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Blog: Reflecting On Reviewing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Looking back at past years - and thinking about how to improve in 2021

Blog: Reflecting On Reviewing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Having attended the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the past twenty-something years and reviewed since 2013, it feels very strange not to be heading there this year. All of us at BroadwayWorld are devastated for the venues and performers affected by its cancellation, and hope very much we can be there next there.

However, even before the difficult circumstances we now find ourselves in, I was already pondering how to approach the 2020 festival. Much as I love it, and feel very lucky to get press comps to cover all these different shows, I'd found 2019 difficult for various reasons.

I work full time for the NHS and take most of my annual leave during August to cram in an unrealistic number of shows to cover. I live in Glasgow and have stayed in Edinburgh before for the festival, but I've learned that rather than allowing myself to get proper rest, I just find myself booking into 1am shows and trying to write up eight performances a day.

Having no 2020 Fringe seems like a good opportunity to reflect on and plan what I want to do for next year. I'd love to focus on one particular area, rather than trying to cover every genre that I'm interested in. I'd schedule shows at the same venue so that less of my day is spent running across Edinburgh in a panic. I would also like to factor in some proper downtime and not view meal breaks as wasted time.

I noted down my daily activity on a random Wednesday at the festival last year. It was originally meant to be a six-show review day with an interview and a three-hour return commute, but things didn't quite go to plan...

Wake up and check the notoriously unreliable Scotrail app. There's flooding on the line between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but it isn't clear if that rules out the station in the east end on the lower level that I leave from.

Head for the train. The trains on the lower level are delayed due to bad weather but they are still running. I was reviewing at my local theatre in Glasgow last night, so I use my 90-minute journey to type that up.

Arrive at my first venue of the day. I have a little bit of time so I make use of the good wi-fi at the Traverse and start pulling images to go alongside the reviews I'll be doing today.

My first show of the day is outstanding but emotionally draining. Typically, Fringe shows run at 60 minutes, so this is also quite a long one to start my day off. I'd like a bit of time afterwards to chill out, but I've scheduled my day quite tightly and need to head up to Summerhall for my next show in an hour. Despite having spent over 20 years regularly visiting Edinburgh, I manage to get lost trying to cut through the Meadows and end up with less downtime than expected.

Arrive at Summerhall, stressing about my timekeeping. The venue hasn't opened yet and I consider grabbing something from the cafe, but figure it would be more productive to open one of the cereal bars I've packed and quickly write up my notes from the first show of the day.

My second show of the day is set in a psychiatric hospital and is quite heavy-going. I've planned my day quite well in that my third show is only at the Meadows, so the plan is that I can read over the questions I've set up for today's interview while sitting in the sun next to the tennis courts. Naturally, it is raining.

I'm delighted I booked a circus show in the big top because my earlier theatre pieces were pretty intense. The circus is good fun, but it also makes me a bit sad because I don't have anyone with me to enjoy it with.

Interviews make me really nervous, I'm not entirely sure why I put myself through them. It was a performer I had met before and knew was lovely, but I'm always worried about saying something stupid. It goes brilliantly, and, after obsessively checking that my recorder didn't malfunction, I'm happy with it.

I had another show pencilled in that I had to notify the PR I couldn't do because I felt it was too close to my interview time. I apologised profusely and felt terrible about cancelling even though I hadn't actually committed to it.

I check my messages and one of my friends in our reviewer WhatsApp group is asking if anyone is about. I say that I'm at Assembly Gardens and she offers to come and meet me and get a crepe. I haven't properly eaten yet today so this is an excellent idea.

We sit in the now blazing sunshine eating crepes and talking about the amazing shows we've seen since we last caught up. This is the best part of my day.

My friend has a show to run to, so I head to the Pleasance press area to start typing up my review notes for the day, because the guilt is creeping in that I watched a show six hours ago and haven't yet typed it up. While I know, realistically, PRs probably don't expect a review to be online until 24-48 hours after you've been booked in to see a show, I can't relax until I've cleared my to-do list.

My next show is a sellout, so I make sure to get there nice and early to queue in the torrential rain. I have a look at the train app while I'm waiting and the main train line from Edinburgh to Glasgow has been closed all day. I also use the time to scan Twitter. It can be a fairly toxic place during the festival, as animosity for reviewers grows, but it is also a great support system. I love reading good reviews of shows that I've enjoyed and looking into ones that maybe weren't already on my radar (not that I have time to see them, as I've already booked myself solid for the month).

My show is a really fun musical and I thoroughly enjoy it, but at the back of my mind, I'm worried about getting home tonight.

My last show of the day is in 20 minutes and it is a non-ticketed show. After much deliberation, I email the PR and apologise profusely. I explain that my last train home is 15 minutes after the finish time and my back-up train route isn't running. I know I wouldn't be able to give the performance my full attention. I still feel horribly guilty.

I'm on an 'early' train home that will mean I get to my bed at about 11.30pm after a shower. I consider this very much a win. I publish a couple of my reviews that I was working on earlier and manage to get the rest of my day written up before I get home. I even have time on the journey to start transcribing my interview, which I plan to finish during my lunch break at my NHS job tomorrow.

On a personal level, I'm looking forward to trying to lower my expectations for myself when it comes to reviewing at the Fringe. It's too tempting to try and book as many shows as physically possible in a day when I've taken the day off work and travelled to Edinburgh.

The lockdown period has given us all pause, and I think we might appreciate shows more if we give ourselves that breathing space. Having said that, I will never take my comp tickets for granted, and I know that I'm very lucky to get so see so much, but the themes I'm interested in (mental health, addiction, true crime) can take a toll after seeing intense pieces back-to-back all day long.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that promising I'll go easier on myself when the Fringe is back up and running is like telling myself that I'll be be fit enough to be sprinting up Fleshmarket Close like a spring lamb come August 2021... We've all missed theatre so much, and once it's back, we can't wait to cover as much as we can.

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From This Author Natalie O'Donoghue