It’s been a pretty good Fringe for me this year. Normally, I return with an even mix of good plays and mediocre/awful plays under my belt. This year, however, I’ve seen 12 plays with very few weak links. However, this roundup is for a pick of the fringe and not an all-round “didn’t they all do well”, so I’m being stricter than I would normally be when looking for highlights. So congratulations to those who made it, commiserations to those who’ve missed out.
Okay, here’s we go:
Pick of the Fringe:
I am used to excellent productions from Bite-Size, and The Bite Size Vintage Tea Party is no exception. This is, however, a departure from their normal format. In London, Edinburgh and Adelaide they have stuck to a tried and tested formula of 10-minute plays by anyone about anything, but in their home town they have done something different. All three plays are themed around the Second World War (with tea ladies getting you in the mood with wartime songs in three-part harmony), with a reprise of Lucy Kaufman’s “Vintage” and two new wartime-themed plays by the same author. And – entirely new to Bite Size – “Tanrner stories”: true verbatim tales from residents of the Tarner area of Brighton. But when you have run a show so successfully on one formula for years, can you surpass your audience’s already high expectations? Not easy.
Now, the following comments are being made against the exceptional standards of Bite-Size’s previous shows, but I can’t decide whether or not this format is better than the old un-themed format. I can understand the need to avoid getting stale with your most regular local audience, but this format brings baggage. I’m sceptical about asking playwrights to write to “themes”; it’s a big constraint on which ideas you can use. Lucy Kaufman is no one-trick pony and the other two plays are easily up to Bite-Size standard (with is very good indeed), but Vintage was unbeatable and remains unbeaten. Vintage did feel slightly out of place with the rest of the show. It would have been unthinkable to leave out the titular play (this is the third time I’ve seen it so I was sniggering in advance of the jokes), but this funny play about a modern couple who think it’s the 1940s did seem a bit detached from the other plays, all serious, and actually set in the 1940s. But if there’s one change I’d have liked, it was in the Tarner stories. In the verbatim monologues, the three actors used headphones with the real recorded tales to get their voices as authentic as possible. One side effect was that the wires distracted from the 1940s feel. It would have been difficult to reproduce these voices without the headphones – but it can be done. Motherland had a very successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago doing exactly that, and I’m confident the Bite Size actors are capable of doing the same. But all of these thoughts are just tweaks, and Bite-Size looks set to stay excellent whatever happens.
I also had high hopes for Wired theatre’s Gone but not Forgotten, and this too does not disappoint. This is a revival of a play they did in 2006, and it’s set in a house in the suburbs of Brighton – yes, that’s an actual house, not just a set of one on a stage. The first sign we got that the play was started was an estate agent coming to welcome us to a house viewing – and you would not have guessed this was a play if you hadn’t bought a ticket for it. As the viewing continues, it becomes apparent that the occupants are two ex-prostitutes and their shared lover, now all elderly. Wired’s speciality is site-specific pieces like this one, but this was one of the most convincing ones I’d seen.
There is just one thing that confused me: the flashbacks and flash-forwards. When you’re in the ultra-realistic set of a real living room, it’s a bit confusing if you’re watching action from ten years ago. Once I’d worked out what was going on, I found myself struggling to go back over the two-thirds of the play I’d already seen to work out which bits took place when. The idea, I understand, is that this is a house with a lot of memories in it, but if this had been mentioned earlier on in the play, it might saved a bit of confusion. But as far as site-specific pieces go, Wired remains well ahead of the game. With fresh and original work normally considered the territory of young drama graduates, and older actors traditionally often associated with dreary amdram, it’s refreshing to see an older cast produce things as innovative as this.
Stoke-on-Trent’s New Vic toured to the Fringe with Blonde Poison , a one-woman show about Stella Goldschlag, a holocuast victim-turned Gestapo collaborator. I recommend very few Fringe monologues for one reason and one reason only: there’s a lot of them, making it hard to stand out from all other other monologues. This monologue however, was a fascinating true story of how a Jew ended up betraying hundreds of fellow Jews hiding from the Nazis. It was sometimes difficult to remember who was who amongst the vast number of people mentioned, but this is an inherent challenge with true stories. However, this does little to detract from the strong performance and strong writing that makes this the success it is. This play is still due to tour to Croydon, Oxford and Guildford if anyone reading this lives around there.
There is one other monologue I recommend, but unlike Blonde Poison, this has gone almost unnoticed. It’s What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?, and in spite of being free, there were only four people in the audience on the day I saw it. This play is about a middle-aged man who is odd, resentful of the world and has a weird attitude to women. However, when a woman is stabbed to death in the woods where he sometimes sunbathes naked, the Police put two and two together and make seven. It’s a play that full exposes his oddities but still makes you think about when society jumps to conclusions when somebody is different. I think this play was let down by a title and suspect the problem lay with the title and the posters, neither of which showed what they play was about. This is a harsh lesson in how important it is to get your publicity right – but the play itself deserved a far better attendance.
Finally, one high-profile production touring to the Fringe is The Girl With the Iron Claws, which follows a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. This is a retelling of the Nordic Myth of “The White Bear King”, and can be considered a dark fairy tale aimed at both children and adults. One disadvantage on this blog though: I saw a similar fringe production two years ago called The Clock Master, and in spite of this being a much lower-budget production, it’s tough competition. I’d say that The Clock Master had the better script, but The Girl With Iron Claws had the better staging. One would expect the higher-budget production to have the better staging, but the imagination and innovation they used to tell the story, through lighting, sound, props and puppet, has to be believed. If I had to pick one to see, it would be a tough call, but it’s not fair to mark a production down because of a strong similar production. Much easier to see both.
One play that won’t have a life beyond the Brighton Fringe is Hanover the Musical!, in which the suburb of Brighton of this name discovers an ancient royal charter and declares itself an independent republic. This is a spin-off of a regular comedy act called The Treason Show, only this time it’s presumably for the writers’ local community. Consequently, it is packed full of local in-jokes, but they don’t pretend to be anything else, and speaking as someone who’d never been in that part of Brighton, I can say I mostly followed what was going on. But I was most surprised by how well-produced such a small-scale production was. With most community productions ranging from mediocre to unimaginably terrible, something put together this well is a pleasant surprise.
Boogaloo Stu’s Pop Magic doesn’t really count as theatre, but was a lot of fun. The idea is creating a pop record in one hour using audience volunteers and random lyrics, but as long as it’s after 10 p.m. and enough members of the audience have been drinking, it is a fun and definitely memorable way to round off an evening. At least, I think it is. I still can’t rule out the possibility that Boogaloo Stu is actually a strange dream I had. Must check how much cheese I eat before bed.
Finally, one welcome new addition to the Fringe this year is Dip Your Toe. These are six Victorian bathing machines with all sorts of different things inside. I didn’t have time to catch all of these, but in an hour I managed to catch street theatre, installation art, and a quite innovative poetic use of a camera obscura. Again, I didn’t count this as theatre as such, but it is one of the most innovative things I’ve seen at an arts festival, and I hope this returns next year.
So, there’s my roundup. Next stop Buxton in July.