Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2014

Brighton Fringe logo

So, with me recovering from last week’s fringe stint, which I always turn into an endurance test, it’s now time to summarise my fringe updates into one article. As usual, I don’t get to see every play and I aim to see a cross-section of plays rather than a pre-vetted selection, so the plays listed in this roundup should be considered a cross-section of good plays that made it to Brighton rather than a top nine of all the plays on whilst I was in Brighton. Some of these reviews will be copied and edited straight from my updates, but most of them have new thought somewhere, just in case you’re going “I’ve already seen this.”

Anyway, in the last two years I found the standard of plays at Brighton to be exceptional. This year, however, my pick didn’t live up to the expectations of last time. It might be that I made an unusually lucky pick last time and things have reverted to normal, but this year I didn’t manage to find a play from someone I’d never heard of with a real “wow” factor. There were quite a few plays I saw where other people were cheering and whooping but I sat unenthusiastically – it might be that locality bias was in play, or perhaps I’m turning into a miserable bugger who’s never pleased by anything.

On the plus side, it means I don’t have to be as choosy as I’ve been in the last two years. And there were still plays that I liked where I’m looking forward to what the artists do next. So, without further ado, here we go: Continue reading

Catch 22 goes forth

Major Korn and Captain Yossarin

Northern Stage does Catch 22 as a farce-cum-thriller. Believe it not, it works.

When Northern Stage announced that their flagship show of the season, they made a big thing of the fact that the stage version of Catch 22, adapted by Joseph Heller himself, has rarely been performed. This might seem an exciting thing, but this fact actually needs to be treated with caution. When a play by a famous author is rarely produced, I know from bitter experience that it often turns there’s a good reason why that is so. And we also know that good novelists don’t always make good playwrights, even when adapting their own books. Nevertheless, Northern Stage have quite a good record of productions of famous stories, so that’s one reason to be optimistic.

Anyway, we all know the famous dilemma that the title refers to, so- … What do you mean “I don’t know Catch 22 refers to?” Honestly, some people … Right, the situation is that Captain Yossarin, an American bomber in the Italian campaign of 1944, wants to get out of flying more missions. He tries to get himself declared insane. But Catch 22 says that by trying to get yourself out of risking your life, that’s a rational response, so anyone who says they’re insane must be sane, okay? Now, you might be unsympathetic to Yossarin in this situation. Honestly, these wussy Americans didn’t join the war until the bit where the goodies start winning, and now this one’s already had enough! With less than a year to go too! But the problem is that there’s Colonel Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn who are corrupt, reckless, and apparently hell-bent on sending the squadrons into endless missions after suicidal missions. As Yosarrin puts it, for every ideal worth fighter for, there’s a Catchcart and Korn standing in the way.

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War ten-legged horse

Puppet of the horse, with head puppeteer clearly visible, and eight more legs visible under the horse

War Horse, like most London theatre, has spectacle as its main attraction – but it’s a much bolder spectacle that the usual West End offerings.

For once, I’m not going to give a critical run-through of War Horse – it’s already got overwhelming praise from, well, pretty much everybody who’s ever seen it, so I doubt my verdict will make any difference one way or the other. Instead, I’m going to ask a tougher question: does this justify the large public subsidy that the Royal National Theatre gets? Because although the Sunderland Empire calls itself “The West End of the North East”, the National isn’t a West End Theatre, and it’s not just because of its location – the difference is that all the West End Theatres are entirely commercially self-funding. The National justifies its public funding on the grounds that it can take risks. That’s quite an easy claim to make – it’s not hard to be more adventurous than the formulaic shows that make up much of the West End – but you also to show something for it. Yes, you can have the odd dud every now and then, the gambles that didn’t work out, but you need to prove yourself with the risks that paid off. Step forward Exhibit A, War Horse.

When you’re the flagship show of the flagship venture of subsidised theatre, there’s two things you need to prove yourself. Firstly, you need to be popular with the public – there’s no doubt War Horse has achieved this, if the near sell-out at the Sunderland Empire is anything to go by. But the second challenge is harder: you need to offer something extra, over and above what the West End gives us. That, I felt, was where One Man Two Guvnors was weak. What are paying our taxes for? What does the National give us that the self-funding West End doesn’t?

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Incognito: general relativity and cognitive psychology made simple

Nabokov’s second play to come to Live, Incognito, is an extremely ambitious play covering lots of issues – but maybe a little too ambitious for its own good.

Flock of birds in the shape of a face

A recent addition to Live’s touring theatre line-up is Nabokov theatre. Back in February, they made their Newcastle début with Blink, which is such a wonderful play you must see it. And I don’t care that the tour’s finished – you just going to have to crack the bit of general relativity that enables you to travel back in time to earlier this year so you can catch it. Speaking of general relativity, this is what their follow-up is about. Incognito, with Joe Murphy directing again, is all about abstract concepts of physics along with the equally light subject of cognitive psychology. And just in case you think this doesn’t stretch your brain, this play covers three stories with 21 characters over a period of sixty years. Oh, and four actors play all the characters. Whatever else you might think, you can’t say Nabokov is unadventurous.

Incognito is a co-production with Live Theatre, whose year, it must be said, has been quite conservative. A lot of their 2014 productions are repeats of 2013’s greatest hits – okay, any theatre would probably do the same when the ticket sales are that good, but 2013’s successes have meant a 2014 dominated by safe bets. So it’s good that Live are involved in something more adventurous, even those this is, artistically speaking, very much a Nabokov production. One early bit of good news is that, as far as I can tell, the science is broadly accurate. That’s good news not only for Live and Nabakov, but also for everyone else in the theatre, otherwise I would be been standing up screaming “NO, YOU IDIOTS! YOU CAN’T DO THAT! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND ANY PHYSICS AT ALL?” But, pedant-pleasing aside, how does it do?

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Beware of locality bias

Angel of the North + Newcastle United Shirt + six bottle of Brown Ale
A good formula for a Tyneside-based play? Not as much as you think.

So, the Fringe season has begun. In Brighton, Edinburgh and the smaller fringes, hundreds of groups will be showing the world what they have to offer, without any vetting committees dictating what you can and can’t perform. That’s how it should be, but one effect of this is that some of these shows will be turkeys.

And this raises an obvious question: why do so many people take poor productions to the fringe? Similarly, why are so many performers expecting their big break with something that’s only average? The easy answer is to say that these groups didn’t bother with hard work, should have known how bad it was, and brought it on themselves. But I think that’s a lazy answer. With the exception of some student productions (who can treat the Fringe as a holiday), do you really think these groups willingly gamble thousands of pounds without thinking very carefully if it’s going to pay off? Of course not. In which case, how are so many groups getting this wrong?

Well, after a long time watching others in action and a short time having a go myself, I’ve come up with a theory I call “locality bias”. There’s a lot of variations of this, but the basic principle works as follows: All other things being equal, the more local your audience is to your play, the more favourable their reaction will be. This theory also applies to reviewers and script readers. One extreme example is that a school puts on Grease to a mediocre standard, even compared to other schools, but the audience dominated by doting parents still think it’s wonderful. But there’s no way that audience would be so complimentary if it was another school in another town.

Locality bias isn’t always a bad thing, and sometimes it can work to your advantage. But when it goes wrong, it can go very badly wrong. So here is a list of things to beware of, and what you can do about it. Continue reading