A QUICK look at the posters plastered over every Fringe venue and hoarding this year suggests almost every show has been given a four- or five-star rating. But who are all these Fringe reviewers - and what are their stars really worth?
The Fringe Society office has accredited 161 UK-based organisations to carry out reviews this year.
From Fringe Biscuit, Edinburgh Spotlight, Fringe Guru, Love Fringe and the Public Reviews to Three Weeks or Broadway Baby - just a sample of the many reviewers on offer - the place is "splattered with stars", according to leading comedy critic Julian Hall.
"If you stand around long enough at the Fringe, you'll get four stars," he said. "I think this year there are more organisations giving out stars than ever before. It seems like anyone with a website is at it."
Amid growing concern about "grade inflation", a new group vowing to monitor and raise the quality of reviews and reviewers is being launched at the Fringe.
The Festival Media Network meets for the first time tomorrow to try to bring venues, publicists and reviewing operations together to "review the reviewers". Paul Levy, the founder of Fringe Review, which is closely involved in the new organisation, said: "My concern would be that a number of the new sites are very openly just Fringe enthusiasts but are producing websites that look very professional in some cases."
His website delivers vetted theatre reviews from professionals in the field, from actors to journalists.
Levy said: "They are not publishing reviewers' backgrounds, which is why you find a five-star review from somebody and you have no idea who that is. How do you stop a show putting up a five-star review from some made-up site?"
The network plans to distribute special press passes with photo IDs and a logo for organisations "that are able to demonstrate quality", he said. "I haven't seen a three-star review on a poster this year," he said. "It's a shame you are only seeing four and five on these reviews. It's become a bit ridiculous."
Fringe Review's listing of its reviewing operations in Edinburgh for 2010 includes links to 58 websites from the Daily Dust and Edtwinge - tweeted crowd reviews - to Remote Goat and The Scotsman.
The Scotsman's reviewing team includes about 15 professional journalists, with five extra writers hired during the Festival to work alongside the newspaper's full-time theatre, music, or dance specialists. The newspaper reviews about 500 new productions eligible for about Fringe First awards, typically awarded only after three journalists have seen the show.
The Fringe denied accreditation to one organisation this year, the Public Reviews, prompting an angry open letter on its website. A Fringe spokesman said: "With over 1500 individual requests to be accredited and 161 accredited outlets from the UK alone carrying out reviews, we have a responsibility to rigorously scrutinise all applications."
The Public Reviews said it aimed to enlist reviewers "from normal walks of life, the people who would pay for theatre tickets". Editor John Roberts said: "Our vetting system is like any other site. They are not paid. Everyone is voluntary. Part of it is all on trust."
He said he could not meet everyone he used as a reviewer, but if he found reviewers breaking his guidelines - for example, reviewing a show that stars a friend - they would be struck off his list.
"Generally, across the board, we get about 5 to 10 per cent one-star reviews," he said. "Four-star reviews are about 30 per cent, five-star about 15 per cent."
The Festival Previews site launched in 2006 with the Fringe and has covered festivals in Avignon, Adelaide, Camden in London, Prague and Tokyo, said the site's Ian Smith.
It allows performers to create a "virtual flyer" on its website, with images, video, links and details of their show. "It empowers the performers to communicate directly with the viewing public without the interpretation of a review," he said. "Audience reviews can only be posted on our site after registering, and they are moderated."
For performers, even the most obscure website can give a leg-up. Canadian Alon Nashman, co-adaptor of Kafka, and sole performer of the show at Bedlam Theatre, spent at least 10,000 bringing his production to Edinburgh. He has had five stars from Broadway Baby and reviews from Three Weeks and the List. He said: "I'm grateful for any reviews, but it's good old-fashioned newspapers and major publications related to theatre that people outside Edinburgh respect."
EdinburghGuide.com is one of the capital's most established websites. According to editor John Ritchie, it comes out top of the Google search list for Edinburgh, averages about 1.2m hits a week, and at six years old, predates Google itself. With a core of about 15 reviewers year round, it brings on about five new faces every summer. "We believe in quality, not quantity," he said. "I believe that it's probably best left to companies and shows to judge if a website is any good to them or not, but I am in a state of dichotomy over this.
"Yes, it is good that shows get four and five stars from Review for U or some other such name, but how competent are the reviewers; what value or credibility can be placed on their judgment?"