What next for Buxton Fringe and Pauper’s Pit? (2016 update)


Back in 2013, when it was announced it would be the final year that Underground Venues would operate out of Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room in the Old Hall Hotel, I wrote this article on what might happen next. As you may have noticed, nothing happened, and the in-joke that every year was Underground Venues’ last year ran on and on. However, the mood this year is that this time the developers really mean it and they want to convert the entire basement into a hot tub or something equally fancy. So unless everyone wants to set their plays in hot tubs, we need to look at where else they can go.

Joking aside, this is something that Buxton Fringe ought to be worried about. In recent years, applications to Underground Venues have gone up and up and up, but the numbers to Buxton Fringe overall have remained steady. So it looks like there are a lot of unsuccessful applicants who are opting for not come to Buxton at all. For one reason or another, it’s Underground Venues that everyone seems to love. It might be because of the community and spirit that’s been built up, or it could be that this is the only space with a proper lighting and sound system (apart from the intensely-contested Arts Centre). The apocalyptic scenario is that the loss of Underground Venues spells the loss of everyone who performs there. If that was to happen, this would decimate the theatre and comedy programmes at Buxton – the Buxton Fringe would still have a strong visual arts and music section to fall back on, but it would still be a huge loss. Continue reading

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And Then Come the Nightjars: an unexpected friendship

Scene from And Then Come the Nightjars

Bea Roberts’ And Then Come The Nightjars could have been moving play set at the hight of the foot and mouth crisis. Instead, it’s so much more.

Paul who? That might be the reaction to anyone thinking of seeing this touring production from Theatre 503, with Paul Robinson seen as just another director of just another touring company doing just another two-day run at Live Theatre. But if you haven’t heard of Paul Robinson, you will soon. He’s the new artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. So far I’ve only been able to speculate what he’ll bring, but now we had our first proper clue. For better or worse And The Come the Nightjars is likely to be the shape of things to come at Scarborough.

Set in Devon at the height of the second foot and mouth crisis, this two-hander is the story of Jeff, a vet, and Michael, a farmer. Writer Bea Roberts draws very heavily on her own observations of rural Devon, and one of many observations is how often farm vets visit farms and become good friends with the farmers. They end up chatting one night – ant then come the nightjars. There’s a superstition that the coming of nightjars fortells the coming of death. The nearby outbreak of foot and mouth is mentioned only briefly, but it’s clearly something that weighs heavy on Michael’s mind. A more detached observer might think that, with the compensation regime better than the days of the 1967 outbreak, a farmer like Michael could make a fresh start if the worst happens. And maybe it is. But money is the last thing on his mind. The herd is his lifetime’s work. His pride and joy. His herd is practically family to him; he always refers to his cows as “my girls” and give them all names. Continue reading

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Odds and sods: September 2016

Okay, this is going to be a shorter list than usual, maybe because everyone has a breather after the Edinburgh Fringe. But that’s okay because I have a shedload of reviews to catch up on myself, so the sooner I can zip through this, the better.

Stuff that happened in September:

As I said, limited theatre stuff, but a couple of things elsewhere in the arts world that grabbed my interest. Starting with the theatre stuff …

Alphabetti Theatre

Typewriter at Alphabetti TheatreThis could have been Setepmber’s big news in the north-east, and not in a good way. Happily, something that could have been a disaster now looks to be swiftly averted.

It was a “Save Alphabetti Theatre” crowdfunder that came out of nowhere. In spite of a very successful first 18 months, it was announced out of the blue (well, nearly out of the blue – the fact that the event at which is was announced was called a “fundraiser” was an early hint) that Alphabetti was facing closure if it didn’t get more money. A Kickstarter fund was launched with a £2,500 target, but luckily for Alphabetti, they’ve earned themselves a lot of supporters, because they raised £6,300 (and, interestingly, a lot of backers come from outside the north-east). Together with a whip-round at the original fundraiser that made it £7,100. The Kickstater was only one part of the fund-raising, and the overall target was more like £10,000. It’s not a hard and fast figure – this doesn’t mean that £9,999 means closure but £10,001 means Alphabetti forver – but that’s roughly what they need to clear their debts. But with organisations up and down the country wanting to chip in – another sign of how good a job Alphabetti’s done building its reputation – it looks like this target will be reached.

This, however, could still spell Alphabetti’s downfall if they get complacent and rest on their laurels. The thing they must avoid at all costs is coming back in a year or two’s time asking for another £10,000. Both this fundraiser and the original one to set up the theatre had a huge amount of good-will, but both were seen as one-offs. If it becomes annual or biannual fundraisers to cover running costs, good will may quickly evaporate. That said, I’m confident it won’t come to that. The first year was unpredictable, not only with income but also with costs – and there were quite a lot of unexpected costs associated with getting a theatre going. Now that this is out of the way, they seem keen to some up with a more long-term plan.

There is one risk that hasn’t gone away, which is that the entire building that Alphabetti and many other small arts spaces is based in is up for redevelopment and if and when that goes ahead, they’ll have to leave. That might seem harsh, but that’s probably why the rents for this building are affordable in the first place. But for now, Alphabetti lives to fight another day.

National Theatre backs down on plus ones

I’ve already updated the relevant article, but I’ll include it here too. Back in May, I wrote about The National Theatre’s controversial decision to scrap the complimentary “plus one” tickets for newspaper reviewers in order to – so they claimed – free up tickets for online media and bloggers. Not everyone bought that explanation. This move followed a series of poor reviews given by mainstream papers of a number of headline National Theatre productions, and many people, myself included, didn’t believe that was a coincidence. My more cynical suggestion of the motives was that 1) removing press tickets from mainstream critics completely would be too blatant, 2) they were hoping that removing plus ones would be enough to stop critics coming of their own accord, and 3) they reckoned bloggers would be amenable bunch because anyone who gives you a bad review can simply not be invited to future plays.

Whatever the motives, they’ve backed down. Plus ones have been reinstated. It is not clear at this stage whether this also means inviting bloggers is off. I hope not. I never had any objection to issuing press tickets to bloggers as such, only the moves that looked suspiciously like rewarding good reviews and penalising bad ones; and now that this is no longer the case, it’s good to widen the pool of reviewers. However, my guess is that will continue, because if they were going to withdraw it, I expect I would have heard about this now. (Plenty of bloggers gave a chorus of approval when they got their freebies, so I can’t imagine they’d have been quiet if it was taken away again.) So maybe some good came of this after all.

Anyway, I’m putting my faith in Rufus Norris behaving himself from now on. Do that and I’ll pretend this never happened, okay?

An update on Ladybirdgate

Album cover for How it Works: The Dad: the album

Oh puhlease

Now for a non-performing arts recommendation for a change. No, there haven’t been any fresh attempts from Penguin Random House to censor anyone this month. After the attempts made by Penguin to intimidate a small-time artist using legal threats in 2014, the hypocrisy in publishing something similar to the very book they tried to ban in 2015, and the shabby attempts to whitewash Penguin’s behaviour and attack the aforementioned artist via proxies in 2016 (full dossier on all Penguin’s crimes against artistic freedom here), it’s all gone a bit quiet. The only developments since then is that they’ve released another two grown-up Ladybird Books, How it Works: the Mum whose release co-incided with Mother’s Day, and How it Works: the Dad whose release co-incided with – yes, you’ve guessed it – Father’s Day. I can’t really blame the writers for grabbing the opportunity to produce another two books that would sell at the optimal time of year- most artists need all the money they can get – but I just found it a bit sad that the originality that came with the original eight books has gave way to commercial opportunism this quickly. Most depressing, however, was the accompanying How it Works: the Dad: the Album, which was basically a generic compilation album using the Ladybird brand. I’m going to be kind to Joel and Jason here and assume that this was nothing to do with them (and instead the idea of some soulless marketing manager at Penguin Random House), but the franchise has truly sunk to the depths where it exchanges the last vestiges of creativity for woeful cash-ins.

Page from We Go OutBut if that all sounds too much like international capitalism for you, I have a good alternative, from the aforementioned small-time artist, Miriam Elia. If you haven’t seen We go to the Gallery – her Ladybird-style book that eviscerated modern art and self-righteous people epitomised by Mummy who pretentiously over-analyses one piece of crap after another – buy it now. It’s hilarious. Even modern art galleries saw the funny side of it and stocked it in their shops. But the fresh news from September is that the sequel has finally arrived. Tragically, the sequel is not We sue an artist (and then rip off her idea) that she designed the cover for. Instead, the two books are called We learn at home and We go out, where we are promised Mummy continues to inflict her hyprocritical self-righteousness on every aspect of Peter and Jane’s life (known as John and Susan for legal reasons). I am told she’s worked in a Penguin reference though.

The main print run has just gone on sale; I haven’t seen them yet, so I can’t yet say whether it will live up to the hilarious original. However, I will be buying them and I’ll urge everyone else to buy them too, simply because it will infuriate all those Penguin cheerleaders. I wouldn’t normally allow this to fester, but when they all seem to identify as the progressive left (they included a Guardian journalist, a Corbynite and a Green Party candidate), I really have to wonder when it became progressive and/or left-wing to make personal attacks against small-scale artists who speak out against corporate giants making legal threats against them. So buy both books. And the first one if you haven’t got it. And again if you already have it. Then buy them all again. And another ten times. These censorship-apologist Penguin fanboys need pissing off as much as possible.

That Lionel Shriver speech

Lionel ShriverAnd speaking of artists and arts journalists who have a suspiciously censorious attitude towards other artists … Well, Lionel Shriver (best known for We Need to Talk About Kevin) raised quite a few eyebrows last month, didn’t she? She made a speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival challenging the concept of cultural appropriation, in particular the idea that white writers must not write characters of other races or cultures. It’s a long speech and I haven’t yet had time to read and digest every last detail, but the key point was defending the right to write about whatever you choose. I am a staunch defender of artistic freedom – especially when the only complaint is that someone found it offensive (if you don’t like it, don’t read it, simples) – so I am with Shriver on this 100%. That does not mean writers are free create inaccurate depictions of other cultures with impunity – freedom of speech is not an entitlement to freedom from consequences – but the correct response is to rubbish the book for its inaccuracies, not berate the writer for being the wrong race.

However, as I’ve been aware for some time now, anti-cultural appropriation is a sacred cow to too many people. It was virtually inevitable that there would be uproar over this, and the clear ringleader here was Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of the speech. Less clear is what exactly she was objecting to. She described Shriver’s speech as, I quote, “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, but looking past the rhetoric it’s hard to work out exactly what she disagreed with (many of her objections were to things Shriver never said), nor is it entirely clear what she advocates instead. That didn’t stop hordes of other artists clamour to signal their opposition to Lionel Shriver’s not-sure-exactly-what-but-this-sort-of-thing.

This vagueness is something to worry about. I’m noticing a pattern amongst the authoritarian ideologues that they rarely openly call for artists to be censored; they just insinuate it very strongly. And when someone suggests you want censorship, you can angrily accuse your opponent of misrepresenting you position – then carry on insinuating you want censorship. Whether is Abdel-Magied is using that tactic herself is unclear, because insinuation is hard to prove. It’s going to take a lot of research for me to get a better idea of what she or her supporters really want.

But I will be writing about this at length as soon as I’ve had time to plough through all these arguments and decode them. As I’ve said time and time again, I believe the greatest threat to art now is artists who support taking away artistic freedom from other artists. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is quite welcome to help me out by quoting me exactly which bits of Shriver’s speech she opposes and why, or she can clearly state what art artists should and shouldn’t create (and what she proposes doing to artists who won’t do what she wants). Again, my experience of authoritarian ideologues is that they never clarify their positions when challenged, instead finding excuse after excuse to not answer – but, hey, maybe this time it will be different. Whatever the reason, artistic freedom is under threat here and I will defend it no matter what. And if Yassmin or anyone chooses to ignore my real arguments, create some pretend arguments and paint that as another “poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, so be it.

(Oh, if case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t know Lionel Shriver was a woman either. Apparently she’s called herself Lionel since she was 15 because she considered herself a tomboy. Ah well, you learn something new.)

Stuff I wrote in September:

Guys, apologies for anyone waiting for a review. I am still clearing a massive backlog from the Edinburgh Fringe. I promise I will catch up.

But here’s what I’ve caught up on:

  • Why E4’s Stage School is all your fault: Oh boy, this one’s been popular. Wrote that in response to the fury of this latest bollocks structured “reality” TV show, suggesting that if you’re one of these people who watches programmes like TOWIE, you are partly responsible for this. Anyway, this has become my most viewed article of 2016, ahead of my Edinburgh Fringe coverage. Only thing I don’t know is whether it’s from E4 haters cheering me on, or E4 supporters who are preparing death threats as I speak.
  • The Fighting Bradfords: a belated homage: First review from my backlog, my thoughts on a good start for the Gala’s first in-house production in donkey’s years (also my review of No Turning Back from the month before).
  • Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2016: Oh heck. Article in progress. Time to get all of my rambling thoughts into one coherent article. Written up 12 of the shows so far, another 21 to go. Erk.
  • What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2016:  My recommendations for the forthcoming season, and a longer list than usual. Also, a bit about this interesting project that is Sunderland Stages.

And that’s in. See you in November. Now go away.

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What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2016

Autumn equinox has just gone, putting an end a period over the first three weeks of September where people violently argue over whether it’s already autumn (as per the meteorological definition) or still summer (as per the astronomical definition). So now that you’ve all finished arguing over that, let’s go into this list of recommendations.

You know the score by now: I’ve searched the listing of the north-east theatres and looked for stuff that grabbed my attention, but this is a cross-section of stuff out there worth watching, and not an exhaustive list. For future reference, if I have seen you before and reviewed you favourably, you are encouraged to send me press releases for new projects if you’d like to be included here – I will probably pick up on what you’re doing anyway, but sometimes things escape my attention and a press release is a good backup. If I have not seen you before, it is unlikely you’ll get on to this list – invite me to review you and I might get you on the list in future seasons. Continue reading

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Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Image result for Edinburgh Festival Fringe

REVIEWS: Skip to: Bite-SizeWaves, Swansong, The Jungle BookLe BossuBoris: World King, BEASTSPolice CopsThe Unknown SoldierAdventures of a Redheaded Coffee Shop GirlNorthanger Abbey, Overshadowed 

Okay, here we go. Got a long article ahead of me to write, condensing all of the rambling thoughts in my live coverage into one coherent article. There’s 22,706 words of live coverage to summarise, so please bear with me, it will take some time. It will, as usual, come in dribs and drabs. Last time it took me months to complete the coverage – I hope to a be a bit more timely this year.

So, I had a very good Edinburgh Fringe this year, due in a large part to my ever-expanding list of shows from performers who I know and expect to be good. This, combined with the increasing number of review invitations I received, also meant I had a very busy fringe, with 35 shows seen in total, and 6-show days becoming a new norm. There were a few side-effects to this, the big one being that I’ve had to start saying no to the odd review invitation. I’m going to give my review policy a rethink for next year. In the meantime, however, this year I saw no absolute turkeys and so I’m able to review all the plays I saw. The only things I haven’t reviewed is the odd piece (mostly stand-up comedy and sketch comedy) that was too different from the theatre I’m used to reviewing for me to be able to make a qualified judgement.

Before I embark on what’s going to be a beast of a roundup, let’s start with this … Continue reading

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The Fighting Bradfords: a belated homage


The Gala’s first theatre commission in years, The Fighting Bradfords, might not be the most memorable World War One play, but it portrays a faithful story of four forgotten brothers.

What a year it’s been for the Gala Theatre. Ever since the acrimonious departure of artistic director Simon Stallworthy, the Gala Theatre’s status has been relegated to a second division receiving venue, with very little actual theatre being programmed. I got wind of things changing around 12 months ago with the appointment of a new programming director and a renewed interest from the County Council. Things started bearing fruit earlier this year with a lot of high-profile companies coming to the theatre – there had been the odd high-profile company before, but three companies in one season (Northern Stage, Original Theatre Company and John Godber company) was new. Then came Next Up …, the inaugural scratch night, which was successful enough to become a regular thrice-yearly fixture.

Now comes The Fighting Bradfords, the Gala’s first commission. Well, sort of. Officially, this is a Durham County Council commission for a play to be performed at the Gala. The Gala is owned by the council, and theatre management is so tightly integrated into the council structures, there’s no clear line for what cultural activities in Durham County do and don’t count as the Gala’s own. In this case, the commission (along with No Turning Back over the summer) was part of a wider series of events over the county called Durham Remembers, marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and the commission requested by the council was the story of four sons of the respected Bradford family. All enthusiastically signed up to fight, all were decorated for bravery – and all but one gave their lives. Continue reading

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Why E4’s Stage School is all your fault

A thumbscrew, the rack, an iron maiden, Stage School

A thumbscrew, the rack, an iron maiden, Stage School. Which is the odd one out? (Answer: None. It was a trick question. They are all forms of torture.)

Stage School has got the acting community up in arms. But if you’re one of these people who watches so-called “structured reality” TV shows, you are partly responsible for this travesty.

Ho hum, barely finished the Edinburgh Fringe and what do I find? There’s a new “reality” TV series on E4 called Stage School. You might have noticed my use of quotation marks around a certain word; I will be expanding on this shortly. Anyway, I haven’t seen this as such, but it’s been impossible to not hear about this following an uproar throughout the theatre world. It’s been slammed as fake, misrepresenting and blatantly scripted, and there’s already a petition to have the programme canned.

Now, the easiest thing to do would be for add another blog post on to the pile of pieces castigating the show. However, I have sufficient integrity to not pan a programme I haven’t seen, and since I would rather stick my knob in a blender than watch another reality TV programme, that’s not going to happen. I’ll instead point you to this blogger’s comment which seem to be representative of all the scorn I’ve come across on-line and off-line. I’ve tried reading supportive pieces just to get some balance, but weighing things up, it really does look like a pile of unmitigated shite. In the unlikely event someone from the acting community would like to defend the programme’s accuracy, I will give you a fair hearing, but in the meantime I am writing this on the assumption that Stage School is as fucking awful as I think it is.

But here’s the depressing bit. Whilst most of the acting world have been horrified that such a misleading show could be made, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Ever since Big Brother hit our screens back in 2000, we have normalised a culture where outright bullshit on television is accepted. It’s happened in stages, and I have to say that we the television-viewing public bear a large share of responsibility for this travesty.

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