Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens

Sunday 18th August, 8.30 p.m.: Before doing any more reviews, one bit of news on the side. I’ve previously said that if I don’t see 5 plays on day 2 of Edinburgh Fringe, I consider it a personal failure. I have done 6. Some people have schedules that squeeze in 8. However, author of my guest post Flavia D’Avila is currently on a challenge to see 12 in 24 hours. To see the latest on this, you can follow it on Twitter.

One other bit of news – I’m late to the party on this, because it’s been going on all fringe, and I’ve given my thoughts on this business before, but now that this has come to a head in Edinburgh I may as well repeat this. You might have noticed there are two rival Fawlty Towers-theme dining themed plays in Edinburgh this year. There’s Faulty Tower, the Dining Experience which is a “tribute show” and has been running a few years now – indeed they’ve got a good claim to have pioneered this form of entertainment. There is also Fawlty Towers Live Themed Dinner Show. This is new, and uses the original scripts. This is also officially endorsed by John Cleese, as the posters around town states, heavily insinuating the other ones are the impostors.

I must declare at this point I’m not entirely impartial here. Interactive Theatre International, who do Faulty Towers along with other shows has been one of the most generous companies giving me press tickets. Even so, I’m not entirely convinced they are entirely legally covered here. John Cleese has previously protested against the existence of this show, and had he taken Interactive Theatre International to court, I would have respected his right to do that. But the reason I’m losing patience with Fawdinex who do the “official” Fawlty Towers is that they’ve bought the right to Fawlty Towers dining and then used that to make legal threats against their rivals. They claim that they are doing it because the unauthorised show is causing John Cleese and Connie Booth a lot of distress. I’m calling bullshit on that. John Cleese is not a delicate little flower – if he really had as much of a problem as Fawdinex claims, I have no doubt whatsoever he would have taken legal action itself. It seems (well, it’s bleeding obvious) that the real motive is to get rid of the competition.

The other problem is where Fawdinex is taking their legal fight. In a straight lawsuit between them and ITI, I’d have said fair enough, may the best legal team win. Instead, they went after the venues, threatening any hotel thinking of hosting them with consequences if they didn’t cancel the booking – and naturally, some venues, not having the stomach for a legal fight, capitulated. That is a really cowardly course of action. With Edinburgh Fringe being the must lucrative place, I strongly suspect they tried to pull the stunt here – if so, I can only assume there was at least one hotel that was having none of this.

The other thing about this that rankles is the hypocrisy over ripping off ideas. Interactive Theatre International might not have created Basil, Sybil and Manuel, but they did pioneer the concept of interactive dining comedy as we know it. I do not believe for a second that this “official” Fawlty Towers interactive dining would have existed have ITI shown it was viable and shown how it was done. I won’t be moralising and tell anyone to boycott anything just yet, and if you want the classic episodes re-enacted, go ahead and see them. But the way they’ve behaved, I couldn’t bring myself to do it if it was me. You can please yourselves.

Sunday 18th August, 5.00 p.m.: I’m now taking a break from Edinburgh and you can currently find me checking out Linlithgow. This does, however, give me a chance to keep on top of the reviews before they pile up too much. My next review, however, is going to be a difficult one to write. HiveMCR have showcased what they can do in Stephen Berkoff’s East, and a fine showcase it is. Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same way about the play they’re performing.

I chose to see a performance of East because I wanted to see how the script translates to the stage. To be honest, I’ve read the script before and I didn’t get it. But there again, I didn’t get Caryl Churchill’s A Number when I read the script, and it was only when it was performed I understood how it was meant to work. I had a similar observations with Five Kinds of Silence: I’ve seen two different productions of the same play, and I discovered the second time round how much of a difference some good movement directing puts into a play for voices. You can achieve far much more than five people on stage doing monologues in turn – you can choreograph in the whole ensemble.

The same principle works here, and HiveMCR does the best possible job of this. East refers to the East End of London, and the five character are hard-as-nails cockneys: Dad, Mum, their two sons, and the woman they’re both trying to shag when they’re not busy fighting other men or shagging other women. The whole play is done in very, so it’s, if you like, Shakespeare for Cockneys. Instead of a dry set of scene changes where one actor at a time does a piece, the whole ensemble takes part all the time, whether at a tense family dinner, an all-out street brawl or all gather together to be a motorbike. All of the actors fit their characters very well – in a play like this the last thing you want is someone who’d look like he’d follow up a punch or stabbing with “Oh, I’m sorry, are you all right.” In that respect, well done for HiveMCR for giving this play the best it could be given.

But, having seen this play on action live on stage, in the full spirit of how it’s meant to be done, I’m afraid I’m not warming to it. The entire play strikes me as nothing more than a list of negative traits about the working class of East End of London in the 1960s. Les and Mike are thugs with little more in their lives than fighting and shagging. Slyv might be hard as nails but main role in the play appear to be getting shagged by everyone. Dad is a racist who idolises Oswald Moseley. Mum is a slightly more sympathetic character than the others, but her life seems little more than letting Dad and the boys do their thing, and watching daytime TV. All of this might be fine if there was some nuance to this, but it’s either non-existent of subtle to the point of undetectable, with reasons for the way they are being little more to a few nods of boredom. The closest thing I saw to any humanity was Les’s slight of a beautiful woman on the bus. This might have struck a chord if he thought about a romantic relationship people like her have with each other – but instead it’s more like a checklist of the degrading sexual acts he’d like to perform on her.

What I find most uncomfortable about this play is how something relentlessly negative about working-class London gets so much praise. I realise Stephen Berkoff came from that background so maybe that was his own memories of what things were like, but I really don’t like the swiftness of the rest of the literary world to leap on this as if the observations of one writer validates their idea of what the prole are like. I must stress for a moment that I don’t believe for a moment that is what this company thinks about the working class, and if there is any attitude problem it’s with the literary establishment as a whole, particularly those in the 1970s when this play first became all the rage. Now, I’m prepared to consider that there might be something I’ve missed. But I cannot imagine this sort of depiction being tolerated for any other disadvantaged group. And you would not get off the hook by saying you weren’t looking deeply enough.

It is a shame that such a good performance from the ensemble is mixed with very different feelings for the script. I have no doubts that they will do other performances which will cause the scripts to shine. And for the seeming majority of literary critics who see this as a work of genius, I’m sure they’ll approve of this adaptation. But for me, this was my chance to see this on stage as it’s intended to come across – and I don’t get it. Sorry.

Sunday 18th August, 9.30 a.m.: A landmark yesterday: my first full day of Edinburgh Fringe viewing done entirely on press tickets. So I’ve got some new reviews to catch up on, but I’m going to start with Princess Party because this one I think could do with some more publicity.

Princess Party is fun for everyone, but something I’d especially recommend to actors making money on the side dressing up as Disney Princesses for children’s parties. I’ve heard numerous stories of these parties, especially where the parents have way to much cash to splash. However, these anecdotes pale into insignificance compared to the stories from Beverly Hills, where there are obscenely rich people in their obscenely extravagant using their children’s parties, I suspect, to one-up their obscenely rich friends and show how much richer they are.

Open to a story of a little princess who lived in a castle where she had everything her heart desired, we are soon joined by Snow White and Alice from Alice in Wonderland. If you are pedantic enough, you will be aware that Alice isn’t a princess, but it’s her first day on the job and she left the costume until the last moment and this was the only one on reduction. Not that this matters, as they discover now that all the kids are dressed as Anna and Elsa, and they are now realise they skim-read the e-mail saying it was a Frozen-themed party. However, even this problem pales into insignificance against the more pressing issue – as Snow White digresses from the story when she says what happened after she married the prince it become clear her real marriage has just broken down, whilst Alice found come cocaine left on the back seat of her Uber and could’t bear to let it go to waste. I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story, because you can already guess.

Before we get to the inevitable ending, though, we will meet the little girls’ older sisters, then a pair of chefs, and then a pair of mothers we’ve been hearing who spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are. The drunk/coked princesses are by far the strongest characters, but it would have been difficult to keep the joke running for a whole hour to the character comedy format suits the show well. My only regret was not getting more of a story about the families. I could’t really believe that the two mothers schmoozing with a pair of prospective business partners would end up twerking in Ann Summers gear, but as this is in the comedy section so I’ll let that off. However, I did feel that after we’d heard so much about the two mothers congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are (they are almost as angry over their princesses arriving 10 minutes late as they are for the mayhem they cause later), whilst their own marriages are in various states on breakdowns and/or infidelities, there was a missed opportunity to mix the chaos with more of a backstory about how this rich family has come this unhappy state.

Oh, did I say this is a semi-improvised show? For anyone brave/foolish enough to be on the front row there’s quite a lot of roles you play, and the act works around this. I won’t give away everything, save to give a warning that this the 10.30 p.m. slot so you can expect to happen what you expect to happen in a 10.30 p.m. slot. I gather that in real life one or both of these women were moved off princesses on to evil queens because the evil queens get to be funny. So I recommend giving this one some support at Gilded Balloon Teviot. But sit on the front entirely at your own risk.

Saturday 17th August, 8.45 p.m.: Sorry about the gap. I’ve had a bit of a fright this afternoon that involves urgently needing to move money between accounts with two different banks, with one of them I can’t get to for several days because they have no branches in Edinburgh, and the other bank (HSBC) being about as helpful as a hedgehog in a condom factory. Anyway, with a temporary resolution established, I can keep going. Looks like I’m going to be gratefully accepting a lot of press tickets between now and Tuesday.

Anyway, let’s get back to reviews. I’m going to start with Father of Lies. This is an in-house production from Sweet Venues, for a pair who normally do comedy. I found that out after the play – if I hadn’t I’d have just assumed they were straight theatre actors. This is a true story of one of the strangest murders on record. In West Germany in 1973, an widower and ex-priest murdered his nest friend, and also – so he confessed – his late wife’s child, whom he apparently believe was fathered by his best friend. But the baby was never found, either dead or alive. There are other strange events: the baby was born prematurely as his mother died in childbirth, surviving against all odds; the mother was a runaway from her religious Israeli family and possibly spent time in a cult; and the two men both have their own memories of the war from the losing side.

It’s a fascinating true story to bring to the stage, but the one decision I don’t understand was to tell most of the story in the format of a presentation, with only a few key scenes between the two men acted out. Sometimes this format is necessary if you have to convey a lot of complicated or technical information (Hitting the Wall, a play about swimming from Scotland to Ireland is a good example), but here a lot of information were the characters’ backstories, where it’s quite normal to work these into dialogue. And the other puzzle as to why there was so little in the way of acting is that the few short scenes they did were done very well, keeping the tension up and suiting the simple stage and the small space available very well. What’s more, when they did allude to their past events, it was very powerful, such as the friend recalling the fate of his mother and sister at the hands of the invading Soviet Army. Whilst I doubt you could have dispensed with the narration completely, there is a lot that I think would have been more powerful talked about by the two men than just spoken in front of a slide projector.

But this is an intriguing play/talk to watch, even if the format is a bit unusual, and the fact that this is has been done by an act normally associated with different genres is of great credit to them. Sweet Novotel if you want to catch it, and runs for the rest of the fringe.

Saturday 17th August, 11.45 a.m.: Before doing any reviews from visit 2, something that’s come to my attention in connection with Mumblegate. No, it’s not The Scotsman this time – I think I’ve kicked them enough for one fringe – instead this stays relevant to cash for reviews. Word has already got round that The Mumble was refused media accreditation this year – and let’s face it, if even I’ve got media accreditation that’s a pretty low bar. But according to The Times (via Arts Professional), The Mumble wasn’t the only publication that met this fate. The other is Short Com. I can’t find anything that goes into detail of exactly what Short Com is meant to have done, nor can I find anything on Short Com’s own site. But if this is what this story makes it out to be, this news is far far far more worrying than anything The Mumble is doing.

The Mumble is, by all accounts, a dreadful publication in every way, and not just for the cash for reviews (details available from journos with lawyers on standby). But that what makes them relatively harmless. So terrible is their reputation, hardly anyone takes them seriously. Most people with a shred of credibility steer clear of them. They know that sticking a review from The Mumble on your publicity – even one they did as a freebie – damages your reputation more than helps it. Short Com, on the other hand, is a reputable publication. The closest thing we have to a list of top-tier publication is The List’s table of top-rated shows, and Short Com is listed, between The Scotsman and The Skinny. This means they can publish pay-for reviews as credible reviews. One small but notable detail is that Short Com does not publish reviews below three stars. That doesn’t necessarily mean the reviews are corrupt – indeed, other publications do similar things for perfectly legitimate reason – but it does make it easier to operate on pay-for-praise and get away with it.

And the other problem? There’s not much the Festival Fringe Society can do about this. I’ve no objection to refusing to accredit review publications wanting payment, but this isn’t banning them from the fringe – as we’re seeing now, this isn’t stopping Short Com reviewing, nor is it stopping The List treating them as a reputable source. Short Com could be the first step to normalising paying for reviews, and as soon as you blur the boundary between independent reviews and paid for PR, this massively undermines the integrity of the entire fringe. All I can suggest is that we normalise public awareness first. We might not be able to stop paid reviews if Short Com is doing it, but we can make sure prospective punters know about this. If we can make it a basic expectation that paid reviews have to be declared – and yes, that will have to mean naming and shaming the artists who don’t declare this – it might not stop the practice for paid reviews, but it would at least keep it in check.

Friday 16th August, 9.00 p.m.: Here I am. Press tickets collected, first show this evening, so let’s get these last two reviews from visit 1 done. These were both senn on my last day chosen from the half-price ticket hut to fill in two gaps. And the two are connected by the most unlikely theme.

So I’ll begin with The Red Hourglass. Spoiler alert attached to this review: if you’re already planning to see this, don’t read this review, because the opening minute is best seen if you don’t know what to expect, but I can say one thing without giving the game away: this is my unexpected gem of the fringe so far.

Spoiler warning established, this is a solo performance from Alan Bissett, who plays different characters trapped an a mysterious research facility. What the description doesn’t mention is that these characters are spiders. Indeed, when the first character talked about being part of a proud and ancient race – coupled with the fact that this is being told in the Scottish Storytelling Centre – it had me fooled. Not that the first spider sees much difference between the two. This common spider is pretty sure it was one of his ancestors’ persistence in spinning a web that inspired Robert the Bruce himself to never give up and go back outside and defeat the English.

I probably should warn you (not that this warning will do any good if you’ve already heeded my advice not the read the spoiler), this play sets out to taunt you if you’re scared of spiders. Next up is the recluse spider, who misses his wife and three thousand kids, and mostly liked to spend time to himself. Except when they swarm, because that’s fucking mental that is. My favourite line of the play, as a non-arachnophobe was “So we swarmed into the flat of this broad … We weren’t going to kill her … although we could have if we wanted to”. If that doesn’t put the willies up you, the black widow might. That was Bissett’s funniest performance of the whole lot, as the black widow spider was a complete psychopath.

I suppose one complaint you could make about this is that for small number of people who truly have a problem with spiders, they might be landed without warning into something they really don’t want to watch. I sympathise, but this is genuinely one of the play where content that some people might find distressing works best if it comes out of the blue. This is a case where I think the Edinburgh Fringe site could do with a content warning hidden behind a spoiler alert. But, honestly, put your fears aside if you can. Very clever and very funny character comedy, with similar humour to Made in Cumbria. But with spiders. Unfortuantely, the run has already finished, which is a shame, because this doubtless would have sustained sales over the full fringe had it run three weeks. So keep an eye out for it instead.

And the other play I caught was Bang Average Theatre with Lucille and Cecelia. This time, the two characters are sea lions. And just in case you missed the bit in the programme saying they’re seal, as you take your seat you will see these two seals (embodied by two women in black leotards and moustaches) wriggling about, balancing on balls and excitedly performing sea lion-like stunts for the audience. I loved that performance and this opening is one of the best openings I’ve seen of an Edinburgh Fringe play.

But then what do you do? No matter how good your weird and wonderful idea is, you have to sustain interest for a full hour. Many years ago I saw a similarly-styled play Howard and Mimi, where the characters were a dog and a cat, with a story structured around moving in together, fighting like cat and dog, then learning to like each other before some unexpected events drive them closer. The Red Hourglass structured the show around one character at a time. Here … I can’t work out where the story was meant to go. The ringmaster announcing the acts sounded a bit shifty, but that plot-line never develops. The sea lions start off barking, then learn human words, and then they’re suddenly speaking to each other in English, but it’s not clear what that was meant to signify. One of the sea lions has a crush on her human trainer and flirts with other random humans, and the other one wants to escape, but I couldn’t establish either sea lion’s motives.

I still think this is worth seeing for the sea lion performances, but for this to fulfil its potential, we need something more. I might sound like a screaming pedant when I ask what the rules are of this setting, but even the most surrealistic setting work best when you establish what the rules are and play out believable characters in these absurd scenarios. At the moment, I feel this has gone for a scattergun approach to writing a plot. I would pick out the strongest plot element, concentrate on that, and write a story around that. There are few plays that give you a chance to identify with sea lions – this is an opportunity not to be wasted. Continue reading

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Guest post: Flavia D’Avila on Edinburgh Fringe – a Love/Hate Relationship

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Alfredo Jaar’s installation for the Edinburgh Art Festival

The endless growth of Edinburgh Fringe has provoked a debate on two big issues: the affordability of the Edinburgh Fringe, and the conditions for workers at the venues. But there is a third issue that also needs attention, which is what effect Edinburgh has on the locals of the city. Is it a chance to enjoy the greatest cultural festival in the world on your doorstep and take an annual windfall? Or does it make your own city inhospitable for a month every year? I haven’t commented much on this as I don’t live in Edinburgh and don’t know much about this issue.

So let’s get the perspective of someone who does. Flavia D’Avila lives in Edinburgh. Coincidentally, she is directing a play that is coming to Edinburgh this year (which I happened to see at Buxton and loved), but she is more importantly someone who I’ve seen commentate on contentious issues at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere in a fair and thoughtful manner. So here is the perspective of an Edinburgh Fringe local …

I first moved to Edinburgh in 2006. I arrived the day before the Fireworks Concert that year, so I had just missed the Fringe but that was one of the reasons I decided to move here from Brazil. I had never been to Scotland and had no personal connections here but I had my mind set in Edinburgh as a good place to develop my theatre career after the suggestion of an English friend living in Brazil and reading a short article in a local newspaper about the Edinburgh Festivals.

I skipped 2015 because of issues with the Home Office (that’s another story that you can read on my personal blog here), so 2019 is my 12th Edinburgh Festival Fringe and although I am sadly still not entitled to a Scottish passport, I feel very much like a local here. That said, during the Fringe, I’m not just a local. I’m part of it. So when Chris kindly invited me to write this guest post reflecting on the Fringe impact on the Edinburgh locals, I gladly accepted but I feel the need to warn readers that my experience is that of a local theatremaker who is very much embedded in it all. That part of me absolutely loves the Fringe. Part of me also hates it.

I can’t tell you much about the experience of the other locals, those who just want to be able to get to work in an office or need to pay a bill or go the library and get annoyed because the Fringe keeps getting in the way. I got little insights here and there, like when I was speaking to a bouncer who sometimes works at the venue where I work year-round. He rarely goes to shows that he’s not working at and doesn’t really care much for it. He enjoys some music gigs and has done some private security for Kylie Minogue in the past so he was delighted to see her at Edinburgh Castle last month. He isn’t super keen on how busy the city gets but he also acknowledges that August is his best month for business so he works his ass off and then he takes his family away for a 4-week holiday in some remote beach resort in January. Although he doesn’t engage with the Fringe, it allows him to have some quality family time a few months later. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

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Skip to: Bite-Size, From Judy to Bette, Great Grimm Tales, Green Knight, Mustard, Police Cops in Space, Sary, Testament of Yootha, All of Me, An Audience with Yasmine Day, The Grandmothers Grimm, Moby Dick, Myra, Police Cops: badass be thy name, Taboo, Trainspotting Live

Apologies for the late arrival this year – a lot of things have been happening with inconvenient timing this year. But Edinburgh Fringe is already in its first weekend and I’d better get a move on.

So, welcome to Edinburgh Fringe 2019, the biggest Edinburgh Fringe ever by a long way. There was a time when this news prompted all-round celebrations – not any more. Questions are being asked everywhere of the affordability of Edinburgh, both to performers and punters, and last year the issue of working conditions has also joined the debate. But these issues were all the rage last year, and none of this is stopping the growth. This issue must surely come to a head eventually, but it looks like it won’t be this year.

Instead it’s business as usual. I’ve looked through the programme and picked out a selection of plays I think are worth seeing. As always, I must remind you that this should be considered a cross-section of what’s on offer rather than a comprehensive list – most of the listings are plays and acts I’ve never heard of, some of whom will be as brilliant as anything I list here. However, I have set a new rule for Edinburgh: performers get a maximum of one recommendation per category. Some groups are bringing several plays to Edinburgh and I have confidence in all of them, but in order to stop smaller artists getting swamped by all these entries I have to do something to keep the list down to something manageable. Where a group has other plays of note, I will list those against their entry.

Unless otherwise noted, all plays listed here run the entire fringe.

Safe choice:

So we start, as always, with the top tier. Most safe choices are plays I have seen before performed by a group I’ve seen before; occasionally, however, a performer has had such an impressive record I’ve put a new play straight to safe choice.

In all cases, this is a surefire recommendation if – and this is the big if – you think this play appeal to you. Few plays appeal to everyone of every taste, and if you don’t like the sound of the play, all the five-stars in the world won’t change this. However, all of these plays are considered to have wide appeal, if you like the sound of this I’m confident you’ll like it for real, and even if it’s a bit different from what you usually see it may be worth giving any of these a go. They are:

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show

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One of the greatest pleasures of going to fringe after fringe is the rare occasion when obscure newcomers go on to great things. Bite Size’s sets of ten-minute plays was something I saw in 2016 in the smaller soom of Roman Eagle Lodge, then the bigger room, then a bigger space in Gilded Balloon, and for the last few years they’ve been a headline performance at Queen Dome, one of the Pleasance’s biggest spaces. But there are bigger ones, and this year they’re in Pleasance Forth, one of the biggest of all. That’s about as big as you can get, and the full journey has been done. There is one touch of sadness attached to this: the earliest runs worked very well with the intimate setting of a small audience. But it would be impossible to go back to this now – in recent years the tickets have been selling out solidly, so there really was no option but to go large. (And even then, I am hearing that the Monday and Tuesday in week one, always in high demand because of two-for-one deals, have sold out already.)

Bite-Size aren’t the only company to perform short plays, but for one reason or another they do a better job of finding the best short plays than anyone else. However, there has been one obscure but important transition that has been happening under the radar. Bite-Size used to have a rotating cast with few people staying on more than three years. When Bill Knowelden came back year after year, “We just can’t get rid you” started becoming an in-joke. Now this has become the norm for the whole ensemble. And what’s more, they have started writing their own plays, some of which were superb.

And the last thing: there are three different sets of plays. So you can come back on three consecutive days (I do) and see fifteen ten-minute plays. It’s a 10.30 a.m. at Pleasance Courtyard (not 13th or 19th).

From Judy to Bette

judy-to-bette-the-stars-of-old-hollywoodRebecca Perry was a hit a few years back with her play Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl. Before you make any quips about the shit 1970s films with Robin Asquith, she’s already beaten you to it with the joke with her sequel being named Adventures of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl. The two plays aren’t bawdy romps but instead a mostly autobiographical account of her time working at a Toronto coffee shop and through a stroke of luck moving on to a dream job with an unexpected sting in the tail. However, she’s keen to be known for more than one story, and From Judy to Bette is her headline companion act.

I haven’t seen this, but this goes straight to safe choice because her other plays were very musical, both with Perry’s own singing voice and the really slick musical score that underpinned the two plays. This looks like a mixture between a tribute act to the icons of Hollywood’s golden age and a play about the stories behind the scandalous headlines. I’m now sure how much there is of each, but such a brilliantly-executed format from her first two plays should transfer well to this act. Shows at 7.30 at Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (that’s what was C Venues until … well, if you don’t know you’ll be catching up soon) at 7.30 p.m. (not Wednesdays).

Great Grimm Tales

30092c3392c1458abb82adaabd6ee72bBox Tale Soup are another big name in Edinburgh, with their unique blend of puppetry and live acting setting them apart from everyone else. Northanger Abbey was probably their big hit that earned them top-level acclamation, and since then Dorian Grey and The Turn of the Screw have gone on to be critically acclaimed too. The cast varies from year to year, but the key performers are Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, who invariably play at least one human character and at least five puppet characters with flawless transitions.

There’s always some sort of gothic/dark element to the productions (even the nice Jane Austen one), so the Grimm Tales are a perfect choice here. We are yet to discover how many unnecessarily painful deaths of villains will be kept from the originals, or whether they are going to reinstate the even gorier stuff that was cut out (more on this later) but you can expect something good. It’s at Underbelly Cowgate at 11.00 a.m. (And every day. I hope Christophers and Byrne scoff at the wimps who want a day off.) One word of warning though – Box Tale Soup end up touring most of their work, but there’s often a year’s gap between Edinburgh and the subsequent tour. So if you want to avoid the wait, you’d better see it now.

Green Knight

Most of the names listed in my safe choice are well-known names that would not come as any surprise in any list of recommendations. However, this next one is much less know but just as worthwhile a watch. Green Knight was an unexpected hit at Buxton Fringe last year; I finally got to see it this year and all of the buzz was thoroughly earned. Debbie Cannon wrote for herself a simple storytelling piece of a retelling of the story of Sir Gawain. Another notable name is Flavia D’avila, the director of the play and also I think one of the most intelligent commentators of the state of theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe – she was the one who summed things up so well with “a mainstream that thinks it’s a counterculture” – but this recommendation is on the play alone.

In this retelling, the ageing wife of the story of Gawain recounts the time Arthur’s gallant nephew visited her husband’s castle. Like many of the best retellings, no events are removed or changed from the story as such, and Gawain is still the selfless gallant knight of the original tale – but it’s what added to the story that makes it unique. The original story makes out the nameless wife to be a temptress. In this- … well, yes, she’s still a temptress, but there’s a lot more to it. Unlike most fringe shows, this is only on for a set number of says, so it’s at the Scottish Poetry Library on the 7th, 9th, 10th, 13th and 14th August at 7.30 p.m.

Mustard

I’ve been following Eva O’Connor’s work for the past few years now. A mixed verdict on the first play quickly turned into a string of follow-ups that impressed me with her variety of stories heavily drawn from personal experienced and the way she told them. My favourite one of all is the one I think is very under-rated: The Friday Night Project, that gets the audience to make decisions, starting trivial and escalating into an agonising moral dilemma.

This is one of her more cryptic stories though. “E” meets the man of her dreams, a professional cyclist, and when she loses him, turns to “mustard” as her coping mechanism. I’m guessing that “mustard” is an allegory for something more sinister here, and I’m also guessing there’s a parallel to doping in cycling. But even if her drug of choice is literal mustard, I’m intrigued. This is on a short run, so you need to catch this as Summerhall on the 2nd-11th August at 11.30 a.m.

Police Cops in Space

https://i2.wp.com/www.policecops.co.uk/userfiles/multimedia/large_1511205587.jpgOne way of measuring the success of a show is the name of the company. When Police Cops first came on the the fringe circuit, the group performing it were a trio known as The Pretend Men. Now, with a huge cult following and a sequel, the name of the company is Police Cops. They are now branching into new work – and it is the new work that interests me more – but if you are looking for a lot of fun this is the surefire choice for you.

Police Cops was a parody of basically every 1970s cop show ever made, so the sequel, Police Cops in Space, is a parody of every 1970s sci-fi show ever made. It is, of course, a very silly parody, with practically a checklist of every corny line and cliche, but what earned the most praise was the high energy of this trio and such a slick performance. Oh, and as it’s the 1970s everything is 100% heterosexual and not in any way camp, is that clear? This is a limited run on various dates up to the 17th August, at 10.40 p.m. at Assembly George Square.

Sary

https://brightonsource.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Different-Theatre-Sary-hare.jpgSam Chittenden and her company Different Theatre may not be big names at the Edinburgh Fringe, but she may be soon, with her work at Brighton Fringe scooping a who raft of awards. Two of her plays are coming to Edinburgh, and I’d be happy to list either of them, but between the two I’m going for Sary, that I saw this year. Like Green Knight, this is a re-telling of folklore, where nothing is changed from the story as such – instead a new story is added: in this case, the tale as seen by Ol’ Sary Weaver herself, a woman reputed to be a witch. It begins with what made her a recluse, and ends with a clever twist on what the folklore said happened to her.

One thing you do need to be aware is that the two women in the play are usually playing the old and young Sary Weaver – you might get lost at the beginning if you don’t realise this. But there’s a lot that’s different about this, and even its description as a “feminist folk-horror” might not be what you expect. This is at Sweet Novotel at 5 p.m. (not Wednesdays). The other play is Metamorphosis, but another re-telling, this of the story of Greta, not only witnessing her brother’s transformation to an insect but also the changes to herself. Same venue, same days but at 6.45 p.m.

Testament of Yootha

And rounding up this list in alphabetical order is Caroline Burns Cooke who has delivered two superb monologues in the last few years: And the Rope Still Tugging her Feet, a story surrounding the Kerry Babies Scandal in 1980s Ireland, and Proxy, and semi-ficticious story of a mother with Münchhausen’s Syndrome by Proxy. She develops very compelling stories and believable characters but the thing she is best at is explaining what makes people do terrible things. Whether it’s understanding why the nuns of Ireland believed in the strict Catholic upbringing or exploring what would make a mother do such a terrible thing to her daughter, her plays condemn where it’s due but always try to understand first.

This new play is about Yootha Joyce, a beloved sitcom star from comedies such as George and Mildred. But away from the cameras, her life was very different, drinking herself to death at age 53. This is a little different from her previous plays as she plays the same character throughout this time, but it does mean she gets to dress up as Yootha. Whatever there is in store here, expect something thoughtful and fair rather than any sensationalism. This is at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 12.15 p.m.

Bold choices:

The next tier is a bit more of a gamble, but not much. Some of the plays listed here are different, some are new, and some suit more tastes more than others, but for all of them I’ve got reasons to believe they are risks worth taking. If you like the sound of this, you might stumble on the next big thing.

All of Me

Caroline Horton was a huge hit in 2011 and 2012 with two huge successes: You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, the story of her own grandmother who spend the war in occupied France, and Mess, a very personal story about her own fight with anorexia. And then came Islands. That was supposed to be a searing indictment of tax-havens in a place known as “shit-world”, but that was not a success in London, although it did better in Edinburgh where it found an appreciative niche. So now comes a new solo play, another personal one, this time about fighting depression: All of Me (the possibility of future splendour). That’s about all I can gather from this – other than that, it’s a very abstract play, like both Mess and Islands.

I honestly don’t know which they this will go, and normally I would put this play in my Wildcard category. But this going in Bold Choice because when Horton gets it right, she gets it very very right indeed, because Mess truly was outstanding. Can she repeat that magic here? This shows at Summerhall at 3.10 p.m. (not 12th or 19th)

An Audience with Yasmine Day

I don’t normally put entries from the comedy section in my theatre recommendations, but I’ve put in Yasmine Day because behind the character comedy of Jay Bennett’s pretentious washed-up 80s diva is a sad story in the background. I first saw this at Buxton Fringe last year, and whilst it was fun to watch I thought the real potential lay in the unspoken backstory. One year later and returning to Buxton again, that’s exactly what we got. Yasmine Day still has the same delusions of grandeur, but this time, she’s someone who almost did have the grandeur, and became her own worst enemy as her big break slipped through her fingers. In fact, the story now is a lot darker if you think about it long enough.

But you don’t have to watch it for the dark backstory – you can just as easily enjoy this as an hour of fun, with her absurd props, a rendition of Eternal Flame using only the vowels and bringing a whole new meaning to an intimate performance. And if you think this is a bit too far-fetched, I am assured that everything that happen on stage, no matter how ridiculous, is based on real events. (Usual warning: if you are an 80s tribute singer and you recognise your routine in Yasmine Day’s set, I strongly advise you not to admit it). This is at Pleasance Courtyard at 10.30 p.m. (not 13th or 20th).

The Grandmothers Grimm

Some Kind of Theatre, I admit, got my attention as they were one of the most determined groups to get me to review them, but it’s paid off because after years of luckless scheduling I caught them at Buxton with this play. It’s set at a time when the Grimm Brothers are making decisions on what material should go into their books and what should be left out – but are they letting self-interest get the better of them and taking credit that isn’t theirs?

It’s a play that makes you think on a lot of levels, but – most surprisingly – it’s the original folklore. The Grimm Tales, of course, are quite notorious for the unnecessarily painful and gory deaths of the baddies at the end – but if that’s the sanitised version, what the hell is in the unsanitised version? Oh boy, that’s quite an eye-opener. This is at Paradise in the Vault on a short run until 17th August at 9.15 p.m. (not 11th).

Moby Dick

Grist from the Mill and its artistic director Ross Ericson became a big name on the Fringe Circuit thanks to The Unknown Soldier, but lately he’s been making a bigger splash as a venue manager of The Rotunda, a pop-up venue at Buxton and – from this year – a tour to other places too. But they’re also busy with new plays at Ross Ericson’s latest play he’s written for himself is a one-man performance of the hunt for the elusive white whale.

Bold choice instead of safe choice because Ericson has not rested on his laurels after The Unknown Solider; everything he’s done since has taken risks, some gambles paying off, some not. But it does mean that whatever is store for Moby Dick won’t be more of the same. This shows at 4.05 p.m. at Assembly Rooms (that’s the Assembly Rooms in the new town, don’t get caught out) on alternate days (odd dates up to 19th, even from 22nd).

And if you’re wondering what’s in the other dates, that’s Grist from the Mill’s other show, The Ballad of Mulan. To be honest, it was a close-run thing which one I put as bold choice, but this is a performance from Ross Ericson’s co-producer, Michelle Yim, whose doing her third East Asain-theme play. I’m promised it’s not the Disnified version of Mulan. Same time, same place, different days.

Myra

This was one of the most talked about plays at Brighton Fringe – and also one of the most divisive. Originally booked for the 2016 fringe, then cancelled because writer/performer Lauren Varnfeld (also one of the managers at Brighton’s Rialto Theatre) wanted to get the play right, then finally getting its showing last year, the play explores the mind of Myra Hindley, the notorious murderer who – so she claims – found a conscience and reformed in prison. One criticism levelled at the play – not unresonably – is that as a whole we spend too much time putting the voice of murderers on stage and not enough time putting the voice of the victims on stage. But over 2018 and 2019 the play got more good review than bad, and those that did commended it for exploring what would make someone do something so unspeakable.

And do, Myra finally comes to Edinburgh, and it’s anyone’s guess what Edinburgh will make of it. This is at The Imagination Workshop in the New Town at 3 p.m. (not Wednesdays).

Police Cops – Badass Be Thy Name

Police Cops already have an entry in my safe choices, but I’ve given them an additional entry in bold choice for this new follow-up. Successful though Police Cops in Space was, I did have a worry that they might take the easy option and do endless sequels with more of the same. Badass Be Thy Name, however, looks quite different. It combines kitchen-sink drama, vampire slaying, martial arts and a rave soundtrack, whilst keeping the physical comedy that made their first two shows so successful. It could be the next big success, or it might be over-ambitious, but whatever happens, stepping outside the comfort zone was the right move. This shows at Assembly George Square at 9.20 p.m. (not 14th or 21st).

Taboo

I squeezed this into my last day at Brighton Fringe and I’m glad I did. The show describes itself as “A fictitious talk show with a live audience, featuring a guest from the afterlife”, and promises physical theatre and clowning, but in actual fact, this play stands on the story alone. This is the story of Käthe Petersen, a well-respected social worker in Germany – and that career included the Nazi Germany era. One thing that is often forgotten about this period is that the Nazis didn’t win elections on the promise of killing everybody and invading the entire world – it also heavily sold itself as the champions of wholesome family life. It is this vision that Käthe Petersen believed in, dedicating her life to helping what she described as “vulnerable women”.

The safe option when talking about the Nazi era is to depict everything that happened as evil – this, however, looks at the more complicated reality. Karen Schmidt goes out of her way at the end to ultimately condemn what Petersen did, but she didn’t need to, because the play shows very well how good intentions turn to moralising, and how moralising turns to moral hypocrisy, and moral hypocrisy never ends well. This is at Sweet Novotel at 2.15 p.m. (not Wednesdays).

Trainspotting Live

Oh boy. There is probably no better description to Trainspotting Live that the description from Irvine Welsh himself: “I’m shocked, and I wrote the fucking thing”. I saw this at Northern Stage this year and it was exactly what I was braced for. I think the most memorable moment is a toss-up between a naked Renton in a shitted duvet and Renton’s antics on the toilet. Oh, did I say this is immersive? Begbie might pick a fight with you, or if you’re really unlucky you might be next to the aforementioned toilet.

Although Trainspotting Live will almost certainly tour again, the Edinburgh Fringe should be one of the better placing to catch it. Good though the performance is in a theatre, it’s the site-specific performances that really play to its strength, in this case a tunnel. This at EICC with multiple performances each evening (not Wednesdays). Just don not, I repeat, do not, pick the seat next to the toilet.

You might like …

Four picks next. These are productions where I’ve even seen them before or seen something similar, and like safe choices I can confidently say that if you like the sound of this then you can’t go wrong with one of these. The only things that a safe choice needs to have that this doesn’t is the wide audience appeal – these can be more niche. Also, I can relax that ultra-high standards needed for what’s now a very hotly-contest category at Edinburgh.

These five pieces are worth a gander if this is your thing:

The Addams Family

Last year’s musical from Bare Productions, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, wasn’t without its flaws – but I’m still keen to see them again. Bare Productions is an Edinburgh-based company that aims to bring shows popular with amateurs to a professional standard, and they did that well with Charlie Brown. The ensemble all had powerful singing voices, making everything look effortless from the straightforward numbers to the complicated harmonies, and some clever choreography to make use of the limited space. The only thing that didn’t quite work was capturing the mannerisms of some of the Peanuts characters. However, I’ve had a look at their video trailer for The Addams Family and it looks like they’ve done their homework here. Keeping fingers crosses for this for this, at Paradise in Augustines on 3rd-10th August at 7.00 p.m.

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland

Rhttps://www.ridiculusmus.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/EZ-RWD-2014-low-res.pngidiculusmus are taking three plays to Edinburgh Fringe this year on the theme of mental health; all of their plays are very abstract and usually confusing on purpose. However, the most inspired setting of all has to be this one. You are watching two plays at the same time – four characters going in front of and behind a wall separating two worlds. You even get to cross over and watch both halves of the story. One side, presumably, is the real world, whilst the other is an imaginary world. But which side is the real world? Who of the four characters lives in the imaginary world. And don’t think you can find out from what the doctor character says. He may be the one with the psychotic episode – he certainly wouldn’t be the first.

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland is a one-off performance on August 25th at 1 p.m. at Summerhall. The main event from Ridiculusmus this year is a play about attitude to old people somewhat provacatively titled Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! That is part of the British Council Showcase from the 13th. There’s also another one-off on the 25th called Give Me Your Love, with a traumatised veteran turning to MDMA, os you can make the three a triple bill in one day if you wish. None of these may make any sense – but this is about the only time when that can be the whole point of the play.

An Evening with Savvy B

Now from the British Council showcase to a grassroots production I saw in Newcastle a few years ago, a solo play from Hannah Walker. Except that she will be joined by Hannah Walker, who’s had an evening with Savvy B (come on, work that one out). So as a sober version of Hannah Walker sets out to tell us about the intricacies of wine tasting, on video the completely sozzled version of Hannah Walker appears to give her wisdom. Or titter as she spills her drink everywhere. It is fair to say that the whole play is heavily dependent on a single joke, but the drunk-acting version of Walker is hilarious. At least, I think she’s acting drunk. Anyway most of the performances were in week zero (sorry for missing those) but you can still catch her on The Stand Comedy Club 2 at 10.05 p.m. on Monday 12th or The Stand Comedy Club at 8.20 p.m. on Monday 19th. Also, the Stand and Stand 2 are completely different venues, I’ve discovered. You learn something every day.

Ladybones

I saw this at the Vault Festival and this is worth seeing as something different. Sorcha McCaffrey plays Nuala, an archeology student whose finds a skull on a dig that becomes a trigger for the unravelling of her orderly life. And for her, order is important, because Nuala has OCD. And – as this play sets out to show – OCD is not just an eccentricity involving arranging pens; when events send her out of her comfort zone the play shows how the world becomes a terrifying place. Like Ridiculsmus, there are some bits in the middle of the play that are confusing on purpose, but it’s not Ridiculsmus-level confusing with the beginning striaghtforward to follow and also an end where events return to some sort of order. Based partly on personal experience and part fact, this is worth a watch as something different, and it’s at Pleasance Courtyard at 11.25 a.m. (not 12th or 19th).

Pamela’s Palace

Pamela's Palace

And finally, Interactive Theatre International, best known for Faulty Towers, the Dining Experience. That show has been a big success (it was also at the centre of an attempt at corporate censorship a few months back but that’s another story), but this year they’re not bringing their headliner with them. Instead they’re bringing another tribute, Only Fools The (cushty) Dining Experience, along with Confetti and Chaos. I saw the last one two years ago (back when it was known as The Wedding Reception), and whilst the script is really just light-hearted fun, it was done really well as an immersive event, with a series of disastrous wedding guests interacting with the audience throughout a three-course meal. One unexpected bonus was that it’s also a way for strangers around the table to get to know each other at the fringe. (Footnote: this play has been known to take place in a hotel with real weddings going on at the same time. If you see a bride shout “YOU BASTARD MALCOLM!!!!”, that’s not the play.)

However, the one I’m picking as my recommendation is something new, Pamela’s Palace. No meal this time, but it’s still an immersive experience set in a beauty salon, so if there isn’t a bitter feud over something terribly petty I’m going to be disappointed. Expect more fun at Assembly George Square at 10.40 p.m. (not 13th)

Wildcard:

One entry listed under Wildcards this year. Usually this for plays that I haven’t seen and I’ve no idea whether they’re any good, but they’ve nonetheless grabbed my interest. This time, however, it’s something I’ve seen but I’ve nonetheless chosen to put it here.

We Apologise for the Inconvenience

01-17-2019-133047-4727I saw this at Buxton, and if I’m honest, this is a play that I think would have benefited from a year’s development between the smaller fringes and the big one. But I’m still putting this down as something to consider seeing because this could one day be an excellent piece of work. Douglas Adams once said that his favourite thing about a deadline is the whooshing sound it makes as it goes past. With his fourth book, however, his publishers have finally run out of patience and locked him into a hotel room until he delivers.

The thing that is most promising about the play is the opening, where Arthur’s story so far is narrated in the style of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, together with graphics in the legendary style of the TV series. The middle is weaker, and when I get round to my Buxton Fringe roundup I’ll go into some more in-depth analysis, but the short version is that the play misses a trick by not making more on the homage done at the beginning so well. There is work to be done here – but if the work is done so well, this could be the foundations of something great. This is at PQA Venues at Riddle’s Court on the 9th-16th August at 11.30 a.m.

Also of note …

As well as recommendations, there are two other plays that have caught my eye. I’ve not seen either of them, but I’ve reasons to believe they will make an impact at the fringe.

Best Girl

38128348_1554892825914124_r.jpegMajor conflict of interest here: I work with Lois Mackie as part of Theatre Elysium so it would be big misuse of my position to put this in the recommendations. However, there’s no denying that this play has gathered a lot of attention. It got a lot of attention in the run-up to its first performance at the Greater Manchester Fringe, and got a lot of praise afterwards. I can only tell you what other people have told me, but the play is written by Lois’s mother Christine based in part on her own experience of her veteran father’s suicide. This is something I’m supporting as Team Elysium rather than Team Chrisontheatre, but I’m hoping for the best. Whatever happens, expect to hear a lot about this one if you haven’t already. Showing at Pleasance Courtyard at 12.05 p.m. (not 12th or 19th).

Quintesence

The other performer I expect to hear a lot of is Emily Carding. Along with Sam Chittenden, she was the other person who dominated the Brighton Fringe awards. Annoyingly, I’ve never managed to co-incide with any of her plays, mostly new takes of Shakepeare, including a one-women Hamlet complete with “dead” stickers. And if I ever do catch up, I’m not the biggest Shakespeare buff so I may not be able to give a verdict. But there’s no denying she’s one of Brighton Fringe’s biggest names, so she stand to make a big impact at Edinburgh.

She’s taking two Shakespeare-themed shows to Edinburgh, both of which premiered at Brighton. Out of the two, Quintessence was the one that got the more acclaim – set in a future where humankind is wiped out and AI is tasked with recreating the human spirit form the complete works of Shakespeare. This shows at Sweet Grassmarket at 1.20 p.m. on the 12th – 25th August (not Wednesdays). Alternatively, you can see Caliban’s Codex, a fresh take on The Tempest, and that is same place, same days but at 7.15.p.m.

From the comedy

Finally, although this is a theatre blog, there’s a few things from the comedy section (that I count as comedy and not theatre) that I think is worth a gander.

Brain rinse

I saw Mike Raffone’s comedy show at Buxton last year. It’s essentially a character comedy show, with a particular emphasis on ninjas, mountain explorers and army majors barking orders. However, it’s the audience participation that makes this show, and it’s best enjoyed being part of it. Just be warned that there is an opt-out from audience participation – but there’s a catch. See this at The Space at Surgeon’s Hall at 7.10 p.m. (not 11th).

The perennial favourites

In order to keep this list down to something manageable, I’m scaling down coverage of “perennial” comedy shows that come back year after year. I loved all of these, but these all have big followings and don’t need my help. Still if you haven’t seen any of the following yet, now is a good time to do so:

The Dark Room: John Robertson’s homage the 1980s text multiple choice computer games, with outcomes even more arbitrary and unfair than the real thing. Expect the regulars to shout along the best-known lines of the show e. g. “You awake to find yourself in a dark room!”, but it’s also impressive how good Robertson is at taking things on the fly. In a surprise move from the long-standing time and place, it’s on at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 9.15 p.m. Or you co do the children’s show, which I’m told it basically the same show without the swearing. Same place at 5.30 p.m.

Notflix are a recent entry to perennial favourites. Only four years ago this musical troupe performed in one of Gilded Balloon’s smallest spaces – now they’re in one of the biggest with a full band. Every show is an improvised musical based on a movie at the start of the play, with as many hackeyed clichés as possible – for example, we’ve already had The Titanic where the boat doesn’t sink. They really do everything on the fly and not just rely on a bank of songs, and even when they make mistakes, it’s funny. On at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 6.00 p.m.

Imaginary Porno Charades is Charades of Imaginary Pornos (and not Porno Charades that is imaginary, whatever that is). As we all know, the benchmark of a five-star porn movie is the witty title – indeed, once you know it’s called Trouser Snakes on a Plane, you viewing experience is complete and you needn’t bother with the porn bit. It in in this spirit that there’s a stack of cards with the names of made-up porn parodies and, yes, you can imagine the rest. On at Sweet Grassmarket at 10.30 p.m (not Mondays).

Murder She Didn’t Write: I must apologies to this group. They were one of my first review invitation back when they were up and coming, and I’ve kept forgetting to list them ever since. But they’ve hit the big time since then, and deservedly so, as this was the group who first showcased to me how good improv could be. This is again all done on the fly and not a prep-prepared template as I’ve heard some groups so, and it’s a muder mystery with victim and murderer decided by colour-coded cards, as inspired by a certain board game. But we don’t mention this one, just in case some lawyers get too much interest. Lawyers are cocks. On at Pleaseance Courtyard at 3.45 p.m., with an additional show on Saturday nights at 11.00 p.m.

And there you go. Sorry I’m late completing this but as you can see, even with the new rules to keep to list size down, it’s a long list. Enjoy.

There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman

COMMENT: The Scotsman is a highly-regarded arbiter of high-profile fringe theatre, but the service they offer groups on their first fringe venture is a different matter.

Edinburgh Fringe is about to begin. And where there’s an Edinburgh Fringe, there’s Edinburgh Fringe shenanigans. This year, the first shenanigan to hit the headlines is The Mumble, who charge people for reviews. I am in agreements with, well basically everyone, that you should have nothing to do with them, especially if you are starting off on the fringe circuit. The good news is that few people appear to have signed up to their schemes – most people, it seems, know better to put their trust in someone with such a dodgy reputation.

However, I am coming to the view that there is another publication you should be wary about, and unlike The Mumble, they are very highly regarded; and plenty of performers, beginners and veterans alike, invite their reviewers along. And that publication is The Scotsman.

It’s not got to the point where I’m telling everyone to have nothing to do with them. Their Fringe First awards are something to take seriously, and if you’re already a big name and you’re in with a shot of awards of that prestige, The Scotsman is as good an option as any. But if, like the majority of performers who read this blog, you are trying to make a name for yourself, it’s a different story. Any review request is a gamble, heavily swayed by a reviewer’s personal tastes that you have no control over. But this particular gamble is one where the odds are not in your favour. There is a high chance a Scotsman review will be useless, or worse than useless. Continue reading

A Thousands Splendid Suns: the long road to darkness

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Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns stays faithful to the book, but brings a new focus to the treatment of women in Afghanistan – which began earlier than you might think.

Talk to anyone about the history of Afghanistan and they’ll tell you the Taleban took over after the US armed them during the Soviet invasion. There again, talk to anyone about any topical bit of history and they’ll probably tell you whichever cherry-picked version suits whatever point they want to make. Never trust what most people tell you. As often is the case, this version is not wrong, but it’s a very simplistic version that misses out most of the intervening steps. It is this that Khaled Hosseini’s books cover well. In The Kite Runner, the main character flees Afganhistan with his father as things are starting to go downhill and only returns when Taleban rule is at its worst. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Laila doesn’t get the chance to escape, and witnesses the descent of her country into a theocracy. But it’s a slower descent than you might think, and not just down to Osama Bin Laden’s mates.

2e70c534e-99f1-402f-a1342a622afb67e1At the beginning of the play, Laila lives with her liberal-minded parents in Kabul. Even though her brothers fought and died for the US-backed Muhadajeen, the family is still supportive of the Americans, with her father even wearing an American T-shirt. Unfortunately, Kabul is under attack, and before her family can flee, a shell hits the house and both her parents are killed. Laila only survives because of some neighbours who take her in, but what first appears to be an act of kindness soon turns out to be an act of opportunism and the start of the nightmare. Rasheed is a self-obsessed control-freak who dominates his wife, and now wishes to take Laila as his second – something she is powerless to refuse. Mariam is at first angry with Laila for being upstaged, but as Rasheed’s true colours come to light and Laila sticks up for Mariam, the two form a hasty alliance, soon to become a true friendship. Continue reading

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2019

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Wolf Tamer, Sary, I Am a Camera, Freak, Ross and Rachel, Be More Martyn, Here We Are Again

Another Brighton Fringe has come and gone. It’s been quite a busy one for me as, all of a sudden, I’ve been kept busy with review requests. It would appear that I’ve managed to end up on a list of press contacts somewhere. But that’s great – it’s a lot more worthwhile reviewing plays when I know the people involved want a review from me.

For fringe news as a whole, it’s been a bit of a slow news fringe. There was some steady growth this year, nothing as earth-shattering at 2016, but enough to keep moving. Within these steady-looking numbers, however, there’s been a lot of rearrangement: The Warren moved next to Spiegeltent and expanded its number of spaces, Sweet Venues ditched the Dukebox and re-focused its operations (including year-round operations) on The Werks, and Junkyard Dogs took on a new Fringe venue at the Brighthelm Centre with three spaces. One effect of this is that The Warren is now by far the biggest venue in Brighton. Could it become too big and too powerful? For an answer to this and other partient questions about all things fringe, you might like to read my interview with Richard Stamp. Continue reading

Odds and sods: June 2019

In the lull between Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe, it’s time for my usual catchup on various things happening in theatre that got my attention. We have for you:

Stuff that happened in June:

Battery acidgate

Battery Motorcycle Battery Battery Acid
Some battery acid not being thrown, yesterday.

I’m going to start with this one. I don’t like diving into every row going on in the comedy and theatre world, but this one is becoming an issue of artistic freedom, so that prompts me to stick my oar in. Everyone by now should have heard about Jo Brand’s quip on Heresy about throwing battery acid instead of milkshakes, and subsequent outrage: some justified, some opportunistic and hypocritical. You may have noticed that when I’ve made similar quips on Twitter, such as suggesting that an Edinburgh Fringe play about murdering Katie Hopkins would be cheaper if they just hired a hitman, I’ve said straight after that it’s a joke. This would once have gone without saying, but in the last few years politics has got a lot nastier, too many people on all sides are casually advocating violence against enemies, and we are now at a point where – even it’s obvious to 99.9% of people it’s a joke – we do not want to give any encouragement to the other 0.1%. For that reason, I firmly believe that joke was not at all appropriate. Even in a comedy game show that is all about saying outrageous things.

However, the thing that is being forgotten in all of this is intent. Incitement to violence dresses up as a joke is still incitement to violence – that is my one limit to my firm belief of freedom of expression. If there was any evidence that Jo Brand made this joke in the hope that someone would actually go ahead and do this, I would be one of the people calling for her head. But it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s heard this that the intent was an edgy joke and nothing more. Perhaps if there was a pattern of behaviour there might be reasons to doubt her motives, but honestly, if there was a pattern, someone would have highlighted it by now. True, it’s possible that someone might go ahead and act on this crass comment anyway, but I’m sure we’re all aware that punishing comedians for hypothetical reactions to their material is a very bad idea.

Where I think we do need to ask questions is the format of comedy shows like this one that lead to these sort of comments. Victoria Coren-Mitchell says Heresy was set up to “test the boundaries of what it’s OK to say and not say”. If you’re going to egg on comedians in that direction, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Even so, I think I prefer this to the reaction to the “Defend the Indefensible” round Fighting Talk six years ago, when Colin Murray was under similar circumstances egged into make the joke about turning Clare Baldwin, and the BBC threw him under a bus. That is not good enough – the BBC should either take the risk and take responsibility, or play it safe and leave it to other broadcasters. Either way, the current climate of joke policing is not healthy. Jo Brand was not the first comedian to go too far and she won’t be the last. But I would much rather have a situation where comedians sometimes overstep the line, apologise and move on, than the climate where everyone’s terrified of putting a foot wrong and no-one takes any risks ever. I fear we are still headed towards the latter.

Another sell-out for Joe Douglas

One review you won’t be seeing on this blog any time soon is The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil. Like its predecessor, Clear White Light the entire run sold out early on, and this time I was too distracted by other things to keep an eye on returns. I think we can safely assume this will make a return just like Clear White Light is, so I’ll give my verdict then. But the reviews don’t really matter now. The news is that the first two plays under Joe Douglas have been runaway sell-outs. It’s happened before, but never two in a row under the same person’s artistic direction. This in unprecedented, and leads to two questions.

The first question: is this the new normal at Live? I would be very cautious about making an long-term predictions just yet. Joe Douglas’s arrival at Live is still new and exciting (and, by all accounts, has quickly earned a lot of good will across Newcastle’s theatre scene). He may stay exciting, but he won’t stay new, so it may be a challenge to keep up these figures when the debut factor wears off. Or it might be that these first two plays will build his reputation and push up demand even further. We may have a better idea when we see how a third or fourth Joe Douglas production performs.

If the sell-outs persist, this brings us to the next question: what will Live Theatre do? Will they programme longer main-season runs in the future? It must be tempting – but every extra week given to a headline play is one less week the main stage can be used for something different. On the other hand, in this dream scenario where Live Theatre can produce new theatre with guaranteed sell-outs, that’ll be a windfall that they can used on new projects – but whose new projects? A long way to go before any of this becomes a reality – but it’s something that we could start contemplating.

Introducing the Spare Room

Now some news from Durham. I’ve known about for some time on my grapevines, but it’s only now that this has been officially announced and my off-the-record info is now on the record. The short version is that The Assembly Rooms at Durham is bringing up a new venue called “The Spare Room”. But it’s not the venue we had last month run by the Assembly Rooms called The Spare Room. This is a different venue run by the Assembly Rooms called The Spare Room. This may take a bit of explaining.

So, the background here is that there was a pop-up venue in Manchester going spare, and Theatre Elysium have been working with Durham Student Theatre to find a new space in Durham. During the Summer in the City festival, a venue appeared called “The Spare Room”, but it wasn’t the pop-up one might have expected. Rather, it was a room made up like the pop-venue would be – a kind of Spare Room simulation, as it were. It wasn’t a big programme as I was expecting – only nine performances over three days in the end, with (I think) only two of those coming from outside Durham Student Theatre – but now that it’s confirmed the proper venue is coming, that will have a lot more. My understanding is that this programme will be mostly – but not entirely – student productions during term time. Outside of term time, there should be a lot more slots going free.

Summer in the City wasn’t that dramatic a change from the predecessor Durham Festival of the Arts. Although this was open to anyone in Durham City to register, the programme remained mostly a student festival. But embracing an open festival, along with the imminent arrival of a possible venue, and two important milestones. The north-east is one of the few regions left without a fringe and badly needs one. With Summer in the City and the Spare Room coming along, Durham is slowly edging in this direction.

Venues North at Edinburgh Fringe

Most of the developments relating to the Edinbrugh Fringe I’m holding off until my Edinburgh Fringe coverage starts, but there’s a couple of things I want to get out of the way early. The first one related to a scheme from Venues North. Halfway through the fringe, a lucky recipient of the inaugural Venues North Edinburgh Festival Fringe Award will be announced. I don’t want to rain on the parade of whoever wins this, which is why I’m going to say now I think this award will do more harm than good.

You might find it odd that I’m not enthused with an award in a festival that anyone from the north can win. After all, one of the criticisms that grates the most with venues is that of gatekeeping. I’ve long supported the idea that artists should be able to just go ahead and present their work to an audience – surely this is a chance for you to prove your worth, so what’s the problem? For a start, there’s the process to get through: you have to apply and get down to a shortlist before anyone from Venues North will see your work. I accept practicalities may prevent them doing this any other way, but having to meet someone else’s approval before they’ll see your work veers back towards the gatekeeping the Edinburgh Fringe is supposed to overcoming. But the other problem is the more serious one: it’s a massive financial gamble to take part at the Edinburgh Fringe. Yes, there’s plenty of reasons to do Edinburgh other than the chance of getting an award, but that’s a massive thing to ask of hopefuls.

I can’t understand why the theatre industry is so wedded to the culture of “Edinburgh or bust”. There are two big talking points that venues have supported wholeheartedly: that the cost of the Edinburgh Fringe is a barrier to taking part, and the costs of a career in theatre in general is a barrier to working class participation. And yet here are Venues North promoting a scheme that entrenches both of these problems. It has been suggested cynically by some that this is simply a programming exercise dressed up as an award. I hope that is wrong, but in the absence of any explanation over what this award is meant to achieve, I don’t know what’s right.

A Venues North Brighton Festival Fringe Award alongside the Edinburgh one will shut me up. Brighton is far more financially accessible than Edinburgh, and northern representation in Brighton is sorely lacking. In the meantime, however, it’s things like this that make me wonder why we bother talking about access to the arts.

A warning about The Mumble

The other thing I want to talk about sooner rather than later is The Mumble. Unlike Venues North, I expect I will get universal support for this, and normally I don’t like to waste time repeating what everyone else is already saying. But on this occasion, it’s important for as many people to say this loud and clear: do not accept review requests from The Mumble. And definitely do not pay them for a review.

So The Mumble is yet another website that is charging people for reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. A few years ago, edfringereviews.com (not to be confused with edfringereview.com) tried to pull that stunt, but a massive outcry forced them to back down with their tail between their legs. However, The Mumble have not been deterred and are pressing on, and have even written their own defence. If that article does not set every alarm bell ringing in your head, it should do. For a start, there’s their description as “Professional Cultural Surveyors” which is just about the most pretentious wankery you can imagine, but that’s the least of the problem. The two biggest red flags are their insinuations that the Big Evil Theatre Establishment (i.e. The Stage writing a critical article) is ganging up on them, and that you have to play money to publicists in order to get reviews (which is bollocks), so paying them is okay.

Quite apart from the moral arguments, there is one overriding reason why paying for a review is a terrible idea: it’s worthless. The moment your business model is dependent on artists for your income, the credibility of the reviews are irreparably compromised. People don’t simply pay for publicity, they pay for good publicity, and it would be bad for business if The Mumble to wrote bad or lukewarm reviews of their customers (and, let’s face it, their clientele are going to be mostly people who don’t have a good enough reputation to get normal reviews). Everybody who’s anybody knows this, and knows which publications are doing pay-for-reviews. If anything, your review from The Mumble will count against you, because this suggests you would rather buy praise than earn it. But The Mumble already know this. They are targetting performers naive enough to believe this is yet another Edinburgh Fringe expense, and with the early uptake dominated by performers at The Space (no direspect to The Space but with the programme dominated by people with no Fringe experience this is the ripest ground for suckers), this suggests the strategy is working.

For the record, I am aware of even worse allegations about people who run The Mumble, but as those are in the legally actionable category I will leave it to other people to talk about those. Regardless, have nothing to do with anyone who wants cash for reviews. Yes, it sucks if you can’t get anyone to review you, but if you are not ready to get the attention of the conventional arts media, you are not ready for the Edinburgh Fringe. At best, a paid review be a waste of money – at worst, it will be career suicide.

From Edinburgh to TedX

(This actually happened in May, but I wanted to give this my full attention rather than mention this in passing during Brighton Fringe coverage.)

Finally, a blast from the past. Who remembers Yve Blake? I’d periodically been keeping an eye on what she’s up to since she did Lie Collector back in 2015, but with her moving back to Australia and few chances to catch what she’s up to in this hemisphere I’ve not given many updates. But, boy, is there a success story here. Her big breakthrough was winning a scholarship for Australian Young People’s Theatre to embark on a musical about Fangirls the following year, and that is finally coming in October. But on the back of this, she has now landed a TEDx talk. Big big deal in Australia.

The bad news for fans on this side of the world is that there’s no sign of Fangirls coming over to Blighty just yet, although I would urge Australians to be the lookout for any of her fans from Edinburgh offerings gifts of wooden horses. I’ll have a better look at what’s on offer if and when this comes our way. In the meantime, there are some clues about what to expect. I would urge anyone waiting for this not to expect something identical to what you saw last time – I get the impression she has moved on a lot since her last fringe appearance – but what we do know is that she’s in it (hooray) and it’s still branded as a “bloodthirsty” musical. Might be a personal preference, but one of her strengths for me was having just the right amount of twistedness in it.

When you’ve previously said someone had the potential to rise to greatness and they do, it’s very tempting to congratulate yourself for making such a good prediction. Reality, of course, is far less impressive – I’ve predicted great things from others who inexplicably vanished without trace. Nevertheless, it is moments like this that make my blog worth it. I remember one word of encouragement I gave after Lie Collector was an observation of how far she’d come in the three years, to think how much further she could go in the next three years. I’ve never been so happy to be right.

Stuff I wrote since March:

It’s been three months between the last odds and sods, so it’s a longer list than usual. We have:

Noughts and Crosses: the other Jim Crow: Review of another impressive play from Pilot Theatre, both story and staging.

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2019: My previews in the run-up to the number 2 fringe.

Sherlock Holmes: Nick Lane is afoot: Nick Lane’s second play for Blackeyed Theatre – sometimes hard going to follow, but captures the characters of Holmes and Watson well.

Brighton Fringe 2019 – as it happens: My month-long coverage of this fringe, with surprisingly few shenanagins this year.

Interview with Richard Stamp on fringe ethics: Ooh, this was good. I asked the editor of Fringeguru some tough questions on how the fringes should work – very interesting answers.

What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2019: The look ahead to north-east summer productions away from the festival fringes.

Interview with Hetty Hodgson on Beats and directing: As a director at Durham Student Theatre I have huge respect for prepared for her last production, I took the chance to ask some questions.

Screen to stage: Rain Man, Trainspotting and Frankenstein: Reviews of three play: two that pleased me, and one surprise disappointment.

Between the fringes: Be More Martyn and Down to Zero: Two more reviews, including one that I’d heard all-round praise for that did not disappoint.

The next odds and sods will be for September – anything that happens before then will probably appear in Edinburgh Fringe coverage. If you’re gearing yourself up for the big one, good luck. If you’re staying how, how disappointingly sensible of you.