Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2014

Buxton Fringe logoOkay, I think I am sufficiently recovered from Buxton to embark on the roundup of this year’s plays. As always, my roundup is always limited to plays I was able to see, and once again, with me taking part myself, I other plays I saw were restricted to whatever I was able to view in the limited time slots available. In particular, apologies to Butterfly – I would liked to have seen Dracula’s Women, but I couldn’t squeeze in everything on my must-see list and this lost out.

Well, after last year’s viewing which left me struggling for a pick of the fringe, the good news is that this year has made up for it. The bad news is that the overall standard has been so good, I’m going to have to get choosy. So, here we go.

Pick of the Fringe

I’ll start with the early suprise recommendation. From the comedy section: Ms Samantha Mann: Stories of Love, Death, and a Rabbit. Yes, that’s right, this theatre blog is putting a comedy in its picks – because this is so much more than a comedy. On the surface, this appear to be a frivolous character comedy. Charles Adrian plays Samantha Mann, a middle-ages spinster doing a woefully inept poetry performance. Except she doesn’t actually get round to much poetry – she spends so much time nervously waffling about herself, half the hour’s gone before she gets round to any poetry.

But it’s in this waffling where the real story is. Slowly, Ms. Mann gives away details of the lonely life she leads – her inability to form any close relationships, a teenage godson who’s got little time for her, and a brother she was close to in her childhood. On top of this, in real life Adrian could not be more different from the character he plays. I can highly recommend this to theatre and comedy audiences alike, and it’s coming the the Edinburgh Fringe next so you’ve got plenty of chances to see it.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit, Charles Adrian

Another solo performance in my pick of the fringe is Treasure Island from Uproot Theatre company, with young Jim telling his story. Jamie puts on an impressive performance, stepping into the roles of numerous characters, delivering a high-energy performance over the hour, with the most multi-purpose mop you’ll ever see – it’s used to represent muskets, swords, and a surprisingly scary white stick of Blind Pew. It’s fair to say this is very much a textbook one-man adaptation of a story, but they did an excellent job of it and it’s well worth a visit.

And a third solo performance which I rather liked was The Angina Monologue. This is from Doug Devaney and it’s based on his own experience of an angina attack. Recounting these sorts of events is always a brave move from the performer, but what I most liked was the way he can put such a light-heated touch to a life-and-death incident, featuring songs, anecdotes, and some wry observations – for example, he’s got a point that when it’s touch-and-go who’s going to pull through, why do we get this idea that hospitals are the sexy places depicted in the Carry On films?

And finally, this might be a more controversial pick, but I liked it: Fashionably Late. This a play from Ginny Davis, where she and James Goldsworthy perform a two-hander surrounding a family party. What was supposed to be a party for the youngest son’s 18th becomes a joint party with the father who shares a birthday. An enthusiastic but quite batty grandmother (who think George Osborne is married to Sharon Osborne from the X Factor) insists on bankrolling the celebrations, so her idea of everyone dressing as something beginning as the first letter of their name gets taken on bored . Unknown to all but the mother, however, she is dying of cancer. After a cringeworthy episode where grandmother insists of going Ann Summers for an outfit, she is killed by a van on the way out. The funeral falls on the same day as the party. All decide she would want the party to go ahead as planned.

This might sound like a ridiculously far-fetched story, but believe it or not, this works. It stays believable, and the play cover a lot of aspects of modern life, such as parents trying to keep up with the children’s lives through Facebook updates, and the increasing number of intelligent youngsters ending up in jobs where they can’t use what they were educated to do. The play was quite reckless with that two actors covered so many parts. When you do that, you’ve got a work really hard to make sure your audience don’t lose track over who’s now playing who, and I think this mid-play discussions over who’s currently the narrator added an unnecessary layer of confusion. But I think they got away with it, I didn’t get lost, and the result was a pleasant surprise.

Honourable mention

Narrowly missing out of Pick of the Fringe is WOW, Sian Dudley’s debut at her new Market Place venue. This was a decent play that would normally have made the upper list had the competition from the other solo performances not been so tough this year. It was nonetheless a decent play. Dudley herself plays a Sarah who finds herself addicted to playing World of Warcraft. It would be easy to rubbish someone for obsessing over a world that isn’t real, but when the real world involved a dead-end kob and dead-end relationship and you are a hero in an online community, maybe it’s not such a bad choice. For people like me who played Civilisation II and understands the deadliness of the phrase “Just one more turn”, this portrayal will come as no surprise. For everyone else, it’s a very convincing explanation for how this game take take over your life. Remember this is still a relatively mild version of Warcraft addiction – other people have taken the game far too seriously.

What I think this play lacked from the other three monologue was engaging the audience. This play took the format of a narrated story, which can still make a decent play, but always think you get a better play if you’re talking to the audience somehow. I’d have also liked to have seen a bit more to explain how Sarah ended up in cyber-sex sessions with her online partner. Nevertheless, it’s a good start from an in-house production, so it’s certainly worth keeping as part of the Market Place’s programme. I will come on to this in a moment.

Before that however, a mention again for Morgan and West, this time bringing their show Parlour Tricks to Buxton. I’ve previously reviewed A Grand Adventure for last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and much of what I’ve said also applies here. This one is a bit more like a conventional magic show (albeit still with two gentlemanly Victorian time-travelling magicians) than last year’s-semi play. I personally preferred the story format of Grand Adventure, but the good news is that I was an audience participant this year, so I can confirm that the front row are not plants. There again, for all you know I could part of a conspriacy to make audience plants look believable, so thing carefully.

background-1-lst145327I’m also mentioning His and Hers: Wild Vaudeville, partly because I was staying in the same house as them, and partly because I enjoyed it (and partly because I think they make have photos of me on stage I don’t want to be a target for blackmail). This is a comedy act that is clearly competing with acts such as Boogaloo Stu and Boris and Sergey for my coveted “What the fuck?” award. It’s a comedy cabaret act, and it’s very very random. The difficultly with acts aiming to be bizzare is that it’s very difficult to guess what an audience will find funny. What they are currently doing is an example of both the strength and weakness of this format. Where it is funny, it is hilarious, but at other points, the show drags. My advice is for them is to build on what they’re doing now: keep the bits that are getting the laugh, drop or revise the bits that aren’t, and keep trying out new material and see how that goes.

Finally, I’m including Dreamshed Theatre’s His Letters in this list. This is a solo performance from John Martin Stevens, where he plays a son who discovers his parents’ back-story after their deaths. At first he thinks he was a miracle baby from an otherwise infertile father – but the truth, discovered from some letters between her mother and a friend who was over-attentive to him as child, reveals something different.

It’s an interesting story with a lot of potential, but I felt this was limited by a script that I suspect was written to read well on the page. And what reads when on the page doesn’t always work as well when acted out. To the credit of Dreamshed Theatre, I thought they did a good job of directing this and found ways of making the most of the script, but I think this play would have benefited from thinking about how the script would work as a play at the time of writing. Could this have been done a la Talking Heads with the man speaking to the audience at different stages of dealing with his mother’s estate. How does he change at he slowly discovers the truth about who he is? It’s touches like that that change a story into gripping play.

And the other big thing …

As I’ve already mentioned, the other big chance at this fringe is the emergence of a second multi-space managed venue, run by Sian Dudley of WOW. It’s not yet a full-blown venue like what’s standard at Edinburgh – the main difference is that the spaces are different spots in a nightclub without lighting rig, stage or curtains – but it’s still the most organised venue after Underground Venues.

I’ve mixed reaction to its debut year. For so multi-space venue, the number of productions taking part in a first year was a bit of a disappointment. Competing for acts against the hugely popular Underground Venues was always going to be tough task, but I do think a couple of decisions were made that didn’t do the Market Place any favours. The application section of the website implied the venue was meant for professional groups, but in a venue of that size in a first year, you need to be attracting all the acts you can get. I’m also not sure it was wise to use stock photos of other plays on a website for a new venue.

Nevertheless, this is a venue with a lot of potential. This venue could certainly be beefed up if proper lighting rigs and curtains and sound systems are installed, but in order to finance this there will need to be a decent number of plays setting up there. Perhaps the big question is what happens if the Old Hall redevelopment goes ahead, and whether Tom and Yaz find a new site for their managed venue. Could The Market Place end up being the most coveted spot for theatre like Pauper’s Pit is now. Can they attract enough acts to make this possible? We’ll see.

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