Yes, it’s that time of year. Just when fringe addicts have got used to the idea that a festival fringe involves a nice relaxing morning and maybe a play or two after four, it’s the big one again. No pussyfooting around at this one, and anybody who sees less than four plays on their first full days is officially a wuss. This is going to be mostly a list of plays I’ve previously seen at Brighton or Buxton this year, but there is the odd exception.
So, this time round I think I’ll mention things in the order I first heard of them. So the long-standing recommendation is The Big Bite-Size Breakfast and ten-minutes plays. As always, there are three different sets of ten-minute plays in rotation, at Pleasance Dome at 10.30 a.m.. The exact line-ups haven’t been announced yet, but I understand there’s not going to be any specially themed sets like they did last year with “Vintage”. (Well, they do have themes, but normally the themes are vague and open-ended enough to mean anything you like.) To those of you who saw them last year, this might look like they’re playing it safe and going into their comfort zone, but at this year’s Brighton Fringe I saw some new plays that were very risky but actually very good. It’s worth seeing all three of these if you can, but if you only have time for one, make it Menu 1 if you’ve not seen them before (where they are re-showing some tried and tested plays), or Menu 3 if they have (which has some good new plays in them).
Next a discovery from the 2010 Buxton Fringe: Sparkle and Dark. That year they did an excellent piece called The Clock Master, which was a mixture of puppetry, storytelling and live theatre. Officially, this was down as family theatre, but these were some very dark fairy-tales that appealed more to adults. This didn’t do the Edinburgh Fringe as I thought it would, but instead they took a new piece, The Girl With No Heart. I do not normally dedicate a whole article to one fringe play unless it’s exceptional, so this review is a testament to what I thought of this. This year, however, they are bringing another new play, Killing Roger. Sparkle and Dark’s stories have gone progressively darker; The Girl With No Heart was about nuclear war, and I think Killing Roger may be about that ever-so-cheery subject of assisted suicide. Anyway, this play is advertised as not suitable for children. It’s also their first play not written Louisa Ashton, who is an exceptional writer, but I think it’s a wise move to have some variety. Can they achieve the same with new writers? Find out at 12. p.m. at Underbelly.
Another of my Buxton Fringe discoveries, this time from 2011, is The Foundry Group’s Big Daddy v Giant Haystacks. Now, when you young ‘uns think of overweight men pretending to fight each other in something supposedly known as the sport of “Wrestling”, you probably think of WWE smakdown, but in the 1970s, it was us British who did that best, goddammit! I saw this at the Buxton Fringe two years ago, where the two actors, as well as playing the two iconic “wresters” (inverted commas used on purpose), play a multitude of other characters involved in the surprisingly complicated story from behind the scenes. I admit I did have a bit of trouble keeping track of who was who, and I wondered whether it was getting too complicated allocating so many different characters amongst two actors, but they’ve had two years to work on this.
There is, sadly, one possibility I do have to warn you about. This play pulled out of Buxton Fringe due to an injury, so the Foundry Group brought along another play in their place. Cancelling plays due to illness or injury is sometimes unavoidable, and it was good to bring along a replacement play, but the huge disappointment was that when only six people turned up to their performance, they didn’t perform and cancelled the rest of the run. That was bitterly disappointing news – I have been in Fringe audiences as low as two, and the show went on every time. I hope there will not be a repeat of this in Edinburgh when the world is watching, and I still recommend this play in spite of this risk, but it is nonetheless a risk I have to warn you about. Assuming this doesn’t happen, it’s on at 12.15 in Assembly George Square (not to be confused with The Assembly Rooms, George Street – long story, too long to explain).
Now for something I haven’t seen yet but I’ve heard good things about: Not the Messiah. This is an invention of Three’s Company, who have a loyal following in Buxton in spite of many of their plays containing highly embarrassing compulsory audience participation – but don’t worry, you get spared in this one. This is the story of Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame, and features George Telfer who has done many excellent solo performances including a very convincing Prince Philip in Do They Still Throw Spears At Each Other? I missed the Buxton Fringe run, but it’s a second run after an original run in 2011, which normally means it went down well. Catch this at Pleasance Courtyard at 1 p.m.
Moving on to acts that I’d never heard of before this year, I’d like to recommend a lovely solo piece from Nigel Nevinson called The Trials and Tribulations of Mr. Pickwick, which I saw at Brighton. Based, of course, on Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, this is based on the story of Mr. Pickwick himself when he gets targetted by the original no-win-no-fee lawyer bastards. Being a Dickens story, however, the moral is that it always pays of in the end to be a noble, selfless and generous man. Were it not for the fact that the Pickwick Papers is over 175 years old, you could be forgiven for thinking he had Mr. Nevinson in mind. This shows at Hill Street Festival at 2.15 p.m.
And now, a late recommendation: Jordan from Stickleback Theatre. I have given the thumbs up to a lot of solo performances, but the one I saw this year at Buxton is possibly the best solo performance I’ve ever seen. As I write, I am getting the news that this won best actress at the Buxton Fringe awards, and I’m not surprised. In a bold moves that laughs in the face of petty concerns such as ticket sales or marketing your play as a feel-good life-affirming thingamyjig, this play is about the ever so cheery subject of infanticide. But try not to let this put you off. It is a very thoughtful play that helps you understand what would drive a mother to do such a thing. This is on at Assembly Hall at 1.10 p.m., and I really hope this gets better sales than it did in Buxton, because it deserved a lot more than it got.
Finally, here’s something I’ve never heard of before but, what the hell. In a rare recommendation in the comedy category, I recommend Knightmare Live. If you were a teenager in the early 90s, yes, I am talking about this Knightmare. If you weren’t a teenager in the early 90s, I sadly don’t have time to explain this to you, suffice to say you were missing out. For those of you who will understand the following, I believe the idea is that two comedians will take the roles of advisors and a member of the public will wear the Helmet of Justice. If you didn’t follow that, then there’s nothing for it: you’ll just have to watch the back episodes on Challenge TV until you do.
Well, those seven should keep you busy to start with. But the real fun is discovering new gems which you’ev never heard of before. Watch this space for this reviews.
UPDATE: I forgot one. Captain Amazing, part of Northern Stage’s programme at Edinburgh. I am mortally embarrassed this one slipped my mind. This is another play by Alistair McDowall. I missed the preview at Live Theatre, but I did see Brilliant Adventures, and I liked it. This is, apparently, the story of a reluctant superhero, although I ought to warn you that if it’s anything like Brilliant Adventures it will be light on escapism and heavy on crime, drugs, and inflicting pain on each other. But this one is definitely worth a visit because Alistair McDowall shows a lot of originality, and an ability to take risks and pull them off. This is at St. Stephens at 20.05, but it only runs until the 12th August. Oh, and St. Stephens is a long way out of the city centre, so don’t rely on a 10-minute gap after the previous show.
UPDATE 2: Here’s one I missed completely: N10 productions. Three years ago they did the brilliant Virtuous Flock, a black comedy following the exploits of Penny Dreadful, who starts off innocent and victimed and ends up murdering her late father’s wicked second wife, mistress, and nymphomanic maid. It was a good script and superbly choreographed, and as such, I have high hopes for Chaucer: Hold up your Tale. Annoyingly, however, it’s only on for one week (6th-10th August). But if you happen to be coming that week (I’m not, bugger), it’s at C venues at 12.05 p.m.