What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2015

And now, continuing my somewhat rushed Buxton coverage, my list of what I actually recommend seeing. This year, it’s going to be my longest Buxton list to date, because I’m getting to know Buxton better and recognise the regulars more frequently. Even so, there will still be plenty of acts coming to Buxton that will be great which I don’t know about. So, as always, remember that this is only a cross-section and not an exhaustive list.

(And you won’t find my play in this list because that’s against the rules of this blog. I will have to restrict myself to contrived plugs masquerading as statements saying that I’m not allowed to promote my own shows in my theatre blog.)

What’s missing:

But before I move on to recommendations, there is one thing that’s not here this year that will be sadly missed. Last year, there was the inaugural programme of The Market Place, a second managed venue to complement Underground Venues. It had four shows last year (in part, I feel, due to some misjudged marketing aimed at prospective performers), so that wasn’t exactly a flying start – but at least it was a start, and something to build on for future years.

Sadly, we will never know how a second year could have build on the first because, for one reason or another, it’s gone. And I will miss that. It would have been good to know that there would be at least one managed venue in Buxton if and when the bulldozers ever move into Pauper’s Pit, and it would also have been good to bring some balance to Underground Venues’ dominance.

More importantly, however, I think we’ve reached the point where we need a second managed venue to maximise participation. Applications to Underground Venues have gone up a lot this year, but they can’t accommodate any more shows. And for one reason or another, the performers who don’t get a place don’t seem to be going to the other unmanaged venues instead. I fear that, sooner or later, Buxton Fringe is going to miss out on decent acts because they could get a suitable place to perform.

Anyway, what this means for now is that my recommendations for another year are going to be dominated by Underground Venues shows. Without further ado, here we go:

Safe choices:

Publicity image from I Am BeastWell, looking through the listings, there’s one thing that leaps out, and that’s the most welcome return of Sparkle and Dark. Last time Sparkle and Dark came to Buxton, they were an little-known puppetry group with an obscure family play called The Clock Master, that went down a hit. Well, it’s five years on, and they’ve become one of the most respected small groups on the fringe scene. But their last two hits gave Buxton a miss, so now that they’re including Buxton in their previews for their latest Edinburgh Fringe show I Am Beast, you’d be a fool to miss it.

One thing you should be aware of is that they’ve thoroughly moved on from children’s plays. The Clock Master was a fairy tale with dark theme that appealed to adults as well as children. Then came The Girl With No Heart, an outright dark tale (you can’t get much darker than nuclear war) with a faiytale theme. Then is was Killing Roger, that dropped the fairytale bits completely and covered the difficult subject of assisted suicide. But the puppets have stayed throughout.

This time, they’re being more cryptic than usual, but it looks like a major theme of this will be Ellie, who hides from life with comic books and superheroes – only for fantasy and reality to inevitably collide. There’s no telling what will be in this play, but if the last three are anything to go by, you can’t go wrong here. This shows 23rd-25th July at 9 p.m. in the Arts Centre Studio, the evening after it’s time for me to go home. Bugger.

Publicity image for Boris: World KingHowever, Buxton fringe wouldn’t be Buxton Fringe without their very own Three’s Company (which, for Buxton newbies, is a company run by Tom Crawshaw and Yaz Al-Shaater, who grew up in Buxton and now live in London, are big at the Edinburgh Fringe, but always return to Buxton to do new shows and run the main venue). This year, their show is Boris: World King, and what better Boris to be world king than our very own Boris Johnson. Yes, the one who’s Mayor of London and now MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

If this all sound bizarre, I should add that I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen an alternative title for the show of Wiff-Waff in the Face of Danger. But whilst I would usually dismiss this sort of thing as probably a bunch of students who think they’re funny, this is the lastest of many madcap ideas from Tom and Yaz – such as the door at the front of the stage that leads to a room full of people sitting and staring at them (Auditorium), The Importance of Being Earnest where a time-traveller from the 22nd century comes to stop John and Gwendolyn’s great-great-great grandson starting World War Three (The Importance of Being Frank), and Choose Your Own Adventure live on stage chosen by the audience (The Adventure Machine) – and they’ve all been really good. If anyone can make a good play about a ping-pong playing potential Prime Minister, it’s Three’s Company.

Someone hacking someone else to deathThree’s Company don’t just do zany plays. They also do some serious ones too, and also do the odd off-shoot project. And the off-shoot that seems to be doing really well is Smooth-Faced Gentlemen with the all-female Shakespeare. Their main attraction this year is Titus Andronicus, which came to Buxton and Edinburgh two years ago. I didn’t see it, but I heard a lot of good things about it. Even so, I’ve not paid that much attention to them because I’m not that interested in Shakespeare myself.

So when Titus was described as a surprisingly comical performance, I still took no notice because I didn’t think it was possible. But then their close cousins Three’s Company did Shakespeare for Breakfast in Edinburgh (featuring Shakespeare Island, the Shakespeare baddies teaming up to rewrite the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the goodies facing them off in a rap battle) – okay, so you can do comical Shakespeare. Still no idea how a zany Titus works, but I look forward to finding out. Catch it on the 12th or 13th July at 7 p.m., or the 18h July at 9.45 p.m.

Alternatively, if you prefer your Shakespeare to be unconventional in a different way, you can see As You Like It from Butterfly Theatre, who are most notable for doing site-specific productions. And what could be a better location for a site-specific play in Buxton than Poole’s Cavern?

Recommendations on Fringereview:

  • I Am Beast (#2 theatre)
  • Titus Andronicus (#7 theatre)
  • Samantha Mann (#10 theatre)
  • Beasts (#2 comedy)

This follows on from previous successful productions of HamletMacbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The last one might seem a bis strange being staged in a cave instead of a forest, but they actually managed to make that work. There was one production last year that deviated from Shakespeare format that didn’t seem to work out so well (Dracula’s Women), but this year it’s back to Shakespeare, and the combination of Butterfly, the Bard, and the big cave looks like something where you can’t go wrong. This shows on the 20th-25th July with performances from 5.30 to 9.30. I’d advise early booking for this one, because popular site-specific performances sell out easily.

Finally, a couple of solo acts returning to Buxton from last year. Last year I happened to come across Uproot Theatre Company with one-man Treasure Island. It was a simple-enough concept: the story was told by young Jamie Robertson. But it was a surprisingly effective performance with one actor doing all the major characters. This year, Uproot is back with one-man War of the Worlds, and if they can keep up the energy and versatility of last year’s performance we’ll be in for something good. Last year a mop was used as a prop for every item in the story – I look forward to finding out what their catch-up prop is this year.

Charles Adrian as Samantha MannAnd last but certainly not least is Ms Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit. This really was a chance discovery last year at Buxton, which I only saw because I happened to be staying in the same house as the performer, Charles Adrian – and it’s outstanding. What appears to be a frivolous character comedy about a middle-aged spinster who waffles away instead of getting round to the poetry she’s supposed to be doing – and in doing to reveal a very sad back-story. I gave this an early glowing review at last year’s Buxton Fringe, and I even named this best individual performance of the year, beating off all the conventional plays. This may be your last chance to see it, and it’s on at various times between the 16th-20th July (not 19th) in the Barrel Room.

Bold choices:

So those were my “safe choices”, which mean that if you like the sound of the play, I’m confident you will like the real thing. Now for a couple of bold choices. These sound promising but they could go either way. What you see could be a dud, or it could be an unearthed gem.

The first bold choice I have is Smooth-Faced Gentleman’s other new Shakespeare, Othello. How this squares up to Titus is anyone’s guess at this stage, but with Titus having done so well, that can’t be a bad sign for their new follow-up. This is on the 16-17th at 7.30 then the 18th at 5.30, all at the Arts Centre again.

The thing that really appeals to my curiosity, however, is The Ghosthunters’ Club, because of its site-specific setting in Scrivener’s Bookshop. Buxton Fringe regulars know Scrivener’s for two reasons: firstly, it’s a lovely second-hand bookshop with all sorts of things to buy; and secondly, the staff are lovely and always display your fringe posters in the window of their shop. But it’s unusual for Scrivener’s itself to be used as a venue, and when it does, it’s usually spoken word. This is a full play, and I don’t know whether it’s any good, but they couldn’t have chosen a better place in Buxton to set it, with ghostly investigations over five creaky floors promised. Let’s hope this is a good as the setting allows it to be.

From the comedy:

Finally, two mentions for something that doesn’t really fit in a theatre blog but I will nonetheless recommend from the comedy. Beasts is coming to Buxton, after showing at Brighton. I didn’t manage to squeeze in their show at Brighton, but I know last year’s show ended with a show where a magicians performed a magic trick to free Neslon Mandela (a very white-looking Mandela) with his glamourous burleque dancing (overweigh male) assistant. If that sound terrifying, I haven’t even begun to describe it. Buxton won’t know what’s hit them. 17th at 10.30 and 18th at 5.30. Drinking at least three pints beforehand highly recommended.

And also stopping off at Buxton en route from Brighton to Edinburgh is Morgan and West with the latest magic show for kids. For those of you unused to the format, it’s a cross between magic and character character comedy, with two spiffing Victorian Gentlemen going on time-travelling magical adventures with magic tricks on the way. Their shows have always been family friendly, but this one is particularly aimed at children and childish adults according to their blurb. 11 July only, with two performances at 1.30 and 8.45.

And that concludes my list for another Buxton. As always, there will be other good plays I don’t know about yet, and I look forward to discovering something new. But there’s plenty to get your teeth into here. Enjoy.

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