Edinburgh Fringe 2018 – as it happens

This page will be added to over the course of the Edinburgh Fringe. Keep returning here for more updates, at least once per day.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Match, The Fetch Wilson, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, This Is Just Who I Am, Proxy, Neverwant, Vivian’s Music, 1969

Sunday 19th August: Sorry, I know I gave you  teaser for something contentious, but I’d been busy all day finishing a play. I’ll save my rant for when I have more energy.

In the meantime, a couple of interesting things from FringeReview has come up. Firstly, there is this article about late reviews and the effect this has on performers. It’s written from the perspective of performers stumbling across reviews written after the fringe and finding something unexpectedly bad, or good, and recognises the nature small blod where there’s no telling when a review might appear. It would be less of an issue if people actually wrote reviews on time and not several months later, of course – which lazy bastards do this [whistles innocently]?

Seriously, though this is good food for though for reviewers as well as performers. People have all sorts of reasons why reviews might take ages to come out, but you can at least bear in mind the effect of someone stumbling across the review on Google months later. Off-hand I can’t think of any special rules for this, but it does add more importance to principles such as trying to say what was good – and when you have to criticise, keep it helpful and constructive.

The other thing of interest is a Devoted and Disgruntles discussion today about the cost of the Edinburgh Fringe. They’re meant to write up these discussions so I’ll have a better look in the next couple of days, but a few points came up on FringeReview’s Twitter feed. Have to say, what I’ve seen so far doesn’t fill me with much hope – quite a lot of talk of what should happen, but not much idea of how to achieve it.

But I’ll wait at see what other info ones out of the discussion. In the meantime, a reminder of my radical solution.

Can I go to bed now?

Saturday 18th August: It’s unusual for me to take so long to get round to this, but I really need to get round to seeing how plays I’ve seen or recommended are getting on with other reviews. To begin with the big disclaimer: in the long run, popularity with audiences is far more important than what reviewers think. However, audience reaction is difficult to measure objectively, but reviews are easier. If a play is performing consistently well or consistently badly in reviews, that’s a fairly reliable sign that the audience will feel the same way.

So the thing that prompted me to get a move on with this is a 4* review from FringeGuru for Year Without Summer. I wouldn’t normally make a big deal out of one review, but I think it’s fair to balance my lukewarm review. This reviewer, Alan Brown, is more of a literary expert than me, and he goes out of his way to praise the historical detail. It is also fair for me to remind you that at the time I was seeing this, the standard of what else I was seeing was exceptional, making it a lot harder to stand out from the crowd. So I will at least recommend this play for anyone who’s familiar with the setting, because it looks like you’ll recognise the real events quite quickly.

I’m not going to give an exhaustive run-down of everything, but some ratings catch my interest. Vivian’s Music, 1969 appears to be having a good fringe for a low-key production, with a 5* review from the list – I can also attest here that everyone I’ve spoken to who’s seen it has gone out of their way to praise it. I’m remaining the cheerleader-in-chief for Proxy though – alongside my 5*-equivalent on their site is a 4* from The List and a 3* from Broadway Baby.

Neverwant, as I said before, is one of the most interesting ones to watch. They’ve so far got a 5* from Business Daily and 4* from British Theatre Guide, and, I gather, a 4* from the Sunday Mail. This looks impressive but I would urge some caution here – Business daily and Sunday Mail are unknown qualtities, and BTG, whilst more mainstream, is one of the most enthusastic reviewers of the Bite Size Breakfast show. It also got “Good Show” from FringeReview, but FringeReview have overhauled their ratings system and I don’t understand it any more. But to go back to the original question – is it enough? Unlike some previous Bite Size experiments, Bill Knowelden’s plays could become a long-term fixture from Bite-Size in Edinbrugh. A long way to go before this catches up with the popularoity of the Breakfast show (which, let’s face it, is a massively high bar to clear), but I’d say this is easily a good enough start to keep going.

One thing I must report for sake of balance is Nina’s Got News. One crumb of comfort is that amongst all the terrible reviews are a couple of 4* ones from Broadway Baby* and Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These are probably too late to turn things round for BBC Debut and won’t be enough to pacify the critics, but it softens the blow slightly and allows those invovled to walk away with a bit more pride.

(*: One small note of caution here: The Broadway Baby review came out quite late – nothing unusual about that normally, but my spies have been telling me that review requests from other publications were declined. I’m stopping short of calling shenanigans simply because I don’t see how they could be playing the system, but it’s an unexplained oddity.)

And the last one of interest is Build a Rocket. Those reviews are mostly good, but there is a caveat here. That, however, is part of the subject for tomorrow’s update.

Friday 17th August: Rounding off the reviews from my first Edinburgh Fringe visit is Kin. Max Dickins came to my attention two years ago with The Trunk, a solo play he performed that was different: a temporary job as a coroner that turned into a quest to bring a human story back to a woman who died alone. Following on from a play the year before about the case of a missing man, I liked the theme he was developing of forgotten people getting the remembrance due. So this play, at first glance, seems to go along with this theme. Two sisters, who have not seen each other for over twenty years, are reunited for the first time by the imminent death of the father that neither of them cared for that much. This set up an interesting premise of the back-story of his life.

In the story, neither daughter cared for their father that much, but the younger sister considers it her duty to be there for him, whilst the older one washes her hands of her whole family and make a living in the financial sector. Inevitably, when they meet, the old tensions flare up again. And then … I’m not sure. Most of the play – set over the next few days as father bids the world “so long” and the funeral is arranged – consists of on-off bickering. A back-story develops, consisting of mediocre marriages and old grievances from teenage years, but nothing really grabbed my attention to make me think “I wonder what happens next”. The most interesting twist in the story is what happens to the more ambitious sister’s career whilst she’s out of the office – but that came out of the blue, with little to hint it was coming, and has little bearing on the rest of the story. Again, I found myself wanting something extra to drive it forwards.

This has a four-star review from The List – I did read this to see I’d missed anything, and whilst I didn’t pick up anything new, it’s fair to acknowledge someone else has seen something I didn’t. It’s not that I particularly disliked anything about the play – it was more a mild disappointment that the elements of The Trunk that stood out and made that play memorable here don’t seem to feature here. The acting and overall production were decent though, so if you want to catch this it’s to 4 p.m. at Underbelly Cowgate.

Thursday 16th August: I’ve been clearing the reviews from my Edinbrugh Fringe part 1 quite leisurely, but I’m down to the last two now. Time for A Year Without Summer, something that I’ve been curious about for a couple of years. Literature buffs will know that 1816 is notable for two things: firstly, there was a volcanic winter that dropped temperatures all over the world (if we all die of global warming, at least we’ll get some sunbathing in first); and secondly, this is thought to be the year that Mary Shelley had the idea for Frankenstein.

This production has had a bumpy ride – the Brighton run had to be cancelled after one cast member pulled out, but Andrew Allen held his nerve, assembled a new cast, and went ahead with the Edinburgh one. The play is situated in a Bohemian retreat at Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, but having disgraced themselves in the prudish eyes of polite society, are staying with respective lovers Claire and Mary Clairmont. Originally performed with a cast of five, it’s now a cast of three (with Percy perpetually indisposed in bed), which I think suits be play better as a more claustrophobic and intimate setting. The production flows smoothly and is acted well, with no sign of the woes it faced back in May.

There’s a lot of information in this play – clearly Allen did his homework here and studies a lot of the characters and the fateful meet-up. However there feels like there’s something missing from the play, and quite infuriatingly, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. But something extra is needed to maintain interest on top of the historical information and characterisation. The year without summer only gets an incidental mention in the script, as does the seedling of an idea for the future Mary Shelley’s future masterpiece. Could more have been made of one of these?

It’s certainly an interesting play to watch though, and certainly interesting to see a rare crossover from reviewer to artist, and also good to see a play bounce back after Brighton setback. This is running at Sweet Grassmarket at 5.30 for the rest of the festival.

Wednesday 15th August: As promised, here’s my new blog post. Hopefully a controversial one:

Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh

The TL;DR version:

  • Fringe theatre is growing across the board.
  • Most of the arts industry and arts media see Edinburgh Fringe as the place to go.
  • As a result, more people are coming to Edinburgh than the city has capacity for, and as always happens when demand outstrips supply, costs skyrocket.
  • The only solution way to balance supply and demand is to start giving places other than the Edinburgh Fringe the same amount of recognition so that people don’t feel the need to do “Edinburgh or bust”.

This stance involves slaying a sacred cow or two, but there’s no less radical solution.

But if you want to see the Monty Python reference, you’ll have to read the article.

Tuesday 14th August: Next on the backlog is Notflix. This will be a quick review because I don’t have much to add from my 2016 review, but it’s a pleasure to see a group who performed in one of Gilded Balloon’s smallest spaces back then now performing in one of the biggest spaces. Notflix do improvised musicals of films, preferably misremembering the plot and outdoing Hollywood for painful cliches. This time they did an improvised musical on Avengers: Infinity War. I haven’t actually seen this film but I think I followed it – if nothing else, I now finally know the in-joke behind all these “I don’t feel so good” memes. I’m told that this musical was more true to the original story than their version of The Titanic, but as their version involved the ship not sinking, that’s quite a low bar to clear.

As always with improv, a lot of what I could write about won’t be seen again – although if they reprise the plot twist in another Marvel movie where manly manly manly Thor comes out as gay, I’d be quite happy to see it again. One of the thing I liked about this is that, even when they make mistakes, it’s funny, and not just the easy get-out of “well, that was a bit crap, wasn’t it?” When Doctor Strange and Doctor Who are mixed up it’s done in a funny way (although I’d have stuck with Doctor Who – come on, who doesn’t want Doctor Who in an Marvel movie). When one of them forget the name of the character she’s playing, she just says “I’m Scarlett Johansson and I’ve forgotten my real name”. Most, of all, however, I continue to be impressed by how polished the songs are, even they are done on the fly. They are even better than some properly rehearsed conventional musicals.

So this brings me quite nicely on to a topic FringeReview brought up today, on exactly how improvised these improvised shows actually are. I’d originally assumed Notflix had a bank of tunes ready and improvised the words – they insist they don’t do that and the music is just as improvised as everything else, and I believe them. I’ve also seen improvised puppetry from Boris and Sergey which would have been impossible to pre-plan, and I also saw Murder She Didn’t Write which has fully improvised. However, I often hear complaints of people who see an improv show once, then go back and see it a second time and realise how similar it is. So the big questions is: if you plan the structure of a show in advance, is that really improv? Should you be allowed to call it that?

I’m honestly at a loss on this one. I am of course most impressed by groups like Notflix who improvise everything, including the things I thought impossible to improvise, but am I setting my expectations unreasonably high? If an improv show is really semi-scripted, does that actually matter? You can still get the spontaneity and fun that a fully-scripted show can’t deliver, and if that means the audience still enjoys themselves, one might argue that’s all that counts. But is it false advertising? Is it fair on punters who come back expecting something different? I can’t make a head nor tail of it. I’ll follow the FringeReview discussion and see where that goes – in the meantime, feel free to tell me your thoughts.

Hmm, I’ve got my other paperwork out of the way. I might have time to write by article now. It’ll be controversial. Don’t go away.

Monday 13th August: Right, let’s get back to reviews, and it’s about time I had a look at Build a Rocket, the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s contribution to the Edinburgh Fringe. This, I think, is a first for the Stephen Joseph Theatre – I’ve never known them do the Edinburgh Fringe before, and presumably this is a Paul Robinson initiative. Certainly he’s the one directing this play. Minor spoiler warning coming – I’m not going to give away any bombshell plot twists that change everything, but if you have already decided to see this, I advise you to stop reading and watch it cold. Everyone else, read on.

To get any mismanaged expectations out of the way, no actual rockets are built in Build a Rocket. Instead, this is the story of Yasmin (Serena Manteghi), a teenage girl in Scarborough who gets herself pregnant thank to a dalliance with a lecherous loverat of a local DJ. Or it might be someone else who’s the father, but that’s little consolation either way. In fact, there’s very little consolation anywhere. She comes from a household with hardly any money as it is. Yasmin’s mother can barely help herself, let alone her daughter. Her chance of getting good GCSEs was squandered by the distraction over her boyfriend before he turned out to be a lecherous scumbag.

Other plays like this might serve as a commentary on teenage deprivation. Might even attract criticisms of poverty porn. But Christopher York’s play has something in common with another Robinson-directed play I saw, And Then Come the Nightjars: the story continues after the main event. It only when Yasmin has no choice but to make something out of nothing when things start to turn around. Not immediately it will still be a long hard struggle, but by the day of her son’s A-level results*, they will. As always, solo plays usually need to be something more than an actor standing telling a story, but that is delivered handsomely here, with a highly-choreographed movement and sound plot serving the play well.

(* Footnote: I sneaked a look at the exam results paper after the play finished and all the grades were fails. I appreciate the theatrical convention is that you don’t need documents on stage to be exact replicas of the real thing if the text is too small for the audience to read, butit does bring a rather bleak twist to the play when you look at is this way.)

There is one other thing I wish to highlight here. When Paul Robinson was announced as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, with his record of new writing, one question I had was whether he would look locally for it, and if so, how local it would be. This matters. I can think of some theatres (won’t say who) who make a big deal of bringing culture to areas of low cultural engagement, who proceed to ignore all the local talent on offer and import it from elsewhere. The Stephen Joseph Theatre has done the opposite and engaged with the people of Scarborough at all levels, from beginners’ writing classes to the professional production and everything in between. Build a Rocket is a success story for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but more importantly a success story for looking beyond the major cities and appreciating what’s on your doorstep. A lot of other theatres could learn some lessons here.

Sunday 12th August: Small update of the Nina’s Got News car crash. The BBC and cop-producers Avalon have responded. The BBC’s defence is the one I expected, but a reasonable one: they support writing at all levels and the Debut scheme was just one of many ways they support new writing. Avalon’s defence is a little less impressive and saying “it’s too early to tell whether the plays worked or not” sounds very much like denail, although, to be fair, I don’t see what else they could have said – “Yeah, they’re a bit shit” may have been more truthful but not the sort of thing you can really say when the run’s going. Anyway, I’ll leave it up to aspiring screenwriters to say what they think of the BBC’s response – I guess a key consideration is how much this cost, and what else it could have been spent on.

Changing the subject, we are about to do into week two, and there’s a few shows in my pick list on short runs.

Tomorrow and Tuesday only, we have Doktor James’s Beast Klub, which is on at 9.30 p.m. at Sweet Grassmarket so I presume this is a gown-up show. I am told that Rule One of Beast Klub is “Do Not Talk About Beast Klub” and Rule Two of Beast Klub is “If you do not find true love by your twenty-first birthday you shall remain a beast forever”. I’m putting in a steward’s enquiry here – as far as I can tell, Rule One should be Rules One and Two, which would make Rule Two Rule Three. But if you want to see the genesis of the latest show, now is your chance. Be quick. (This isn’t registered with Edfringe, so you’ll need to get the ticket from Sweet Venues.)

Beasts are doing their “best of” show on a short run for a change, and that’s on Thursday to Sunday . If you’ve seen beasts before, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t – well, you’ll find out the hard way. 8.20, Pleasance Dome. And Isobel Rogers is also running Thursday – Sunday at 9.40 p.m. at Pleasance Dome (again) with Elsa, which I put on my recommendations for being something unique, straddling theatre, comedy, music and storytelling.

I will resume on reviews tomorrow.

Saturday 11th August: But that’s enough of that. You want to get on to the proper scandal, don’t you? BBC Debut is big fuck-up on the BBC’s part, but probably nothing more. This event, however, is at best, concerning, and at worst, an abuse of a position of power and trust.

Paul Sinha and Kate Copstick
FIGHT!!!!

So before the fringe had even got going, there was a spat between comedian Paul Sinha and The Scotsman’s #1 fringe critic, Kate Copstick. I ignored this at first, because by the time I got wind on this is had descended into mutual mud-slinging. However, having investigated this further and checked who’s claiming what, it doesn’t does look good for Kate Copstick. I should probably stress at this point that the only account of events I can find is from Paul Sinha himself. Normally I would treat that with caution, but if anything wasn’t true, Kate Copstick easily had the means to tell the world what he’s getting wrong. She does not appear to have made any response to the Chortle article, so it appears that the factual account is true.

So, based on what we know, it looks like the events went as follows:

  1. Kate Copstick requested a review ticket for Paul Sinha’s show on August 1st, via his venue The Stand. That’s the Wednesday before the official start of the Fringe on Friday, when, by convention, many shows are running as “previews”.
  2. Paul Sinha was asked about the request and he declined, for the reason that he never has reviewers on the first day.
  3. Kate Copstick responded by saying his show would not be reviewed by The Scotsman at all.
  4. The day after he declined, Copstick posted a message on Facebook beginning “What the FUCK is it with comics who have been doing what they do for fucking decades”, going on to complain about established comedians not letting reviewers in until days after the fringe starts. That one didn’t specifically name Sinha, but …
  5. an article then came out in The Scotland on Sunday beginning with “The egos have landed” which went on to berate him by name, along with two other comedians.

There are two things very wrong with this.

Firstly, Kate Copstick seems to have the idea that the only thing you need to prepare on a fringe run afre the technical aspects, and therefore – so she argues – stand-up comedians should be ready from day one. Anyone who has done any kind of performance involving audience engagement – myself included – can tell you it doesn’t work like that. Audiences vary hugely from venue to venue, and it’s perfectly normal to want to do a run-through with a preview audience to get use to the space before saying you’re ready to go. There are other factors to consider, of course – expectations vary between venues, short runs are less suited to previews than long runs, and it depends a lot on how important audience engagement is – but the long-standing principle understood by virtually everybody is that the performer should have the prerogative to say when it’s ready. For Kate Copstick to act like this overwhelming consensus amongst critics and performers alike doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter is breathtakingly arrogant, or breathtakingly ignorant, or both.

Secondly – and this is far more serious – it very strongly looks like she is using her position to punish people who didn’t let her get her way. Now, Copstick is entitled to her own opinion, and if she genuinely disagrees with vast majority on the matter of previews, she’s allowed to say what she thinks. If this had been in response to other reviewers not getting the press tickets they wanted, I would have accepted this as fair comment. But to claim that some specified comedians are “a bit meh” just because they decline press tickets for previews for you personally smacks of payback for not getting the perks that you see yourself entitled to. And that is a massive abuse of her position.

And this leaves me wondering what the hell happened to The Scotsman we used to know, the one that was the trusted and respected lead reviewers of the fringe. Their unhelpful negative short-form reviews can be sort-of explained away as them providing a service to punters and not performers. Paul Whitelaw giving suspiciously bad reviews to female comedians could have been put down to one bad apple. But the most senior reviewer on the paper using the clout she has to penalise people who don’t play by her self-serving rules leave a real stench in the paper. The only consolation is that the hierarchical structure that used to give senior reviewers like Copstick vast amounts of power no longer exists. The power to make or break shows is no longer a gift handed to a select few by the major papers – you are up up against dozens of online publications and the only way you can have influence is to earn respect. The Scotsman is losing respect; Kate Copstick is hemorrhaging respect.

In fact, this is a good moment to say what I’ve been meaning to say for some time: performers, don’t accept review requests from The Scotsman. They are hard to please, their feedback is not helpful, and you are far better off seeking your good publicity elsewhere. Unless you’re already getting good reviews from other publications, in which case they become a worthwhile gamble as to can bury bad reviews. But they no longer deserve to be treated as the authoritative arbiter of Fringe greatness. And their prize definitely doesn’t deserve it.

Friday 10th August: There are two items on my shenanigans list I was planning to report, I was planning to start with the older and arguably more scandalous one. However, there’s a more recent event that’s getting a lot of attention, and for some reason I’ve been contacted by a journalist asking for my perspective even though I know nothing about this other than what’s already been reported. But, hey, whatever, since this matter is all the rage, here’s my version of the story and my thoughts on it.

So, the current shitstorm hitting Edinburgh is the fallout from Debut – a scheme heavily supported by BBC Arts where four people who had never written stage plays before got support to take a stage play to the Edinburgh Fringe. All four people on the scheme are already well-known public figures, but the best known name was surely comedian Frank Skinner. His play at the Edinburgh Fringe, Nina’s Got News, is also the best known play of the scheme, but for the wrong reason. It’s been getting absolutely killed in the reviews. I’ve already found five one-stars, and I haven’t even started counting the twos. I cannot think of any play that has done this badly in Edinburgh, or even anywhere.

There is one consolation for Frank Skinner though: Irvine Welsh got a similar mauling last year with Performers and Creatives, but those two disasters have already been forgotten. I’m 100% confident the same will happen for Frank Skinner. No, the big loser here isn’t Frank Skinner, it’s BBC Arts. The fact that they chose give leg-ups to four people who were already established figures – instead of four people seeking their first break – is questionable, but all would have been forgiven had the plays been well received, or even well-attended. Unfortunately, that is not the case – none of the plays have been particularly successful, Nina’s Got News was simply the worst of a bad lot. With a flagship BBC scheme providing neither effective support to artists nor anything that license-payers might enjoy, there will surely be repercussions.

For the record, I broadly agree with the criticisms made by, well, everybody, but I don’t mind too much. For reasons I may expand on another day, I stopped bothering with BBC Writers’ Room a long time ago, but they’ve never been a major player with stage writing, and why should they be? They’re a TV and radio company. There’s the obvious complaint that small performers don’t stand a fair chance against plays heavily backed by companies as big as the BBC, but let’s face it, with 3,500 shows going on at Edinburgh, another four won’t make much difference. Aspiring screen writers may have more cause to be upset about this (I’ll leave it up to them to say if BBC Debut is depriving them of opportunities), but, honestly, if you’re a stage writer you shouldn’t be putting all your eggs in the BBC Writersroom basket regardless. I’d just settle for BBC Arts explaining to us what they were trying to achieve and how this was meant to fit in to their plans.

One other obvious thing to state: I do feel bad for the actors involved. Actors can only be as good as the script they’ve been given, and a bad script can reflect badly on them. That should stop; it’s not their fault the script was (apparently) so terrible. I won’t name the actors involved because they don’t deserve any flak, but I will say that I saw one of them in a previous play and she was great in that. She’s in another play this fringe (done by a company who impressed me last year), so I think I’ll see that one.

That’s the small shenanigan out of the way. Bigger and juicier shenanigan tomorrow.

UPDATE: In cased you’re wondering why only three plays appeared in Edinburgh when the scheme covered four writers, one of them got pulled. The Stage (£) gives a good account of what happened when. Many thanks to Mhairi Ledgerwood‏ for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday 9th August: One last review on the press ticket list. This is under the comedy section rather than theatre, so it will be a quick review. It’s Kiva Murphy with Match. This is described as an “absurdist” show, as this word can mean a lot of things, too often a byword for horribly pretentious, but this is the best kind of “absurdist” by which I mean very silly. Themed on the search for true love, it’s a fun show with a mixture of sketches, an improptu version of Blind Date (credit where it’s due – my night was helped by four men who all were brilliant with corny pick-up line), as a funny yet touching story how how her parents met. Played by a rooster and a cow.

This is a theatre blog, so I can’t say much more about the show except that you know it’s a fun piece and you’ll get what you expect. However, I can say a bit more about Kiva Murphy. The material and script were nice, but it was undoubtedly her performance that made the might with some great showmanship, or even showwomanship. This might not seem an important detail, but the precedent is good here. Six year ago, I saw two women with absurd clown-themed shows. Both were really just fun shows, but Alice Mary Cooper and Yve Blake have both since gone on to great things. So enjoy this show to round off a day’s fringing, but keep an eye on Kiva Murphy, because who knows what the ideas that begin in Match will go on to become.

(Full disclosure: I missed the first few minutes owing to me not checking how long the previous show ran – oops, sorry – but I’ve got a good enough idea of what I missed.)

And that concludes the press ticket reviews. I’ve got two or three more reviews to write, but I’m going to put that on pause now and cover some fringe shenanigans. Yes, I have a shenanigans queue to clear.

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Wednesday 8th August: That’s part one of fringe viewing concluded. I will be back in the final week to mop up everything remaining on my must see list, and hopefully have some time for some new stuff too. Coverage continues, and now that I’ve had a time to catch up on what’s been going on, I may have a scandal or two to cover. However, I still have some reviews to catch up on, and as I give priority to those seen on press tickets, I’ll do these next.

So next on the list is The Fetch Wilson, which I saw on the morning of my last day, a simple but effective solo play from Irish group The Corps Ensemble. Edwin Mullane plays Billy Wilson, but Billy is not his real name. He’s actually Liam Wilson, but with two Liam Wilsons in the same year at boarding school, he chooses to call himself Billy instead. Little does he know how much the other Liam will influence his life. They have little to do with each other in a place where the bullies can do what they like as long as they win school rugby matches, until the day Liam takes on and beats the biggest bully in the school. But what Billy assumes was an act of bravery is all part of a game he cannot yet fathom. Leaving school, desperate to escape a soulless life of corporatism, Billy discovers poker. High stakes and danger is Billy’s drug, and Liam is there to walk him down the road to perdition.

This is almost entirely works in a storytelling format. Apart from a card-themed set and the final moment of the play, there’s very little visual in the way of the play. But Stewart Roche’s script is so engaging this doesn’t really matter. The transition of conformist boarding school to the poker dens of Prague to the final shocking destination of Liam’s managed slowly and effectively. One moment, a scene is peppered with humour, the next moment the tension rises. One risk of storytelling – as opposed to reading the story off paper – is introducing so many characters you lose track of who, but the number is kept down to something sensible and you never lose track of the story.

The only thing I had some doubts over was the abrupt ending. It’s clear early on that something like this will happen eventually, so it’s no surprise when it does, but the fast conclusion meant a couple of promising side-plots were cut dead. We never know the conclusion of Billy’s run-in with Mr. Big, nor do get to know the whole tale of the wife of a school friend. But other than that, it’s a tight, well-written well-performed story I can recommend. 11.30 a.m. at Pleasance Courtyard, running for the rest of the fringe.

Right. Time for a rest. Continue reading

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Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh

grail18

COMMENT: It’s right that arts organisations and arts media speak out on the huge costs are risks borne on artists at the Edinburgh Fringe – but they helped create this problem, and they need to undo it.

There can few success stories bigger than the Edinburgh Fringe. In their founding year of 1947, they were massively the underdogs against the brand new Edinburgh International Festival – after all, who’d want to see eight acts nobody invited and weren’t good enough to be in a proper festival? But people liked the idea of a festival where anyone can take part, and in a stunning turnaround of Davids and Goliaths, by the 1960s the fringe has already overtaken the international festival for comedy. Not even Beyond the Fringe could turn things round. (Although they should have chosen a different name as everyone thought they were part of the fringe. Fools.) Not long after, the prestige of the Fringe had overtaken the international festival in every discipline. The Edinburgh Fringe became the place to be discovered. They inspired fringes all over the world, some embracing Edinburgh’s spirit of openness, others sadly not. But the Edinburgh Fringe dominates not only Edinburgh festivals but arts festivals worldwide. It’s viewed as a rite of passage for performers, and a successful run at Edinburgh is the arts world equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

But, as well as a great success story, there can be few bigger examples of being a victim of your own success than the Edinburgh Fringe. Now the fringe is at the phenomenal size of 3,500 – and this comes at a price. Edinburgh isn’t a huge city, and there’s only a finite number of places that can be used as performance spaces, and only a finite amount of accommodation. In line with the basic laws of supply and demand, the price has rocketed. The increased competition has also normalised the month-long run – any less than that any you don’t have a realistic chance to stand out from the crowd. This, combined with all your other expenses, places a huge financial liability on performers – and with ticket sales far from guaranteed, it’s a huge risk. A bad run elsewhere could leave you a debt that takes months to clear. A bad run in Edinburgh could cost you your home. I cannot imagine the founding acts of the Fringe saw that coming. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

Edinburgh Fringe Festival Program Launch

Skip to: The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, The Turn of the Screw, Hunch, The Unknown Soldier, Police Cops / Police Cops in Space, Neverwant, Yen, Build a Rocket, Gratiano / The Straw Man, Proxy, Faulty Towers / The Wedding Reception, Antigone na h’Eireann, One-Woman Alien, You All Know Me, I’m Jack Ruby, Elsa, Year Without Summer, Kin

Aaagh. The big fringe has already started. Not just previews, fringe proper. I’d better get a move on.

Won’t do much of a preamble, because most of you know the rules by now. In the biggest Edinburgh Fringe ever by a notable margin, there are around 3,500 shows in the programme. I only know a fraction of these, so my recommendations should be considered a cross-section of what’s worth seeing. To keep the list down to a manageable size, I am pickier than I am at other fringes. The one thing you won’t see here are shows I’ve previously seen but wasn’t that enthusiastic about. If I didn’t love your show last time, it’s only fair to wipe the slate clean and start again.

For anyone who wants to know the detailed rules, you can go to my recommendations policy. Unless otherwise noted, all entries here run the full length of the fringe. Without further ado, let’s go:

Safe choice:

These six plays are either plays I’ve seen before and loved, or new plays from companies whose previous work I loved, where the new work plays to their strength. All these entries also have wide appeal. No play is recommended for everybody – if you don’t like that kind of play, you probably won’t feel differently about these – but if you like the sound of it based on what they say about it and what I say about it, I’m calling these as surefire bets that you’ll like them the way I did. We have got …

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show

03-13-2018-192729-2897This is one of my perennial entries in the Edinburgh Fringe, but it was a pleasure to follow this group from the beginning. Their sets of 10-minutes plays, five per hour-long performance, started off in an oscure upper room at Roman Eagle Lodge – now it is one of the most popular fixtures in Pleasance’s programme. Good ten-minute plays are hard to find – too often they feel like awkward fragments of stories that don’t go anywhere – but Bite-Size always manages to find the good ones.

Part of their success, I believe, is Nick Brice’s ability to use the ten-minute length as an asset rather than a hindrance. It’s certainly true that you are limited with what you can tell as a story in ten minutes, but this length of time also allows you stories to explore all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas that would wear thin if the play ran any longer. And whilst you camn’t expect every play to be every cup of tea, if you see one that doesn’t appeal to you, another one will be on its way soon. Usual time, usual place, it’s at Pleasance Dome at 10.30 a.m. (not 14th or 21st) – and I strongly advise booking early as this is known to sell out days in advance. No lunchtime show of greatest hits this time, but there is another bolder lunchtime show. More on that shortly Continue reading

Frankie and Fleabag

Skip to: Fleabag, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Whilst I have a post-Buxton Fringe breather (and because I want to avoid a repeat of last year’s embarrassing backlog), it’s time for another catchup now. Shortly after Brighton Fringe, both Live Theatre and Northern Stage hosted plays in their main spaces. I prioritise fringe theatre reviews over mainstream theatre reviews – the latter doesn’t really need my publicity – but with Brighton Fringe under, let’s catch up with these.

Fleabag

drywrite-and-soho-theatre-fleabag-maddie-rice-4-credit-richard-davenport_previewThis needs no introduction. The BBC Three series was phenomenal, arguably the channel’s greatest success since its controversial move to its streaming-only service (and the strongest evidence to date that a web-only BBC Three is a viable service). But before the successful TV show written by and starring Pheobe Waller-Bridge, there were the solo fringe show she wrote herself that started it all off. With the titular role now played by Maddie Rice, it’s been, to no-one’s surprise, performing to sold out houses up and down the country. With me far too disorganised to catch up with anything on television, this was a good opportunity for me see what all the fuss in about.

We begin with Fleabag (a nickname, but Waller-Bridge never specified a real name) attending a job interview, where a PG-rated misunderstanding swiftly esclates into calling each other a slut and a pervert. Then we go back to the 18-rated story of how she got here. After she masturbates to Barack Obama’s speeches with her boyfriend beside her, he leaves her yet again. No worries, this happens all the time, and Fleabag uses this as her opportunity to work her way through as many blokes as she can. Her flat still has a handprint from the threesome she had whilst on her period – we don’t get any more details as to how that came about, but I’m happy not to know that. Suffice to say this sets the tone for most of her sex life references in the story. The rest of her life is about as chaotic as her sex life. She manages a cafe that she used to run with her beloved best friend Boo. But since Boo’s tragic accident/suicide, she muddles on with that the way she muddles on with everything. Continue reading

Odds and sods: June 2018

Later than usual (again). I’m quickly have a reminder that the month after a play finishes isn’t peace and quiet – it’s the month where I have to catch up on everything that I’ve had to postpone from the previous two months. But before we dive into the thick of Edinburgh Fringe, there’s a chance to catch up on things that have been happening between Edinburgh and Brighton.

Stuff that happened in June

The rise of Greater Manchester Fringe

The next major thing on my calendar is, of course, Buxton Fringe, the UK’s third biggest fringe after Edinburgh and Brighton. As long as this blog’s been going, these have always been considered the big three. Now, however, we may need to start thinking about a fourth. Greater Manchester Fringe barely existed when I started writing, but this year there are about 120 registrations. That’s not far behind Buxton, currently around 180.

Greater Manchester Fringe is supported by a recently-vibrant year-round fringe theatre scene, similar to the Vault festival being supported by the year-round fringe theatre scene in London. But there is an important difference: the Vault is a curated festival (and it would be impractical to be anything else), but the Greater Manchester Fringe is a proper fringe where anyone who wants to take part can. They make it clear that if you can’t get programmed into a listed fringe venue, you can find your own venue and register than way. And one small but important symbolic gesture is that they actively encourage people to see shows by groups you’ve never heard of in venues you’ve never been to. It could not be more different from the Great Yorkshire Fringe, where anyone who is not programmed into their official venues is given the cold shoulder. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2018

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SKIP TO: The Unknown Soldier, Gated Community, Behind the Agony, A Curse of Saints, Extremism, Antigone Na H’Éireann, Sea Wall / The Shape of Things, Trapped, Earthling, I let a six-year-old write my show, Disgusting songs for revolting children

All right, Sam Slide, you can stop pestering me. I’ve allowed a bit of a backlog to build up again as a result of doing two plays at once, but I haven’t forgotten Buxton Fringe. As always, my list of what I recommend seeing. As the smallest of the three fringes I cover, this is a more comprehensive list than usual – at Brighton or Edinburgh, I’ve only heard of a fraction of the acts, but in Buxton I at least recognise the names of many of the groups, even if I haven’t seen them before. But even so, the usual disclaimer applies – this list should be seen as a cross-section of what’s worth seeing, not a complete list. As always, anyone who wants to see the full rules governing what goes in can come this way.

Last year’s Buxton Fringe was a very significant one for two reasons: Underground Venues relocated from the Old Hall to the Old Clubhouse, and the brand-new Rotunda set up in the Pavillion gardens. This year, however, there’s not much change in the headline figures. Fringe-wide numbers are about the same, numbers at Underground Venues and Rotunda are slightly up. However, it’s not quite a “no change” fringe and within these static numbers there’s a fair bit of difference. Last year, the Rotunda’s programme was dominated by shows produced, or at least backed, by Grist To The Mill themselves; but this time, it’s a far more diverse programme – a result, presumably, of the Rotunda advertising for applications much further in advance. Underground Venues, meanwhile, appear to have more entry-level acts this year – again, this might be down to the early addition of the Rotunda balancing up supply and demand on the managed venues. Whatever the reason, I am now less concerned over losing Buxton as a suitable starting fringe than I was last year. Continue reading

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2018

Brighton pier

REVIEWS: Skip to: Bin and Gone, Metamorphosis, Apparatus, The Owl and the Pussycat, Antigone Alone, Tom and Bunny Save the World, Always, With a Love That’s True, Beasts, The Erebus Project, Larkin Descending, Wan In, Wan Oot, Brighton Queen of Slaughtering Places, One-Woman Alien

Last year, I had the dubious honour of not getting round to finishing my Brighton Fringe coverage until after the Edinburgh Fringe. That was a little embarrassing, and I don’t want to repeat that in a hurry.

So, Brighton Fringe 2018 has come and gone. Some years I write a lengthy introduction before getting on to reviews – in 2016, for example, the unprecedented growth that year transformed the face of the fringe. This fits into a wider growth of the fringe over the last decade, and I wrote a list of 10 ways the Brighton Fringe has changed for anyone who wants to read this further. This year, however has very much been a “no change” festival. The numbers are about the same as 2017, all the major venues are broadly carrying on doing what they’re doing, and the only notable different is that Sweet Venues ditched Sweet Waterfront and replaced it with Sweet Werks and Sweet @ The Welly. There are some early signs ticket sales may be up, but this is unconfirmed at the time of writing.

Continue reading