Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2014

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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:

Pick of the Fringe

This time, I think I’ll go through my pick of plays in the order that I saw them. So first up is Waves from Alice Cooper. (That’s Alice Mary Cooper, not this Alice Cooper – have we got this out the way?) TYou may remember that she appeared at Edinburgh two years ago with When Alice (Cooper) met (Prince) Harry, where I finally realised my ambition to be in an Edinburgh Fringe show as “Confused member of audience with no diea what the hell’s going on”. The thing that struck me back then was how confident a performer she was, with a distinctive style. However, I did feel that this highly bizarre play was, strangely enough, being over cautious. When the stakes are this high, an easy way out is to say that your piece was only meant to be a bit of fun – but that means you don’t get the chance to show what you’re really capable of.

Not this time. This time, Alice Cooper is making a proper attempt to be taken seriously. It’s a story of Elizabeth, a (fictitious) pioneer of the butterfly stoke. I do wish she’d made it clearer somehow what was fact and what was fiction, but it’s certainly true that it was the 1936 Olympics where the butterfly stroke first appeared. This, her distinctive style and creative imagination have highly worked in her favour and produced a decent piece that is distinctively her own.

Richard Stamp says:

“I liked the third-person style for the exact opposite reason to why you don’t. I thought it gave her the licence to be more overtly expressive than a naturalistic performance would have done. Can’t please all the reviewers all the time!”

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Even so, I’m not sure the storytelling format allowed her to live up to her full potential. I think this would have been a stronger piece had she told the most of story as Elizabeth rather than a third-person narrator. This, I think, would have given her much stronger opportunities to express the emotions Elizabeth had in her life, and let us get into the head of this modest character modestly narrating her achievements. However, that’s my only niggle, it’s down to personal preference, and Richard Stamp from FringeGuru disagrees, and gives five stars for the storytelling format. So well done for a very promising first serious go at theatre, and definitely one to watch for future years.

My next highlight is The Girl and the Goat from SynaesTheatre. This is a play and not an illegal DVD, so don’t have nightmares. This story follow Faye, due to be married off to her indebted husband’s chief creditor, who wanders into the wood and falls of Pan, the not-entirely-benevolent god of the woods. This is performed as a physical theatre piece, with flawless choreography. The touch that I really liked, however, was the way the the sound effect were done. The only recorded noises used were ambient background noises. Everything else was done by an on-stage sound operator with a microphone over simple objects, such as a bowl of water to create splashing noises whenever anyone entered an unseen lake.

The format of physical theatre is usually a highly fitting format for mythological stories. On this occasion, however I think it may have gone too far down this route. The play is meant to be a complex portrayal of a girl torn between a conservative family and a different fantasy world, but with dialogue pared down to a minimum I’m not sure it expressed this as well as it could have done. Also, the changes between dialogue scenes and physical theatre scene did seem to make a rough contrast. I think I’d have allowed more naturalistic dialogue though the play – there would have been plenty of opportunities for choreographed movement on top of that. But a very good start from a group who is clearly capable of a lot, this is another one to look out for.

Dance scene from Killing RogerAnd then we move onto something I knew would be good, having already seen it in Edinburgh: Killing Roger. I’ve already reviewed them from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and this stands: it’s a very different play to what Sparkle and Dark has done before, on very different subjects raising very different questions, but Sparkle and Dark were absolutely right to diversify this way. There’s a few changes from Edinburgh, none of them particularly major, but there was a change to the dance scene. This was a lovely scene where a younger Roger re-enacts his first date with Martha, his future wife. Originally it was Billy (Graham Dron) who took on the role of young Roger with the ubiqutous Louisa Ashton as Martha. Now, it is the lead puppeteer of Roger (Nicholas Halliwell) doing this.

Which setup is better? That’s a toughie. On the one hand, you can argue that Billy laying young Roger represents Billy getting to understand the old man’s past life, but on the other hand it also make sense for the lead Roger puppeteer doing Roger’s voice to be the younger Roger too. Both make sense, but you can’t do both. I think I prefer the new arrangement, but it’s a close call, and it mainly comes down to a bit of artistic balance – if one Roger puppeteer is doubling up a multitude of parts, you may as well give the other one something too.

Annoying girls from the Facebook playSo, those were my first three days. Three picks out of three days isn’t a good as I’m used to, and there were also a lot of disappointments during this time. If fact, the three biggest disappointment were all plays that came with recommendations. Fortunately, on my last day I could count on acts with a proven record, and you can’t really go wrong with The Big Bite-Size Late Breakfast, whose reputation for 10-minute plays speaks for itself. This time, it was five entirely new plays, so I make allowances for some being better than others. (They tend to try out new plays in Brighton and then go to the Edinburgh Fringe with tried and tested safe bets.) Sadly, although they were offering different line-ups at different shows, this time they were showing on alternate Sundays rather than alternate morning/lunchtime performances – I accept it made things easier for Bite-Size by not needing every actor for every Sunday, but I gather this was a disappointment for a number of people down for one weekend who would liked to have seen both.

With me only seeing half the plays, it’s too early to say how this line-up compares to last year’s (admittedly a line-up that will be very hard to beat). However, the 10-minute play of the five I really liked was Candy likes your Status Update, or as I prefer to call it Thank Christ I’m Not On Facebook Any More. The entire play is Facebook correspondence between two incredibly annoying girls who seem to do their entire social life through the relevant app on their smartphones. At first glance, it’s a piece of light-hearted satire about people’s competitive running commentary of social lives, the struggle to big yourself up online, the thinly-veiled put-downs to your friends to achieve this. But it’s not all light-hearted frivolity, and the message about Facebook friendship versus real friendship is serious one.

Next comes Close to You. This was something where I’d never heard of the play or the company before, but I’ve certainly heard of the play this was inspired by. Solo performer Jennie Eggleton is quite open that this was inspired by Caroline Horton’s wonderful Mess. There are, admittedly, a lot of obvious derivations from Horton’s play, but, hey, there’s a lot of stories out there that need to be told. This play is about a Jennifer who idolises Karen Carpenter, and like her idol, she is slowly starving herself to death. It’s another good solo performance, and I certainly hope this would get Caroline’s approval.

Although this play does re-use a lot of the themes in Mess, there’s one in particular bit which I think is done particularly well. One might think that the way the Karen Carpenter died warn people off doing the same. Sadly, it doesn’t always work like that – instead, Jennifer idolisse her so much she treat what she did as a target, not a horrible warning. And there is an unconformable parallel between Karen Carpenter who wore more and more layers to disguise her condition, and Jennifer doing the same. It include live piano music mostly from the Carpenters – very fitting, although I would have made more of this and interwoven more music in. Unluckily for this play, she got the dreaded 2 p.m. slots during a heatwave, so the audience wasn’t great, and that’s a pity because this play deserved a better audience.

And last but definitely not least, Wired Theatre with All Found and up for Action! Wired have done a run of site-specific plays at successive Brighton Fringes. This year, they’ev chosen a vicarage in Hove as the setting for a ladies’ home inhabited by Suffragettes – this lot of the more militant kind who think that blowing up the West Pier might advance their cause. But the play seeks to neither idealise nor demonise them, but instead covers the complicated relationships with the men in their lives. One of the women has a Policeman as a brother who frequently finds himself on the other side after someone threw a brick a Policeman’s helmet – but they’re still the first people he turns to when his wife dies. Another has a cousin who wants to make a movie of the suffragettes but can’t stop being a lecherous scumbag. There is a maid, loyal to the core, but comes from a background that doesn’t really understand this vote thingamyjig.

If there’s one criticism I have of Wired, it’s that they often make their plays confusing for the sake of it, but this time they got the balance about right. They maybe could have made it clearer what was a cutscene and what was a flight of fancy (I assume the lecherous film director wasn’t really murdered in scene 3 as he was in the rest of the play, but I’m not entirely sure what was meant to have happened instead.) Other than that, no complaints, and I particularly liked a bit when you can hear the action going on two floors up, but you can only see the five women tensely waiting for the outcome of this. I got a bit worried about their last play which did get unnecessarily confusing, but this is Wired at their strongest. More like this please.

Honourable mention

Brighton Fringe has a lot of solo performances, and as a result a lot of them become indistinguishable from each other. As a result, I tend to get picky with solo plays. This year, however, all the solo performances I saw were excellent, and they all deserve a mention. So I’ll start with Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore. This play is a series of plays, mostly solo pieces, written by a Brighton Fringe regular Jonathan Brown. I’ve seen three of his plays over the last two year, to which I’ve had variable verdicts. Where things don’t work out, I fear there may be locality bias at work. I’m highlighting this play as an example of where he’s getting things right. This is a story of an 18th-century prostitute from Brighton who gets mixed up with a rich man she has feeling for, but he’s a man with some quite unsavoury associates.

I like the way this play goes because it creates the atomosphere of the Brighton underworld effectively, a large extent down to an excellent performance by Eleanor Dillion-Reams. The script did, however, have some weaknesses. Solo pieces don’t lend themselves well to verbatim converations, and whilst you can get away with “I said … then he said … so I said … so he said …” for a while, that needs to sparingly, and this was way overdone (this seem to be a problem throughout his solo scripts). And (pardon the upcoming spoiler) yes, you can get away with the character dying at the end of the story, but this worked to the effect of “He killed me, and then I died.” But on the whole, this is where he’s on the right track, so this is a format worth sticking with.

Something I saw that was original and different was Dead in the Water, a “musical tragicomedy” commemorating the long-forgotten Operation Mincemeat, a cunning trick in the invasion of Italy to fool the Axis powers into believing the Allies were preparing to invade Sardinia instead of Sicily. In order to do this, a dying man had to be nominated to be a dead body floating in th sea, impersonating a high-ranking British Office with top-secret plans.

This was done as a musical with a cast of three, which was highly ambitious for such a complex story. There were some touches to this that I liked, such as the hospital screen showing a map of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it did get a little unstuck when trying to double to parts. I found myself getting confused over whether the girl in the nurse’s uniform was currently a nurse, a girlfriend, an intelligence agent, or all three at the same time, nor did I keep track of which characters were real and which were made up. I’m wouldn’t rule out getting this musical to work with a cast of three, but when actors switch characters this often, you have to work very very hard to make sure the audience follow who’s who. But it was good to see them bring up a piece of history I’d never heard of, so by all means keep working on it.

Finally, I like the way The People’s Championis going. This is a one-man biopic of Hurricane Higgins, and I’m particularly choosy about one-man biopicsas there’s so many of them, but Andy Currums did a great job of protraying a genuis who is his own worst enemy. In this play, the defining feature of Hurricane Higgins is that he is far too arrogant for his own good. Like a lot of geniuses, his extraordinary talent comes with a self-destructive trait that Currums portrays spot on. If there’s one flaw in the play, it’s that is assumes too much background knowledge of Hurrican Higgins, which could be a problem if you’re under forty. The script makes an effort to avoid leaving anyone behind, but with the story jumping back and forth in time, I felt I lost some of the later events about his doomed marriage and what happened in his quest to regain the title. But there’s no doubt that Currums chose a good vehicle to show what he can do as a performer, so good job done there.

… and one bit of news

One thing that escaped my attention for most of the Fringe was what’s happened to the Nightingale Theatre. This is one a several “pub theatres” in Brighton, and until last year, it has hosted some of the best Brighton Fringe plays I’ve seen. This year, however, it was missing from the programme. The only small contribution that the Nightingale made was the return of two of the beach huts, last seen in Dip Yor Toe back in 2012, to provide a very different theatre space. But the Nightingale pub is now just a pub.

What happened to the Nightingale Theatre? The reason, I’ve found, is that the upstairs of the pub is now in too poor a state of repair to run the upstairs theatre space – and it’s currently not clear if they’ll ever be able to get the space back. Does this mean the end of the Nightingale as a permanent theatre space? I hope not. The Warren has becomes an increasingly prominent theatre space in the last two years – and it’s a good venue – but like Buxton, there is a danger that one supervenue will end up dominating the theatre programme. We need venues like the Nightingale to provide a counter-balance and stop too much power ending up in the hands of too few people, but at the moment, the future looks uncertain.


But there you are, my 2014 picks. Brighton down, next stop Buxton, a far more relaxing fringe. Wait, no it’s not, I’m in it again. Damn.

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