It's a day off Going Viral here in Edinburgh and so I've finally read some of the reviews. I don't tend to read them early in a run while the show is still settling in. There are quite enough voices in my head already. Even apparently positive reviews can unsettle a show early on, as you try to do the thing they liked, rather than the more important thing that it enables.
This self-protection was doubly important in this case because most of the press were in on the first preview. Eat your heart out, Cumberbatch. The show was still being made and I was some days from really feeling like I knew how to get the best out of it, but there they all were. Why?
Two days before the official start of the run, Northern Stage do a preview day to which the press are invited and a whole bunch of other people. So slightly perversely, I had press night, then a day off, then two previews, and then what would normally be the "official" opening night. By which time I'd already had about six reviews published.
This "press preview" day is either utter folly or strategic genius, depending on whether the show is well-received. So in this case I have to thank Lorne and Katie at Northern Stage for their persuading me that it was the latter.
(I did a couple of previews in Newcastle and was surprised by how many reviews came out even then. Not necessarily in a bad way, although of course the show wasn't ready. But as Meg Vaughan has said on twitter, if I buy something I reserve the right to say what I think about it on the internet. That's fair enough - when you acknowledge, as for example Andrew Latimer did in this brilliant piece about one of those Newcastle previews, that what you've written about is a prototype, not the finished thing. I'm not going to get into the total failure of e.g. The Times to understand how radically a show can change over even a short preview period. Not that it necessarily will, but it can.)
The press for my first preview in Edinburgh were invited, so they were entitled to treat it as though it was the finished product. Of course, it wasn't. It continued to evolve for several days as I got further under the skin of it. It continues to do so and in the coming week will be reworked some more. It's never finished, although there usually comes a point where you can't figure out any more about how to improve it. "Press night" is a totally arbitrary date by which you hope to have fixed most of the major problems.
Lorne and Katie are strategic geniuses, because the Edinburgh reviews for Going Viral are really good. Not just in the sense of being broadly positive about the show, although that is largely true. They're good in the sense of being really good pieces of critical writing. We're fortunate to live in a time where the standard of critical writing is unusually high.
There's often a disparity, particularly on the Edinburgh Fringe, between reviews in broadsheet newspapers and reviews on websites and magazines. It's easy to observe a little bit of grade inflation amongst the websites and magazines. Put crudely, you'll get a higher average star rating from Broadway Baby than from the Guardian. But this year all of the writing seems to be good, clear-sighted and astute.
With Going Viral, if there's grade inflation it's the other way round. There are four-star reviews in the Guardian, Scotsman, Independent, Herald, Telegraph and Stage. The show has also won a Fringe First. Meanwhile in What's On Stage, Exeunt, the List, Time Out etc, it's consistently three stars. I am not about to attempt to explain this phenomenon, but it is unusual, no? Has anyone else observed this? Is this a sign of shifting sands or is it just the quirks and tastes of the particular individuals who came to see my show? It's probably the latter.
There's an old cliche on the Fringe: "it reads like a four". But reading them blind, I think you'd be hard pushed to sort my reviews by star rating, so you could equally say that some of the fours read like a three. In any case, critically I can hardly complain. Even the three-star ones are very warm about the show. It's almost as though star-ratings are largely meaningless and arbitrary.
I can't really disagree with many of the reviews. Of course there are loads of little things that I find inexplicably irritating. But that's as often because they're right as otherwise.
The main reservation people express about the show is that there are too many ideas in there for it to cohere satisfactorily. That seems fair enough, although I'd argue that there is a particular set of lenses viewed through which the show does cohere. But even though I'm long since through previews, there's still more work I want to do and part of that involves clarifying those final moments a little further.
In the final analysis, though. I'd rather stand accused of having too many ideas than too few.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will