Day 1 – Friday 9th August 2019
On the train travelling to Edinburgh with my son for 10 days, joining my established fringe loving husband as he relives his blissful Bachelor days, (he always protests when I say this to him – “I love being married and having a family!” he says, backing out of the door, trying to hide his glee, skipping all the way to the taxi to take him first class to Edinburgh a week before the punters start to avalanche themselves onto the cobbled streets).
I ask myself why again am I doing this? I really could do with a week or two somewhere quiet, in a forest or by a pool where I would mostly sleep and read books and swim and sunbathe if I could. My day job is stressful and full on; I have a lot of responsibility. And reviewing shows in Edinburgh is a responsibility that I actually take seriously. My ever focused husband, also editor of Fringereview, after seeing with quietly growing alarm the schedule I have set myself, has already reminded me several times of the strict protocols for reviewing;
Reviews posted, fully spell checked and edited ready to post (or decision not to review) by 48 hours and no less than 500 words each, adhering to Fringereview’s unique objectivity guidelines. He’s even stricter with me than his other reviewers. But that’s just revenge because I tell him off about leaving the washing up sponge in the sink.
So why do I go? We don’t get paid for this; it takes time and effort and money to get ourselves here. It will probably be raining, the loud crowds hard work to get through, food overpriced and eaten rushed on the move as we dash across town to get to shows in time as well as lots of standing in tense queues and sitting on hard chairs in soggy rain drenched trousers. The feeling of an unwritten review hangs heavily like homework before a deadline, or a unemptied breast of a newborn feeding mother (if you know, you just know).
Performers don’t always (sometimes fairly) like what we write, unless we write that they are fabulous, and then of course so are we. And I get it, 100 percent. They are putting their hearts, their raw creativity out there for all to see and critique. Like an eager 9 year old with their splodge of a painting looking at you with such hopeful pride and excitement, it’s hard sometimes to tell the theatre group or performers that “It’s not quite there yet (maybe even never will be)”. We, the reviewers, skulk on the fringiest edge of the Fringe. The alleyway of the nightclub, the fence of the park, the windows of the school canteen. We are watching the fun, but we can’t really be a part of it. But like anyone on the fringes of anything, even of the Fringe itself, that distance gives us some clarity. That separateness gives us space to look at the overview, to really look, and not feel that bond of friendship or loyalty that other performers have with each other, to feel obliged to say something is wonderful when secretly thinking differently. We are given the privilege and the burden of saying what we see, as unpopular as it might be. I don’t always like this bit. It’s awkward. And I feel a little heart broken for those who spent everything to get themselves here and live on the scrapings of a teeth-gritting bank loan that topped the crowd funding account that didn’t quite reach target, when up for the whole month. I admire them so much for leaping in. Even those who belly flop.
The reason I think I keep going every year (apart from it being the only way I see my husband in August) is because this stuff is important. Art is even more vital now than it ever was. We are all on the edge of a terrifying precipice in this moment in history. Our society and politics and healthcare system and climate crumble fast in front of us. We need Art. Not as a distraction, although that helps too sometimes, but because Art holds up that much talked about mirror to ourselves, to our behaviours, to our moments in humanity. Art both tethers us to and releases us from our intensely human experience. Art provides the space, the deep shuddering breath, that people need to reflect on their lives and the lives they are entangled with.
Art IS for everyone, and made/performed by anyone with a passion – whatever their class or background or race or gender – this is what many don’t realise. A stand up comic hidden away in spit and sawdust fringe pub venues can awaken and release deep truths in improvised comedy as can a full professional fierce production that leaves the audience weeping in recognition. And while I would never say that reviewers are responsible in total for this breadth of creativity and human expression, they certainly play a part in the gentle forming of and cultivating of creative works of the highest quality whether low or high budget. Live performance, whether that is Comedy or Theatre or Music or a bit of it all, should take your breath away, making you feel like a different person than when you first walked into that theatre space. Art should pivot your paradigms and touch your heart and release long forgotten tears in the stillness of a memory or in the grief of a collective knowing or belly laugh, safe in the dark of the audience, in the recognition of our beautiful and ridiculous and ugly and lovable human flaws. Sometimes it doesn’t do that. But it may have almost. And with a respectful bit of nudging, or sometimes a neon sign of advice, can change something mediocre into something magical.
Art feeds my soul and seeing a theatre company, or a solo performer come together with bravery and full hearted commitment in the precarious and vulnerable setting of an Edinburgh theatre space is a rare and sacred thing in these modern times. You (probably) won’t experience anything on this level of emotional and experiential intensity on the digital screen. Actually, with one exception – Hannah Gadbsy’s Nanette, which for me was a personal highlight of this year. But that’s because she did something pretty unique; her force of nature burst off our screens and smashed a genre unexpectedly and from the inside out. She not only shattered our glass ceiling. She picked the pieces of glass up, put them in a pretty parcel and posted them to the Patriarchy. We watched the category of Herstory change right in front of our eyes, forever.
So I sit on this train, tired from busy life and work and a little daunted by the schedule I have set myself. And I am not telling myself a story that I am vital to the Edinburgh fringe – far from it – it will roll on thunderously with or without my microscopic presence. But actually the Fringe is vital for me. I need to hear stories about humanity, about these ‘interesting times’ we live in; about the horror and the joy of life and everything in all flavours and colours and shapes in between. Art is what we had before Netflix and art continues to weave in and out of our leisure time, merging to become part of our spiritual searching and self questioning and heart healing and hope building.
Art changes the world and we all need it.