During this year’s Edinburgh Fringe we went to see a late night show called The Curious Couple from Coney at the Voodoo Rooms by a pair of sideshow performers from America. A few days later we came across a glowing review for the production which praised the couple for their innovation and presentation of “actual new stunts”, citing as examples two tricks: one concerned a bull whip and swallowed sword, which was something we had never seen before, and another which involved juggling an apple whilst taking bites out of it. The latter (very well executed though it was) is one of the oldest juggling tricks in the book, as any circus fan could tell you.
This left us wondering about a number of things – if the reviewer didn’t know enough about the form to spot this golden oldie, how much weight could be given to the rest of their review?
It’s a problem facing many variety acts – and a question recently touched on by Andrew Haydon in regards to reviewing dance: as the number of reviewing publications grows, what role does expertise play in the process? Do reviewers have a duty to the acts they see to have a reasonable grounding in the subject matter of the show? Would it be problematic if Chortle sent a reviewer to a performance of Carmen?
With variety part of the problem stems from a lack of exposure. Most people understand how comedy works and have encountered it in many forms, be it sketch shows, sitcom, stand-up, or their Great Uncle Sid at Christmas. Most people will also have acquired a rich experience of the dramatic arts, through film, television, and theatre. But how many juggling performances will the average person have seen? How many magic acts? How many hula-hoopers? Unless you’re a fan of the form, probably very few.
But then if the reviewer has seen very little variety perhaps it’s safe to assume that the majority of the audience is in the same boat. The lack of expertise shouldn’t stop a person from passing comment on a work? We’d argue that perhaps it should.
We’d expect a certain level of product knowledge and understanding from technology reviewers. We’d be surprised to encounter factual inaccuracies and misapplied terminology in a review of the latest smart phone. Are these things comparable to a review of a magic show or a juggling act? To an extent, yes. Realistically we cannot expect reviewers to be experts in every field, and of course they are meant to be reviewing on behalf of a general audience, not our peers. But a certain level of rigour should still apply. We would hope at least that reviews were based on what a person knows and feels and sees, not what they think they know. If you’ve never seen a juggler do the eating-an-apple trick before, that’s fine; then say you loved it, explain why you loved it, but don’t label it as new just because it’s new to you.
This may seem like a small issue, but it’s part of a wider discussion. If a review asserts that a show contains ‘nothing original’, that may have an impact on potential audiences, especially in an environment as concentrated as the Edinburgh Fringe. Because of course there is a world of difference between opinion and stating something as fact. Magic, as we’ve discussed, often reworks familiar material in unfamiliar ways. A review which discounts this can do the act a disservice.
A reviewer needs no specialist knowledge to explain why they found a performer engaging, or a production interestingly staged and entertaining – or otherwise. But ill-informed commentary, particularly on the variety circuit – whether declaring something the most ground breaking trick of the century or damning something for being “unoriginal” – can be more harmful than helpful.
Morgan & West’s Magical Menagerie is at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, on 25th October 2012. For tickets visit the venue website.