Friday, 24 August 2007

Back to Earth

Being deeply pre-occupied with one's Edinburgh ventures cloaks out the real world. It's one reason I'm glad the Festival takes place in August, when there's very little news anyway. Then every so often something happens to pull one forcibly back to earth, to remind one that, actually, all this preoccupation with reviews and run-times is pretty trivial.

Something in the papers? No. I got a call from the Anthony Nolan Trust. I've been found to be a partial match for someone in need of life-saving surgery, and can I come in for some further tests? So I'm going in next week when Man Across the Way is in London and I'm there too. "How will you fit it in?" asked my mother. Yes, I'm pretty busy - and I've a fun-packed autumn lined up that I'll tell you all about soon. But the opportunity to prevent someone from becoming dead is worth putting a show temporarily on hold, no? Surely a far far better thing I do today, etc?

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Reviewing and Criticism

Leo Benedictus, writing on today's Guardian blog, makes a distinction between "reviewing" and "criticism". I've a terrible cold and a billion things to do for next week's London transfer, so I'm going to do little more than applaud the distinction: "A review is a practical tool designed to help people choose a show. Criticism is an attempt to describe the way a show works and analyse why it works well." Yes. But a review without criticism is like a frame without a painting.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Andrew Haydon kindly commends me for my director's eye view on this year's Festival. That's very nice of him, but unfortunately that's not really what I'm doing. I've a couple of posts brewing on the different processes of keeping my two shows pinging away at full power - or trying to. But I'm not going to post them. I'm a slightly different director for every actor, which makes me six different directors at this Festival. That's a pretty delicate balance to strike, and posting on it in public and in detail would only make my job harder. Maybe when the dust has settled...

So instead, I'm going to engage in the time-honoured tradition of whinging about the critics. We've had some lovely reviews for both shows, but they really mean not a jot. Let me tell you why.

The top review for either is probably this lovely one from the Scotsman. Of course, we were very pleased, especially when we learned that the estimable Sally J Stott had further honoured us with a Fringe First nomination (which, unless Joyce McMillan has the best poker face in the business, we won't win). But already the clues were there. For a start, she gets my name totally wrong despite it being quite clearly written in the programme. Then comes her final sentence: "if you only feel you can cope with one show on torture and terrorism this festival season, this is probably going to be the funniest." Well, if you only see one, it certainly will be the funniest. These are tiny quibbles, perhaps, but along with a few other clunky sentences and a lack of any sort of penetration beneath the surface (it's not a difficult show to penetrate), one starts to lose trust.

Then came her review of Man Across the Way. Having swapped around characters and events in the plot recitation that dominates the review, she concludes that the play "ends cryptically". Certainly it does: if you aren't paying enough attention to get the character names the right way around, then teasing out ambiguities won't be your cup of tea. Then one backtracks this even more egregious lack of penetration to the Can of Worms review, and loses what little trust one had.

Let me get this straight: I don't at all mind having bad reviews. I've had much, much worse reviews than this humdrum three-starring (Can of Worms has had worse this festival, of which more soon) and I've even agreed with some of them. What I mind is presenting my work for assessment to someone who's not up to the job. Every audience response is valid, and she's not the first to find the play a bit too elusive to grasp. But it would be nice to be reviewed by someone for whom it's not such a strain. Should our reviewers be a member of the audience picked at random? Or should they qualify for their authority status with a minimum level of knowledge, penetration and ability to articulate those qualities?

Our best review for Man Across the Way came from the Metro, for whom we're also Pick of the Day today. And gratifyingly, he seems to have got it. So why do I also not trust that review?

I wasn't looking forward to seeing the Metro review. As a director I may be absurdly critical of my own work and certainly I'm rarely completely satisfied. But that show was the worst we've had. It was the day before everything clicked into place and the actors got a sense of the space and the tech and how everything fitted together. That day, it was low-key, it dragged and the audience shuffled. So did the guy from the Metro, who was sitting in front of me. So I'm glad he was nice about the show - and certainly, he was right to not really say anything at all about the production, if he was so determined to make a good show out of it - but it doesn't gratify me as a review does when it's earned.

And his review of Can of Worms was a real stinker. This doesn't invalidate his response to Man Across the Way (if it needs invalidating), but whereas Sally J Stott failed to engage with Man Across the Way, Christopher Collett flat refuses to even accept the premise of Can of Worms. Given that the press release promises a show that clowns around the subject of torture, surely they should have sent a reviewer who was, at the very least, prepared to engage with that? The first paragraph could have been written before he even saw the show.

Again, I don't mind that he didn't like the show - we knew some people would take against it, and we knew some of them would have pens - but it's a little galling, for example, that he doesn't even address whether or not it's funny. As it happens, the day he was there, there were gales of whole-audience belly laughter and I would have counted that performance a success. No audience is totally unanimous and I'm keen to hear from people who don't like the show. If they've something constructive to add.

Perhaps having intuited my irritation on this point, in his latest review, of Cal McCrystal's Callate! at the Assembly Rooms, he graciously acknowledges that "a section of the audience was clearly enjoying itself" before concluding that "it was hard to see what was so funny". Bullshit. It's your job to figure out what was so funny. And if you don't agree with those who thought it was funny, it's your job to figure out why, and to articulate that.

As I've perhaps neglected to say on these pages before, I'm as happy with both shows as I've ever been with anything, and it's exciting to run two such utterly different shows back-to-back. Like Chris Goode, who's been much more badly-done by than me this year, I feel I deserve a bit more effort at engagement on the part of my critics. It's also frustrating that people keep sending the same reviewer to both shows, when they've only any interest in one sort of show. Surely people should be sent to see the sort of work they like, so they can assess it on its own terms, rather than attacking the terms?

We've a reviewer from The List coming to both shows today. I wonder which one she'll like?

POSTSCRIPT - I'd be interested to know if there's anyone on the planet apart from me who likes both shows. Announce yourselves! And if you liked one and not the other, I'd like to know why.

UPDATE - We've Lyn Gardner coming in to Man Across the Way in the next couple of days. I trust Lyn Gardner. Whether she likes it or not, I'll listen to what she has to say.

There, I've said it now.

AND ALSO - another two reviews for Can of Worms, one four star, one two star. There's something quite satisfying about splitting the critics...

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

On punctuality

One spends so much of the Edinburgh Festival waiting.

(Not least for one's favourite bloggers to sharpen their pens and get to work on the whole affair. In the meantime, I'll have to do. UPDATE: about three hours after this post, Chris wrote something. Excellent!)

At the beginning of every show one sits waiting to see if an audience is going to turn up. In Can of Worms yesterday we had seven people, the legendary Fringe average. It was the smallest house yet and a real endorsement of the show when several of them stayed behind to chat afterwards:

WOMAN FROM NEW YORK: Have you guys been to New York?
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: It's our first show, actually. We've not really been anywhere.
WFNY: You should come to New York.
SB: If you book us, we will come. [I know, sorry about that]
WFNY: Have you been on the BBC?
SB: It's our first show. We've been doing it for five days.
WFNY: You should be on the BBC.
SB: Thanks.
WFNY: Have you been on television?
SB: It's our first show. We're a theatre company.

She was very nice, and she made us late for our get-out.

I can't abide unpunctuality. It's rude, plain and simple. It says "I don't care about you sitting on your own in the cold". I also can't abide how nice I am about it when people are, inevitably, late. I somehow make them feel that it's ok, that I'm not annoyed. Note to you all in the future: I am annoyed. I'm just really, really nice.

This also goes for latecomers to the theatre. Would you start a book on page four? Then get there in time for the play to start. If the play's any good, the beginning bit will be there for a reason and missing it will be like missing a few bits of what's probably sky from a jigsaw that's mostly sky. You might be fairly sure it's just some more sky you're missing, but you can't be sure.

I make a slight exception to this for Can of Worms, simply because, being clown, your late arrival provides us with meat. The day before yesterday, someone arrived, magnificently, just as Nick intoned to Paul the line "you're late". "And so are you", he added in the direction of the tardy few. It wasn't at all big or clever, but it got a big laugh. I'll explain why some other time.

Everyone knows that being late professionally is bad. An actor missing their entrance or their cue, even by a fraction of a second, disrupts the whole piece, especially if they do so consistently. Anyone who's seen more than one of my shows will know that pace is an obsession. In my shows, actors need a cast-iron excuse to pause for thought before a line: why can't they say the thing as they think of it? Very often, there's no good reason, apart from to draw attention to the acting, when everyone looks better if the cue-bite is sharp. If I'm bored in the theatre, there's an evens chance that a large part of the reason is that it's "contemplative" or whatever, which is simply another way of saying that the actors let the energy drop between every line. People describe The West Wing as unbelievable because "no-one really talks like that". But I'm not interested in watching drama about people who think and talk at the same speed as me. I want a distillation of what's true, not the truth itself; I want to see people thinking rapidly, performing remarkable feats of emotional and intellectual dexterity. I don't want to watch them torturously arriving at the place where I've already been sitting and tapping my watch for ten minutes.

But the best way of "not being late" is to not say what time you're going to arrive. Which brings me, finally, to the press.

This time last year, and the year before, and all the years before that, I remember being an unspeakable ball of tension, waiting and wondering whether any reviewers were ever going to come. Then about fifty-one weeks ago, and all the years before that, a couple had been in and I spent another week as a ball of tension waiting and wondering whether the reviews were going to be any good. In times like these one holds for succour to stories like Unlimited's: they sold Static averagely for four weeks, then won a Fringe First on the final weekend and succeeded in carrying the momentum into the following Festival.

So this year I feel like someone who's thrown a party to which everyone's turned up at nine on the dot. It's nice, and all the nibbles are ready, but it's not what I've prepared myself for emotionally. We've had the Scotsman, the Metro and some website I've never heard of in to both shows, The Stage in to Can of Worms and Three Weeks in to Man Across the Way. And the good thing about getting them in early is that the delay until publication will hopefully not quite be so long.

So have a look at this, and this, and this. They might not be particularly articulate, and one of them might get my name wrong, but for the time being I'm very happy to have something I can put on the flyer. Then I can get back to waiting for audience members with slightly more optimism.

Saturday, 4 August 2007


I'd like to do an Edinburgh preview, but I'm still in monomaniac mode and can't really think about anyone's shows but mine just yet. A couple more days and I'll start seeing things and telling you about them. In the meantime:

the dash is over, and the slog begins. Both shows are open and thus commences the daily grind of building an audience, raising press profile and, most importantly, helping both shows to bed in for a long run.

The needs of both shows are completely different. With Can of Worms, it's blowing off the cobwebs accumulated over a couple of weeks in the drawer - and a much longer period since it last squinted into the glare of an audience. The first show was a mite tentative, but yesterday's, kickstarted by the support of a couple of particularly vocal audience members, really took off. There's something about the permission generous laughter gives to the performers to be daring that really helps to transform this show. Yesterday had some really thrilling sections that were completely new to us all, and several of the old sections felt completely new-minted. A couple more good days and the performers will feel sufficiently emboldened to be so daring from the first moments of the show: then that laughter will be theirs by right.

Man Across the Way, on the other hand, sailed with great confidence out of an intensive rehearsal period and is now being buffetted on all sides by the demands of a new space and a fairly complex tech plot. Not to mention a tech/fit-up that ran from 11pm-3am and thoroughly knackered everyone while nonetheless not being quite sufficient. So the show isn't exactly being knocked off course so much as taking a little time to get the wind back into its sails. It's a show with a huge amount of energy, but the space is huge and somewhat echoing, so sucks some of that energy right out again. Added to a couple of tech problems that lead to the odd bit of pausiness, the whole thing still feels just a mite heavy. But it's not so much about energising - the energy's there, it's just not quite coming through - as balancing it. Again, a couple more shows and it should be properly centred.

Ideally I'd like a couple more previews for both; two isn't really enough for them to bed in. But "press night" in Edinburgh is a fairly meaningless term, as the press come whenever they like, and in any case we've none booked in for today. So it's another preview, albeit one for which people are paying full price.

But we do have the Scotsman booked for both shows over the next week. I'm not going to say when, as the actors don't want to know when there's press in and there's a tiny chance one of them might read this. I just wrote several more paragraphs bemoaning the power of one or two pens belonging to people whose authority (a particular problem in Edinburgh, where there are so many rookie reviewers) we have no reason to trust or even recognise. But I realised I was treading the age-old path of lamenting my powerlessness in the face of the press. The shows are good. The press will recognise that. FACT.