Buxton Fringe is still going, but my participation finished last weekend, both as performer and punter. I have a few things to write about, but the first one is my usual roundup. This is harder to do when you’re working alongside other performers and counting on mutual support, but I’ll give it a go anyway.
The last three fringes I went to in a town beginning with “B” were of an exceptional standard and I had to be extra-fussy. This year, my experience was only of an average standard, the same I expect of a typical Edinburgh Fringe visit. Maybe I was lucky with my picks last year, or unlucky with my picks this year, or perhaps it’s because I was watching in week 1 instead of weeks 2 or 3, but I’ve got a shorter pick of the fringe than usual. Although there was a lot of stuff I saw that has potential that I’ll come on to later. I also have one disappointment to report – something I didn’t expect – that I’ll close this with. But let’s begin with …
Pick of the Fringe
If you asked me for a favourite out of what I saw, there is one clear winner: Jordan from Stickleback Theatre, written by Anna Reynolds with Moria Buffini. This play, written in 1992, tells the tragic but true tale of Shirley Jones, driven to kill her 13-month-old son by the actions of an abusive partner. This is a one-woman show interwoven with the story of Rumplestiltskin, another tale where a mother faces her baby being taken away by a man up to no good.
Sian Weedon’s performance as Shirley is outstanding, and possibly the best solo performance I have ever seen since I started Fringing in 2006. A common reaction to a 75-minute monlogue is “Ooh, well done, that must have been a lot of lines to learn”, but there is so much more than that. I suspected I might be in for a good performance when she instantly switched from the soft fairy-tale voice to Shirley’s much harsher voice, and it gets better as she goes through the whole sorry story. Like all solo performances, it is difficult to tell how much is down to the actor and how much is down to the director (Gordon Hamlin), but there can be little doubt between them they have done a top-notch job.
The only surprise is that in spite of all this, it did not seem to have sold that well. At the first performance, I was the only person in the audience who wasn’t a reviewer or company member. One obvious difficulty is that infanticide isn’t really a cheery subject that draws in punters, but it seems something has gone wrong with their publicity strategy – I have several theories as to what they might be, but they’re just theories. Hopefully they’ll have better luck in Edinburgh where niche markets exists for just about every form of theatre. They certainly deserve it.
The other play I liked was The Gambit, written by Mark Reid. This is a imagined reunion between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, once the two grand masters of chess in an age when the Soviet Union saw chess as its beacon of national pride. But the Soviet Union is no more and though Karpov and Kasparov may still be the two grand masters, the world no longer cares.
This is a thoughtful, intelligent play, but I will warn you it’s a very complex play that requires 110% concentration. I was still in the throes of producing mine so my concentration was only about 75%, so I think I may have missed quite a few bits, but what I did catch I enjoyed. Oh, and there is a real chess game going on in the play, so that score plus points (though apparently not with previous punters who scoffed and pointed out that both actors moved two pieces in the same turn – that’s castling, you dumbass). This play is a worthy addition to any fringe itinerary, but try to do it on day 1 before your brain fries.
I saw plays competently done by Sheepish productions (The Last Motel) and Organised Chaos (Broken). Going over these quickly: The Last Motel originally looked like it was going to be a bog-standard story of an inept robber in a heist gone wrong whose hostage realises this and talks to him. That wouldn’t have been very original, but then the hostage, supposedly an eco-friendly vicar, starts taking an suspiciously unhealthy interest in natural disasters and “depopulation”. This was an interesting twist, the only snag being that once this twist sunk in, there wasn’t much room for anything else unexpected. Broken was an interesting play about a mentally-disturbed girl in a hospital where there is a power struggle between a therapist insistent on using talking therapies, and an unprofessional doctor who doesn’t care as long as he gets a grope. There were flashbacks to the girl’s past, but I couldn’t work out if this was a real past or just an imaginary one. Nevertheless, it’s good to have groups such as these two regularly coming to the Buxton Fringe and long may it continue.
However, my interest has mainly been grabbed by newcomers trying something risky or different. Three pieces in particular got my attention.
Firstly, I like the way Soften the Grey from 6FootStories is coming along. This is a play set in a kind Citizens’ Advice Bureau for newcomers to the afterlife. This is a two-hander from Jake Hassam and Nigel Munson, with good acting and some interesting ideas set around a 25-year-old diver who arrives in the waiting room following a regrettable combination of losing you way in a cave and lack of oxygen. This has a lot of innovative ideas, and the one I liked the best was the flashbacks effectively managed by pressing the bell to switch to and from the past.
There is just one weakness with this play: there are, I think, too many ideas in one 45-minute play, and consequently it becomes difficult to work out where the storyline is supposed to be going. I suspect this may be down to the two actors also being the two writers; alas, this is one of the many perils of devised theatre. At some point I will probably write up everything you can do wrong with devised theatre, but the short version is that devised theatre is notoriously difficult to get right. In all fairness, however, this does a much better job than most attempts I see. There is a very long learning curve for devised theatre, but this is a good start, and provided they carefully take on board what their audiences remembered and what they forgot, I see no reason why this can’t get better.
Also grabbing my attention is Confessions of a Waitress. Now, this is not part of the Confessions of a Window Cleaner franchise so don’t get excited. Instead, this is a solo performance from a young actress called Stephanie Claire who used to work as a waitress. I will have to begin with a pet hate: this play was advertised to last an hour, and not the actual running time of half an hour. I don’t know whether that was the performer or the venue who advertised it as an hour-long show, but this is the sort of thing that makes people not want to come back.
However, as for the play itself, this was a promising and confident performance, which starts the moment you walk into Hydro restaurant, you pay £6 for the “set menu”, and Claire shows you to your seat. Managing an interactive performance without front of house staff requires a lot of guts to pull off. The play is largely a compilation of all the customers who’ve ever behaved like wankers and other waitress politics. If you live near Manchester I would advise you to be nice to waitresses just in case she’s still keeping her hand in, otherwise you may find yourself in a future version of the play. The only thing I’d say about this is that, as it stands, it seems unsure as to whether it wants to be a one-woman play or a stand-up comedy routine. This is workable as either, but I’d go for one or the other myself.
Finally, a mention for Dog Rough from Anna Beecher, for being as different as can be. This is an audio piece from two characters: one woman bullied by all and sundry for her weight, and one man who tries in vain to keep his dangerous dog under control. And the unique bit is that you put on a stranger’s coat (unfortunately during the hottest month for a long time, but that’s life) and wander into the park. I don’t know much audio drama so I can’t really comment on how this compares to audio pieces, but this make a very bold and refreshing change to the usual programme at the fringe.
And one disappointment …
There is one final bit of news to report, this with some regret. As I said before, the Foundry Group, of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks fame, had to cancel the performance of this play owing to injury. Nothing wrong with that, these things happen. (In fact, there has been a surprisingly high number of cancellation this year – 3 out of the 12 plays on my opening day alone.) So they replaced this event with Seven Studies in Salesmanship, which also looked promising. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, they only got an audience of 6, according to the Buxton Fringe press officer.
Again, an audience of 6 is nothing to be ashamed of; in a fringe festival, numbers are unpredictable, even you have good reviews and a good reputation under your belt. So there was no need to cancel the run. But apparently they did, including the first show, in spite of those present making it clear they still wanted to see it. Considering I have seen shows at Buxton press on with an audience of two, that was extremely disappointing. I really hope they don’t make a habit of this, because there is no need for this. As it stands, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks is still on my list of recommendations for Edinburgh. I might have to reconsider if the Foundry Group make a habit of this.
There is one other big piece of news, of course. Last year, I expressed concern that Underground Venues was getting two powerful. This year, however, it looks like it will be their last year (or at least their last year in Pauper’s Pit) due to the redevelopment next door. So an uncertain future lies ahead for the Buxton Fringe – there will doubtless be one, but its shape is up in the air. Come back soon and I will think about what happens from here.