Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2012

An orange sheepWell, I am back from the Buxton Fringe where I’ve seen a comparatively relaxing eight plays. Again, the eight have been of a good standard with few weak links, so once again the hurdles are a little higher than normal. But there were four plays in particular which stood out.

Pick of the Fringe:

Probably the most polished production I saw was Dev’s Army, which has returned to Buxton after a successful run last year where they won the award for best new writing. Now, a lot of reviews are describing this as Dad’s Army meets Father Ted, but apart from the characters being members of the Irish equivalent of the home guard (the Local Security Force) and the play being set in a remote part of Ireland, it really has nothing in common with either sitcom. Annoyingly, their website is using this description as their lead quote, which isn’t doing themselves any favours.

But, as for the play itself, the praise it earned from last year’s run is thoroughly earned. Three volunteers during “The Emergency” (that’s World War Two to you and me), on the lookout for any vessels, British or German, up to no good. Paddy openly hopes a German victory will bring the return of Ulster from the hated English, whilst Dermot’s loyalty is firmly with the British and has a far bleaker picture of Nazi dominiation. This comes to a head when a Nazi gun runner is washed up on the beach, and plays Paddy and Dermot off against each other. Part comedy, part social observation and eventually part thriller, this is an impressive debut from Elysion productions.

Another wartime play on that week was Scallywags from SOOP, this time back in Blighty with the Auxilliary Units, the would-be resistance in the event of an invasion. This is a less conventional play, with the five actors playing dozens of different characters, and it heavily mixes slapstick humour with a serious ending when the Germans actually do make a landing. I felt the slapstick was overdone a little, and you’ve got to sit through 15 minutes of this before anything interesting happens, but once it gets going it’s worth the wait. A lot of interesting threads in the story: a working-class gamekeeper and an upper-class heir to the land, bitter enemies as civvies but loyal as soldiers; the dentist who has never done anything brave in his life before; the chief of police who knows of the scallywags but doesn’t know is own 11-year-old son is one them. And this play makes the most astonishing use furniture doubling as tunnels. Still some work to be done here, but this shows a lot of promise.

An even more complicated play was Just Add Water Theatre Company’s Bobby. The story is about a boy who grows up in an abusive household, and goes on to become screwed up an violent and in prison – but I’ve never seen a story told this way before. Bobby and everyone else in the real world is played by puppets or makeshift props. The four actors, on the other hand, play various parts of Bobby’s mind in a power struggle. Fear is taking over, in a huge department merged with Inadequacy and Self-Loathing. Free Will is trying to restore order, but Logic is twisted, Desire is subdued, and there’s no sign of bringing Hope back. If this sounds unperformable, I can assure you: I’ve seen it and it actually works.

One problem is that the play over-uses physical theatre devices and sometimes makes the play hard to follow. Also, we probably didn’t need so much of the technical-cum-philosophical detail about the workings of the brain. Like Scallywags, I had to wait 15 minutes for the story to begin. But this should not detract from the achievement of forming out of something so unusual. With a bit of careful thought, I can see this forming a successful full-length play. This play is still running at Buxton so there’s still time to catch it if you’re there.

Finally, I am pleased to say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Poole’s Cavern was as good as I thought it might be. Shakespeare in Poole’s Cavern is nothing new (I believe the last company to do this performed in 2006), but it’s a great venue for a promenade performance (one that vaguely masquerades as an ordinary tour of the cave), with the sloping sides of the cave making excellent ad-hoc stages, put to very good creative use by Butterfly Theatre. Simple but effective devices such as singing and fairy lights and even tiny torches turned the cave into a fairyland – and of course the inevitable joke about what the stalagmites really remind you of (Shakespeare would have approved). One achievement that’s easy to overlook is that this must have been a health and safety nightmare having the actors leaping on and off damp rocks, so well done to whoever sorted that out. Only real issue I had was that in order to be heard above the noise of the underground stream, the cast were permanently shouting, which doesn’t really work for a tender love scene, so that’s something to think about there. Other than that, good job, look forward to seeing what they do next year.

Honourable mention:

Three’s Company’s Tom Crawshaw has been in action again, this time writing a script for a children’s theatre group. It’s The Chronicles of Arnica, which parodies … well, it involves four children being transported to a magical world by looking at a picture of a wardrobe in an Argos catalogue, where a magical lion called Asda is – have you guessed the parody yet? Anyway, the Wicked White Witch Queen controls Arnica by making it a blazing hot summer and always Christmas so no-one has a chance to organise rebellions or – you get the idea. It is unmistakably Tom Crawshaw’s humour, but without Three’s Company performing this it just wasn’t the same. Okay, it’s a children’s group from a small town so it’s not fair to expect miracles, and there were some good performances when you consider the age of the children, but it goes to show that there is more to Three’s Company than the writer. The good news is that Three’s Company proper will be back in action in Edinburgh doing what they do best: a new interactive farce named The World’s Greatest Walking Tour of Edinburgh, with the return of compulsory audience participation.

Finally, one of the more politicised plays was Kafka in the Sink. The clue here is the by-line of “So, we’re all in it together”, and the play unashamedly makes a statement about how people with mental disabilities are being affected by the cuts. It’s clearly an issue that writer Gavin Crippin feels strongly about – and, in credit, he manages to avoid the usual political theatre opening of: Act 1, Scene 1, the Prime Minister gets out of bed and says “Ha! Ha! Ha! How can I oppress the working class today?” – but in a bid to cover all of the points he wants to make, the play suffers as a story. I found it hard to latch on to any sort of narrative, and wasn’t sure whose story, if any, I was meant to be following. However, I was impressed with writing and acting of the people with mental disabilities, where they’d clearly done their homework. With a better balance of story and politics (you don’t have to put everything you want to say into one play) this play could work well.

One other thought:

Normally my roundups are just reviews. This time, however, I have a thought about where the Buxton Fringe is going in general.

Although the Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton Fringes are all open-access festivals, the venues are not open-access. They only have a finite number of performances spaces and have to decide which groups to accept. The problem is that there are few “super-venues” (chains of venues such as C, Underbelly, Pleasance) which between them could have a big influence on what can actually make it to Edinburgh. Whether they actually do make a difference is up for debate.

But at the Buxton Fringe, there is now only one super-venue, which is Underground Venues. They only have three spaces (two in a hotel basement and one in an arts centre), but that accounts for the majority of theatre in the Fringe. And there’s a vicious circle emerging here: Undergound Venues are getting the better plays, therefore everybody want to perform there, leaving the other venues with the shows Underground doesn’t want, and so on. And Underground Venues is run by the same people who run Three’s Company. We could end up in the situation where Three’s Company becomes the De Facto vetting committee for the Buxton Fringe, which would defeat the object of the Fringe.

Of course, it’s hardly fair to blame Underground Venues for being successful. And, credit where it is due, they have behaved themselves with their dominant position. They have not tried to filter the content of the Fringe to any particular style of theatre, they are not unfairly promoting their own productions above others, and as far as I can tell, they are not advantaging any particular clique. But no group of individuals, however trustworthy, should even have the capability to misbehave this way. There’s no guarantee that their successors won’t abuse their new-found power, and it’s not fair on the people currently in charge to be open to accusations of misusing their positions.

I don’t think that Underground should be downsized or broken up – that would be daft as they are virtually running the theatre side of the Fringe at the moment – but I do wish there was something to counter-balance the venues. Until two years ago there was a tent next to Poole’s Cavern doing just that, but now this has gone. Buxton Community School has a ready-made venue in the form of its drama studio which it is hardly using, and that is really frustrating as you could really put on a decent programme there. Someone, surely, must be in a position to set up a new proper venue. The Buxton Fringe is too important to leave in the hands of a few people, however responsible, and this is a challenge that the Buxton Fringe Committee needs to look at.

Anyway, that’s your lot from Buxton. Coming soon, the big one: the Edinburgh Fringe round up.