As I write this, the Edinburgh Festivals – in particular the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Edinburgh International Book Festival – still have more than a week to run. My Festival, however, is already over; I’ve reviewed all the shows I’m reviewing, and am back to pitching for work – albeit taking advantage, whenever possible, of potential interviewees being in town.
I enjoyed the reviewing – well, once I “got into” the routine of “walk, watch, write, repeat”. It helped that I deliberately “mixed it up” this year, covering theatre, spoken word, dance, children’s shows, and some stand-up comedy. Jumping between performance categories, especially in a single day, definitely helped keep things fresh.
Especially during the Edinburgh Festivals, I see the purpose of my reviews as providing hopefully enlightening – but above all professionally expressed – opinions about shows without revealing aspects which – if known in advance – might “spoil” someone’s enjoyment. Alas, there’s no clear line in the sand when it comes to defining what constitute actual “spoilers”. When reviewing theatre – even iconic Shakespeare plays – spoilers arguably include major plot points and character revelations. Whereas with stand-up comedy, intentionally repeating particularly successful jokes isn’t so much a matter of spoilers, but actual theft.
Generally, I’m pretty good at knowing what not to include in a review, although by no means do I get it right all the time. For example, early on at this year’s Fringe I reviewed a play and included a character detail which honestly didn’t strike me as being particularly important in terms of the overall plot. The producers, however, thought otherwise and politely requested that the detail be excised. I had no problem with this; I took it as a useful reminder that I don’t always get “spoilers” right.
The following evening I went to review the latest Fringe show by stand-up comedian Scott Agnew. Right from the start, this task was made much more “interesting” because he knew exactly who I was and why I was there. Presumably, just for my benefit, he took the opportunity to riff briefly on the uselessness of critics. As it happens, I still gave his show four stars; not out of spite, you understand, but because I felt he deserved it. Especially with that evening’s audience!
But there was one particular aspect – arguably the most important point of his set – that made me pause when starting to write my review; mentioning it directly was undoubtedly one hell of a “spoiler”, but not doing so would be missing the point of the whole show. Possibly that earlier experience with spoilers influenced my decision, but with a growing pile of other reviews waiting to be written, I opted to err on the side of caution. Having indicated that Scott, in the past, had liked dropping the subject of his homosexuality into his set like a “bomb”, I added: “He still has a ‘bomb’ of sorts, which he delivers towards the end of the show, and it’s arguably the most thought-provoking moment of the hour.”
This was despite knowing that it wasn’t just a powerful part of a show, but a potential news story.
As, indeed, it turned out to be.
SPOILER ALERT AHEAD.
Stop reading now if you want to experience Scott’s show without knowing – assuming that you haven’t read any of his most recent press coverage, either in print or online.
SPOILER ALERT AHEAD.
OK. On your own head be it.
The revelation that Scott drops on his audience with absolutely no hesitation – and the “spoiler” I decided not to reveal in my review – is that he was recently diagnosed as HIV positive. In 2016, I’d like to think that this particular medical condition, even involving someone in the public eye, shouldn’t be considered newsworthy, but several newspaper editors clearly deemed it a story worth running, albeit in a reasonably positive manner.
I have no idea whether or not this coverage has since encouraged bigger audiences – Scott’s had several sell-out nights as the Fringe has progressed. When I saw those news stories – and in particular the one in which Scott actually recycled some of his set – I was mentally kicking myself for not thinking of pitching an interview somewhere. Just for a moment, I even wondered: should I have been less reluctant to self-censor the exact nature of that revelation in my review of the show?
On reflection: No. I still believe I made the right decision, and have been reassured by the fact that some other reviews, even though probably written after Scott’s news broke in the press, also didn’t mention his HIV status directly.
Which can only mean… Who’d have thought it? Us reviewers appear to have some standards after all; not least the idea that some surprises are worth keeping, if only in principle.