Brighton Fringe 2020 – at it happens

Wednesday 21st October: Some more breaking news from Brighton Fringe now, and this time it’s not good. I’d suspected this might have happened but I refrained from speculating – unfortunately, the thing I was worried about is happening.

You may have noticed that one notable absentee from Brighton – both the official fringe and unofficial offshoots – is the Rialto Theatre. I’ve not heard a peep from the Rialto Theatre since July; however, I did hear directly they weren’t going ahead because social distancing would have made it unviable for both the venue and performers. I must say I do feel that in general there’s been too much haste to declare productions unviable. If by “viable” you mean turn a profit, almost all fringe productions are unviable; money is rarely the purpose of the performance. Not sure about viability of the venues themselves, but you need to compare the (probably negative) cash flow of keeping the door closed versus the (probably negative but not necessarily so much) cash flow of opening and doing what you can. That said, my feeling is that the real deal-breaker here wasn’t so much money but practicalities. With the theatre being at the top of a narrow staircase and a busy road outside the front, managing social distancing is probably somewhere between nightmare and impossible.

However, it now turns out that’s the least of the problems. I was beginning to wonder when the list Brighton venues happily acknowledging receipt of Coronavirus Recovery Funds excluded the Rialto. I was hoping it was because they didn’t apply because they didn’t need the money, but I’m now hearing that’s wrong on both counts. We now have to start thinking about the worst-case scenario. I hardly need say that losing the Rialto would be a great loss to the Brighton Fringe, and from that a loss to theatre in general. Brighton Fringe is an important cultural feeder and the variety offered by three significant theatre-programming venues makes a big difference. I really hope Brighton pulls out its finger to keep the Rilato going.

The good news is that the Rialto has a much better chance of getting through this if it’s the only venue in this position. As I previously said, people can be very generous with crowdfunders if the venue has earned a lot of respect, but there is only a finite amount of generosity to go round. A single venue seeking rescue from closure has a good chance – several venues seeking rescue from closure at the same time: much less chance. A lot now rests on the Rialto’s next move. There’s still everything to pay for, but no room for complacency.

Monday 19th October: As we move into the home stretch of a postponed Brighton Fringe we hit another one-off: Brighton Fringe co-inciding with Brighton Horrorfest. Halloween insists it is going ahead on October 31st as planned, and Horrorfest – normally a Sweet Venues Brighton venture taking place far out of fringe season – is temporarily part of the festival fringe diary.

Most of Horrorfest won’t be found in the fringe programme, but you can see what’s on here. I have to say, I do think Brighton Fringe has missed a trick here, with high registration fees putting off many would-be registrants from bumping up the fringe’s numbers. Ignoring that, Jekyll and Hyde and Unquiet Slumbers are the most obvious two, but Fright Wig is also worth a punt. I saw this last year and their twisted monologues should suit Halloween very well. I will give reminders for all of these as we approach the day.

The good news is that any performers who are rusty from an enforced six-month break doesn’t need to worry if they can’t remember the lines. Just go on stage, say you’re an anti-masker, and cough continuously. They’ll be shitting themselves.

Friday 16th October: We have some news back from Brighton. Electric Arcade have announced their first live event. On its own, it’s not that big a deal (it’s a continuation of The Late Show that ran at The Warren Outdoors over the last two months), but is the first test of a place we could be hearing a lot more of next year.

IMG_50872020 was supposed to be the big year for Electric Arcade. Intended as The Warren’s year-round venue, it was going to be part of their Brighton Fringe programme in May before everything got put on hold, only to suddenly become an indispensable part of The Warren Outdoors in August and September. The Electric Arcade bar became the Warren Outdoors bar, whilst the rooms that would normally be the two spaces took on a temporary use as dressing rooms. But this meant that the venue itself was only a footnote in the proceedings of an extraordinary summer.

However, now that the Warren has been packed up for the year, Electric Arcade stays as a stand-alone venue. I was wondering if Electric Arcade might announce a Brighton Fringe line-up at the last moment, maybe on a similar scale to Sweet Werks, but I guess the folks at The Warren were too busy running a big outdoor venue to get another venues running straight after. Instead they’ve been doing a low-key screening of LGBT films in one of their spaces.

Tomorrow, however, they throw their hat into the year-round fringe theatre ring. My guess is that this is primarily a pilot performance to see how social distancing is going to work there, but assuming all goes well, we can expect more regular performances over the next few months. And when normal Brighton Fringe comes round next May, this will be an interesting addition to their big pop-up venue. It may even be a good home for plays that previously weren’t workable within Warren spaces because of noise bleed.

I’ve gone home so I can’t check it out, but feel free to check this out for me and report back. Failing that, feel free to pop in there for a drink (if the zombie apocalypse hasn’t already started where you are). I think it’s a pretty cool place, and it could be a big hang-out next May.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2020

Skip to: The Spirit of Woodstock, Geoffrey Mead’s Tours, Savage Beauty, Anytime the Wind Can Change, Make-Up, Jekyll & Hyde, Unquiet Slumbers, (The Trial of Harvey Matusow)

Normally, the problem with these Fringe preview articles in wondering how to open them without it sounding the same as all the ones from previous years. Not this time. Brighton Fringe has taken a major hit with Coronavirus, postponed five months and only a fraction of its normal size. But with Edinburgh Fringe cancelled outright and Buxton mostly taking place online, the fact that a physical Brighton Fringe has managed to go ahead in any form is a big achievement.

It’s fair to say that, this year, Brighton Fringe is playing for pride. Had Coronavirus come under control a month or two sooner and stayed under control, you might have had a huge autumn fringe absorbing many of the would-be Edinburgh acts. But instead, social distancing is still is place and nerves over the lurgi are still fraught, so it’s a much diminished programme with only the most determined and most bloody-minded pressing ahead. But we we at chrisontheatre HQ admire determination and bloody-mindedness, and anyone who is in the programme, no matter how financially reckless that may be, has our respect.

To complicate matters further, it’s this time round it’s open to debate what should and shouldn’t count as part of Brighton Fringe. For a start, although the Fringe officially runs on the 1st-31st October, you are allowed to register shows running in one month either side, and some September-bound shows have indeed taken this up, meaning the Fringe has sort-of started already. The other complication is that Brighton Fringe’s most prominent venue, The Warren, has already gone ahead with an outdoor season. That almost certainly could not have waited until the official fringe; apart from the obvious disadvantage of mixing large venues open to the elements with October, The Warren Outdoors was also heavily dependent on giving Edinburgh-bound acts an alternative for August. They had to strike while the iron was hot. But even if that was officially separate from the Fringe, with such a strong associate you can consider it the fringe coming early (or late) in everything but name.

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The Prince and the Pauper: all hail Mary!

Gareth Cassidy as Princess Mary

Already a surefire hit for a New Vic Christmas production, the re-instatement of one historical character is a show-stealer.

Before everything got interrupted by the event, I had a a backlog of reviews, which I decided to clear as and when the respective theatres starting moving back to life. First off the mark is the New Vic, so let’s catch up on their Christmas production back in January. Before The Event. (Remember, don’t think about The Event.)

This is common knowledge to the New Vic regulars, but for the rest of my followers, the New Vic has one of the most lucrative Christmas seasons around. Whilst most pantos will settle for a run of six weeks or so, the New Vic runs for almost three months, due in a large part to attracting every school in Staffordshire (more or less). And with good reason too: artistic director Theresa Heskins has made this one of her top specialities. Last year’s Wind in the Willows showed what she is capable of producing (made even more impressive by a minor ensemble actor standing in for Mr. Toad at the last moment and making it look like the part had been written for him all along), and this year it’s the turn of the classic tale The Prince and the Pauper.

Mark Twain, best known for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, wrote this tale as a foray into “historical fiction” with his fictionalised story of boy king Edward VI and a street child he trades places with. However, being American, Mr Twain wasn’t that clued up on British Tudor history, whilst on this side of the pond every child has Divorced Behead Died etc. drilled in history lessons. As a result, some of the historical characters are people who we Brits neither recognise nor care about, whilst some better-known figures don’t really feature – and this is where Theresa Heskins takes the opportunity to make her mark. Out go a few stuffy Palace officials, and in come Princesses Mary and Elizabeth – and it’s future Mary who steals the show.

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Interview with Nicky Haydn on The Warren Outdoors

Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

Skip to review of West End On Sea.

Last month, I was invited to the launch of what is possibly the most ambitious venture in live performance since lockdown. The Warren, normally Brighton Fringe’s biggest venue, went ahead and created its own outdoor pop-up venue with socially distanced seating. I was impressed by what I saw, and, more importantly, it’s been getting the audiences it needed – something that was far from certain at launch.

But there was something that puzzled me – how was it possible to put together something of this complexity with less than a month’s notice that outdoor theatre performances were permitted? To answer this, and other questions on The Warren in general, I took advantage of a train/cycle holiday along the south coast to catch up with Nicky Haydn, artistic director of Otherplace, to hear more about this extraordinary story.

I literally don’t know when we decided to do this … It all began with a “what if?” What if we were able to create something outdoors? We had no idea if it could become a reality.

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The Wind in the Willows: The Panto!

It’s another one! An actual review of an actual live performance, and this time I don’t have to travel to Brighton for it! Theatre is, as you have probably gathered by now, thin on the ground. Although performances are now permitted, most theatres show little enthusiasm for either outdoor performances or indoor socially distanced performance, preferring instead to do online work. However, Middlesbrough Council has opted to buck the trend, with a few performances scheduled in outdoor venues they own. Unlike The Warren Outdoors diving straight into two months of back-to-back performances, Middlesbrough Council is being cautious; it only scheduled three performances, but judging how well tickets sold and how well-received the performances have been so far, it looks like they could have been a lot bolder. Indeed, The Wind in the Willows was supposed to be a single performance, but thanks to popular demand a second one was quickly added.

And so, I find myself giving the verdict for Immersion Theatre’s adaptation. The last adaptation I saw was the New Vic’s, which I liked for its drift between summer whimsy and a properly scary version of the Wild Woods. This version, I quickly discovered, goes for panto mode from start to finish. Now, I have previously been sniffy about “panto-quality humour”, but only because this style can be used as cover for formulaic writing and predictable jokes. Panto humour can work, but the number one rule is that you must be clear this is what your going for.

Writer/director James Tobias doesn’t muck about here. After the opening musical number of Mole and Ratty, scene two gives us the first appearance of wicked Weasel, hammed up as the pantomime villain. Booing is encouraged, and just in case anyone is still in doubt as to the genre, “Oh no I didn’t / Oh yes you did” comes into scene three to settle the argument. Toad’s song of “Who’s the Toad? You’re the toad!” draws in the audience further; meanwhile the humour is mostly groaners, with Weasel’s song about living of “Weaselly Street” being the sort of thing to expect. But rather than indulging in the usual mistake of building up one gag at a time such that the audience sees it a mile off, it’s one groaner after another faster than you can see them coming. As it should be.

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On Tyneside Cinema (part 1)

This article is one I hoped I would never have to write. It was almost three years ago that the scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein broke, but that event – and even subsequent news in closer places such as the Old Vic – felt like something happening far away. Now we face the real possibility of an abuse scandal on our doorstep. The north-east arts community is up in arms about this, and things could get uglier still. As a result, it was very tempting for me to steer clear of this subject. But I have often enough criticised arts media doing too much cheerleading for major cultural venues and not enough asking on questions, so I cannot in all conscience stay silent now. The reason this has taken so long to write is because I have had to keep fact-checking a constantly-updating story and run this past people whose advice I trust – not to mention the knowledge of how sensitive this subject is – but I am now ready to speak.

If you are based in the north-east and involved in the arts, you should know what’s happened by now. For everyone else: this all began in late June when an allegation was posted on Twitter from a woman who said she’d been raped by a member of staff at the venue – and this has escalated swiftly. Now large numbers of Tyneside Cinema staff and staff have come forward with other complaints, and it is this, combined with an arguably poor response from the management, that has prompted the BFI to take action. I am reserving final judgement on the Tyneside Cinema until I see what comes out of the various investigations, but as it stands, it doesn’t look good.

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Roundup: The Warren Outdoors

The top of The Warren against a sunset

Reviews: Skip to: Unmythable, Privates, Shit-Faced Shakespeare

It now looks like we’re in for a slow return for conventional indoor theatre. It’s not clear what’s pushing this more: a government dragging its feet over matters as trivial as actors projecting their voices, or theatres themselves deciding it’s not worthwhile for the foreseeable future. But bucking the trend are the outdoor theatres. Even though their go-ahead wasn’t that much ahead of their indoor counterparts, there are some venues determined to go ahead with whatever they can. And the one of greatest interest ot the fringe circuit is The Warren. Normally a pop-up venue that forms the centrepiece of Brighton Fringe, this has hastily reinvented itself as an outdoor venue on the beach. I was invited to the media launch day, as as a weekend visit to Brighton is probably the closest I’m going to get to a summer holiday this year, I decided to take it up.

I’ve already written the basics in my preview for both this festival and a similar outdoor festival in London, but to reiterate the main point, there are two approaches that outdoor events are using. Some are sticking to the traditional method of one ticket per person and making sure the audience are spread out. The Warren, however, has gone down the route of group ticketing. Their auditorium consists of fifty picnic tables, and one ticket equals one table seating up to six people. If you can manage six people from no more than two households, it works out considerably cheaper than six tickets at a normal fringe performance. The obvious drawback? It works out rather expensive if you’re not in a large group. To mitigate this, The Warren have now introduced “standby” tickets for up to two people that can be bought up to one hour before a performance if available (and it’s a safe bet they will be) – this keeps the price sane if there’s two of you, but I wish they’d do something similar for solo punters.

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Introducing the outdoor festivals

You may have noticed I’ve not been giving you a blow-by-blow account of how Coronavirus is affecting theatre. I made the decision some time ago to catch up on things when they were getting back to normal – there’s only so many stories of closures and redundancies you can carry before it gets depressing.

But … things are starting to move again. Outdoor theatre got the go-ahead on the 11th July, and all being well, indoor theatre gets the go-ahead on the 1st August. In practice, most indoor theatre is likely to resume much later, with ongoing social distancing remaining a barrier to viability. However, it looks like outdoor theatre is pushing ahead. Some of the permanent outdoor venues were very fast of the mark, with the Minack Theatre famously restarting its live storytelling on day one. However, the more interesting development is a speedy reinvention of indoor events as outdoor events.

Not everything has worked out – an intended tour of Six as an outdoor drive-in show was abandoned over uncertainty of possible future local lock-downs. But this hasn’t deterred everyone, and here’s a couple of notable festivals coming up.

The Warren Outdoor Season

It’s not clear exactly what’s going on with Brighton Fringe at the moment. As is stands it’s still postponed to autumn; I’m getting contradictory signals as to what this actually entails. However, one venue has chosen not to wait and is instead reinventing itself for the current climes. The Warren – in normal years Brighton fringe’s most prominent venue by a long way – has reinvented itself as an outdoor socially distanced venue for two months.

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Interview with Stephen Walker: Buxton Fringe, now and beyond

It’s time for another interview. This was something I’d been planning to do for months: ask the new chair of Buxton Fringe about his plans for the future. But in those said months, more event happened than anyone could have thought possible. But that’s okay, because this made an interview all the more interesting.

It’s a much longer interview than usual, but we did have a lot to get through. I bring you an inside account of the most extraordinary year from the festival fringes.


I have with me Stephen Walker, the chair of Buxton Fringe. This is an interview in his capacity as chair, although we will be digressing into his past role as a reviewer.

Good to see you Chris.

If we can cast our minds back to a period in the dim and distant past called November 2019, when Buxton Fringe helds its AGM. What were your original plans back then?

When I took over as chair, I didn’t feel the need for massive changes. I’ve never been a fan of the management style that says “I’m new, I need to change everything” just for the sake of it. The fringe work pretty well, I felt it was more just getting my feet under the table.

We’ve a few new people on the committee, so I thought we’d have a steady year – we’ve had our 40th anniversary, so it would be really nice to make sure everything works and that I know what I’m doing. It’s keeping the show on the road, more like being a custodian of the Fringe. The fringe runs itself to a large extent; because we don’t select or censor, the fringe will be whatever it’s going to be.

The last couple of weeks in June there were just so many entries coming in … and other people were putting stuff together specifically for us, which was fantastic.

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What’s worth viewing: Buxton Fringe 2020

Skip to: Nathan Cassidy, Crossing the Line, The Grandmothers Grimm, The Gambit, Debbie Cannon, Three’s Company Adventure Department, Flowerpot Trail

So, this is one of the strangest fringe previews I will be writing. For the benefit of anyone who’s time-travelled from 2019, we’re having a bit of a lurgi at the moment and all the theatres are closed. The most notable casualty is Edinburgh Fringe, which has been outright cancelled (although there is speculation that some of the venues may opt to put on a reduced festival in August anyway if they can). Brighton Fringe is more fortunate – without the need to recruit masses of temporary staff and hire out every space in a university during vacations, they are planning to postpone, and on my grapevines the mood is getting increasingly optimistic. (Buxton Fringe’s neighbour, Greater Manchester, has also opted for an autumn fringe, although with Manchester having a year-round fringe scene, they could easily form a programme of shows that would be on anyway.)

Buxton’s response, however, was a bit of a surprise. I was expecting them to also postpone, possibly making use of the vacant August slot in the fringe calendar. However, Buxton Fringe chose to dig their heels in and press on with July no matter what, even if it meant doing the whole lot outdoors and online. And with the latest news being that theatres can open but not do theatre in them, and outdoor and online festival is what we have. It’s mostly online, but there are a few physical events, mostly in the visual arts section.

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