What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2016

Autumn equinox has just gone, putting an end a period over the first three weeks of September where people violently argue over whether it’s already autumn (as per the meteorological definition) or still summer (as per the astronomical definition). So now that you’ve all finished arguing over that, let’s go into this list of recommendations.

You know the score by now: I’ve searched the listing of the north-east theatres and looked for stuff that grabbed my attention, but this is a cross-section of stuff out there worth watching, and not an exhaustive list. For future reference, if I have seen you before and reviewed you favourably, you are encouraged to send me press releases for new projects if you’d like to be included here – I will probably pick up on what you’re doing anyway, but sometimes things escape my attention and a press release is a good backup. If I have not seen you before, it is unlikely you’ll get on to this list – invite me to review you and I might get you on the list in future seasons. Continue reading

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Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Image result for Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Okay, here we go. Got a long article ahead of me to write, condensing all of the rambling thoughts in my live coverage into one coherent article. There’s 22,706 words of live coverage to summarise, so please bear with me, it will take some time. It will, as usual, come in dribs and drabs. Last time it took me months to complete the coverage – I hope to a be a bit more timely this year.

So, I had a very good Edinburgh Fringe this year, due in a large part to my ever-expanding list of shows from performers who I know and expect to be good. This, combined with the increasing number of review invitations I received, also meant I had a very busy fringe, with 35 shows seen in total, and 6-show days becoming a new norm. There were a few side-effects to this, the big one being that I’ve had to start saying no to the odd review invitation. I’m going to give my review policy a rethink for next year. In the meantime, however, this year I saw no absolute turkeys and so I’m able to review all the plays I saw. The only things I haven’t reviewed is the odd piece (mostly stand-up comedy and sketch comedy) that was too different from the theatre I’m used to reviewing for me to be able to make a qualified judgement.

Before I embark on what’s going to be a beast of a roundup, let’s start with this … Continue reading

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The Fighting Bradfords: a belated homage

fighting-bradfords-1140-x-440px

The Gala’s first theatre commission in years, The Fighting Bradfords, might not be the most memorable World War One play, but it portrays a faithful story of four forgotten brothers.

What a year it’s been for the Gala Theatre. Ever since the acrimonious departure of artistic director Simon Stallworthy, the Gala Theatre’s status has been relegated to a second division receiving venue, with very little actual theatre being programmed. I got wind of things changing around 12 months ago with the appointment of a new programming director and a renewed interest from the County Council. Things started bearing fruit earlier this year with a lot of high-profile companies coming to the theatre – there had been the odd high-profile company before, but three companies in one season (Northern Stage, Original Theatre Company and John Godber company) was new. Then came Next Up …, the inaugural scratch night, which was successful enough to become a regular thrice-yearly fixture.

Now comes The Fighting Bradfords, the Gala’s first commission. Well, sort of. Officially, this is a Durham County Council commission for a play to be performed at the Gala. The Gala is owned by the council, and theatre management is so tightly integrated into the council structures, there’s no clear line for what cultural activities in Durham County do and don’t count as the Gala’s own. In this case, the commission (along with No Turning Back over the summer) was part of a wider series of events over the county called Durham Remembers, marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and the commission requested by the council was the story of four sons of the respected Bradford family. All enthusiastically signed up to fight, all were decorated for bravery – and all but one gave their lives. Continue reading

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Why E4’s Stage School is all your fault

A thumbscrew, the rack, an iron maiden, Stage School

A thumbscrew, the rack, an iron maiden, Stage School. Which is the odd one out? (Answer: None. It was a trick question. They are all forms of torture.)

Stage School has got the acting community up in arms. But if you’re one of these people who watches so-called “structured reality” TV shows, you are partly responsible for this travesty.

Ho hum, barely finished the Edinburgh Fringe and what do I find? There’s a new “reality” TV series on E4 called Stage School. You might have noticed my use of quotation marks around a certain word; I will be expanding on this shortly. Anyway, I haven’t seen this as such, but it’s been impossible to not hear about this following an uproar throughout the theatre world. It’s been slammed as fake, misrepresenting and blatantly scripted, and there’s already a petition to have the programme canned.

Now, the easiest thing to do would be for add another blog post on to the pile of pieces castigating the show. However, I have sufficient integrity to not pan a programme I haven’t seen, and since I would rather stick my knob in a blender than watch another reality TV programme, that’s not going to happen. I’ll instead point you to this blogger’s comment which seem to be representative of all the scorn I’ve come across on-line and off-line. I’ve tried reading supportive pieces just to get some balance, but weighing things up, it really does look like a pile of unmitigated shite. In the unlikely event someone from the acting community would like to defend the programme’s accuracy, I will give you a fair hearing, but in the meantime I am writing this on the assumption that Stage School is as fucking awful as I think it is.

But here’s the depressing bit. Whilst most of the acting world have been horrified that such a misleading show could be made, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Ever since Big Brother hit our screens back in 2000, we have normalised a culture where outright bullshit on television is accepted. It’s happened in stages, and I have to say that we the television-viewing public bear a large share of responsibility for this travesty.

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How to cope with being offended – a handy guide

Stephen Fry and Jenny Bevan

Stephen Fry and Jenny Bevan. Completely unrelated to article. Especially Q13.

One of things that makes the Edinburgh Fringe so successful, especially the comedy, is the convention that anything goes. Television comedy often shies away from more cutting edge stuff, fearful of all the complaints they’ll get. At the fringe, you get the chance to see something bolder. However, one side-effect of this anything-goes mentality is that you might take exception to something somebody says. This happens on television too, but it’s more likely to happen in the fringe environment. Which begs the question – how can you possibly cope with someone offending you this way?

Painful though it is for some people to contemplate, the Fringe organisers are dominated by people who cannot, or will not, instruct people to not say anything that might upset someone’s delicate sensibilities. But fear not. Inspired by this wonderful flowchart by the legendary John Robertson of The Dark Room fame (and adapted with his kind permission), this extended list of questions should cover any situation that may arise in any kind of comedy, be it stand-up, sitcom, satire or any other form you can imagine.

(And, okay, this list doesn’t cover every situation and shouldn’t be taken 100% literally, but you get the idea. I suspect the people who’d benefit the most from this list are the people who are most likely to miss the point, but I can try.)

No prizes for spotting the references to real events. I may well add to this list as future incidents arise, but this will do for now. Are you ready, here we go …

Q1: Are you offended?

No: Get on with your life.
Yes: Go to Q2.

Q2: Do you know why you’re offended?

No: Get on with your life.
Yes: Go to Q3. Continue reading

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10 rules to make sense of reviews at the fringe

All the different fringe publications logos

Edinburgh Fringe is getting underway, which means that reviews of shows are starting to come in. And if you’re new to all of this, this might seem like an easy way of sorting out the good shows from the dross. After all, if you’re doing this properly you should know that – in theory at least – anyone who wants to take part in the fringe can do so. Inevitably, some of them are going to be good and some of them are going to be crap. Surely the reviews can ensure you see the good stuff and avoid the turkeys?

Not quite. Making sense of star ratings and reviews is a lot more complicated than most people realise. A play you loved might be getting two-star reviews, and a play you hate might be getting four- and five-star reviews; that’s happened to me on many occasions. Performers and venues, meanwhile, naturally do their utmost to promote the good reviews and bury the bad ones. Such are the intricacies of reviews, one might be tempted to give up on using them altogether and go back to guessing. But there are ways of making the most of reviews; some are difficult to master, but others are tips every novice should know. Continue reading

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What’s Worth Watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Yeek. Fringe officially starts tomorrow. Better get a move on with this. I’ve done my usual scan through the fringe programme and picked out things that grabbed my attention. And to keep to size down to something manageable, I am restricting my list to acts I’ve seen before (with one exception that I couldn’t resist). Even so, the list is getting longer, and I may struggle to see all of these in the time I have in Edinburgh.

As usual, please treat this as a cross-section of the good stuff out there, not a comprehensive top 25 of the entire fringe or whatever. The vast majority of things in the programme are people I’ve never heard of who could be great, good, mediocre or shit. There are quite a few plays I’ve heard good things about from other reviewers, but they won’t come on to this list until I see it for myself. If you want to see a list that gives fair consideration to all plays across the whole programme, there are arts publications that aim to do that, but for me it’s down to what I’ve happened to see, and in a festival of this size, this largely comes down to chance.

Enough disclaimers though. What have I got for you? Continue reading

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