My thoughts on Alphabetti’s Aware

I said I wasn’t going to review Aware from Alphabetti Theatre – I don’t think I am fairly judge a performance based on artistic merit on an issue where I openly take sides. However, I presume a large part of Alphabetti Theatre’s aim is to raise awareness, I can do my bit by giving my own take on neurodiversity in respect of these issues. The short version is that I believe they did best you could realistically achieve from one productions, but there’s a lot of details to get through here.

First, a catchup on where Alphabetti Theatre is.* Alphabetti Theatre has gone from one of the most cautious theatres to one of the most bullish. Last year, when most theatres were looking at an autumn reopening, Alphabetti were predicting nothing until the New Year. They did go for a low-scale socially distanced production for Christmas, but we know what happened then. But when May 17th was named as re-opening date and numerous theatres went for that very week, Alphabetti went one step further and went for an audio production, Listen Up, which you could listen either online or at a table at the theatre. The table in theatre option didn’t go head in the end, but respect for trying nonetheless.

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Brighton Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Saturday 12th June, 6.00 p.m.:

Small update on patronage. Fairly long queue to get into The Warren at 4.00 today. I’m coming across quite a few shows that seem to be either sold out or close to sell-outs. Only weak spot seems to be the times we already know are weak times: straight after work weekdays, early afternoon weekends if hot.

No further updates from Brighton Fringe or any of the venues since the week 1 news we all heard about, but so far, there’s no sign of the start-of-fringe surge easing off.

Saturday 12th June, 2.30 p.m. – Polly, a drag rebellion:

This is the first time I’ve reviews drag cabaret at a fringe. I’m a theatre blogger and cabaret performances, drag or otherwise, are outside my area. But what the hell, this was a review request and Brighton is full of drag performers, so it’s about time I gave this a whirl. From what I know of drag, some drag performers do it for a laugh, whilst others take it very very seriously, with some aiming for convincing ultra-feminine personas and appearances. “Polly”, however, is quite comfortable sporting the big hairy beard of her alter-ego, Joe Stickland, and swaps a fantasy world of glamour and glitz for rants about the state of politics.

This doesn’t mean Polly can’t live in her own fantasy world though. After a rant and a warp-speed rap about her take on politics, she imagines how to put things to rights. She considers setting up a new political party, or just getting everyone to be more caring, but after weighing up the pros and cons she settles on controlling the British monarchy. With a tenuous claim involving a dalliance on the Isle of Wight that puts here something like 300th in line to the throne, and arranging for the 299 ahead of her to all die in tragic accidents, she gets the phone call that starts “Good afternoon, your majesty”. But, sadly, building a better society based on mass murder never works out, and soon Polly finds herself as bad as the people she replaced. Even the world’s most notorious dictators think Polly’s gone a bit too far. And the moral of the story, I guess, is that mass murder to take control of the British throne might seem like a tempting short cut, it’s more rewarding to be nice to people.

Polly/Joe certainly has a commanding stage presence that makes for a good performance. I can’t really comment on whether this bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret act is any good, because I don’t have any other bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret acts to compare this to. But if you can’t get enough of your bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret acts, or you’ve always wondered what a bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret act would be like, or you simply like your drag cabaret performaces to be more beard-themed or mass muder/regicide themes, this is the show for you.

Saturday 12th June, 11.00 a.m

Latest from Edinburgh: the Guardian is reporting that Edinburgh Festivals are getting millions of pounds in emergency funding. At present, no details are given about who said this, how many millions this is, or how this is to be distributed between the six festivals. It does, however, reiterate the fears that anyone following this has long since put in the “No shit, Sherlock” list of deductions: the festival may never fully recover.

Have to say, there’s more in this article that concerns me and reassures me. The first thing that gets me uneasy is the weight given in this article to talking down the fringe. Yes, 2019 wasn’t exactly the Fringe’s finest year, but this reads uncomfortably close to the directors of six festivals jostling for limited bailout money and rounding on the fringe as the one who doesn’t deserve that much help. The second thing is an omission on what supporting the fringe means. Unlike most of the festival, the Edinburgh Fringe only does the central administration, with the big financial liabilities lying with the venues. Without that, the mitigation to the damage done to the fringe will be minimal.

However, I will try to propose a more positive scenario. Perhaps the reason Shona Macarthy hasn’t been as vocal as she was a few weeks back is that the Scottish Government have got the message, and they are negotiating a package behind the scenes that she’s sufficiently happy with to go along with it. And it is my understanding that the Pebble Trust’s bailout of Brighton Fringe did extend to financial support of the venues. That was an undisputed success (although there’s still some grumblings about whether venue support was fairly distributed). Maybe the same can be achived here.

However, in the case of the fringe, money may be the least of the problems. The real problem may be the confidence of performers and venues. Brighton Fringe is leading the way on festival recovery. The pop-up festivals from the Big Four in London and Coventry will probably follow. The small fringes in England appear to be in for a good summer. Even if the Edinburgh Fringe itself gets generous support, that won’t necessarily undo an impression surely – setting into many people – that you’ll get a far warmer welcome away from Edinburgh.

Part of me wonders if the Scottish Government are taking Edinburgh’s status as world festival capital for granted. Another part of me wonders if the Scottish Government are setting up Edinburgh Fringe to fail. I have a post coming up where I will consider seven possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe. As always, hot take and controversy guaranteed.

Friday 11th June, 11.30 p.m.:

And one observation before bed time. One question I will be looking for answers to this weekend is whether the excellent start to Brighton Fringe in the first week can be sustained to the (sort of) mid point. In practice, I don’t think selling the entire forecasting fringe’s sales every week is going to happen, but even a mdoest drop from a start-of-fringe peak would be an excellent result.

Well, one early sign is at The Warren, which I entered at 9.30 tonight, and there were just as many people queuing outside as I saw in the first weekend. Of course, lots of people go the The Warren just to drink, and that doesn’t necessarily mean ticket sales are going at the same rate, but so far, there’s no sign that the excellent beginning to the fringe is tailing off yet.

I’ll keep you updated as more info comes in.

Friday 11th June, 4.30 p.m.:

And here I am. No need to start off with some first-sight impressions because Brighton Fringe looks pretty much the same as it was when I left it, except that it’s somewhat cooler.

So instead, I wrote this piece about my reaction to Aware, three films done as the first in-person performance (albiet films) at the newly-reopened Alphabetti Theatre back home. At some point, I will round up the situation with theatre re-opening in the north-east, but Alphabetti seems to have gone from the most cautious to the most bullish. However, on this ocasion I am not here to commentate on re-opening plans or review something. I’m here to give my thoughts on the issue of neurodiversity that these films strive to cover. In sumary, I thought what it chose to cover, it covered well, but so far neither Alphabetti nor the other north-east theatres have made any real progress addressing the issue of inclusion. If you want me to expand on that, come this way.

However, whilst we’re on this subject, now is a good time to mention the first of two Lava Elastic shows. This is a variety show which is well outside my area of remit for reviews, but I promote this because Sarah Saeed who runs this actually is doing domething about inclusion. She understands what the barriers are, does something about it, and her other company, Stealth Aspies (not running this fringe but will hopefully be back soon) covers the issues that too many people don’t realise matter. Lava Ealstic isn’t there to educate you, though, it there to have a good time. First showing this Sunday at 2.30, Sweet Werks, and another in two weeks, same place, same time.

Friday 11th June, 11.00 a.m:

Okay, here I come again. Brighton Fringe part two, come about as it seems increasingly unlikely we’re going to have an Edinburgh Fringe part one. But let’s forget about that for a while.

Everyone who requested an in-person review between now and Monday: you should have heard from me by now. If not, please get in touch ASAP so I can sort this out.

Excuse me, the newly-build Werrington underpass is coming up. That’s proper exciting.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2021

Groups sitting outside the Pavillion
Credit: Dumphasizer

Skip to: Badass Be Thy Name, About the Garden, Skank, The Tragedy of Dorian Grey, Jekyll & Hyde: A one-woman show, Rebel Boob, Clean, Spirit of Woodstock, The Ugly Ducking, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, Dapha Baram, Notflix, Geoff Mead’s tours

Well then. Who’d have guessed it?

This time last year, I idly speculated 2020 might work in Brighton Fringe’s favour. With Edinburgh Fringe cancelled and Brighton only postponed, an autumn fringe that picked up Edinburgh refugees might have done well. In the end, Coronavirus was just too stubbornly persistent for any fringe to be considered a winner – in fact, we now know the financial situation at Brighton was so dire it was a miracle an October Fringe went ahead at all. As it was, it about a tenth of the normal size, with attention rapidly shifting towards a proper relaunch in 2021 for both Brighton and Edinburgh. Then along came the accursed Kent variant, and Brighton announced a delay of three weeks. Would that be enough?

But in the last couple of months, there has been a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. In the end, Brighton has managed a fringe about half the size of 2019. There are some caveats to this number which I’ll cover shortly, but the news that nobody predicted comes north of the border. The Scottish government is insisting on two-metre social distancing, which as it stands will extend into August, much to the protest of Scottish theatres. It is difficult for a conventional theatre to work that way, but for a fringe theatre it’s next to impossible. As a result, so far all of the major venues have held off announcing anything. At the time of writing, news is emerging for the first fringe registrations, making use of some of Edinburgh’s biggest buildings and outdoor spaces, but that’s tiny compared to what the Big Four normally do.

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Enough is enough. The arts industry must stop pretending self-policing works.

COMMENT: It is no longer acceptable for arts organisations to behave behave like abuse going on elsewhere isn’t their problem. If the arts industry does not take collective responsibility for its failures over safeguarding, it is complicit.

It was dispiriting enough writing about the alleged (and now pretty much proven) abuse at Tyneside Cinema, but I really didn’t expect another three scandals to follow. There came the abusive vice-principal at Ballet West that resulted in the closure of the Ballet school. Then just over a month ago it was back to the north-east with the region’s biggest and most powerful music promoter – and now, of course, it’s Noel Clarke. I will say up-front that in the latter two cases the allegations are still just allegations, Noel Clarke and SSD’s Steve Davis deny the allegations made against them personally, and we’ll need to wait for the investigations to finish before making a final conclusion. But I’m done with commentating on individual cases. It’s the sheer numbers I’m now concerned about. It now seems that every time we deal with one scandal and try to move on, another one takes its place. Four in twelve months, plus who knows how many regional scandals are happening outside the north-east.

I’m tired of scandal after after scandal after scandal being put down to a few bad apples. Something is going very badly wrong in the arts industry – but for years the arts industry seems to have been in a collective state of denial. One thing that all of these four scandals have in common:it was not the arts industry that brought thing to light; two broke through social media, and the other two came through investigative journalism. And yet – with a few honourable exceptions – everybody who’s anybody in the arts has historically behaved like it was always the responsibility of other people over there, and nothing to do with them, nothing needs to change. Enough is enough. This isn’t good enough any more.

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Online theatre roundup 2

Skip to: Dirty Laundry, In Plain Sight, Nonsense and Sensibility, and Jesus Christ Superstar

Ho hum, my last online theatre roundup was supposed to be my only article about online theatre. I was intending to get back to proper theatre by now. But with the lurgi refusing to make an exist without being as big of a pain in the arse as possible on its exit, I’m still on this.

A small list this time, and I’ve already caught up with most of the things I wanted to catch up on, but I have four things for you before we get back to normal service.

Dirty Laundry

This one, I confess, should have been reviewed last time round, but I forgot. Better late than never, I hope.

Two years ago, Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew pulled one of theatre’s bigger surprises.* They had risen through the ranks of Northern Broadsides to produce their own plays in their own style to huge acclaim, and when long-standing Artistic Director Barrie Rutter left, Conrad Nelson became his interim replacement. I assumed he had the permanent post in the bag, but not only did he step down, he and his wife decided it was time for a change and left the company completely. Instead, they decided to put all their energy into what started off as their side-project: Claybody Theatre. Unlike the Broadsiders, this was a very local company producing plays of interest to Stoke-on-Trent. As a result, they have very much dropped out of the national spotlight. But not my spotlight, because I happen to have a sister who lives there.

*: At least surprising by pre-2020 standards of surprise.

With one of their first Claybody plays, Dirty Laundry, now made available as an audio play, I took the chance to see what they were up to. And if you’re a fan of their Broadsides work, the first thing than strikes you is what a different direction they’re going in; the second thing that may strike you is how much more specialist the appeal is. The target audience here is Stokies through and through, and more specifically, Stokies who know about the Six Towns’ long history with pottery. I’ve only recently learnt about it myself – and it’s fair to say that if you know nothing about Stoke or Pottery this story may not grab your attention – but I have learnt enough to appreciate how well McAndrew has done her homework here.

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Why it’s right to stop covering SSD Concerts

Note: I wrote this article on the 3rd April, after Narc magazine published its editorial about not covering SSD events but before the manager announced his resignation – that happened between writing the first draft and linking the sources. However, I am posting this anyway, as what I said still applies.

COMMENT: It is too soon to pass judgement on the sexual harassment allegations on Glassdoor. But as long as SSD continue to respond to the allegations the way they are, NARC Magazine is correct to stop covering their events.

When I wound up my coverage of the Tyneside Cinema scandal, I finished by saying I did not want to come back in a few years’ time when the next scandal breaks and ask why nothing was done. Well, never mind years – it is barely six months since the damning report and the resignation of the CEO and Chair of Trustees and we’ve got another case on our hands. This time, it’s in the music scene, specifically in relation to SSD Concerts, regarded by many as the leading music promoter in the north-east from big events to the grass roots. On this occasion, however, we do not have to wait for pressure from a major funder before action is taken; numerous bands and venues have cut ties in protest.

Normally, when an organisation is implicated in serious allegations, I open my coverage with an examination of the evidence available. And that is indeed what I tried to do here; it was slow business, with events continually moving as was I writing. However, one event has taken place that has spurred me into action: NARC magazine has announced it is ceasing its coverage of SSD events. (See also this page for numerous links to background info.) It is fair to note that – unlike Tyneside Cinema, where it was possible to sit on the fence – NARC, as a magazine dominated by music coverage, had to pick a side this time. But it is my understanding (based on an off-the-record source that I trust) that this editorial decision was not made out of obligation, but was taken proactively and wholeheartedly. Having criticised the local arts media for inaction during previous scandals, I shall now back them up for doing the right thing.

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The Gorilla play: a bitter disappointment

After a decade of performances from the greatest cultural icon ever to grace The Fringe, the outdoor immersive version of A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves produced for lockdown is such a let-down.

Edinburgh Fringe punters like to boast about which up-and-coming act they saw before they made it big, but even those who saw the breakthrough performances of Steve Coogan, Graham Norton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge turn green with envy when hearing from someone who’s seen the legendary play A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves. Ever since artistic genius Liam El Groog’s seminal performance in 2009 with the elegance of Shakespeare, wit of Wilde and adrenalin rush of Tarantino, tickets have been like gold dust; and with just one performance per fringe, they are snapped up within minutes of release. It is rumoured that Kate Copstick was turned away one year after being caught handing over a four-figure sum on the black market, and the less said about the punch-up between Lyn Gardner and Brian Logan over the only press ticket, the better.

But whilst few have been lucky enough to see it in person, illicit footage smuggled out of the venue reveals it’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and more. The beauty of A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves is that is it does exactly what it says. El Goog, clad in his outfit of a Gorilla – who in turn purports to be a male senior citizen by use of flat cap and pipe – takes his seat in a rocking chair. But does not just sit in a rocking chair, but instead he sits rocking in a rocking chair. Until, after almost an hour, he just leaves. What does it mean? David Attenborough describes it as a hard-hitting account of the humiliations we inflict on our primate cousins; Lucy Worsley interprets the sequence as an ingenious juxtaposition of evolution with craftsmanship; whilst Brian Cox lauds the variety of chair-rocking techniques employed as a fascinating exploration of rotational dynamics, up there with Gallileo’s model of the solar system. Or maybe it is combination of all of these. One thing is certain: no two people amongst the spellbound audience interpret the play in the same way.

And so, when the pandemic hit, and artists were forced to explore new ways of connecting audiences, there was much excitement over what this man would do (if Liam El Goog is indeed a young man – the way that undercuts the veracity of our perceptions being one of the most underrated achievements of the story). Would he find a new and innovative way to reach out to a new audience beyond the cramped confines of a studio space? Finally, a chance for the thousands, maybe millions, of people unable to get a coveted live performance, to experience for themselves the sight of a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man sitting rocking in a rocking chair for fifty-six minute then leaving. But sadly, a series of ill-judged decisions on how to present this masterpiece through cyberspace has squandered this golden opportunity, and – I’m afraid to say – left his reputation in tatters.

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The Ike Awards hall of fame: 2017

Skip to: Leaving, Between You and Me, No Miracles Here, Cockroached

Theatre blog fans will remember that that when my list of theatre thing to cover suddenly dried up owing to this Thing In The News you might have heard about, I’d take the opportunity to catch up on something I’d been meaning to do for some time: backdate my Ike Awards to the start of my blog. The Ike Awards, I may remind you, are my equivalent to a 5-star review for a review publication that doesn’t use star ratings. I’d originally planned to go all the way up to the present, but I then discovered I liked the retrospective element: commenting on the plays I loved the most once more, years after I’d seen it. Sometime, it was interesting to see what happened next; sometimes, it was just fun to recall how good it was.

So I decided to leave a four,year gap, with the 2017 retrospective to come in 2021, long after the aforementioned Thing In The News is over. Spoiler: it’s still going on (sad-trombone.wav). But not to be daunted, let’s have a look at the year. A shorter list than usual, but also one of the most disparate.

Leaving

Sometimes I have predicted artists starting out will go on to great things and gone on to the proven right, but sometimes I proven wrong by the people I underrated Although Paddy Campbell’s debut, Wet House, was a big success, I wasn’t that enthused with what I felt was a lack of plot. What I underestimated, however, is just how good he was at the thing he does best, which is writing about what he knows. All of his plays were based on his experiences of working in social care, and this grew stronger, but it was piece of verbatim theatre that topped it all.

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Live reaction to the Sia film

Content warning: contains commentary to depictions of disability that some people may find offensive (duh)

6.00 p.m.: And thank you to everyone follow me except the Sia superfan on Twitter who’s been stalking me, straw-manned me at least twice, and paid no regard to the fact I might know something about this subject.

So, here’s the low-down of what I’ve learned:

  • Sia’s film isn’t quite as bad as I expected, but only because my expectations were rock bottom after her fucking awful trailer.
  • The obvious problem which everybody is rightly calling out is the excessive amount of “cripping up” done to depict a character. I don’t agree that you shouldn’t be allowed to produced something that some people find offensive (if you did no-one could produce anything), but it is good practice to avoid causing offence if it’s not necessary. Sia failed miserably there.
  • The less obvious problem is that the character of Music is relentlessly portrayed as incapable of everything and anything. And yes, there are some people whose conditions are that bad. But Sia said the point of the film was to show autism is a gift. What gift? She might have intended to depict that, but I didn’t pick that up and I don’t see how anyone else could.
  • The other thing that might have saved the film was getting to know Music beyond the disability. But that didn’t happen. The character was barely developed in the second half of the film at all, and that was the biggest missed opportunity to redeem the film.
  • One thing that counts in the film’s favour is Kate Hudson’s portrayal as Zu. If you cut Music out of the film completely – and let’s face it, that depiction isn’t going to be missed by anyone – we could probably have had an okay film about an ex-alcoholic struggling with rehabilitation.
  • To be honest, however, I think the root problem is that Sia is completely out of her depth. You really need to know what you’re doing to pull off something this outlandish, and this is more like a Tom Hooper take on Cats than a David Lynch take on a detective series. Sia may well have intended to put positive features of Music’s character into the script, but that just doesn’t come across at all.
  • The worst problem, however, are the people rallying around her. The film comes uncomfortably close to saying all autistic people are incapable of anything and they’re a burden on society and all carers are martyrs – but the more her fans double down on defending the film, the closer they get to the ideology of Autism Speaks, even though they say they have nothing to do with it. I’m pretty easy going, but for once, this worries me.

So I’m signing off. Thank again for joining me on this marathon. Let me know if you want to buy the film. I paid £8. I’ll burn it on to DVD. And then snap it in half.

Goodnight.

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Don’t be mad at Seyi Omooba. Save your anger for Christian Concern.

COMMENT: The outcome of The Colour Purple is a cause for relief for the arts – but we must not allow the organisation behind this to make it into their victory.

I never seriously expected this court case to go any other way, but I’m thankful Leicester Curve won and Seyi Omooba lost. To an outside observer not familiar with the story, you might be forgiven for thinking for believing this was a case about religious discrimination. If it had been that, I would have been on her side. It was not. This was about the right for religious people do engage in whatever form of discrimination they choose just as long as their preferred brand of bigotry is mandated by their religion. Had she won, the precedent would have been catastrophic, not just for the arts, but everywhere. Thanks goodness she didn’t get her way.

And, inevitably, the arts world is making her into a pariah, not that I blame people for feeling that way too much. I’m staying out of the dogpile because I don’t kick artists when they’re down. Seyi Omooba’s career in the arts is almost certainly finished – who’s going to want to employ someone who pulls that sort of stunt? – but I still find career-gravedancing distasteful. Even if she brought it on herself. Even if there was no option but to end her career this way. They other reason I’m not joining in is that I’m uncomfortable with the arts world’s habit of making pariahs out of individuals. Especially here. Seyi Omooba is, at best, an expendable footsoldier, and at worst, a brainwashed victim. The real enemy is the organisation who put her up to this, Christian Concern, and if we do not realise that now, we will regret it later.

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