Steve Bennett: Forced to Work

Four years ago I was reviewing at the Fringe & was alerted to the fact that Steve Bennett, who runs the Chortle, was giving shows I’d awarded five stars to, only 3 stars. At the time I suggested he was the Arsene Wenger of comedy reviewing & should perhaps move upstairs to the boardroom. This year he’s still pitchside, & has recently awarded two stars to a stunning show call’d Horseplay Bareback which I just had to give 5 stars to. It was bangin’!

Comparing the two reviews, when Steve says, ‘for every decent idea, there are five duds, which they are rather too pleased to indulge,’ I differ’d by saying the show was, ‘full of the joys of comedy springtime, an absolute freshness of material & the sheer enthus’d excitement in our performers of well, performing.’ Steve also said, ‘the show ends with the ‘real’ them analysing preceding events and talking about their own sex lives – but it feels just as artificial as the rest of it,’ which again differ’d from my own account of, ‘they also dig working with each other – I could see it in their eyes, especially right at the very end when they slipped their masques & talked to us as Kathy & Derek, with the one not talking just looking at their partner-in-crime half adoringly, half respectfully, & fully immersed in the beauty they’d just been creating for us all.’ It’s like, mate, c’mon, chill out, can you just not enjoy yourself & have a laugh. Fer fuc£s sake!

So why do performers, & also any potential punters reading his reviews, have to absorb Mr Bennett’s caustic criticism. The answer, is I think, he actually has no choice but to be a reviewer this year, for there has been a major sea-change at the Fringe. Fundamentally, it is down to the ever-increasing accommodation costs. An extra thousand here, another thousand there & suddenly reviewers can’t afford to stay in Edinburgh any more. The Mumble are lucky, I guess, we’re based in the Central Belt & have maintained good copy at every Fringe since 2013 – next year will be our tenth anniversary. In another ten years we might even be the only reviewers left at the Fringe. Typical month-long rents for the larger houses have gone from £2000 to £5000 in only a handful of years, & £10,000 cannot be far off.

One of the major show groups had 700 reviews booked in for 2019, which has dropped to an alarming 80 this year. The famous old Three Weeks review paper/site has only 12 reviewers on the ground – they usually have 30, and in the past have had 100. Most of the show groups post reviews upon walls for the public to read, & as a Fringe progresses they could become 3 or 4 layers deep – but this year those same walls look as dry as reservoirs in this current drought. The solution might not come soon, unfortunately, which means Steve Bennett could be in the field for the foreseeable future, & at the rate his appreciation levels are plummeting, by this time next year genuinely brilliant shows will only be getting one star!


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