A lemon of a play can make for a lemonade review at the Fringe. (Leif Norman)
In a recent article in the Guardian, food critic Jay Rayner examines the question "why do people love a bad review."
In the article Rayner, who is known to savage a restaurant when the time calls, reveals why he has now published an e-book called My Dining Hell, which shares his best of the worst over 64 pages. One of Rayner's conclusions is that people simply love a bad review, they love to read them, and they generate hits.
With Fringe now well under way, it must be said that theatre is much the same. A fabulous review will get you some good hits, a run-of-the-mill two to three star will do okay, but people really flock to the bombs. Admit it, we've all done our share of review "rubbernecking" online - because sometimes you just can't look away from the scene of an accident.
That's why here at SCENE we are embracing the One Stars as they roll in.
As such, we've decided to pass the puck back to our intrepid Fringe review crew, to see what it was like for them to both write and receive some less-than-stellar reviews.
Last year Definitely Not the Opera's Kaj Hasselriis had the dubious distinction of bestowing three of the five one-star-reviews which CBC published.
While it was a tough reviewing draw as far as quality goes, the bad theatre Hasselriis witnessed allowed him to write such gems as "Monkey Puppet makes the last one-star show I reviewed look like Hamlet," "According to the program, the narrator... did the show as a favour to his friend... No one owes a friend this much" and "This show is a medley of musical numbers by an American duo... who should never be allowed to sell their work again." Yikes!
When Hasselriis was asked about delivering such scathing lines, he said that it is a matter of duty, although it can be awkward when you think of the friends and family members of the performer who you know will be reading it.
"I get paid to warn people - so if the show is really bad that is exactly what I have to do" said Hasselriis. "But before I publish, I think, 'would I say this to their face if I saw them in the beer tent after the show.' Always in that case, the answer has to be yes."
Besides, Hasselriis himself has also received his share of bad reviews. "I was in a Fringe show once (Hey Hetero!) that got a 2 1/2 star review by Al Rae, who is still reviewing" said Hasselriis. "I'll never forget he wrote 'one of the sketches is so bad one wonders what the writers were thinking.' The writers were Clare Lawlor, the show's other co-creator/actor/director/everything and me. Of course Al was right!"
And as for Al Rae, the comic, performer and reviewer finds that critiquing is necessary, although he warns that one cannot let writing a review get the better of the reviewer.
"As a comic, bad shows can be a trap. Comedy is extremes so the worse a show is, the more the compulsion to get out the funny club. And that's the real trap," said Rae. "Humour rarely softens the blow. You're not catching flies with honey rather pulling off their legs and watching them run. But as a reviewer you can't run away either, so I try to be fair, and sincerity goes a long way with me," Rae continues.
Rae does emphasize that reviewing writing is performance in itself, although certain pitfalls remain.
"As long as you don't stretch things to make the review more of a ripping yarn I don't think it inappropriate that the review itself be fun and entertaining, even cheeky" said Rae. "And as a performer for 30 years, I've had my share of bad reviews. Said Lord Olivier: A bad review should ruin breakfast, but never lunch. That's the best way to deal I've found, and better than pretending to be 'above it all.' I think criticism has some place, or I wouldn't do it."
All 172 Fringe reviews are now up on our CBC Fringe Festival site, so you can judge what makes for a better read: the celebrated five stars, or the often painful ones (pun intended).