What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2018

We’re the other side of the fringe bubble and, eek, autumn has already started, and with that, autumn theatre. So, as always, I’ve gone through the listings of local theatres to pick out the things that are getting my attention. For anyone who want to know how this works, you can read my Recommendations policy.

Skip to: Build a Rocket, Two, They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!, The Lovely Bones, War of the Worlds, Ventoux, Wicked, The Turk, Clear White Light, Joking Apart / Better Off Dead, Two Pints, Under Milk Wood, Sherlock Holmes, Bin and Gone, Boys, Vivian’s Music, 1969

But let’s not waste time. You know the rules, you know how it works, so let’s begin.

Safe choice:

Top of the list are plays where I’m making a firm call. Most of these plays are ones I’ve seen already – where they are new, they are from writers and directors with a good enough track record to give me full confidence in their new offerings. All of these plays also have wide audience appeal. That’s not the same as appealing to everyone – few plays do – but if you like the sound of the description, then I’m confident you can’t go wrong with these.

Build a Rocket

maxresdefaultIn what I believe is a first for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, they took a solo play to the Edinburgh Fringe, starring Serene Manteghi, last seen in Scarborough in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, albeit a very different role from LV. Here she plays Yasmin, a 16-year-old who finds herself pregnant after an ill-advised affair with a lecherous local DJ. But, in common with the last play Paul Robinson toured before taking over as Artistic Director at Scarborough, this is a story that only properly begins where most plays would have ended. What at one point seems to be a play about losing everything is actually about pick up after this happens.

Apart from a few criticisms about being “poverty porn” (unfair and misguided, in my opinion), this had a very successful run at Edinburgh. As well as the successful run, it’s a triumph for the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s drive to support local writing, with Scarborough-based Christopher York’s script combined with Paul Robinson’s directing to give an energetic performance. But it would be unthinkable for the SJT to run at Edinburgh without a chance to see it back home, so it is running  now at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 8th September. London readers: there is a Pleasance London run on the 18th-23rd September. I’m told the Scarborough version, and presumbly the London version too, has an extra 15 minutes of material. Continue reading

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Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh

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

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

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

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

Edinburgh Fringe Festival Program Launch

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

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

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

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

Safe choice:

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

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show

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

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

Edinburgh Fringe 2018 – as it happens

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

REVIEWS: Skip to: Kin, Year Without Summer, Build a Rocket, Notflix, Match, The Fetch Wilson, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, This Is Just Who I Am, Proxy, Neverwant, Vivian’s Music, 1969

Screenshot_2018-09-02 FIN GIF - Fin - Discover Share GIFsSunday 2nd September: And that bring us to the end of the Edinburgh Fringe live coverage. It’s not quite the end of all things Edinburgh, because there’s still the fallout of a few events at the end of the fringe to be reckoned with, such as the allegations over behaviour of venues and the stats for growth, but this will rumble on way beyond August.

Thank you to everyone who stuck with this through the month. In the end all the reviews will go into a roundup, but before then I have a backlog to clear going back to July. Thanks to everyone who invited me to review their shows, and to everyone who made the effort to make this fringe what it is. If I couldn’t see you, my apologies, there’s only a limit to what I can see. If you’re determined to see me, ask again, because I value polite persistence.

I will now join you in a month-long hibernation. Thank you and goodnight.

Saturday 1st September: And this is it. I have made my decision on what to put in Pick of the Fringe. For those of you who have been following this regularly, a reminder that I am a lot more choosy at Edinburgh than I am at Brighton or Buxton. Previously, shows that made it to pick of the fringe at one of these festivals have only made it to honourable mention. If you are not on the list, that does not mean I hated your show – merely that it’s a fiercely contested list and not everyone can be a winner.

As before, shows marked in (brackets) are shows I saw in the past year prior to Edinburgh. In general, I don’t have time to see plays I’ve seen earlier in the year, but in order to give them a fair chance they are eligible to be in the list if they performed at Edinburgh. Only shows I particularly liked get this treatment – if I was less enthusiastic, it’s only fair to wipe the slate clean, and start again.

So, here we go …

Pick of the Fringe:

Vivian’s Music, 1969
The Fetch Wilson
Proxy
Build a Rocket
Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Maz and Bricks
House of Edgar
Eight
(Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho)

Honourable mention:

Hunch
Neverwant
Por Favor
My Brother’s Drug
(Antigone na h’Eireann)
(One-Woman Alien)
(Elsa)
(Doktor James’s Bad Skemes)

Full details will come in the roundup (whenever I get round to it). You can stop the drum roll now. Continue reading

Frankie and Fleabag

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

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

Fleabag

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

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

Odds and sods: June 2018

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

Stuff that happened in June

The rise of Greater Manchester Fringe

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

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

What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2018

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

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

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