Out goes a cute and wholesome Wonderland popularised by Disney and in comes a sinister Wonderland with danger and menace around every corner. Yes, I like it.
I know we should avoid comparing adaptations of stories to the Disney version where one exists, but for one it’s appropriate to open with a bit of Disney trivia. In the early days of Disney, there were two distinct styles of animation. “West coast” was the style that could be considered traditional Disney, with wholesome content, naturalistic drawing and usually a moral. “East coast”, on the other hand, featured morphing characters, themes of drugs/sex/death and usually hedonistic jazz music, of which the early Betty Boop cartoons are the best known example today. Walt Disney did, however, have some East Coast animators on his books, and when he let them get their hands on Dumbo, they added into the wholesome and twee story the drug-induced nightmare sequence that is the pick elephants sequence. And that is why children have had nightmares since 1941.
And so we come to the New Vic’s version of Alice in Wonderland. All of Theresa Heskins’s Christmas productions have been big successes, filling up the theatre long after most pantos have packed up, but this is regarded as the biggest success of all. (Indeed, Northern Stage picked this up for the own Christmas Production a few years back.) Having now seen this for myself, I can best describe this as how Disney would have done Alice if Walt had given this the Pink Elephants treatment. And, for the avoidance of doubt: that means I liked it.
The New Vic makes a big thing of their titular character being different from the one we’re used to. In both the book and the Disney version*, the story begins on a very middle-class rowing boat in the very middle-class Cotswolds. Theresa Heskins aims to make this more relatable to a Stoke audience by making her families who travel through The Potteries on a canal boat (Stoke, of course, having loads of canals). They live day to day and just get by. A clever bit in the town is where everyone she meets has an upcoming alter-ego in the other world. The future Mad Hatter is earning a living as a hatter (because of course), and the future White Rabbit is currently a slightly sinister magician pulling a white rabbit out of his hat. Out goes the rabbit hole and in goes a trap door in the theatre where the white rabbit magician is working.
One year ago, the Vault Festival suffered what was surely the worst possible disaster: with days to go before opening night, the whole festival was cancelled. It was very very very bad news for two reasons. Firstly, with Vault 2021 also cancelled, there was a clear three years between Vault festivals, with no guarantee that the community built up over the 2010s would still exist by the end of it. Worse, however, was the timing. 2021 was at least a planned cancellation; 2022, however, was supposed to be the big relaunch. Financially speaking, the last thing you want to do is cancel a large-scale event after doing all the up-front expenses.
Very easy to say this in hindsight, but an underground festival in London in the winter of 2022 never struck me as a good idea. Had they played it safe and gone for March-May 2022, I reckon it would have survived – but I don’t see how they could have postponed everything at the last moment. In different circumstances we could have been talking about one error of judgement that brought down one of the best loved festival of fringe theatre in the country … But – we are not. Vault 2023 is going ahead, and from the sound of things, it’s going to be as if nothing’s happened. Either Vault has deeper pockets than we realise, have good cancellation insurance up their sleeve, or they have a generous backer come to rescue we don’t know about. Whatever the reason, it’s back to business.
So this means it’s back to business for me too. I’ll shortly be going into my list of recommendations, but first, a recap on what to expect.
COMMENT: Some say it was hate speech, some say it way misunderstood – either way Pleasance mishandled the situation and Jerry Sadowitz has gained from the cancellation.
If you’ve made it this far past the Edinburgh Fringe without hearing about the Jerry Sadowitz fiasco, well done. For the rest of you, I’m sorry to have to remind you of this. But just when we thought that all of the arguments over the decisions made by the Festival Fringe Society were dying down, this blew up.
So, Jerry Sadowitz is a comedian who I’d never heard of and would probably continued to have never heard of were it not for a couple of performances at Pleasance EICC in the second weekend on Edinburgh Fringe. (Fringe Newbies: EICC is one of the biggest venues on the fringe, which the biggest of big name comedians perform at.) Out of the blue, the second of the two performances got cancelled. A bit of puzzlement at first, accompanied by some nerves – after all, the last known cancellation imposed on artists was one of the most notorious McCarthyite affairs in the history of the fringe. Then word got round about what it was he said and did that led to this. A lot of argument over what he meant, but on the face of it: holy shit. If anything was going to get you booted from a venue, this would.
The Fringe itself is open access, but the venues themselves are free to do what they want, and the decision to cancel was The Pleasance’s. This led to a big debate over freedom of speech at the Edinburgh Fringe. I gave some thoughts at the time, but now things have calmed down, it’s time to give some more.
A lot of the debate has been polarised by ideological leanings. For many people who’ve expressed an opinion one way or the other, it strongly looks like they made up their mind first and looked for argument to support their position second. So I should probably remind you at this point that I am myself very anti-censorship and pro-artistic freedom – although these comments, on the face of it, pushes my patience to the limit. You’ll have to decide your yourself if you trust me to be objective.
So that’s the last of the 2022 plays seen, which leaves just one thing to do*, which is my annual “best of” list. This is always the most interesting bit of my coverage; in a normal review, it is always tempting to say “didn’t they all do well”, but when you’re choosing a winner, you can’t do that. There can only be one winner, and this forces me to decide whose achievements deserve the most recognition.
* It is not my last thing to do, I still have one review to write and an Edinburgh Fringe roundup to complete. But let’s forget about that for now.
After two years of limited theatre, where I had to scale down the list of awards to something that could be kept meaningful, we are back to the full list. Join me between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day as I look back on the best of what I saw this year.
Best New Writing:
We start with one of the major categories. This award is on the strength of the script. Some plays are great because of who’s performing it, but to win here it should be possible for a new set of competent actors to pick it up and do something equally good. We’ve got a very competitive shortlist.
In third place, it’s 0.0031% – Plastic and Chicken Bones. It’s debatable whether Malcolm Galea’s script truly counts as a play or just storytelling, but what storytelling it is. It’s a very cleverly-written story about a time traveller who is sent from the future to inhabit the bodies of past inhabitants to erase nuclear attacks out of history – but is the all-powerful supercomputer who sends Dryskoll on these missions really as wise and benevolent as she claims.
In second place, it’s The Land of Lost Content. Henry Madd’s was one of two memory plays I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe, but this one made you really feel it. Centred around his friendship with Judd in a deprived rural town, you know how deep their friendship runs because they have been through so much together, as have their closest friends. And that makes it all the more tragic. Everybody close to him has come off badly one way or the other: one lost to suicide, one turning to drink, and most heartbreaking: his teenage girlfriends who cares for him more than anything in the world trying to cover up that’s she’s with a wife-beater. Do be on the lookout for this – but bring hankies.
But, in spite of the very strong competition, there could only be one winner, and that is Samuel Bailey with Sorry You’re Not a Winner. With so much of new writing platforming the voices of the angry writers seeking to change the world, I think it’s great the Papatango made a change to identify someone who writes with such compassion, and seeks to find the best in the people, especially those who society writes off the most. To the outside observer, Liam and Fletch are just a pair of chavs. Liam, however, is about to start a life-changing course at Oxford University, whilst Fletch is about to spend a long time in prison. Fletch is clearly someone who never stood a chance in life, but in spite of Liam’s good intentions, his new life is dragging him away from his oldest and closest friendship. There are some many ups and downs in the play, and even Liam is not immune from the expectations of class – and most cleverly of all, the ending that would normally have been written of as a contrived coincidence is done well. I really hope this comes back either revived by Paines Plough or a new company, because compassion at this level seems to be in short supply.
We’re approaching the end of the year, and I’ve started thinking about who’s going to get which end-of-year award. I haven’t been thinking about it too much, which is just as well because we’ve had a strong batch in December.
One perk of the arrival of small theatres in the north-east is that it’s finally possible to see Festival Fringe acts that I couldn’t catch at the time – until now, they seemed to tour everywhere except the north-east. And so, I was finally able to catch 1902, one of the most acclaimed plays to make it to the much-diminished 2021 Edinburgh Fringe. The combination of being out in Leith and everywhere selling out very quickly meant I couldn’t make it. But thanks to The Laurels being a suitable place to tour to, I could now catch up. This is set in the upstairs bar rather than the theatre itself, but it suits the story perfectly.
I confess, I went into this expecting something completely different. My confusion arose because another play, Sweet FA, set in women’s football in the early 20th century, also outside of central Edinburgh, was getting high praise, and I’d incorrectly assumed this was the male equivalent. However, this play is set in 2016, with 1902 referring to the last year Hibernian won the Scottish Cup (that’s Scotland’s equivalent of the FA Cup). Now Hibernian is in the final again, and Derek and his mates would do anything to see it.
And finally, later than planned, I get my summary of Edinburgh Fringe into one place. And, boy, what a wild ride this was.
In a way, 2022 was the year that caught everybody out. 2020 was, of course, a dire year. Whilst other fringes found a way to struggle on, this one was outright cancelled. 2021 was even more of a panic, with suspiciously strict social distancing rules applying to live entertainment (but not bars) and the lack of financial help raising alarm bells that 2021 Fringe might be good as cancelled. In the end, some last-minute concessions enabled a small-scale version to go ahead that only to most determined of fringegoers attended. But by summer 2022, fears of Coronavirus were much receded. Time for a relaunch, Edinburgh Fringe home and dry right? Wrong.
In hindsight, there are two root problems we underestimated. Firstly, racing back to full strength isn’t actually that popular. Few people remember the record-breaking size of the 2019 fringe with much fondness, and a 2022 fringe that was 83% of the size of 2019 brought back worries of the old problems of Edinburgh Fringe returning. In particular, the supply and demand problem of too many people, not enough city, was pushing rents sky high. The other problem was money. In spite of numerous bailouts from the Scottish Government and other sources, The Festival Fringe Society was facing a big financial squeeze. The most visible part of the fringe was always the venues, but the Festival Fringe Society did a lot of stuff in the background that was mostly taken for granted. This time, we learned the hard way what happens when it’s cut back.
In my opinion, the fundamental mistake Edinburgh Fringe made was making was trying to please everybody. You can do everything you can to make the Fringe accessible to all and give everyone a fair chance of being a success. Or you can make Edinburgh Fringe the place to be for all the greatest acts in the world and pull all the stops to make it a springboard to go on to greater things. But you cannot do both, and most of the time, what you do to promote one comes at the expense of the other. If anything, attempting to please everyone resulted in pleasing no-one.
The main purpose of the roundups is to put things in one place, but first we need a list of what happened with the fringe as a whole. Brace yourselves.
What went down at Edinburgh Fringe 2022
My in-depth coverage of my thoughts as the fringe unfolded are in my live coverage. This is the summary – for more details, and what I wrote at the time, scroll to the relevant date.
Accommodation costs: (From 15th May during Brighton Fringe coverage.) The debate that dominated the Edinburgh Fringe in the run-up were the accommodation costs in the city. Normally, I put the expense of Edinburgh down to supply and demand, and with more people wanting to take part than the city can physically accommodate, expenses would inevitably go up. However, this time there seemed to be another factor in play. Anecdotally, there were reports of landlord whose main source of income was Edinburgh Fringe lets, who – having lost their income in both 2020 and 2021 – chased their losses with extortionate rents in 2022. Edinburgh Fringe tried to offset this by sourcing accommodation, but it was little more than a drop in the ocean. I heard more complaints about this than anything else in the run-up to the fringe.
Whether this actually stopped people going is unclear. 83% of 2019 levels suggests it wasn’t that much of a deterrent, although it’s possible this figure was artificially inflated by people from 2020 and 2021 delaying their plans to this year. Edinburgh Fringe says they recognise there is still more work to do here; whether they can actually find any more accommodation remains to be seen. I maintain that the root problem is trying to pack in too many acts into one festival and the solution is to spread the load over other festivals – but it looks like that won’t be happening just yet.
App: (Original coverage: 5th August, 10.00 a.m.) And then came the decision that, in hindsight, Edinburgh Fringe came to regret very quickly. Amongst the many economisations made this year, the Festival Fringe Society chose not to bother with an app. Unfortunately, they learned the hard way just how many acts see this at the most important service from the Festival Fringe Society. Why? Because the “Nearby and Now” feature – where the app lists performances starting in the next few minutes at venues near you – an important way of getting an audience. Now, the Festival Fringe Society said there was going to be a feature on the website that would do the same thing. But it was never publicised and, to be honest, I couldn’t get it work. And I test apps in my day job, so how is anyone else supposed to know how to use it?
Whether this did harm small acts is unclear – I’ve no idea if getting an audience through to app is just anecdotes or proper data. Personally, I think the Fringe’s biggest failure here was management of expectations. It is true to say that an app was not part of the advertised service from the registration fee, but without clearly stating it wouldn’t be there, lots of people registered on the assumption it would. Had they made it clear from the outset that not everything from 2019 would be around in 2022, there would have been fewer arguments. Anyway, Edinburgh Fringe is going to have an app next year – but Brighton Fringe has now decided to drop theirs. The decision is, shall I say, brave.
Media support: (Original coverage: 6th August, 3.00 p.m.) At the start of the Fringe, another decision was made that was, in hindsight, ill-advised. There were a lot of concerns that reviewers might not come back to Edinburgh, and even in 2019 about a third of shows ran the festival without a single review – which is a big problem if you intend to apply for funding. Edinburgh Fringe’s response was to provide free accommodation for some publications – but the problem was that instead of prolific publications such as Broadway Baby and The Wee Review, it mainly went to the Broadsheets. Broadway Baby ended up pulling out of Meet the Media in protest.
Don’t get me wrong – the Broadsheet reviews perform a function the dedicated fringe websites can’t offer: praise from a publication with a national profile can catapult a successful production into the big time. But the problem is that the broadsheets only review shows that are already highly regarded by arts journalists – it is up to other publications to review far and wide and give everyone a fair chance of recognition. These are two media strands performing different services, and ideally you should have both, but if it was the choice of supporting one or the other, this was the wrong call. The Festival Fringe Society should have prioritised what was the most use to the most acts – if the big venues want their biggest name productions in the national press, they have the means to provide their own support
Less flyering? (Original coverage: 14th August, 2.00 p.m.) A big thing was made of cutting down on paper, and getting rid of flyers was advocated by many people. Have to say, I was sceptical about this. It was pointed out (hats off to Richard Stamp) that Summerhall want flaunting their environmental worthiness with big neon lights saying “FLYER FREE” above the masses of paper that are their programmes. But, more widely, I think this misses the point that paper usage of flyers varies enormously. If you are out and about on the streets excitedly telling people about what you’re doing and believing it, it’s the talking that’s doing the marketing, not the flyer – the flyer is simply a reminder of what you pitched for later. Do it that way, and you won’t get round to using many flyers. “Flyer spamming” (as I like to call it), on the other hand, is a pretty wasteful process. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had a flyer shoved into my hands and paid no attention to what was on it.
In that respect, I think there has been an improvement. It’s wasteful enough indiscriminately shoving flyers into people’s hands, but even more wasteful – not to mention stupidly expensive – to pay other people (who have nothing to do without you show) to hand out flyers for you. That practice, I’m happy to say, seems to be on the decline, and I hope it stays that way. In the end, however, the dustbin strike showed that there’s plenty of litter piling up in Edinburgh that’s not Edinburgh Fringe. Maybe flyers have been too harshly blamed after all.
Offensive comedy: (Original coverage: 13th August, 5.00 p.m. and 17th August) Just when it looks like the controversy at the start of the fringe had died down, a brand new one appeared. Jerry Sadowitz was supposed to be performing for two nights, but after complaints of the first performance, the second one was cancelled. The Pleasance weren’t clear on exactly what he said that warranted booting, but after some choice quotes about Rishi Sunak’s skin colour came to light, we had a pretty good idea. Sadowitz’s defence is that there’s a lot of “exaggerated irony and nonsense”. I’ve never really subscribed to the argument of he didn’t really mean it”, but it is fair to note that he considers himself to not be the same as the Jim Davidson / Cubby Brown / Bernard Manning crowd – and his fans seem to as well.
I will in due course write up my thoughts, of which I have a lot. However, the one obvious thing that springs to mind is – if the Pleasance thought this was unacceptable – why the hell they booked him in the first. He was already notorious for this sort of thing, and I don’t understand what he did this time round that was different. Why ban someone for saying exactly the thing you expected him to say all along? Whatever the reason, this led to a bit of inter-venue fighting, with the manager of Assembly being particularly scathing. Undecided on whether Pleasance were morally right, but they handled it badly. If Sadowitz is taken on by Assembly next year – and I suspect he will – he’ll have the Streisand effect on his side. I fear Pleasance will come to regret this next year.
Fringe Central: This was a side-story, but it still attracted a considerable amount of ire. Most of what you see at the Edinburgh Fringe is third-party venues. The most visible presence of the Edinburgh Fringe itself for punters is the Royal Mile (where they curate the street entertainment) and the box office. However, for performers, the biggest presence is Fringe Central, a facility for performers and press to unwind, network, and host events specifically aimed at them. Or rather, it was. It’s not cheap to rent this space, and when a shopping centre offered to rent out a space for free, they went with that. Unfortunately, that was in the New Town and nowhere near any fringe venue, and the role of Fringe Central was reduced to a place for the administrative tasks that absolutely couldn’t be done anywhere else.
Sadly, I don’t think there was much choice here – spending had to be cut, something had to go, and the only thing I think the Festival Fringe Society could have done better was expectation management. What I don’t understand is why Edinburgh University (who own the space Fringe Central normally used) didn’t just let them rent the space out cheaply. It’s not like that space was going to be used for anything else. Edinburgh University gets a huge windfall from the Edinburgh Fringe; I wonder if, for once, they got a bit too greedy and everybody lost.
Half-price ticket hut: (Original coverage: 12th August, 3.30 p.m.) If there’s one controversy that I felt was unearned, it was the departure of the half-price ticket hut as we know it. In before times, this was a separate ticket office for shows that reduced the price of an allocation of tickets on the day. It was deliberately kept inconvenient enough to stop people buying full-price tickets from holding out for half-price offers, but easy enough for people looking for something to see to take up. This year, with the physical structure for the half-price ticket hut falling to bit, the half-price hut and normal box office have, in effect, been merged.
I actually think this was a good move. The one change from the pandemic that isn’t going back is the rise of online sales, and it makes no sense to maintain the same level of in-person booths if they’re not being used. I’ve written about the mechanism elsewhere, but in effect the half-price tickets now have the same principle: enough of a faff to only be taken up by the people looking for this, but not too inconvenient to fall into disuse. In summary: move along, nothing to see here.
Sales: (Original coverage: 12th August, 3.30 p.m.) And finally, the numbers everyone was waiting for: the ticket sales. With the massively diminished 2021 festival basically useless as a comparator, everyone was looking comparing it against the 2019 levels. There were a lot of panicky headline about sales falling by 27%. However, with the number of shows falling by 17%, this worked out as a fall of 12%. Still a notable fall, but not too bad compared to the rumours of doom and gloom circulating in weeks 2 and 3.
To be honest, however, nobody knows what these figures actually mean. In normal years, you can read a lot into these figures: 10% growth in ticket sales against 5% growth in registrations is good; 5% growth in ticket sales against 10% growth in registrations is bad. Comparing 2019 to 2022, however, has a lot of extra variables that nobody seems to fully understand. And then there’s the question on whether growth is a good thing anyway. If expectations for sales in 2023 are pushed down and fewer people come, is that necessary bad? After all, a lot of people though the 2022 fringe was too big.
That feeds into questions about what 2023 holds for Edinburgh. I will return to this when I close the article. But that’s enough for now. Let’s get on with some reviews.
Pick of the Fringe
We start with the top tier. After two years of lenient judging on the fringe circuit, we’re not back to a fiercely contested category, and some plays that would have walked it in less contested years were squeezed out. So if you’re in this list, well done, you’ve beaten off some tough competition.
I only had to wait until my second day for this is happen, but for Box Tale Soup it’s been a longer wait. But it’s about time they got my highest accolade.
I expected Jonanthan Swift’s famous story to be ideal for Box Tale Soup to take on – after all, you have to take on the challenge of tiny people in Lilliput and gigantic people in Brobdingnag somehow, and puppetry is the logical way to do it. However, Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers have had years of practice and several previous productions to hone their craft, and it pays off handsomely.
What you see on stage is a playbook of everything crafted to perfection. The obvious choice of the tiny people of Lilliput is puppets, and as any accomplished puppeteer knows, it is possible to keep the focus on a puppet but still make the puppeteer part for the action. All of the cast of three operate puppets at some point, and it always pays to apply the facial expression of the puppet you’re operating. However, Box Tale Soup are very versatile and masterfully switch between Lilliputians played by puppets and the actors playing the Lilliputians themselves. When the land of giants comes, the obvious choice is to make Gulliver the puppet himself, but not always. When a human-size Gulliver views is first giant – well, I won’t spoil that for you, but let’s just say the set of the doomed ship used at the beginning of the play has all shorts of uses through the hour.
No amount of clever puppetry, though, compensates for a misunderstood story. Here, again, Clarke and Christophers deliver handsomely. In all four of the strange lands visited (for this adaptation does include the lesser-told chapters of the flying island and the land where horses are masters), the politics are reflections of human society, commentating on just about every acts of vanity, cruelty, vindictiveness, prejudice and arrogance known to man. The Lulliputians, for instance, are at war with their neighbours over a stupid dispute on the correct way to open an egg. (We, of course, know the correct thing to fight centuries of war over is who got the details correct in a story of a magic baby and a stable.) It’s not just the shortcomings of these other lands that is brought to bear – Gulliver find the vales of the continent he came from challenged just as much. The common theme brought throughout this is all civilisations thinks they’re better than the others. Even the Houyhnhnms – the horse beings seemingly the most enlightened of all the beings he encountered – always look down on Gulliver is inferior to them.
It’s a challenge to bring four separate stories together in an hour, but the script chooses what matters perfectly. Everything about this production is flawless, from the choreography to the sound, to the pace to the puppetry, and if I was to wax lyrical about every inventive acts I would never finish this review. I am used to Box Tale soup producing high-quality shows in their unique style, but this time they have excelled themselves. I thoroughly recommend this to everyone, and you can catch them at 10.50 a.m. at Underbelly Cowgate from now to the end of the fringe.
An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe
Triptych Theatre impressed we the Brighton Fringe with Vermin. That was one of two plays; the other one I couldn’t catch owning to timings, but I was keen to see the other one. One of the first things I noticed as the play begin was that most people in the audience – possibly everyone but me – was seeing this as a comedy, as socially awkward Stuart takes to the stage. In spite of the title, he is possibly the least prepared person for any audience. Nor does it help that the techie seems to miss most of the cues.
I wasn’t laughing though. Not because of the delivery, but because of what I just knew was coming. For a start, with this being the same writer as the dark-as-hell Vermin with its graphic descriptions of animal cruelty (not to mention playing the nutjob-in-chief himself), I knew something bad was coming. Even if I hadn’t know that, though, I probably would have guessed. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that not only is Stuart unsuited the stage and doesn’t really want to do it, there’s no way he should be forced to do this. Instead, it’s his pushy mother making him do this. For another thing, Stuart has a rare medical condition with his blood, but to be honest, that’s not his real problem. Stuart is very naive and trusting. I know from bitter experience what this leads to.
Benny Ainsworth’s writing of both plays shows just how good he is at characterisation. If Vermin writes a believable character guilty of some of the worst things, Stuart is written as the archetypal innocent. He assumes that the correct way to answer a question about density of water is to ask if it’s solid or liquid, not understanding the science teacher is an arrogant egotists who hates anyone putting a foot out of place. Stuart’s mother is a nuanced character, and whilst I can’t quite let her off the hook for keeping her child under her thumb, she still cares for her son and wants what she believes is best for him. Even when things happen that would be dismissed as far-fetched, Ainsworth finds a way to make it plausible.
There is just one thing about the story which doesn’t quite work. Much of the story surrounds his first love Daisy, who understands him the way the rest of the school doesn’t. Trying my hardest to not to do a spoiler, Stuart and Daisy both separately get mixed up in something worse that overbearing parents or arrogant teachers. I can easily see why Stuart would have fallen for it, but I found it hard to believe that level-headed Daisy would have fallen for it too. I can’t see any easy way of making this plot point more believable, but it was a shame to have this weak point amongst such good characterisation.
That’s the only criticism I have amongst two excellent plays though. This is truly is an achievement. I’ve seen groups come out of nowhere with one excellent play, but two excellent pays on the first attempt is very impressive. I highly recommend catching both – this one at 10.55 a.m at Zoo Playground, with Vermin at 1.00 p.m. at Gilded Balloon Teviot. But know what you’re letting yourself in for.
One of the big news stories at the start of the year was the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, now proven as Jeffrey Epstein’s number one accomplice. But whilst it’s easy to guess what made Epstein do what he did, there is the puzzle over Ghislaine. Why did she do it? She certainly had far from a normal childhood – a controlling father and children competing to be his favourite (something that she finally succeeded in doing) – but how do get from that to chief conspirator for a systemic abuser?
Obvious caveat before we proceed: this is a play, not a documentary. The only person who might know what is going through Ghislaine Maxwell’s head is Ghislaine Maxwell – this is only speculation of what she might be thinking. Nevertheless, Kristin Winters’ depiction is one that has been observed in countless abusers and sex offenders: they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. They may deny doing what they’re accused of, but even then they don’t really think the thing they were accused of doing is that bad. At this point I should give a content warning for the play. I know I’ve been getting heavy on content warnings lately – I try to avoid them when it’s obvious from the title, but this one is pretty full-on with the victim-blaming. Sometimes Winters switches to playing the victims – little about the abuse itself but a heavy focus on the exploitation of their naivety. Back as Ghislaine, she insists she was doing all these teenage girls a favour when she did all the things she denies doing but obviously did.
How does Hedda Gabler fit into this? It’s only a small part of the performance, and you could probably have run the rest of the play without this bit. Nevertheless, on the occasions this parallel is used, the gamble works. In this depiction, Ghislaine admires Hedda Gabler – but for all the wrong reasons. Hedda shows her true colours as the play goes on over how much of a controlling individual she is and that she can’t help herself, perhaps a rationalisation of her like-minded father. The one exception she insists on is that the Maxwells don’t give in. They don’t commit suicide, so it must have been murdered – but Ghislaine only reveals the level of delusion she shares with her fictional role model.
I think it’s fair to say this is going to be a Marmite play. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with the way this subject material is portrayed, essential though it is to the concept. The parallel to Hedda Gabler is a wild idea which I suspect is going to split opinion. If this isn’t the sort of thing you want to see, I don’t blame you. But see it if you can. Many plays are fast to condemn the worst things that happen in the word, but few try to understand.
For this review, I must declare a conflict of interest. I think a play has room for improvement, I will suggest how – and until now, that’s been the end of that. No Logo productions, however, have been keen to stressed to me that that have specifically acted on my feedback from this play what originally saw online for Brighton Fringe 2020. Under these circumstances, it is very tempting to say that the revised version is great and congratulate myself for giving such good feedback, but that temptation must be resisted at all costs. I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you believe me, but it is my honest opinion that this has changed the play for the better.
Lady Christina, drag artists extraordinaire, is leaving the stage. In the dressing room, glamorous Christina undergoes the transition back to plain old humdrum Chris. Chris expresses some mild snark over these newcomers to the drag scene who think it’s a quick ticket to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. However, the day has arrived when Chris discovers he looks like his estranged father. The one who threw him out for being gay. The weak point with the original is that plays about a gay man and his relationship to a homophobic father are ten a penny. What stood to be interesting was the fantasy world of Christina, with her imagined father who was everything his real dad is not – but that was only an aside. It would be a lot more interesting, I thought, if we heard more about Chris’s alter ego. Clearly Lady Christina means more to Chris than a drag act – but what is it about her that’s so important?
Well, I can sort-of take credit for the idea (not full credit, I gather other people said similar things), but I can’t claim credit for the solution. Andy Moseley now works Lady Christina’s backstory (as imaged by Chris) throughout the play. At some points, Lady Christina’s life is completely different from reality, sometimes different from Chris’s family, other times different from Chris. At other times, however, Chris lifts his own life into Christina’s – every comeback he could have made against the bullies at school, how she won over the cool kids. I won’t tell you the best touch into how Christina came into being, though. That’s too close to the end, too much of a spoiler, but it does a lot to explain why Chris can never leave Christina behind.
I just have one small issue. There’s a slightly confusing lighting cue at the beginning of the play. The rectangle implies that Lady Christina is in the door of her dressing room, but if I have understood the text correctly, she’s still on stage addressing her fans. If that’s the case, I’d have though a spotlight would make more sense. Other than that, good job done. I will give a health warning here and advise that it doesn’t always pay to act on feedback given by a reviewer, not even me – if the reviewer doesn’t share your vision it will only make it worse. On this occasion, however, I’m very happy with the way it’s gone, so thanks a lot to No Logo for persuading me to give this another chance.
It was a coincidence – but I ended up seeing three plays about sexual abuse. This one was a little different from the other two though. All three were good – but this time I wasn’t sure I’m picking up the message I was supposed to pick. But it didn’t matter; the ambiguity, intended or not, worked in its favour.
The start of this play wrong-footed me for a while. The play is openly advertised as a reimagining of a classic character for the #MeToo era, but without knowing anything about the source material I just saw Chloe-Ann Tylor on stage in a suit – I assumed her to be victim preparing to give a testimony to court. To her, tennis is everything. She considers the soft-porn quality of tennis appealing. For a moment, I wonder if this is another victim-blaming narrative being set up, and it’s only a few minutes the penny drops: Tylor isn’t playing the victim, Tylor is playing the perpetrator. But unlike the other two plays, where the perpetrators were after sex, this perpetrator – who idolising the Svengali for the source book – is a lot more interested in control. Sex, it seems, is simply the icing on the cake. And, unfortunately, our Svengali-superfan is doing pretty well in the job as a coach. With chosen young player Trilby storming the major tournaments, nothing is questioned. Controlling behaviour that would set alarm bells ringing anywhere else is accepted as a normal part of the relationship between mentor and protege.
One thing the stood out for me is that in this story, nothing this coach does is anywhere near breaking any law I know of – but it is still the most morally repugnant thing imaginable. I wasn’t entirely wrong when I thought a victim-blaming narrative was being built up. Trilby might be destined for phenomenal stardom on the tennis courts, but if that’s got anything to do with being the chosen protege, the reason’s a distant third at best. It’s pretty obvious Svengali is more interested in how pretty she is … but more still, how vulnerable she is. She was previously in an unhealthy relationship a more assertive woman might have bailed on sooner – and one suspects the thinking here is that if she can stumble into one unhealthy relationship, she can stumble into another. (I do think one problem that is being underestimated is opportunist predators choosing their targets based on who has the lowest self-esteem – if that was the intention to flag this here, it did the job.)
Now for the bit where I wondered it I’d interpreted it different to writer Eve Nicol’s intentions. After establishing Tylor is playing the perpetrator, for the next 20 minutes or so I assumed she was playing a woman married to another woman with an eye on a third woman. In fact, I think there were only a few words said by her character that unambiguously make him a man. I understand the ambiguity was not Eve Nicol’s primary intention of the casting, but she ended up liking the idea of the ambiguity, and I liked it too. Some reviewers call this a portrayal of male power, but I see this as taking gender out of it. Why does it matter? The controlling and coercive behaviour was equally plausible whether it was from a domineering man or a domineering woman. It is also equally appalling either way. If anything, what this play does is show just how much it comes down to who has the power, and what you have to do to get that power in the first place. Some reviewers have criticised the end of the play for indeterminably switching to Trilby narrating, and yes, it took me a couple of minutes to think “Wait, are we hearing Trilby’s story now … yes we are.” I personally liked that experience, though I appreciate it might not work so well if this is your 12th play and your brain is running on empty.
When I looked up the original, a final thing occurred to me. In the original book, Trilby isn’t a tennis superstar, she’s a singer superstar – but the one discipline other than sports that is notorious for controlling relationships is the arts. Mentors can have a huge amount of power over proteges, and controlling behaviour that would set every red flag flying elsewhere are all to often accepted in the arts as artistic temperament. In this sports-based retelling, Svengali’s power over Trilby wanes as she become more and more popular with the crowds and he can no longer isolate her – and in the arts, Harvey Weinstein suffered a similar fate when his power waned. If this ambiguity is a feature and not a bug, this play gives you a lot to think about however you perceive it.
There are two things notable about Sugar. Whilst the fringe circuit has mostly moved on from the online programme pioneered over the last two years, some of the biggest successes have been remembered and brought back in person – it seems The Space’s efforts to be part of the temporary online programme have paid off in this regard. The other thing is that this is a prime example of why I think the current system of content warnings doesn’t work. Sugar contains subject material that I’m pretty sure some people really don’t want to relive, but it would not be possible to spell it out without giving away how this play goes. I am going to spell it out here because it’s not possible to review this without giving the theme, and on that note, please consider this your spoiler warning.
The tagline of Sugar is “One Girl. Five Ages. Many Morally Ambiguous Life Choices.” Between the ages of 6 and 18, Mae (written and performed by Mabel Thomas) tells the stories of her madcap adventures in a sort-of hybrid of Just William and Derry Girls. Whether it’s her scheming at 6 years old to get the coveted raffle prize of a day with the headmaster in a fast food place, her foray into entrepreneurship at ten or her underhand tactic to boost her grade point average at 16, the story is kept light-hearted with warmth and humour. Until we reach 18½. The cheapest higher education she can find is impossible to afford. And her latest get-rich-quick scheme is to get a sugar daddy. I already have a bad feeling about this.
In a different play, I might question what the point was of the first five of these six chapters. Story-wise, they have little to do with what happens at the end. But that’s not really the point here. We are not building up a story as such, we are building up a character. Why is Mae embarking on something which is so obviously dangerous and out of her depth? Because for the last twelve years of her life, she has built up a lot of misplaced confidence. It’s true that she’s got her way most of the time, but it’s a lot more down to luck than her ability to talk her way out of any trouble. It’s not so much an overestimation of her own abilities, but an underestimation of what a big bad world it is out there. Until now, she’s lived in a relatively innocent and sheltered world where the stakes are low. In the world of sugar daddies and sugar babies she’s stepping into, there are people more ruthless, more amoral and more exploitative than anything Mae can imagine. Whatever petty lying and cheating she’s done up to now, she doesn’t deserve this.
There is one piece of subtext about this play I liked, and I’m not sure how much is deliberate and how much is accidental. There is the obvious question of how there is any justice in some awful people have incomprehensibly vast amounts of wealth. But the more subtle question is the attitude to people without the money. The only reason Mae is doing this is to get enough money to pay for a community college. As the girl from the poorest family at school, the safe and morally accepted route means no money, no higher education, and perhaps a lifetime of soul-crushing minimum wage jobs. Over here, there would be at least some protests over this situation, but in the leafier parts of Wisconsin, it’s just accepted as completely normal. Neither Mae nor anyone else questions this – just the way it is, and that’s that.
So yes, I must advise you that, contrary to what the title might imply, this play is a lot less sugary than the title and first two thirds may lead you to believe. This play has a lot to say, and it’s not just trap many plays fall into that Good Things and Good and Bad Things or Bad, but other less comfortable subjects about the dangers of naivety from a sheltered youth, and how some of the worst people out there can get away with some of the worst things. Recommended, but brace yourself for the final uncomfortable chapter.
How do you make a story about a protest movement into a play? In the case of The Bush, it’s about a local protest to save a piece of rural land with local sentimental attachment in 1970s. The trouble with these sorts of stories is that real life doesn’t lend itself that well to scripted drama. I am a great believer in writing events that keep the viewers’ attention: one event leads to another and another, this things happens every now and then to change the course of the story. Real campaigns, however, tend to consist of a set of little events largely unrelated to each other adding up to an outcome one way or the other. The other problem particular to this one is that the decisive moment that saved Kelly’s Bush was a coincidence never alluded to before (because nobody knew). In fiction that would be decried as a contrived way of ending the story. But this is what really happened. What do you do?
The way Alice Mary Cooper makes this work is making the story just about the people in the protest movement as the campaign. Of course, stories about liberated/hedonistic campaign movements behind worthy causes are done to death, but this works by being exactly the opposite of what you’d expect: a prim and proper collection of suburban housewives, as middle-class as you can be. Being the 1970s, the men have jobs and the women stay at home, but the men barely feature in the story, always referred to in the party where the movement is founded as somebody’s husband. Regardless of campaigning activity underway, it always seems to be running parallel with a drive to provide the most sublime cooking, with assorted kitchen disasters turned around with initiative and years of culinary experience. Somehow they find time to save Kelly’s Bush whilst juggling school commitments. When they form an alliance with a construction union, and one of them mildly flirts with a housewife who’s never been flirted with for ten years, she turns beetroot. What might have been a dry play that was difficult to follow is made into a story with warm humour.
Alice Mary Cooper’s preferred format is third-person storytelling. Whilst I personally would have preferred her previous work, Waves, to have been done in first person, it makes more sense here when the story is about a protest movement rather than a political character. The obvious question whenever a play is done in this format: why do it on stage at all? Why not just do it as a podcast? The answer is that Alice Mary Cooper is very good at making her storytelling visual, sometimes using naturalistic props, and sometimes repurposing them into new uses, pulling every trick in the book to keep the play visually engaging. The only downside I can see with the solo format is that I completely lost track on which housewife was this. It doesn’t matter too much as the focus of the play is on the cause rather than the individuals, but maybe there were some characters arcs I was supposed to pick up that I lost.
This play has been touring for six weeks in outdoor spaces similar to Kelly’s Bush, which I reckon would have suited it well. I was optimistic expectations for this one and Alice Mary Cooper delivered about an unlikely bunch of dissidents.
The Land of Lost Content
It happened for the second time this fringe. But the last time this happened it came from a front runner who I already expected to do well. It’s a different thing when it comes out of nowhere.
Henry and Judd are sitting at the bar table in the pub, the Flat Earth in, of the rural village they grew up in. They have been best friends since childhood, but there used to be more of them. This is not some idyllic sleepy town from a Hovis advert, however, but a deprived town with a lot of people struggling and – more relevantly – a lot of boredom. Their teenage years were spent mostly drinking and getting stoned because there wasn’t anything else to do. And, in a way, they are the lucky ones. Other teenagers the same age as them go through worse things.
The Land of Lost Content is written by Henry Madd, playing Henry, and his heavily based on his own memories of his teenage years in this town. A lot of memories involve the 292 bus which somehow seems to serve everywhere you could possible want to go; other memories are more dangerous actt of recklessness. To some extent, this is a similar format to Sandcastles which stormed the reviews over at Assembly George Square. It’s set as a memory play, with the story told in a non-linear format going back and forth in time from the Year 7 disco where Judd joined the class as the insecure new kid taken under Henry’s wing, to years as the class clown sneaking in booze to school proms, to definitive moments in their twenties that made Henry and Judd what they are today. It also make heavy use to soundscapes, used to wonderful effect here.
But there is one crucial thing that Henry Madd does much better here. Rather than just memories of teenage parties and holidays after exams, Henry and Judd and their other friends have all been through so much together. And it’s when you stick to each other through thick and thin that you can truly understand how much their friendship means to them. Even when there’s bullying from bigger boys, you can quickly see they’re in the same situation of boredom and low life prospects, merely being slightly ahead in the pecking order. Not all of the time though. There are some bad people in the town, and Henry’s closest two female friends come off particularly from the dregs in society. The saddest part of the story is that Henry can see the lives of his friends falling apart around him – but whilst his friends are there for him to pull him back from the darkest moments, try as he might, he doesn’t know how to do the same when they need him.
Writing so closely about your own life experiences is always a risky game; a play can only ever be a simplification of real life, and all sorts of things can go wrong when distilling it into an hour. You might steer clear of uncomfortable details that stop the on-stage story making sense, and even events that happened in real life can come across as not ringing true. Not here – I never doubted at any point the believability of these characters and the vulnerability that stopped them doing more when things mattered the most. If there’s one thing I would hope for a re-run, I felt a cast of two men struggled a little with the female parts, so a third female actor might help the format. Whatever format this returns in, you must see this – but bring the hankies.
Second Summer of Love
Writer/director Emmy Happisburgh plays Louise, now a respectable wife to a respected headmaster – but in her youth in the early 1990s she was part of the “Second Summer of Love”. This was when there was the craze for the illegal rave, and rather than do the sensible thing and just create a legal version with the music but without the drug, they passed absurd laws banning music with repetitive beats (which the rave DJs took as a challenge to create non-repetitive drum beats). Honestly, if they were that bothered about it, John Major, Norman Lamont and Michael Heseltine should have embraced it and performed their own set, instantly rendering the whole rave scene so toe-curling no self-respecting teenager would have anything to do with it.
Anyway, I digress. Louise was a raver, and misses her hedonistic rave days, drug-taking included. The one vice she allows herself today is to go to “ravercise”, which is like Zumba but with rave music, glow sticks, and middle-aged housewives wondering about what to cook their kids for tea. Not at all the same as the real rave, as Louise fondly remember the trip to her first. Amongst the many things we learn from the 20-minute sequence covering this is that she previous went to an all-girls’ school. One suspects going to a rave is the first bit of excitement she’s had in her life – and no, her stunning singing voice doesn’t come anywhere near. In fact, the whole progression of Louise’s life is portrayed convincingly, with her life choices after her rave days leading back to boredom explained well.
The clever thing about the story, however, is how Louise’s story unravels. Her ultra-romanticised version of the story glosses over all the bad bits. To be fair to Louise, she doesn’t know how her rave sweetheart has become even more of a disappointment than she is (a policy wonk for the Conservative Party, I believe), but there’s other things she’s chosen to ignore. The friends who suffered lasting damage from the drug taking. When you think about it, the most telling part is how she airbrushed out the damage it did to her own life. She tells herself the high point was taking a super-powered pills that kept her awake for 72 hours, mental or what? But one side-effect of that was sleeping for a week, missing an audition, and the end of her aspirations to be a singer. An exciting life that could have lasted far longer than five years of raving. It is going to take others to tell her exactly what her rave days cost her.
I’m not convinced this is that well suited to a solo play. Although Happisburgh does a good job of switching between characters, there’s only so long you can do both sides of a conversation before it gets strained, never mind a four-way conversation that dominates most of the rave sequences. I’m aware that a solo play costs a lot less than a bigger play for all sorts of obvious reasons, but the economisation comes at a price, and I think this performance would be stronger with an ensemble. I did enjoy this as a solo play and it has a lot to say, but I’d love to see how this would turn out as a scaled up production. Emmy Happisburgh hopes to upscale this to a seven-hander, I reckon four would be enough myself. Sadly, Pants on Fire are apparently not planning to do any more big-scale productions (pity, as Ovid’s Metamophosis was positivel brilliant), but I hope this gets its bigger play.
Seen outside of Edinburgh:
And finally, I allow into Pick of the Fringe plays that were in the Edinburgh Fringe programme that I saw elsewhere. This is because I don’t usually have time to watch these plays again in Edinburgh, so this is my way of giving plays I saw at Brighton Buxton etc. a fair chance against those I saw in Edinburgh. The three additions are:
No One: Seem to Brighton Fringe This Year. Only loosely following the story of The Invisible Man that this is adapted from, but stays true to the essence of the story. What stood out, however, was the superbly choreographed physical theatre that Akimbo Theatre does so well.
Vermin: I’ve already reviewed Triptych Theatre’s An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe here, but it was precisely on the strength of their companion play (seen by me in Brighton that I saw this in the first place). You need a strong stomach for this one due to the graphic descriptions of animal cruelty, but the tale of a messed up couple who begin in love and turn on each other is disturbingly believable.
The Ballad of Mulan: Yet again one from Brighton. Out of the three plays of Michelle Yim’s on East Asian women, this one about the mythcial Chinese general is easily the strongest. Billed as the undisneyfield version of the story, it’s got a lot more in common with the tales of World War One, with the camaraderie of battle companions and the horrors of the battlefield dominating over laugh, smiles and songs.
And four plays I saw again …
We’re not quite done. The pick of the fringe is rounded off with four plays I’ve seen before but chose to see again. Apart from Make-Up, which I saw for the changes, I saw these four below just for fun. Not much to add from last reviews (linked), but as a recap:
Skank: For most of Clementine Bogg-Hargroves’s play, it’s a hybrid between a northern Fleabag and a female Peep Show, with Kate’s antics in her boring office job punctuated by her quest for men – failing in the case of Sexy Gary through lack of dignity, or succeeding when it really raising questions over her taste in men. Until something happens towards the end that jolts the story back to a serious reality. If there’s one thing I picked up second time round, it’s how much some kind word matter when they’re needed.
Green Knight: Saw this at Buxton Fringe in 2019, and it’s as good as I remembered. She’s one a many performers who comes from an academic background, but whilst many from this route struggle to bring their knowledge to the stage in a way that works, but Debbie Cannon does it perfectly. She uses her love and knowledge of medieval literature to create a re-telling of the tale of Sir Gawain, as witnessed by Lady Bertilak. No events in the story are changed, but it is cleverly written so that her story is very different to the one that Sir Gawain saw.
Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show: Finally, one I saw in Buxton last year from Sweet Productions, that earned Heather Rose-Andrews my award from best performance, mostly for her transformation scene. I did struggle to follow bits of it the first time around, but having seen it the second time it confirmed what I suspected: it helps to know the original. This one was only supposed to run for one week but ended up running most of the fringe. Well done.
Now we come to the second tier. This is the home of a few performances I loved outside of the theatre category, but also for a lot of theatre performances that impressed me one way or another. Some had one particular thing notable about it, some had good overall standards, and a few would have made it into Pick of the Fringe had I not been forced to be incredibly picky. We have:
You are invited so drop in on a series of encounters with a variety of ghostly characters. From looking at the title, you might be think that you’re having a therapy session using ghosts – but you’d be wrong. The therapy session is FOR ghosts, and we find this out in the first minutes when an unusually white clad Dr. Soul apologises for the dodgy lights – her technician only died last week.
Much of the play works as a series of character comedy skits of various ghosts. The fictional universe seems to encompass all fictional ghosts. One client desperately wants to be liked by the family who lives in her house, and has been taking inspiration from Caspar the Friendly Ghost. In fact, she’s Caspar’s number on fan and has the T-shirt to prove it – sadly, she is also even more annoying than Caspar ever was. The Ghost of Christmas Past is also a client – he’s having trouble with his wife because he just can’t help bringing up the past. The grim reaper also has a stroppy goth daughter who has no real interest in following her father’s footsteps, instead doing a funny routine of helping herself to all the ghost cookies she obviously has no room to eat.
There is some room for improvement. Dr. Soul herself has her own issues – her fear of chickens and her controlling relationship with her aforementioned recently-deceased assistant. However, these don’t really get developed until the end of the story. The pace seems to fall a little flat between the visit of clients, so perhaps this could be used as an opportunity to build up her controlling behaviour and/or chikenophobia. However, Trenetta Jones is excellent as Dr. Soul and really makes the character her own.
What is interesting about this is that this went into the Edinburgh Fringe too late to make it into the paper programme. That can be the kiss of death for getting an audience. Writer Jaz Skringle, however, seems to have got a decent audience anyway with some good social media marketing. An enjoyable 40 minutes, and whilst there are some things that could be better that is good standard for a fringe debut. And for a debut from an 18-year-old, it’s an excellent start.
Morecambe is about the comedian and not the town, although we do learn that Eric Bartholomew did adopt his home town as his stage name. Out of the two of Morecambe and Wise, the former is probably the better of the two to make a solo play about, mainly because of the build-up to the premature final curtain. Like many beloved entertainers, he literally worked himself to death, with the sensible option to call it day overruled by the pleasure of giving millions what they want. The story most of us know is the rise and rise and rise with their famous television shows. As with most success stories, however, what you seldom hear is what happened before then. The story from the beginning covers the numerous failures before the big time including, somehow counter-intuitively, their first TV appearance. (Note: never trust a TV executive who insists on writing the gags for you.)
Judging by the age of the audience, I think I can safely say this play has a particular appeal to the Morecambe and Wise generation. A lot of the play includes the most famous jokes of Eric and Ernie, both on stage to their audiences and within the story. My knowledge of their routines is largely limited to the Andre Previn skit, but it looks like this was a sufficiently faithful reproduction to earn the approval of the fans. Speaking of Andre Previn, the appearance of the stars is a good marker of the peak of their fame – as the play observes, appearing on their show was the sign the nation consider you a good egg.
We didn’t always get Eric Morecambe as a person though. His brushes with mortality were done well, especially the applause following his first stage appearance after his first heart attack. However, we didn’t always pick up how he felt in his earlier career. Saying “I got depression” after the first TV flop is all very well, but writing this into what he says would be stronger. What I think is missing more, however, is Ernie Wise. He is represented by a puppet throughout the play, but with his partnership with Ernest Wiseman making up at least 80% of the story, it get a bit clumsy for Ernie to say all of his lines. But, more to the point, Ernie isn’t just his co-star, he’s also his closest friend who supports him throughout the ups and downs. I could see the camaraderie between the two being very movie if done right – also, on a practical note, this adds a lot of flexibility to allow two-sided conversations with other characters (Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy and Brain Mitchell’s Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks are good examples of how to do this.)
So there lies the paradox. Morecambe won’t disappoint the faithful, and for a small group is Soham it’s impressive. But this one-hander is, I think, crying out to be made into a two-hander. A decent play could be a fantastic play. Does Viva Arts have a suitable Ernie Wise look-a-like amongst their number. If so, I say go for it.
Tim Ogborne plays a may who starts off his day in the office. He starts with multiple failed attempts to log into his computer. A lesser performer would have taken as easier route and said “Come on, take the bloody password,” but his this performance Ogborne keeps in perfect synchronisation to a soundtrack, reacting both to fruitless and fruitless attempt to type a login, and the look of frustration syncs every time we hear the inevitable login failed sounds. The good news is that he finally makes it in, but the bad news is that his girlfriend phones him up to remind him that tonight she’s introducing him to her parents.
In performer Tim Ogborne’s own words “This one-man show breathes new life into the form of mime, blending tightly rehearsed choreography with a meticulously created soundscape.” I wouldn’t normally quote a blurb verbatim, but I couldn’t have done it better myself. It’s becoming increasingly common to craft action round soundscape, but it’s obvious from the outset he does this much better than most of his peers. The battle with the login prompt is just the beginning, with the rest of the action from the day in the office to an awkward meeting with the overbearing parents to the death-defying chase and showdown with future father-in-law.
The only flaw I have to pick out is the transition I’ve just mentioned. One moment we’ve got a relatable awkward meet-the-parents moment, the next moment future father-in-law is trying to kill him, reason unclear. As far as I can tell, our hero went to the bathroom and discovered a secret passage and saw something he wasn’t supposed to see. Since the fringe, I got the impression this was supposed to be a reference to a film, but whatever the reference was, I missed it. However, it doesn’t matter too much. This story isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously, and it’s a lot of fun to watch with a lot of skill needed to put this together. At 30 minutes this is on the short side for fringe performances, but it’s the ideal length for this. Recommended as you’ll see nothing like this.
This one-man musical is set on the closing night of the Fabulett Nightclub, Berlin. Between the two World Wars, Berlin enjoyed a spell as the hedonistic capital of Europe. Needless to say, the new government in Berlin is not at all keen on This Sort Of Thing and has ordered the closure of all dens that “promote immorality”. For Fabulett’s, there’s no wriggle room, for the emcee Felix is dressed in an outfit that makes The Rocky Horror Show look like Andy Pandy. Which, I must stress, is perfectly fine if you like that sort of thing, but try telling that to the Nazis.
The host (Michael Trauffer) is presiding over the defiant closure at 10 p.m. Felix’s own story is of a youth demobbed after the Germany’s defeat; faced with the choice of returning to his authoritarian father or more tolerant Berlin, he opts for the latter. When he loses his more understanding mother – his relationship with her one of the most touching bits of the play – Fabulett’s becomes his only life. As well as the brief period of hedonism in Berlin, the other thing portrayed knowledgeably was the rise of convention defying science from people such as Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the first researchers of transgenderism. We know his work is going to suffer a similar fate to Fabulett’s.
Where I think this play could have said more is on the rise of the Nazis. In this production, the Nazis are portrayed as something that people should have seen coming and suddenly they were there. I wonder if that’s all the story though. One thing that I Am a Camera portrayed so well (something that wasn’t in either the stage or film versions of the musical) was that the Nazis didn’t gain a foothold with Jew-hatred just because of what some demagogues on podiums were says – it was when ordinary people going about their lives started saying the same thing. Did a similar thing happen for gay people? Did people who used to ignore them suddenly see them as the root of all immorality? Because that’s too good a chapter of the story to miss if it was.
There were some poignant moments in the story – the contrast between his mother who wants him home from Christmas to enjoy his favourite cinnamon cookies is as touching as his father cutting all ties with his son is jarring. One small thing I’d say on a technical note is I’d dispense with the headset mic. I’ve seen those little buggers in action often enough to know they’re notoriously unreliable. When your songs are prone to being disrupted this much, they easiest solution is to just not bother and rebalance the piano to work with acoustic vocals – and in a small space like this one it shouldn’t be too hard. On the whole, however, this was an enjoyable and informative performance.
There is one thing I would change about this. For the second time, I’m going to suggest that a solo play would work better as a two-hander. It’s not crying out for this quite as strongly as Morecambe, but the lengthy conversations she has with a voice representing the visiting nutcase makes the play go static. My hunch is that we need to see him on stage to really see him for the unstable man he is. After he “departs” (if you know what I mean), I’m sure the plot at the end could be tweaked to give him a role one way or another. Kait Wainer says she tweaked her movement in light of my review, so maybe she did make it less static. There again, coming over from North America is an expensive business if you double the cast size – maybe further performances closer to home can be different.
Take It Away, Cheryl!
Cheryl welcomes you to her kissing booth. If you are the audience member who’s sitting on a dime, you can place it into the coin slot to activate the booth. But before you get too excited, Cheryl’s kissing booth does not actually offer kisses any more. She inherited the business from her family and now her service is to listen to the problems of men. And she’s pretty good at this. And – just like some men who hire prostitutes only to discover they’d rather sit and talk rather than have sex – this service is proving very popular.
Actually, this is only half the story. The other theme (which I didn’t mention in live coverage because it was too much of a spoiler) is that she is surrounding by other fairground stalls talking to souls of the dead – and when a customer who turns out to be insane tops himself, he still won’t go away. Even with the new unexpected theme coming in, however, the central theme holds:Cheryl spends so much time listening to any trying to solve other people’s problems, she doesn’t take enough time for herself. The one thing she is desperate to do today is lay flowers on the grave of the love of her life who shot himself – one might suspect the reason she’s so invested in solving other people’s problems is to compensate for the man she couldn’t save.
There is one thing I would change about this. For the second time, I’m going to suggest that a solo play would work better as a two-hander. It’s not crying out for this quite as strongly as Morecambe, but the lengthy conversations she has with a voice representing the visiting nutcase makes the play go static. My hunch is that we need to see him on stage to really see him for the unstable man he is. After he “departs” (if you know what I mean), I’m sure the plot at the end could be tweaked to give him a role one way or another. Kait Wainer says she tweaked her movement in light of my review, so maybe she did make it less static. There again, coming over from North America is an expensive business if you double the cast size – maybe further performances closer to home can be different.
I’ve refrained from giving away the unexpected direction in the plot and I won’t tell you now, except to say that this may increasingly take over the plot as we reach the climax, but it does not lose sight of the central theme: can Cheryl ever choose herself for a change? Worth a visit.
One of the reasons I picked this is that Stonecrabs is one of the most determined theatre companies to ask me for reviews, and with one of their productions somewhere I can see it I wanted to check this out. Stonecrabs is quite a large theatre company that do productions over sort of different genres, and this clowning piece is a joint production with Busu Theatre, a Japanese company primary specialising in folklore.
A pair a clowns: an older Japanese man and a younger European woman, start off getting the audience to do a warm-up. Any preconceptions this might be a jolly hour of custard pies and cars with wheels that might fall off are dispelled at the end of scene one, when the exciting message they’ve looked forward to seeing says “You’ve been drafted!” Yip-ee-yiy-ay! They are clowns after all. Then comes the “interval”, where the clowning stops and the older clown is informed that the board has decided to lay him off.
I do need to give a major caveat to this review: I am not that familiar with either clowning or Japanese folklore, so there may well be something I didn’t pick up that other people would. From the point of view of someone used to more conventional theatre though, it did feel a bit like this had “concept overload”. There were a lot of abstract concepts thrown in with subjects chopping and changing. The main theme, I picked up, was the two clowns being locked up the Musuem of Lost Things, and they cannot leave until they find what they have lost – not a physical object, but what they have lost in themselves. But I didn’t get what the younger clown constantly taking selfies for Instagram was about. Now, to be fair, I read about the meaning of this in the press release later, and it made more sense. But you can’t count on everybody going back to the press release when they’re stuck.
There are some strong points to the performance. The pair of clowns are both strong performers, and they certainly know their stuff with the loop pedal. I really liked the scene of the laid off clown seeing the annoying psychiatrist who keeps switching to the messenger from the boardroom telling him he’s lost in touch and other messages to talk him down. I guess that, ultimately, this is Stonecrabs’ call. If their target audience is people more used to clowning and/or Japanese folklore, and they’re confident they will pick this up, fair enough, carry on as you are. If, however, this is supposed to be accessible to everybody no matter how little they know of this format, that’s a much bigger challenge, and I don’t have any bright ideas here as this is way outside my field. But good luck either way.
Beg for Me
This one grabbed my interest because it’s about a man radicalised enough to take part in the infamous January 6th insurrection. We don’t have his name, but his Twitter handle is @R3alAm3rican99. A visitor comes to his cell, which he presumes to be Police. But as far as @R3alAm3rican99 is concerned, he’s done nothing wrong. The storming of the House and Senate was a peaceful protest, and the only attempts made to kill anybody were provoked by the Police, who are all in league with the secret cabal of the liberal elite hell-bent on sending Mexican immigrants to rape your white daughters.
One frequent mistake made with depictions of the other side is to set up your enemies as straw men to take down, and normally that’s what I’d been questioning here. After all, Trump fans might claim anyone who disagrees with them are NPC cuck snowflakes scared of mean words, but Hillary fans are equally swift to paint their critics as alt-right Nazis who watch Jim Davidson on repeat. However, in the aftermath on the US election I was following the social media activity of people who insisted the election was rigged for my amusement research, and, honestly, the level of batshittery depicted in this play is perfectly believable (and that’s still mild compared to QAnon levels of batshitness).
What this play is really about is how he got to this point in the first place. I remember the shock in I Am A Camera (the stage play that led to Cabaret) where Fraulien Schnieder is still a kindly caring landlady, but she believes all the things the nice men in suits say about the Jews. This man never used to spout the racist and misogynistic bile he now spouts, and however much he may decry the old version of him as a mindless sheeple, it’s clear he was once just an ordinary guy.
The message this play seems to be giving is that it didn’t happen overnight. He didn’t open a reddit thread and suddenly sign up as a full-blown Trump-worshipping Nazi. In fact, he was already disappearing down that rabbit hole long before he read any of this. Prior to that, he was subjecting his girlfriend to degrading sexual acts (and blaming her for being the disgusting whore who’d degrade herself that way). However, there is a missing link in the back story here. He went into that relationship as a shy man asking for permission to kiss her – but there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for how he got from that point to a shitty controlling partner. And okay, there’s only so much you can explain in an hour, but I did feel too much of the play was taken up by the visitor admonishing the accused for the way he treats women. Look, this is the Edinburgh Fringe, not Parler. I’ve 100% confident no-one saw this play and thought “You know, @R3alAm3rican99” has a point. I’m pretty sure we can take it for granted that everyone thought “What a fucking nutjob.”
To be fair, there is a good reason why the mysterious visitor is so insistent on giving our man a dressing down, which ties into the journey from normal guy to alt-right fanatic. I won’t spoil the play by saying what the reason is, but it’s a good one. Rhys Anderson’s portrayal as the radicalised fanatic is excellent. The one thing I would seek to add to this is more about the beginning of the journey. What I think this play underestimates is what a lot of people underestimate – how perfectly understandable and legitimate grievances are ruthlessly exploited by extremists and twisted with half-truths and distortion. Rosa Maria Alexander is 80% of the way there – I hope we can completely this with the final and most uncomfortable 20%.
Antigone, the musical
The first thing I will say about Hard Luck musicals is that I respect them for doing the musical the hard but more rewarding way. Most fringe musicals understandably economise by sequencing/recording the backing music in advance. For those that choose to play the music live, they generally struggle – it is rare to see a live band in a fringe musical that gets all the tuning and balance right. Hard Luck musical, however, has a live nine-piece orchestra on stage playing to a pretty impressive standard, and – apart from some early tech problems with the stage mics – a good standard from the singing too.
For the first two third of this play, Antigone the musical does what it says on the tin. It tells the story of the fateful events that led to the heroine’s imprisonment by King Creon quite accurately, and also accessibly. Some musicals don’t bother with the motivations of the main characters, but there’s never once any doubt over what is motivating either Antigone to risk her life of Creon to insist on a death sentence over a matter as petty as giving someone a burial. And they could easily have stuck with this approach and gone right up to fateful moment when Creon has a change of heart too late.
And the comes the twist: apology for the spoiler, but in this version, Antigone doesn’t die. Haemon and Ismene incite a last-minute uprising and come to the rescue in the nick of time. That certainly is a different take on what we’re used to, but in terms of cheesiness it’s right up there with the version of The Titanic where the ship dodges the iceberg. That jars a bit with the down-to-earth faithful staging done to this point. I feel this could do with making a decision one way or the other: either a faithful adaptation or a cheesy adaptation, but I’m pretty sure the intention was the latter.
To be fair, a cheesy retelling probably needs some good movement direction to work to its full effect, with the orchestra taking up so much space, there wasn’t really much room in the space that was left. That’s not a problem unique to this musical – it’s always a bugger for any production with a cast of more than five to find a place which both gives you the space we need on stage and is affordable. If this is has a life beyond Edinburgh Fringe – and looks like it’s gone down well enough to achieve this – I hope this gets further performance on a stage that does this justice. And cheese away for all it’s worth.
Salamander seems to have enjoyed a very successful week-long run at the fringe, partly through to its local connections, and partly from the sudden pertinence of the subject following Edinburgh Council’s decision to ban strip clubs. My own interest in this play was helped along by an online play I saw last year called Cash Point Meet. They play had its flaws, but it did make a convincing case that clamping down on sex work – however good the intentions might be – ends up doing more harm than good. I remember the time when Edinburgh made itself one of the most liberal cities, with so-called “licensed sauna”, and if you’re enough of a fringe old-timer you will remember the days when you walked past the building off Merchant Street with “SAUNA” written in grubby orange lettering, which was so obviously not where you go for a sauna.
This is set in the 1980s. Polite society is starting to realise that you can’t wash your hands of the sex industry, and the murder of a prostitute has prompted the Police to create a prostitute liaison officer. Much of the play was written around speaking to real people involved in the events. Four of the six characters are working prostitutes: an assorted bunch of characters who have got into the business for various reasons. It soon becomes clear that, as far as they’re concerned, the closest thing they’ve got to the Police is each other. They each other which clients to steer clear of and look out for each other the best they can. Which means that Police Officer Pat’s job is to win over their trust. It’s far from an easy task, with a long history of looking the other way to contend with – and just when she’s making progress, other less tolerant people in authority do the something to set the whole thing back to square one.
The surprise character with the strongest story arc, however, is Joan. She appears at the first meaning as a representative for the Church and the Women’s Institute. “This is a terrible idea”, I’m already thinking. “The last we need is somebody trying to sell the virtues of less sex and more God.” But wait – Joan is not like that at all. We find out from her prayers that, far from a cringe-worthy evangelical mission, she genuinely wants to make life better for some of the most shunned woman in society, bit like Jesus did. However, she’s going it alone – the support from the church people who agreed to this is at best lukewarm, and most of her friends are horrified that she’s have anything to do with such people. That’s only half of it though. Some of the worst finger-waggers in public are regular clients in practice, and when someone close to Joan turns out to be one of them, things get nasty for everyone. Becky Niven’s performance as Joan is excellent and adds another dimension to the story.
One thing the play doesn’t say much about is the question over whether banning sex licences really does any favours – and with the current reasons appearing to be a new idealism of disapproving of women degrading themselves rather than the old-school puritanism of wanting nothing to do with those sort of people, that would have been very interesting. However, when a play script is so heavily based on speaking to real sex workers and listening to what they have to say, I am wary about trying to steer the message to support a point the play writers want to make. And, to be fair, this issue has cropped up very recently, and probably too late to work into any play. Regardless, this a good play that takes on an issue that some people have strong opinions on one way or the other, and handles it without sensation and just says it how it is.
Famous Puppet Death Scenes
This is really in the comedy camp rather than theatre, but I couldn’t let a second fringe go by without seeing for myself exactly what this weirdly-titled performance is about. Had I known that writer and master puppeteer Louisa Ashton of Sparkle and Dark was one of the three puppeteers in this, I would have cleared my diary in the first week. I’d previously mused this would either be funny or pretentious. Well, I wasn’t quite right – it’s not either/or, the performance is funny AND pretentious. But it’s ironically pretentious rather than unironically pretentious, and that’s a defining feature of this show.
Famous Puppet Death Scenes works by sustaining a number of in-jokes. Yes, we know this is a comedy really, but it’s presented as something deathly serious. The action takes place in an around a puppet marquee which is both colourful yet strangely macabre. And then we a treated to the most heartbreaking, sombre and respectful re-enactments of famous death scenes reacted by puppets. Or maybe it’s death scenes of puppets so famous they’re being re-enacted by more puppets. In reality, however, these stories are all completely fictitious, created for the purposes of showing the unfortunate puppets about to meet their makers (and I don’t mean the people who built them). One story that seems to have an awful lot of death scenes is “This Feverish Heart” by Nordo Frot, where copies of the same stout figure are continually splatted by a giant fist that comes out of nowhere, just because. There’s also the element of the surprise on when the unfortunate puppet is going to die, not to mention the unexpected on who dies and exactly when, and then there’s the recurring methods of death that become increasingly commonplace as the performance goes on. Finally, there’s the instructions for the audience, but instead of “Laugh”, “Laugh Hysterically” and “Applause” like they do for bad sitcoms, you’re more likely to be asked to say “Oh”, or clap – but do it somberly and respectfully.
One of my favourite death scenes was at the beginning was the children’s puppet show with two doors Ja and Nein, where selection of the wrong door (okay, either door) results in death full of blood, guts and bones from the monster that lies behind. The Old Trouts are a very versatile puppetry company, and use about every technique going. Frequently the puppet theatre raises and outside curtain and the puppeteers appear for some larger-scale puppeticide. For an operation involving three macabre-looking puppeteers, it is one of the most complex and sophisticated puppetry operations I’m seen pulled off at a fringe.
If there’s one weakness I’d pin on this performance, it gets predictable. It helps a lot to vary how the puppetry is being done, and switch between the surprise deaths and the obvious deaths (e.g. the star of The Ferverish Heart, who is probably getting sick of this by now), it inevitably hinges on variations of the same joke. Perhaps one area that might have been made to work better is managing the audience participation – or maybe I just came on a quiet day. But it doesn’t really matter because The Old Trouts have pulled off what everybody on the Fringe wants to do – a wild and bizarre original concept that is unique to them and audiences pick up and loves. A gamble like this could easily have backfired, so well done for pulling this off.
Seen outside of Edinburgh
And added to those ten are another five which were performing at Edinburgh Fringe that I saw earlier in the year. As a reminder, the hurdles at Edinburgh are higher, and a play that scooped pick of the fringe at another festival might have to settle for honourable mention here, but that’s just s reminder of how high the standard is. We have:
Room, based on a Room of One’s Own: This impressed me for something completely original. They are plenty of stage adaptations of stories, but this I think is the first time I’ve seen a stage adaptation of an essay. Virginia Woolf’s speech about the lot of women authors was quite on point for its day, so it ws interesting to see this speech brought back to life and part re-enactment, part dramatisation.
Sex, Lies and Improvisation: The other thing I saw at Brighton Fringe was an improvisation show. I’ve seen a lot of improvised comedy and got to know the formula for how to make this work, but this is a rare example of improvised theatre. Whilst the premise chosen on the cuff got a few laughs to begin with, the story of a relationship pulled about by political idealism wasn’t far off the standard of scripted plays.
Nyctophilia: Another performance I saw at Buxton that impressed me, and one of the most innovative. Performed in total darkness throughout almost the entire play, the series of folklore tales shows what you can do when focus switches to sound, the faintest of vision, and the few moments when light is available.
The Glummer Twins: Finally saw this at Buxton Fringe after years over everybody taking about them. A charming double act with warm humour somewhat in the vein or Morecambe and Wise, with a performance that straddles theatre, comedy, music and poetry. With the fringe circuit often viewed as a young performer’s game, it’s great to see an older pair become such firm favourites.
And to complete my coverage, the rest of the reviews. Just a reminder that just because a review didn’t make it to honourable mention doesn’t mean I hated it – such as the competitiveness of Edinburgh Fringe that even that category is a high hurdle. (As always, if you notice a play I haven’t listed and want to know what I really thought, I accept payment in beer.) Rounding up my plays are:
Death of a Disco Dancer
Four friends, newly-graduated from university, get together for one last party. This final party, it quickly emerges, involves, dancing, playing loud music, drinking a lot and taking all manner of drugs. It’s a wonder they don’t attract any noise complaints for the neighbours, but perhaps they have good taste with their bangin’ choons no-one minds. The drinking and drug-taking is taking its toll though. At least one of this cozy foursome never has the death of his father far away on his minds, and there’s only so far anyone can keep this up.
The first thing I will say about this is how good the sound and lighting plot it. In fact, this applies to lots of fringe shows now, from entry-level to the highest budget. The technological capabilities to have sound and lighting plots this sophisticated have existed for at least ten years now, but expertise has been slow to catch up. I have frequently cursed when I see simple technical problems that could have easily been averted with a little technical know-how. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve seen companies get a lot more ambitious, with people who know what they’re doing, know what can and can’t be achieved, and produce impressive results with what they have. Ultraviolet Theatre have produced one of the best technical plots I’ve seen, covering music, sounds, gorgeous lighting, and – the important thing that’s easy to forget – a production that knows how to work with this.
However, the exquisite staging conceals some weaknesses with the plot. I get that these four friends are presumably close through their shared love of hedonism and debauchery, but apart from that I never really understood why they behaved as they did. In particular, why one of them suddenly turn on the others half-way through and rail against the shallowness of their parties? Okay, he’s got a steady job so maybe he’s seeing things differently, but why change tune so suddenly when he’s been just as drink and drug-addled as the others up to this point? The root problem, I suspect, is that the characterisation isn’t coming across the way it should do. This company may have very good reasons why each of the four behaves like they do, when they do – but if the audience doesn’t pick this up, it counts for nothing and just confuses people.
The even more root issue? Devised theatre is hard. Individual character arcs created by individual cast members sometimes get confusing and/or contradictory when combined into the same play. It is this sort of situations where it helps to have a dramaturg, but that is a minefield in its own right, for sometimes a good dramaturg has to ditch the favourite story arc created by one of the actors for the play to make sense. All I can suggest is to try to disregard everything you know about the play and its characters and try to imagine what an audience who knows nothing about this story will pick up – and I realise this is easier said than done. But if, as I suspect, there is more to this story than is coming across, there is a lot of potential still to be unlocked. And with the technical plot that is top of its game, there’s a lot to be made of this.
I was keen for an opportunity to see Brite Theater as they were behind Emily Carding’s hugely popular Richard III. I never got to see this myself, and I wish I had because 1) I’ve heard a lot of good things about it from people who I know and trust, and 2) it features stickers saying “dead” applied to certain unlucky members of the audience. This one features a different writer and different actors, but, it would appear, shares the same high production values as their previous plays. Like Ghislaine/Gabler, I think it’s fair to treat this one as a marmite play, with a concept that people will like or won’t. Unfortunately, on this occasion I’m on the other side.
Hannah tells Beth she’s moving to New York. Even though they are lifelong friends – even since the moment they met in the sandcastle park as children – Hannah never told Beth she was thinking of leaving. Throughout their friendship, Hannah has always been the risk-taker and Beth has been the cautious one arm-twisted into wild scheme, and even though Hannah frequently oversteps the line by stealing Beth’s boyfriends and other things, they stay friends. Hannah is finding her feet in New York, keeping little contact with Beth, but dies in a terrorist attack … That’s it. Normally I would hold something back, and in many plays I could not possibly write about (or remember) the whole story, but what I have told is you literally the entire plot. When the first six minutes consists entirely of Hannah and Beth arguing over the unplanned decision to move and nothing else, the play swiftly fails the “Get on with it” test. The rest of the play unfolds at a similar slow pace.
That’s a pity, because everything else about the play is done to a high standard. At every point you feel like these two on stage really are the best of friends. The script too is naturalistic and serves the pair well. I was particularly impressed with the music for this – there has been an upturn across the fringes for supporting plays with fitting music to set the mood, and this was one of the best. But sadly none of this can distract me from the painfully slow pace of the story. Much as I have to say this, when the truck attack finally gets talked about – the moment when I ought to be hoping against hope the inevitable never comes – I was wait itching for something, anything, to move the plot along.
This follows a similar format to Land of Lost Content, but I think the difference here is that whilst these two are best friends because the script says they they are, it lacks an explanation for why their friendship has stuck – unlike Henry Madd’s story where life experience goes beyond parties and holidays and you see how much they’ve been through together. I know other people like Sandcastles. If you want an in-depth intimate portrait of a friendship, and long digressions into memories that need not have any bearing to the story are a plus for you, this could be your thing. Indeed, this play as attracted glowing reviews elsewhere for precisely this reason. But me? I don’t get it. Sorry.
With comedy the dominant category at Edinburgh Fringe but theatre coming a strong second, Edinburgh is a good place for established comedians to branch out into theatre. This is what Patrick McPherson did, with Colossal being his second performance in the theatre category. At face value, this is a story about dating. Dan is excited to be going on a new date, and in the hour he has to get ready, he talks about his last long-term relationship. At first, the excitement of a new relationship, first accidental meeting, nail-biting wait for reply to first text, first kiss, first meeting with parents. And then it goes to the arguments and the infidelity that led to it falling apart. However (apology, spoiler alert, but impossible to review without this), this is not all that it seems. Dan’s version of the story is his own version. Reality, he later admits, wasn’t quite the same.
This was the fourth play at this fringe I’d seen on a subject ranging from sexual predators to unhealthy relationships. What this one is desperately missing, however, is subtext. Not all plays about unhealthy relationships need so much subtext, but when the central premise is an unreliable narrator, it’s vital. How do we know Dan started off head-over-heels in love and over-optimistically judged the situation? Because Dan tells us at the end of the play. How do we know Dan was glossing over his faults in the failing relationship? The same. Worst, of all, the play is supposed to give a message at the end about looking at your learned behaviour – but there are no examples anywhere in the story of what the learned behaviour is or how Dan came to learn it. Just a direct quote from his ex telling him to address his learned behaviour, whatever it was. “Show, don’t tell” has never been more important here.
To be fair, subtext is difficult to write, especially if you’ve come from comedy where subtext has little importance (certain kinds of character comedy excepted). It is not clear whether subtext wasn’t written into the script or whether it was so subtle it wasn’t picked up, but either way, the only thing I picked up that sort-of indicated something wasn’t right has a flickering light. I suppose the argument where the two accuse each other of gaslighting might have been meant as a sign of an unhealthy relationship, but with no context to the arguments it was impossible to tell whether they were simply words in anger or something more – and if the latter, no indication of who was gaslighting who. Personally, the best opportunity I see for subtext is a passing reference at the beginning of Dan giving a favourable spin on his previous relationship. That could easily set alarm bells ringing when the same things happen again – but once more, the only reason we know Dan glossed over his last relationship is because he told us directly.
I am probably in the minority here – it’s got a string of good reviews from its run and the show I was in was close to sold out. The main reason this is getting praise for its production values, and those were excellent. McPherson is perfectly choreographed to an intricate lighting and soundscape, and had the plot been stronger I might have been shouting praises from the roof tops. There’s one other possible reason for its popularity though: popularity with people who already agree that with the message about learned behaviour, and don’t care if nothing is done to expand on it, only that their view is stated back to them. I hope I am wrong about that, because in the long run, playing to the gallery is a mistake. So much discourse is dominated by soundbites without substance, and plays give the opportunity to expand on this and show how things such as learned behaviour can work out. It’s a shame that a play with so much going for it missed this opportunity.
Cambridge University Musical Theatre got my attention last year with a showcase for one of the catchiest tunes out there – this time my interest was grabbed by the concept. 17-year-old Jenny is organising a Sleepover for her three besties, before they all go their separate ways. It’s taken ages for Jenny to get her mother to agree to something like this. However, there is a hidden agenda to this. What Jenny really wants out of this is a talk about everything she wants to know about sex but is afraid to ask. And in order to get round asking, she’s created a board game called “Sleepover” which involves answering questions on cards, all of which are obviously the aforementioned things about sex she wants to know. (Spoiler: her friends see through this ruse straight away.)
I really liked the idea of this, but where I felt this musical fell short was characterisation. That’s not unique to this show; On Your Bike produced by the same society last year was also let down a little by moments where key plot-driving decisions weren’t that believable. Okay, we are discussing musicals here, and it’s fair to remember that nobody spontaneously breaks out into song, but the songs are always more effective if you can believe the characters singing this means it and feels it. Here it feels more like the songs and issues were chosen first, with the characters developed around this. Any of these three 17-year-olds could be crushingly shy, confident and brash or anything else, but it has to be consistent. I find it difficult to believe that someone shy enough to create that board game wouldn’t be rumbled in the first five seconds – I also find it difficult that by the next song Jenny’s already shed her inhibitions to partake in “Get your titties out”.
The production values are good, and songs are managed well, and the set of a sleepover does a lot to add the the story. I would focus on the ending. At least two of the teenagers have uncomfortable secrets they’ve been holding back on, and those are the strongest opportunities for creating rounded believable characters. The big question, as always, is: why now? What has happened to persuade these characters to open up when they do? You might have a perfectly good answer in your head, but we need to know this, and conveying the information without spelling it out the challenge that needs to be addressed in the middle. And if that means you sometimes can’t include a song you wanted to include, or can’t talk about an issue you wanted to bring up, so be it.
At the end of the day, it comes down to what CUMTS wants Sleepover to be. It’s down in the comedy section rather than theatre or musical theatre; and the primary purposes of comedy is fun, which this achieves. But I think Jenny, Nina, Anita and Ruth deserve more than this, and I hope we can get to truly know them one day.
Not quite theatre:
And finally in a review, some things that I haven’t included in the league table because I didn’t count them as theatre and couldn’t make fair comparisons to the other entries. A reminder, this is based on what I think can be counted as theatre, not the section of the programme it was in. However, just because I didn’t count it as theatre doesn’t mean I can’t rate it highly. Here’s what I have:
Finlay and Joe’s perpetual hype machine
Although I didn’t count this as theatre, this sketch duo still had a fair overlap with theatre. Their on-stage personas are a couple of losers who hear phrases such as “Oh, you’re still at the bar, good for you! I’ve just been promoted.” and “Still at you’re mum’s? That’s nice. I brought a house.” and ” Are you still single? So am I. However, I’m more attractive than you.” However, all that is about to change. They have a new machine that automates sketches. Just spin the wheel and away you go.
Finlay and Joe are a family-friendly sketch group, and it was only about half-way through I realised I was enjoying myself without hearing a rude work or anything risque once. (In fact, I’ve actually dragged down the done myself with the rude/Anglo-Saxon word at the start of this update.) It is fair to say that whilst the sketches are family-friendly, the humour is more likely to be picked up by grown-ups than children. Nevertheless, is was good fun, such as what happens when the engagement ring is the One Ring from The Lord of Rings, and how confusing it is to explain sentient engines to Mick Lynch as he visits the Island of Sodor. In the strongest sketches, the fun part is the moment you realise where this is going.
However, Finlay and Joe have taken a leaf of out Beasts‘ book, and the sketches eventually become part of a story – by creating a super-intelligent AI contraption, it becomes sentient and hell-bent on taking over the world. This, I think, could have been built up a little better – there was an argument over who gets the straight character and funny character in the sketches, but surely this need to be mixed in with increasingly sinister hints building up to the “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t let you do that” moment.
Fortunately, everything is resolved in the end, culminating in a super-sketch that encompasses at the other sketches. This includes giving a ten-pound note to someone earlier in the show and assuming you’ll get it back later, which I can only describe as brave. As I said, I’m not the best person to rate fringe sketch shows as I don’t have that many to compare it to, but this looks like a good start for a duo who are relative newbies to the comedy circuit on the fringe.
Jess Robinson: Legacy
It is 2032 and the world is about to end. The last of the earth’s population has been evacuated on to rockets, except for super genius 20-year-old Jess Robinson, who was definitely born in 2012 and couldn’t possibly be lying about her age, or indeed her ability/reliability to be entrusted with anything important. She is taking a message from the supreme commander Olivia Coleman (yes, the Olivia Coleman, because she’s a national treasure who always gets the best parts). Anyway, the last task that needs completing is uploading a memory stick containing all of the world’s arts and culture. Apologies for the spoiler, but Jess does indeed fail to live up to her reputation of ultra-reliable agent and spilling wine on her laptop and everything is deleted. What a lucky coincidence! Jess is good at impressions! She can fill the gap that way. Some more refined connoisseurs might say we’re taking an awful of a implausible plot points to set this up but IT’S COMEDY DAMN IT WE’LL BE CONTRIVED IF WE WANT TO.
The problem with entrusting this task to Jess Robinson is that, well, she’s not actually that well read on culture. When she should have been watching high-brow nature documentaries she was gorging out on trash TV. And so, for example, when tasked with reconstructing clever nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough, she does the David Attenborough voiceover for Love Island. That’s the same thing, isn’t it? Surely no-one will notice. In a sign of the times, we in a future where Liz Truss bombed as PM and Theresa May is back in charge. Yes, we’re already at the point where people are going “She was all right, really, I suppose,” God help us. Anyway, you get the idea. Other highlights including moments of the voice of her mother giving advice for anything but the moment in hand, and speed-impressions that Jess Robinson breaks into when stressed.
I can’t give a verdict on all of these impressions because I don’t keep up with popular culture and don’t recognise all of them (he says pretentiously), but those I recognised were nailed pretty well. I’d say that Jess Robinson’s strength is impressions first and character comedy second, but that fine because this is the kind of comedy where the lead character’s decisions aren’t supposed to make sense or have any deep motivation. Nevertheless, some of the funniest comedy I’ve seen worked from believable characters behaving in a plausible way in the most ridiculous of situations, so perhaps there’s room to explore than in a future show. The production values are top-notch though. As well as the energetic performance and the impressions, she’s go a great singing voice and a slick backdrop in sync with her performance. This show is meant to fun and nothing more, and so should be judged on those terms, but if you’re after a fun night to round off a day of fringing, I can recommend this.
How I Learned What I Learned
First, a note about why I picked this one for review. I normally have a policy of not giving anybody preferential treatment because they’re part of an underrepresented group. I certainly don’t choose to review a play just because it’s advertised as female-led, nor do I review the female-led plays I choose to see more favourably. There is a very good reason for this: they don’t need preferential treatment: I monitor my picks of the fringe every year and there’s always been an even split between the two. As such, I am firmly of the position that it’s better to be absolutely clear that no-one gets a leg-up. I don’t want anybody saying “She’s only got a good review because she’s a woman”. Everybody on Pick of the Fringe has earned their place.
However, racial diversity is another matter. As I’ve already mentioned (scroll to 24th August in Live coverage), I do think there’s is a problem with lack of participation from artists who aren’t white. One of these days, I might look more into why this is and what can be done; in the meantime I’m happy to let the people affect have their say. Equally, however, I worry – based on my own observations as a neurodivergent artist – that theatre has a pretty poor respect of agency. For at least some minorities, the voices theatres choose to platform suspiciously resemble the views that the leaderships assumes the respective minorities hold, whilst ignoring all criticism from those who dissent. This was a review request and I probably would have picked it anyway, but there was one thing that particular stood out here: there’s no question of agency here. There’s no doubt that August Wilson’s autobiographical play of his life – written when he was one of America’s most respected literary playwrights – is his voice and no-one else’s. For the record, I had no idea what was going to be in this play was, nor what his politics are. I was entirely doing this on the basis on hearing what he has to say.
The circumstances surrounding How I learned What I Learned are unusual. It was supposed to be performed by Wilson himself, but by the time he wrote it he was too ill to do it, and so he opened it up to other actors to perform, in this version by Lester Purry of Saints and Poet’s Theater. Racism does feature in this 90-minutes monologue quite prominently (indeed it start with the dark joke that for over 100 years after his family came to America, there was never any trouble finding a job), but not as much as you might think. A lot of time, it’s simply life going on. Wilson recounts a whole host of eccentrics and friends and lovers he knew, including this first love in the nativity play and a shocking murder that taught him the lesson that you can say the wrong thing, but it’s worse for you to say the wrong things at the wrong time. This is a fully rounded portrait of life in a black neighbourhood in 1960s Pittsburgh.
And yet where racism does feature, that’s not what you might expect either. One rather telling phrase Wilson recounts is hearing the phrase “When you go to jail …” Not if. When. I can think of three possible interpretations of that phrase, but none of them were good. However, he talks very little about the big things such as who the cops arrest and who refuses to hire who, and instead talks about the little things. One thing you learn from Wilson’s story of his life as a young man is that he always stands his ground, even when the stakes seem low. He quits his job mowing lawns rather than help his boss appease the racist woman who won’t have a black man doing the job. Why not just mow another lawn like the boss suggests? He finishes off the play with the time when the bank cashier spend a suspiciously long time doing security checks on him, but that’s not what he objects to – it’s the lie that they didn’t have an envelope to put the money in. Why the focus on something so petty? The reason, Wilson argues, is precisely BECAUSE it’s petty. It’s not much, but it’s still a small-minded power-trip, and is completely deliberate. Tolerate that, he argues, and it won’t end there.
And the verdict? This is a difficult one – I make a point of reviewing on how well crafted the story is rather than approval of any message within the play. I personally think the key message of standing up to pettiness is a good one and it is well argued – indeed, this is a pattern I’ve been noticing lately over all forms of prejudice of low-level but completely deliberate acts to get one over someone, both now and historically, and yes, it’s a problem that I think a lot of people underestimate. But it’s an unhealthy practice to write favourable review based on how much it validates the reviewer’s views. So, I would never tell anybody that it your duty to agree with what a play says. But if another performance of this play comes along, I would encourage you to hear what August Wilson had to say. When people talk about racism the discussion is usually on the big issues. This is a compelling case for standing up to the little things.
Sorry this is late. Was suddenly made busy with panto tech, long story. Let’s get to it.
Stuff that happened in November:
It’s been a slower news month than usual, but there were still a few things that I thought were worth reporting.
The big news from the north-east is it looks like another venue is on the way in Newcastle – and this is a big deal. I’ve been saying for some time now that Newcastle needs another venue of a scale comparable to early-days Alphabetti theatre. Welcome though Alphabetti’s success is, the fact that it was so quick for its programming to be saturated showed just how much pent-up demand there was for somewhere to perform; something that one new fringe theatre alone couldn’t achieve. The recent arrival of The Laurels in Whitley Bay might relieve the squeeze a bit, but my hunch is that we need another space in Newcastle – preferably managed and programmed independently of the current venues. And now it looks like we’re going to get one. Step forward Boho Arts.
With small-scale venues in short supply, any new one would be newsworthy,, but it’s doubly newsworthy because this is being openly back by a lot of well-known Newcastle names. And, interestingly, the lion’s share of their Crowdfunder has come from the North of Tyne Combined Authority – notable in its own right as this is (I think) the first major intervention from the new regional mayoralty in the arts.
If you want to back this (and if you have any interests in grass-roots levels arts I think this is in your interests), the crowdfunder is still open here. Also (more low-key but still relevant) they are looking for volunteers here. Keep an eye on this, because it’s a big deal. In five years’ time we could easily be mentioning this in the same breath as Alphabetti Theatre.
Been ages since I’ve done a tips article, do time for another one of these. This, however, is specifically designed to go against the grain. There is a lot of advise out there that I wholeheartedly endorse, but I’ve been over that before. However, there are times when I think the theatre industry doesn’t tell aspiring writers things they ought to know. There are even times when popular advice is counter-productive.
I have no intention of getting into arguments with other people on what is and isn’t good advice, so I will as far as possible refrain from pushing my own preferred techniques as the “right” way to do it. Much of this advice is how to navigate the world of playwriting rather than simply writing the play. And where I do talk about playwriting, it’s mostly to tell you which rules you don’t have to follow if you don’t want to. Here we go. All controversial, I sincerely hope.
6 tips the pros don’t tell you
Most advice on becoming a playwright comes from the theatre industry. And what they say is mostly good. But you must remember that what they are saying is in their interests to follow, not necessarily yours. And what’s convenient to them doesn’t always do you good. Here are six ways I believe it is in your interests to do what the pros in theatre rarely mention.
Experience beats feedback hands down.
I’ve already gone into this in a lot more detail in my post about national playwriting competitions, but it’s worth repeating here. It is becoming increasingly difficult for aspiring playwrights to get feedback. Most competitions are unable to (or, more accurately, unwilling to) give feedback on losing entries. Script reading services that used to be the staple of every new writing theatre have been massively cut back. Some places do still give feedback – be grateful for what you can get. A lot more places believe that they’re doing you a favour by keeping you in the dark as to what you did wrong.
But, to be honest, the debate of feedback versus no feedback is a bit of a red herring. What is unbeatable is seeing for yourself how your words work on stage. There’s no shortage of books and courses that will tell you the importance of things such as letting dialogue flow naturally, keeping a suitable pace and ramping up the tension as the play go on – and whilst all of this is correct, actually explaining how to do it is a bugger. It’s much more effective to get some people to go through the words you have written and find out how well dialogue flows, pace progress, tension ramps, and a whole load of other things that can only really be learned through seeing it on stage.
Ric Renton’s own story about his time in Durham prison is insightful, nuanced, raises awareness of an issue few people in the north east know about – and firmly marks Jack McNamara’s stamp as Live Theatre’s new artistic director.
Jack McNamara got off to a good start with We Are The Best back in June, but whilst the debut may have been a safe bet with an uplifting crowd-pleaser, this follow-up is a lot darker. And – if the pattern on the fringe circuit is anything like the rest of theatre – heavy going is considerably riskier in terms of audience numbers. And yet, this play is getting good audiences, and for good reasons too. This is a co-production with Paines Plough, and Ric Renton stars in his own play about his experiences of Durham Prison. There was a time when prison dramas were full of brutality, either from guards or other inmates. Now it’s a bit more complicated.
First, a lesson in recent local history. I must confess, I had no idea Durham Prison was such a controversial subject. The last I heard, it was a prison with reluctant guests included Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. When it came to public attention there was a high rate of suicide, the high-security women’s wing was closed it it became a men-only prison. One might have thought the authorities would have also actually tried to stop the stupidly high suicide rate – instead, it appears they just shrugged. Usual word of caution for any creative writing based on a true story: there is little to stop a theatre depicting a one-sided account without allowing those under fire their side of the story. However, Ric Renton’s account is consistent with the publicly available information about Durham Prison – and considering that this prison has recently been changed completely from a category A Prison to a reception prison – I suspect those in charge of the prison today will accept this was fair.
Ric (named “Shepherd” in the play) is in a cell between Brown and Knox. The one thing you quickly notice that these three have in common is that none of them should really be in the same prison as the most hardened criminals in the country. Yes, they have all done enough to earn themselves a stretch, but it seems the people who most need protecting from these three are themselves. Especially Brown. He seems so lost in the outside world he commits crime after inept crime on the expectation he’ll be going back. He claims to be building matchstick models of Durham Cathedral that probably only exist in his mind – and when we finally do hear his back story, it’s of someone who didn’t stand a chance in life.
Apologies for those of you I saw at Buxton still waiting for a review. There is an anomaly in my coverage, as whilst I do live updates on Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe and get most reviews out within days, for various reasons I save Buxton reviews for the roundups. As usual, I meant to get roundups out of the way by September at the latest but didn’t. Maybe next year. Anyway, let’s go.
The most notable thing about this roundup is that I don’t have much to say in the way of a preamble. Which, in this case, is a good thing. I had a lot to write about the various shitstorms going on in Brighton Fringe, and I’ve got another load of shitstorms to summarise for Edinburgh. Buxton, by contrast, seems to be largely back to normal. The registrations seems to have made it back to the 170-mark, which was the typical size for most of the last decade. And you could look around Buxton in July and see something that looks similar to any July from before times. However, when you look under the surface, it’s not quite back to business as usual. There are two things I noticed that were different, that aren’t immediately clear from looking at the listings.
Firstly, it’s the same root problem that’s affecting Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes: participation numbers are recovering well, audience numbers not so much. The ‘rona is the obvious thing to blame, and anecdotally I’ve heard of some people who used to loads of events who are still not going out because they’re worried about catching the damn thing again. In that respect, Buxton is particularly vulnerable because of its older-than-average audience age. However, there are other possible factors in play too, not least a cost of living crisis that was putting the willies up people even before this winter closed in.