Who reviews the reviewers?

Chris Cox on critics

As the Edinburgh Fringe draws towards its conclusion, it gives performers some time to reflect on the weeks that have passed – and one thing none of us can stop talking about is reviews.

After some good advice from Tim Minchin a few years back, I make a huge effort to not read any reviews. I see stars go up on posters, and I'm flattered, and all is well and lovely.

Well. All was well and lovely.

I accidentally read a review from a respected print publication – not a blog or an audience review but a potentially influential review, by a professional reviewer. I was furious, but not because it was a bad review, as it wasn't.

But everyone at the end of my show gets asked to keep the secrets of the show secret - not to give away the plot, the tricks or what happens in the show. The same is asked of reviewers. So as I'm reading the review, I realise it's not a review. At no point is there any comment on my show, on the reviewers’ thoughts on the show, there is no review. Instead it's a fairly graphic synopsis of everything that happens, including exact details of the storyline, the major plot twist, and what happens in tricks.

I was fuming. Not least because if some people know what happens in tricks, then they simply will not work. Hence why I am at pains to make sure they are not given away. This reviewer has, in essence – and here’s a spoiler alert – told you that Bruce Willis is dead in The Sixth Sense, then talked about the rest of what happens in the film, without ever actually commenting on it.

As performers, we put a hell of a lot into our shows. For me, it’s 18 months of writing, rehearsing, developing, creating brand new and unique tricks, methods and such. The very least we expect is that a reviewer takes care in reviewing us, and puts the effort in, in the same way we put the effort in for our shows.

When someone doesn't do this, it's galling. When they don't review the show but just give away the secrets or the content it is even worse. Comedians have a hard time with reviewers giving away jokes, but for magicians it's careless, because in many instances it can mean a trick will no longer work or have that wow / surprise factor that it needs to hit home with an audience. All that can be ruined by one lazy reviewer. There is a huge difference between giving away a flavour of the show, and giving away exactly what happens in it.

I realise there is a problem with reviewing magic shows in particular, unlike the world of comedy, there is not as much around to be able to easily judge as to whether something is good, original, new or unique. This is because there hasn't been a huge amount of magic around recently, but now with more than 40 magic shows at the Fringe and more magic appearing on our screens is it time reviewers knew a bit more about the craft of tricking people?

In my show this year it's 100 per cent new material (apart from one old joke) with most of the tricks created by me and having never been seen before. There is no guesswork involved, there is 100 per cent fact and 100 per cent trickery, be it mind reading, quasi-mind reading, fake mind reading or magic. I have a narrative, the first time I've used one and it, at least to me, sets my show apart from other magic shows which are a collection of tricks – not that there is anything wrong with that style of show.

Reviewers, as a rule, don't know this, and why should they? They are reviewing the show from a blank canvas. Do they like it; do they think it's good? The problem lies in the different standards across the board of reviewers, and whether individual critics are fans of magic.

Then you have reviewers who think they know how the tricks are done, and make sure they mention this. Here's a secret. Everyone in the audience thinks they know how it's done; that doesn't mean that *is* how the trick is done.

We are not asking you to just believe in magic, instead we are asking you to enjoy the entertainment factor of a show. If you want to try piece together the Jigsaw of how a trick is done, go ahead. However don't just assume you know how everything is done and therefore think it's a bad show because of that. Unless, of course, you see a sloppy magician who gives everything away and you clearly see the trick.

It's about thinking carefully, seeing past the tricks and seeing what the performer is trying to achieve: magic is and always will be more than just tricks. The tricks are the bones of it, but it's everything else which makes it watchable. We are not here as magicians to make you believe we are really performing the impossible, we are here to entertain.

Having spoken to some reviewers recently I am aware there is a trend for editors to request their reviewers explain what happens in the show, thus ruining punchlines, tricks or indeed whole plot points. Audiences like surprises, audiences are not stupid, audiences don't have to be spoonfed exactly what is in a show, audiences are clever enough to make their own minds up and reviews should be based on opinions with a flavour of the show.

No one reviews reviewers, there is no comeback for any disgruntled performer who feels unfairly treated by a review because the facts might not be right, because it is just a synopsis of the show, because it's not a review.

Where is the right to reply for a performer who gets reviewed by someone who is grumpy, tired, seeing their eighth show of the day in a hot room and would much rather just be having something to eat then churning out another few hundred words on something they aren't going to enjoy, despite the hundreds of people round them having a wonderful time.

I realise reviewers have it tough and on the whole do a great job, but every now and again something slips through the net and that something can have a huge effect on someone’s performance, show or even career. Perhaps it's time reviewers remember how important reviews are and open up a dialogue to ensure that there is a right to reply especially when there is a big gap between the performance audiences are loving and what the reviewer has written.

I remember, earlier this year, seeing a two-star review for a comedy show I saw at the Royal Albert Hall. This was a show that got three spontaneous standing ovations. 4,999 people loved and adored that show, one person didn't. That one person wrote a review, and rather than taking into account the opinion of the populus they decided to say it was rubbish, when it quite obviously wasn't.

  • Chris Cox: Fatal Distraction is on at the Pleasance Dome, 19.10, until Monday

Published: 24 Aug 2011

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