Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2013

Okay, I’m back from Brighton and have now finished expanding my speedy error-strewn reviews into something longer. (See also What’s Worth Watching for plays I’ve seen at previous Fringes but didn’t catch this time – this list is for plays I saw at this Fringe.) Apologies for anyone waiting for reviews from more local plays – I will clear the backlog soon. Anyway, I saw 13 productions at the Brighton Fringe this year, and as per last time, I’ve found the overall average standard to be better than Edinburgh. In fact, I’d say only one play was mediocre – I won’t say which one, but it was a bit of devised theatre. I’ve noticed devised theatre is a problematic area (albeit one which can be fantastic if you get it right), so I think I’ll write my thoughts about this another time.

To repeat the rules: this is the stuff that stood out for me – and at Brighton, where the average standard is pretty good, this is a tough bar to clear. What I’ve seen is heavily influenced by when I was there and what happened to be on at the right time, so this list should be considered a cross-section of the plays out there rather than a comprehensive assessment of everything out there. Indeed, anyone who claims to have single-handedly picked out all the best plays in the Brighton Fringe is lying. Anyway, here is your cross-section …

Pick of the Fringe

The first production that caught my attention was High Vis at the Old Courthroom. If you saw the excellent The Trials and Harvey Matusow (a McCarthy stooge-turned-whistleblower) in 2010, this is done by the same writer and actor, Robert Cohen. This time, however, instead of biopic, we’re going into car-crash comedy with the world of traffic wardens. Now, one criticism you can make about this play is that this is over-reliant on the stereotype, but this does actually contribute to the story. In theory, traffic wardens are meant to act as a deterrent to illegal parking so that pedestrians can cross the road safely and other motorists get a turn at parking. Sadly, Quint completely misses the point and enthusiastically believes it’s all about catching out as many people as possible and issuing as many tickets. Worse, this mentality stretches to all aspects of his life, meaning that his wife has left him, he’s lost contact with his gay son, and he alienates most of his fellow traffic wardens when someone starts attacking him and others with a blowpipe. All of this story is told through Quint’s hugely misguided training sessions for the new wardens. This has now finished at Brighton, but there are plans to tour both this play and Harvey Matusow in the autumn. (Harvey Matusow is also going to be showing on the 27th-28th May at the Claxton Arms in the Five Pound Fringe, which is confusingly not in the Brighton Fringe programme as the Five Pound Fringe is something different, but that’s something to look at another day.)

Another lovely play I saw  The Trials and Tribulations of Mr. Pickwick, also at the Old Courtroom. You might thing that just because they use the same venue, do one-man shows and have plays that begin with “The Trial(s) of …” they might be done by the same people as the High Vis team, but it’s actually a completely different venture so don’t get mixed up (I know I was). This stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s favourite philanthropist concentrates on Mr. Pickwick’s own tale. Owing to an innocent misunderstanding, Pickwick (Nigel Nevinson) inadvertently say something which his landlady interprets as a marriage proposal, and promptly finds himself in a run-in with the earliest case of no-win-no-fee lawyer bastards, under a silly rule in Victorian days called “Breach of Promise”. Most of the story is told by Mr. Pickwick from the debtor’s prison, but don’t worry – it’s his own selflessness and kindness that wins the day in the end. That had a one-off performance on the 10th, but will return on the 25th-26th.

Now, always a welcome fixture at Brighton is The Big Bite-Size Breakfast, especially so when there were a wobbles about whether to go ahead with Brighton this year. In previous years, they have experimented with new formats in Brighton, including the particularly adventurous Vintage Tea Party last year. This year, however, they have reverted to their tried and tested format of straight sets of ten-minute plays. Two of the three sets are plays that have been done many times before. They’re very good – you’d expect them to be, director Nick Brice has had years to get these right – but I was concerned that they were going from one extreme to the other, this year taking no risks and going for ultra-safe choices of plays.

However, my concerns were more than countered by their “Fresh Fruit” set of four new plays and one nearly new play. I am used to – and make allowances for – new ten-minutes plays being hit-and-miss, but the new plays shown this time were of a very high standard. And the one that really stood out was Elephants and Coffee. Previously, Bite-Size have come across all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas making some very funny plays, but this play, in spite of being about a chance meeting between a depressed woman and an elephant on the run from the circus, was surprisingly moving. Both of them designated as society as freaks, understand each other because of this. A hotel bar was used for two of the three sets, and I thought this makes a rather good setting for this sort of theatre. The only snag is that the tickets end up quite expensive in that venue.

One regular I’ve always put in my pick of the fringe is Wired’s production. Although devised theatre is very tricky to get right, I’ve yet to see any groups do site-specific devised theatre as well as Wired do. This year, their offering is Art in Heaven. The play begins as if we are all student in an art class, and three women model as three famous artists from the past (all real characters). The three women come to live and we go on a fascinating whistle-stop tour of their lives. Their stories are complex and varied, but what they all have in common in that they were in relationships with male artists who messed them about.

What was less successful was the inter-relationship with three present-day characters. Two students in the class (planted, of course) and the tutor all play characters in the stories of the three artists, but it wasn’t clear from watching this what the stories of these present-day characters were and how this fit into the play. It was a highly ambitious piece, but I think they tried to put a little too much into one hour. If they do this again, it might be worth allowing the play to run a little longer to give us mere mortals in the audience a chance to catch up with everything that’s going on. But I still thoroughly recommend including Wired in any Brighton Fringe itinerary, because I’ve not seen anything like it elsewhere.

Another thing which looks promising is Tunnel from Sandpit ArtsThis group heavily concentrates on plays about events in the Middle East and North Africa, but there is an crucial difference from most plays of this kind. There is no shortage of British people portraying all Arabs as oppressed people uniting in struggle against whoever they want to score points against, but few companies, it seems, interested in listening to actual Arabs. Sandpits Arts evidently have, and thing that most struck me about this play – set in a collapsed smuggling tunnel under Egypt-Gaza border – was the absence of a political agenda. Instead of an hour of “Hamas Good, Israel Bad”, the fact there’s an ongoing conflict going on is almost incidental to the story. Instead, there are a multitude of characters who, although they generally don’t like what Israel’s doing to Gaza, simply want to get on with their lives.

As well as being a rare example of a non-self righteous play about Palestine, the choreography and staging were both outstanding, especially the lighting used to simulate the collapsed tunnel. There is just one problem this play had, which is that I had trouble working out what was going on. The central character Salim begins his journey talking to 17-year-old Ammar, trapped under the surfboard he was taking home, but eventually he end up talking to his estranged son and mother. Clearly the last two were just visions, but I couldn’t work out when the real characters stopped and the imaginary ones started. So sadly this play currently fails the “What’s going on” test. But if they can take this on board for future productions, we can look forward to good plays in the coming years.

Finally, three touring shows I previously recommended toured to Brighton. I was able to catch Scallywags again. SOOP theatre have been keen to stress that the play about a British resistance unit in an imagined Nazi invasion has changed a lot since last year. I thought it was only a modest change rather than anything groundbreaking – the big change from last year is that the Nazis have changed from speechless villains wearing faceless masks to walking talking occupying troops; some brutally taking control of the town, others being quite similar to us. I quite liked one scene where the 11-year-old boy scout in Scallywags is questioned by a German soldier, who muses that he has a son the same age in the Hitler Youth. On the whole, I think this change was an improvement. The only annoyance is that the ending still doesn’t explain how we get from a successful resistance operation blowing up a German camp to the defeat of the Nazis on mainland Germany. Any chance of a tweak there?

Honourable mention

I am very strict on putting one-person plays into my pick of the fringe at Brighton, because there’s a lot of them, they tend to be good, and therefore there’s a very high bar to clear. However, it wouldn’t be right to do a roundup without a mention of the great performance given by Clifford Barry in You All Know Me, I’m Jack Ruby. The story of the man who shot the man who shot President Kennedy is a fascinating story, and he is inevitably the centre of numerous conspiracy theories, with new damning evidence coming to light all the time in places only ever noticed by other conspiracy wingnuts. This play, however, is heavily based upon what we know, and what we see is a man frustrated with ever-increasing outlandish suggestions, with a nasty undercurrent of Jewish conspiracy thrown in the mix. There are a lot of monologues out there based on historical events, so it takes something exceptional to stand out from the crowd – and in this one, I wasn’t convinced the use of badum-tish sound effects added to the play the way it was meant to. But if you’re coming to the Buxton Fringe in July, it’s definitely worth checking this one out on the strength of the acting.

I quite liked the way Love Left Hanging is coming along. This is a very ambitious project from a young theatre company (The Stuff of Dreams) about the notorious Red Barn murder, where Maria Miller was shot dead and found in the barn, and her lover, William Corder, was executed for her murder. This play examines a pair of alternate theories for who might have done the deed. These stories are well written and well produced, although I wonder if it would have benefited from a wider range of ages in the cast. Less successful was the inter-weaving of these plays with the jury in the murder trial deliberating the verdict. I know this was leading up to a twist at the end, but until this twist arrived, it was difficult to tell how this contributed to the story and seemed to be tagged on. Alas, this is one of the perils of adding complications to already complicated plots. But if you’re serious about writing plays with any kind of depth, I’d much rather people embarked on something too complicated than something too simple, because I’ve seen enough plays where the plot’s over in twenty minutes and the rest is waffle. Interesting to see what becomes of this.

And the special award goes to …

One other achievement that must be recognised is for Soapy Sam. I don’t see many plays aimed at children so I can’t comment on how good the show was, but it has to get the title of most suggestive homo-erotic description of a a children’s play:

“Sam LOVES hiding, especially when it’s bath time. But what happens when adventurers play with the plug? … Small things are made into large characters.”

Now, I know there’s plenty of stories about TV producers competing to see what filth they could sneak into children’s TV (including the Captain Pugwash rumours, sadly just an urban myth), but as far as I can tell this is entirely unintentional. There again, this Brighton, so who knows? I guess the jury’s out on this one. However, maybe someone should tell Catholic Truth about Soapy Sam. They love this kinds of shows.

Okay, there’s your roundup. Backlog of reviews to be cleared soon, I promise.