'Never ever, ever read your own reviews'

Festival diary by Helen Lederer

As I walk up Broughton Street, the mecca of soya cafe lattes, everyone is knee-deep in newspapers. The headlines scream 'Assassin City', but, unlike Basra, it is still illegal (so far as I know) to shoot a performer deemed below par. Instead, the reviews rely on carefully crafted words to police performers behaving badly, if indeed they are (carefully crafted I mean).

But, hey, this is Edinburgh, the only Festival in the world where the public can gorge themselves on several shows a day in adjacent venues, ie a theatre, a curry house and a Land-Rover complete with sheep noises (don't ask). Meanwhile, the performers nestle side-by-side on a campus where they can self-refer, bond or other. So no pressure then.

The subject of reviews rears its head whether you like it or not, since, by now, people are stapling to performers the words 'genius', 'a star in the making' or 'Woody Allen-esque' to double-confirm to the world that it has all been worth it and that they are not what everyone fears - a loser.

My attitude to reviews remains paranoid yet strangely reliable. I am able to deduce from tone of voice if the content of a review is good or bad, even if the speaker is referring to the weather ('Very rainy, have lost two umbrellas so far').

By interpreting some key tonal downward inflections, I worked out that all was not going entirely well in the first week for me. Feeling sick, I called my friend John Hegley for crisis intervention. He fixes a quiet pub and repeats the mantra - never ever, ever read your own reviews.

That night in our (very shared) undressing space in the Assembly Rooms, I'm doing bending-down movements to emit the negative auras (and any residual performer's wind). Adam Smith strolls by, alerted to sudden whooshing sounds. I mention my despair at reviews as I shake out the demons. He says: 'But I read a good one of you.' What? Good? Could you say the G word again please? In an instant, Adam has flicked the switch.

At my launch party, I effusively greet a man in a grey suit, assuming him to be a TV producer (everyone else is in khaki casual). He extricates himself from my embrace, saying he's just come in 'to do the till rolls in the kitchen next door, if I don't mind'. I don't. Not really. Then the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest troops in. Would they like a cocktail? Sadly no; they are merely passing through - to get on stage for their 'dress run'. Possibly something to do with chicken pox.

Later, I watch Jim Sweeney's show about having MS and find myself crying; it's deep, funny and with no trace of self-pity. I see Mike McShane as we shuffle out. I have got to know him well since we both undress at the same time. (He is holder of the five-star accolade: respect.) Mike is on before me, so I hear his huge laughs as I go into bending- down mode. I ask him to tell Jim: 'Helen Lederer said hello.' I can't believe I've done this; couldn't I say: 'Wow, awesome fantastic' in person?

My co-actresses Nicola and Miranda make me write down positive things. This is useful, even if it is a check list of all the food I need to pack every night for cooking on stage. If I see another melon, I'll weep.

The bar is now hopping with men and some women who could make or break careers. I ask someone to staple a sign on our posters saying that we have sold out and are having to do extra shows 'by popular demand' even if the words 'genius' and 'Woody Allen-esque' are missing. I am grateful that Edinburgh has allowed me to do a flawed show, which is the beginning of a journey. What else? No one has died and it is still raining.


Helen Lederer

The GuardianTramp

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