Crongton Knights: nice but niche

Pilot Theatre’s latest adaptation of a young adult book is has a narrower appeal than their usual productions, but it deserves to finish the job with the audience this play is aimed at.

The final play on my pre-lurgi catch-up list is a Pilot Theatre production. Pilot Theatre have earned my respect over successive productions for many reasons, but the biggest stand-out is the staging. It varies from play to play, but whatever they do always impresses in a way they’ve never impressed before. The subject material varies as well; last year’s Noughts and Crosses was packaged as an ordinary story of forbidden love but was in fact set an alternate world where Jim Crow laws exist in reverse. Crongton Knights, it turns out, is almost the opposite, packaged as a story of adventure and friendship akin to The Magnificent Seven (with the friends here self-styled as “The Magnificent Six”), but with the setting being a gritty housing estate in South London.

Adapted from the second of Alex Wheatle’s young adult books, five young friends embark on a mission to confront the ex-boyfriend of one of the gang to demand the return of some compromising photos. In an unfortunate twist of timing, this is the day the London riots are destined to break out, but this doesn’t actually feature much in the story. This is because although they live in the notoriously rough South Crong, they must journey to Notre Dame estate,and a typical night there makes the London Riots look like a picnic in the park. Can they make it with nothing but friendship and loyalty on their side.

Crongton Knights is a heavily character-driven story. One of the strongest themes is Bushkid. You see, this is the origin story of the Magnificent Six. Whilst the rest of the gang come from families struggling on the breadline, she lives comfortably with wealthy parents – but what she want more than anything is to fit in with friends. One character I would liked to have known more about was Saira. She is a Syrian refugee whose father is still missing, and one suspects she’s witnessed far worse horrors than anything a sink estate can muster. It would have been interesting to see how she’d react in a situation she’s desensitised to, but that doesn’t really feature in this story. Maybe the next book.

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Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

COMMENT: The highly-publicised practice of giving grants and opportunities to artists with disabilities is good for a few but does little for the many. If you’re serious about helping, you’re going to have to do some hard and thankless work.

Apologies for the long essay here. As they say, I’ve written a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one.

It’s quite common for acts of hypocrisy or censorship to push me to boiling point, but this is the first time I’ve been prompted to speak out by good intentions. I might be imagining it, but I could swear that in the last few months most of the local theatres have gone into overdrive announcing all the ways they are supporting artists with disabilities. It is not clear whether this was something planning in its own right or it’s a side-effect to theatre’s reaction to the George Floyd murder (presumably by accompanying opportunities for black artists with opportunities with other minorities), but they’ve really gone to town advertising what they’re doing. It varies from theatre to theatre, but it’s a predominantly a mixture of partnerships with disability advocacy organisations and opportunities for artists with disabilities – either in conjunction with partner organisations or schemes in their own right.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead! (Skip to Summary)

So why should I have a problem with this? In principle I should be delighted that disabilities are being taken seriously, especially mental disabilities. We have been making progress on obvious areas such as wheelchair access for decades, but it’s really only in the last 10-20 years that society has started getting to grips with access for people who think differently. Disability discrimination is quite different from other forms of decision in one respect: whilst you generally need some pretty unpleasant views about someone’s race, sexuality or gender to discriminate on those grounds, disability discrimination can simply come down to thoughtlessness. Something as basic as failure to respect communication preferences can be huge problems for some people, an the fact this is finally being recognised is a good thing.

The problem is a lot of people are way ahead on being seen to be fighting disability discrimination than doing actual fighting. I’m afraid I’ve seen little evidence of any theatre making progress where it counts: identifying where the barriers are and removing them. The unfortunate truth is that the hard work needed for real change is an unglamorous job that requires a lot of trial and error, which offers few opportunities to advertise the good you’ve done. The one recurring problem I observe with the arts is that they will always pick a simple and easy solution with superficial changes over difficult and complex reforms that solve the root problem – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

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Brighton Fringe 2020 – at it happens

Sunday 1st November: At that brings to an end my coverage. Technically there are a few Brighton Fringe events still running, but they are mainly online performances, which is just as well all things considered.

To wind up, here’s the scores on the doors:

  • Outdoor theatre – both official Brighton Fringe events and unofficial affiliate The Warren Outdoors – has had an excellent season, with ticket sales looking very pleasing for most of the events I checked out. Admittedly the October events had a lot of luck on their side, avoiding most of the bad weather, but that won’t be such a problem in May.
  • Less clear what the state is for indoor theatre. Some performances I saw had tiny audiences, but I hear others sold out (albeit a sell-out on severely reduced capacity). I guess the big question will be how well dual live/streamed performances go, or whether there will still be a cause to take this up next May.
  • Larger-scale performances in Brighton have been less fortunate – Circus of Horrors was the big casualty, with permission to perform reduced with days’ notice. That’s going to be a big dampener on prospective large-scale acts.
  • Warren offshoot Electric Arcade joins Brighton’s line-up of year-round venues, but there’s serious worries over the future of The Rialto. You should be worried about this too – I believe the loss of the Rialto would have repercussions far beyond Brighton.
  • Brighton Fringe itself is now being run by The Pebble Trust in return for a bailout, but The Pebble Trust looks like it means business, with risk-sharing models being considered for Fringe 2021.

That’s all from me, and as it happens, all from theatre in general for a bit. Thanks for following this and goodbye.

Saturday 31st October: Ho Hum, Brighton Fringe has been insanely lucky with the wider course of events. Today’s news two weeks earlier would have been a disaster.

But what’s been has been, and amongst what’s already been output are three performances I’ve seen online: one online only, and two live plus online. One important caveat for all of these reviews: I’ve never entirely bought into digital theatre myself, and my concentration in my living room never really matches the undivided attention I give in an auditorium. All three of these plays were complex, so it is entirely possible that had I watched this live – as all three were meant to be done – I may have picked up some things I missed.

First up is Muse 90401. The Warren may have been a big player for Brighton Fringe in everything but name, but this is their sole contribution to official Brighton Fringe, as producer of Fadik Sevin Atasoy’s solo play. The credit this doubtless gets is that, out of all the things I saw at this year’s fringe, this has by far the most ambitious storyline, including Savage Beauty. This is set in a world where there’s a whole army of muses, with, as far as I can gather, at least 90400 other Muses in the same business. This particular one, however, have got the attention of the Muse authorities and is standing for Muse trial for her influence in Tolstoy, Shakespeare and da Vinci’s depictions of Anna Karenina, Cleopatra and the Mona Lisa respectively. Throughout the play, this Muse tells the story of those three women and how she influenced them for the better.

But, try as I might, I just cannot overcome the mind-boggling complexity of this setting. I gather that all Muses ha a Muse Map and use their Muse Magic, but the way they do their Muse stuff seems to arbitrarily vary, from whispering into the artist’s ear to going into a painting the alter a facial expression. In addition, there seems to be a confusingly ad-hoc system of Muse law, and I still can’t work out what she was supposed to have done to attract the wrath of the Muse judge – one would have thought three smash hits under her belt were a good thing, surely? There’s a hell of a lot to take in over 70 minutes, let alone conventional aspects such as characterisation.

Now, I should note that this is heavily based on Turkish folklore (indeed, this play has been performed in both Turkish and English), namely the storytelling form of “Meddah”. So it may well be that someone more used to this style may pick up what I didn’t, and if that’s the target audience, then by all means carry on what you’re doing. But for a wider audience, I cannot see any way round simplifying this somehow. Fadik Sevin Atasoy is clearly a formidable performer, and the most promising story thread I picked up was how none of the great artists she helped remember her. There may be some painful decision ahead on what to keep and explain, and what to leave out, but a more accessible version of this concept could go a lot further.

Next on my list is Make-Up from NoLogo Productions. Out of the three play, I’d say this is the safest, and therefore the most accessible. Much-loved drag queen Lady Christina has just left the stage and is now going back to being Chris. It begins with some frustrations over his career, how he seems to be a novelty for metrosexual men to prove their confidence in their sexuality, but it’s only ten minutes in where Chris notes the lack of a birthday card from his father, that we get to the real subject of the story. Chris’s working-class Irish father, seemingly the butt of too many Irish jokes, coped by deflecting on to other targets of jokes, such as the gays, Jews and Blacks – and when his son comes out, his father would rather save face and cut ties. Disowning his father is easy – the hard bit is keeping in touch with his mother.

It’s a well-written monologue that I suspect too many people will relate to, but the one thing I felt we didn’t hear enough about is, quite paradoxically, Lady Christina herself. The one thing we do hear about the link between the two is the story Chris made up for Lady Christina’s father: something fantastical, but more importantly, everything his real father was not. That was a bit of a missed opportunity, I felt – there could have been so much about how Chris built his later ego as a personal alternative to reality. Make-Up does its job as a tale as coping with family rejection – but be a bit bolder, and this could achieve more.

And finally, Unquiet Slumbers from Different Theatre, perhaps the biggest rising star of Brighton Fringe. Emily Bronte is dying, and in the final few days of her life she is visited by her greatest fictional creation, Cathy from Wuthering Heights. Condemned by her creator to forever wander her ghostly body on the moors, she wishes to discuss her author’s choices. Over Emily’s final week, there will be a lot of dissection of her literary worlds.

I will own up here: I don’t actually know any details of Wuthering Heights outside the Kate Bush song (I saw an Edinburgh Fringe play a few years back that I enjoyed, but it was far too concertinaed to squeeze into under an hour), and as such, I don’t think I picked up on some of the finer references. I therefore get the impression that this is in a similar position to Toby Belch is Unwell, where you really needed a detailed knowledge to Twelfth Night to follow what was going on. My guess is that anyone who knows Cathy Earnshaw well will get the most out of this play.

However, whilst Toby Belch very much belongs as a niche interest, I’m not sure that’s the right philosophy here. There’s plenty of real-life intrigue in the lives of the Bronte sisters, the most well-known being the initial decision to write under male pseudonyms, but Jane Austen openly wrote as a “lady novelist” thirty years earlier. And yet, in the three years that her book was published under the name of Ellis Bell, many critics were convinced the author must be male because of the depiction of cruelty. I’d love to know what Sam Chittenden’s take on this is, because she is very good at making the point in an understated way, but who knows, perhaps on this occasion it was a little too understated.

Friday 30th October: And to complete a roundup of who’s getting going, a quick look at who’s making moves in the north-east:

  • Newcastle Theatre Royal, as is now well-known, is going ahead with a big-scale pantomime thanks to a National Lottery grant. However the good news has already been soured by taking on front of house staff from an external agency instead of using their own staff. I will return to this another time.
  • Northern Stage, as I have already mentioned, has its first live performance at Christmas, with local favourites Kitchen Zoo doing a small-scale production (details coming Monday). They have also been doing various live performances in Byker, but so far only Byker locals have had the chance to see this live.
  • No word from Live Theatre yet, but they have been doing their entry-level writing event 10 Minutes To … for an online audience – normally a low-key affair, this has been very heavily publicised.
  • Alphabetti Theatre, having previously hinted there would be no re-opening until next year, have no just announced they are doing a Christmas production after all. This is probably the most innovative ideas, with 50-minute immersive performances to one household bubble of up to 5 staggered to start every 10 minutes.
  • The Gala Theatre is definitely not opening until next year as they’ve decided to do some refurbishment now whilst there’s not much trade. However, they are running an audio play Sunset on Tantobie, written by Alphabetti stalwart Gary Kitching and directed by Jake Murray from Durham Newcomers Elysium Theatre.
  • Not everybody is pushing forwards, however. In North and South Shields, the respective theatres of The Exchange and Customs House started reopening but then closed again.
  • The boldest theatre of all has to be Middlesbrough, who are adamantly going ahead with in indoor performance Dracula on Thursday next week. Middlesbrough pushed ahead with outdoor performances in the summer, so I’m not surprised they are taking the lead now.

Brighton peeps, don’t go away. I have been watching some online Brighton Fringe plays, and I have three reviews coming tomorrow.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2020

Skip to: The Spirit of Woodstock, Geoffrey Mead’s Tours, Savage Beauty, Anytime the Wind Can Change, Make-Up, Jekyll & Hyde, Unquiet Slumbers, (The Trial of Harvey Matusow)

Normally, the problem with these Fringe preview articles in wondering how to open them without it sounding the same as all the ones from previous years. Not this time. Brighton Fringe has taken a major hit with Coronavirus, postponed five months and only a fraction of its normal size. But with Edinburgh Fringe cancelled outright and Buxton mostly taking place online, the fact that a physical Brighton Fringe has managed to go ahead in any form is a big achievement.

It’s fair to say that, this year, Brighton Fringe is playing for pride. Had Coronavirus come under control a month or two sooner and stayed under control, you might have had a huge autumn fringe absorbing many of the would-be Edinburgh acts. But instead, social distancing is still is place and nerves over the lurgi are still fraught, so it’s a much diminished programme with only the most determined and most bloody-minded pressing ahead. But we we at chrisontheatre HQ admire determination and bloody-mindedness, and anyone who is in the programme, no matter how financially reckless that may be, has our respect.

To complicate matters further, it’s this time round it’s open to debate what should and shouldn’t count as part of Brighton Fringe. For a start, although the Fringe officially runs on the 1st-31st October, you are allowed to register shows running in one month either side, and some September-bound shows have indeed taken this up, meaning the Fringe has sort-of started already. The other complication is that Brighton Fringe’s most prominent venue, The Warren, has already gone ahead with an outdoor season. That almost certainly could not have waited until the official fringe; apart from the obvious disadvantage of mixing large venues open to the elements with October, The Warren Outdoors was also heavily dependent on giving Edinburgh-bound acts an alternative for August. They had to strike while the iron was hot. But even if that was officially separate from the Fringe, with such a strong associate you can consider it the fringe coming early (or late) in everything but name.

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The Prince and the Pauper: all hail Mary!

Gareth Cassidy as Princess Mary

Already a surefire hit for a New Vic Christmas production, the re-instatement of one historical character is a show-stealer.

Before everything got interrupted by the event, I had a a backlog of reviews, which I decided to clear as and when the respective theatres starting moving back to life. First off the mark is the New Vic, so let’s catch up on their Christmas production back in January. Before The Event. (Remember, don’t think about The Event.)

This is common knowledge to the New Vic regulars, but for the rest of my followers, the New Vic has one of the most lucrative Christmas seasons around. Whilst most pantos will settle for a run of six weeks or so, the New Vic runs for almost three months, due in a large part to attracting every school in Staffordshire (more or less). And with good reason too: artistic director Theresa Heskins has made this one of her top specialities. Last year’s Wind in the Willows showed what she is capable of producing (made even more impressive by a minor ensemble actor standing in for Mr. Toad at the last moment and making it look like the part had been written for him all along), and this year it’s the turn of the classic tale The Prince and the Pauper.

Mark Twain, best known for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, wrote this tale as a foray into “historical fiction” with his fictionalised story of boy king Edward VI and a street child he trades places with. However, being American, Mr Twain wasn’t that clued up on British Tudor history, whilst on this side of the pond every child has Divorced Behead Died etc. drilled in history lessons. As a result, some of the historical characters are people who we Brits neither recognise nor care about, whilst some better-known figures don’t really feature – and this is where Theresa Heskins takes the opportunity to make her mark. Out go a few stuffy Palace officials, and in come Princesses Mary and Elizabeth – and it’s future Mary who steals the show.

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Interview with Nicky Haydn on The Warren Outdoors

Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

Skip to review of West End On Sea.

Last month, I was invited to the launch of what is possibly the most ambitious venture in live performance since lockdown. The Warren, normally Brighton Fringe’s biggest venue, went ahead and created its own outdoor pop-up venue with socially distanced seating. I was impressed by what I saw, and, more importantly, it’s been getting the audiences it needed – something that was far from certain at launch.

But there was something that puzzled me – how was it possible to put together something of this complexity with less than a month’s notice that outdoor theatre performances were permitted? To answer this, and other questions on The Warren in general, I took advantage of a train/cycle holiday along the south coast to catch up with Nicky Haydn, artistic director of Otherplace, to hear more about this extraordinary story.

I literally don’t know when we decided to do this … It all began with a “what if?” What if we were able to create something outdoors? We had no idea if it could become a reality.

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The Wind in the Willows: The Panto!

It’s another one! An actual review of an actual live performance, and this time I don’t have to travel to Brighton for it! Theatre is, as you have probably gathered by now, thin on the ground. Although performances are now permitted, most theatres show little enthusiasm for either outdoor performances or indoor socially distanced performance, preferring instead to do online work. However, Middlesbrough Council has opted to buck the trend, with a few performances scheduled in outdoor venues they own. Unlike The Warren Outdoors diving straight into two months of back-to-back performances, Middlesbrough Council is being cautious; it only scheduled three performances, but judging how well tickets sold and how well-received the performances have been so far, it looks like they could have been a lot bolder. Indeed, The Wind in the Willows was supposed to be a single performance, but thanks to popular demand a second one was quickly added.

And so, I find myself giving the verdict for Immersion Theatre’s adaptation. The last adaptation I saw was the New Vic’s, which I liked for its drift between summer whimsy and a properly scary version of the Wild Woods. This version, I quickly discovered, goes for panto mode from start to finish. Now, I have previously been sniffy about “panto-quality humour”, but only because this style can be used as cover for formulaic writing and predictable jokes. Panto humour can work, but the number one rule is that you must be clear this is what your going for.

Writer/director James Tobias doesn’t muck about here. After the opening musical number of Mole and Ratty, scene two gives us the first appearance of wicked Weasel, hammed up as the pantomime villain. Booing is encouraged, and just in case anyone is still in doubt as to the genre, “Oh no I didn’t / Oh yes you did” comes into scene three to settle the argument. Toad’s song of “Who’s the Toad? You’re the toad!” draws in the audience further; meanwhile the humour is mostly groaners, with Weasel’s song about living of “Weaselly Street” being the sort of thing to expect. But rather than indulging in the usual mistake of building up one gag at a time such that the audience sees it a mile off, it’s one groaner after another faster than you can see them coming. As it should be.

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On Tyneside Cinema (part 1)

This article is one I hoped I would never have to write. It was almost three years ago that the scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein broke, but that event – and even subsequent news in closer places such as the Old Vic – felt like something happening far away. Now we face the real possibility of an abuse scandal on our doorstep. The north-east arts community is up in arms about this, and things could get uglier still. As a result, it was very tempting for me to steer clear of this subject. But I have often enough criticised arts media doing too much cheerleading for major cultural venues and not enough asking on questions, so I cannot in all conscience stay silent now. The reason this has taken so long to write is because I have had to keep fact-checking a constantly-updating story and run this past people whose advice I trust – not to mention the knowledge of how sensitive this subject is – but I am now ready to speak.

If you are based in the north-east and involved in the arts, you should know what’s happened by now. For everyone else: this all began in late June when an allegation was posted on Twitter from a woman who said she’d been raped by a member of staff at the venue – and this has escalated swiftly. Now large numbers of Tyneside Cinema staff and staff have come forward with other complaints, and it is this, combined with an arguably poor response from the management, that has prompted the BFI to take action. I am reserving final judgement on the Tyneside Cinema until I see what comes out of the various investigations, but as it stands, it doesn’t look good.

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Roundup: The Warren Outdoors

The top of The Warren against a sunset

Reviews: Skip to: Unmythable, Privates, Shit-Faced Shakespeare

It now looks like we’re in for a slow return for conventional indoor theatre. It’s not clear what’s pushing this more: a government dragging its feet over matters as trivial as actors projecting their voices, or theatres themselves deciding it’s not worthwhile for the foreseeable future. But bucking the trend are the outdoor theatres. Even though their go-ahead wasn’t that much ahead of their indoor counterparts, there are some venues determined to go ahead with whatever they can. And the one of greatest interest ot the fringe circuit is The Warren. Normally a pop-up venue that forms the centrepiece of Brighton Fringe, this has hastily reinvented itself as an outdoor venue on the beach. I was invited to the media launch day, as as a weekend visit to Brighton is probably the closest I’m going to get to a summer holiday this year, I decided to take it up.

I’ve already written the basics in my preview for both this festival and a similar outdoor festival in London, but to reiterate the main point, there are two approaches that outdoor events are using. Some are sticking to the traditional method of one ticket per person and making sure the audience are spread out. The Warren, however, has gone down the route of group ticketing. Their auditorium consists of fifty picnic tables, and one ticket equals one table seating up to six people. If you can manage six people from no more than two households, it works out considerably cheaper than six tickets at a normal fringe performance. The obvious drawback? It works out rather expensive if you’re not in a large group. To mitigate this, The Warren have now introduced “standby” tickets for up to two people that can be bought up to one hour before a performance if available (and it’s a safe bet they will be) – this keeps the price sane if there’s two of you, but I wish they’d do something similar for solo punters.

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Introducing the outdoor festivals

You may have noticed I’ve not been giving you a blow-by-blow account of how Coronavirus is affecting theatre. I made the decision some time ago to catch up on things when they were getting back to normal – there’s only so many stories of closures and redundancies you can carry before it gets depressing.

But … things are starting to move again. Outdoor theatre got the go-ahead on the 11th July, and all being well, indoor theatre gets the go-ahead on the 1st August. In practice, most indoor theatre is likely to resume much later, with ongoing social distancing remaining a barrier to viability. However, it looks like outdoor theatre is pushing ahead. Some of the permanent outdoor venues were very fast of the mark, with the Minack Theatre famously restarting its live storytelling on day one. However, the more interesting development is a speedy reinvention of indoor events as outdoor events.

Not everything has worked out – an intended tour of Six as an outdoor drive-in show was abandoned over uncertainty of possible future local lock-downs. But this hasn’t deterred everyone, and here’s a couple of notable festivals coming up.

The Warren Outdoor Season

It’s not clear exactly what’s going on with Brighton Fringe at the moment. As is stands it’s still postponed to autumn; I’m getting contradictory signals as to what this actually entails. However, one venue has chosen not to wait and is instead reinventing itself for the current climes. The Warren – in normal years Brighton fringe’s most prominent venue by a long way – has reinvented itself as an outdoor socially distanced venue for two months.

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