What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2021

Skip to: Jekyll and Hyde, Mr. Fox, The Virtuous Burglar, Mike Raffone, Egriega and Ormond, An Admin Worker at the End of the World, Nathan Cassidy, Coppelia

Well, here’s a snag over a late start to the fringe season. You’ve only finished covering one fringe and the next one’s about the start. But don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. It’s July, and that means it’s time for Buxton Fringe.

The news from Buxton isn’t nearly as sensational as the news from Brighton or Edinburgh. (That’s sensational in a good way and a bad way respectively.) Brighton’s comeback was noteworthy because it was not clear whether an event taking place one week after performances were allowed could work that scale, but it did – the sharp contrast to Edinburgh’s misfortunes only heightening it more. But although Buxton Fringe is a lot more low-key, they are following a similar recovery to Brighton. They go into opening night with 109 registrations, about half of pre-pandemic levels (give or take depending on whether you use 2018 or 2019 as the baseline) – that’s similar to Brighton.

Many other changes noticed at Brighton apply to Buxton too. Like Brighton, the paper programme was dropped allowing registrations to come in up to the start of the fringe (with “official” deadlines meaning little in the end). Most of the regular venues are taking part, the most notable exceptions being the Rotunda and the Arts Centre (the latter in operation for the festival but not the fringe this time). The one thing that might have been a spanner in the works was that social distancing for weeks 1 and 2 were put in place unexpectedly, but few acts have been deterred by that. One might have though Buxton would take a hit with no (meaningful) Edinburgh Fringe to be a stepping stone to, but plenty of would-be Edinburgh acts seem quite happy to go without. (That’s not unique to Buxton – Carlisle and Durham Fringes also seem to be managing fine with Edinburgh.)

At this stage, Buxton Fringe has good reasons to be quietly confident. If their fortunes carry on running in line with Brighton’s, they should expect good ticket sales and patronage if Brighton’s precedent is remotely anything to go by. The worst-case scenario I can think of is if the mostly older audience at Buxton are more reluctant to return than their Brighton counterparts, but we should find out in the next few days if this is the case.

Continue reading

7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe

Through most of the last year, there has been a lot of justified alarm over the future of theatres. Amongst that is what would happen to the the festival fringes. But what no-one forecasted was for Edinburgh Fringe alone to be in uniquely dire circumstances. Whilst Brighton Fringe is bouncing back better than anybody’s wildest dreams, Edinburgh has still not even listed a single show. As everybody now knows, in Scotland they’ve been ultra-cautious and planned restrictions well into August and beyond. The problem is the level of restrictions demanded: two metres indoors for performing arts, ignoring all possible forms of mitigation such as masks, barriers, or everyone facing the same way. That is virtually impossible to comply with.

Make no mistake, this is the perfect storm for the Edinburgh Fringe. Had all festivals in the UK been in this situation, it would have been more secure, but with strict rules only applying to Scotland, the festivals south of the border have stepped up where Edinburgh can’t. Last year’s Warren Outdoors was a success because they were able to programme a lot of popular acts seeking to fill an Edinburgh-shaped hold in their schedules – it now turns out this was only the tip of the iceberg. Now many of the the Edinburgh venues are staging new festivals in England: Pleasance is running “Fringe Future” in partnership with the Vault, Gilded Balloon are running a pop-up festival with their inflatable cow, and Assembly is running “Assembly Garden” in City of Culture Coventry. As a result, many of Edinburgh’s favourite acts have already signed up for these or other non-Edinburgh fixtures. There is no guarantee they’ll go back to Edinburgh.

Continue reading

My thoughts on Alphabetti’s Aware

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

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

Continue reading

Brighton Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Saturday 3rd July:

And that’s all from me, folk. Extended Brighton Fringe continues until the 11th July, but we’ve seen enough to know how this is going – and every indication is that the 2021 Brighton Fringe, intended as a relaunch after the tiny and postponed 2020 fringe, has gone like a dream.

To summarise what we’ve learned:

  • Patronage of Brighton Fringe has been excellent. Targets of ticket sales for the entire fringe were surpassed in the first week. My own observations is that the big venues were as busy as they’ve always been, and where venues operated at reduced capacity they were mostly sell-outs or close to that. The only times that ticket sales looked weak was during the day when the weather was hot, but that’s the same in normal fringes.
  • The pop-up venues have adapted well to social distancing, perhaps helped along by last year’s Warren Outdoors showing how this could be done. I have a more mixed reaction to indoor venues: some handled this well, but others I felt were more sloppy. It would only have taken one outbreak linked to a venue for the naysayers to say “I told you so” and reinstate extra restrictions on theatres – luckily, that didn’t happen.
  • Crucially, The Railto is back in business. This venue didn’t reopen for the October Fringe and when it didn’t get Cultural Recovery Fund money, there were a lot of worries they might close for good. Thankfully, they have weather the storm, thanks in part to support from a crowdfunder. Had they closed, I believe it would have done a lot of cultural damge, not just to Brighton but the whole country.
  • The reviewers have also come back in force for Brighton Fringe 2021, and they stayed the course. This might not seem like a big deal to those who prefer word of mouth, but a good review is valuable for those who want their play to have a life beyond the fringe.
  • The mood around the changes to Brighton Fringe 2021 varies. There has been a surprisingly high amount of support for making the temporary move to June permanent – turns out most poeple like this, so this will probably happen. However, the online-only programme, whilst necessary, has not been popular. Whilst there are ways to do this better, the consensus seems to be that Brighton is not ready to dispence with the brochure just yet.
  • Although in-person performances have been the focus, the online programme is persisting longer than anyone imagined, with four online platforms taking part this year. One option being considered is moving this to a seperate festival, possibly during the winter when in-person fringing is less appealing.
  • This fringe has been very comedy-heavy – if anything, it’s dominated the fringe even more than it dominated Edinburgh. It’s not too surpising it happened during this fringe when 1) a lot of peple would appreciate some comedy, and 2) comedy is generally easier to get going at short notice. We don’t yet know whether this is a long-term change, and if so, whether it shold be a cause for concern.
  • And finally, Brighton Fringe’s good fortune is a sharp contrast to Edinburgh’s misfortunes. Based on initial lists of shows, Edinburgh Fringe 2021 could be smaller than Brighton. The Scottish Government has given some support late in the day, but a lot of people still blame them for unfairly singling out live perfomance with more stringent rules for no good reason. But that’s a story for another day.

So now I sign off, but don’t go away. Buxton Fringe starts next week. I’d better get a move on with my recommendations.

Friday 2nd July:

[Sorry for the backdated post – I’ve been without internet for most of the last 24 hours.]

And now, here’s the remainder of the online reviews:

The Importance of Being … Earnest?: Technically this was not part of Brighton Fringe’s online season – it was supposed to be live-streamed at one point, but that didn’t work out. But with me unable to make it to the live performance at The Warren, and having already agreed to review it online, I instead reviewed a recording from an old pre-lockdown performance. The first thing I will say about this is: don’t watch this online, watch it live, because this is a very heavily interactive show where you really need to be in the audience to experience this. But, that said, I’d rate this as the strongest of the six online pieces I saw.

The premise starts off quite simply: Algernon and Lane are doing the opening for Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, when the door opens and in walks Earnest aka Jack – except that he’s not turned up to the play. How can the show go on? The answer, of course, is to get a random member of the audience to step in. Say It Again Sorry also play fast and loose with the original script, so Lady Bracknell now asks Earnest/Jack/audience member to rate on a scale of 1-10 his ability to give Gwendolynn a good seeing-to, and there’s also a swasbuckling swordfight added in (just because). But why settle for one stand-in when you can have more stand-ins for alcoholic Gwendolynn, and Lady Bracknell who refuses to work with amateurs, half a dozen hastily-added butlers, and – eventually – the entire remaining audience as wedding guests (just because). You get the idea. But this madcap play works tightly and deals with unpredictable audience interact well to make it a lot of fun. But if you see it, see it in person.

A red square: This one is, without a doubt, the most different of all the online entries I’ve seen – and possibly the entire fringe. Everything else has a video or audio of some sort of performance. This, however, is an animation that is not only created in Powerpoint but viewed in Powerpoint. The lead character is a red square who falls in love with another red (slightly more maroon) square, and they adopt a baby red square together. But after maroon square drowns in a beach accident, Red Square must bring up his child alone. (I’m not sure if red squares have genders, but Liam Neeson eventually plays Red Square in the film adaptation, I’m guessing it’s a he.) But when child square drifts away in a helium balloon floating incident, Daddy Red Square must get his child back. And in the course of the investigation, Red Square find a portal to the computer desktop his world was made in.

With this being so far out from what I normally review, there’s little I can compare this to. One thing I will say fro the perspective of someone who does a day job in IT is that I wouldn’t have sent out powerpoint files to viewers. Although it is fitting poetically to view a Powerpoint-based play in Powerpoint, and it allowed for some customisations not possible elsewhere (such as Julian Caddy appearing in this Brighton Fringe edition), it was I think more throuble than it was worth. I found it a faff to get it to work, and 220MB files do not play nicely with a lot of computers. Whilst less adventurous, I would have used the video format like the trailer did, which I found quite effective, and more versatile for sound. Other than that, the play is highly surrealistic, sometimes as naturalistic as a red square family can be, at other times highly absurd – I just wondered if sometimes I miss something because of an in-joke. But I can recommend this for being as a different as a fringe entry can be.

Head or Tails: The last one is a return to filming of a conventional stage play, this one through the Living Record platform. This time, however, the filming is a lot more “talking heads” style which suits a monologue of this format. Steph (Skye Hallem), who died aged 25, has been given 40 minutes to return to the land of the living to tell us about what it’s like in the afterlife. In this gentle-paced speech over five parts, she tells us how much more relaxed and contented things are in eternity, in a bit to encourage those on us on earth to take heed and make the most of our time on this side.

What the play had an irritating habit of, however, was bringing up some of the big subjects but never resolving them. We hear that God is aware of all the questions of why such an all-powerful entity would allow Donald Trump and Coronavirus and millennia of wars, and we hear that God has low points and accepts there were screw-ups – but Steph changes the subject before going further. Another promising lead is when Steph starts to broach the subject of her own death, but switches to general life advice before resolving this. It is only in the last fifth of the play where things start to get really interesting and emotive. In earth, people eventually forget the departed, but the memories Steph has of the living stay with her forever. That, I think, is where the real story lies.

Thursday 1st July:

Sorry, remainder of online reviews will have to wait until tomorrow. Having a bit a of a crisis here.

What I will report is that the first Edinburgh fringe tickets have gone on sale. I said less that Sunday that anything under 350 entries (the equivalent number when Brighton opened sales) would be a jaw-dropper. Well, it’s 180. Almost half. Jaws have officially dropped.

There is some mitigating news though. The only major venues to have put tickets on sale straight away are Space and Summerhall. We are still expecting more entries from the Big Four, C Venues, Zoo Venues, and the two Free Fringe venues. Edinburgh will need to quadruple its numbers if it’s to move ahead of Brighton, but I still think that’s achievable. But the fact that Brighton is even in the running for UK’s largest fringe this year is absolutely gob-smacking.

Wednesday 30th June:

Before I sign off, I did a late catch-up with online theatre I was asked to review. I’m maybe not the best judge of online work, because I focus in a theatre in a way I never really to in front of a computer screen. As such, I’ll keep the feedback concise – as always, anyone who wants further feedback is welcome to ask.

What did strike me about this overall, however, was the sheer variety of how “online” is being done. Out of everything I’ve seen so far, each one took a different approach to the medium. Here’s a review of three; I’ll do the other three tomorrow.

The Old House: Out of all the online pieces I saw, this was the closest to an in-person performance. Originally meant for Brighton Fringe 2020, it was performed as a conventional play for streaming, first for the Actor’s Centre on Demand season and now for Brighton Fringe. A solo play written and performed by Kate Maravan, she plays both daughter and mother. Daughter is driving her mother to “The Old House”, one-time a holiday home they used to go to – but when she has to explain repeatedly where they’re going, along with every other aspect of the journey. The mother has Dementia, and this journey is an attempt to bring some memories she can relate to. The daughter also has some difficult memories of her own to deal with.

Maravan has based this on her experiences with her own mother, and she knows her stuff. Much has been made of her playing both characters, and she plays them both well and seamless switches between the two. However, tin doing this, I feel this has missed out on something important – this is the sort of play where it’s not just about delivering your lines; it’s also about how you react to other character’s lines. The moment when she realises here mother no longer knows her daughter’s name or age is heartbreaking – but we don’t get to see the impact at the vital moment. I may be in the minority here, as lots of people seem to like this solo format, but if Kate Maravan would consider a two-hander, I’d be happy.

And Helen: Whilst most online performances have gone for some sort of streamed video, the Coily Dart Theatre Company has gone for an audio production. There is a case for doing this. Simply filming a stage performance can feel like a substitute for the real thing, but doing something more like a screenplay puts you in competition with people who do better. However, audio plays are relatively easy to do to a comparable production standard as Radio 4. This is a musical in the style about Gilbert and Sullivan about a name few remember. D’Oyly Carte is known for the opera company who brought G&S to the world, but amongst the historians, Helen Black holds an important part of history. Originally a secretary to Richard D’Oyly Carte and eventually his wife, she’s a prime example that – for all the stupid barriers put in the way of women in the 19th century – you could still achieve great things by making yourself indispensable.

I do think, however, Coily Dart underestimated how difficult the task is they set themselves. Writing play about Helen would have been easy enough, but writing anything in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan – as they are doing here – is a huge challenge. The songs are done well and suit the style, both in terms of music and lyrics, but to really pull it off, the dialogue needs to match the style too. Someone, you’d have to find a way to tell Helen’s story with late Victorian prose without sacrificing clarity, and surely you have to take up the opportunity to lampoon civil service bureaucracy. I really like the concept of this, but there’s work to be done to give Helen the tribute she deserves.

Devil’s food cake: This one took an approach I’ve not any group do before. It’s one of the online plays done on Zoom or something similar, but rather than just read out the lines, or reframe the play as a chat over Zoom/Skype/etc, Putney Theatre Company tries to make a conventional play out of it. With a cast of five, with three living in one house, they pull a few tricks to make two or more different locations look like the same place. Conversations between mother and daughter take place through doors (in real life two different houses), and 18th birthday bunting in put over two scenes to make it look like a family of four sitting round a table. Some techniques worked less well though: having a parent and a psychologist sitting sideways in two different rooms to make it look like they’re talking to each other is a bit much to believe. I would have just done that as a normal Zoom call – I think we have a valid enough reason why the doctor wouldn’t want people turning up in person at the moment.

I won’t dwell on that too much though – this approach, innovative though it is, will at some point become redundant. What we hope last longer is the play. Presumably written originally as a conventional stage play, it’s about a teenager who’s teetering into anorexia, and the effect is has not just on her but her family. It was nearly ten years ago that I saw the excellent Mess, but already things have changed – now there’s a whole load of websites telling you why it’s good to anorexic, and how to hide it from people who want to help you. However, I do feel this play falls foul of the common mistake of writing lines to be read. There’s a of details – and correct – technical information in the play, but in real life people don’t normally talk that way. One good scene is when Dad stumbles across said pro-anorexia sites when trying to find the opposite, thanks to irresponsible algorithms on social media – but you don’t need to the other daughter to spell out how this works. My advice would be not to underestimate your audience – they are better at picking things up than you think. Concentrate instead on developing the characters, and that will convey the message with a lot more power.

That’s me halfway. Hope to complete this tomorrow.

Tuesday 29th June:

Should probably sound one other note of caution about Edinburgh Fringe. Not wishing to stoke up too much panic, but the Coronavirus case rates in Edinburgh are pretty horrendous at the moment, and, worse, they seem to be doubling every week with no sign of a let-up. At the moment, the Scottish Government’s position seems to be that there’s nothing to worry about as vaccination will get things under control. I am used to this kind of complacency from Boris Johnson, but I’m surprised to get this attitude from Nicola Sturgeon, whose careful-careful approach earned her a lot of respect. I hope I’m wrong, but I worry that these two have suddenly gone into a contest of boasting over whose vaccination programme is the most awesomest.

The counter-argument is that’s it’s only cases that are skyrocketing and it’s we’re okay as long as hospitalisation and deaths numbers stay low, but that feels like a risky assumption to me. I still think the health risk is bearable, but the problem with a complacent approach is that complacency is easily replaced with panic. The knee-jerk reaction to ban travel to Scotland from Manchester – even though Edinburgh has a way higher infection rate – suggests that politics is taking still taking precedence over pragmatism, and it would be really easy to issue euqally knee-jerk reactions against the Edinburgh Fringe to be seen to be doing something. Suffice to say if I was running a venue, I would really not be comfortable with committing to Edinburgh right now.

Changing the subject, I’ve started going through the online theatre review requests. I’ve seen most of them, got a couple to go, and hope to write up a few thoughts on each of them over the next couple of days. What I can say in general though is that I see what people mean about online being difficult to operate. The combination of ticketing and viewing over multiple different platforms does seem to be getting confusing. Can’t think of an obvious solution to this, and there’s 101 little issue to sort out rather than a few big ones, but it’s something to think about should online become a permanent addition.

Monday 28th June:

So as we go into extra time, let’s take a look at what’s coming up one last time. All of these are at The Warren.

My hot pick of extended fringe has to be Skank. This is one of the big success stories of the Greater Manchester Fringe, and one of the finest examples that you can come out of nowhere with a play everyone loves on the fringe circuit. Skank is a sort-of female Peep Show, but there is a twist to this. Mark and Jeremy will never change, but something happens in this to change things for Kate. 6.30 this Thursday and Friday.

We also have a return of The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007 (Wednesday next week, 10.00 p.m.) and Crime Scene Improvisation (Closing Sat/Sun next week, 4.15 p.m.) And running pretty much continuously at 9.30 p.m. from now on is Shit-Faced Shakespeare, who pretty much carried The Warren Outdoors as a viable venture last summer.

And, of course, Warren on the Beach is coming soon. Still no announcement of the line-up, but surely can’t be long.

Sunday 27th June:

And so we’re at the end of “core” fringe. I’m going to close this shortly; I’m not expecting anything particularly sensational to happen in the extended two weeks. However, I’m going to keep running a little longer to see what size Edinburgh Fringe we’re looking at. Tickets are now going on sale July 1st.

Three big caveats to mention here. Firstly, registrations numbers alone don’t tell everything. Prior to 2020, there was little doubt that Edinburgh Fringe was much bigger than Brighton Fringe, which in turn was much bigger than all the other fringes, no matter what measurement you use. If the numbers are close, however, it might make a difference. The other thing to be ware is that the numbers will increase after July 1st; Brighton Fringe’s numbers almost doubled between opening of ticket sales and opening of the fringe. Also, there’s in-person and online to consider – some people would argue that online doesn’t count.

I’m not going to try to unpick these factors until we have some info. But the baseline in 3,841 entries in 2019. Here’s what the numbers on Thursday might mean.

Over 1,500: Cause for celebration, under the circumstances. 1,500 is a 60% reduction, which was the forecast last summer, before the outlook got much much worse. If they surpass this figure, we’re looking at an impressive turnaround.

1,000 – 1,500: Edinburgh Fringe remains the undisputed king of the fringe circuit. Brighton gets close to 1,000 in a normal year, so if it clears this hurdle they will have a convincing lead.

650 – 1,000: Edinburgh Fringe remains in the lead, but with Brighton Fringe snapping at its heels, even if there’s no push to expand. They’ll have to count on regaining lost ground in 2022.

350-650: Edinburgh’s title is in trouble. They are below Brighton 2021’s eventual numbers – they will have to count on late registrations in the last month if they want to gain ground.

Under 350: A jaw-dropper. Below Brighton at the start of their ticket sales, would need a surge in last-minute registrations to get ahead. Edinburgh may still be ahead in terms of ticket sales or performances, but the fact it is behind on any measure would be a bombshell. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s game over for Edinburgh, but it will throw things wide open.

So yes, Thursday’s a big news day.

Saturday 26th June:

So, we’ve had a very different Brighton Fringe – but must all these changes be temporary? it’s entirely possible that Brighton Fringe might decide it likes some of the changes made out of necessity and stick with it.

For this exercise, I am ignoring the possibility of Covid restrictions continuing into 2022 and instead looking at changes that may persist without. The possibilities I can think of are:

Brighton fringe in June – likely: I honestly wasn’t expecting this to stick – whilst attendance in this June fringe was a success, I did notice that hot afternoons and England matches did have an adverse effect on those shows on at the wrong time. But at the Future of Brighton Fringe online meeting that I dropped into, apparently the vast majority of people who have an opinion on this decided they liked it. The main reason is that most people think May is too crowded, with Brighton Festival and The Great Escape on at the same time; it was also noted that June is a better time for student participation. There was a consensus that May half term should remain part of the fringe, but as the first week rather than the last one.

Warren on the beach – too early to say: We’ll have to wait and see how a second summer does before making any predictions here. But the one-off pop-up venue has already become a two-off. I suspect a lot of this will depend on the national trend for summer alternatives to the Edinburgh Fringe. If big names decide they prefer Assembly Garden and Underbelly Festival to the Edinburgh Fringe, my guess is The Warren outdoors will have the same fortunes.

Extended fringe – too early to say: Whilst there was a lot of enthusiasm for a June fringe, there was little mention of carrying on six-week runs at Warren and Spiegeltent. However, if Warren on the Beach becomes permanent, it might make sense to carry on running the pop-up venues until then. Which would raise the question: how would the other venues feel about that? But I’ll wait for an answer to the previous question before speculating too much.

Web-only programme – unlikely (in the short term): Whilst everyone agrees the decision to dispense with the paper programme was a necessary one, it’s not been a welcome one. There have been multiple complaints over the website not being as easy to use as the Daily Guide in the programme. That could be addressed, but the other issue is some people simply not being used to online brochures at all. It’s not a “no, never”, but the strong consensus is that Brighton Fringe is not ready to run without the paper programme, in spite of the expense.

Big pop-up outdoor venues – probably not: I have no inside knowledge over this one, but I can’t see the McElderry and the Oil Shed continuing any more than they need to. If it was me, I’d want to get back the multitide of smaller spaces and lighting capability as soon as possible. Warren on the Beach will probably remain outdoors though, should it go ahead. The performances against the sunset is something special.

Online programme – maybe: Strictly speaking, online theatre has never been disallowed – it’s just that Brighton (along with most other fringes) made it easier to integrate online streaming, either directly through the website, or through third parties. However, online theatre has persisted longer than most people expected, with three platforms (SpaceUK, Living Record and Sweetstream) emerging to host online work. One possibilty that’s been floated is a separate online festival (probably in winter) when there can be an online focus. This will probably depend on the overall future of online – that is still up in the air – but if it prevails, Brighton will probably be part of it.

Relocated Fringe City – maybe: I admit I’m the only person I kno who’s pondered this, but I think Jubillee Street might be a better location than New Road just to the south. There was a time when it made sense to put Fringe City on the busiest street to get attention, but if you’re flyering it’s a pain to waork out who is and isn’t there for the fringe. A self-contained hub might make more sense now.

Snapping at Edinburgh’s heels – no: Depending on how much damage has been done to Edinburgh Fringe 2021 through dithering, Brighton might come close to being the UK’s largest fringe, or even overtake. However, this has barely registered with Brighton. There was a big – and successful – push to expand Brighton up to 2016, but there’s zero interest in pushing further. As far as they’re concerned, Brighton Fringe may expand further if more people want to take part, but don’t expect any more proactive pushes.

Or I might get this catastrophically wrong again. You have my permission to take copies of this and laugh and point it the opposite of my predictions comes true.

Friday 25th June:

So as we approach the end of “core” fringe, time for a second look at review coverage. When I last looks at review coverage, at the start, I noticed that initial coverage was good, but the question remained over whether Broadway Baby, Fringe Review and Reviews Hub would stay the course. Review publications have tailed off in mid-fringe before, might that happen this time. Well, the answer appears to be no. I haven’t done much number crunching here, but reviews appear to have come out at an even pace throughout the fringe.

One other caveat I didn’t mention but nonetheless needs considering is how generous the reviews are. It became an open secret last year, when live theatre productions were far and few between, that reviewers were being a lot more supportive than usual – some people even did the analysis and noted that hardly any one- or two-star ratings were given. Well, there’s no obvious sign of this happening here. I don’t remember seeing any one-stars, but I’ve seen a fair number of twos. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no leniency – it might just not be so blatant this time – but it does mean you can take the good reviews more seriously than a participation prize.

I haven’t monitored other reviews that music precisely because of the uncertainty over reliability. However, there is one thing that stands out: Jekyll and Hyde: A one-woman show is doing exceptionally well. A five-star from Broadway Baby, and an “Outstanding” from FringeReview (whose ratings are confusing, but Outstanding is still considered an equivalent to five stars). I will hopefully get to see for myself in Buxton shortly, but this could be a front runner for best reviewed new play.

Thursday 24th June – Police Cops: badass be thy name:

Before I come into this review, a regrettable entry in the chrisontheatre corrections corner. When I had previously covered the lastest in the Police Cops trilogy, it was incorrectly suggested that our hero, a 90s raver from Madchester, teams up with a samurai to slay vampires. It has now come to my attention that the vampire slayer is not a samaurai but a vampire-slaying priests. That was an unacceptable oversight as everyone knows priests in horror movies make a living out of this sort of thing. The person responsible for this shoddy journalism has been sacked.

Anyway, on with business. Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name continues the Pretend Men’s format of trying to condense as many cliches as possible into a single hour, this time going for as many tropes involving vampires and unlikely mentor/apprentice pairings – only this time, the hero the opposite of the trope, our aforementioned raver. Stuck in his monotonous dead-end job, he suddenly sees vampires, and a mysterious vampire slaying priest (not samurai) slaying them. How come he see them when no-one else can? Will this tie in with the unexplained disappearance of his father? Will the priest have a surname of “Badass” in order create an incredibly corny double-meaning of the title of this play?

It is fair to note this trio’s performance was a little rusty, but if anyone can be forgiven for a slightly rusty performance, it’s them. This was easily the complex high-energy devised performance out of everything I saw, and I’m sure they’ll be back at Edinburgh Fringe Pleasance Dome standard in no time. It was also a little unlucky that they had an outdoor venue, because this did have a few scenes which were designed with a dark lighting plot in mind. Luckily, both of this disadvantages can be spun into advantages. As Police Cops fans will know, their longest running joke is their use of crummy props to recreate whatever effects a big-budget movie would do with expensive CGI. Early visual gags such as insides of coats forming vending machines and ping-pong balls for drug-induced eyeballs bring the house down, so when someone forgets to stand in the right place or a hidden figure meant to take us by surprise shows up in broad daylight, qupis and swift recoveries at to the humour.

There is only one worry I have about this, and it follows on from the same observation with Police Cops in Space. The Pretend Men are excellent at getting laughs, but sometimes I wonder if they pursue laughs for the sake of it. Yes, I know it’s a comedy, and a silly comedy designed for laugh-a-minute, but even these stories benefit from consistent characters. Even if the character is a movie cliche. Perhaps I’ve been overdosed on arses – this is Brighton after all – but I have the Devil pulling a moony in mind as an example; that, I feel, undermined an opportunity for a conclusion to the funnier threads about how Lucifer was only evil because the other angels picked on him and pulled to lady angels he fancied. Sometimes it’s better to sacrifice one laugh and get something better elsewhere.

But, hey, who am I to care? No-one’s marking this on character development, they’re marking this on fun, and this is exactly what it delivers. The socially distanced version of The Warren might not be the best venue for this show, but I’m sure they’ll be back indoors in no time and make the best of this again.

Wednesday 23rd June:

One quick note from Brighton. I dropped on the virtual “Future of Brighton Fringe” meeting on Tuesday. Will look at this in more detail when I’m less busy, but in the meantime: one notable detail:

As we all know by now, Brighton Fringe moved back three weeks on the bet (a correct bet, as it turned out) that you would be allowed to perform by the end of May. Until now, I’d assumed this would be temporary and would change back for next year. A June fringe out of necessity was one thing, but hot afternoons and football between them seemed to be denting audiences in some performances.

But wait … it turns out the overwhelming consensus is that most people like the new dates. There is a mood that the late May bank holiday should stay in the fringe dates, but they’d be happy for the rest to stay as it is.

Expect an 80%+ chance of this happening. And expect an even busier summer for those of us who do both Brighton and Edinburgh.

Tuesday 22nd June:

Finally, we have a decision from the Scottish Government – and it’s not too bad. I might be only saying this because my expectations were already at rock bottom, but if we ignore for a moment the questions over how much sooner this decision could have been taken and just look at the announcement in isolation, it’s broadly good news.

So, “Freedom Day” in Scotland is now down as August 9th, down, so the Scottish Government claims, to the success of their vaccine programme. I have some issues with that claim, but this is a theatre blog and not a politics blog so let’s move on. That would allow most of the Edinburgh Fringe to go ahead without restrictions. Before then, however, the stupid rule over 2 metres for performing arts gets changed to 1 metre on July 19th. That is important. There is no guarantee that the August 9th date will stick (and certainly not in Edinburgh where the figures are currently quite concerning). A two week slippage that causes Edinburgh to have to stick with one metre is manageable – after all, Brighton and Buxton are managing with a slippage at this very moment. But an unexpected change from 0m to 2m would be a disaster. I would not have been happy going ahead without this buffer.

However, accompanying this is finally some news of meaningful financial support. I previously said that support for the festival fringe society is not enough – you also need support for the venues. Well, they have gone for support of some outdoor events, in conjunction with the Big Four and a few of the more artsy ones such as Summerhall. Of course, something organised at this short notice doesn’t apply to all venues, so expect grumbles from those who haven’t been supported. The bigger frustration, however is why this took so long. With outdoor events the one thing that was never in doubt, this support could have be arranged two months ago, and done more fairly. Suffice to say that whilst the venues see this as a positive move, they aren’t exactly queuing up to thank Nicola Sturgeon with tears in their eyes.

Too little too late? Probably not are far as “too little” goes – the changes in rules and the support should make a meaningful difference. But as for “too late”? Maybe. Is six weeks really enough time to turn things round? We will find out shortly.

Monday 21st June:

I’m on a sound job for the next three days, so coverage is going to be minimal, but there’s a couple more recommendations I plain forgot about.

Firstly, I forgot Rebel Boob for Speak Up act Out. This was inspired by the artistic director’s own battle with breast cancer, but it looks at the journey to recovery and restarting a life put on hold rather than the fight against cancer itself. Their last Brighton Fringe work, Between You and Me, was very perceptive, so lots of promise here. Brighton Girls’ School, Thursday and Saturday, 7.30.

However, the play I completely missed and would have gone straight to Safe Choice had I seen it is You, a two-hander play about adoption, that tells the story from all perspectives: the birth parents, the adaptive parents, and the child himself. Acclaimed for being moving, it started tonight. After that, it runs tomorrow, Wednesday and Sunday at 7.30 at The Warren.

So apologies for lateness there. Tomorrow, however, is the big day. Exactly what sort of Edinburgh Fringe 2021 are we going to see?

Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2021

Groups sitting outside the Pavillion
Credit: Dumphasizer

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

Well then. Who’d have guessed it?

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

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Online theatre roundup 2

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

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

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

Dirty Laundry

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Why it’s right to stop covering SSD Concerts

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

The Gorilla play: a bitter disappointment

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

The Ike Awards hall of fame: 2017

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

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

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

Leaving

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

Continue reading