Steve Cramer's Festival blog
This article is from 2009.
There’s a paradox to being a reviewer. On the one hand, one is constantly badgered by theatre companies to see their shows, and on the other, when you arrive at their venues, they won’t let you in. Colonel Blood had easier access to the crown jewels than I did to a small-scale show on my review list a couple of days back. I walked into the venue, a converted ante room off a hotel reception in plenty of time, and subjected myself to a good long, self disciplined bout of British queuing before reaching the ticket desk.
When I attained the front of the queue I asked the teenage, no doubt unpaid girl behind the desk if I could have a press ticket for review. I might have asked her to resolve the Sartrean gap between being and meaning, so perplexed was the expression on the youngster’s face. To resolve the difficulty, I produced a press pass. The information on this document is printed in the large and clear block letters beloved of the DHSS, and gives all relevant information on its bearer. She stared at the card as if it were written in Sanskrit and passed it on to girl beside her, an even younger version of herself, which merely achieved the effect of spreading the panic. As I filled out a form which would no doubt have a very short journey to the shredder, there followed so long a period of hushed consultation between the youngsters that I began to fear looking around me, in case the floor was scattered with the remains of previous reviewers, still vainly clutching their press passes in skeletal fingers.
As the show went up, a phone number for a press officer was produced, who I was to call for a ticket. Already fearing a lost cause, I dialled the number on my mobile, and heard a yet more youthful voice on the messager, so young in fact that I wondered whether the background noise on the message was ebbing amniotic fluid. The voice assured me that the press officer would not be available today, because mum was serving fish fingers, or some such, and I was left helplessly watching the last of the audience disappearing into the venue. “You could try … the fringe press office”, said the girl behind the desk, in a dread tone that suggested no one who’d visited that place had ever been seen again. But it was far too late, and the show would go unreviewed, its artists no doubt bitterly recriminating against the journalist who hadn’t shown up.
Now I’ve been reviewing the Edinburgh fringe since shortly before the days of the wheel, and can tell you that in the past, it took a simple announcement of your business at a place to gain entry. The introduction of the press pass seemed a reasonable measure, but used to be unnecessary most of the time, for while I’m not a “do you know who I am?” merchant, I’ve been around long enough that in most places, my face is my passport, albeit a Sudanese one. The addition, year-by-year, of more forms and regulations to the process of simply reviewing a show, along with greater numbers of unpaid, non-professional volunteers to staff venues has no doubt cost the fringe hundreds of reviews every year. It seems to me that over the last two decades, as our bankers faced fewer and fewer rules to restrict them, those of us lower down the ladder have faced more and more, to the point where one is forced to write down more on forms seeking permission to review than in reviewing itself.
The argument against the old style lassez faire approach to writing about the fringe is that reviewers might abuse their press pass and admit themselves, gratis, to shows they have no business at. Now given that a lot of us are doing four, five or six shows a day, how likely does this seem? No matter how great my love of the theatre, you might as well accuse a Guantanamo inmate of jumping the queue for extra waterboarding as me, or many of my colleagues of seeking to enter an auditorium I had no business in. A rethink is required.