you want a list in one place of all the reviews, good or bad, I recommend Broadway Baby, this page from The List, or the Edinburgh Fringe site itself.For some reason, none of them seem to get all the reviews, but any of them should be reliable enough. (Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent service at Brighton, at least not one that works. Other fringes have too few reviewers to get a meaningful consensus.)

But before you treat reviews by consensus as gospel, read the next two rules.

Obvious rule 4: Star ratings aren’t everything

One important thing to bear in mind is that reviewers select their shows based on what grabs their interest. This has a number of side-effects, most of which I’ll write about later in my complicated rules, but the important one you know is that reviewers generally share the taste of the kind of play they are after. A reviewer for a black comedy probably likes black comedies. A reviewer for a Shakespeare play probably likes Shakespeare. If you are not into this kind of play, the fact that some who does like this kind of play gave it a good review probably won’t change your mind, no matter how many stars splatter the posters.

This is why it’s a good idea to actually read the reviews rather than rely on star ratings alone. That will show you what the reviewer liked and didn’t like, and give you a better idea of whether you’re likely to feel the same. One down-side of doing this is that it will give away clues as to what happens in the play. Few reviews do outright spoilers, but if you’d rather see it cold, you might want to rely on star ratings alone, provided you don’t mind risking a disappointment. No right answer, that’s up to you.

On a similar note, one thing I’ll be saying frequently is don’t assume a show that is getting three stars can’t be worthwhile. What’s okay to a reviewer could be right up your street. So if the concept of a play sound excellent but the reviews are only average, do at least see what they say – you may decide that what’s average to them is excellent to you.

Obvious rule 5: Word-of-mouth recommendations are valid too

Agree or disagree, the verdicts of reviewers are valid opinions – but so are everybody else’s. Depending on how chatty you get with complete strangers, you may hear other people recommending shows. Now, in theory, a mediocre act could do some astroturfing and get their fans to pretend they’re random punters blown away at The Fringe. But, in my experience, that doesn’t happen (at least, not successfully). If different people independently recommend the same show to you unprompted, that probably means it good.

If you’re not a sociable person, the other place you can go is the Edinburgh Fringe website. As well as professional reviews, random punters can write their own review and leave it on the site. That’s a handy way of gauging reaction to a play, especially in the early days when there may be no reviews yet. This is a little more prone to astroturfing than face-to-face conversations, but it’s should still be fairly easy to spot. Unreserved sycophancy is probably the main giveaway.

Obvious rule 6: Be careful with non-mainstream publications

After a day or two, you should get a good feel for what the main Edinburgh Fringe reviewing publications are. They’re the ones you see quoted again and again. They build reputations entirely on being trusted sources of reviews, and whilst you may not always agree with reviews, they will have built up a reputation of only praising shows that deserve to be praised, not having conflicts on interests, and have reviewers vetting to a standard where they at least know what they’re talking about. If any of these publications squander their reputation, you’ll know pretty quickly. (The publications that cover the Brighton Fringe are generally quite reliable too.)

Outside this list of trusted names, you need to be a bit more careful. Local papers tend to be supportive of local theatre, but this can mean they can give a glowing review to a local show that is only mediocre. (This is actually a bigger danger to performers than it is to punters, because you can go the Edinburgh expect more 4* reviews to add to the ones you got back home, only to get lukewarm 3* reviews). So you do need to be cautious of publicity that only quotes reviews from local papers back home. That doesn’t automatically mean they must be bad – everybody has to start off with no fringe reviews, and when you’re in that situation you have no choice but to use your local publicity. But without knowing the local paper in question, it’s difficult to know whether this praise is earned.

Also be careful of reviews from bloggers. I know I’m treading on thin ice here because I’m one myself and I support a lot of other people in my position, but the fact remains there’s no immediate way to tell who is reliable. I will say that most of the theatre bloggers I know are genuine people who are doing their best to give honest opinions (indeed, the proper review publications rely heavily of trusted bloggers to find out what’s worth reviewing), but the problem with bloggers is that there’s so many of them it’s very easy for performers to cherry-pick the reviews that suit them best. Unless you know a blog to have a history of fair honest reviewing, good or bad, you have no way of knowing whether a positive blog review is real praise, a puff piece written by the actors’ mates, or an enthusiast who loves everything.

Where enthusiastic local papers and blogs undoubtedly can undoubtedly help you, however, is telling you what they liked about it. If they praised the tension in the play and you like tense plays, it might be worth giving this a shot. If they praise it for a searing incitement of the fetid capitalist cesspool we live in and you’re the kind of person who rolls your eyes at this sort of thing, well, they’ve probably told you all you need to know.

Part two: advanced tactics

These tips are things that I don’t recommend for beginners – you really need to know the Edinburgh Fringe’s intricacies before you can make sense of these. But if you’re a fringe veteran, here’s some not-so-easy ways of making sense of reviews.

Complicated rule 7: A 3* review is still an achievement

Now let’s return to the matter of three-star reviews. Statistical junkies will note that about 50% of reviews are 4* or above, and the other 50% are 3* or below. So one could conclude from this that 3* shows must be in the bottom 50% of Edinburgh Fringe plays, right? Wrong.

The first hurdle for a performer at any fringe is getting reviewed at all. Each year, over a third of shows get no review at all. Some might not want reviewers, but more often than not it’s because no reviewer was sufficiently interested to see them. Unlike professional theatres, publications to not assign reviewers to comprehensively cover the arts scene – instead, the (mostly) unpaid reviewers choose to see shows that grab their interest. So if any kind of review exists at all, the play has done something right. The idea might be good, the endorsements they’ve had from back home might be worthwhile, or the performers might be known to the reviewers for past achievements. Only a 1* or 2* review shows the play fell short; 3* means the play lived up to expectations.

So don’t rule out a play just because it’s so far failed to get 4* or above. 3* or more, and you’re in business. You will enjoy a 3* play on a subject that appeal to you much more than a 5* that doesn’t.

Complicated rule 8: Different publications have different standards for the same star ratings

Some publications, particularly the broadsheets and other paper publications, set higher standards of 4* and 5* reviews. The online publications tend to be happy to award 5* to something that is excellent but not perfect, but the broadsheets are more likely to reserve 5* for what they think is the absolute best of the best of the best. Even a 3* review from a broadsheet can be considered a major achievement. So picky are they over what they review, the mere fact a play got a review from The Scotsman can mean they thought highly of this group before they even began.

As such, one might wish to consider an exchange rate where a broadsheet 3* or worth an online 4*, an broadsheet 4* is worth an online 5*, and a broadsheet 5* is the Holy Grail of reviews. Or you might choose not to take any notice of them. For what it’s worth, I don’t pay that much attention to the broadsheet reviews at the fringe – their reviews are often too short to say anything useful, and frequently I feel they didn’t get the play they were reviewing. But that’s just me.

A 1* or 2* is bad in anybody’s language though. A 2* review in The Scotsman does not translate to 3* elsewhere.

Complicated rule 9: The self-selecting system of reviews has some counter-intuitive effects

As I’ve already said, plays tend to be reviewed by people who would be interested in seeing this anyway. That, I think, is the way it should stay – it makes no sense for a play on a certain topic to be reviewed by someone with no interest in that. However, this does lead to some odd side-effects which can make the usual method of reviews by consensus less reliable than normal.

Apart from the obvious rule that a glowing review of Shakespeare doesn’t apply to someone who hates Shakespeare, here are the main quirks you need to watch out for:

  • Plays that openly take a politically partisan position tend to exclusively attract people who already agree with this position, including reviewers. The series of 4* and 5* reviews you see could simply be the reviewers’ way of expressing approval of the political message of the play, rather than the play itself.
  • Some plays are deliberately different from what they seem in the programme. That can have an unpredictable effect. One thing that can happen is that they can develop a niche following, and this following will include some reviewers. Therefore, the reviews end up being done by the existing fans, who can write glowing reviews that appeal to like-minded people in the same niche, but won’t necessarily apply to everyone else.
  • Conversely, if an unpredictable play does not have an established niche following, the reviews can be a bit of a lottery. If the audience have been led to expect something else, so will the reviewers, and whether or not they like what the play really is can come down to personal taste. You can get sharply divisive review when this happens. (I know I’ve had this experience, although not at Edinburgh.)

There’s probably other side-effects too, but those are the ones I know about.

Complicated rule 10: It helps if you can get to know individual reviewers

This last tip is, I think, the most effective way to get useful information from reviews. It is also the most difficult. It’s not too difficult to decide how much you trust a publication, but even the best managed publication at the fringe will have a variety of reviewers with a variety of tastes. It is not unusual for different reviewers to from the same publication review the same show and give different verdicts.

If you can, try to identify not just publications that you trust but individual reviewers that you trust. Admittedly this is something that’s easier for reviewers and bloggers because we tend to get to know reviewers personally, and learn that way which ones we see eye-to-eye with. If you’re Joe public, that’s not so likely to happen. If you do happen to get to know any reviewer who you see eye-to-eye with, hang on to them like gold dust. They are your indispensable source of recommendations.

Assuming you’re not lucky enough to know any reviewers personally, you can get a feel for it from reading reviews. If you read reviews of shows after you’ve seen them, don’t just think if you agree with the star rating – what did the reviewer say about the play? Who hits the nail on the head? Now, does the same reviewer hit the nail on the head over multiple plays? If you, you’ve got your man (or woman). Adopt this reviewer as your new personal guru.

And, of course, you don’t have to restrict yourself to the proper review sites to find your guru. A theatre blogger is just as good here. Or just a regular punter who sees lots of shows. As long as it’s someone who now know and trust the tell you what you like, you’re on to a winner.

But remember …

No matter how good you get at making sense of reviews, it can never be foolproof. At some point, you are going to let a dud slip through the net. If you obsess over this too much, you might get annoyed the reviewers let you down. You may even consider it a failure on your part. Try not to do this.

Great though it is to see all these great plays, it is good to balance this with the occasional turkey. If you are a performer yourself – even a performer who has no plans of doing Edinburgh – it’s important to see how things can be done right and but just as important to see how things can be done wrong. It’s good to learn from your own mistakes, but always better to learn from other people’s mistakes. Just don’t make it too obvious to these performers that you’re taking note of their failings.

Even if you’re not a performer, the odd dud is good to keep things in perspective. If you see nothing but hits, hits and megahits, it’s tempting to think of this as the expected standard. But, of course, that’s not the case. Competition in Edinburgh is intense, it’s hard enough to produce something that stands out from the crowd; to do that and produce something where nothing goes wrong is doubly hard. So when it doesn’t work out, remember that these will often be competent groups who took risks that didn’t work out. Respect people who take risks, because if they don’t, you wouldn’t be seeing all these hits the reviewers are raving about.

So make the most of reviews, but don’t turn it into a be-all-and-end-all. There’s enough decent shows for a perfectly good fringe regardless.

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