REVIEWS: Skip to: Made in Cumbria, The Steampunk Tempest, ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, Sacre Blue, The Trunk, Cosmic Fear, Le Bossu, The Jungle Book, Swansong, Waves, Stack, Bite-Size Lunch Hour
Wednesday 24th August: Wow, that time already. Almost time for me to come back for my second visit. It’s going to be a jam-packed 72 hours, because the remaining shows and a late flurry of review requests means I’ve got a lot to squeeze in between tomorrow evening and Sunday. Everyone who’s contacted me about individual shows to review – you should have heard back from me by now. Promoters and venue managers offering comps to multiple shows – I will look at your invitations tomorrow.
Until tomorrow, one bit of news is that the awards are starting to come out, and one of those is the Brighton Fringe Award for Excellent, where the winner gets a heavily subsidised run at next year’s Brighton Fringe (last year’s winner being Police Cops). The shortlist came out today, and one play I recognise from the list is Skin of the Teeth, which I saw at Buxton Fringe. Fat content will be happy with that, as will the Buxton Fringe itself. Will they win? That will be known in a few days.
Incidentally, this year’s winner won’t be going to Sweet Venues Brighton – next year the host will be Komedia. Interesting that a venue so strongly associated with comedy is hosting the winner of a theatre-dominated competition. The winner of this award I expect will be a success regardless of the venue – but will it be a success for Komedia too? Are they trying to diversify into serious theatre? Can they do it? That could be interesting?
Right, not sure what time I’ll be in Edinburgh tomorrow. For reasons too complicated to explain, I’m on a flexible ticket. Hopefully there should be a seat available for me, but I think instead I’ll sit on the floor next to the toilets and make a video about how terrible conditions are on the trains. I’ve heard you get massive credibility if you do that.
Tuesday 23rd August: Now for a new comment piece something I’ve been meaning to write for some time: How to cope with being offended – a handy guide. This not to be taken too seriously, but it’s an ever-so gentle suggestion that a lot of the time the best response to being offended is to get on with your life. Especially if you’re only offended because someone else told you to be offended.
There is a serious point to this. This is an extended version of a brilliant flowchart produced by John Robertson of The Dark Room fame. This is the second time I’ve seen his show, and it was just as funny as I remembered it from the first time round. I don’t have time to explain this 1980s text adventure-themed show yet again, so feel free to read the review in last year’s roundup. What I will add this time round is that it’s surprising that, in spite of the oodles of different choices open to players, so many people went for exactly the same options as last time, including the obscure “Click heels for Stalin”. How people keep finding this option and choosing it I’m not sure, but it’s a popular one.
But I digress. There’s one other thing that seems to keep happening in The Dark Room, and that is people walking out of the show having seemingly taken offence to something. Now, some edgier comedians are inevitably going to cause offence, and everyone’s entitled to their opinion on whether or not that material is justified or necessary, but this isn’t the case here. The stuff that appears to be provoking walk-outs barely registers on the scale. At the very worst, it was a very subtle piss-take of some of the sillier claims made by a minority of hardcore feminists. It probably went over the heads of most of the audience. And yet it still seems to be enough to outrage some people.
I am duty bound to say that on the particular incident I witnessed this time, the guy in question returned to his seat later – we think he may actually have just gone to the loo and the timing was a coincidence. But on other occasions, I gather, it’s not unusual for people to walk out in protest over the most trivial of matters. Which, I can only assume, was the sort of thing which let to that flowchart being made in the first place.
The Edinburgh Fringe is the last place I would expect the professionally offended to make a fuss, but I’m beginning to wonder. Don’t get me wrong, if you wish to use the artistic freedom of the Edinburgh Fringe to be a Jim Davidson-wannabe, you can do so at your own risk. But could we be headed for a situation where mainstream comedians shy away from including mildly topical jokes in their sets just in case someone whips up moral outrage? I’d still say that’s highly unlikely. But it’s possible. And at the Edinburgh Fringe, where freedom as paramount, that’s a threat we can do without.
Monday 22nd August: It’s a new week, which means there’s new shows coming to Edinburgh. Out of the shows on my recommended list, two of them starting in this final week.
Firstly, the People’s Theatre comes with Five Kinds of Silence, by Shelagh Stephenson, best known for The Memory of Water. One thing I must warn you about this plays is that it is far more depressing that her most famous play. That one had ups and downs – this one, however, is depressing throughout, concerning a mother and two daughters driver to murder their father because of the years of- … yes, you’ve probably guessed it already. But I saw The People’s Theatre do this last year and they did a good job of the production. If you want something heavy, this might be the one for you – just don’t pop along if you’re after a bit of comic relief.
The other one is more of a wildcard. Sheepish Productions are taking two plays to the Edinburgh Fringe, but the one that grabs my interest is The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon, about a con-man and faith healer (i.e. con-man who claims to do faith healing) and gun loony who ends up on the run from the law. I saw this at Buxton last year – this didn’t quite work out, due in part to trying to literally set the play in The Old Clubhouse next to Buxton’s Pavillion Gardens. Now, I’m told, it’s been transplanted to a better location of his home the good ol’ US of A. Will the play work better now? I should know in a few days.
Sunday 21st August: Whilst there’s a lull for me, now’s a good time to see how shows I’ve seen or recommended are faring with the proper reviews. A reminder of the rules for this. I try to avoid looking at reviews for shows I have yet to see, because I do not want it to prejudice my own verdict. Secondly, I generally don’t take much notice of established successful shows, because it doesn’t really mean anything. Once you’ve established a loyal following who come back year after year, you don’t need review any more. (One other caveat: I have not done full search for reviews yet – it is possible that a show may have reviews that rate it higher or lower than what I’ve seen.)
So, amongst the shows I’ve seen, no major surprises. Most of the shows I’ve seen and liked are getting a mixture of 3* and 4* reviews. The two that are performing the best, however, are also the two I liked the best: The Jungle Book an Le Bossu both of whom has managed to hit five stars. The Bookbinder is also performing very strongly with two 5* reviews under its belt. Dugout Theatre can also be pretty pleased with Swansong, which hasn’t quite managed to get 5* yet, but they’ve got lots and lots of 4* reviews to take home.
Nothing as interesting as last year, where some shows were runaway successes and other shows had an unprecedented split of critics. Still, there’s always my second visit. Will I stumble across a blockbuster when I return on Thursday?
Saturday 20th August: Now, whilst I’ve been clearing the backlog of reviews, one bit of news has broken with Network of Independent Critics ought to be pleased with. One of their number, Fergus Morgan, has only gone and won The Stage Critic Search 2016. Before we get too excited, I have some doubts about the reliability of this process, in particular relying on a single 250-word review as the basis for picking a shortlist of 12 in the country. If I had my way, it would be based on a track record of reviews, although I realise that may not be practical for an open call. However, the fact remains it’s a very prestigious thing to win, so well done.
Apart from the psychological boost for NIC, there are two ways this might be good news for them. Firstly, the fact that one of their number won potentially enables them to be taken a lot more seriously – this may well count in their favour if they look towards sponsorship for future fringes. Secondly, they now potentially have a highly-regarded critic fighting their corner for them, assuming relations stayed all well and good. None of this is guaranteed, it could be months before we know if this has a positive impact, and I can’t imagine NIC are going to make plans for next year’s fringe until this year’s is out the way (plus however long they need for the inevitable post-fringe hibernation). But this is certainly an unexpected bonus for this.
Friday 19th August, 10.30 p.m.: And the last thing on my backlog to review is Made in Cumbria. I’m a theatre blogger rather than a comedy blogger so I tend to only cover comedy when there’s a theatrical element to it, but this one fits the bill. Jane Postlethwaite’s show is a character comedy where she plays five women in her home county of Cumbria. The running joke, as you may have guessed, is that everyone takes life gently in Cumbria, whether you’re doing away with fiancés in order to claim on the wedding insurance or selling crystal meth disguised as Kendal Mint Cake. Even when a rogue spaceship crashed into Sellafield, the radio gently advises residents to pack up some warm blankets and a nice cup of tea and head for the safety or Scotland, Lanashire, Northumbria or Durham. But not Yorkshire. One thing I learnt is apparently Cumbria shares Lanashire’s views on Yorkshire.
If I could pick out one shortcoming, Made in Cumbria isn’t the most original humour. Sleepy country life juxtaposed with friendly walking guides who murder people has been done many times before. But it’s a very funny set, she engages with the audience through the whole hour, and pretty much all of the characters deliver a beautiful passive-aggressive stance if you say the wrong thing – especially if you let it slip you’re from Yorkshire. Very much a fun show rather that anything edgy or ground-breaking, but certainly worth a visit.
Thursday 18th August, 10.30 p.m.: I’m taking the next two review together as they are both performances of classic texts. This isn’t my main area of interest so these reviews will be brief, as I can’t say that much about it. On how well the performers act out the lines in Old English, I’ll have to leave it to other to comment, but I have some thoughts on how this was produced.
First up is The Steampunk Tempest. Which is an adaptation of The Tempest. With Steampunks. I liked the concept of this – the world of The Tempest is already a semi-fantsy setting, so it was quite fitting to apply this Jules Vernesque setting the the story, starting with a spaceship crashing and the occupants emerging on to the island. The costumes of Prospero and co are full steampunk regalia, whilst the vistors to the island are more conventional Victorians. All good so far. The other touch I liked was the book being used as the background for the scenes – an when you’re in a free fringe venue and you have to get in a set quickly, this is a good way of fitting the bill.
However, I do feel they missed a trick here, with a hand-painted background of just an ordinary island – surely this was a perfect opportunity to create a world more fitting to an H. G. Wells story? Also missed a few tricks to deploy some steampunk devices in leiu of magic – waving a penny whistle around sold the idea short. One small but annoying fault was that they didn’t take into account the seating going off to a side alcove in the venue, where the blocking went to pot. This, I accept, was an oversight, but this emphasises the importance of planning your show around the space you’ve got – most frustratingly, this could have been solved very easily by putting the stool at the front left instead of front right. But it’s a good idea, this play does the job, and if you’re a fan of both Shakepsepare and steampunks you won’t be disappointed.
And the other play was Wanton Theatre’s Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s classic tale of incest, mutilation, fratricide, gore, and the good old recurring theme of Catholic hypocrisy. Unlike the Steampunk Tempest, this production doesn’t go for any fresh takes and instead goes for a very faithful setting. It also relies very heavily on complex sets that need changing every few minutes, but this company ran a slick operation quickly turning this round when scene changes might otherwise have dragged. One thing to be aware of: even with this tight production, it’s quite long for a fringe play: 80 minutes, with a finish even later due to a late start on the night I saw it. Don’t expect to be out before 12.45 a.m.
The production itself seems to be well-acted, although I’ll have to leave that to other people more familiar with production of classic plays to give a more authoritative verdict. For my part, I think I followed what was going on reasonably well, which is always a good sign as plays in Old English can very easily end up incomprehensible to a modern audience. The only limitation I saw with this production was an all-young cast in a play whose characters have such a wide range of ages. When you have to concentrate hard to work out what’s happening, it doesn’t help if the father looks younger that his two incestuous children – and whilst I’ve seem some young casts find clever ways to make young actors look older, that didn’t happen here. Apart from that, this looks like a decent production, and if you’re a purist for the classic plays, this one should do you fine.
One play to go. Anyone fancy guessing what it is? (And it’s a pretty difficult one to guess. You really need insider knowledge to get this right.)
Thursday 18th August, 1.45 p.m.: Before doing the next reviews, a reminder that papercut- is showing at the Edinburgh Fringe this week only. This is from Thrust Theatre, who impressed me two years ago with the an intimate but disturbing performance of Request Programme. They’re back this year with a two-hander, and it’s one of their own pieces. Beyond that, I know little about this, but you can expect a sting in the tale if it’s anything like last year.
You have until this Sunday (21st) to see it, at Theatre Arts Exchange at 7.00 p.m. (except Saturday 20th when it’s at 3.) I can’t, and I’m gutted. Let me know how it went.
On a completely different note, I am getting a fair number of review requests after my first visit. The good news is that I’ve managed to knock off my list most of the plays I wanted to see, so I should be in a good position to accommodate these requests. I will take stock of what I’ve been invited to and what I still need to see in the next few days, and I’ll take it from there. Feel free to send in more requests, but I’m roughly working on a first come first served basis now.
Wednesday 17th August, 9.45 p.m.: And following on immediately from The Trunk was Sacre Blue, one of the plays that came under the Northern Stage banner. This grabbed my interest from performer Zoe Murtagh’s preview of another work I saw at Durham’s Gala Theatre, The Lamppost Petition, and she is worth seeing because she has a way of owning the stage in a distinctive style that few solo performers do. However, this is going to be a frustrating one to review because, great though her style is, I really wish she would be more disciplined.
Zoe Murtagh’s performance is about anxiety, based on her own experiences and – I suspect – a lot of other fringe performers who don’t realise (or won’t admit) they’ve got it. One of the earliest points she makes was a very good one: telling a person with anxiety to just clam down is like telling a diabetic to just produce more insulin. Beyond that, I have trouble picking out any memorable moments because there was such a mish-mash of scenes they all merged into one. Part of the problem, I feel, was the use of a “set list” (which was taped to the front of the stage but I could read upside down). It was a list of twenty or so different ways of looking at anxiety – sometimes her experiences, sometimes other people’s – but there didn’t seem to be any logical order to it, and it also seems that you could arbitrarily leave any bits out or add extra bits in without having any bearing on the other bits. In a play, all of these scenelets should make sense together and add up into something greater than the sum of its parts – this, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to amount to more than a collection of scenes on a common theme.
As it stands, Sacre Blue is probably of interest to people who are familiar with the subject of anxiety one way or the other; I’m confident they will relate to these scenes more strongly than I did. But this play can achieve more than that. So I’m going to give the same tip here as I did for Cosmic Fear: decide what it is you really want to say, and concentrate on that. Expand the scenes that get this point across, drop the scenes that don’t. It’s not an easy thing to do, axing scenes you’ve put so much work in to, but this really is a time when I feel less is more. Having the discipline to realise that a scene that looks so good in isolation doesn’t necessarily contribute to a play is a tough thing to learn, but it’s worth it in the end.
UPDATE: Zoe Murtagh replied on Twitter. It’s in interesting read. Unfortunately, due to the way Twitter displays multi-tweet messages, there’s no easy way to read them in order. Easiest way is to go to her timeline with replies, scrolling down to 6.48 a.m., 18th August, then read upward. Anyway, the key point she makes is that she considers her work to be of a collage nature. She says that there have been similar criticisms about structure before, but she also seems quite keen on the format as it as. Anyway, food for thought for another day. Right now, I have three outstanding reviews to do.
Wednesday 17th August 4.30 p.m.: Apologies for not delivering the review promised yesterday – took in as much of Bournemouth as possible yesterday, and I was supposed to write this up one I got back to the hotel, but I passed out instead. Anyway, I’m now on a ferry with nothing to do for the next few hours, so there’s really no excuse. Better get a move on. So, next up is The Trunk, a rather nice play from Max Dickins. It’s the only play so far I’ve seen which I’d heard absolutely nothing about in advance, and was picked purely as a gap-filler, and I’m glad I did.
This is the story of a young ma’s time working in a coroner’s office. Now, recent TV programmes have let us to believe it’s all about foiling dastardly murderers making the death seem like an accident – but you’d be wrong. This case was a far less glamorous mystery of an old woman who died alone, with a strange letter left apparently for a “William”, a son she never knew. Officially, it’s a mandate to identify a next of kin if possible, or arrange a pauper’s funeral if not. Unofficially, it’s become a quest for him to grant her last request and find this mystery son.
I liked the way that pieces were slowly put together to reveal the life of a woman apparently forgotten by everyone, and it did ask a lot of questions about how society modern society still gives the forgotten the indignity of an unmarked grave. But I did feel this was somewhat lost by the matter-of-fact way the story was told. Max Dickens’s character is supposed to be someone who finds himself getting personally invovled in the life of a woman he never knew, whilst in the meantime witnessing first-hand the decline of his own grandfather’s mental health, but way the story was told buried any kind of emotional involvement he had; it was a shame to lose that.
But it’s still worth seeing this for an interesting insight into the underworld of the forgotten elderly and the unglorious end faced by many. You can find this in Underbelly George Square (that’s the studio space next to the giant inflatable upside down cow).
Tuesday 16th August, 3.45 p.m.: Bournemouth for me today. Tomorrow it’s off to the Channel Islands for
tax evasion a holiday. Will aim to write my next review this evening.
One thing I missed – and I wish I’d seen this now, was an event at Summerhall to discuss critics. There was a high-profile panel discussing this, and this has been talked about a lot. I’ve been looking at the multitude of tweets, and it seems a lot was discussed, but it looks too complicated to reconstruct it just from that. I think Network of Independent Critics was allowed to film this, and when I have a chance I will look at this properly. In the meantime, I did notice that for an event whose fringe picture was the phrase “everyone’s a critic”, it included only one blogger. I wonder if they’re really an inclusive as they think they are – but, as I said, I’ll reserve judgement until I see what they actually said.
In the meantime, one subject that came up again was the issue of critics being paid for the service they provide, so I should probably give my thoughts on this. At the Edinburgh Fringe, the vast majority of critics are unpaid, and this includes most of the major review publications. Generally, the only reviewers who do get paid are those from the traditional paper press, but they only cover a tiny fraction of the fringe. If unpaid reviewing from the main fringe publications stopped, the arts industry would lose the #1 way of finding out which shows are the good ones, and the artist themselves would lose their most useful way of finding out how to do better. And one well-established fact is that unpaid reviewers are limited by time, and – in the case of the Edinburgh Fringe – money for acommodation and subsistence. Lack of money does limit quality but it does limit quantity. So on those grounds, there a good argument to pay critics, both bloggers and volunteers reviewers.
Well, be careful. If we pay critics, you might not like it. There are two important questions that need answering, and neither are easy.
Firstly, who decides which critics get paid? Unless you pay everybody who’s anybody who writes a review (which is impractical), you have to someone find a way of deciding whose reviews should and shouldn’t be financially supported. Should it be on quality? Perhaps, but whose right is it to decide what a quality review is? Or perhaps you could judge it on audience reached – but could that end up favouring attention-seeking over quality. One thing that must be considered is what happens to reviewers who fail to secure an income from whatever process comes into place. Will their voices end up being marginalised against those who get paid to express theirs? If you’re not careful, this could become an issue of freedom of speech.
Secondly, who pays for this? Massive conflicts of interest at stake here. It is argued that being funded by someone with an interest is no worse than a film advertising itself in a paper that reviews films, but that’s little consolation because reviews have allegedly been fiddled this way before. Now, there are ways you could minimise conflicts of interest – perhaps all theatres could chip into a shared fund free from interference from one theatre who didn’t like a review of one of their plays, or maybe it could be taxpayer funded. But a likely but unwelcome side-effect from this is less money for creating arts. I can’t imagine artists being too happy with that.
I’m open to suggestions for how to do this. I’m sure there are good ideas out there for ways you can fund critics fairly, without compromising the voices of unpaid critics, which safeguards against corruption and does not threaten existing arts funding, but we’ll need to hear them. In the meantime, feel free to support the idea in principle – but don’t commit to the idea without reading the fine print very carefully.
Monday 15th August, 10.30 p.m.: Okay, enough distractions, let’s get back to reviews. After all, that’s what this blog is for. I’ve written about the highlights as and when they came up, now let’s mop up the rest. And I’ll go through this in the order I saw them.
So, let’s rewind back to Friday when I saw Empty Deck’s Comsic Fear, or the day Brad Pitt got paranoia. In their own words, this play is “is an absurd multimedia comedy tackling our powerlessness in the face of ever-escalating environmental disaster.” The crux of the story is that three environmentally-conscious housemates, frustrated over the imminent disaster of global warming, devise a plan where Brad Pitt makes a film to raise awareness of the problem, but Brad Pitt is so affected by this film it changes his whole life. At least, I think that’s what the story is. Truth be told, I can’t be certain. For some reason, one recurring theme I finding with plays that aim to cover worthy topics is to try to present their message in a clever way, but more often than not – and I fear this has happening here – all it does is confuse what the message is supposed to be. Now, that doesn’t always stop these plays being a box office success – you can still sell a lot of tickets from like-minded people wanting to support your cause – but when you aim is to reach out to the apathetic masses, that’s not enough.
There’s certainly a lot this play could say. The issue of celebrities taking on worthy causes is a controversial one – some say an A-lister is needed to make people sit up and take notice, but others say it’s all about boosting the aforementioned A-lister’s own profile. This is touched on in the play, but only just. There’s a lot of talk about impending global warming disasters, and I particularly liked the bit about global warming driving mass migration, with the main though of the migrants being “why should we suffer for a disaster you’ve caused?” But for every compelling point they made, there was a another one that was sensationalised or inaccurate. If you are trying to raise awareness of an issue as important as global warming, you do the cause no favours with claims such as methane from cattle destroying the ozone layer.
Plays like this often suffer because they attempt to say too much in too little time, and for this one, I’d say at a rough guess they’re trying to cover twice as much ground as you can realistically achieve in one hour. So my advice is to decide what are the most important things they want to say and focus on that. They certainly have the means to do this – the three actors were all perfectly capable, the multimedia-intensive play went without a hitch, and I’m sure they could make more of the relationship between the three flat-mates telling this story-within-a-story. To make this into a play with a clear compelling message, other messages will have to be cut, and that will not be an easy decision to make. But it’ll be worth it.
Monday 15th August, 4.45 p.m.: And that’s my first visit done. I’m on my way to the Channel Islands for my holiday, and I’ll be back on the 25th August. But don’t go away, because there’s an awful lot of reviews to catch up on.
Before then, however, I’m going to turn my attention to an oddity with Sweet Venues. This year, of course, Sweet became unique in that it’s the only Edinburgh Fringe venue to also be active at the Brighton Fringe. It’s been a highly successful first year, with Sweet instantly finding itself on level pegging with established Brighton Fringe giant Otherplace aka The Warren. Most notably, they managed to get their hands on a lot of successful high-profile shows, and it’s possible that one benefit they would be hoping for is that these acts they get in Brighton will stay with them in Edinburgh.
But strangely enough, there has been very little crossover. Most of the Sweet Venues Brighton acts who have come to Edinburgh have gone to other venues, particularly the super-venues. That’s not entirely surprising – as long as the perception remains that Pleasance, Assembly, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon are the most prestigious places to perform at the fringe, that’s inevitably going to draw some away. But stranger still, some Sweet Venues Edinburgh acts who came from Brighton opted for a different venue there. Very few acts have gone for Sweet at both fringes, and little sign so far of venue loyalty.
One thing to bear in mind is that this isn’t the only kind of venue loyalty going on. There’s also venue loyalty to venues you’ve worked with before, and most acts who do both Brighton and Edinburgh are established groups who have done one or both fringes before. If you’ve already used another venue at either Edinburgh or Brighton that you’re perfectly happy with, there’s not much incentive to switch.
This might change in future years when new acts who have never performed in Edinburgh rise through the ranks; if Sweet got them in Brighton first, that’s when they can hope to keep them in Edinburgh.
It’s no big deal if this doesn’t happen. There no reason why Sweet can’t run two completely different programmes in two fringes. But if they can hold on to good acts they picked up in Brighton, this would give them a distinct edge over other venues. However, it looks like we’ll have to wait another couple of years before we know if this happens
Reviews will resume next after my stopover in Birmingham, the only city to have been endorsed by both Osama Bin Laden and Pavarotti. Of course it’s true, take a look at this promotional video from ten years ago:
Sunday 14th August, 10.30 p.m.: And coming hot on the heels of that recommendation is another highly recommended play, Le Bossu. Unlike The JungleBook, this was on the recommended list on the strength of WithWings’ last production at Edinburgh, The Duck Pond, that transplanted Swan Lake to a fairground hook-a-duck stall. But when a production relies on such a gamble, there’s the question of whether a company can work its magic so successfully a second time. Well, they havem and they’ve done it in spades. Continue reading