Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – as it happened

This is an archive of my live coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe 2014. All plays reviewed below have been written up in my roundup of Edinburgh Fringe 2014. However, I have retained this as an archive of what my thoughts were at the time …

Thursday 07/08, 9.15 p.m.: Hello, and welcome to my coverage of Edinburgh Fringe 2014. This is where I’ll be giving updates throughout my visit to the Edinburgh Fringe.

You won’t read anything interesting just yet – my coverage proper starts on Saturday when I start seeing shows. For today and tomorrow, it’s just teasers and warm-ups.

In the meantime, if you want recommendations based on performances at previous fringes, you can see my what’s worth watching page. Or, if you’re a fringe newbie and you’d like some general advice about what to expect at the Edinburgh Fringe, you can see my guide on how to make the most of the Edinburgh Fringe.

And although I have the utmost respect for everyone who performs at this festival, where the stakes couldn’t be higher, I am so glad to be going to a fringe where I’m not a participant. Hooray!

Thursday 07/08, 11.15 p.m.: And my first thing to do is send out replies to everyone who invited me to review their shows. Thanks everyone who has invited me – if you have invited me, I intend to review you. Everyone should have a reply now. If for any reason you haven’t, something technical has gone wrong. Contact me again and I’ll get back to you.

If you have not invited me, it’s not too late to do so, but from this point on it’s first come first served. Please read the rules on how I review plays and inviting me to review your play first. In particular, be aware I do not write public reviews of everything I see – only a selection. Contact me if you’re interested.

Most of these reviews, however, will be from plays that I simply chose to see because I liked the look of them. So if you are doing the right things to attract an audience, you are doing the right things to get my attention too.

And that’s all tonight. More warm-up tomorrow.

Friday 08/08, 11.15 a.m.: Sadly, this year’s Edinburgh Fringe got off to a shameful start with the first act of political censorship in years, if not the entire history of the fringe. Incubator Theatre was forced to withdraw from Underbelly following a demonstration involving threats to public order, for the heinous crime of 1) getting funding from their country’s equivalent of the arts council, and 2) being Israelis. More disgracefully, the people calling for the censorship most loudly were other artists, and the most contemptuous cheerleader is Scotland’s national poet, Liz Lochhead. Partly because she takes British public funding – when she herself claims Britain is fully complicit with Israel’s foreign policy – but mostly because she is taking part in the Fringe herself whilst using her status to revoke open access for the smallest of groups.

Painting of book burning
N.B. This picture is in no way related to the subject material of the accompanying text

Hey, wait a second, didn’t someone tells us that the artist isn’t relevant to the art? This, is at least, what Liz Lochhead said about Robert Burns not so long ago. I don’t know how credible these claims are that Robert Burns was a sexist racist drunk, but Lochhead said back in 2009: “It’s not relevant to his poetry, it’s not the point. We don’t look at him for a way to live our lives. We should enjoy Burns as a great poet whose work means a lot to a lot of people.” So, in other words, if an artist is a sexist, a racist, a drunk or all three combined, it’s no barrier to enjoying his work. Being Israeli, on the other hand, is grounds for censorship. Hmm.

Since this incident, there have been rumours of Incubator Theatre getting another venue, either in Edinburgh now or London later, but nothing definite yet. have to say, I am somewhat disappointed by the lack of protest from the Festival Fringe Society. For heaven’s sake, open access and opposition to censorship are the founding principles of the festival. If they are prepared to stand back and allow the biggest acts to gag the smallest ones, the Festival Fringe Society needs to question its own priorities.

Friday 08/08 2.00 p.m.: So, anti-censorship rant concluded, here’s the rules for how this coverage works. Basically it’s the same as I did for this year’s Brighton Fringe. I am looking to compile a “pick of the fringe” list for my roundup at the end of my two visits, and this article will list shows that are definitely going in. How choosy I get will depend on how good the standard is. This means that for some of the early shows, I may wait and see how good this year’s standard is rather than recommend it straight away – this is so that shows I see later have a fair chance against the earlier shows.

And a reminder of another rule: if you know I’ve seen your show and I have not given you a review or recommendation, you are welcome to ask why. It’s not necessarily because your show was bad – it may also be because the competition was tough, or it might have not sufficiently stood out from the crowd. I will keep private feedback constructive – you have put in a lot of work getting your show together, you are entitled to my time to hear what I think did and didn’t work.

I will be at the Fringe on the 9th-11th August, and then again on the 22nd-24th August. So expect a big flurry of updates over the next three days, and then a hiatus for about two weeks.

Friday 08/08 8.00 p.m.: Whilst bad plays generally don’t get reviewed on my blog, they will still contribute to my tally of common mistakes that I said I’d count up at the start of the year. As of the start of the fringe, the running total is as follows:

  • Implausible characters: 4
  • Trying to be clever: 3
  • Opinion plays: 3
  • Unnatural speech: 3
  • Padding: 2
  • Lack of cohesion in devised theatre: 2
  • Over-dependence on research: 1
  • Idealised characters: 1

So it seems the most frequent culprit so far is implausible characters. One thing I keep saying is that everything your characters do in a play must be plausible – and the more out of an ordinary a character behaves, the more you need to do to make this plausible to the audience. But, so far, this is a relatively small sample. Believe me, I am braced for the mediocre plays, and at least one play I see will turn out to be utterly abominable. So please, everyone, help me keep this list to a minimum.

Saturday 09/08 8.30 a.m.: Edinburgh here I come. I am writing this somewhere between Alnwick and Berwick and I will be with you shortly. I’ve been up since 6.30 to get this. Yes, that’s right. 6.30 in the morning. Any wuss can stay up till 4 a.m. in Pleasance Courtyard, but only a real man can get up in time to board the 0724 from Durham.

So hopefully, I will have something to endorse by the end of today. In the meantime, for those who didn’t see it on Twitter, here’s a picture to illustrate how much bigger the Edinburgh Fringe is compared to all the others.

Programmes of Brighton Fringe (medium), Oxford Fringe (tiny), Buxton Fringe (small) and Edinburgh Fringe (big)

(In fact, even this understates the difference. A single entry at Brighton, Buxton or Oxford will normally last a few days. A single entry at Edinburgh will usually last the whole festival.)

Right, better post this before the train wi-fi cuts out again.

Saturday 09/08 4.30 p.m.: I’ve learnt three new things this afternoon. The first two are:

  • Getting complimentary press tickets is extremely complicated, regardless of which venue you get it from.
  • The entry criteria to get into Fringe Central is to walk in and look vaguely official. I thought you had to be a participant or member of the press proper, but apparently not. At least not in practice.

First up are my thoughts on Bite-Size menu 2. Most of their ten-minute plays are comedies with varying degrees of surrealism, but this time it was two serious plays. One of those was Lisa Holdworth’s Big Game. This is a show that contains some very uncomfortable themes in a show dominated by comedy. It’s a divisive play, certainly a bold move to include it, but it’s also something that can go wrong very easily. I will share my thoughts on this later when I have a quiet moment.

However, the play I really liked out of the five was Tom Coash’s Raghead. This follows a date of two people set up by mutual friends, with the dampener that she wears a hijab, and he’s a New York fireman who never quite separated the 9/11 attacks and Muslims in general. It’s easy to write a play on why racism is bad, but this in an intelligent look at low-level prejudice, and the trap of making silly assumptions about other people.

The other news is that there was some sort of silent protest over the censorship of The City just now. It was a silent protest and there were a lot of people hanging around so I wasn’t sure exactly what bit was the silent protest, but it didn’t stop the usual rent-a-mob turning up and shouting. I’ll write more about this later as and when I find out.

In the meantime, the third thing I learnt – when you tell PSC demonstrators what you think of political censorship, they take photos of you. If you’re reading this, I am well familiar with your tactics, and I know exactly why you do that. You might intimidate the others, but I am not afraid of you.

Saturday 09/08 11.30 p.m.: Right, that’s my five plays on day 1 completed. With me arriving at 9.30 this morning, I really had no excuse not to meet this quota. Although there was someone in the queue for Bite-Size this morning who had a schedule for seven shows, and says he sometimes does eight in one day. I shall resist the temptation to compete with that.

So the other thing I want to highlight today is Murder, She Didn’t Write, an improvised comedy from Degrees of Error. There’s masses of improvised comedy on show at Edinburgh, and so far I’ve ignored this, but this was a press invitation so I thought I’d give it a chance. So … This  works on a formula where the theme, location, of lead character’s name are picked by the audience, and the victim and murder are then picked out at random by a member of the audience (using cards in a colour scheme surely playing homage to Cluedo). And so, this time we found ourselves watching a whodunnit at a restaurant on the end of Scarborough pier involving a white glove. Since it’s improvised, I’ll let themselves off the discrepancy that there Scarborough doesn’t have a pier. Also letting them off searching the cellars, even though I’m sure a pier building can’t have a cellar.

I can’t give a definitive verdict on an improvised comedy production because I don’t have anything other improvised comedies to compare this to, but there were nonetheless a few things that impressed me. It was such a slick performance I’d assumed it must be a pre-planned play tweaked to meet the audience contributions, but apparently they really didn’t plan anything in advance, with one scene to the next being discussed in the wings. If anyone wants to scrutinise this claim, feel free to go to the play twice and see how different they are. But in the meantime, well done, good introduction to improvised comedy.

Oh bloody hell, it’s nearly midnight and I’ve been up since 6.30. Bed time.

Sunday 10/08 4.15 p.m.: Okay, been out of the loop for a few hours because I’ve been stuck without wi-fi. But I’m now back with a couple more recommendations.

I saw The 56 from FSYA Theatre. a piece of verbatim theatre about the Bradford City Fire of 1985. Told as the testimonies of three people – two survivors, and one witness from the other end of the stand, it recreates the build-up to the event, the fire itself, and the aftermath. This is well-managed piece, with both the choice of testimony and the acting of the cast of three to a high standard. This play wasn’t really a visual one – and people like Steve Gilroy have managed some very innovative use of movement in productions such as The Prize and Motherland – but that doesn’t matter too much because you can follow the play on the strength of the speech alone.

The only thing that was a pity was the music from the production next door, because this play really needs to be spoken in silence. This was largely outside their control – Underbelly allocates spaces and times – but this is one of the worst cases of noise bleed I’ve seen. Underbelly might want to look into this for future years, and try to avoid mismatches such as this.

However, the play you absolutely must see is Chaplin. This is a biopic from a pair of Finnish writers and a Finish director, but a British cast. The story of Charlie Chaplin is well known – his early life in poverty, his rise to fame, his fall in the McCarthy purge – and there’s nothing terribly unexpected in this script, but everything from the acting to the production to the use of Chaplin’s music to Christopher Page’s performance as Chaplin is top-notch.

The only downside is that this is something I would work better as a full-length play. Although the intended focus of play may have been the rise and the fall, there is a lot more of the story that could have been told about his time at the top, such as the things that inspired the greatest moments in his films. A full-length version is definitely worth looking into, because this is something that could make a very successful tour. This doesn’t seem to be getting the best of audiences due to its early slot, so I’m going to redress the balance: it’s thoroughly worth seeing this in spite of the extra expense.

Okay, 4.15. Missed two meals yesterday, still not had lunch today. Oh dear. Better eat.

Sunday 10/08 9.45 p.m.: God, I bloody hate today’s weather. Yes, I know it’s Scotland, but normally it tanks it down for an hour or two, I retreat indoors, and then I get moving again. Today, however, it’s spread out the rain so it’s been pissing it down all day, leaving me feel damp and generally depressed.

However, it’s been a good day’s theatre and I saw High Vis again today. I’ve already reviewed it in last year’s roundup of Brighton Fringe, but I’ve seen it again and it’s better than I remember it last time. It is painful yet horribly watchable to see an increasingly deluded Quint compile a parnoid list of suspects for the mystery traffic warden blowpipe assailant. This is showing in, out of all places, an empty retail unit in the bottom floor of Waverly Shopping Centre, but it is well worth a detour from the usual fringe venues. (Oh, and Waverly Shopping Centre is a change of plan from the advertised Phones 4U venue – seems Freestival aren’t the most organised of venue chains.)

Right, one more play then it’s beddy byes I think.

Monday 11/08 2.00 p.m.: Spoke too soon about beddy byes. Was hanging around in C Nova minding my own business, when I got ambushed with a free ticket for the Cabaret. Finished 1.30 a.m. About six hours behind on sleep now. Somehow, I’m up and about all sprightly like normal. It will probably catch up with me tomorrow. Never mind, I’ll only bugger up my job.

Been to see First Class just now. Heard a lot of good things about this, and I wasn’t disappointed. Billed as a train journey with three passengers and three different tales: a young mother, a stressed teacher, a tennis player unfairly billed as letting her country down. At this point, you might be forgiven for thinking this play doesn’t sound very original. Well, hang on a second – one of them’s receiving text messages, but the other one’s talking about this new drug called Thalidomide. What is going on here?

Yes, this is an uncommon fringe show that doesn’t give away what to expect in the first ten minutes. The three actors give a very fast performance, with the three stories sometimes separate, sometimes in parallel, and they step into supporting roles in each other’s stories effortlessly. I did feel this got a little too complicated for the sake of being complicated, especially a long stretch at the end when the climaxes to all three stories are going on at once. It didn’t fail the “What’s going on” test, but I couldn’t keep up with a few important details of the stories. Nevertheless, this is a play that’s earned its stripes, and this is a free one as Espionage.

A free show that’s having less luck is High Vis. Ignore what I said about the show being moved venues – it’s moved again. Now it’s at the King James Hotel, and it’s moved forward to 12.30. Oh dear, not a good advert for Freestival – looks like you’re better off sticking to PBH or Laughing Horse. On the plus side, however, apparently Quentin Letts is coming to see this. So Quentin, if you’re reading this, I presume you don’t like traffic wardens, but please go easy on Quint. He has issues.

Monday 11/08 8.00 p.m.: Right, I totally didn’t expect this one: Duck Pond. It’s billed as a re-telling of Swan Lake, except out goes the princess that changes into a swan each day, and in comes a prince who changes into a plastic duck on a hook-a-duck stall. I am used to plays that compete for my annual “What the fuck?” award, but whilst most plays like this just try to be random and unpredictable, this is a fully polished production with songs, dancing, and a story that you follow in spite of the random setting.

This is more musical theatre than straight theatre, and since I don’t watch many fringe musicals I can’t give a definitive judgement, but it is clearly a cut above the others I’ve seen. Most fringe musical I’ve seen fall into one of two categories: either studenty productions where the demands of the piece normally outstrip the capability of the group, or fully professional productions whose main selling point is being outrageous or tasteless. This is neither: it’s a multi-talented group that do all the singing, dancing and instruments, and they don’t try to get laughs through crudeness once. The pace of the piece maybe got a little too slow at the end, but other than that, I have little to fault with this.

Monday 11/08 9.45 p.m.: And that’s the end of my first visit. I am just leaving Dunbar station now, on my train back to Durham, having seen 15 productions in 3 days. But don’t go away. Over the next day or two, I will be catching up with a few plays I didn’t have time to cover whilst in Edinburgh.

Before then, however, Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death, and a Rabbit. This was already on my list of pre-fringe recommendations, following the review from my Buxton Fringe coverage. I saw it again today, and this really is a must-see-twice piece. Even though this is billed as a character comedy, the writing and performance is really up there with the best solo theatre on the Fringe. Yes, even though it’s a man in drag.

Whilst I’m on the subject of pre-fringe recommendations, a reminder that you can see Samantha Mann along with all the others in my What’s worth watching article. But so far I’ve been having a good fringe, with few disappointments and, so far, no abominably dreadful ones. I might come up with an updated list in a few days.

Oh, Berwick upon Tweed already. Goodbye Scotland. See you on Friday 22nd.

Tuesday 12/08 3.15 p.m.: Whilst you’re waiting for more reviews, a bit of news in the meantime over a minor row brewing. No, nothing to do with political censorship this time – it’s about ATG Theatres.

As anyone who’s been to Sunderland Empire will know (or any other theatre in the ATG chain), they’ve got quite a notoriety for charging extortionate “booking” fees. Well, apparently, this is just the tip of the iceberg, with complaints emerging of actors being ripped off too, with the most piss-taking one being charging actors £15 to use to wi-fi at one ATG theatre (unclear which one, and this claim is unverified although ATG have not yet denied it). Now a producer of an Edinburgh Fringe play has been asked to provide complimentary tickets to an ATG manager. And the producer of the play has told them to piss off – okay, he didn’t use those exact words, but he did describe ATG as “Easyjet/Ryanair mentality”. Ouch. But he’s got a point.

Whilst I’m on the subject north-east arts, one other bit of breaking news away from Edinburgh completely: Lumiere is definitely coming back. It was confirmed this morning. Not much more to say about this, but you can read the few details in this post.

If neither of those things appeal to you, how about an online poll instead. Do you dream of a five-star review from ThreeWeeks, Broadway Baby, FringeReview or FringeGuru? Or perhaps reviews aren’t important to you (in which case I don’t believe you.) Place your vote here …

(Oh, that didn’t work. Seems that placing an embedded poll in an article break the poll in the sidebar. Okay, place your vote in the sidebar instead.)

Tuesday 12/08 10.30 p.m.: For those of you who didn’t catch the Twitter exchange today, there was a bit of a debate over the significance of have a love story between two princes (human price plus half-duck prince) in Duck Pond. One theory was that it’s 2014 and why shouldn’t a re-telling of a ballet story be a love story between two men, but the other theory – the one I suspected – was that it’s a nod to Tchaikovsky himself, who was persecuted for his sexuality and would never have been allowed to write a same-sex love story in his lifetime. Well, Withwings have advised me that, yes, it was partly a nod to Tchaikovsky, but the main reason was to fit characters around the available cast in the company. So there you go.

Incidentally, I’ve been quite impressed reading about WithWings. I’d assumed I was watching a fully professional company in action here, but it seems that most of the company are ex-students who took a wide variety of courses. I’ve always maintained that it’s more important to play top the strengths of the actors you’ve get than try to recruit top-grade graduates from top-flight drama schools, and if that’s how WithWings works, they’re doing an excellent job of it.

Anyway, let’s get on catching up with reviews. One thing I saw on the first day was Signal Failure. This is billed as a “twisted rom com”. A dysfunctional love story can make a fantastic play – as I discovered earlier this year with the wonderful Blink – but this format is harder than you might think. The thing that you wanted to be a parody can easily end up as another generic boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-with-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back. Anyway, the premise of this play is that newly single Brian, for want of something better to do, embarks on a project of matchmaking commuters on the London Underground through fake adverts in Metro’s Rush Hour Crush. For the first 20 minutes, expect a lot of observations about tube eye contact rules and Rush Hour Crush politics. Lorna, bored of her job where no-one properly talks to each other, notices a pattern, notices Brian always present at the scene, but they both end up looking at each other, one thing leads to another and soon they’re a couple. That’s the beginning, so far, so good.

And then – so annoyingly – the play ends up mimicking the very thing it was supposed to be parodying. Now, it might be that the intention of this play was for an undemanding hour of rom com where you know exactly where the story’s going to go, in which case, please ignore this paragraph and carry on what you’re doing. But if Em-Lou production was hoping to achieve more than that – and I hope that is the case – the middle could have done with some more attention. The screwed up circumstances that set up the play so well in the first 20 minutes get sidelined, and the next 30 minutes ends up as broadly interchangeable plot from any rom com. It’s only in the last ten minutes that all sorts of interesting back-stories about the two characters come out. Had those back-stories been interwoven into the rest of the play, it would have done a lot to make the play more individual and less predictable. Still, it’s a nice play to watch, and if prefer the nice plays to the harrowing ones, you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday 13/08 6.00 p.m.: Next on the catchup reviews is My Name is SaoirseThis is a new play from Eva O’Connor about Saoirse, an Irish girl who grew up in an area where it’s considered a good idea not to tell anyone about the bird and the bees, and the fact that this education might instead fall to irresponsible friends doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind. It’s maybe not the most original subject material, but it’s a decent play covering a lot of interesting aspects of life in Ireland with a good solo performance from the writer-performer.

I wonder, however, if theatre is the right description for this piece. I’ve noticed, with a number of solo plays now, I could be watching the play with my eyes closed and still get the same experience. O’Connor tries to add a visual element to the play with a set of Saoirse’s attic room where she sews, but this doesn’t seem to be a play that lends itself well to visual cues. This, I feel, would be better off treated as either radio drama or a spoken word piece. If you like the sound of this piece you’ll enjoy it, but if you go in with expectations of a storytelling piece rather than a theatre piece, that’s probably the best way to enjoy it.

Thursday 14/08 11.15 p.m.: And finally, an update on Bite Size. With Menu 1 joining menu 2 on the list of line-ups I’ve seen, I’ve got two a particular favourites from this. I loved Candy Loves Your Status in Brighton, and I still love it. This is a play told entirely in Facebook communication between two university graduates. It’s a summary everything that’s wrong with Facebook (or rather, the people who used it), pointless responses to each other’s likes, subtle bragging disguised as chat, and sugar-coated insults of each other. But it’s also a cautionary tale of why Facebook friends aren’t the same as real friends, and when one starts suggesting she should kill herself, that’s not such a laughing matter. Also enjoyed A Great War, a parody of World War 1 news coverage where the 24-hour format meets good old British stiff upper lip. I gather there were some nerves about staging this play on the 100th anniversary of World War One, but I don’t think there was any need to worry – I don’t see it as any more contentious than Blackadder Goes Forth.

However, the play I want to talk about the most is Big Game, because this is the controversial one. This was a play about a couple the morning after, when she discovers that she’s been posted on Facebook naked, as the result of some misogynistic game devised by his rugby team, who seem to justify the whole thing as one in the eye for the feminists. In partial defence of him, he eventually realises – quite belatedly – that what’s he’s done is actually bad, but this act is arguably the closest it’s possible for sex to be like rape short of actually being rape. Due to the uncomfortable themes, not everybody likes this. But other people think it’s the best. In fact, everyone seems to love it or hate it; I cannot think of another Bite-Size play that has divided opinion so strongly.

Plays about uncomfortable subjects such as rape are risky to produce, even at the anything-goes Edinburgh Fringe. In a setting such as Bite-Size, it is doubly risky. Normally, an audience has some idea of what to expect in a play, but you can’t do that when it’s a set of 10-minute plays, especially when you’ve got a reputation for a comedy-dominated programme. (I had a similar problem at Buxton this year where my apparently light-hearted play had a harrowing ending that I couldn’t warn people about because it would have been a spoiler.) There are two ways it can go wrong: firstly, people might stay in comedy mode and carry on laughing long after it’s not a laughing matter; and secondly, some people are not going to like being ambushed with uncomfortable material they weren’t counting on seeing.

The first problem can be kept under control by monitoring if the audience laugh too much or too little and adjusting accordingly, but there’s not much you can do about the second. But it’s also a play that convincing covers some very difficult issues that need talking about, and it would be disappointing to shy away from this material, however uncomfortable. Was it a bold choice to include this play in the programme? Certainly. Would an financial backer, looking for a steady income in ticket sales, be happy with this risk? Possibly not. Have they got away with including it in the programme? It looks like they have. Should I encourage other groups to take similar risks in the future? I daren’t decide either way.

So, that’s my catchup competed. Tomorrow, I will get an updated list of recommendations, then that’s it for a while.

Friday 15/08 10.00 a.m.: Right, news from High Vis – no, he hasn’t has his venue moved again, it’s good news for a change. It’s got a 4-star review from a national newspaper. Now, before you wonder what’s so special about a 4-star review when there’s thousands of them splattered over Edinburgh, it’s generally accepted that it’s harder to get a 4-star review in regular papers such as The Scotsman than the equivalent rating in, say ThreeWeeks. Only downside is it’s an endorsement from the Daily Mail. Oh. I suppose Quentin Letts is okay for a Daily Mail writer, and he did get the play (and not just endorse it with a generic rant about traffic wardens without talking about the play itself), but it’s still the Daily Mail.

Still, Robert Cohen’s been having some rotten luck so far, which with having his venue moved twice, so congratulations, it’s about time he got some proper recognition. But just to redress the balance, here’s a song for your entertainment:

Saturday 16/08 7.15 p,m.: And that’s all from me until next Friday, when I return to Edinburgh. Before I sign off, here’s an updated collated list of pre-fringe recommendations and plays covered so far:

  • The Adventure Machine: Three’s Company have a long list of innovative plays. Not seen this yet, but – come on. It’s Choose Your Own Adventure!
  • Bite-Size: Long-standing recommendation of ten-minute plays. Menu 1 is a safe choice of comedy, menu 2 is a bolder choice.
  • Chaplin: Ooh, that was good. Biopic play, great all-rounder and excellent performance from Christopher Page.
  • The Duck Pond: Swan Lake on a hook-a-duck stall. Believe it or not, this works really well.
  • The 56: A dignified piece of verbatim theatre commemorating the Bradford City fire.
  • First Class: Three cleverly interwoven tales with a common theme – maybe more complicated than needed, but still a clever piece of writing and performan
  • Honest: Don’t know if the group are any good, but the play itself is a great fringe choice, especially if you’re a civil servant who thinks it’s all bollocks.
  • High-Vis: A cautionary tale about a trafiic warden who takes his job far too seriously. Robert Cohen’s been having a tough time with the venue moving him around times and places, so he could do with some support. (Now 12.30 p.m., King James Hotel.)
  • Inheritance Blues: Yet to see, but promising track record from Dugout Theatre.
  • My Name as Saoirse: This is more storytelling than theatre, but as storytelling piece it’s a good story about life in more conservative parts of Ireland.
  • Murder She Didn’t Write: An improvised play so slick I could have sworn it was somehow pre-prepared.
  • Knightmare Live: Come on, where else can you cheer when someone says “You’re in a room”.
  • The Ruby Dolls: Yet to see, but highly talented and innovative quartet of singers that I saw two years ago.
  • Samantha Mann: Stories of Love, Death and a Rabbit: Really really recommend this one. Although it’s a comedy, it doubles up as one of the best bits of solo theatre I’ve seen.
  • Signal Failure: A “twisted rom-com”. Good beginning and ending, middle a little too formulaic, but it a nice play that won’t disappoint you.

And, of course, if you get a change to see The City, either in Edinburgh or elsewhere, do so. The more people see acts that are subjected to political censors, the less likely these people are to try this stunt in the future.

Bye-bye. Back Friday.

Thursday 21/08 10.45 p.m.: And welcome back. Hope you’ve all been doing a good fringing whilst I’ve been away. Tomorrow I set off for Edinburgh again for my second visit, and hopefully some more reviews of good shows I’d never heard of before.

But before then, here’s a catchup of some other news from the last week. I’m getting some very positive noises from FringeGuru about The 56 which I was invited to review. No review yet, but it looks like it’ll be a good one. But I have evidence on Twitter that I encouraged Richard Stamp to go in the first place (admittedly I wasn’t the only source of encouragement). So, you see, at the Edinburgh Fringe, theatre bloggers do matter. The reviewers from the bigger publications ask us for our opinions on what to see, and that in turn can influence what they choose to review. Glad this one benefited from my review too, because out of the five Edinburgh Fringe plays I attended on a press ticket, this one was my favourite.

Other thing which passed me by was that Incubator Theatre – the group that Lochhead and co want to ban – are doing a three-night run in London at the moment. I’ve been writing a bit more about what I believe are the real motives behind the protests, but this is some positive news for a change. I did feel a bit bad about not picking this up in time to promote it, but it turns out I didn’t have to. Each night sold out in a 270-seat theatre (I assume they were in the main auditorium), and I make that roughly equivalent to a decent 33 ticket sales per performance in an Edinburgh Fringe run.

In addition, I hear that the AGM of the Festival Fringe Society was dominated by sorry events at the start of the Fringe. I’ve been a bit disappointed by the lack of protest from the Festival Fringe Society – at the time when they should have been leading the defence of free speech, they were busy with generic fringe marketing. Maybe now they know how their membership feels, they might be a bit more proactive. Personally, if it was up to me, I’d create a rule that there’s one condition for participating in the fringe: you do not try to get other fringe acts stopped – if Liz Lochhead tries a stunt like that next year, she ought to be chucked out of the programme.

But it seems that, in the end, the political censors have been beaten by the Streisand Effect. I hope we can all give the message that the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity campaign achieved nothing – The City will almost certainly be seen by more people than they would otherwise. Yes, Liz Lochhead, yes David Greig, you’ve failed. Think about that the next time you try to ban acts from festival that prides itself on openness.

Bugger, spent so much time writing this I haven’t even started packing. Better go.

Friday 22/08 9.00 a.m.: And I’ve just passed Dunbar. I will be with you shortly.

Oh, for future years, top tip for planning your visit (in case you don’t already know) – if you’re coming from northern England by train, definitely check out the first class fares. For journeys to Edinburgh, the first class tickets are usually only a few pounds more than standard class, and for that you get food and wi-fi which is well worth those few extra pounds. I’m afraid you can’t use a 16-25 railcard on that, so it’s not such a good deal for you young whippersnappers, but it’s a bargain for us canny old dogs. UPDATE: Oh, apparently you do get a 16-25 railcard discount. Seems I’m behind the times. I never got a first class discount when I was your age, you lucky bastards.

Friday 22/08 7.30 p.m. And here it is. The long-awaited outstanding Fringe performance: Inheritance Blues from Dugout Theatre. Dugout Theatre originated as a student group, but the last two performances of theirs I saw were way above the standard of typical student productions. So I had quite good expectations of this one, especially as it’s a encore of a successful one from two years ago.

And, my God, this production is even higher than my already high expectations. You can get a good fringe production from playing to your actors’ strengths and avoiding showing up their weaknesses, but this lot have strength after strength after strength, be it acting, singing or playing blues. This multi-talented standard is normally what I’d expect from high-end productions such as Northern Stage. The fact that this has been achieved by an ex-student group is outstanding.

So Inheritance Blues will be getting my highest honour possible for Edinburgh Fringe coverage – a full article to itself. That will have to wait a few days. In the meantime, congratulations Dugout Theatre – it’s going to be a very tough act to beat.

Saturday 23/08 10.00 a.m.: And now to the other end of a scale: a negative review for Looking for Paul at Summerhall. That was my fifth play so far this fringe that I didn’t like. Normally, I don’t write about bad fringe plays, because normally these are small-scale productions trying their best, and being a sort-of fringe performer myself I don’t like to badmouth other in a similar position. This one, however, is inexcusably bad. Possibly the greatest mystery his how a play acclaimed by so many high-brow critics and a high-brow venue can be so utterly utterly tasteless and banal.

In this 90-minute piece, the first 60 minutes is almost exclusively a fictitious series of e-mails read out between a company of Dutch actors on tour to California. The premise is that they taken with them a woman who is angry over a Paul McCarthy statue being erected outside her own home of Santa Claus with a butt plug. Once there, the actors get bored original idea of debating this statue with the artist, never make a decision on what to do instead, and the Dutch woman they invited feels alienated when the actors don’t seem that opposed to Paul McCarthy’s work. Nothing wrong this this, it’s an interesting story with some interested themes over arts politics in Holland, although I expected more than reading scripts for the first hour, and it was slow moving at points – but frankly, these are the least of the problems.

Then comes the last 30 minutes. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I don’t know where to begin on how revolting this was. This is the stereotype I expect from pretentious students at the Fringe, not a respected company with the headline space at a major venue. Now, I’ve always thought that nothing is off-limits on stage, but anything objectionable has to be justified by the context. This doesn’t come anywhere close. I suppose the irony was supposed to be that these actors, struggling to think of something to do, produced something even more tasteless than the butt-plug status, but it’s so lacking in believability that doesn’t count. There is nothing in the prior hour to establish these actors would do things like smear poo or stick their genitals into a mattress whilst saying “room service” in a silly voice. And this Dutch woman they brought along – why is she taking part in this when she hates that kind of art so much? There was absolutely no artistic merit in that last scene.

I suppose that this got laughs from the audience, but frankly, if you find this sort of gross-out humour funny, go and watch Jackass. If you want titillation, go to a burlesque act. If you’re normal, go to a normal show at a normal venue. Summerhall is perhaps the most interesting venue in Edinburgh, but if that’s there idea of top-notch art, it’s not a good sign.

Never mind, Bite-Size now. Sure this will be better. Let’s face it, it can’t possibly be worse.

Saturday 23/08 5.00 p.m.: Thank goodness. I’m doing a hardcore fringe today (i.e. a target of six plays), and the ones I’ve seen so far have made up for yesterday’s disappointment.

Firstly, Bite-Size began today’s menu with Intertwining Monologue a parody of the stereotypical pretentious fringe play, with a blow by blow account including the sinking realisation of the audience of the kind of play, and the guy in the audience who’s permanently staring at the actress’s tits. After last night, that timing could not have been better. However, the thing that has most impressed me in this year’s line-up is Joel Jones, who has contributed three very funny very surrealistic comedies (Tragic Hero with a 15-th century Scottish chieftain in modern times, The Answer Man, and film noir parody Big Fish, Little Fish). That is an exceptional contribution from one writer in one year.

The it was on to The Silence of Snow, Espionage’s other free theatre piece on offer (along with First Class). This is a solo performance biopic of Patrick Hamilton, written and performed by Mark Farrelly. There are a lot of solo performance biopics at the fringe, so it’s easy to become run-of-the-mill, especially if you perform it as a first-person narration. But Mark Farrelly gets into the character well, gives himself a decent script to bring out all the traits as Hamilton, and covers a lot of interesting material about what inspired many of his books and plays. The only thing that I felt was missing from this was reference to his most famous play, Gaslight, but there’s more than enough to keep your interest without. Oh, and Farrelly took a very noble decision to give all donations for the play to Mind.

And then it was The Adventure Machine. I wasn’t expecting a disappointment – come on, who doesn’t want be in Choose Your Own Adventure? – but Three’s Company were naturals for this show. (Note for pedants: this is officially a C Theatre production rather than a Three’s Company production, presumably due to them including the long-standing C production of Shakespeare for Breakfast, but it’s Three’s Company in everything but name.) The most fitting description is it’s like the books, but with you thumb in the previous page just in case you die. Choices are made by majority vote and the audience gets three lives. It is, of course, rigged so that the audience wins in an adventure that lasts an hour, but it must have required a highly complicated and cunning plot structure to cover all the possibilities. This show has been somewhat overlooked, in the shadow of the more high-profile Shakespeare for Breakfast, but it is well worth a visit to this one too. You definitely don’t need any children to enjoy this. If you absolutely cannot see a kids’ show without a child, kidnap one temporarily.

Thank you all for lightening my mood. The only downside is that I’ve still not had my statutory maple syrup and bacon crepe at a C venue. I wouldn’t mind, but they they keep sticking up all these signs say: Bacon and Syrup Crepe, Bacon and Egg Roll, Bacon and Chicken surprise, mmmmh, mmmmh, bacon, bacon, lovely bacon (sorry, we have run out of bacon). Oh well, can’t have everything.

Sunday 24/08 2.00 p.m.: Finally seen Shakespeare for Breakfast. On an equally important note, I finally got my bacon and maple syrup crepe, but enough digression, back to Shakespeare for Breakfast. This was quite low on my priorities because I don’t actually have that much interest in Shakespeare, but with Three’s Company being in charge in everything but name, I thought I’d check it out.

But, of course, with Tom and Yaz giving it their treatment, I should have guessed it would be anything but that. Instead of the passages from Shakespeare I was expecting, we begin with a woman marooned on in island. Okay, looks like The Tempest. Enter creepy man, so woman disguises herself as man – all right, not The Tempest, isn’t this the start of Twelfth Night? Wait a second, the man’s just introduced himself as Richard III, now I’m confused. Turns out this is Shakespeare Island, and there’s a struggle between the goodies (Henry V, a moody Hamlet, Kate from Taming of the Shrew, and Ariel best known as fairy from The Tempest and a popular font) and the baddies (Richard III, Iago, Third Witch and the queen of the Goths who’s incensed that no-one remembers her). The baddies seek to rewrite history by finding the Complete Works of Shakespeare, because, as we all know a copy, can be found on every desert island.

If you’ve previously seen AuditoriumThe Importance of Being Frank or The World’s Greatest Walking Tour of Edinburgh/Buxton, this is exactly the same format and this is the show for you. If you haven’t, this is a good opportunity to see what you’ve been missing. For people whose idea of Shakespeare is to sit in a theatre staring at your watch every five minutes wondering what the hell’s going on, don’t worry: you will still enjoy this. If you’re a Shakespeare fan, there are bonus in-jokes. Oddly enough, the only people who I’ve advise away are the die-hard Shakespeare fans who want none of the mash-up nonsense.

Phew. 26 plays down, 2 to go.

Sunday 24/08 7.00 p.m.: At that’s it, time’s up. My train for Durham leaves in a hour. I’ve seen a total of 28 shows. Thanks to those who invited me for reviews, and thanks to many other people for giving me one of the best Edinburgh fringes in years. This isn’t quite the end of the reviews, because there’s still the odd show I liked that I haven’t reviewed yet. My main task, however, will be to collated everything into the roundup.

So I now have the task of deciding on a short list of the best shows I saw. I’m off to consider my verdict. As soon as I have a decision, I will let you know. Until then, hope the rest of you enjoyed your fringes too. Only eight months to Brighton.

Monday 25/08 11.30 a.m.: And whilst you’re waiting for the moment of truth, there’s just time to announce the result of the poll that: which is the best publication to get a five-star review from? Votes literally flooded in – okay, voters literally trickled in – but it’s enough to show that there’s no consensus. Votes are evenly split between a specific publications, others, and no preference as long as someone gives five stars. So, that’s that one settled then.

No, you’re not getting my pick of the fringe list yet. I’m knackered today, and I’m struggling to remember what I saw on my day 1.

Tuesday 26/08 11.15 p.m.: And here we are, ladies and gentlemen, the moment of truth. I have my choice of pick of the fringe.

Actually, this time I’m going to do things slightly differently. As I’ve had quite a good Fringe, my list for Pick of the Fringe is going to be split into two: one for the few outstanding ones, and another for the rest. Honourable Mention will remain as it is. There is also a booby prize, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s followed by coverage.

So, the envelope please. The winners are …

[Drum Roll.]

(Oh, plays within categories are listed in order I saw them, not a ranking for how good they were.)

Outstanding fringe plays:

  • Chaplin
  • Samantha Mann: Stories of Love, Death and a Rabbit
  • Inheritance Blues

Rest of the best:

  • The Big Bite-Size Breakfast
  • The 56
  • High Vis
  • First Class
  • The Duck Pond
  • The Silence of Snow
  • The Adventure Machine
  • Shakespeare for Breakfast

Honourable mention:

  • Signal Failure
  • Murder She Didn’t Write
  • My Name is Saorise
  • Earnest, or Much Ado about Muffins
  • The Ruby Dolls: Fabulous Creatures
  • Boris and Sergey III: Freakatorium
  • The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland
  • Knightmare Live! Level 2

None of the above:

  • Looking for Paul
  • … and five others

I will expand on this with my roundup, whenever I have the time to do it. For those shows on this list that haven’t been mentioned in this coverage, you will get a review in the roundup, and they will all have positive things to say.

Congratulations to those on the list. If you know I saw you and you’re not in that list, I will give feedback on request. But that’s all for tonight.

Wednesday 27/08 11.15 p.m.: As my fringe coverage winds down, just a few loose ends to tie up. One is my list of apologies for plays I wanted to see. There are two inescapable truths I’ve discovered about the Edinburgh Fringe: one is that you will have to disappoint the majority of people giving you flyers for their shows, and the other is that you will always end up not having time to see shows you wanted to see. Here are the list of plays I would liked to have seen:

Down the Toilet: This is a Bite-Size venture. For years they’ve been experimenting with shows outside their standard ten-minute format, but it was only last year that they’ve finally hit on to a winner: family plays. This year, they did an educational play where the main characters are, err, a wee and a poo. Believe it or not, this has been done before. Heard good things and was curious, but tragically, it was around midday when my diary was at its busiest.

Good Timin’: I don’t automatically see Live Theatre productions going to the Edinburgh, but I quite liked the description of this show about a man looking for his father. (Slightly let down by the Live’s marketing department using word clouds incorrectly, but I’ll overlook that.) Sadly, this too was thwarted by a combination of the wrong time of day and the venue of Northern Stage being out in the sticks. However, I gather it’s coming back to Newcastle in October, so I’ll try to catch it then.

Honest: The only play on my recommendations I never got round to seeing. Okay, a play about a man who decides his civil service job is all bollocks is something I identify with for the wrong reasons, but I still wanted to find time to see it. Admittedly, it was the play rather than the group that I liked, but I would nonetheless have liked to have seen how a new group did this.

Shrew and Back Door: These two plays, along with First Class, were plays that came to Buxton (on days I wasn’t there) that went on to Edinburgh, and I heard good things about them. But sadly, I only got round to First Class. Damn.

Apologies to you all. Maybe next year. You can all be assured that there’s plenty of moments I was watching a bad play when I wished I was seeing one of yours instead.

Thursday 28/08 7.00 p.m.: And before I sign off, there’s just time to bring you up to date with my tally of common mistakes in playwriting. I counted the following:

  • Trying to be clever: 3
  • Implausible characters: 2
  • Gag-driven plot: 1
  • Padding: 1
  • Tasteless for the sake of it (new category): 1

So, a surprisingly high showing for plays that are trying to be clever. So that being the 2014 running total to …

  • Trying to be clever: 6
  • Implausible characters: 6
  • Opinion plays: 3
  • Unnatural speech: 3
  • Padding: 3
  • Lack of cohesion in devised theatre: 2
  • Over-dependence on research: 1
  • Idealised characters: 1
  • Gag-driven plot: 1
  • Tasteless for the sake of it.

(Oh, and if you’re trying to work out which plays committed which offence by trying to work out which plays I’ve seen and haven’t mentioned, you’ll have a hell of a job. Probably easier if you buy me lots of drinks, and I’ll go onto auto-rant somewhere between my third and fourth pint.)

So, trying to be clever catches in implausible characters for a join lead. Make of that what you will.

Friday 29/08 11.15 a.m.: And that’s all from me. The end of my live Edinburgh updates, and the end of my live fringe coverage for 2014. I will try to get this written up into my roundup when all of this will be in a more coherent form, but with 9,000 words to summarise, it’s going to take some time. A reminder that for any play I’ve mentioned that I haven’t yet reviewed, that will come in the roundup. And another reminder that anyone who didn’t get a review is welcome to contact me privately and ask what I didn’t like about the play (and similarly, if you were reviewed, I will gladly expand on anything I said I didn’t like – sometimes I skip over certain criticisms if I don’t think it’s fair to make them in public).

This isn’t quite the end of my August theatre trips – I am off to Scarborough this afternoon for a blissfully relaxing three plays in two days. But if you want more live coverage, you’ll have to wait until Brighton Fringe in May. So thank you all for following this, and see you again next year.

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