How to make the most of the Brighton Fringe (fringe newbie edition)

Brighton Fringe mural

Eek. Less than two weeks to go before fringe season begins. Better get a move on. I’ve got a list of Brighton recommendations that will be coming up shortly, but first of all, here’s my annual guide for how to make the most of it. In the last two years, I’ve written this guide for people who are used to the Edinburgh Fringe who might need to know how Brighton differs. This time, however, I don’t see any need to further update it, so this time I’m going to do a list of tips for people who’ve never done any kind of fringe before. This is not a list of things I recommend seeing – that will come in the next few days – instead it’s a list of general tips for how to get the best out of your fringe visit.

So, without further ado, here we go.

Why Brighton Fringe?

The Brighton Fringe is the world’s third biggest open arts festival, after Edinburgh and Adelaide. The important bit is the word “open”. There are no vetting processes to decide who can and can’t take part – anyone who wants to do Brighton Fringe can do so, provided someone covers your expenses. Like many fringes, Brighton Fringe runs concurrently to the vetted Brighton Festival, but the two festivals get on with each other rather well and co-operate (unlike the Edinburgh International Festival who have never forgiven the Edinburgh Fringe for upstaging them). It’s a much smaller festival than Edinburgh (in Edinburgh you can’t miss the fact a fringe is on, in Brighton you probably will miss it if you don’t know it’s there), but there’s still plenty to keep you busy.

Why go to a festival fringe? There are many good reasons to go to a fringe (and one bad reason that I’ll get on to shortly), but I’d say the best reason is that you can see anything, and I mean anything. Without an artistic director or selection committee deciding who’s allowed to take part, it’s up to the audience to decide what succeeds. The smallest and obscurest acts stand a fair chance against the biggest names.

And why go to Brighton? For a start, if you live in London or on the south coast, Brighton Fringe is a much cheaper and more convenient option than its Scottish cousin. But that’s not the only reason to choose Brighton. Such is the competition and expense of the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s almost like a trade fair now, where you’d be foolish to come with anything but your best work. Which means that it now falls to smaller fringes like Brighton where people can afford to take risks. If you want to be the first to spot the next big thing, you’ve got a better chance in Brighton.

There is one other reason to pick Brighton: I believe, all other things being equal, that the average Brighton Fringe show is better than the average Edinburgh Fringe show. The standard at Edinburgh, I feel, gets dragged down by a load of groups who go straight into “doing a fringe” without thinking about all the other fringes on offer. Those who take part in Brighton, I think, put more thought into whether Brighton is the right fringe for them, and – hopefully – are also the sort of people who put some thought into whether their show is ready for a fringe at all.

Does this appeal to you? Good. Now read on.

The tips

1: Understand what a Festival Fringe means

First thing’s first. A common misconception of festival fringes (particularly Edinburgh) is that it’s such a prestigious festival, there must be some sort of prestige to all the acts allowed to perform there. But, as I’ve just mentioned, it’s not how it works. Yes, festival fringes such as Edinburgh and Brighton are prestigious, and yes, it attracts a lot of prestigious acts, but the fact remains that anyone can take part, and that’s exactly how the Brighton Fringe intends to work.

What this means for you is that, as well as seeing some good plays or comedy, you will probably also see some mediocre, poor or incomprehensibly dreadful plays. Fringe veterans like me develop a bad play radar, but even then some slip through the net. But that’s part of the bargain. If you have a problem with awful plays and untalented performers being allowed into high-profile arts festivals, then this is not the festival for you. If you want a festival with a carefully vetted programme, there’s where an artistic director does that, such as the Brighton Festival. But I’ve seen lots of good acts at the Fringe that have come out of nowhere and would never have made it through any vetting procedure. I think it’s worth it. You will have to decide for yourself.

2: Most Brighton Fringe plays are one-acts

Go to any theatre out of fringe season and the play will probably last about 2 hours 30 minutes including an interval. At the Brighton Fringe however, the typical length more like an hour. There is no rule insisting on this – just that it’s such common practice. It’s not quite as hard and fast a rule as Edinburgh – you do get the odd full-length on offer – but full-length plays are still the exception rather than the rule.

This has mainly come about because most fringe punters now expect to see several plays in one day. Long plays and intervals just get in the way of this.  One-hour plays take a bit of getting used to, but don’t worry – take it from me, you can do a damned good piece of theatre in one hour.

3: It matters when you choose to visit

Edinburgh is quite straightforward: virtually all shows run every day throughout the full three weeks of the festival. Brighton and other fringes, however, are a bit more complicated. There’s a few things worth knowing:

  • Very few plays show before 5 p.m. on weekdays. This is because many punters are people who live and work locally, and are only free on evenings and weekends. This means that if you go midweek, you won’t have a chance to see many plays. That’s fine if you’re happy to spend your daytime relaxing on the beach, but if you want to see lots of plays, go at the weekend.
  • Plays never run the full length of the festival – unlike Edinburgh, where you can sustain three weeks’ trade from visitors who come and go, you can’t realistically run a play for more than a few days in Brighton before you run out of audience. So if there’s anything you specifically want to see in Brighton, make sure you go when they’re on.
  • The final week coincides with half-term, and has lots of family plays, so this is the ideal week if you’re coming with children. Don’t worry too much if you’re coming in the last week without children though – there’s still plenty of non-family shows to keep you busy.

You should find enough to enjoy yourself whenever you choose to go, but a careful decision now could help you make the most of this.

4: If you’re coming at the weekend, arrange your accommodation early

Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton all have their challenges finding accommodation. In the case of Brighton, the big problem is that lots of people come for the weekend. Some people are fringe weekenders, but a lot more go to Brighton for the drinking. I personally don’t understand the point of going to the seaside to get lashed when you could achieve the same thing back home, but the net effect is – apart from needing to take care on Friday and Saturday nights avoiding pissed-up hipsters and trustafarians – demand for accommodation spikes at weekends and there’s not enough to go round. If you are coming the same weekend as the Great Escape (14th-16th May this year), it’s especially difficult, and the Saturday is the worst day of all.

Unlike Edinburgh, it is just about possible to get a B&B at an affordable rate if you’re lucky, but it’s most likely you’ll have to share a room with strangers in a hostel. Don’t expect a hotel room unless you’ve got money to burn. But, whatever you do, don’t leave it until the last moment, or the only one left will be a certain notorious hostel in Hove. I won’t name and shame – they know who they are.

5: Allow sensible gaps between plays

Maps can be deceptive. Venues are not necessarily as close together as they think they are. Allow a sensible amount of time to get from one to the other. Especially if your next venue is in Hove. It’s a long walk between Brighton and Hove, and, worse, it’s easy to get lost because all the streets kind of look the same if you don’t know where you’re going. Allow time for at least one wrong turn.

Also, allow time for shows to overrun. Edinburgh Fringe venues are quite strict act making sure a 3.55 finish means 3.55, but Brighton venues are somewhat sloppier. It’s not unknown for multiple shows to overrun at a venue and for delays to accumulate. So any gap of less than 15 minutes is pushing your luck, even if the venues are next door to each other.

6: Beware of “community” productions

Now for a more controversial one. At the Edinburgh Fringe, one kind of theatre that has a certain notoriety is “studenty” theatre. Most acts have a lot at stake doing a fringe, but a student production can simply be a bunch of mates chipping in a bit of cash and not really needing to produce anything decent. You don’t see much student theatre in Brighton, because that’s when most students have exams. But instead, there’s another type of production you need to beware of, and that’s the dreaded “community” production. When I say community productions, I am not referring to the numerous small-scale aspiring professional groups that are based in Brighton, who have produced some damned good stuff. Instead, I’m referring to this sort of production that you see all over the country, encompassing a lot of youth and amdram, where the audience is dominated by friends and family of the cast and they go “Didn’t they all try hard?” Some productions of this nature happen to based in Brighton, pay the registration fee for some extra publicity and prestige, but make no attempt to live up to the standard of the rest of the fringe.

Now, it’s not fair to automatically write off anything that looks like a community production. 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 it was in a drunken rant.) I do encourage people to give low-budget productions a chance, but this is a risk you take with community theatre.

7: Popular shows sell out

At the Edinburgh Fringe, really the only shows where you need to worry about tickets selling out 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 – you never know, the play you choose see instead might turn out to be wonderful (that’s happened to me) – but I often wonder if you end out missing on a lot of good stuff if you leave ticket-buying until the last moment.

At Brighton, I prefer to buy tickets for shows at least one day in advance – maybe even two or three if it’s a show I don’t want to miss. Unlike Edinburgh, where the queues for the box office are insane, the box office in Brighton is generally a fast and reliable way of getting tickets from any venue. And if there’s any show you absolutely do not want to miss, then book it online before you come to Brighton. You’ll have to pay an online booking fee, but better safe than sorry.

8: A note of caution on reviews

Although Brighton Fringe is an open-access festival, many people naturally want to know which shows are the ones worth seeing. So people turn to reviews from the various reviewing publications that cover Brighton Fringe (or recommendations based on reviews of earlier shows). The shows themselves will often quote good reviews if they can. But if you’re thinking of basing what you see on reviews, it’s not as simple as going for the one with five stars. There’s a few things you need to be aware of with fringe reviewing publications. One thing about them is that the people doing the reviews don’t necessarily have that much experience – although I don’t think that matters too much. No-one’s verdict should be authoritative, whether it’s an second-year Eng Lit student or Dominic Cavendish.

No, the two things you really need to bear in mind about fringe reviews are:

  • Fringe reviewers tend to choose what to review based on what grabs their interest – and those interests will influence the review. If a reviewer gives five stars to a Sarah Kane play, you’ll probably still hate it if you’re can’t stand that kind of theatre. Similarly, a glowing review for a play about football may well be of no interest to someone who doesn’t care for football.
  • Reviewers frequently disagree with each other. It is not unusual for the same play to get two stars and five stars from different reviewers. I am no exception. My reactions to other people’s reviews can very from “Yes I agree” to “Well, I liked it”, or “How the hell did that get four stars from you?”

My advice is that all reviews should be treated as one person’s opinion. As are recommendations of theatre bloggers and random punters. Give an official review more weight if you like, but what you should really be looking for is consensus. Beware of a single four-star review stapled to someone’s flyer – that might be the start of widespread acclaim, but it might also be one person whose opinion is in the minority. (Similarly, a bad review could be a warning sign, but it might also be a reviewer who misunderstood the play.) But if everybody is recommending the same play to you – reviewers, bloggers, and people on the street – that’s a very reliable sign that it’s as good as they say it is.

And a final tip …

You will see people in Brighton with a spreadsheet carefully planning to pack as many plays as possible into their fringe. Good luck to everyone doing this, but don’t feel you have to compete with them. Brighton Fringe is supposed to be fun, not an endurance test. Really, if you’re into hardcore fringing, Edinburgh is the place to do it. You hear stories of people seeing eight Edinburgh Fringe plays in one day, but that’s not possible in Brighton, especially during the week when there’s not much on during the day. For heaven’s sake, there’s a beach. Have an ice cream on it. That’s an obligatory part of every visit.

There are many different reasons why you might want to go to Brighton. You might be a talent-spotter for actors. You might be on the lookout for new plays. Or you might just fancy visiting somewhere on the south coast with a bit of theatre and comedy thrown in. Whatever your reason, make you have have fun when you’re doing it.

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