The Brighton Fringe survival guide

UPDATE: This was a guide I wrote for the 2013 Brighton Fringe. I have now done an update for 2014: nothing different, just a few additions and clarifications. Read the new version here, or view the old version for posterity.

Much as I love the Edinburgh Fringe, the down-side is that after it ends, you’ve got to wait eleven months before the next one. That’s why some fans of the festival fringe format look towards other open-access festivals, and the obvious choice is the Brighton Fringe: the second largest in the UK, largest in England, and the third largest in the world after Adelaide. It’s in May, which leaves a reasonable gap from the Edinburgh Fringe three months later, whilst offering decent weather on the beach.

However, if you have previously been to the Edinburgh Fringe and want to add Brighton to your list, you need to be aware that it’s not just a smaller-scale copy of its Scottish cousin. Unlike Edinburgh, where the audience is dominated by people visiting from all over the country, in Brighton the audiences are mostly locals, plus a contingent of Londoners on weekend visits. As a result, there are a lot of things that make the Brighton Fringe different. Here are a few tip I have from anyone new to the Brighton Fringe who’s previously been to Edinburgh:

1: The Brighton Fringe is a weekend-centric festival

As the majority of Brighton Fringegoers are local, they tend to plan their shows around their day jobs. Consequently, only a minority of plays are scheduled before 5 p.m. on weekdays, especially at the start of the week – it makes little sense to try to fill a theatre when most of your potential audience are at work. This means that if you’re in Brighton for the Fringe on a Monday or Tuesday, you may find yourself having to wait until late afternoon before you can see anything that takes your fancy. That’s fine for Fringe lightweights who only want to see one or two things per day and would rather spend the daytime enjoying the rest of Brighton’s attractions, but not so great for more dedicated Fringegoers.

If you are specifically coming to Brighton for the Fringe, try to time your visit to spend all day Saturday and Sunday there – it is the weekend when you’ll find the most shows on offer. If you’ve got a long journey home, save that for Monday.

Unfortunately, there is one big snag in a weekend visit to Brighton, which is the subject of my next tip:

2: If you’re coming over the weekend, arrange your accommodation early

There is plenty of accommodation to go round in Edinburgh. August is a highly lucrative month with visitors throughout the month. Brighton, however, is very much a weekend destination. It’s not so much fringe weekenders, but lots of Londoners who come to Brighton for a weekend of drinking and sunbathing. This means that demand peaks on Saturdays and you can struggle to find anywhere to stay.

So don’t leave your accommodation until the last moment. If you’ve picked the same weekend as the hugely popular Great Escape, you should even look at doing this weeks or months in advance. If you do, you may end up having to stay in a certain hostel that is notoriously bad. I won’t name and shame the hostel in question – you can probably work out which one I mean from feedback on sites like Hostelworld. A bit of organisation now may save you a lot of stress later.

3: Don’t expect the buzz of the Edinburgh Fringe

If there’s one bad reason to go to the Brighton Fringe, it’s if you’re expecting it to be just like the Royal Mile at Edinburgh, with street performances, free acts of music and dancing, and hundreds of performers flyering you for their shows. Let’s get this out of the way now: there is no equivalent in Brighton. They sort of attempt to do something similar with Fringe City each Saturday afternoon, but even this is a much smaller event. You certainly won’t get the flyering. (And, let’s be fair the performers – flyering is a hugely laborious task. In Brighton and Buxton, some posters in shop windows will usually be enough, and I for one would have no intention of spending hours doing this if I don’t have to.)

But it’s not just the lack of the Royal Mile. In spite of Brighton being the biggest open access festival in England, it’s still on a tiny scale compared to Edinburgh. In Edinburgh, you cannot miss the Fringe. In Brighton, you probably won’t know it’s there unless you’re specially looking for it. You can still keep yourself very busy throughout your visit, but don’t expect the same Fringe atmosphere of the big one.

4: No acts run for the full length of the festival

This isn’t something you need to worry about too much as a punter, but it’s nonetheless something to be aware of. Look at any Edinburgh Fringe programme and you will notice that most plays run for the full three weeks. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you have no choice but to do it this way. (That is the main reason why the Edinburgh Fringe is such an expensive commitment and why it has, so far, put off people like me from taking part.) On the plus side, if you do well, you can get a steady audience through the festival, as old punters go home and are replaced by new ones.

Brighton is quite different. Most of your audience will be local, so the absolute maximum it’s sensible to run a play is one week – and most are even shorter. It makes no sense to run the full length of the festival, because after one week, everyone thinking of seeing your play will have done so.

As a punter, you needn’t worry too much about this. You will have much less choice of plays than Edinburgh, but it’s still plenty (and, let’s face it, in Edinburgh you won’t have time to even read the entries of all the plays on offer). The only thing you need to be careful about is if you want to see a specific play. If you book your visit on any old dates assuming they’ll be on throughout the whole festival, you will probably feel like a complete wally.

5: Don’t rely on precise timings

At the Edinburgh Fringe, if you buy a ticket for a play that starts at 5.35 p.m. with an advertised running time of 70 minutes, you can expect to be out at 6.45 p.m. If your next play begins at 7.05 p.m. and the venue is 10 minutes’ walk away, you can expect to be there in plenty of time. With most venues being jam-packed in every space from morning till night, they have to run with military precision.

But don’t try relying on this in Brighton. Slippage is common, and if your next play is due to begin 20 minutes after the last one is due to finish, you are really pushing your luck. So don’t try to jam-pack your Brighton Fringe schedule with as many plays as possible. You are better off going for a more relaxed schedule, enjoying the seaside resort in the gaps between plays. If you’re into hardcore fringing with 5, 6, 7 or 8 plays per day, save that for Edinburgh.

Also, be careful about the locations of the venues – some may be further out than you think. You need to be careful about this in Edinburgh too, but in Brighton it’s more commonplace. Sprinting for 15 minutes to a venue that you thought was a leisurely walk away is an experience best avoided.

6: Beware of community productions

At the Edinburgh Fringe, a lot of plays are student productions, and it’s difficult to know from the programme which is which. I have seen a few damned good student productions, but they are outnumbered by mediocre, poor, and fucking awful ones. This is something you don’t see much in Brighton. (Most students have exams in May, but also – I suspect – most student drama groups don’t realise there’s more to Fringe Theatre than Edinburgh.) In Brighton, however, there’s a different thing to watch out for: community productions. These are small amateur groups who would be putting on plays no matter what, but pay the Brighton Fringe registration fee and get themselves listed alongside fully professional productions, without the commitment of travel and accommodation that most fully professional actors have to deal with. It gets a few extra tickets sold.

Now, it’s not fair to write off all community productions at the Brighton Fringe. I’ve always maintained that the best amateur productions can be as good as the professionals, and some “community” productions (such as Hannover! The Musical which I saw last year) are surprisingly good. But I must warn you that when they’re bad, they’re abominable. The problem is that when your intended audience is friends, family, or doting parents of the actors, there’s no need to even try to be good – you are guaranteed praise of the “didn’t they all try hard” variety. I won’t go into the gory details, just to say that the worst play I ever saw was a community production in Brighton. (I shall refrain from saying who it was.)

I do feel a little guilty about tarring all community productions with the same brush, and I do urge people to allow small amateur groups a fair chance against the professionals at fringe festivals. But know the risk you are taking – you could be bitterly cursing your choice.

7: Popular shows sell out

At the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a safe bet that if you turn up to the venue 5 minutes before curtain up and ask for a ticket, you will get one. Failing that, you will almost certainly get a ticket for the following day. The only acts where you tend need to worry about booking in advance are the big-name comedians.

My experience of Brighton, however, is that sell-outs are far more commonplace, for not only one day but the entire run. This is not the end of the world – some of the best plays I’ve seen I only went to as an alternative to my preferred show selling out – but I sometimes wondering if the overall quality of plays I’ve seen is reduced by all the best ones having gone. I would therefore advise you to buy tickets further in advance in Brighton than you would for Edinburgh. If there’s anything you absolutely don’t want to miss, book it online before you even come to the fringe, even if it means paying the booking fee.

So … is it worth it?

There are other notable differences between Edinburgh and Brighton, but are the main ones that you as a punter ought to know. As a performer, the Brighton Fringe has one huge advantage over Edinburgh, which is the cost. But to an average Fringegoer, what I have listed might make it sound like it’s the poor cousin to the Edinburgh Fringe, with all of the best bits missing. The question might then arise: is it really worth going at all, when the famous is only three months later.

I would put it as an unequivocal yes for one reason: having been to both Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes for four years, it is now my opinion that an average Brighton Fringe play is better than an average Edinburgh Fringe play. I really do. The Edinburgh Fringe is the most prestigious arts festival in the world, I expect it to remain so as long as I live, and nothing can beat the atmosphere of the Edinburgh Fringe. But the prestige of the Edinburgh Fringe is its biggest weakness as well as its biggest strength. My theory is that countless groups take any old rubbish to the Edinburgh Fringe simply for the kudos of having performed there. I would bitterly oppose any attempts to introduce vetting into the Edinburgh Fringe, but I do feel a lot of groups should think carefully if what they are doing is ready for this. For many beginners, the brutal reality is that the masterpiece you are preparing to wow the world with is almost certainly not the masterpiece you think it is.

Participants to the Brighton Fringe, I believe, are on the whole a more discerning bunch. They have considered the Edinburgh Fringe, the Brighton Fringe, and probably the other fringes too, and gone for the festival that suits them best – and this means they will have thought about their own strengths and weaknesses. You might think that this would leave the Brighton Fringe with all of the shows that didn’t consider themselves good enough for Edinburgh, but my belief is this is more than outweighed by the masses of groups that go straight to Edinburgh without thinking.

This is just a guess. I have not taken a play to a Fringe Festival (yet), so I can only speculate what performers are thinking. Please, if you know better, correct me. But whilst I’m unsure of the cause, I am in little doubt as to the effect. What you see at the Brighton Fringe is just as good as Edinburgh, if not more. It may not have the magic of the Royal Mile, but it certainly doesn’t lack for good theatre.