Written for The Collective Review, 24 July 2009
So why do critics bother compiling advance Pick of the Fringe Programme lists at all?
The socially acceptable reason is to provide Fringe patrons with navigation points. The programme’s Theatre section contains hundreds of shows, each one summed up in maybe twenty words. That makes it difficult to sift the diamonds from the dross, especially when many of the shows are world premieres and many of the companies newly formed. Between them, the critics have thousands of hours of expertise, which better qualifies them to judge which shows are worth your time.
Fair enough: it’s part of a critic’s function to make value judgements based on their experience (though whether it’s their primary function is a topic for another time). But letting the experts think for you is at odds with the spirit of the Festival: by all means take their advice, but make sure you also scan the programme for entries that pique your own unique interest, and see a show in a dank hole because the good-looking boy/girl/other handing out flyers winked at you.
The less noble reason behind the recommendation list is self- (or employer-) aggrandisement. Every critic wants to be the one that predicted this year’s surprise hit, to be seen to know their onions, to be perspicacious, to be near-supernaturally foresighted. Come September, we all wish we could write the I Told You So column, because it’s our job to state opinions, and having those opinions proved right is confirmation that we’re good at our job.
Unfortunately, it’s a futile aspiration. Singling out a show from a field of hundreds in a national newspaper or magazine immediately disqualifies that show from the longlist for Surprise Hit of the Fringe; even if one of the shows you nominate does unexpectedly well, it isn’t a surprise, because a critic in a national newspaper or magazine predicted it a month before the Festival opened. Another show, even one that proves less successful, will pick up the Surprise Hit title, because no one saw it coming.
Perhaps all the critics should hand their predictions in sealed envelopes to an independent adjudicator within a week of the programme being released, so we can have our I Told You So moments without unintentionally influencing the results. Or perhaps everyone should admit that the Festival’s power to surprise is one of its greatest assets, and second-guessing what’s coming defuses that power.
Prediction lists make a story of the critic (“Critic X told you Show Y would be big!”) and steal focus from the real story (“Show Y proves unexpectedly big!”). Reporting news before it happens is, whether consciously or unconsciously, an attempt to influence the news. So how about we all wait until curtain up and report the news as it happens?