What’s worth watching: Festival Fringes 2012 (1)

Unless you have been locked in a wardrobe since you were nine, you will probably know that there’s this thing called the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland in each year. Most people are also aware it has a lot of theatre and comedy in it. Fewer people know that, unlike most arts festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe is open to anyone who wishes to take part. (In fact, one of my biggest bugbears is how many people overlook this point, but I will come back to that another day.)

What very few people realise, however, is that Edinburgh is not the only Fringe. It is the biggest in the world, and the second biggest, Adelaide, probably isn’t the most practical destination for British theatregoers, but the third largest is just round the corner in Brighton. Well, when I say third largest, it’s still tiny compared to Edinburgh, but it’s still the ideal festival for London day-trippers, seaside fans, people who want a fringe at a more relaxed pace, and, of course, people like me who find one fringe a year just not enough. There’s also a lot of mini-fringes dotted round England (mostly southern England – sadly nothing north of the M62), including a popular Fringe at Buxton.

Like Edinburgh, the Brighton and Buxton Fringes are open access, and I would not go if they weren’t. I want to see what’s on offer and decide for myself what’s worth seeing rather than have a selection panel deciding it for me. As a result, I’ve seen some absolute gems, and some travesties where I bitterly regret having wasted a whole hour of my life. But it’s the gems that count, because these might never have made it past the whims of a vetting panel. Only snag is that it’s very difficult to predict what’s any good in advance, because most of the best fringe plays I’ve seen were performed by groups and writers I’d never heard of. Even if I know the play, the production can vary from excellent to abysmal. But amongst the few acts I have heard of before, I have a few recommendations:

The Brighton Fringe begins this Saturday (5th May) and runs to the 27th, and I have two recommendations. Firstly, I recommend checking out Gone but not Forgotten from Wired Theatre (Saturdays and Sundays + Monday 7th, 2 pm, 4 pm and 6 pm). I came across this group quite by accident in 2009: I went to a park expecting an open-air production which was nowhere to be seen, and they just happened to be starting their play across the road. And, luckily, Above Below, a play that ends in servants and masters alike conspiring in the murder of the obnoxious lady of the house, was great. The following year they did After Money, a semi-fictionalised biopic of a philandering corrupt MP in the days when sleaze wasn’t yet invented. This play didn’t work out quite so well – the time flow chopped backwards and forwards so much it was hard to tell what was going on – but what was notable about both plays was their promenade performances through an old house in Brighton, which they made excellent use of. This year, they’re in a new house, and I don’t know what it’s about because they’re being cryptic, but I look forward to finding out.

“Vintage” by Lucy Kaufman

Now for the bad news – actually, no, make that most the terrible, appalling, horrific new you can possibly imagine: The Bite Size Vintage Tea Party is only running on the 20th and 27th (at 2.30 pm, The Warren). For those of you unfortunate enough to have never heard of Bite Size, this is the flagship performance of Brighton-based White Room Theatre who specialise in sets of ten-minute plays. I first saw them at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, when they were hit-and-miss, but since then they’ve got better and better. This year, they seem to be basing their set on a play they performed last year called Vintage, which I won’t spoil for you except to say that it’s very very very very very very very very funny. I’ve no idea why this only being performed twice this Fringe, but as they’ve been to every Edinburgh Fringe since 2008, hopefully they’ll be there in August for the full three weeks.

Now, moving on to the Buxton Fringe (4th-22nd July), the play that most grabs my attention is A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Poole’s Cavern, by Butterfly Theatre (10th-13th July, 5.30 pm). Last year they did Macbeth in the same place. I didn’t see it, but I’ve heard good feedback about it, and I been to Poole’s cavern before and I can certainly see how this makes a good venue.

The full programme for the Edinburgh Fringe (August 3rd-27th) isn’t out yet, so I will be back in due course once I’ve had a chance to look through the line-up, but there’s already a few early indications of who to expect. Apart from Bite Size who come every year – and long may it continue – there’s already one or two other names I recognise.

Quite exciting is the news that Sparkle and Dark are finally coming to Edinburgh. Last year at Buxton I saw one of the most unexpected gems I have ever seen: The Clock Master by Louisa Ashton. It was billed as a family show, and I normally care very little for children’s theatre, but I relented after everyone in Buxton insisted I should go – and deservedly so. Although this was, on the surface, a fairy tale, this was an extraordinarily dark collection of three stories, interweaving music, acting, storytelling and puppetry beautifully – and the fact that over half the audience was adults without children showed how brilliantly they made this play work on different levels. For some reason, this show has toured to Brighton but not Edinburgh. But fear not, we have the next best thing: The Girl With No Heart, by the same author. This time, it’s set in an imaginary world with parallels with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can’t wait to see this.

I have also learnt Kemble’s Riot is coming to Edinburgh, by Adrian Bunting, following a great show at Brighton last year. This works on one simple premise: how do you reconstruct the cast of thousands needed for the Old Price riots in Covent Garden Theatre? Easy, get the audience to do it! Heckle the actors or heckle the hecklers? You decide!

Finally, I’m looking forward to Caroline Horton’s new play. Last year, I saw You’re Not Like the Other Girls, Chrissy, a wonderful one-woman performance telling the wartime romance of her own French grandmother, cut of from her English husband during the Nazi occupation. This year, she is bring a new play called Mess to Edinburgh. Apparently it’s about Josephine putting on a play about anorexia; other than that, your guess is as good as mine. Look forward to finding out.

Usual caveats apply: this is only my best guess on what will be good. Sometimes fringe plays don’t live up to expectations, and there is always a play that turns out to be great that I never saw coming. Watch this space – the reviews will tell the full story.