August 24, 2011 Chris Cox

Who Reviews The Reviewers

An open letter to reviewers and editors at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As the Edinburgh Fringe heads into its final week proper, it gives performers some time to reflect on the weeks that have passed – and one thing none of us can stop talking about is reviews. After some good advice from Tim Minchin a few years back, I make a huge effort to not read any reviews. I see stars go up on posters, and I’m flattered, and all is well and lovely. Well. All was well and lovely. I accidentally read a review from a respected print publication, not a blog or an audience review but a potentially influential review, by a professional reviewer. I was furious, but not because it was a bad review. Oh no, it wasn’t. Everyone at the end of my show gets asked to keep the secrets of the show secret – not to give away the plot – the tricks or what happens in the show. The same is asked of reviewers. So as I’m reading the review, I realise it’s not a review. At no point is there any comment on my show, on the reviewers thoughts on the show, there is no review. Instead it’s a fairly graphic synopsis of everything that happens in the show including exact details of the story line, the major plot twist, and what happens in tricks. I was fuming. Not least because if some people know what happens in tricks, then the tricks simply will not work. Hence why I am at pains to make sure they are not given away. This reviewer in essence has (spoiler alert) told you Bruce Willis is dead in the Sixth Sense, then talked about the rest of what happens in the film, without ever actually commenting on it.

As performers we put a hell of a lot into our shows, for me its 18 months of writing, rehearsing, developing, creating brand new and unique tricks, methods and such. The very least we expect is that a reviewer takes care in reviewing us, and puts the effort in, in the same way we put the effort in for our shows. When someone doesn’t do this, it’s galling. When they don’t review the show but just give away the secrets or the content it is even worse. Comedians have a hard time with reviewers giving away jokes, but for magicians it’s careless, because in many instances it can mean a trick will no longer work or have that wow / surprise factor that it needs to hit home with an audience. All that can be ruined by one lazy reviewer. There is a huge difference between giving away a flavour of the show, and giving away exactly what happens in the show.

I realise there is a problem with reviewing magic shows in particular, unlike the world of comedy, there is not as much around to be able to easily judge as to whether something is good, original, new or unique. This is because there hasn’t been a huge amount of magic around recently, but now with over 40 magic shows at the Fringe and more magic appearing on our screens is it time reviewers knew a bit more about the craft of tricking people? I know in my show this year it’s 100% new material (plus 1 old joke) with most of the tricks created by me and having never been seen before. There is no guess work involved, there is 100% fact and 100% trickery, be it mind reading, quasi mind reading, fake mind reading or magic. I have a narrative, the first time I’ve used one and it, at least to me, sets my show apart from other magic shows which are a collection of tricks (and there is nothing at all wrong with that style of show.) A reviewer as a rule however doesn’t know this, and why should they? They are reviewing the show from a blank canvas. Do they like it; do they think it’s good? Problem lies in the different standards across the board of reviewers. If you get someone into review a show that likes magic then the review will be more favourable than a reviewer who isn’t such a big fan. I’ve seen great reviews for magicians by the same author, then for the same publication mediocre reviews for magicians who in my opinion are putting on a better show by a different author and I can only put it down to the fact that the latter isn’t a huge fan of magic shows.

Then you have reviewers who think they know how the tricks are done, and make sure they mention this as part of the review, as I’ve seen for magic shows by friends this year. Here’s a secret. Everyone in the audience thinks they know how it’s done. That doesn’t mean that is how the trick is done. We are not asking you to just believe in magic, instead we are asking you to enjoy the entertainment factor of a show. If you want to try piece together the jigsaw of how a trick is done, go ahead. However don’t just assume you know how everything is done and therefore think it’s a bad show because of that. Unless of course you see a sloppy magician who gives everything away and you clearly see the trick. It’s about thinking carefully, seeing past the tricks and seeing what the performer is trying to achieve, magic is and always will be more than just tricks. The tricks are the bones of it, but it’s everything else which makes it watchable. We are not here as magicians to make you believe we are really performing the impossible, we are here to entertain.

Having spoken to some reviewers recently I am aware there is a trend for editors to request their reviewers explain what happens in the show, thus ruining punchlines, tricks or indeed whole plot points. Audiences like surprises, audiences are not stupid, audiences don’t have to be spoonfed exactly what is in a show, audiences are clever enough to make their own minds up and reviews should be based on opinions with a flavour of the show.

No one reviews reviewers, there is no comeback for any disgruntled performer who feels unfairly treated by a review because the facts might not be right, because it is just a synopsis of the show, because it’s not a review. Where is the right to reply for a performer who gets reviewed by someone who is grumpy, tired, seeing their eighth show of the day in a hot room and would much rather just be having something to eat then churning out another few hundred words on something they aren’t going to enjoy, despite the hundreds of people round them having a wonderful time. I realise reviewers have it tough and on the whole do a great job, but every now and again something slips through the net and that something can have a huge affect on someones performance, show or even career. Perhaps it’s time reviewers remember how important reviews are to the performers as well as the audience, and open up a dialogue to ensure that there is a right to reply, not from bitter performers and comics who think differently to the reviewer, but when something is obviously at odds between the performance audiences are loving and what the reviewer has written. I remember, earlier this year, seeing a two star review for a comedy show I saw at the Royal Albert Hall. This was a show that got three spontaneous standing ovations. 4999 people loved and adored that show, one person didn’t. That one person wrote a review, and rather than taking into account the opinion of the populous they decided to say it was rubbish, when it quite obviously wasn’t.

The simple fact is, reviews are vital to performers and audiences alike and all any of us ask is that they are fair.

Comments (6)

  1. Its easy being a reviewer or journalist, you just write. Provided you dont say anything that will get you sued you can say almost anything. You are spot on with the ‘dont spoil the show’ aspect, whats the point if you do – no one would go, why should you when you know all the gags. Magic or illusion is a different matter. Ive been a journalist for over 10 years and there are some things you dont do – even if you do allude to a few gags from a comedy routine you dont give them away. Even if you did, a good stand up would have enough material to cover or hide what you said. Jokes are relatively easy -you can rattle a few new ones off in a couple of days – I know, I write them for a few artistes but magic? Thats a different ball game. A magic act takes MONTHS to perfect – each slight of hand, every word, even an inflection on the way something is said can influence the outcome of a ‘trick’ and if its blown then you lose months of hard graft.
    Ive seen your act Chris and loved it. Ive seen an occasion once when it did pan and all I felt was heartache for you. The problem is that a lot of people write but very few are lucky to write about what they love and so simply dont understand or dont care what they say.
    Its a sad state of affairs but *holds hands up* its us journos – if we dont sign an NDC (Non disclosure contract)some of us will say anything. Personally it makes me really pi**ed off that a few wannabe’s can write what they want and spoil it for everyone.
    Power to you bro – you work your balls off and we love you for it.

  2. I know I’m not a professional reviewer, but I do understand the point about not revealing stuff. When I started my blog I was more descriptive but then I realised that it was better to be more cagey and focus more on themes and not spoiling stuff!

    I love the show and the plot and I wouldn’t want to spoil the twists. Yes, I say it’s about love, but that’s as far as I personally go.

  3. I think what you’re saying is spot on. I know if I’ve ever written a review, i’ve made sure not to include spoilers, because they, well, spoil things! You can say a lot about a show, just by describing what you liked or disliked about the performer and alluding to themes or styles. It’s just a shame some people are too idiotic to realise that.

    Giving away a whole show, is, like you say, like giving away plot spoilers in a movie and I think it’s likely to turn people off seeing it, in a “we know what’s going to happen so let’s not bother” kind of way. If someone needs to know what a show’s about, just hint at it – there are plenty of free Fringe programmes, if they need more details.

    Unfortunately there are always going to be idiots, but whose decision was it to let them loose with a pen and notepad during the Fringe? Probably an idiot’s…

  4. Scott P

    An excellent retort to some questionable practices, Chris.

    I’ve seen more unjustifiable critiques in the last three weeks than in years of following theatre reviews online. Lengthy, damning, one-star reviews are published without any true sign of thoughtful reflection and many reviewers are doing well if they can fit anything beyond a press release into their word count. Five star reviews which do the same thing are just as infuriating. The whole thing reeks of egotism and unprofessionalism.

    I’ve written a lot of bad reviews but would like to think it’s always backed up with helpful criticism and not gleeful malice. Reviewers should take into consideration the general feeling of the room and, even if it’s not their taste, be open and receptive to their fellow audience members.

    Theatres are sacred spaces. Why any reviewer would want to wantonly destroy that magic is beyond me.

  5. Hey Chris, I am a reviewer and have reviewed MANY magic shows, including yours. I have NEVER spoiled what the act was doing, but that’s probably because I’m an “insider”. It takes imagination and creativity to write a review of a magic show without giving away the twists and surprises, yet STILL make it entertaining and informative for the reader… maybe that’s what’s lacking on behalf of the reviewers. it’s a lazy way to to knock out a couple of hundred words?

    Oh, and reviewers DO get reviewed. I’ve had quite a few letters to the editor from irate fans, usually beginning: “Was Drew McAdam at the same show as the rest of us?”

    Anyway, I’m coming along to see you this evening and I might just review the show – and give a blow-by-blow account of every little thing you do. There again, I might just be pulling your leg.

    I think the points you make here are all valid – and that from a reviewer.

    Drew

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