The ultimate Fringe survival guide!
Some damn critics are just never satisfied. A few years ago a bunch of them directed plays on the London fringe, and then one of the bleeders actually performed in Edinburgh. You’d think I’d know the saying: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, criticise.”
So what on earth possessed me, Ian Shuttleworth, to write and perform Critical Mass (“Comic Genius” – The Independent)? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time – midnight in the Assembly Rooms Club Bar a few years ago, after several pints.
Actually, it was a good idea. With 1278 shows on the Fringe when I first performed it in '97, you needed some kind of guide to slashing through the stunted undergrowth towards the clearings where you can find the decent stuff.
Now, reviewers can only say so much on the page – they can’t actually come out with the truth, like, in some cases, “You’d have more fun getting stitches removed from the roof of your mouth without anaesthetic than sitting through this crock.”
But, freed from the shackles of newsprint decorum, I gave my intrepid audiences the complete low-down... and believe me, it could hardly get any lower.
I recently did some totting up and found that, over the last twelve years, I have seen over 1000 Edinburgh Fringe shows. (Why? Er... pass.) I've covered the Festival for the Financial Times and OK! magazine simultaneously; watched Hungarian women in perspex tanks and 3 a.m. slide shows in the street; and checked out more chippies and bars than you’ll have hot dinners and hangovers up here. And I'm still standing... well, swaying gracelessly. If anyone knows what’s what, I do.
And thus, O dearly beloved, I took to the stage to share my wisdom with those hardy enough to venture into the Pleasance Upstairs theatre in Edinburgh. And I didn't mince words – I took a bleedin’ great cleaver to them. In one short hour, I explained:
The reviews were, in all honesty, ridiculous. I mean, I kind of expected that my colleagues on other papers would get behind the whole foolish enterprise to a certain extent, but I'd no idea they'd be so... well, nice about it. Anyway, judge for yourselves, as I reproduce some of their verdicts below - with self-serving footnotes as appropriate...
Apparently these aren't the only write-ups I got; I'm told that El Pais also wrote a glowing preview, although I've never seen it; so if by any chance you're in a position to e-mail it to me, I'd be ever so ever so grateful, really and truly I would.
16 August 1997: The Eye on Comedy, by James Rampton
Journalists rank down there with estate agents and mass murderers as among the least popular people in the world. So Ian Shuttleworth, a freelance theatre critic, is not in the least bit concerned about bringing his profession into disrepute with Critical Mass ("Comic Genius" – The Independent), his new show about being a reviewer. "What's going to happen as a result of this – is it going to lower people's opinion of critics?" he asks with a laugh.
After seeing several hundred shows over eight years at the Edinburgh Festival, Shuttleworth is well-placed to give a jaundiced critic's-eye view of proceedings. He is especially sharp about the way reviewers catch "Edinburgh fever" during the Festival. "There is a general sneering at the excesses of critics in Edinburgh. They get what is called 'the Edinburgh bends'. The frenzy and non-stopness of the experience militate against having time to marshal your thoughts and appearing to be rational."
All the same, Shuttleworth is wary of appearing too "in" with this show. "I'm trying not to make it too navel-gazing," he confirms. "It's not cliquey-ly dropping names so that only initiates get the joke. It's designed to be accessible. It's a comprehensive guide to Edinburgh – from where the best chippie is to translations of shows' publicity blurbs. I'll be translating buzzwords like 'vibrant', 'original', 'award-winning' and, of course, 'comic genius'. 'Award-winning' is particularly meaningless. It could apply to a Cruft's Best of Breed."
Some comedians are talking of coming to review Shuttleworth. "If gamekeepers turn poachers, people may think it legitimate to send poachers to review those gamekeepers. I can only stop them coming by putting huskies on the door, and I can't afford that. I'm on a budget of 28p and a stale custard cream."
19 August 1997: review by Anya Sen Pearse. Rating (out of five stars): *****
More of a lean-to than a stand-up, the respected Financial Times theatre reviewer Ian Shuttleworth has turned from gamekeeper into poacher. An old hand at the Fringe, this self-proclaimed fountain of knowledge has finally decided to put it all to fine use. The show is, therefore, a babbling brook of hints, tips, insights and gossip on how to survive the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Maniacally weaving facts and anecdotes into a seamless, and often shameless, stream of witticisms, he explains what the terms on all those flyers really mean. He gives hilarious examples of why shows using words like "wacky" and "unpredictable" should be given a wide berth. He explains why some phrases, such as "award-winning", are not worth the ink they are printed in, and why some venues are often poor bets.
Other mysteries are solved. What really goes on in the "Star Bar" at the Assembly Rooms? Are the glowing quotes on posters real? Did the reviewer really like the show, or was he merely "astonished" by the leading actress?
This show is full of useful information. His pharmaceutical run-down, including supplements and Vitamin C tablets (the latter, he kindly dispenses) is worth remembering. So too is his low-down on reputable eateries, especially those with portions so large you need a rugby team to eat them.
He even identifies and commends productions worth seeing with his own special award. But most of all, he blows the gaff on reviewers and productions alike, with his own inimitable turn of phrase. And, um, two songs. Oh well, you can't have everything.
NOTE: This review, when published, carried only four stars. Both the reviewer and a sub-editor on the paper have confirmed to me that, when submitted, it carried five. The Scotsman's reviews editor unilaterally decided that in a number of cases he, who had not seen the shows in question, was better placed to decide star ratings than the reviewers, who had. Other victims of this whimsy included 1996's Perrier comedy award-winner Dylan Moran. I've therefore reinstated the fifth star; if anyone wants to accuse me of impropriety, let's see their evidence.
21 August 1997: review by David Belcher
Whistle brazenly blown by media-gate-keeper turned performer! Dirt dished on comedy-reviewers' secret code! Shuttleworth, hitherto a reputable Fringe critic writing for a London broadsheet, does all this and more in an hour-long Radio 4-style address to the nation which manages the neat trick of being both arch and vitriolic. You want the inside EdFest dope on cash, sex, lager, whingeing stand-upd, and pills? You got it. You also got a pill. Vitamin C. Shuttleworth hands them out as freely as he reveals the phrases employed by Fringe critics when they're sexually aroused by the performers they're meant to be dispassionately reviewing. Oh aye, yon Ian Shuttleworth! Searingly inventive! Hauntingly evocative! Instructively funny!
21 August 1997: review by Charles Spencer
No doubt about who is the bravest of my colleagues here in Edinburgh. It's Ian Shuttleworth, who is combining reviewing for the Financial Times with performing his own lunchtime show at the Pleasance. It is called Critical Mass and it's an hour-long guide to surviving the Fringe (he has been coming here for eight years).
Describing himself as "not so much a stand-up, more a sort of lean-to", he has got some excellent material on dire shows and weasel words, though I think he could afford to be a good deal crueller, and he hasn't yet acquired the panache of my much-missed late colleague Jack Tinker.
It is, however, impossible not to warm to this engagingly plump figure who adorns his notably eccentric flyer for the show (for some reason he's dressed in a sheet and a ridiculous floral garland) with the claim that the Independent has called him a "comic genius". This, as he admits in the show, is a complete lie, but if he perseveres it may happen one day. I shouldn't give up the night job yet, though, Ian.
NOTE: The following day Michael Coveney's brief review in the Daily Mail ended with that same night-job gag. Pure coincidence, I have no doubt.
21 August 1997: review (and generally second bite of the cherry) by James Rampton
People like nothing better than seeing acts mocked. the funny thing about Critical Mass is that it's another hack doing the mocking. Still, you can't go far wrong with something that makes critics the butt of the jokes – as writers as diverse as Sheridan and Stoppard have proved.
Ian Shuttleworth's survivor's guide to the Edinburgh Festival contains a blinding section translating critic-speak. The word "bizarre", for instance, could mean that the show "quite possibly features a papier mâché tortoise" while "award-winning" has lost all meaning.
Shuttleworth, a critic for the Financial Times and a fine raconteur, also reads out (absolutely genuine) newspaper blurbs such as: "Lovers of Latvian avant-garde drama will love this Latvian avant-garde drama."
Shuttleworth inevitably runs the risk of being too "in" with this material and gets his retaliation in first by calling the show self-regarding. But lovers of journalistic send-up will love this journalistic send-up.
NOTE: What Rampo doesn't mention, curiously, is that that magnificent blurb he quotes in fact came from the Independent itself. Funny, that...
28 August 1997: review by Phil Gibby
All this business of theatre critics poncing around theatres like the luvvies upon whom they feed has really got to stop.
Earlier in the year, four of them directed plays on the London Fringe with embarrassing results. Now another one has stuck his head over the parapet and – blimey! – happens to have come up with something quite good. Ian Shuttleworth, whose personal odyssey this is, benefits from being one of the mopre amiable of reviewers.
Critical Mass is, in essence, his crash course through Edinburgh for Fringe virgins. He offers advice on good and bad venues, good and bad shows, drink, drugs and the narcissistic habits of the Fringe's attendant media scum.
Shuttleworth cannot particularly act, or sing or anything, but as a top quality barfly he cannot be faulted.
"'Comic Genius' – The Independent"? I don't know about that – although the story behind the quote is carefully explained in the show. How about "'The finest performer in the history of entertainment never to win the Perrier Award' – The Stage" instead?
No indeed – critics can never be bought. Shuttleworth says so, and that is good enough for me.
(Is the cheque in the post yet, Ian?)
NOTE: At the time, Phil asked me for a tape of the music that was playing as the audience filed in, because he liked its "American college indie" sound. I took unholy glee in telling him that it had been written, played, sung and produced by me, who "cannot particularly act, or sing or anything". As it happens, I haven't got round to sending him the tape yet; must do so...
Critical Mass II: Return Of The Hack
The Wee Room, Gilded Balloon II, August 5-29 1998
Only God can judge us. Because we're critics.
So after all that, it would have been churlish not to revive the show in 1998. This time it was a double act with my erstwhile director (and Scotsman hack) Richard Hurst.
***** "You can't survive the Festival without seeing this
show" – Edinburgh Evening News
* "like a dog returning to its own vomit" – The List
But before that there was the Channel 4 television programme, about whose wild misrepresentations and stitch-ups the Broadcasting Standards Commission pondered for several months before, bizarrely, throwing out even the points that programme-maker Jon Ronson had admitted to. How much longer can the world afford to ignore me as the fount of all such wisdom? I think not long... but then I think it's fun to pummel mind and body for three weeks every August whilst capering wildly into hedonistic oblivion (a small village near Musselburgh)...