Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2012

That’s it, I’m now back from my second visit, and I have finally got round to writing everything up. Before I begin, just a word about the context of this roundup. As any fringegoer will know, there are gazillions of plays on offer and no-one can hope to see anywhere near all of them. Since I don’t like pre-vetting what I see based on other people’s reviews, there are going to be plenty of plays out that I would have liked had I seen them, but I didn’t. This list should, therefore, be considered a cross-section of the good stuff that was at the Edinburgh Fringe rather than a top ten of the whole festival.

Before going on to my pick of the Fringe, first a couple of observations about this year. And the good news is that the Assembly Rooms is back as a Fringe venue. Last year the venue on George Street was closed for refurbishment amidst fears that the fringe wouldn’t be coming back when it re-opened. But we needn’t have worried because the Assembly Rooms are back in business. In fact, it’s even bigger and better because the road outside has been closed and turned over the Fringegoers with an outdoor bar and the Spiegeltent. The only downside is that it’s under new management – normally nothing wrong with this, but we now have the old management, venue chain Assembly, still running Assembly Hall but not the Assembly Rooms – they are operating under the trade name Assembly Rooms. Got that? Assembly Rooms: Assembly Rooms. Assembly Hall: Assembly. And to confuse things further, Assembly also runs the venue at George Square, which is nowhere near George Street. So, George Street: Assembly Rooms. George Square: Assembly. Is anyone following this? Thought not. And it’s confusing the hell out of anyone trying to find the correct box office.

One less welcome observation is the sharp increase in the number of plays over the £10 mark. I suppose with inflation going the way it is this was bound to happen eventually, but this isn’t much consolation to the more cash-strapped Fringegoers. If things carry on this way, I suspect it won’t be long before things come to a head between the traditional Fringe and Free Fringe.

Anyway, enough of that. let’s move on to …

Pick of the Fringe

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: after two surprisingly good runs of plays at the Brighton and Buxton Fringes, the standard at Edinburgh was a bit of a disappointment. The problem time and time again was ideas that looked great in the programme but failed to live up to expectations on the stage. I may expand on what’s going wrong in another blog post (no finger-pointing, just the mistakes people keep making), but for now, let’s concentrate on was good. This time I think I’ll go for chronological order.

Starting from the beginning, I quite liked Satan’s Playground by Sacred and Profane. This takes the form of Satan (a two-bodied being who goes on to play all the characters in the story) proudly explaining how he destroyed a Jewish God-fearing village – partly through a little intervention bringing a couple together, but mostly through allowing the ultra-conservative villagers to tear themselves apart over this union. This production appeared to be, like many Fringe plays, a showcase for two young actors out of drama school, and bore the hallmarks of a formulaic showcase play, t when you get the formula right it doesn’t matter. The writing and directing played to the actors’ strengths whilst keeping the plot going. A good start to the Fringe.

Three’s Company’s The World’s Greatest Walking Tour of Edinburgh lives up to the wacky expectations we’ve come to expect from their interactive farces. This time, unsuspecting theatregoers join Cuth McWildred (History A*) on a walking tour. You don’t get to learn much about Edinburgh but you do get to see a bitter power struggle as Cuth’s ruthless rival tries to steal his tour and foil his attempts to get into the tour guild, culminating in a Mortal Kombat-style “Fact Battle”. I was a perhaps a little hasty warning off the terminally shy from this play, as  they go easy on compulsory audience participation this time. If you liked Auditorium and The Importance of Being Frank, you’ll like this. If you’ve never heard of those plays, now’s a good time to find out what it’s about.

I’ve finally get round to seeing Do You Still Throw Spears at Each Other? after numerous recommendations, and I can now confirm it’s good – and better still, it’s free. This is not, as one might assume, a catalogue of Prince Phillip’s gaffes, but rather a chance for Prince Philip to give his side of the story – except of course, major royals don’t have the time to spend three weeks at the Fringe, so it’s up to look-a-like George Telfer to be the Prince. This is neither a pro-monarchy nor anti-monarchy nor anti-monarchy play but more a chance to view the Duke of Edinburgh as a human being. The play takes a few liberties such as a major royal is addressing us in the back room of a pub, but this is one of the best Free Fringe plays I’ve seen.

Then came Caroline Horton’s Mess which had to be the biggest gem of the Fringe. This earns a page all of its own, so you can read the full review here.

Moving into the second weekend, it started with Sparkle and Dark’s The Girl With No Heart. This is still the same show I reviewed in Chatham and my glowing comment still stand. I was worried that they may have gone a gamble too far and might have been better off with their safer bet of The Clock Master, but the indications I’ve seen suggest that things are going well.

Kemble’s Riot was huge fun in Brighton last year and it’s still huge fun in spite of a near-complete change of cast. This is about the Old Price Riots of 1809, where theatregoers rioted for three months over a rise in ticket prices at Covent Garden Theatre. If this sounds boring, don’t worry; the cast of thousands heckling John Kemble (or heckling the hecklers depending on which side you’re sitting) is played by the audience, thanks to writer Adrian Bunting inspired idea of getting two plant in the audience who lead (and stop) the audience shouting at the right time. The play is done in modern dress rather than period dress, but this works because it brings home the idea that the sentiments for rioting then aren’t that different from now.

Now we move on to The Big Bite-Size Breakfast. Bite Size performs sets of ten-minute plays at breakfast, with a choice of three different “menus”, but one major change this year was to put these menus into three “themes”. Was this a wise decision? It’s a difficult one. The problem Bite-Size has – if you can call it a problem – is that they’ve got hugely successful show they can bring to the Edinburgh Fringe, and what’s more, they can bring back the same formula with new material year after year. And the reason it’s a problem is that in this situation it’s very difficult to try anything different. They have run other shows alongside Bite-Size in both Brighton and Edinburgh, but so far, all attempts have been eclipsed by the Bite-Size franchise. So perhaps the only real way of adapting is to tinker with Bite-Size itself. But introducing “themes” comes at a price. The ten-minutes plays they find and generally consistently good, but the biggest strength has been the weird and wonderful ideas you can only do in a ten-minute play, such as Quiet Table for Four, where inner voices try to ruin a blind date, Borys, where the condemned Rotweiller goes his side of the story, A Toothbrush Tale, where there characters are – can you guess – and, of course Lucy Kaufman’s Vintage. These ideas were only possible by an open brief where you can write about anything. That’s not nearly so easy when you have to write to a set subject.

The compromise Nick Brice has used is to cheat a little – and they get away with it. Two of the themes: “Love Sex and Death” and “Forces of Nature” are actually so vague they allow pretty much any play they fancy doing. It is only one of the sets where the theme makes a real difference: the “Vintage” set, all by Lucy Kaufman (like the show at Brighton minus the vebatim monologues but plus a new play). The idea behind this, I understand, is that back in Brighton there is significant interest in performances of WW2-themed plays. The fact that Lucy Kaufman has managed to write four plays on the same subject without a weak link is a big achievement, because writing to themes by order is very difficult – but it comes at a cost of less stylistic variety that Bite-Size is famous for. But should we be expecting that of the Vintage set in the first place, or is this just an expectation inherited from Bite Size? Perhaps it’s not fair to expect the Vintage set to be like Bite Size but with a theme. If this Vintage venture does have the commercial success they are hoping for, then in the long run I would look at spinning off the Vintage menu into a production in its own right. This, I think, is best viewed not as making Bite Size better or worse, but something quite different.

Finally, after a long string of disappointments, just as I was about to take the last train home in despair, I saw Rubies in the Attic which was surprisingly good. The Ruby Dolls are predominant a London-based cabaret act, but this venture into devised theatre worked very well. Let’s get one thing into perspective: devised theatre is hard. The originality that is on offer from all members of the cast chipping in with their ideas for how to develop a production is almost always outweighed by the absence of a writer or director leading to a play with lots of clever ideas that don’t go anywhere. This formula, however, was simple but effective: interesting stories of the ancestors of the four women set to lovely music and staging in a set that looks like an attic. I can see a lot of potential for this format of theatre, but whether these four women will stay in theatre when they clearly have a lucrative cabaret act going is another question. We’ll see next year.

UPDATE: Observant readers may have noticed the absence of The Prize from the Pick of the Fringe, in spite of me previously putting this on my “worth watching” list. That wasn’t because there was anything disappointing about the play, it was simply because I didn’t see it at Edinburgh because I knew I’d be able to catch it in Newcastle later. Anyway, I’ve now seen it, and it was as good as I expected. Once again, Steve Gilroy has brought to life a collection of amazing stories from past and present Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls, using actors acting out their verbatim stories. One highlight was William Hardy, who you may recall was the 14-year-old who lost both legs and an arm to meningitis who lit the Olympic cauldron in Newcastle back in June. This is a tried and tested formula of Steve Gilroy’s and not anything particularly new or risky, but when it’s someone who created the formula and mastered it this well, who cares?

If you read this in time, you’ve got up to this Saturday (8th September) to see it at Live Theatre, so you’d better be quick.

Honourable mentions

Two runners-ups for plays. I quite liked Matthew Osborne’s Shopping Centre, which I was kindly given a free ticket for on the first day of the Fringe. Matthew Osborne himself plays a loner stuck in the basement of a shopping centre during a riot, who talks to a security guard he accidentally stabbed – only for the loner to be substantially more screwed up with the rioters, with his obsession of furniture and David Cameron, and his bitterness over his failed marriage. The only criticism I had of this play is that it’s formulaic; the way that many writing classes expect you to write a play is to think of a character, write as many traits as you think about the character, they write a play about it. But as a foray into serious theatre by a man whose previous work has been stand-up comedy, that’s a good attempt.

The other promising play was Thread by Nutshell Theatre. A site-specific piece set in what looks like a village hall, the audience starts off in a game a Beetle Drive, before going off into flashbacks of the complicated lives of organisers Joan, William and Izzy. This was a very interesting idea with only one snag: I couldn’t follow what was going on half the time. It keeps chopping and changing from scene to scene over decades of back-story with little chance to catch up when you get lost. I wonder if a little use of sound and lighting would have helped us follow which scene was which. But the acting and idea showed a lot of promise, so this is a company to keep an eye on.

And finally, I fulfilled one of my lifetime ambitions – I was in an Edinburgh Fringe play! I landed the much cherished role of: Man Taken On Stage Who Hasn’t a Clue What’s Going On. This was in a puppet play called Boris and Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure. This is something I count as comedy/entertainment rather than theatre and is therefore not eligible for inclusion in Pick of the Fringe, but if there was such an award as the “What the Fuck?” award (in a good way) this would be a front-runner. But, along with Boogaloo Stu from the Brighton Fringe, they also face still competition from When Alice (Cooper) met (Prince) Harry (not the Alice Cooper, an actress who happens to have this as a real name) and Yve Blake‘s Am I a Good Friend? On a more serious note, Yve Blake is someone worth looking out for in the future. This show was just a bit of fun (an exaggerated version of herself where she enthusiastically demonstrates with “scientific” methods how well she meets the criteria of a good friend – with a lot of fudging) but I was impressed with the performance. I assumed this was the début piece of a drama school graduate, but she’s just 19 and presumably done this without the help of expensive training. Not sure whether she plans to continue with solo work or take a part in a larger play, but if she goes for the latter, that play will be very lucky to have her in the cast.

And that’s it done, at last. Hooray. That’s it for your 2012 Fringe Festivals coverage. Come back in 2013 for coverage on next year’s.