Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2015

Oh Jesus, it’s July and I still haven’t done this Brighton roundup. All right, no more excuses, no more procrastinating, let’s get the shows I saw written up. Most of what you will see here is a restatement of my live coverage (or even an occasional copy-paste) – however, I will have a few new things to say too. As always, this is not an exhaustive list of everything on offer at Brighton – just a list of what I saw that was good.

Okay, enough time wasted. Let’s go.

Pick of the fringe:

The woman neatly arranges her teaSo, my first thing on the list is a bit unusual, in that I’m writing a fresh review. When I did my live coverage, I said very little about the play – only that you must see it – because anything would have been a spoiler. But now that Request Programme is finished, I can safely tell you how wonderful it was. In the unlikely event that you’re about to see another productions play somewhere else, stop reading now. Everyone else read on.

Request Programme is a quite disturbing play about suicide. Although writer Franz Xaver Kroetz wrote this decades ago, it could just as easily have been written yesterday. It was very heavily inspired by the reports of suicides, where the victim’s home and routine prior to the death seemed so normal. And here’s the thing that makes this play a gem: it’s silent from beginning to end. A young woman returns home to her flat – we presume from work. She watches some television. She does some washing. She prepares her tea. So, so normal. And yet …

Other reviews of Request Programme:

FringeGuru: ★★★★

Thrust Theatre created a site-specific version in a flat in Hove, with a solo performance by Rachel Wood. It is always difficult to tell with solo performances how much was down to the actor and how much was down to the director, but either way, between the efforts of her and director William Bowden they came up with an outstanding performance. With no words to keep the story going, it’s up to every little action to slowly reveal that something is wrong. We never discover the reason, but there are disparate clues: her attention to shopping channels and catalogues; the unopened gas bills in the entrance; her compulsive arrangement of every little object; washing clothes that don’t need washing; anxiously staring out the window; photos she can’t bear to see. And later, the more classic signs of anxiety: the irregular breathing; the loss of appetite; the futile attempt to sleep; all leading to …

The only slight puzzle about this play is that the programme credits someone as translator – exactly how you can translate a play with no words I’m not sure. But forget that – this was an absolutely outstanding, if troubling, performance that deserves all the acclaim it can get.

(UPDATE: Thrust have provided an answer to the mystery over the translation. The original play is essentially a list of detailed stage directions in German, and that’s what was translated into English. So now you know what Katharina Hehn did.)

Right, I’m doing the plays in chronological order and my next pick is about as depressing as the last one, so let’s take a break to look at the venue for the next play. Apart from the relocation of The Warren, the other major change to Brighton’s venues this year is the addition of the new Rialto Theatre. This is permanent theatre and not just a pop-up one for the fringe, and it was appearently set up by several performers (most notably the guy who does The Treason Show, a perennial comedy favourite in Brighton) in response to not having anywhere to perform. I was slightly surprised to hear that, as Brighton has loads of small theatres already, but I guess it must be true because there were plenty of acts queuing up to perform here. And they must be doing something right, because they’ve scooped three of my six picks of the fringe.

Other reviews of The Silence of Snow:

The Argus: ★★★

So that brings me on to The Silence of Snow, Mark Farrelly’s solo performance of Patrick Hamilton, writer of Gaslight and Rope. No suicide in this story, but instead Patrick Hamilton drinks himself to death, which is nearly the same thing. This was one of two solo biopics of Farelly’s I saw at Edinbrugh, but I’m glad it was this one that came to Brighton because this was easily the stronger play. My review from Edinburgh still stands, but it made a lot of difference to do it in a proper theatre with proper sound and lighting. Farrelly did a good job making the most of a free fringe space in Edinburgh, but the whole play goes up a gear with the build up: through Hamiton’s early life, his increasingly self destructive later life, the dialogue from his plays that mirrored his life so closely, before climaxing with the electro-convulsive therapy meant to cure his alcoholism.

I had a slight niggle with the rain sound being a little too loud, but really, my only real niggle was listing this under the literature section of the fringe programme. Although this play has a lot of literary interest, it was very much a conventional play, and I can’t help wonder if this was overlooked by audience who didn’t look outside the theatre section. Because they’d really miss out. A great performance from Mark Farrelly, and a great coup for the Rialto Theatre to get him on board.

(Oh, and this got the attention of FringeGuru on my recommendation, and their subsequent approval. So, you see, theatre bloggers like me do matter.)

Marilyn Munroe and Arthur MillerStaying at the Rialto, the next pick is Reno. This is a two-hander that grabbed my interest because Robert Cohen was in the cast. Robert Cohen is the writer/performer of two highly successful plays of previous fringes: The Trial of Harvey Matusow, about the MacCarthy purges in America, and High Vis, a painful comedy about a traffic warden who takes his job way too seriously. (And, okay, the other thing that got my attention was a complementary press ticket, but I would have gone anyway.) This time, however, it’s the other actor who has the real chance to shine. Lauren Varfield does an excellent portrayal of a disintegrating Marilyn Monroe, with Cohen as her third and final husband. Amongst her many insults, she says her writer husband will always be nothing compared to her. Yes, nothing! What’s that obscure writer’s name again? The one who everyone forgot? Oh yes, I remember. Arthur Miller.

Other reviews of Reno:

FringeReview*: ★★★★
FringeGuru: ★★★★
The Latest: ★★★★½ (from Dec)

This play is essentially a snapshot in Reno, where they are filming The Misfits that Miler wrote for her. And, as is often the case, her best performance came from a script where the writer brought out all her real-life flaw and weaknesses. We hear a lot of Monroe’s back-story in the play. It’s often said she fell apart at the end, but the message from this play is she was damaged throughout her life, both before and after rising to stardom. If I have one criticism of this play, I think an hour might have a bit too long. This play chose to portray a snapshot of their marriage just before the end, rather than a gradual disintegration over time. The snapshot tells us a lot, but eventually I felt it kept going over the same things a little to often. But it’s an interesting script with one good performance and one excellent performance, and a play that Cohen and Varfield were quite right to snap up.

Other reviews of Come Unto These Yellow Sands:

The Stage: ★★★★

Next it’s off to Hove again for another site-specific performance, this time from Brighton Fringe stalwarts Wired Theatre who this year have done Come Unto These Yellow Sands, about the women who camped outside Greenham Common in the eighties and nineties – in this story, three women meet after the death of one of their number. This is quite conservative by Wired’s standards: although this was set in someone’s house, this play would probably work just as well on a conventional stage. But what’s conservative by Wired’s standards is still fresh and original by everyone’s else’s standards. It also means you can safely watch this play without getting lost as to what the plot is (which occasionally happens in Wired’s more adventurous pieces).

Strangely enough, I gather Wired was a bit nervous about the subject matter, but I wouldn’t have seriously considered that as a concern. The issue of nuclear weapons is a divisive one, but even though most of the actors in the play are real-life Greenham veterans, I didn’t see this play as either pro- or anti-nukes – instead, it reflects a lot on what life was like for the Greenham women. The less savoury actions of the more ructious police officers plays a large part of the play, but so do some searching questions about the Greenham women. Was it really a public-spirited protest, or was it just a social club? Was it right to exclude like-minded men, and was the effect on their husbands and children too high too high a price to pay? When so many plays about protests turn into rose-tinted self-justification, it’s refreshing to see such a thoughtful play for a change.

Other reviews of The Tale of Tommy O’Quire:

FringeGuru: ★★★★★

And now, another conservative yet original piece: The Tale of Tommy O’Quire. This is down as family theatre, but most of the audience when I went were adults – and it’s always a good sign when a play can appeal to all ages. This is yet another solo performance, this time a solo piece in verse. It’s a quite straightforward idea: a story told in verse about our “hero”, Tommy O’Quire, on his quest for buried treasure. Except that he forfeited his claim to be a hero after he murdered the original owner of the treasure map. He goes on adventure over swap, forest and mine, escaping the horrors of monsters, wolves and ghosts, but he cannot escape the horrors of his own soul.

This story just just as easily have been told in an illustrated children’s book (if fact I’d encourage Dussek to do such a book), but this play is a lot more than reading poetry on stage. It’s the numerous little things in the performance that make this play what it is. A simple yet comprehensive set to cover numerous locations, some lovely illustrations at various parts of the short, and some extremely novel uses of a bucket, spoon and two-rung rope ladder all work wonders to bring this story to life – plus, of course, Tom Dussek’s excellent performance. The only downer was that it seemed that the few children present didn’t quite follow the story. I’m hoping that was outlier in sample of three children, because everything about this looks like a great choice for the child-friendly fringe. But you certain don’t need to be a child to enjoy this.

And the final piece in my pick of the fringe is back to the Rialto for My Friend Lester, about the bitter-sweet story jazz legend Billie Holliday and saxophonist Lester Young. They had a close relationship, yet always a platonic one, supporting each other on their way on, both succumbing to their own addictions on the way down. One thing you do need to know about this play is only the basics of their story are told on stage. Most of the one-hour play is live performances, and this could almost have been a jukebox musical called Billie and Lester’s Greatest Hits. So I wouldn’t normally consider this for review.

Other reviews of My Friend Lester:

The Argus: ★★★★
The Latest
: ★★★½

But the reason I’ve put this in my pick of the fringe because. even though there’s only a few snippets of story, the few spoken exchanges between Billie and Lester are lovely little gems. And the songs are carefully chosen to match the mood of the story. Don’t Explain became a very different song when Billie has just told us of her first marriage to the unfaithful husband she couldn’t stop loving. As did her equally emotional rendition of Strange Fruit whilst her friend Lester was mistreated in the army because of his race. What ought to have been an ordinary hour of musical entertainment was instead lovely little potted history of fascinating piece of musical history.

Honourable mentions:

As with many previous fringes, I’ve been particularly picky with solo performances because there’s a lot of them and I have to be choosy. One solo performance the didn’t quite beat off the competition was Richard Purnell with Bath Time, but this is still nonetheless worth a mention. Purnell plays a Harry. pedantic man with a higher-than-usual fascination over baths (with showers obvious in league with the enemy). The other major thread is his marriage to Sarah, where the flame died a long time ago. Differing attitudes to baths might have been a contributing factor, but the main problem was that the whole thing was really just a hook-up that ought to have been left as a one-night stand. So when Sarah is bludgeoned to death by an unknown assailant, Harry is a tad too indifferent for everyone else’s liking. This and his “unconventional” views on baths means that the suspicions of Southend-on-Sea fall on him.

Other reviews of Bath Time:

The Stage: ★★★
FringeGuru: ★★★

Richard Purnell does a good performance of a man who makes such an unusual obsession sound normal. At the same time the plays deals with tougher issues of indifference when society expects grief, and life as unspoken pariah. This forms the basis for a play with decent beginning and strong middle, but – so sadly – doesn’t seem to have any sort of ending, finishing abruptly when I expected something more. The murder was, I felt, too big an elephant in the room to ignore. I appreciate the aim of this play was to handle the reaction to the murder rather than the identity of the murderer, but something needed saying – at the very least, it would have benefited from a hint as to whether Harry’s new floozy had anything to do with it. Still, even if the ending doesn’t quite work, Richard Purnell created an interesting character in an interesting situation, so let’s see where he goes from here.

My other honourable mention is for The Circle Game, a “devised musical” from the BRIT school of performing arts. Based around a theme of growing up from birth to sixth form leaving age, the piece is largely a collage of monologues (generally memories of cast members), dance and mainly song. I’ll start with a bit of realism – this won’t be transferring to the West End any time soon. The piece was really a talent showcase of the cast first and a play a long way second. Nevertheless, I’ve given this a mention because it’s done a good job as a talent showcase.

There are two common problems that plague productions like this: either it turns into a mish-mash of theatrical devices that’s incomprehensible to all but the cast; or it ends up the playground of the teacher in charge to promote his/her own writing, usually something mediocre and/or pretentious. That didn’t happen here: it was a disciplined piece, it didn’t try to be clever, didn’t pretend to be deeply profound, always kept itself understandable to the audience, and – crucially – it made the most of the talents of all the actors. So yes, this may just be a talent showcase, but it’s a lot of talent that was showcased very well.

Special honourable mention:

Mary Beth Morossa as Miss AmeliaThere is one final play that I want to pick out, and that’s Greywing House. This is another play in the hotly contested solo performance category, this time from Mary Beth Morossa (aka Molly Beth White). She plays the rather odd Miss Amelia, widowed landlady of the creepiest B&B in the land. In theory, she’s giving a friendly welcome, but from the start there is something fraught and forced about this which means things aren’t right. She begins to talk about the local area, and some of the local superstitions, and – eventually – the sticky end that met both her husband and husband’s father.

Really, my only complaints about the play was the use of theatrical devices. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing bad about them; on the contrary, she was good – too good. The projections, puppetry, sleepwalking and dream-like flashbacks, were all slick and flawless, but I felt there were just too many squeezed into one hour, because between them the story threads and sub-plots overpowered the story. I do wish she’d resisted the temptation to put so many in, because I’m sure the main story was powerful enough to thrive without so many distractions.

Other reviews of Greywing House:

Fringe Review*: ★★★★

(There was one other issue with the production: it’s one of the worst cases of noise bleed I’ve seen. She did a good job of making herself heard in a space so noisy it might have drowned her out, but in a play like this one that needed silence from time to time, you shouldn’t have the put up with the noise of The Warren’s bar and DJ. Otherplace really need to have a serious think about noise bleed before next year, and avoid putting plays like this in such noisy spaces. That’s not the fault of performer though and I don’t hold that against the play.)

But the reasons I’ve picked this one out over the other honourable mentions is the performance of Mary Beth Morossa, which was outstanding. Many fringe actors are interchangeable, but she has a unique confident style of performing that is clearly hers, and you’ll not see anything like that anywhere else on the fringe scene. With so many fringe performers being interchangeable, she is someone to keep an eye on. What she does, she does better than anyone else. So I hope she sticks at this style, because she may have great things ahead of her if she does.

And that concludes my roundup. At last. Congratulations to everyone on the list, commiserations to the three who missed out. As always, private feedback is available to anyone I saw, whether or not they made it here. I haven’t quite finished writing up my live coverage, because I’ve still got to write about Inigo which I saw on my way home. But that’s enough for one night. Phew!

(*: Pedant’s note. Fringe Review does not officially use start ratings now, but ratings of “Recommended”, “Highly Recommended” and “Outstanding”. I am assuming these ratings are equivalent to their old grades of 3 stars, 4 stars and 5 stars respectively, in order to produce ratings that are comparable with other reviews.)

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