How to make the most of the Brighton Fringe

Beach and ice cream
No visit to Brighton is complete without these two things

One of the surprise hits on this blog last year were my “survival guides” for the Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton Fringes. This year, I’ve been wondering what I could top this with, and after careful consideration I thought, what the hell, let’s do the same thing again. Updated for 2014, my guide for how to make the most of the Brighton Fringe as a punter. If you read last year’s list (then called “The Brighton Fringe Survival guide“), you can probably ignore this because the changes are slight – just a few updates, additions and clarifications. If, however, you haven’t read last year’s list, read on …

About this guide

This is not a list of recommended shows to see at Brighton – there are plenty of publications that will do that, and I will be producing my own list shortly. Rather, this is a guide for how the Brighton Fringe works, what to expect, and some easy mistakes to avoid. Brighton Fringe is modelled on its famous cousin north of the border, and many of the things are the same: it runs parallel to the vetted “Brighton Festival” (albeit with much better inter-festival relations than Edinburgh), they have a dearly-held policy of open access, and any group worth their salt takes the Brighton Fringe just as seriously at Edinburgh.

At first glance, the only difference to Edinburgh is that it’s in May (great news for anyone who thinks one Fringe per year isn’t enough), and you get to sit on the beach with an ice-cream. But the Brighton Fringe is not a scale copy of Edinburgh. There are a lot of not-so-obvious differences, and a lot of these are down to the audience you get in Brighton. Because whilst in Edinburgh the audience is dominated by people visiting from all over, in Brighton the audiences are mostly locals, plus a large contingent of Londoners on weekend visits.

As a result, there are a lot of things that make the Brighton Fringe different. This is a list of tips and observations I’ve made from the perspective of someone who was used to the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a guide aimed at people who are already used to Edinburgh but are new to Brighton. If you have already been to the Edinburgh Fringe, just read on. If you have not been to the Edinburgh Fringe before, then read the Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide first, which gives you a better idea of what Fringe Theatre is about. Some of the tips only apply to Edinburgh, but 1, 2, 3, 8, 13, 14 and 16 certainly apply just as much to Brighton.

Is that sorted? Okay, here we go …

The tips …

1: This 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 it might be a disappointment for hardcore fringers who consider seeing less than four plays per day a personal failure.

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. In fact, some acts specifically plan their performances for the weekends to cater for the weekend visitors. 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: Arrange your accommodation early

Here’s a snag with Brighton: bewildering though this may be to us fringey folk, there are people who come to Brighton in May for reasons other than the festivals, and the number one reason is drinking. I personally don’t understand the logic of going away somewhere to get wasted when you could have got equally lashed in an identical chain pub back some, but that’s the way it is. Edinburgh also has this problem, but in Brighton, visiting drinkers outnumber visiting fringegoers by at least 5:1. And worse, with Brighton being the easiest nice-looking seaside town to reach from London, Brighton gets more than its fair share of hipsters, trustafarians and piss-artists on the streets every Friday and Saturday night after 10.

Anyway, what it means for you as a fringegoer – apart from the usual common sense whilst navigating groups of pissed wankers – is that you’ll need to arrange your accommodation early. In Edinburgh, where demand from Fringegoers is spread reasonably evenly over the month (and therefore a steady stream of revenue), there’s enough accommodation to go round. In Brighton, where demand for both Fringegoers and drinkers spikes at weekends, there’s not enough beds to go round. Worst of all this year will be the 8th-10th May, which coincides with the dreaded Great Escape (well, it is dreaded if you haven’t got anywhere to sleep). I would highly advise you to book your accommodation weeks in advance in you want anything remotely central. Otherwise, you may be stuck with a certain notoriously bad hotel in Hove. I won’t name a shame – they know who they are).

3 (NEW): There’s a family week at the end of the festival

A recent change to the Brighton Fringe was the addition of a fourth week. This coincides with half term, and takes advantage of this fact. This is the week where you’ll find most of the children’s and family shows. If you’re planning to come with children, this is the week for you.

Don’t worry too much if you’re not there for the family plays though. There’s enough standard theatre and comedy in the last week to keep you busy regardless.

4: Don’t expect the buzz of Edinburgh

Let’s get this one out of the way. There are many good reasons to go to the Brighton Fringe, but if there’s one bad reason to go, it’s if you’re expecting it to be just like the Royal Mile. At the Edinburgh Fringe’s famous centrepiece, you will find with street performances, free acts of music and dancing, and hundreds of shows being promoted, all day, every day. That, however, is unique to Edinburgh. There is no equivalent location in Brighton. They sort of try something similar with Fringe City each Saturday afternoon, but even this is a much smaller event. But it’s not just the lack of the Royal Mile – the scale makes a huge difference. Even though Brighton is the third biggest fringe in the world after Adelaide, it’s still tiny compared to Edinburgh. In Edinburgh in August, you can’t possibly miss the fact a Fringe is on. In Brighton in May, you will probably not notice there’s a Fringe if you’ve not specifically come for it.

On the other hand, you get a more relaxed fringe, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. You certainly don’t get the hordes of people flyering you every step you take – depending on whether you like that sort of thing, that will be a relief or a disappointment (unless you’re a performer, in which case the fact you needn’t publicise your show with constant flyering is going to be welcome). And it means you can relax on the beach in the morning without the guilt of knowing you could be spending that time watching another play. But don’t expect Brighton to be a scale-copy of Edinburgh. If you want to go to something that feels like the Edinburgh Fringe, go to the Edinburgh Fringe.

5: No acts run for the full month

If you are an Edinburgh fringe regular, you will probably have noticed by now that most acts run for the full three weeks. They have to: if you want to stand out from the crowd, that’s they only way you can do it. 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 throughout the festival, as old punters go home and are replaced by new ones. Brighton is quite different. Most of the audience is local, so sensible to run a play for a maximum of one week – and most are even shorter. It makes no sense to cover the whole month, because after seven performances, practically everyone who was considering your play will have already seen it.

As a punter, you needn’t worry too much about this. You will have much less plays to choose from than in Edinburgh, but it’s more than enough of a choice. (And, let’s face it, at Edinburgh, you probably won’t have time to read about all the plays on offer, let alone choose between them.) 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 when you’re there, you’ll be a wally.

6: Allow time for plays to overrun

At the Edinburgh Fringe, with most venues having jam-packed schedules morning till night, they run with military precision. 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, give or take a few minutes. So if your next play begins at 7.05 p.m. in a venues 10 minutes’ walk away, you safely expect to make it. 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.

One side-effect of this is that it limits the number of plays you can reliably plan in one day. Anything more than four is difficult. If you’re into hardcore fringing with 5, 6, 7 or 8 plays per day, save that for Edinburgh. Also, don’t get caught out by the distances between venues. Brighton to Hove in 15 minutes is not an experience worth repeating.

7: Beware of community productions

This one’s a bit more controversial. At both Edinburgh and Brighton, there are good shows and bad shows, but the thing most shows have in common is that they will be trying their best. It costs a lot of money to bring a show to a Fringe, and with the verdict of reviewers heavily influencing how much success you get back home, the stakes are too high to not make an effort. At Edinburgh, however, the glaring exception is student productions. It doesn’t cost that much if there’s 15 of you chipping in expenses, and as long as you all have a good time it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. There are still some good student productions out there, but they are vastly outnumbered by the mediocre, poor, and fucking awful ones.

In Brighton, you see very few student productions, probably down to the timing (most students are on vacation in August by have end-of-year exams in May). But what you get instead are “community” productions. When I say community productions, I am not referring to the numerous small-scale aspiring professional groups that are based in Brighton – they are just as good as the visiting groups. Instead, what I mean by this are youth and amdram productions that would have been staged anyway (just as thousands of productions are staged up and down the country), where it’s a simple matter to pay the Fringe registration fee and get a bit of extra publicity. And the reason you should beware of these productions is that the audience is liable to be dominated by friends, family and doting parents, and the production is guaranteed a warm reception of the “didn’t they all try hard” variety. Consequently, there’s no need to try any harder.

Now, it’s not fair to automatically write off anything that looks like a community. I’ve always maintained that the best amateur/youth productions can be as good as the professionals, and the Brighton Fringe is no exception. For example Hannover! The Musical – packed full of in-jokes for the benefit of the people of the Brighton suburb of Hannover –  was surprisingly good. But I must warn you that when community productions are bad, they’re abominable. I won’t name and shame, but  the worst play I’ve ever seen was a community production in Brighton. (Buy me 5 pints and I might tell you who.) I do encourage people to give low-budget productions a chance, but this is a risk you take.

8: 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 normally 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 just one day but the entire run. That is not the end of the world – some of the best discoveries at Brighton were last-minute choices after my preferred one sold out – but I sometimes wonder if the overall quality of plays you see deteriorates if half the best ones are sold out.

The good news is that the central Brighton Fringe box office doesn’t have the insane queues that Edinburgh does, so it’s well easy to booking tickets 2-3 days ahead if you want to avoid disappointments. And if there’s anything you absolutely cannot miss, book it in advance online, even if it means paying an internet booking fee.

So … is it worth it?

So, having read this, you might be more prepared to make the most of Brighton, but this may also sound like the Brighton Fringe is the poor cousin of Edinburgh. With fewer plays on offer, less of a festival atmosphere, far less media attention and the absence of a Royal Mile, you may wonder why it’s worth bothering, when the bigger festival is only three months away. Is it worth it? And my opinion, based on five years of going to both festivals, is in unequivocal yes. Why is that? Because my view is that on average Brighton Fringe plays are better. Both festivals have great plays and appalling plays, but for me the average Brighton play beats the average Edinburgh play.

I have a theory why this is so. The Edinburgh Fringe is of course the most prestigious arts festival in the world, and most likely always will be. But the festival’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. A lot of groups I see in Edinburgh are clearly not ready for the harsh world of Fringe theatre, and I suspect they go simply for the kudos of performing there. I would bitterly oppose any attempts to introduce vetting, but I do feel a lot of groups should think carefully if Edinburgh is the right platform for them. The brutal reality for many beginners is that the masterpiece they plan to wow the world with is not actually the masterpiece they think it is.

Participants to the Brighton Fringe, on the other hand, seem to be people who have thought this through. They have considered Edinburgh, Brighton, 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 shows that don’t consider themselves good enough for Edinburgh, but this in practice, poor/medicore acts are more likely to go straight the Edinburgh without thinking.

This is just a guess. My fringe participation currently only extends to Buxton, 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 good theatre.

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