Monday 5th June – Chekhov’s Gun:
If there’s one thing that has been a common theme throughout my reviews, it’s been shows that feel quite clearly to be a different category to the one advertised. Experiment Human and 1,000 Miles were both billed as comedy when I’d have counted them as theatre; conversely, Degenerate was billed as theatre but I’d have firmly put under comedy. So another one billed as theatre but I’d put as comedy is Chekhov’s Gun. This time, it’s not in my reviewing No Man’s Land of stand-up comedy, but rather in clowning. In some respects, it’s got some similarities to The Lost Play of Barry Wayworm, also heavy on clowning. However, whilst that play did have a story (albeit one that makes absolutely no sense if you try to scrutinise it), Chekhov’s Gun is a lot more abstract.
So for those unfamiliar with the concept, this is a trope with a name coined by the famous playwright. If a detail is noticed by the audience, it should be relevant to the plot. A gun that’s seen mounted on the wall in Act One must be fired in Act 3. The dowdy girl who appears at the start of a sports movie must become the true love interest ousting the vain and shallow cheerleader. The kind, honest cop who announces he’s three days from retirement in the 7th minute of the movie will get gunned down in the 34th minute.
The most distinctive thing about Metric Theatre (aka Ines Autonell and Spike Padley), however isn’t the concept but their use of looped music. It essentially involved two bars of various songs, from Funkytown to Macarena being sped up and slowed down as needed. It’s hard to describe this in text, but this concept is surprisingly effective at control the mood of the performance, as well something that clearly marks this act as distinctive.
I’m not I entirely followed the concept though. If I’ve correctly understood this, the equivalent to Chekhov’s gun was everybody putting on Macs for a water hose that (spoiler alert) wasn’t squirted, but that was quite late in the show. It feels to me that if it’s about the Chekhov’s gun trope, you ought ot make it as obvious as possible. Something like “OH, LOOK EVERYBODY, THERE’S A GUN ON THAT WALL. HOW INTERESTING. BUT LET’S NOT TAKE ANY NOTICE OF THAT ANY MORE. IT DEFINITELY WON’T BE FIRED IN TWO ACTS’ TIME”, or whatever the equivalent is for whatever’s the Chekhov gun this time. Sometimes humour benefits from subtlety, but this one is crying out to be made as obvious as possible.
It’s an ambitious concept to take on – it’s next to impossible to predict how an audience reacts to something this abstract. So it may or may not work out. But I really like the teamwork of Ines and Spike. Spike has a background as a game designer who is presumably behind the looping effect; Ines was trained in clowning, and between them they make a strong duo of inexplicably terrified clowns. Whether they persist with this concept or move on to something else, they’ve got a good double-act and style for them.
Sunday 4th June – Degenerate:
We have reached the end of Brighton Fringe. Stay with us a little longer – we have three reviews to polish off, and we are staying here for the big news on Edinburgh Fringe’s size.
If 1,000 Miles creates a bit of confusion by being billed as a stand-up show but coming across far more as theatre, Degenerate has the effect the other way. It is billed as “A hellscape stand-up comedy fever dream that descends into a full frontal face-off with the concept of ageing itself,” combined with “Think ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ meets David Lynch. Sort of.” As I’ve said before, I generally don’t review stand-up comedy because I don’t know where to start, but this read to me a lot more like character comedy. However, having seen this, it does have much more in common with straight stand-up – and to be fair, the billing did feature the words “stand-up”. But it does leave me in a bit a no-man’s lands for how to review this.
We begin with Maria Teresa Creasey in full vampire outfit, including hat, coat and cape. Our vampiress host introduces herself, with a healthy number of corny puns about being a vampire. And then, about 10 minutes in … off come the hat, cape and fangs, and now it’s Creasey doing straight satnd-up comedy. Sure, meeting a vampire might be scary, but that’s nothing compared to the news you’ve turned [hoarse voice on, taking several attempt to utter the dreaded word] forty. Much self-deprecation ensues, on how you can be expected to be treated now. have you heard to one about the over-ripe avacado? Because you can expect a lot of this one from now on.
But I do wish the show did make more of the vampire theme, which ended quite early and only reappeared in the final few minutes. Also – either because I missed it or it was cut, I never did get to find out how David Lynch would direct The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Now, one rule I strongly advise of people is to never force an idea that isn’t working out, and maybe it was decided that the vampire theme couldn’t be sustained for the full hour. But I do wish they persist in finding ways to make this work, because a vampire-ageing theme is by far the biggest hook for this routine.
I am wary about expressing opinions on shows where I go in expecting one thing and getting another. I am very unfamiliar with the numerous target audiences of stand-up comedy and you’re welcome to ignore me and carry on appealing to that target. Creasey is clearly an accomplished performer, but at the moment to routine has so many changes of style, it’s hard to pin down what this is meant to be. Sustaining the vampire theme for a full hour would be a radical change, not far off a new show – but it;s a crazy gamble that might just be worth it. And anything that delivers the much-promised David Lynch Hungry Caterpillar will be worth it.
Saturday 3rd June:
Before finishing off the reviews, it’s necessary to say a bit more about noise bleed. Noise bleed is a perennial problem at festival fringes. There’s nothing worse than a play that relies on quiet being disturbed by traffic, sound effects from another show, or rowdy drinkers. Sadly, the practicalities of festival fringes means it’s difficult to eliminate, and some of it is inevitable. One way of avoiding this, of course, is to have a sound-heavy show yourself which drowns out whatever’s going on outside.
However, Caravenserai has been particularly bad this year. The Warren was one of the worse offenders for noise bleed itself, with rowdy outdoor drinking areas tending to disturb performances, but I’ve heard way more complaints about Caravanserai noise bleed than anything at The Warren. I’ve noticed reviews of shows that were otherwise enjoyed criticised for being disturbed by the noise outside. (There is a debate on whether it’s fair for reviewers to mark down plays for things outside the control of the reviewers, but the bottom line is that reviewers can reward of penalise plays for anything they like.) Worse, many of the shows I’ve heard criticised for noise bleed were sound effect-heavy shows themselves. If they can’t compete with what’s going outside, that is getting ridiculous.
Some of the measures aren’t straightforward. It’s not clear whether you could move Luna Parc or Junk Poets away from one source of nose without bringing it closer to another. But by far the thing causing the most complaints is music being played outside. Including drumming, for Christ’s sake. That is really not fair on the acts running at the time. Yes, I know the drinks bring in a lot of money, but are bands really necessary before the last shows have finished playing? And if they are, can’t you schedule it so that the shows playing inside can manage (such as music and cabaret)? And if really nothing can be done to change this, I’d say don’t hire out the spaces at all – not after loud music outside starts playing. That’s not fit for purpose.
We will be hearing a lot more about Caravanserai in the interview coming up, but that’s a plea on a specific area, from both myself and other people who’ve been pushed to the edge.
Reviews will resume tomorrow.
Friday 2nd June, 10.30 p.m. – 1000 Miles:
Meet Bernard (played by Jasen Mphepo). A citizen of Zimbabwe who is attending his own funeral. He’s pleased by the turnout. There’s even some dignitaries there. A lot of solo biopics start off with with character in question musing about being dead, then going back to the start – however, Bernard makes quite a thing of it. Some of it is observations about his wife – something we will hear more of later. He also muses over the politicians who are there, and the things they made him do. He doesn’t specify exactly what this was, but we know his lifespan went from colonial-era Southern Rhodesia to an independent Zimbabwe. This was the British colony that had arguably the bloodiest path to independence (via a white-minority unilateral declaration of independence).
First, the housekeeping notice. This is in the Brighton Fringe programme as comedy rather than theatre – it even describes itself as a stand-up show. As a theatre reviewer first and a comedy reviewer a long way second, my instinctive reaction is to look for a story first and comedy routines second. It is therefore only fair to say that the verdict of comedy reviewers should take precedence over mine, so that this can be judged on the terms it set itself.
That said, however, everything about this production says theatre to me, and unless there’s a comedy objective to this, this is the sort of thing I would entirely have covered as theatre. When Bernard doe eventually go into his life, we don’t hear much about the fall on Ian Smith and the rise of Zanu PF – instead it’s a lot more observations of life going on as a black man in what was then Rhodesia. There was some reference to army life at the time of the uprising, but a lot more over life before that. One thing that has a lot of relevance is the accommodation the white businesses set up ghettos for workers: men only, wives have to stay at home. That will eventually have consequences for Bernard that he can’t control.
But … we never heard about the elephant in the room. We know how Southern Rhodesia fell, and we herd hints of the beginning of what the politicians made Bernard do. But before we get to hear what it was – the story ends as abruptly as his life. Wary as I am of forcing a British or American perspective on a story from Zimbabwe, I wonder if this story assumed too much background knowledge for a Brighton Fringe audience. To be fair, I have looked up reviews from performances in Harare where it does seem to read a lot more strongly as a play about the consequences of promiscuity – and there are certainly British plays that have confused audiences when performed overseas.
I’m honestly not sure what the best course of action is here. A play that went into more detail about what Bernard was made to do during the fall of Rhodesia would be a much bigger attention-grabber – but it would be a different play. Whatever the answer, it’s important to go beyond the most obvious talking points. How I learned What I Learned did that for August Wilson’s Pittsburgh, as I’ve just said, Surfing the Holyland did a good job for Isreal, and it’s right that 100 Miles does the job here.
Friday 2nd June, 8.30 p.m. – Surfing the Holyland:
Oh boy, my journey north was a lot more precarious than I planned. But here I am in Tamworth. Let’s see if I can get a couple more reviews out before I’m done tonight. This one I’m bumping up the queuing because it’s still running, ends Sunday, and deserves some publicity. I was first invited to review Surfing the Holyland a few years back, but it was an dates I wasn’t there. But I’ve kept seeing this play appear and finally I have the chance to see what it’s about. And it has its ongoing success for a good reason. Writer-performer Erin Hunter’s play works on a lot of levels.
On one level, it’s the timeless story of losing your way and rediscovering you own purpose. Hunter plays Heather, and she and her husband Zack are stuck in a rut. Neither of them are satisfied in their jobs, and efforts to start a family are so far getting nowhere, so when Zach is offered a job in Israel, she agrees to go along with this change. Zach is born Jewish and so can work there, whilst Heather is on conversion much to the shock of her Christian parents, not that she believes in either variety of this God thing. At first it seems she’s only doing this for immigration purposes – we later learn she’s doing this for her husband’s sake. Unfortunately, the Israeli authorities think it’s the former reasons, which means she’s now in Israel with nothing to do: no work, no friends, and suddenly no purpose in life. With suddenly lots of time on her hands, she learns to surf.
Another level this works on is a picture of life in Israel. The play is billed as “based on a true story”, and I don’t know how much is real events and how much is imagined, but surely a lot of the portrait of life there is based on observations. In some respects, it’s a very liberal society, with a Bohemian surfing culture, party-of-your-life weddings featuring Eurovision winners, and daily prayers from the Mosque over the road. In other respects, it’s very conservative, with still a lot of expectations for women to not distract men from praying and have lots of children. Crucially, however, this is not written as a checklist of observations – everything about Israel Heather sees is tightly integrated into her own story. It does not go unnoticed that sort-of-Jewish Heather doesn’t have any children yet; as for the wedding – well, you’ll know that twist when you get to it.
What doesn’t overtly feature is the two things we hear about the most: the descendants of the Holocaust and the eternal conflict with Palestine. At the risk of the hot take, that I think was absolutely the correct decision; few things are more condescending viewing another country through a lens of what you hear in your own country. The play does not actively take sides; even so, the two themes cast a shadow over the whole story, and we’re never far away from the feeling of a society scared of a world that was out to get them once and they fear might one day try again. And this ties into the final level, being the strain in the marriage. Heather’s solace is surfing; Zach’s, however, is a society he suddenly sees as home, as he increasingly disappears into tech work Heather doesn’t understand and an Orthodox Jewish community that Heather really really really doesn’t understand. That’s kept on a fine balance throughout with uncertainty maintained right up to the end.
If I had to pick fault with something, it was the seemingly arbitrary rules on whether a surfboard was physically on stage or represented metaphorically. That, I suspect, came down to the limitations of a tight venue space and the need to not impale audience members. But only the most pedantic of pedants will take issue with that that. Other than that, this is probably the strongest piece of new writing I’ve seen this fringe. Whether it was intended or not, the message throughout the play – in so many different contexts – is to judge less and understand more.
Surfing the Holyland runs until Sunday at Caravanserai at 8.30 p.m., and I strongly recommend it.
Friday 2nd June, 2.00 p.m.:
That’s it for me. 2 visits, 22 performances and the most in-depth interview I’ve ever covered. I have five reviews remaining, which I will clear before we wind this up.
There is nothing starting now that I haven’t already mentioned, but we do have a list of shows that are either concluding runs or returning for final performances in the last few days. I’ve already outlined these in more detail early in the coverage, so this is going to be a quick run-down:
- A final performance of Crime Scene Improvisation on Saturday at Komedia, one final chance to decide guilt by majority vote. 4.00 p.m. (Update: sorry, no, sold out.)
- Two performances of the the wholesome 10 Films with my Dad at Sweet at the Poet’s. Saturday and Sunday, 4.30 p.m.
- Blue Dog Theatre, responsibl for last year’s video nasty-theme Moral Panic, completes their run of their new play This Is Normal. Conclave, 7.0 p.m. until Saturday, then 6.00 p.m. Sunday.
- Police Cops’ Badass Be Thy Name continues until tomorrow at Caravanserai, 7.15. Like Shanghai Noon but pairing a vampire-slaying priest with a raver from Madchester.
- And I Heart Michael Ball which I reviewed two days ago, has a 10 p.m. performance tonight and a 9.00 p.m. performance tomorrow.
I can also recommend Talking to the Dead, but tickets are in short supply. – their blurb didn’t mention each performance is set round a table giving a capacity of 12. Last time I checked, ticket are sold out on the Brighton Fringe website but can still be bought directly from Sweet’s own ticketing. But you’d better be quick.
And there’s one other play about to join this list, but you’ll have to wait and see which one it is.
Thursday 1st June, 10.30 p.m.:
I’m afraid it’s another wait before the next review. I’ve very busy day today, with three plays viewed back to back, and on the train back to Hove for a fourth. It will be after midnight by the time we’ve finished.
However, the exciting news is that before this solid run of plays, I had just an extensive interview with the Chief Executive of Brighton Fringe, Julian Caddy himself. It lasted over an hour, and covered numerous issues. I will be typing up the transcript as possible, but that will need days rather than hours. But I promise you, it will be worth the wait to read this. Bear with me for possibly the most interesting article I’ve ever published.
Thursday 1st June, 12 noon – HóPe:
Many solo plays, both inside and outside the fringe circuit, are on topics that individual performers find important to themselves. Much the fortunes of these plays come down to whatever hand life has dealt you. Some people have amazing stories that transplant to the stage quite naturally; at the other end we have the dreaded “old at 22” plays from people whose life experience hasn’t yet extended beyond social media and drama school relationships but still try to make it the most profound thing ever. No-one can accuse Giullianna Martinez of this though. Her personal story is supporting her mother battling cancer. The other topic that is of interest to her is La Pola, a spy for the Columbian separatist movement who caught by the Spanish authorities and executed.
The cancer story is a tough sell, but Martinez makes it work. This is a play and not an oncology lecture; the last thing you need is a script bogged down by medical procedure and terminology for cancer. What she does is put the focus on the toll it took on her personally. With Mami not speaking English as a first language it falls to her, the other side of the Atlantic to do all the research, navigate the dreaded US health insurance system, all whilst trying to get information out of a doctor apparently set on a course of action apparently without any intention of explaining what he’s doing and why. Martinez put on an excellent performance here, on one hand battling to get blood out of stone, and the other hand reacting to information that could spell life or death for her mother.
The La Pola story is more conventional, but Martinez still makes the right calls. The common mistake with solo biopics is to write the script as a biography told in first person with giving much attention to what the person in question hopes and aspires to. This script, however, focuses on her last days. There is some biographical information but it is mostly the portrayal of a woman defiant to the end – which is the focus Martinez wanted and exactly right for this format.
The obvious question from the audience, however, is what do these two stories have to do with each other? There is a sort-of link given at the end that she’s inspired by the women who stood up for what’s right before her, which just bring the two stories together, but only just. One of the harsh truths of playwriting is that what’s important to you personally can sometimes be difficult to convey to the outside observers that are your audience. The La Pola section could easily be an hour-long play in its own right; the cancer story, probably. If resources allow outside of fringe settings, I could see this working as a duology, where both stories are plays in their own rights, with loose references to each other. These weren’t the easiest two things to put together into one play – but as stand-alone stories, there’s a lot of merit to both. Two more performances on Friday and Saturday at the Lantern.
Wednesday 31st May, 10.00 p.m. – I Heart Michael Ball:
There’s an old saying of never meet your idols, but Alex really really really wants to meet his idol, the popular West End singer who, amongst other things, is so strongly associated with the song Love Changes Everything that the current musical revival has re-assigned the song to the older character he now plays. This and numerous other Michael Ball trivia we are treated to as part of the tenth biennial meeting of the Michael Ball appreciation society. Perhaps if his group show their devotion enough the great man will pay him a visit. Unfortunately, they’re not the most organised group, with depleted attendances, petty rivalries amongst the faithful, and hashtag campaigns never taking off because they always end up with the word “Balls” mistaken for innendo.
This light-hearted intro, however, is a mask for something much darker. Alex has a surprise in store for us, and take no notice of the muffled noises coming from the next room. Before then, however, Alex says a bit about how the Welsh singer means so much to him. He was introduced to it by his oldest brother, from the tapes he plays in his car. But only in the car. Why not the house? And why such a closeness to his brother? Both answers come back to his violent father, who lashes out at the slightest hint of songs from musicals because that makes you gay. Bigotry this stupid might have been a comedy in another play; here, however, it is deathly serious, with one of the most profound observations being that Alex – then too young to know what drunkenness was – only know that when his father was playing the Dubliners he knows what’s coming next.
Alex Millington is a very versatile actor for Alex.He strikes up a great rapport with the audience at the beginning, and handles the audience interaction well with what was an unusually unpredictable audience. He then takes the audience on his younger self’s tragic journey. The unremitting abuse from his father, the hope that his brother seeking an acting career would be the escape for him, and one step is cruelly made out of time, a convincing reason for why his older brother’s obsession of singing with Michael Ball became his own.
That’s not all though. Alex isn’t just here to open up about his tragic life. There is, he admits, an ulterior motive for bringing everyone here. I won’t give away the ending, but the blood spatters on the posters should give a clue. Alex, it turns out, has some jealousy issues. However, I don’t think the script did quite enough to explain how he turned from meek downtrodden youth to the underestimated dangerous man we see now. Although the script gives away some clues, both to his jealousy, and his temper in adult life, I do think we need more to explain what’s pushed him to something this extreme to get Michael Ball’s attention. Maybe the answer is that Alex has turned into his father. That would be a great avenue to explore.
Other than that, a strong all-rounder from script, acting and production values. (And is a very niche selling point, anyone who saw me in Waiting for Gandalf in 2016 or 2018 will see a lot of parallels if you’ve got a good memory.) Although there are bonus reference from anyone who knows Michael Ball’s career, it’s by no means essential, and if you’ve never heard of him, don’t worry, you’ll pick it up as you go along. There are two more performances on Friday and Saturday at the more fitting times of 10.00 and 9.00 p.m. Recommended, unless your name is … well, you’ll see out at the end.
Wednesday 31st May, 7.00 p.m.:
So here we go again. Seen two plays at The Lantern. Reviews coming, but for those waiting I’ll drop in a bit of early good news that I was pleased by the standard of these two. It’s always unreliable judging the standard of venues by plays that you could count on one hand, but after a so-so experience last year this has been quite good.
Earlier I talks about the possibility of The Actors (formerly the Marlborough) making a comeback. The other venue we should consider is The Lantern. One thing about The Lantern is that they have a level of security other fringe theatres can only dream of: it is part of a drama school. The use as a drama school is the business in its own right: the hires for Brighton Fringe and elsewhere are a bonus.The Lantern can be as active or inactive in Brighton Fringe as they like without having to worry about whether it’s enough to stay in business next year.
However, the Lantern has slowly been edging up in prominence. I count 13 registrations this time, still behind the Actors at 35, but their theatre space is about as technically capable as they come. Apparently the Lantern has been popular with shows that want to run full-length plays – busy fringe theatres will rarely allocate a two-hour slot that could have gone to two acts, but theatres with less hectic schedules have this versatility. But with a replacement for the Rialto yet to emerge, might they make a push for that? Out of all the permanent theatres in Brighton still standing, this one seems to have the most in common with the Rialto, and their location is a pretty good one too.
I guess this will largely come down to what The Lantern wants. Not all theatres are eager to snap all takers.The example I have in mind is the Green Man Gallery at Buxton Fringe. People are queuing up to use this venue, and there’s plenty of time in the schedule to double or triple the size of their programme, but the people running it long since decided 14-18 shows per fringe is quite enough to keep them busy. So never assume that “could” expand is the same as “will” expand. The Lantern could be the next stalking horse to come out of nowhere, of they might happily stay where they are. In the meantime, here is a cool picture of what the foyer looks like if you come at the right time of day. Reviews resuming shortly.
Wednesday 31st May, 9.30 a.m.:
I am hearing a lot more grumbling about Caravanserai. Nothing like the level of The Warren in 2022, but still something that Brighton Fringe ought to be concerned with. The central fringe running a venue is creating all sorts of problems.
One problem is a long-standing problems that is now coming back to bite them. Brighton Fringe, like most fringes smaller than Edinburgh, routinely publicises its biggest names to draw people to the fringe as a whole. In a festival such as Buxton Fringe, nobody minds – the prevailing mindset is that the big names get people in, who then go on to have a look at what else is on and maybe give smaller acts a chance. Brighton Fringe, however, is a lot more competitive and there is a (justified, in my opinion) mood that the prominence given to big acts come at an expense of the small ones. Now the same issue has expaned to alleged prominence of Caravanserai as a venue at the expense of other venues.
I will say that, at this moment in time, I’m sceptical that the disproportionate publicity on one venue is harming the others that much. Yes, the other venues are struggling a bit, but they were struggling in 2022 and the reason they were struggling hasn’t gone away. Most of the things going on at Caravanserai aren’t in direct competition with most venues. The big tent space that is Luna Parc and the big outdoor drinking area don’t really have and equivalents in other venues except Spiegeltent, which I’m hearing is doing okay. The only thing I can see that’s in direct competition with other spaces is the smaller Junk Poets space. That does seem to be selling well – but I’m not convinced one space will make a significant difference to the numerous similarly-sized spaces elsewhere. (Also, if your play relies on quiet, this is not the venue I’d recommend at all.)
What might be an issue is if Caravenserai expands to the scale of The Warren. Two spaces (plus a garden and Fringe City stage) isn’t that big a deal, but four spaces could be a significant drain. I don’t believe for a second Caravanseari is going to be stupid enough to repeat The Warren’s mistakes on late payments, but there was also the problem of The Warren getting so powerful that artists felt they had no choice but to go along with whatever they wanted. If Brighton Fringe is not careful, we’re going to have a repeat of the problem, with the added controversy that Brighton Fringe and Caravaserai have become the same thing.
Whether or not there are any plans to do this, Brighton Fringe needs to discuss this with the other venues quite urgently. This could escalate into other venues pulling out quite quickly, and must be avoided at all costs. There are a lot of things that could be done to smooth this over. I’m getting word that, although Caravanserai is welcoming publicity from acts at all venues, many acts don’t know this – so a quick win would be to make this clear and encourage it in future years. But I really think they should revisit the idea of rotating programming by the other venues. The current limitation that the smaller venue have is that they can’t upscale their bests acts that are selling out – give them use of Luna Parc for their greatest hits and we can expect a much smoother reception.
I still think Caravanserai is a net positive, but the negatives are there, they are avoidable, and they’re certainly avoidable once you have 11 months before fringe 2024 to learn lessons. This is far from resolved, and Brighton Fringe could easily end up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Please don;t make that mistake.
Tuesday 30th May, 10.00 p.m. – Call Me Daddy!
I’m here, and we have one review to go.
According to the blurb “Call Me Daddy is entirely fiction, any resemblance of a character to a real person living or deceased is purely coincidental”. That’s normally a way of insinuating it is based on a real person. But as for who it might be based on, you’d be guessing your way through a very long list. I’ve heard more than enough complaints of treatment of workers in the hospitality industry, let alone cabaret/burlesque clubs. In our first sighting of Chester Charles, he rejects an lady auditioning as an exotic dancer because she’s 25, which is way past it. Where are all these 18-year-olds with 30 years’ experience, for Christ’s sake?
I think we can safely assume, in spite of the denials, that much of the play is a checklist of crappy practices (either of the same boss or a compilation of real events of multiple crappy bosses). As well as the stupidly high standards / pervy age requirements for dancers, there’s also the control freakery of staff being on standby for hours at a time for Zoom calls, spending staff wages of gaudy bling shit, and the obligatory cheating on his wife with the PA. However, it rarely pays to structure a play around grievances, or worse, gags. Run to the Nuns suffered from characters doing implausible things to meet the requirements of the plot – but characters doing implausible things to meet this requirements of a gag is worse.
The other thing that is best avoided is breaking up a musical in short scenes, especially if you’re constantly taking lights down, moving actors off-stage, bringing on actors for the new scene, lights on. There are various ways you can alleviate this – merging little scenes into bigger scenes is one option – but one easy option if it’s a music is to have bridging music between scenes. The use of music was sporadic, but the songs they did were quite decent so you couldn’t go wrong making more of that. The bigger challenge is creating an plausible villain. No matter how cartoonishly evil your ex-boss might be, his depiction in the play must have some internal logic. He will somehow believe he’s the good guy.
To be fair, there was a good turn-out in the Ironworks who were expecting some fun rather than engaging characters. And the standard for the ensemble was impressive – actors can only be as good as the part written for them, but they gave it all with what they had. If, as it looks, the purpose of the play was to have a bit of fun and do an up yours to an old boss, it set out what it needed to do. But you can achieve more if you resist the temptation to prioritise score-settling above all else.
That’s it, I’ve caught up. Tomorrow, we start all over again.
Tuesday 30th May, 7.00 p.m. – The Final Approach:
If you think the fringe is all about innovation and originality, The Final Approach wins hands downs. Although nominally in the Theatre category, Thom Jordan’s performance is more like a film noir narration. He’s certainly not the first person to narrate as a private investigator, but he’s surely the first to stage it the way he’s done. Standing behind a sound desk, you have the option to see him recite the case with the background of an overhead projector behind him, or look at the screen of him in high-contrast black and white with the same background behind. Just like it was in the golden age of the clickies.
There is one twist to the film noir format, however. Our hero, Sam Marlowe, isn’t really a private investigator as such: he’s actually a final-year schoolboy in a quite elite private school – a delusion presumably brought about by going for the world record of going without sleep, which in turn seems to have been a response to his equally disturbed mother unexpectedly leaving. I did get a bit confused as to why a kid who thinks he’s a private investigator would have an office. Fortunately, this and many other delusions are cleared up by the two bullies who run the school rag who tell him his “office” is actually his locker.
It’s a clever plot working in the film noir format to the setting of an elite school where nothing is as it seems, but the real gem is the staging. I have seen plenty of innovative ideas for staging that were excellent in principle, but in practice don’t live up their potential. Some stumble on execution, some miss opportunities to make the most of it. This, however, excels on both. As well as the striking visual setting, there are numerous voice alteration gadgets to switch between the many characters, with the right kind of jazz music to build together one of the most innovative performing arts experiences I’ve seen.
However, I think this might may have been slightly over-cut to squeeze this into 60 minutes. I know, this was done at Edinburgh Fringe where every extra five minutes costs a fortune, but the condensed running time comes at a price. Thank to some clever deployment of visual effects and voice effects, I was able to pick up a lot of the story: the long-term crush who’s given away too much info, the sympathetic principal who just seems to have too much to hide, the uneasy balance with what’s real and what’s imagined, the expulsion as the equivalent to gangland whacking. But when Sam climbed up the scaffolding to follow a cue and from there ended up in the sewers, I’m sure something has been lost in the pruning – maybe not in the script, maybe too fast for me to pick up. Perhaps out of Edinburgh Fringe constraints an extra 10-15 minutes might be easier to follow.
Other than that, a stand-out performance for both concept and innovation. The bad news is that I may have caught this at the end of its long run, having done Edinburgh last year. A different experience that doesn’t neatly fit into any category, but if you can spot any future performances, do try to catch it.
Tuesday 30th May, 2.00 p.m.:
All right folks, I’ll be with you shortly. Time for visit number 2. Before then, we’re into week 4:
Starting yesterday (oops, sorry, forgot) and finishing today is Moby Dick, the third play from Ross Ericson’s back catalogue for Grist to the Mill. This play is the one closest to a storytelling format, with Ismail recounting his time on the Pequod on Captain Ahab’s obviously doomed mission/revenge to kill a great white whale. It’s a huge book and only a condensed version can be done in a stage play of any sane length, but this gets a good picture of the ragtag bunches who crew whaling ships combined with Ahab’s suicidal obsession. Last performance tonight at 7.45, the Rotunda.
Also, tonight only, it’s Notflix, an ensemble who improvise cheesy musical adaptations of a randomly selected film at the start of the show. When I first saw this I was convinced they must be using a set of stock tunes, but the really do manage everything on the fly, including music, lyrics and harmonising. Adaptations ranges from cheesy faithful versions to cheesy versions taking major liberties (e.g. the Titanic but it doesn’t sink). I first saw this when they had a side room at the Edinburgh Fringe, but they’ve earned their place as a headliner on the biggest stages. 7.15 as Caravanserai, and I repeat, tonight only.
Another show I’ve seen progress from the smallest stage to the biggest is Police Cops, who are now doing their third show, After a cheesy complication of all 1970s cops shows and another of all 1970s sci-fi shows, we now have Badass Be Thy Name a compilation of all mismatches hero pairing movings, as long as the pairing is a 1990s raver and a vampire-slaying priest. Very cheesy, and also an insanely well choreographed and high-energy performance of the trio that is The Pretend Men. Thursday to Saturday at Caravanserai, 7.15 p.m.
Blue Dog Theatre, responsible for last year’s brilliant satire of 1980s censors and video nasties, Moral Panic, is returning with a more serious show this week. This is Normal follows the story of a hospital porter after the pandemic who’s coming to terms with exactly what the “new normal” really means. However, it’s billed as in the style of This is Going to Hurt and Fleabag, one of which is a sort-of comedy and the other of which is definitely a comedy. They’ve stuck with their venue of Conclave, which they nicely set up last year, and it on Thursday-Sunday, at 7.00 p.m. (6.00 p.m Sunday).
And finally for now, from Thursday in the late night there’s Griffin and Jones with Talking to the Dead. This pair are mostly comedians and magicians, but do have an off-shoot in theatre with a focus on the occult and macabre. This is an immersive seance so there could be a different experience to your usual one at Sweet @ the Poets. Thursday – Saturday, 11.00 p.m.
Right, two outstanding reviews to write, then tomorrow it’s start all over again.
Monday 29th May – Run to the Nuns:
If Lord God was a musical production with a strong scripts but a weak musical performance, Estelle Homerstone’s company performing Run to the Nuns has all the musical talent you could dream of. And the setting was quite a draw too – apart from the title (which was anecdotally grabbed a lot of interest in its own right) – few things are more attention-catching that a nun smoking a fag giving the finger. The setting is a fictional ‘Nunnery’ – quote marks doing a lot of heavy lifting here – and with the array of musical talent on offer this has so much potential. Unfortunately, there is one problem: the story makes absolutely no sense.
I get the impression that Run to the Nuns is written around plot-driven characters rather than character-driven plots. That’s fine – in fact, that’s my own preferred method of writing – but the thing you must avoid at all costs is forcing characters to do implausible things and shoehorning in implausible events to meet the requirements of the plot. I could do a Cinema Sins-style run-through of everything that lacked believability, but instead I’ll focus on a key point. The origin is that this used to be a convent school, until one former pupil inherited the place and transformed it into the place it is today where women are free to be as they are. And the nuns who worked there switched over to this health centre / intersectional feminist commune. In other words, we’re expected to believe this bastion of pro-contraception, sexual health, female empowerment, lesbian acceptance and trans acceptance is as an offshoot of, err, the Catholic Church. (That alone isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s endless liberties like this which costs any semblance of believability.)
That is a real shame, because out of all the musical productions I’ve seen so far this Brighton Fringe the musical talent here wins hands down. There is an incredibly versatile ensemble of seven, with individuals effortlessly switching between multiple instruments and acting roles. And – such a rare treat – the whole cast know how to harmonise on the fly. Rosa Lucacks has done an outstanding job as Composer and Musical Director and if the rest of the production was up to this standard, we’d had had something exceptional on our hands.
I’m going to make a suggestion. Don’t normally suggest what to do with other people’s works, but hear me out. There is a rule that the more out of the ordinary a character action or plot point is, the harder you have to work to make it believable. And if you have a convent school transformed into something that’s stands for the exact opposite of what convents stand for, you’d need an entire play to explain something that unlikely. But – hey – why not? Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho worked on exactly that premise, with the whole play set around how the Iron Lady gave up her job running the country to become hostess of a gay nightclub. I’d be up for a Run to the Nuns origin story. It’s a long shot, but you never know.
Sunday 28th May: Fever Peach – Intense Nightmare Goblin Woman:
Oh heck. Don’t normally review spoken word, but I like to sample other bits of the fringe and this fit a gap in the schedule. The last spoken word duo I saw was The Glummer Twins, which is quite easily described as a humorous duo with a rapport with echoes of Morecambe as Wise. But if you’re hoping for a simple self-contained description of these two? Not a chance.
Fever Peach describe themselves as a “Musical Comedy Duo”, although I could have sworn this would have “punk” in the description somewhere (although I’m not familiar with the rules on what is and isn’t punk so don’t hold me to that). Whatever the correct description, it’s fair to say that the duo of Scott Redmond and Andy Bullick are, by design, very bizarre indeed. I’m not going to even describe the appearance of the two – the picture should give you an idea of what to expect.
They do actually take on a surprisingly wide array of both subject material and performance styles. Some are straightforward song, some are straightforward poems, and some are beat poems to music. The show opens with “I wanna fuck a poet”, as said by, to you their words “a literary groupie” (that catch: there are no suitable poets around, so you’ll have to do). At the end, we have some improvisation with “We had a terrible day at the zoo” where you pick an animal and they explain what was so terrible about it e.g. it was terrible to meet a tiger because it the tiger in question was Tiger Woods who proceeded to cop off with your missus. I think my favourite one, however was “I will be your perfect wife” which starts off with promises to always look beautiful, before moving on to darker expectations o always being silent, having no conflicting opinions, and looks the other way when required.
That’s the best I can do to describe this. They certainly know how to hold their tune and their rhythm, but it is what it is and the only to tell if this is for you is to turn up and see. But it’s certainly one of the most memorable spoken word performances out there.
Saturday 27th May: Stephen Catling – Beehavioural Problems: Something Something Autism
This is a bit different from my normal reviews. I normally don’t review stand-up comedy because I wouldn’t know where to start. However, one thing I have noticed is an a lot of shows from performers – particularly comedians – openly publicising themselves as autistic. For this reason, I wanted to check one of them out. (As I knew I would be commenting heavily on the participation of autistic comedians rather than the usual focus on a single act, I didn’t count this as a press ticket and paid to see it.)
As a comedic act goes, I enjoyed it – but as stand-up comedy is particularly subjective and I’m not used to reviewing stand-up I’m not in a good position to say why. I think it’s fair to say this is a type of humour popular amongst – but not exclusive to – autistic people. I like it though, because it’s my favourite type of pedanticism. There was the comment on people calling themselves “demisexual” on dating apps, which apparently means you are only sexually attracted to someone after having got to know them for some time (or, at Catling calls is “standards”). There was also the point over the furore over having a black Little Mermaid in this Disney live action remake and it not being realistic (obvious point: no mermaids are realistic, because they’re not real). Catling does seem to have a fanbase on both sides of the camp, and other bits of humour, such as never getting a job in the degree you trained for, will be relatable to a lot of people. There’s also the bee skit, but I haven’t a clue how to describe that.
The purpose of the routine, however, is to talk about his experiences of being autistic – especially in the workplace. Sadly, that’s something that I and many other people nod along to. A lot of people don’t understand this, but there is a lot of shocking ignorance about autism and what autistic people might do in the workplace which is bandied about – and frequently tolerated by management. A lot of Catling’s horror stories happened within the NHS, which, for some reason, I hear complaints about more than any other employer. (Stephen Catling was keen to stress that not all of his NHS jobs are like this, so #notallbitsofNHS.)
Stephen Catling is not seeking to correct misconceptions single-handedly. As he says in interviews, he wants other autsitic people to speak up about their condition, of which the comedy circuit is one way to do it. I agree with that, but I would go one step further and say that it’s particular important to do this on the open festival circuit. Curated regional theatres still have very exact ideas about what they want on stage, and I’m firmly of the view they cannot be trusted to gatekeep which voices of autistic people do and don’t get heard. Most of the time they cherry-pick whoever best validates the views they already have, and that is turn is often sadly little more than a lazy copy-paste of discourse around other minorities. If you can persuade the average artistic director that most have more important things to worry about than whether Dustin Hoffman should have played Rain Man, you’re doing very well.
The open festival circuit is largely immune from this, especially the comedy circuit. Gatekeeping doesn’t work – the only thing that determines whose voices get heard is who does well enough to get tickets sold. So as a comedian, there’s not much I can say other than that I enjoyed it, but the real purpose is to make himself heard and encourage other people to be heard. Both of these are going well at Brighton and Edinburgh too, and for that reason, this is a much-needed success.
Friday 26th May: Still Ticking!
Now, for a change, something from the Cabaret and Variety section. Nigel Osner’s show is a “tribute to “pagean to growing old disgracefully”, and is a collection of songs,poems and monologues around this theme. The headline part, as the title suggests, is about a routine heart operation two years ago that went badly wrong, but also covers many other snippets from past projects.
A reminder of the caveat: I am a theatre reviewer and not a cabaret reviewer. I can only review within the concept of theatre expectations, so you are welcome to ignore what I say and listen to cabaret reviewers instead. From a theatre reviewer perceptive, my favourite part was the headliner number. It’s told from the point of view of the grim reaper (wearing sunglasses instead of a black cape just because) who turns up to the operating theatre to harvest a soul – and when the live-saving operating stubbornly goes to plan, Death intervenes to cause it all to go wrong. However, thanks to the interventions of a visiting archangel and/or a pesky specialist drafted to put things right, it’s curses foiled – but don’t worry, I’ll get you all eventually.
Amongst the other numbers, I particularly liked the one of a retired vampire who just can’t keeping up with all the blood-drinking and murdering he nostalgically looks back at; “Seize the day” also would be fitting as a show piece. Osner does tell us the background for each of these songs, many of them written for musicals he’s penned. However, I often felt these songs would have been strongest in the context of the musicals they were written for, than the stand-alone pieces they were performed as. Yes, I know, putting an entire musical on stage is hard, it’s much easier to just sing some of your songs from it. But from a theatre point of view, I wonder if a good compromise would be make these part of character comedy skits. Maybe write some wraparound monologues for the characters the songs were written far.
But I’ll stop there, because I’m quickly overstepping the line of saying how I’d want to do this. As I said, you are welcome to disregard everything I said as not the target audience for cabaret and variety, but that’s my hunch of how to make the most of it. If it helps, the songs got me interested in the musicals they were written for, and anything that helps me get to know them more has my approval.
Thursday 25th May:
Sorry, as usually is the case, brain turned to jelly on return from Brighton. Will resume reviews tomorrow when my brain as recharged a bit.
We’re now coming into weekend 4, but there’s only one new thing on my list started. It’s Lachalan Werner’s Voices of Evil. Lachlan is an insanely good ventriloquist, but the thing that is unusual about his show is that the whole thing is a stand off between himself and a sinister witch as the puppet. One performance only, tomorrow at 6.30 p.m., Spiegeltent.
We do, however, have a lot of things closing this weekend. If I’ve kept up, we have:
Who is Number 1: Origin story of The Prisoner that scooped extra performances through popular demand. Last two extra extra performances of Who is Number One at Ironworks Studios tonight. Be quick.
Chemistry: Sam Chittenden’s play with echoes of Brave New World. Running until Sunday at The Lantern.
The moderately bizarre dance piece Lulu has the last performances tonight at the Rotunda.
And as I have just mentioned, Pericles runs until Friday, both a standard version in the afternoon and a relaxed version an lunch time.
Also a reminder that Geoff Mead’s tours are on every weekend. If you’ve caught up with my play recommendations, worth doing one of these for a change.
And I think we’re up to date. Remaining shows waiting for reviews, bear with me, I’ll get round to you eventually. Now it’s time to fall into a coma again.
Wednesday 24th May, 7.45 p.m. – Pericles:
In order to give everyone a fair chance at being reviewed, there are two bits of theatre I normally exclude. One is more than one review for the same company – I want to give as many artists as possible a turn. The other is plays written prior to 1900 – classic plays aren’t really my speciality, I usually wouldn’t know where to start. But with Flute Theatre responsible for the outstanding Wildcat’s Last Waltz, they’ve earned a second slot. And I’m glad I did; Pericles does not disappoint.
Pericles (or Pericles, Prince of Tyre to give its full name) occupies an unusual spot in Shakespeare’s canon. It wasn’t in the Shakespeare First Folio, and for a long time it was unclear whether Shakespeare wrote any of this at all. Now the consensus is that he did, but as a major co-writer rather than sole author. That being the case, it would explain why this play has a different feel to most Shakespeare. The language is very much Shakesperian, but the story feels a lot more like Arabian mythology than King Lear. Our hero Pericles feels much more like a story of adventures.
The big challenge with classic theatre is making it accessible. You can of course set your target audience as Shakespeare buffs, but that excludes a lot of people and if you blame losing people on them not concentrating enough this is scant consolation. Ideally, you want to present the play in a way that 50%+ of the dialogue could go over the viewers’ heads, but there’s still enough visually to follow what’s happening. The other challenge – by no means essential but rewarding if you can do it – it if you can do the play in a way that’s distinctive to you. What’s it about your performance that’s different from others of the same script?
It turns out Flute Theatre are suited to both these challenges very well. I get the impression that Flute Theatre’s speciality is more mythology than Shakespeare – but if that’s the case, they’ve picked the right Shakespeare for them. In spite of me coming into this play cold, I never had any trouble following the Prince of Tyre fleeing his kingdom following a run-in with a murderous/incestuous tyrrant, being shipwrecked in another kingdom, falling in love with and marrying a princess, only for cruel fate to separate husband, wife and daughter, and to believe each other dead.
Ah, but do they get back together again? Well, the usual rule of comedies and tragedies applies here: either people get married at the end, or people die at the end. Look out for any marriage proposals in the last 15 minutes: if that happens, it’s going to be all right; if not, it’s gonna be a massacre. There were a few moments when I lost the story – I wasn’t completely sure, for example, why the foster family of Pericles’ daughter suddenly decided to kill her – but Kelly Hunter’s adaptation is good and if you miss one reference, there’s usually another later to catch up. Bearing in mind uncut Shakespeare usually goes on for hours, it’s a good job to keep it in 80 minutes without it ceasing to make sense.
So good job done, I can recommend this even if you’re the sort of person who normally sits through Shakespeare glancing at your watch every five minutes wondering what the hell’s going on. There are two more performances left at Caravanserai at 5.00 p.m. Worth it.
Wednesday 24th May, 6.30 p.m. – Glad to be Dead?
Although this is frequently not the case in smaller fringes, in big fringes such as Edinburgh and Brighton it is almost always taken as a given that all performances spaces have lights, sound systems, and the full bells and whistles. But that’s not always the case, and some plays work on the strengths of the writing and the acting alone. This is what MIM (Make It Mine) theatre are doing. No sinister musical score or spooky lighting, needed here, just spoken word or a staircase from a series of ghosts – some real characters, some fictitious, some murderers, some victims.
In a big fringe where all the major venues are curated, it is tempting to write off acts in the minor venues as not good enough to get chosen in proper venues. This is a good example of why you shouldn’t do that. Mother-daughter duo Donna and Jade Flack have done a decent set of monologues. One frequent mistake I’ve seen with monologues – particularly those of historical characters – is to treat it as a biographical account spoken in first person. Donna and Jade Flack are good at getting under the skin of these characters. Everybody knows that Anne Boleyn’s daughter went on the become England’s greatest monarch, but the pride in which she announces this is the icing on the cake.
However, I’m not entirely sold on the disparate concept – I did at some points feel unsure what the theme was meant to be. Where I think the real strength lies is the fictional characters. In this setting, the fictional characters know they are fictional and know the relationship to their authors. Lots of people write solo biopics but I’ve never seen any handle fictional characters this way before. Dorian Gray’s monologue was particularly good. That’s a unique selling point, and should this be developed further I would recommend focusing on that.
Now for the problem. I deliberately kept this review back until after the run had finished because this wasn’t the fault of the company but … I don’t think their venue did them any favours. MIM Theatre’s format has been written to work outside of conventional theatre spaces, and I also liked the fact the audience was looking down on to a staircase. But a window opening up on to the A259 was a distraction, and the traffic was noisy. None of that is R-Bar’s fault, they can’t help what the front of their building faces. However, I was unimpressed that the bar staff downstairs took it upon themselves to do some noisy hammering and drilling; and in spite of the cast handling it as best they could, sometimes important words were lost. Venues: please don’t do that. I know some of you run a business as a bar first and a performing arts venue a long way second, but if you can’t hold off noisy work whilst a play is on in a space you’ve hired out, you really shouldn’t be hiring it out at all.
The good news is that there are other fringe performances coming, in venues that appear to be more amenable to theatre. I certainly hope so, because MIM Theatre deserved better than what they had. In the right space this could achieve a lot.
Wednesday 24th May, 5.00 p.m.:
Before I continue with the reviews, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Robert Cohen for providing me with accommodation in his old flat. Like most people, I have been facing a financial squeeze this year, and the length of time I’d not used to staying in 2021 and 2022 was getting unsustainable. Equally, however, I am aware of the number of people asking me for reviews and I was loathe a cut this back. Thanks to this help, I have been able to continue reviewing at a level that I otherwise could have have maintained.
If you would like to show your appreciation, the best thing you can do is turn up to the extra extra performances of Who is No 1 at the Ironworks tomorrow (Thursday), where he is acting. I have been promoting this anyway on the strength of the Foundry’s Group’s previous successes (and of course the sell-out performances this time round) – but now there is an extra reason. Two performances, 7.00 p.m. and 9.15 p.m. Sorry I can’t make it myself, but your presence will be appreciated.
Wednesday 24th May, 12 noon:
Home time today. I’ll be back on Wednesday next week. I intend to get some more reviews knocked off whilst I’m heading back on the train.
Before I move on to any more reviews, though, an update on the new Brighton Fringe website. I am now hearing multiple complaints about the new website. I won’t give a comprehensive rundown of all the complaints here, but the underlying problem is a common one to many IT projects: releasing software that isn’t quite ready. The website as it is is what I’d describe as “beta quality”. The website has been created, looks okay, and basic checks have been done by the company responsible for creating the site to ensure that it doesn’t fall over when used (that’s alpha testing). However, when it is released into the real world, new problems come to light. Some things go wrong in ways developers hadn’t thought of, some things go wrong when real users operate the product in a different way than what the developers envisage, and some problems left unaddressed because they were thought to be trivial prove to be bigger problems than they imagined. Beta testing – that is early access by real users who feed back their experience – is what you should be doing to iron out these problems.
What is frustrating about this is that most or all of the problems people are complaining about now were entirely avoidable. I half-jokingly offered to do the testing a few months ago but other Brighton Fringe regulars who also do IT in their day jobs were offering the same. I’m sure the problems people are complaining about now would have been detected had these offers been taken up – and, as far as I can tell, most of the problems would have been trivially easy to fix once they’d be found.
To be fair to the Brighton Fringe website developers, they are far from the only people to make these mistakes.* But the lesson you should learn is that web developers are not to be trusted with the testing – it’s not because they aren’t interested in testing properly; it’s more that at least one of their assumptions on how the website will be used, however reasonable, will turn out to be wrong. And it seems like March and April was a missed opportunity to nip these problems in the bud.
*: (The worst offender was a council website who asked us to perform extensive usability testing from real users, which we painstakingly researched, documented and made recommendations – none of which they were the slightest bit interested in doing. Folks, beware of public sector organisations who dismiss your complaints with “But our website has been thoroughly tested” – that usually means it didn’t work properly and they couldn’t be arsed to fix it.)
Ah well, too late now. The next best thing Brighton Fringe can do is put things right next year. We’re now learning everything that’s wrong with the website the hard way. To be fair, some bits of the new website are good: I like the automatic PDF creation for something similar to a brochure, and the integration with Eventotron (a system I’ve found doesn’t play that nicely with other website) is quite reliable. My advice it to take the opportunity after the fringe to ask people how they used the website and what did and didn’t work for them. There will be 11 months to put things right for next time – and there’ll be no excuse to not have this done in time for Fringe 2024.
Tuesday 23rd May, 11.00 p.m. – The Lost Play of Barry Wayworm:
That’s it for visit one. 16 plays viewed in five days. Out of those, all but one were press invitations (although two I opted to buy tickets for anyway for different reasons.) Tomorrow I hope to do a big catch-up. What I will say at this point is how grateful I am to all the people who entrusted me to give my honest feedback to a public forum. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough reviews to know what a nerve-racking experience it is, and I’m aware of how much people value reviews that understand the play. Thank you all who have faith in my ability to do this.
Okay, time for one more before bed, called The Lost Play of Barry Wayworm. In Stolen Table Collective’s own words, it’s a “comedy-meta” play, which is quite a good description. There’s a hint of the absurdist coming the a montage as five characters wander on stage, looking around or talking, staring out into the audience every time the song on loop ends.
Then it’s on to the story. Alex Fishwife (producer Sam Dodgshon) angrily confronts Diane Doe about the play she’s just written – or more accurately, over the play she hasn’t written. Agnes diffuses the situation by coming up with an idea on the spot for a play about Harry Hayworm, an actor whose opinion is his ability to act vastly outstrips reality. Recently he fell off a chair and broke someone’s legs, and thinks he was quick as flash quipping “When they said break a leg, I didn’t think they meant literally”. Harry is egotistical enough to be cast into the role now that his character is renamed Barry Wayworm, and is teamed up with possibly the only two available actors less competent than him – at least Harry attempts to learn his lines. Oh, and the play includes Harry/Barry being asked to make a play about the legs he broke, and in the play within a play goes into rehearsals, and breaks legs and ends up in a play within a play within a play and then etc. etc.
I won’t beat around the bush: this play breaks the number one rule of comedy theatre, which is that it’s supposed to be as believable as any theatrical drama. Honestly, there are such huge plot holes in this story you could drive a bus through them. But Stolen Table get away with because the ensemble of five are excellent at clowning. I’ve seen so many plays become painfully unfunny because the actors throw together an implausible script and just dick about; these five, however, have comic timing and comic choreography down to perfection. And I must especially single out meta-play meta-writer Agnes Carrington as Diane Doe for the greatest clowning performance of all.
This concept shouldn’t really work at all, but somehow it does. Don’t expect to make sense of the plot, because it’s not supposed to make sense. But if you take the play for what it is, which is ultimately an hour of clowning, you should enjoy it for what it is.
Tuesday 23rd May, 6.45 p.m.:
Coincidentally, I’ve spend much of the last two days at Caravanserai. I’m now aware that that this is a venture with heavy involvement from Brighton Fringe, with Caravanserai’s role amounting to little more than supplying the pop-up venue. It’s quite clear that the main aim of this is to be a replacement for The Warren, or at least this bits that Brighton Fringe liked (i.e. not getting to the point of taking over Brighton Fringe and bankrupting themselves after not keeping up with payments). One thing that is proving controversial is the programming. I will get back to that later. For now, however, let’s have a look at the venue itself.
The first thing I will say is that the Caravanserai people may only be behind the structures, but visually it is very fitting for a fringe, with the right balance of quirkiness and functionality. I did like the look of The Warren’s venue, but one thing they lost track of early on was a theme (a rabbit-theme after which the venue was names). It does help for every venue to have a different feel, and circus/folklore feel here goes rather well. Also, it’s a pop-up venue that already exists for Bestival. Given this choice between something that would otherwise be in storage or creating a new pop-up venue, this is a no-brainer.
Much of the layout mimics The Warren 2016-2018 Warren, albeit on not so big a scale. Bars surrounding an open space are pretty much a given, but there’s also a family area called “Under the Archway”. This even takes some of the events that used to go to the equivalent area in The Warren, such as Woodland Tribe. What’s completely new is the Fringe City stage, which, as I’ve already explain, is something I think is an improvement on New Road. My important caveat I gave at the time is that this will only work if Caravanserai treats acts from other venues fairly. But, by all accounts so far, they are, both with fringe city and allowing other acts to flyer there (something I consider a big plus).
There are two spaces here, four if you count Under the Archway and the Fringe City stage. Luna Parc is a big space in a tent (and commercially speaking we probably did need a second to complement Spiegeltent); Junk Poets is a smaller venue closer to the size most performers would need. The venues are perfectly functional and have their individuality; however, the problem that has not gone away is noise bleed – if anything, this is worse than in The Warren’s day. One small change I would suggest for next time is to swap Luna Parc and Junk Poets around. Luna Parc is next to the A23, and is is frequently disturbed by pretty much the entire contingent of mods and rockers on motorbikes assembling for a fight to the death. The plays in Junk Poets suffer from that – the larger-scale productions in Luna Park I think would cope better.
An obvious complaint? The prices in Caravanserai are unaffordable to many people. I sympathise, but one venue cannot achieve everything for everybody. The one thing Brighton Fringe cannot count on right now is money, and sadly charging what people are willing to pay is, my opinion, more important than providing a new venue affordable to all. Caravanserai does not stop other venues offering something cheaper if they wish. Brighton Fringe must not lose sight of questions over affordability, but Caravanserai isn’t the answer to that problem.
Should Caravanseari expand beyond two spaces, I will start getting more sceptical, but that ties into the row over programming, which I’ll cover another day. In the meantime, I’m giving a cautious welcome to this new venue.
Tuesday 23rd May, 2.00 p.m. – At Eternity’s Gate:
The name Van Gough is synonymous with the famous painter Vincent Van Gough, but were it not for another Van Gough he would probably have never been a painter, let alone been remembered as one. Joseph Winder plays Theodore, Vincent’s brother. Not the eldest son, but such was the shambolic life of actual eldest he came to be regarded as the responsible one of the family. They were close – as described in the play the moment came when they realised they were more than just brothers. Art dealer Theodore did everything he could to support this brother. But Vincent was impossible to keep on the rails and he is now dead.
The time-frame matters a lot. As we all know, Vincent Van Gough died penniless and virtually unknown. His style of painting unreal bright colours was at odds with the fashion of the naturalists of the day. And this is where Theodore was pivotal. As an art dealer, his still was persuading buyers that a piece of art wasn’t just a decoration or a status symbol, it was an investment. It was his success as an art dealer that allowed his brother to devote his life to painting. One inadvertently prophetic statement he made to his customers is that why you buy now could be treasured beyond compare generations down the line. It’s not like Theodore really believes it that much – after all, he’s a salesman – but for Vincent this will be truer than he ever imagine.
But Theodore doesn’t know that yet (and, as it turns out, he never did). This is straight after his death when all seems lost. Joseph Winder does a fine portrayal of a man in the height of grief and – for all Theodore’s efforts to hide it – despair too. As some points, Theodore is angry with Vincent for his inability to look after himself; at other points, he insists he can somehow use his status as a arts dealer to give Vincent the recognition he deserves. A nice twist there: hope springs eternal, grief brings denial, and Theodore’s hopes he can use his status and skills to restore his brother’s name to glory look like a wildly optimistic fantasy to an outsider. But it turned out to be true.
This is one of the shorter plays on the fringe (I made it 40 minutes compared to the advertised 50), but that’s okay – 40 seemed the right time for me, an hour would have dragged. The only thing that surprised me when I did my usual background check was to discover the omission of the role his wife played. That came later – Theodore died six months after Vincent as it was his widow Jo who finished the job he started. Of course, you can’t write events that have already happened, but perhaps a bit more about Jo would have suited the play: maybe Theodore musing that she’s a fighter, she won’t give up something once she’s started. Although I don’t know how accurate that would be – and Winder certainly knowns his stuff.
The symbolic set of wheat strew around the floor make a good finishing touch a heartfelt tribute of man who believed in his brother and eventually get what he wanted. Recommended, and there’s two more performances today and tomorrow at 5.00 p.m., Caravanserai.
Tuesday 23rd May, 11.00 a.m. – I Was Kinda the Bad Guy:
I planned to leave this review until the run with finished, because – a bit like Wildcat’s Last Waltz – it’s not possible to review this without giving away the spoiler. It was just about possible to skirt the spoiler/twist in the other play and still talk about it. Here – not a chance. So this review is on full spoiler alert.
The “bad guy” in the story is “Nads”, who is also the primary narrator. Nads has a best friend who needs help. The two of them became close after said friend’s mother left home. Nads is concerned the friend shares the same mental health problems of her mother, and wants to persuade her to go to therapy. The persuasion works, friend goes to therapy, and for about 40 minutes into the play I wonder where this is going to go. Nads does pose the question: can you end up the bad guy in someone else’s story, and just when it looks like the story is going to stall, therapist and dad between them work out the problem: Nads doesn’t exist. Nads is just a figment of somebody’s imagination.
Good twist, great concept, and it makes sense: after all, if you weren’t coping with being abandoned by a parent and your real friends found it too much and drifted away, an imaginary friend would make sense as a solace. But boy, what a difficult thing this is to write. It can be done – indeed, A Beautiful Mind got an Oscar for it. But if you study the film closely you’ll how cleverly this was handled, with John Nash’s real friends and imaginary friends so tightly woven into the story you don’t realise until later how unusual it was they never interacted with each other. When you’re writing a twist of this magnitude, the writing has to work on two levels: the story must appear to make sense (and be engaging) without the twist, and the same story must also make sense once you know what the twist is.
To pick an example: Nads always turns up in the friend’s room unannounced, because – so we are told – both of them have keys. But the friend lives with her dad, so that doesn’t really make sense. Nads eavesdrops on a therapy session – but no competent therapist would make that possible, unless the friend doesn’t really exist and can appear anywhere. All of these thing are opportunities for the illusion to unravel, so use them. The other opportunity is to explore the unsaid. The play relies heavily on the main characters talking about how they feel, but at least one of them has a problem of not opening up. Writing is all the more powerful when people give away information about themselves without saying it. That is far from easy to write – but, I never said this was easy.
There is a lot of potential with this play. There are plenty of stories about imaginary friends, but this is the first one I’ve seen told from the point of the view of the non-existent character, whose whole existence is threatened by the real friend learning the truth. Jasmine-Rose Johnson is a first-time playwright, and, to be honest, I would usually advise a first-time playwright to start on something safer and take on difficult writing challenges later. But the audience was nearly full so something is going right, and I always prefer writers biting off more than they can chew than forever retreating to the comfort of uninspired formulaic writing. I wish all the best here, because if the challenges are overcome there’s a lot to be realised.
Monday 22nd May, 11.45 p.m.:
Phew. I was expected Monday to be the quiet day – but in the end, there were four plays to squeeze in. As a result, the next review will have to wait until tomorrow. Eek, there’s eight in the queue.
I leave you with news tonight that ticket sales so far for Brighton Fringe are reported up by about 10-12%. Registrations, meanwhile, are up by about 10-12%. This means that average sales per act are holding steady. Of course, there can be huge variances around the average; some acts are reporting poor sales or the dreaded walk of shame when you have no sales – whether there is any more variation than usual is hard to say.
However, we are at the peak of a cost of living crisis and I was braced for a reduction in sales, or, at best, the same number of sales going round more acts. So I’m treating a neutral figure of sales per act as good news. Of course, Edinburgh Fringe’s size appears to be going up even though sales per ticket are going down, so this figure doesn’t tell you everything. But Edinburgh is a different story completely.
Bed time needed, urgently.
Monday 22nd May, 12.30 p.m.:
So we’re now into week 3. And this is actually one of the quieter weeks in terms of upcoming recommendations when we started. However, a couple of new entries have found their way in.
Starting with the original picks, there’s a chance to see Grist to the Mills Gratiano the The Rotunda. Probably the most ambitious of all of Ross Ericson’s plays, it tells the story from a minor character in a Merchant of Venice transplanted to Mussolini’s Italy – including, of course, the likely fate of many people such as Shylock. This one split critical opinion, but worth seeing as something different. Tuesday and Wednesday, 7.30.
Different Theatre’s Chemistry starts on Thursday. Sam Chittenden’s writing is always worth checking out because all of her ideas are interesting and never unoriginal. In this case, it’s kind of Brave New World, excpet that intimacy is forbidden instead of the encouragement of meaningless promiscuity. But the raising of babies is still strictly regulated – as is everything in life – how will gene donors Bea and Jay work with each other. Runs 25th – 29th, 7.00 p.m. first three days, 9.00 p.m. last two, all at The Lantern.
In my Durham Fringe shoes, I’d like to point you to Lulu and dance piece. Difficult to explain, and I must warn you that the content warning is truthful and it does contain twerking in diapers. Also features the absolute banger of a tune Straight to Number One. Tuesday to Thursday at The Rotunda, 6.00 p.m.
Now for the new entries. Who is No 1 has been a big success and following on from the extra performance, extra extra performances have been added. To see the story of The Prisoner, you can get to the new venue of Ironworks Studios on Thursday at 7.00 p.m. or 9.15 p.m.
And finally, a completely new entry for Pericles. Never heard of this production but it’s here at the last moment on the strength of Wildcat’s Last Waltz which I have already seen, praised and Ike Awarded. A performance of Shakespeare’s least known play (TBF I didn’t recognise the name), Tuesday to Friday at Caravanserai (except Wed when it’s 10.45 p.m.). There’s also a version for autistic individuals on the same days at 12.30 p.m.
That’s me up to date. Time for me to join you again. See you soon.
Monday 22nd May, 9.00 a.m. – Toy Stories:
Well, the first thing I’ve got to credit Menagerie Theatre for is introducing me to Brighton Toy and Model Museum. Situated under Brighton Station, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of toys and models from over the decades. Amongst it are numerous extensive train tracks, working Meccano models and many other vintage delights. It’s worth the ticket price to have a look round the museum alone if you arrive early enough before the start – however, this is supplemented by some of Dobrowolski’s own models.
Anyway, on to Toy Stories itself The first thing to say about this is this straddles Brighton Fringe categories, none of which I’d really consider to be its advertised category of theatre. Chris Dobrowolski is an artist, and the show is best described as a talk from him on what he does, how he ended up doing what he’s doing, and some stories of what happened in his life because of this. You won’t be hearing any recitations of Shakespeare here, but Dobrowolski is an engaging storyteller – and that, I think, has a lot to do with how he’s forged the career he has.
It begins with how his parents met. As you may have guessed from the surname, Chris Dobrowolski’s father is Polish. He is one of the Polish fighters captured in the Russians in 1939, then allowed to fight from Britain in 1941 after the Germans turned on Russia, only to not be allowed back. There was one nice anecdote about the meetings of both the Polish Veterans and German ex-POWs, but as they dwindled in number they eventually merged.
Then we move on to his very niche line of work: making art out of children’s models. After a cynical about 100% correct observation about scale models of race cars apparently making it okay to advertised cigarettes on children’s toys, we move on to his crowning triumph: a Scalextric race track in the library. And you could have your own car modelled on the track. And have a live camera following your car. I’ll say it again. It’s YOUR OWN CAR. On a SCALEXTRIC RACE TRACK. With a LIVE CAMERA. In a LIBRARY. (And this isn’t just a boring oval track, but running under all the shelves and underneath the computers and everything.)
Dobrowolski also talks a bit about his teaching work -and here I think he undersells himself. At the risk of overdoing the chiche about inspiring young minds, he clearly did. So much that when a former student who he barely knew sadly died and his parents invited him to a memorial exhibition of their work because Dobrowolski was an inspiration to him, I don’t think his realise just how poignant it was.
The only thing I wasn’t convinced about was the analysis of the rise of fascism. As the risk of repeating what I’ve said before: I’m pretty sure 100% of the audience already agrees Fascism is bad, and have already seen parallels with the Stop the Boats policy. And original though the toy-centric analysis is, everybody over-analyses subjects that the whole audience already agrees with. What would have been an interesting take is the rise of nationalism in Poland – this would have fit in very well with the story beginning and ending there – that that was only touched upon before . Ah well, maybe the next edition.
Toy Stories doesn’t really belong in the theatre section, but as an inspirational talk it’s a lovely hour. And a great idea to set it in a toy museum.
Sunday 21st May, 11.15 p.m.:
Next review will have to wait until tomorrow. Sorry. Something came up tonight that needed sorting out, can’t say what.
So instead I’ll leave you with the news that attendance for Canavanserai as a venue overall looks rather good. Pictured right is the venue when I visited late afternoon today. You would expect late Sunday afternoon to be one of the better times, but to have the venue full to standing at this time is something Brighton Fringe will be quite happy with.
And one last thing. Just a small thing but it really pissed me off. One of the performances I attended today had a sparse audience. That sucks, but these thing happen. However, two of the people in the audience were sitting as a table on a date. They periodically talked to each other, looked for sockets to plug their mobile phones in, and with ten minutes to go just packed up and left. Credit to the performer for carrying on, but that is really shitty behaviour. You know who you are. Don’t do this.
Rant over. More reviews tomorrow.
Sunday 21st May, 12 noon:
As well as Lord God (below, Lionhouse 6.p.m.), we have a lot of other shows closing today, including:
- Wildcat’s Last Waltz, a jarring tragi-comedy thinly disguised as a Lily Savage act. Recommended, but be preared for it to his you. Rotunda, 9.00 p.m.
- Atalanta the Adveturer. Family-friendly Greek myth from outdoor immersive company Actord of Dionysus. Lionhouse 1.00 p.m. Be quick.
- Crime Scene Improvisation. Improvised murder mystery where you get to decide the killer by majority vote. 5 p.m. Caravanserai.
- Toy Stories. Saw this Friday, crosses lots of genres, had to summarise quickly, but a pretty cool story about Scalextric. Brighton Toy Museum. 6.15 p.m.
- Biscuit Barrel. Quickfire sketch show including my favourite sketch of the Mickey Mouse Smoothie. Spiegeltent 6.00 and 9.30.
Also, in my Durham Fringe promoter shoes, I was pleased to see how Experiment Human has come on. Last performance Rotunda at 6.00 p.m.
Sunday 21st May, 11.00 a.m. – Lord God:
Now it’s off to Lionhouse over in Hannover. I was lucky I had my bike with me, otherwise there was no chance of squeezing this into a tight gap between two other centrally-located plays. But having missed chance to see Who is No. 1? including all of the extra performances, I wanted to check out at least one Foundry Group play, even if it didn’t stand out as my cup of tea: a 1920s musical set in a Devon hotel. Glad I did, because I loved it. This idea was absolutely inspired.
We open the story in Heaven. Serious-minded Archangel Gabriel runs a tight ship. If you’re wondering why bad things happen on earth in spite of all these Christians praying for the opposite, it’s because prayers are filed, organised, and then thrown in the bin. Yes, Heaven adopts a hands-off approach to Earth, with a strict policy of minimal intervention. But, notably, the layers of management work very hard to keep God out of the loop. Why? Because it turns out God is an upper-class twit with no idea what’s going on, very much in the style of Bertie Wooster. And Gabriel, although officially the underling, is the one to keep him out of trouble. Yes, that’s right, in this story Gabriel and God have been modelled on Jeeves and Wooster.
Brian Mitchell and Philip Reeve write an excellent script – clearly they know their Wodehouse inside out – but it’s topped off by a wonderful performance from Murray Simon as God/Wooster. The whole point of Jeeves and Wooster, of course, is that Wooster stumbles from one catastrophe to the next never really understanding what’s going on. When he is persuaded to take a holiday on earth and adopt the hastily-assumed identity of Mr. Godlington (and has to keep checking the name written on his sleeve), and uses his powers of miracles for minor purposes of getting a hotel room with a sea view, he looks forward to relaxing with the latest Agatha Christie. When he accidentally packs the controversial book Why God Does Not Exist, that proves a dampener, only made worse by the discovery the crusty old Professor A. J. Tweddle who wrote this is in fact not crusty or old but the pretty lady he struck up a chance conversation with. His realisation is one of the funniest of the many many funny moments in the play.
As Wodehouse fans will know, though, it’s not all high jinks. The moments of pathos come in the few moments of self-awareness. In this case, it’s his realisation of how weak the case for his own existence is here. In spite of being the living embodiment of the case against atheism, poor old God is hopeless at argument his existence with Prof. Minty Tweddle, leading to a moment of pathos and he wonders what the point of himself really is. The plot is also packed with a love triangle involve a cantankerous theatre critic, a scheming plot from the management of Department L (also knows as Hell), and – being Britain in the 1920s – puzzlement why anyone would order carrot juice instead of a Full English breakfast.
The only down-side is that the production felt a bit under-rehearsed. I suspect the limitation here is that The Foundry Group is very much a theatre company that’s not used to musicals. The dialogue was slick, sharp and funny, but the musical numbers struggled a bit. This production, I feel would benefit from a heavier presence of cast/creatives used to musicals. So here is my firm call: should the Foundry Group wish to put on an upscaled version of Lord God (which I’m sure would easily sell well enough to justify the expense), you could keep the cast of four you already have in most of their current roles, but spread out the story to include some new cast whose primary background is singing and/or dancing. That, I believe, would be enough to carry everybody.
In the meantime, there’s one final performance at 6 p.m. tonight at Lionhouse. Long walk and 2-hour play, so you’ll need a big gap in your schedule. But it’s worth it.
Saturday 20th May, 11.45 p.m.:
And I leave you tonight with some personal observations on audience numbers.
Usual caveats apply: I am working with a very small sample size here: three performances yesterday (plus one overheard ticket sale figure) versus four performances today. That is not a big enough smaple to be reliable. But … based on what I saw, Saturday sold MUCH better than Friday. On Friday, audiences were only just making it into double figures; but today, everything I saw was close to full.
Of course, these are different plays, and not a like-for-like comparison. But we are in a cost of living crisis with an unpredictable effect on fringe festivals. Is Brighton reverting to a weekend-centric festival like it was only a decade ago?
If you have your own observations – or better still, actual stats – please do let me know.
Saturday 20th May, 2.30 p.m. – Persephone:
Now for a take on the Greek legend described as a “feminist queer retelling”. In common with most ancient texts, women tend to get a raw deal, with the recurring trope being that women are not to be trusted. In this story, depending on how you interpret it, Persephone is a pawn in a power-struggle between three gods. Is there room to make something more?
This retelling transplants Persephone to Essex. She has a difficult relationship with her mother Demeter, sometimes resenting her daughter for her own fading youth, sometimes pressuring her into looking more attractive. There are two girls at school (doubling as a chorus) who relentlessly bully her for not looking sufficiently hot. One theme that is prevalent throughout to retelling is women being valued on their looks. In one flashback, we see Persephone and her two tormentors as young children and best friends, before relentless marketing took hold of her friends. I guess the expectations of women vary, but the consequences of going against the grain are still there. This then feeds quite nicely into Hades offering Persephone a better offer in the underworld.
However, I did feel the story got a bit bogged down in the list of issues it was trying to cover. There is a rule for retellings that it’s better to looks for opportunities to make statements from the course text rather than try to work in every issue you want to talk about. Is this case: what’s happened to Zeus? That felt like a missed opportunity to me, because I’d say if you’re looking at this through a feminist lens, Zeus is the obvious bad guy: a serial philanderer and the worst offender for using his own daughter as an expendable asset in the power game. (Also the fucked up stuff he does as a swan, but let’s not go there right now.) And for a play that rails against valuing women as looks, surely he’s the worst offender too, valuing Demeter when beautiful and discarding her as her looks fade. Demeter’s difficult relationship with Persephone portrayed in this adaptation definitely figure if you consider it Demeter’s futile request to regain the affection of an old lover who will never be thankful.
I try to refrain from suggesting changes to plays, but this I think would slot in quite nicely to the story they already have. Zeus doesn’t necessarily need to be an extra actor – an off-stage character could probably do the job here. Not all stories suit feminist retellings, but Persphone does and is a good choice. But always make the most of the source text – if you want a feminist retelling, there more to be mined.
Saturday 20th May, 10.30 a.m. – Wildcat’s Last Waltz:
And now, a rare kind of review: the interim review. The must-see play I saw yesterday is Flute Theatre’s Wildcat’s Last Waltz – but I can’t tell you why because it would be a massive spoiler. Joshua Welch plays the “Wildcat of Sheffield”, a kind of older Lily Savage character. She earns the nickname “Wildcat” from the days before marriage when she worked her way though a different man every week – you know, try before you buy and all that. After she met her beloved Geoff, she traded that all in for married life, and conflicts with her new mother-in-law who things Geoff married beneath him and tuts over that lack of effort make to dusting the family heirloom table. But don’t worry, she doesn’t know what the wildcat does with her husband on the table when she’s not around.
The format is a very interactive one, with the audience getting tea and biscuits, re-enacting the exercise class she use to do, and if you’re really lucky, you might take the other seat so she can natter away to you about her scandalous life whilst we’re waiting for Geoff to arrive. But there is one underlying detail beneath all of this that isn’t so obvious: you the audience are somebody to talk to. She doesn’t get this opportunity often. In fact, this whole Lily Savage presentation is lulling you into a false sense of security. I’m absolutely not giving away what happens half-way through, but it sets a whole new direction.
Joshua Welch’s performance is superb. The character is based in part on his grandmother, which may be provided a lot of inspiration for the mannerisms, but the real strength is the switch between emotions. Wildcat switches between her present-day chippy narration and the row where she tells Geoff she’s leave an in an instant. The gut-punch, however, is what happens at the end, after all the guests have gone, which I absolutely can’t describe, just go and see it.
There’s one other thing I can tell you without giving the same away. Welch is accompanied by two women with cameos of music and sound (quite extravagant for one play, but the three of them do another play other so this make sense). All this comes together together for one moment and the end featuring Bolero, which I again I can’t give away.
Well done, you’ve talked me into this in mid-review. Congratulations Flute Theatre:
You have two performances left, tonight and tomorrow, both 9.00 p.m., Rotunda. See it see it see it.
Friday 19th May, 8.30 p.m.:
What I can do, however, give an update on Caravanserai.
I know Brighton Fringe were heavily pushing Caravanserai, what I hadn’t realised is how heavy Brighton Fringe’s involvement was in running the venue. I turned up for a flying visit earlier today, and I noticed all the staff at the venue had Brighton Fringe T-shirts. This is a notable departure. Until now, throughout all of Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton Fringes, there has been full separation between fringe activities and venue activities. The only events programmed by the fringe itself were events relevant to the whole fringe, such as events such as Fringe City, or events offering services to performers.
However, under the circumstances, I think this short cut necessary at this point in time – but only as a short-term arrangement. There’s a lot of ways this could go wrong if left to the long term.
The reason why I think Caravanserai was needed ASAP: much as The Warren’s departure has gone unmourned, I do think a replacement was needed sooner rather than later. Whether you like it or not, the venues that pop up in the green space along London Road are the most visible ones, and a far more effective form of advertising than any number of adverts and banners. This level of visibility, I believe, benefits all venues, not just the big pop-up ones. I’d assumed that Caravanserai was a complete package of venue, staff and programmers – it now seems that Brighton Fringe central had been taking responsibility for the last two. But if it was the choice between that or no new venue, that’s a short cut I’m prepared to take.
There’s also the role of Caravanserai as a fringe-wide hub. I’ve already talked about Fringe City being within Caravanserai, and why, on balance, I think this is a better location than New Road. The question was whether Caravanserai is accommodating to non-Caranvanserai acts seeing to publicise themselves. The early feedback I’m getting is yes – they are welcoming publicity from all acts across all venues. That is important – my enthusiasm would wane very quickly if they weren’t.
I have heard some grumbling over Caravanserai’s programming. I want to ask about this further before commenting on that, but it’s something that wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the heavy crossover with Brighton Fringe.
My biggest concern, however, is the precedent. The only other festival I can think of that has both venues managed by a central festival committee that also allows open access from independent venues is Melbourne Comedy Festival. That arrangement, I understand, worked fine – until there was a change of management. The new head of the festival, it seems, turned on the acts who weren’t directly programmed by them, becoming obstructive at every opportunity. Even if the current Brighton Fringe directors behave themselves, what’s to say their successors will be the same.
For this reason, I think the current arrangement for Caranvanserai can only be a temporary solution. In the long term, we probably want to have full separation between Brighton Fringe and Caravanserai, just like there is with all other venues. The other alternative would be to carve up programming between the other major venues – but if you’re going to to that, it’s got to be done properly.
In summary, I think Caravanserai is a good idea – but the job is not done yet.
Friday 19th May, 4.00 p.m.:
Well, I’m here. And what do you know? In spite of not having slept since 7 a.m. yesterday morning, I am ready for my first play and I’m wide awake. I don’t know how I’ve done it, but I’m now feeling invincible. I didn’t even need to 2-hour power-nap I’d budgeted into my plans today.
There is one concession I will make in the interests of fairness. I won’t stand writing any reviews until tomorrow when I’ll have my sleep levels back to something sane. But don’t go away – I have at least one more hotly debated topic before we’re finished today.
Friday 19th May, 4.00 a.m.:
Yes, I know. 4 in the morning. You can stop smirking and all.
May as well get on with the remaining listings for this weekend. I’ve already listed things starting yesterday (Thursday), now here’s things starting Friday-Saturday.)
The Foundry Group is having a lot of success with Who is No. 1 with lots of extra dates being added, but if you prefer something more light-hearted, you can catch Lord God, a musical featuring the big man upstairs himself taking a quiet break in a Devonshire hotel. Until – ho hum, this always happens to deities on quiet country retreats – he has a run-in with an atheist and a snarky drama critic leading to all sorts of scrapes. And the invention of a hot new dance craze, apparently. Anyway, this is at Lionhouse, with four performances over the next three days, various times. And this is a two-hour play including an interval.
Also at Lionhouse, we have something from Actors of Dionysus, aimed at children age 4-9, Atalanta the Adventurer. I’ll have to leave it to others to give a verdict on children’s entertainment, but they certainly know their stuff in the garden they use as their home turf. Saturday and Sunday, two performances each at 11 and 1.
Blue Dog Theatre, who impressed me with Moral Panic last year, aren’t doing their new play until later in the fringe, but before then they’re doing a storytelling performance. The Landing Light Live, or three tales of terror, is on Saturday only. Two performances, 7.30 and 9.00 at the Fishing Museum Loft.
And finally, two comedy events this weekend only. We have an improvised murder mystery from Crime Scene Improvisation where, in a triumph for democracy, the murderer is decided by majority vote. 5 p.m. Caravanserai, Saturday and Sunday. Whilst over at Spiegeltent at 6 we have Biscuit Barrel with the quickfire sketches/groaners on Saturday and Sunday.
Friday 19th May, 2.30 a.m.:
Okay you night owls, here’s what I’ve been cooking up for you tonight. Something I’ve been meaning to write for some time:
The strange death of The Warren. For the best part of a decade, The Warren was the centrepiece of Brighton Fringe. It played a key role in transforming Brighton Fringe into the big player it is today and led the way in the recovery from Covid. So how did it go so wrong so quickly? I look back at the story, from the meteoric rise, to the first signs of unravelling, to the sorry end.
Thursday 18th May, 7.45 p.m.:
And at this point in the evening, it is time for a rare entry in the chrisontheatre corrections corner. I’d previously reported that The Rotunda was only running part of Buxton Fringe, which is correct, but I was wrong about the reason. In my defence, last year The Rotunda did indeed run only part of Buxton Fringe for this reason, but this time the reason is quite different. It is, in fact, due to a clash with Buxton parade/celebration which has suddenly decided it wants that bit of the Pavilion gardens over the time the Carnival’s on. I don’t yet know the details of this, but hopefully this can be resolved for future years.
Anyway, I am now on the Sleeper to London. But I’m not going to be doing any sleeping, because the cabins cost about 15 billion pounds and 99p. This is going to be an endurance test. I’ll be posting stuff through the night. You night owls out there: please send spicy bantz and memes.
Thursday 18th May, 3.30 p.m.:
Today’s the day. I have a long night ahead of me, and I will be passing the time by writing and posting a lot of theatre blog content.
But let’s begin with a bit one of what’s coming up. And it’s rush hour. Seven things on my radar between now and the end of the week, so to keep this manageable I’m going to stick to the three starting today.
So at The Actors (or to those of you not up to speed on the name change, The Marlborough), we have Fabulett 1933. This is LGBT theatre with a heavy appeal to an LGBT audience, but it’s also an interesting spotlight an a forgotten piece of history. Between the two world wars, Berlin emerged as a place of both hedonism and acceptance, amongst them Felix, now emcee of the Fabulett club. But now the Nazis are in power, and – inevitably – these placed of so-called degeneracy are being closed down. Even so, this one-man musical isa celebration of an early gay rights movement and message of defiance that, somehow, they will be back. Running until Sunday at 8.00p.m.
Jekyll and Hyde – A One-Woman Show has a brief airing at its home of Sweet @ The Poets. This has been one of the biggest hits in Brighton so I needn’t say much about this other and remind you it’s one. If you’ve managed to not hear about it, the most interesting thing about the treatment of the gender swap of Jekyll/Hyde is – keeping it exactly the same. Even the bits you’d think couldn’t possibly work as a female character. Requires concentration and/or prior knowledge of the story, but worth in for Heather Rose Andrews’ transformation scene. Running until Saturday at 7.30 p.m.
And finally for now, you only chance to see Grist from the Mill’s now play, Renfield. Ross Ericson’s solo plays cover a variety of interesting formats – The Unknown Soldier is his big hit, but we also have style from conventional storytelling of Moby Dick and an ambitious retelling of Shylock in fascist Italy in Gratiano. So no we have a retelling of Dracula from the point of view of his most fanatical servant R. M. Renfield locks in the asylum. 7.30 at the Rotunda – and I repeat – tonight only.
I’ll aimed to get the rest of the What’s On out in the early hours, but that’ll get you started.
Wednesday 17th May:
More thoughts on the Joanna Cherry business
Before I embark on my monster overnight train journey tomorrow, the follow-up to the business at The Stand. This topic isn’t going quietly, so let’s get straight to the heart of the debate: should the staff of venues have a veto over what’s performed?
I’m torn here. There are people active in the arts who I find absolutely loathsome. If an organisation I had anything to do with rolled out the red carpet for Ken Loach, for example, I would much sooner resign that have the slightest thing to do with promoting his events. (If you want to know why, read the last section of this article, but the short version is that he’s a massive Holocaust denier.) But everybody has their own bugbears, and it’s not my business or anyone else’s to tell people what you are and aren’t allowed to boycott as a matter of conscience.
This is important. I have no time for people who say “Why are you only taking action against A and not taking action against B?” Some people have a particular problem with transphobia, some people have a particular problem with anti-Semitism, other people have particular problems with other issues – and mixed into that, people have different opinions on what bigotry is real and what bigotry is blown out of proportion. Bethany Black, for instance, is a transgender comedian, so it’s perfectly understandable why she’d take issue with Joanna Cherry over everybody else. Policing boycotts through whataboutery almost always end up being used as a tool to derail criticism rather than draw attention to other pressing issues.
However, when you have an entire workforce selectively boycotting some controversial acts but not others, we’ve got a problem. For example, Ken Loach has just been names as one of the guests for “In conversation with …”, the same line-up that Joanna Cherry was booted from and reinstated – and guess what? Nobody at The Stand is bothered. There is the argument of freedom of speech – but the people refusing to work have already forfeited that argument. I’m afraid the remaining options aren’t good. Either the staff at The Stand have collectively decided some forms of bigotry are more permissible than other, or some people have more permission than others to be bigots. And when The Stand took the line that they can cancel acts because of staff boycotts, they nailed colours to that mast too.
For this reason, it’s probably for the best that The Stand got unstuck in litigation. I have my doubts over the law here – I think it’s right to have freedom of speech protected in law, but I don’t think it should be a protected characteristic alongside race/gender/sexuality in the Equality Act. But it was right to send the message that venues can’t duck their legal obligations simply to appease staff unrest. If staff collectively rise up against some forms of bigotry but shrug in the face of others, that’s not equality – you’ve simply reduced it to a popularity contest. And an employer that accedes to this is complicit in some double-standards.
Anyway, we surely haven’t heard the last of this. On the day of the talk, expect events to get very ugly.
Tuesday 16th May:
My doubts over the website
North of the border, Edinburgh Fringe has been trumpeting the launch of their app; something which, as you may recall, was not done last year and upset a lot of people. However, at Brighton it’s the other way round, with the app discontinued for reasons of economisation. Now, a Brighton Fringe app is probably not as urgent as an Edinburgh Fringe app – there is the mood that smaller acts at Edinburgh need the “nearby and now” acts to be noticed amongst the thousands of other apps; in Brighton, when there’s dozens of other shows each day instead of hundreds, it’s less of an issue.
However, I have my doubts over the combination of scrapping both the Brighton Fringe printed programme and the app. In my opinion, by far the most useful part of the Brighton Fringe programme was the Daily Diary, which lists shows in order, so that you can plan the day ahead and see what’s available during the time you are free. Now that this has been done away with, it’s hard to see what works in its place. The app, of course, is not an option. The PDF printed programme substitute does not have a daily diary section (which is somewhat frustrating as that wouldn’t have been too difficult to programme). And I am really struggling with the website. This was supposed to be an improved website to compensate for the lack of a printed programme, but try as I might, I cannot work out a way of listing shows in order on a particular day. It’s not clear whether it’s a bug, a browser problem, a design flaw or a usability issue, but I work in IT – if I can’t get this to work, what chance does anybody else have.
This isn’t too much of an issue for me – my scheduling now almost entirely comes down to review requests, that I do on my own spreadsheet. (Also, the Brighton Fringe Press Office were kind enough to send me the data in a spreadsheet that I use manually should I need to.) But I’m at a loss as to how other people are supposed to manage. The daft thing is that the Brighton Fringe website has just release a “starting soon” page on their website – but only as a beta test, released after the fringe started, which hardly anyone knows about. That, surely, is the feature of an overhauled website that should have been done first. Ah well, maybe it’ll be ready for next year.
But maybe that’s just me. Do let me know your experiences.
Monday 15th May:
Looking ahead to Buxton, Durham and Greater Manchester Fringes
Another slow news day. Although, to be honest, given all the shitshows that accompany the typical Edinburgh Fringe news, Brighton Fringe will probably we happy with slow and steady. Anyway, now’s a good time to look at the prospects of upcoming fringes apart from Edinburgh.
Buxton Fringe has edged up to 190 entries, which is slightly higher than any previous fringe except 2019, which ran for three days longer than usual. The bigger picture, however, may be more than the headline number; we saw in 2022 that although the size was about the same as 2017/2018, there was a lot of movement within this figure. This time round, the most interesting development seems to be with the Rotunda. Last year, they had two tents in Brighton, named Bubble and Squeak; this year, Squeak joins Bubble in Buxton. Again, however, the Rotunda is only setting up in the second half of the fringe, the competition from the lucrative Wells festival being too tempting at the start of Buxton Fringe.
I actually think the arrival of the Rotunda’s smaller space is going to be good for Buxton Fringe. Ever since they lost Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel room to some hot tub-themed redevelopment, there’s not been much on offer in the way of smaller spaces, which many entry-level venues rely on. There’s not been a huge amount of uptake on Squeak this year, with Tuesday and Wednesday still being unused; nevertheless, I hope they stick with this as the bigger spaces are a big gamble for new untested shows.
The other question over Buxton Fringe is how audiences fare. Buxton Fringe tends to have an older audience compared to most fringes; in 2022, however, audience numbers weren’t great, and that seem to have been affected by some regulars choosing to take no chances with Covid. It’s not my business to tell people when to return – but if people are relaxed enough by 2023 to come back, that will help.
Durham Fringe has a modest growth in size, with a size of 68 entries reported. And from the acts I’ve seen so far, it looks like more acts on the fringe circuit are getting Durham Fringe on their radar. The big question: is Durham Fringe open enough to really qualify as a fringe? You know my view: festivals that call themselves fringes have nothing to be afraid of by adopting a “all welcome” ethos, but for now I’ll leave it up to you to decide what’s fringish enough.
Full disclosure: I do have some concerns about long-term strategy of Durham Fringe, but I’m still someone who wants this to succeed and willingly puts in a lot of time to make this work. I intend to raise concerns quietly before I consider raising anything in public – and certainly not until after Fringe 2023 in July.
However, what might be a surprise is the numbers from Greater Manchester Fringe. In 2019, it looks like they might overtake Buxton Fringe; at the time of writing, however, their numbers are back to a less dramatic 52 registrations. Before getting too sensational, however, it is worth remembering that the numbers of GM Fringe versus Buxton Fringe aren’t directly comparable. Buxton is an event heavily concentrated over a short period within three weeks; Greater Manchester, however, is spread over an entire city. What’s more, Greater Manchester is a lot more like London in having a year-round fringe scene. It might be more accurate to monitor the fringe theatre scene over the whole year rather than a single month.
Nevertheless, I’m wondering if the rise and rise of Greater Manchester Fringe prior to 2020 was down to Zena Barrie, who worked very hard to get this fringe taken seriously. Maybe she was just too hard an act to follow. Greater Manchester is not going away any time soon; and should house prices in London drive artists out, Greater Manchester may still overtake Greater London as the place to be noticed. But will it still be concentrated in July? Who knows. Either way, Buxton’s place at UK’s number 3 fringe looks secure for the foreseeable future.
Sunday 14th May:
Coming up in week 2
Well, it’s still all kicking off in Edinburgh, but it’s been another slow news day at Brighton Fringe. Since the launch of the fringe things have been proceeding smoothly and uneventfully as far as I can see. For once, my Brighton coverage might be limited to just reviews.
Anyway, since I might not be able to do tomorrow’s update until late, I’m doing my week 2 recommendations a day early.
The big event tomorrow is Blue Blood, from long-standing fringe favourites Blue Devil Theatre. They have done many adaptations, usually with an LGBT twist on it, but that’s only ever part of what makes it stand out – there’s always numerous new twists to old tales that are original yet faithful to the source test. This is perhaps the least well-known source story, best known as the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, about the black sheep of an aristocratic family seeking to take the family title in spite of only being eighth in the – via the direct route. The bad news, however, is that whilst Blue Devil easily got week-long runs (or more) at the Rialto, the Rialto is no more, and in the new venue of the Ironworks Studios, there’s only three days. Monday to Wednesday, 7.45, catch it when you can.
One thing that wasn’t in my listing but might be of interest is Last Man Standing from Aidan Goatley of 10 Films with my Dad fame. This is a work in progress, and only running Monday and Tuesday (7.30, Sweet @ the poets), but looks very different from what he’s done before. In the theatre category rather than comedy, the tagline is “Even in the apocalype, idiots will be idiots.” If you want to take a punt some something very new, this might be worth a punt.
On Tuesday there is the start of Toy Stories, which got my attention as a fitting piece for one of Brighton Fringe’s quirkiest venues: Brighton Toy and Model museum. Chris Dobrowolski tells the story of taking refuge in his childhood home and rediscovering his old toy collection. Also featuring a digression to family history, Poland, and a tank from world war 2. One of the most unpredictable listing, runs Tuesday to Sunday at 6.16 underneath the station.
There is a final chance to see Finlay and Joe’s family friendly and nerd-friendly show themed around a new high-tech machine that automates sketch writing and definitely won’t turn into a megalomaniac and try to destroy us all. Wednesday, 9.30, Laughing Horse at the Walrus.
And finally, stepping out of my theatre reviewer shoes and putting on my Durham Fringe shoes, we have Hooky Productions’ surprise hit Experiment Human starting at The Rotunda at 6.00 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday. It’s going to take a lot of explaining who Monkions are, why they’ve kidnapped a famous actor, or what the experiments are, but the reason they are in Brighton in the first place is winning the Brighton Fringe Award for Excellent last August in Edinburgh.
And that only takes us to Wednesday. We have more things starting on Thursday, but we’ve already got a big list here so I’ll stop for now. More listings coming soon.
Saturday 13th May:
Coming up in weekend 2
It’s weekend 2, which normally means I’ve got a list of news show to tell you about. But for once, I’ve nothing new to report, because all of my recommendations started earlier this week. We do, however, have a lot of shows ending this weekend, so this is your last chance.
Finishing today is Havisham at the Rotunda, the retelling of the tragic villain’s story from Great Expectations, and A Guide to Therapy for Terrible People at Caxton Arms which I’ve heard has just got a five-star review from Voice Magazine. What you have to do to get a five-star review about Guinea Pig Jesus I’m not sure, but he has.
Finishing on Sunday is the unofficial Daniel Hird / Debbie Cannon takeover at Sweet @ the Poets: that’s deal with the devil story Old Bones, retelling of Sir Gawain Green Knight and Daniel Hird’s follow-up My Esteemed Friend. Old Bones has also got a five star review. And as a reminder: reviews are far and few between at Brighton. It’s not uncommon to get five stars in a sea of mediocre reviews at Edinburgh, but at Brighton this is a big deal. Daniel Hird gives a powerful performance so this five star is earned. Congratulations.
If you couldn’t catch Who Is No 1 earlier in the week, an extra performance has been added on Sunday, again at Latest Music Bar, 2.30 p.m. I thought two performances of a Foundry Group play would sell out quickly, and it did.
There also the second performance of family-friendlt and nerd-frendly Finlay and Joe at Laughing Horse (Quadrant) today at 2, and as always on a weekend Geoff Mead’s tours, which I’ll remind you has a new Pavilion Gardens tour this year. And I think that’s it – apologies to whoever I’ve inevitably forgotten.
Friday 12th May:
The rise of The Actors venue
And The Stand have already capitulated. Sorry Brighton, all the breaking news seems to be coming from Edinburgh at the moment. However, we’ve been distracted enough about that fringe, let’s get back to Brighton.
Now, venue-wise there are two notable absences in Brighton. Few people are mourning the end of The Warren, but the venue that is being missed is The Rialto. Alas, the building has been sold on. The Rialto Theatre was one of the most respected venues in Brighton Fringe, with a programme to rival the other big venues in terms of both size and critical acclaim.
However, there are many small theatres of a similar size to The Rialto’s, and one venue I want to keep an eye on is The Actors. I counted 35 registrations with The Actors, and this has actually overtaken Sweet Venues on 33. In practice, when you factor in Sweet Venues generally having longer runs Sweet is probably still ahead on the number of performances, but the fact a previously little-known name is coming level with one of the best-known ones on any measure is still notable.
If you don’t know the current name, however, you may know the former name: the Marlborough. The pub itself is now known as the actors rather than The Marlborough, but it is still one of Brighton’s best known LGBTQ-friendly pubs. There does seem to be a heavy LGBTQ slant in The Actors’ programme (amongst them Fabulett 1933 that I saw in Edinburgh), but there again this is Brighton and there’s an LGBTQ slant everywhere.
I guess the key question is which direction The Actors chooses to go in. With the implosion of big centralised venues, there is certainly scope for a single venue to become the hub of LGBTQ theatre at Brighton Fringe – if they want that. Or they could opt to be more ambitious and try to fill the gap left by the Rialto and take their place as a top go-to venue. My current hunch is they’ll go for the former, but I’m not certain. And with three spaces to utilise, The Actors has a lot capacity if they want to use it.
I’ll be keeping an eye out – this venue may surprise us all.
Thursday 11th May:
Latest on Edinburgh Fringe 2023 size
Speaking of Edinburgh, this is where I am tonight. No, I haven’t got my fringes mixed up, I know this one isn’t for another three months. I’m passing through on the way to Fort William.
Anyway, for the time being I’m going to stick with Edinburgh, because we have some breaking news today. The third of four batches of tickets went on sale today. With the size still being a hotly debated topic, this matters, because this will give us a heavy indication of where Edinburgh Fringe 2023 is going. In fact, I usually run Brighton Fringe coverage for a few days after for the big news of the final size. For reference, last year’s Edinburgh Fringe had 3,132 registrations at programme launch, compared to 3,841 in 2019. This time last year, there were about 2,000.
So, what’s the tally today? 2,940. Whoah. That’s almost 1,000 up. There is a possibility that registrations have been front-loaded due to acts wants to secure accommodation early (more one this later – a lot more). There was a bet between Brian Ferguson and Robert Peacock on whether 2023 would be up or down on 2022 – it now looks all but assured that 2023 will be up. If anything, this could top 2019’s figure, something Brian Ferguson floated that everybody dismissed as a fantasy at the time.
I have to say: I am nervous about this. Ticket sales have not been recovering as fast as the number of registrations, meaning that income per act is down (on average – income does of course vary enormously between acts). More alarmingly, however, is that accommodation prices are, by all accounts, going through the roof. And yet people are signing up.
One thing is certain: at least some of the old rules don’t apply any more. There was a time when growth was linked to sales – and if sales per show were down by over 10%, that would act as a major deterrent the following year. Not any more. The financial prospects of 2023 are considerably worse than 2022, and yet people are still signing up. And to remind you of the costs we’re talking about here: the worst that can happen at Brighton Fringe is that you sell no tickets and get left with a debt that takes years to clear – the worst than can happen at Edinburgh Fringe is that your house get repossessed. I have nothing but admiration for people who take risks to show what they can do to the world, but this is far too much to ask.
However, before we can find a resolution to this, we have a ban on short-term lets coming into effect, and that’s an event that will overtake everything. But that’s a topic for another day.
And besides, we’re supposed to be covering Brighton Fringe here. Coverage of the fringe actually running will resume tomorrow.
Wednesday 10th May:
My immediate thoughts on the Joanna Cherry row
As promised, let’s go over the the aforementioned Edinburgh Fringe shitstorm, and it is of course the controversy over Joanna Cherry MP getting cancelled at the stand.
If you don’t know what’s going on here … well done. But a recap, as you might be aware, it that over the last few months in Scotland politics (and, more specifically, the SNP) the issue of trans rights and self-ID has been bitterly divisive. One of the ringleaders on the “gender critical” side was Joanna Cherry. Now, I have long since given up trying to follow this debate, because I can never keep up with what people are being condemned for saying versus what they actually said. What is certain, however, is that for one reason or another Joanna Cherry has made a lot of enemies.
The Edinburgh Fringe started getting mixed up with this when Joanna Cherry was invited to a series of events organised by Fair Pley called “In Conversation with …” at The Stand. (As I understand it, Fair Pley and The Stand are part of the same company; however, Fair Pley operates autonomously of the venue side of the business – this will become relevant shortly.) A comedian named Bethany Black pulled out a performance at the Stand in protest – in Glasgow. At first, The Stand stood their ground, insisting that that they respect the rights to different views, and besides, Joanna Cherry was going to talk about all sort of issues relating to her political career, not just trans rights. However, after staff there refused to work, The Stand changed its tune and said that as they were now unable to staff the venue the event now wouldn’t be going ahead.
Joanna Cherry is now threatening legal action – and based on my knowledge of the law, she may well get her way. But before I go into the rights and wrongs of a censorship issue, I’m going to go for a more fundamental hot take.
There is a reason why I find it hard to care about this event too much … I don’t think arts venues should be hosting talks with politicians at al.
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of art is political. There are some very persuasive plays and films and paintings and books that could only have been influential in their art form. But whilst art and politics can go very well together, arts venues and politicians are a different matter. The one thing all these events have in common is that people who like the sound of their own voice almost always dislike being challenged in any way. One frequent offender is famous artists who sign up to causes, and the press who used to interview them about their latest album/book/play now fawn over their new-found political principles, however hypocritical they way be. No way are they going to get any pushback – any publication who tries that will never be given an interview again.
Actual politicians, on the other hand, don’t have their values taken at face value. Everything is scrutinised – the good argument survive, the poor/hypocritical/self-serving arguments fall apart. And yet arts venues don’t seem capable of anything more than a soft-ball interview. What’s more, many arts venues that pride themselves on political theatre really want one event after another where audiences have their own views spoon-fed back to them. The plays might be good – but the interviews with politicians and artist-politicians are little more than sycophantic farces.
True, Fair Pley does make make an effort to accommodate political figures with a wide range of views. If soft-ball interviews are given to politicians all over the political spectrum, you do at least have the option of hearing all these views and deciding who’s right. Unfortunately, that is no longer an option. My understanding it that Fair Pley were dead against having any of their speakers censored, but were overruled. If The Stand or the staff there have the power to ban anybody whose views they don’t like, you’re straight back to a BFF club where only politicians with approved vetted views get to have their say.
Okay, this is a broad-brush statement of principle, it may not work in practice. One political event going on at the moment is Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s political podcast at the Royal Albert Hall – it’s hard to imagine where could go instead. But, in general, we should not be giving politicians soft-ball interviews. They belong in studios and council chambers and Parliamentary chambers and debating halls being grilled every step of the way. If you want sycophantic interviews for the supports, by all means do that, but arts venues are not the right place. Arts venues should be places of critical thinking, and the art itself does that quite well. But arts venues are terrible at critical thinking when rolling out the red carpet to politicians.
Of course, we know that this kind of treatment doesn’t apply to politicians. Artists have also had projects cancelled – and completely inoffensive projects at that – as punishment for views they have previously expressed.
What are the rights and wrongs there? Find out another time.
Tuesday 9th May:
More recommendations and some housekeeping
Oh, this is embarrassing, I missed one. As I have just added to my Brighton Fringe preview, A Guide to Therapy for Terrible People started yesterday. I haven’t heard of this show or the performer Joe Kirkwood, but it stands out as the most bizarre entry I’ve seen: in this case something that features Guinea Pig Jesus. Apologies for not mentioning this yesterday, but you’ve got until Saturday to see this. At the Caxton Arms, mostly 6.45 p.m., except for 5.30 p.m. Friday and 10.45 p.m. Saturday.
And whilst we’re on the subject, we may as well cover the on other thing coming up: On Thursday, Havisham starts, and runs until Saturday. This is from Heather Alexander, who did the unusual concept on a stage adaptation of an essay rather the a story in Room. She did a fine performance of Virginia Woolf, which should transfer well to the vengeful spinster from Great Expectations. On at The Rotunda, 7.45 over the three days.
Now, a bit of housekeeping for how this live coverage works. The main feature of this coverage will be reviews. That will be only be starting on the 19th when I arrive, but after that I will aim to get out reviews as soon as possible – and, if possible, whilst the play is still running. I write reviews whether or not I was there on a press ticket. Increasingly, however, my Brighton and Edinburgh coverage is dominated by press tickets, which I now struggle to keep on top of. (I sometimes leave out reviews if I feel I have nothing either positive or helpful to say, but that’s becoming a rarity at this level.)
Obviously I can’t review anything that’s not running whilst I’m there – and whether you suffer that fate is largely down to luck. Even amongst those I can see, I still can’t catch everything. I do sometimes branch out of theatre into overlapping categories, but I generally don’t review stand-up comedy, music, dance or pre-20th century plays – it’s not that I dislike them, but I don’t see enough of these to know how to review fairly. If you are out of luck, it’s worth contacting me again if you go to Edinburgh. One thing that heavily encourages me is if I sense you specifically want a review from me. So for me, persistence pays.
And one final reminder is that this won’t be entirely Brighton Fringe coverage – if any news breaks elsewhere that is noteworthy, it might get discussed here. In particular, Edinburgh Fringe will be getting some attention as we get a better idea what their 2023 fringe will be like. But we have some news already, and boy, this is a shitstorm. I will start on this one tomorrow.
Monday 8th May:
Coming up in week 1
We’re now into week 1, and even though it’s mid week, for my recommendations we’re already in rush hour.
The big event this week is the beginning of Daniel Hird and Debbie Cannon’s takeover (in effect) of Sweet @ the Poet’s. We start at 4.30 today with Old Bones, and excellent piece of storytelling written by Jen McGergor, but which Daniel Hird has made his own. James Napier is a young man with a story to tell, but in spite of talking to a modern audience in modern times, his story goes back 400 years, due to an ill-advised deal with the devil – not because the devil tricked him, but because he devil game him what he wanted. If there’s one play that hammers home the moral of “Be careful what you wish for,” it’s this one. Short notice for today, I realise (unless you’re already in the right bit of Hove), but it runs until Sunday.
The rest of the takeover comes over the next couple of days, but on Tuesday at 7.30. Daniel’s other new play starts, My Esteemed Friend, with little to know about this other than the cryptic teaser of “What use is a King that doesn’t protect his pawns?” And joining both on Wednesday to complete the set is Debbie Cannon with the excellent Green Knight, a retelling of the legend of Sir Gawain. Nothing in the story is changed, but by telling the story as Lady Bertilak, there’s a whole new dimension added to the story that the Knights of the Round Table never knew. That is on at 6. And if you’re coming for one of Old Bones or Green Knight, I strongly recommend sticking around for the other. All plays run until Sunday.
Meanwhile, starting at 7.30 p.m. tonight we have Who is No. 1? From the Foundry Group, bets known for Underdogs and Big Daddy Versus Giant Haystacks, is a story of the origin of the innovative/incomprehensible cult TV series The Prisoner. The line-up of the actors is quite something too, including Ross Gurney-Randall (or Big Daddy himself), and Robert Cohen, who impressed me with a string of his solo plays (Harvey Matusow, High Vis and Something Rotten). There another performance tomorrow at 7.30, with the final one next week. This is billed as a “preview presentation”, so hopefully if you can’t make it this time round there’ll be more chances. This is at Latest Music Bar, just east of Spiegeltent.
And finally, The Unknown Soldier starts tomorrow at 6.00 p.m. This is the smash hit that shot Ross Ericson to fringe greatness, and if you haven’t seen it before I highly recommend you take the chance here. It’s not so much about the full bloody horrors of World War One, but what happened after, with a clever twist regarding who Jack is telling the story to and who the Unknown Soldier is. Runs until Thursday at The Rotunda. There are other Ross Ericson plays coming up later in the fringe, but this is by far the best.
I’ll be back on Thursday with some more, but this should keep you busy.
Sunday 7th May:
Fringe City moves to Caravanserai
The other thing to look out for on weekends is Fringe City. If you’ve planned your whole visit in advance (or if you’re a reviewer whose schedule is jam-packed with review requests), you won’t need to go anywhere near this, but if you’re looking for things to sample, this is the equivalent of the Royal Mile on Edinburgh.* There are some stages where acts (mainly music, dance and comedy) perform excepts on their shows – and if you like it, you’ll be welcome to see the full one.
*: Actually, the Royal Mile at Edinburgh Fringe isn’t like it used to be, but that’s a subject for another day.
This year, however, it’s moved. It was previously in the busy and venue-neutral location of New Road, next to Brighton Pavilion. This year, however, it’s moved to the relatively untested location of inside Caravanserai. It is likely to a be a busy location, assuming Caravanserai can manage a similar footfall to The Warren. (In effect, we can treat Caravanserai as a replacement for The Warren.) But it’s certainly not a venue-neutral location. Might this sideline acts that aren’t with this venue? Maybe, if we’re not careful. However, on balance, I think this move is the right decision. Here’s why.
The problem is with flyering. On the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and many other locations, you can safely assume most of the people hanging around are there for the fringe, of which many will be looking for something to do. That is not the case in Brighton. Most people are there for drinking, partying, the beach, or simply people who live there going about their day. Even on New Road during Fringe City afternoons. Trust me, I’ve been there. Productive flyering means going to places where there are lots of people around for the fringe; I’ve had some quite productive flyering sessions in Buxton once I knew where to go, but Fringe City was a waste of time – even the people watching the fringe city acts were mostly not interested in going to fringe events. (Okay, some acts have more success if they have any eye-catching costumes or props to get attention, but most of us don’t have that advantage.)
Caravanserai, I reckon, is going to be a safer bet. Although some people have previously come to pop-up venue like The Warren and Speigeltent to do nothing but drink, I’d it’s a pretty safe bet that most people there are going to be receptive. True, there’s no rule saying you can’t flyer in venues other than your own, but without being explicitly encouraged to do that I can see a lot of acts being put off. With Fringe City being for all of the fringe and not just one venue, I can see this being our best bet for entry-level acts to have a fair chance against established acts in the publicity game. (And, okay, I know that flyering isn’t as cool as it used to be, what with the paper it uses, but it’s the engagement between performers and perspective punters that counts. If you’ve using QR codes instead of flyers, everything I’ve said still applies.)
An obvious drawback? We’re putting a lot of trust in one venue to treat acts at other venues fairly. It’s easy to say this in hindsight, but one complaint I’ve frequently heard about The Warren is that they were behaving like Brighton Fringe revolves around them. If that’s true (big if), I wouldn’t have trusted them to fost an event supposed to represent everyone. However, one small but important detail is that Caravanserai might be hosting Fringe City, but it’s still Brighton Fringe who’s in charge of it, and I hope they’d have the sense not to have favouritism to one act. Might one venue still be obstructive to acts not with them? Maybe. However, the early anecdotes I’m hearing is that Caravanserai seem to be quite accommodating to non-Caravanserai acts. I hope so.
I guess a lot of this comes down to whether you have a culture of pulling together. Buxton Fringe has been doing venue-neutral events in venues for years – it’s quite normal for Green Man Gallery to host the programme launch, Underground Venues to host the launch party, and Rotunda to host the awards ceremony, and everybody understand these events are for the whole fringe. It’s harder to imagine this working at Edinburgh, where most venues are big commercial venues with strong interests in keeping business for themselves. We don’t really have any precedent for Brighton Fringe, but we’re about to find out.
My early hunch is that we might be able trust Caravanserai to be a fair Fringe City host, be we can certainly trust Brighton Fringe to make sure they behave. I hope my trust is not misplaced.
Saturday 6th May:
How will ticket sales do?
Good evening. Hope you’ve had a good day going woo woo yay the king. Or just having a relaxing day at the pub. Or watching every bit of the Coronation whilst constantly tweeting how you’re not the slightest bit interested in it. Whatever.
Now, one of the earliest questions of how Brighton Fringe unfolds is how business fares. Until recently, the festival fringe circuit has been remarkably resilient. Edinburgh and Brighton both went through a credit crunch and austerity and Brexit and business carried on going up and up and up like nothing has happened. Even in 2021, the fringe shows that were running were easily getting full houses. Although, in hindsight,. the optimistic outlook in 2021 was deceptive. Attendance per show was artificially inflated by a small number of shows to go round, and Edinburgh and Brighton fringes were amongst the first events coming out of lockdown that people were eager to go to.
Whatever the reasons, last year’s business was underwhelming, although it’s not entirely clear why. Jitters about the cost of living were starting to come to the fore in 2022; there were also people still nervous about returning to crowded public spaces, and there is the possibility that some people have just got out of the habit of going to fringe events and have gone for good. We are now in 2023, fears of Covid are receding further, but the big headwind: the cost of living crisis is biting a lot more now. Will this harm ticket sales?
At this point, it is worth asking how much this actually matters. The conventional wisdom is that the more money is made from ticket sales, the more viable it is to take part in a fringe, and the more people can take part. But is that actually right? Edinburgh Fringe is becoming super-expensive if you don’t already live there, and ticket sales only make a small dent in the costs. That’s not the point though: most people taking part consider the expense a worthwhile investment for something: maybe developing your craft, maybe hoping you’ll be picked up by something more lucrative. I recommend (unless you have an act tried and tested to get an audience) you budget a fringe show against ticket revenue of zero – it won’t be that bad, but you’ll be financially covered against the worst-case scenario. If that’s the case: do poorer prospects of ticket sales really act a deterrent? After all, a worst-case scenario of sales can’t fall below zero.
My guess is that for many acts, yes, it still is enough of a factor.* It’s not just money, audience size matters too – even the greatest enthusiasts can only give their all to an audience of three a finite number of times. Where I think this really matters, however, are the venues. Many venues run on a ticket split system – and a lot of those that don’t count on ancillary income such as bar sales, also threatened by cost of living squeeze. Big venues can’t function without income to pay staff; and whilst small venues can achieve a lot through dedicated volunteers, there’s only so much time you can put in before your energy runs out. Good prospects for income gives venues the confidence to expand in a sustainable way; poor prospects cause venues to scale down if you’re lucky, go bust of you’re not.
* For what it’s worth, I was considering taking part this year, but my lack of confidence in the current climate swayed me to no. Conversely, I’m kicking myself for not doing Edinburgh Fringe 2021, which I would have snapped up had I known how well that was selling.
By Tuesday next week, we should have some anecdotal evidence one way or the other for how things are going. Resist the temptation to draw conclusions from individual shows: the fortunes amongst different acts will vary enormously, and it’s difficult to tell if a sell-out/disappointment is part of a trend or an outlier. Of course, this is not a typical weekend – we have no idea if the Coronation will have an effect on business, and if so, which way it pushes it. So we might have to wait until week 2 to have a good idea (by which time, we should have some numerical data to go on).
The short version is that going into Brighton Fringe, the cost of living crisis is the number one concern. In a few days time, we should have a better idea of whether it’s something to worry about.
Friday 5th May:
Coming up in weekend 1
Here it goes. Day 1 of Brighton Fringe proper. One thing I will be doing with this live coverage is give reminders of what’s coming up, which I typically to twice a week: one for mid-week and one for weekend.
Most of the things I have on my list don’t start until the first weekend, but there a few things to get going.
At various points throughout Brighton Fringe we’re going to have Police Cops. Originally called The Pretend Men, this trio had an unexpected smash hit with Police Cops, which was a parody of basically every cop show made in the 1970s. After that, a follow-up was all but guaranteed, and what’s better over-used genre in the 1970s than sci-fi. This is in the comedy category rather than theatre, and the performances very much go for silliness first and plot a long way second, but the three are praised for their slick, funny and high every performance. Police Cops in Space is on this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7.15 p.m, and Caravaserai.
Alternatively, if you want a very different kind of comedy, you might want to check out Aidan Goatley’s 10 Films with my Dad, a comedy show which sparked off a whole series of follow-ups. I haven’t seen the original, but I did get to see The 12 Films of Christmas, which cover discussions over whether Christmas films should be played by the Muppets, which Muppets you would cast in The Muppets’ Die Hard, and from there which Die Hard actors you would cast in Die Hard’s Christmas Carol. It’s not explicitly a family show, but there is still something reassuring wholesome about a comedy show themed around family time together. It’s showing tomorrow and Sunday at 4.30 p.m. at Sweet Poets, and returns in the final weekend.
One things that is on every weekend but I’ll mention on is Geoff Mead’s Tours. I don’t normally go anywhere near the Tours section of the programme, but in the much diminished 2020 Fringe where this was the only option for a morning’s entertainment, I took it up. Geoff Mead really knows this stuff and is seemingly able to answer any question thrown at him. If you are a regular to Brighton Fringe and you’ve wondered why the city is how it is, this is a worthwhile change from your normal fayre.
And finally, one thing not on my recommendations list. My list is almost entirely plays and performers I’ve seen before. If I was to list everybody I’ve heard good things about, the list would never end. But since we have a short list for the opening weekend, now’s a good time to mention Drag Queens versus Vampires, from the team that brought you Drag Queens versus Zombies. (Thinks: what’s the third show going to be? There’s the killing lots of zombies trope, killing lots of vampires trope, surely there’s more?) One half of this act is Kate Butch, who’s a regular at Buxton Fringe. Never got round to seeing that show, but it’s one of the most popular acts in the High Peak. Two Drag Queens on their way to Eurovision take a wrong turning in Transylvania and- … I think we get the idea.
So that’s weekend 1 set up. Tomorrow, we take stock of where we are with Brighton Fringe, and what’s at stake over the next month.
Thursday 4th May:
My list of recommendations
And before we start Brighton Fringe proper, we’ll begin with the full list of recommendations. The Brighton Fringe Preview has now been written as far as Bold Choice, with the rest due to be written up as soon as possible. But if you can’t wait to know who’s on the full list, you can take a look here:
The Unknown Soldier
Who is No. 1?
My Esteemed Friend
Talking to the Dead
Jekyll and Hyde
This is Normal
You might like …
Geoff Mead’s Tours
Lachlan Werner: Voices of evil
A Guide to Therapy for Terrible People
Also of note:
From the comedy:
10 films with my dad
Crime Scene Improvisation
Finlay and Joe: Perpetual Hype Machine
And that’s all from me today. Anyone fancy joining me watching election results?
Wednesday 3rd May:
Welcome to my live coverage of Brighton Fringe. Brighton Fringe only officially starts on Friday, but the venues are going up and publicity is being ramped up as we speak.
Yet again, we are in line for an unpredictable fringe season. 2020 and 2021 were unpredictable for obvious reasons. 2022, supposed to be the season of back to business, had new problems – not least, in the case of Brighton, the implosion of its biggest venue. Surely, surely, surely, things will be settling down by 2023?
Not just yet. Brighton Fringe has had yet another reconfiguration of venues, some planned, some unplanned. For the story so far, you can reading the opening of my Brighton Fringe Preview. And amongst all of this, there is a cost of living crisis. In previous economic crises, the Fringes managed to sail on like nothing has happened; the early signs from last year, however, is that it’s going to bite.
But it’s going to be a lot of fun too. I’ll be arriving at Brighton Fringe on the 18th May, when I will embark on reviews. Before then, if you’re in Brighton, do have fun. And I’ll be watching from afar and commenting on how things are going.
Stayed tuned. It’s a long month ahead of us.