Marissa Burgess from Manchester Evening News answers the questions this week.
How do you choose which shows to review?
Most of the time I don’t, as a freelance journalist I tend to be sent to shows rather than choose them myself. That said I do make a point of seeing shows that I have heard good things about or by comedians I like. If I like what I see and it hasn’t been reviewed by the publication I’m writing for I’ll pitch it to the editor.
Have PR people ever persuaded you to go and see a show?
Occasionally I’ll go along if it fits in with my diary but no matter how much persuasion they use to get me in the room they won’t influence the review itself.
What’s the best way to get you into a show?
Biscuits. Well that and word of mouth; recommendations by respected comedians, comedy geeks and fellow reviewers.
What are the best shows you’ve seen at the fringe?
Hmm… there’s been a fair few not exactly surprisingly brilliant shows by the likes of Rob Newman, Tommy Tiernan and The Boy With Tape On His Face (not unexpected as his manager had been banging on about him for months!). As for shows that were pleasant and unexpectedly great, this year in Edinburgh – Storm Large. Laura Solon the year she won the Perrier and really enjoyed Craig Campbell’s departure into one man theatre in 2008. I also caught Delete The Banjax when they were in the tiny room at the back of the White Horse on the PBH’s Free Fringe last year.
Can’t really ask about the best without mentioning the worst. What are the all time stinkers?
I never like to rub it in but if I find something pretty bad I have to say so. So sorry guys but Aliens Ate My Schnitzel in 2008 included one of the most misguided sketches I’d seen in a long time and lost (no exaggeration) half their audience on the afternoon I was in. Mugging Chickens in their first year were pretty poor and Footlights have been disappointing for two years running (2008/2009). Also that guy, Chris Durkin, who celebrated turning 40 by putting on a show that was pretty poor. It was a nice idea but bit of a cheek to ask £5 to witness his birthday celebration really – especially as he could have done it as a free show.
Have you ever caught anyone altering one of your reviews for their shows on posters?
See Mugging Chickens above. They managed to take a quote from a one star review. Fair play to them. They’ll probably manage something from this questionnaire too. To be honest if there’s no star rating and the quote has a series of dots in it you can guarantee the quote was from a bad or mediocre review.
Do you think free shows are good for the fringe?
I do, I think it’s brought back the spirit of the Fringe and offers an opportunity for acts who aren’t willing to re-mortgage the house /sell the cat in order to put on a show. And of course for the punter it’s a cheap way of seeing shows.
How do you think free shows can improve and be taken more seriously?
As much as it would change the whole concept (and name) of the ‘Free Fringe’ I actually think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to charge a small amount say £1 for shows to cut down on the amount of people who think it’s ok to wander in and out of performances half way through just because they’re free. It’s the same mentality with regular comedy circuit gigs, a free comedy show is a fantastic gift but some customers don’t take it ‘seriously’ enough. Though I guess there’s not a lot of alliteration to be had in calling it the ‘very cheap fringe.’
Also there should be more care and attention to choice of venues. I know finding a great room in Edinburgh during the Fringe that someone else hasn’t already commandeered for a show is tricky but there are too many spaces that are unsuitable. If it’s necessary for customers or venue staff to walk through the space during a show then you need a rethink. Sometimes in a less than ideal space a few black out curtains and not trying to utilise every inch of floor space at the expense of the audience’s comfort wouldn’t go amiss.
Better signage to direct you to the performance space when you’re in the venue would be useful too. I’ve turned up at some venues where there’s been very little indication as to which room you should be heading for.
Also if you’re in a solo show and can’t afford to hire/persuade someone to sit on the door and you have to organise the crowd yourself be professional in your treatment of the audience as they file in. Maybe be in character or adopt your stage persona. There’s nothing worse than seeing the act flap about looking stressed before the show, or worse berating the audience because they’ve sat in the wrong place – unless that’s all part of the act of course.
And overall maybe less shows would be a good thing as there would be a better chance of being reviewed. I get the impression that the Free Fringe is largely ignored by editors unless they’ve heard something good about the act or they’re already known to them. Though I’m not sure how you would go about cutting the numbers down as this would inevitably mean introducing some vetting of the acts, which would be difficult to police.
Is there any magic formula for a good show or is it simply a case of you know one when you see it?
I don’t think there is a magic formula but what I will say is unless you happen to be a Ross Noble/ John Bishop/ Johnny Vegas/Jason Manford of this world who were comedy naturals pretty much from day one, you’re going to need to work at it a lot. Make sure you’re ready for the Fringe, don’t rush into it. Then when you do it make sure you’ve practised it sufficiently before you start-up there. Those early days of the Fringe are crucial to editors to get the first reviews in and it’s disappointing to review something that is clearly not ready but you have an inkling that it could well be a great show in a week’s time.
Marissa Burgess is a freelance journalist who has reviewed for numerous publications including The List and Chortle.