Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2015

So, in the short gap I have between Buxton and Edinburgh, let’s get the Buxton Fringe rounded up. This has been my longest stint at Buxton, where I’ve seen plays over a total of seven days. So this is going to be a long roundup.

This time round, I’ve not really had any surprises. There were three acts I’d seen before who I have great expectations for, and they all delivered, but what was missing this time was the usual pleasure of seeing a group I’d never heard of before come out of nowhere and produce something excellent. Nor did I see anything that turned out to be awful. (I’ve heard stories of shows other people saw that were apparently outstanding or abysmal, but nothing I saw myself.)

Nevertheless, with a long stay in Buxton, I’ve got a lot to write about. Where I have not written about things I’ve seen this time, it’s not because I didn’t like it, but because what I saw wasn’t really theatre. Some of it was better thought of as music, spoken word, or entertainment, but this is a theatre blog and that’s what I want to concentrate on. But there’s still a lot of things to go through, so let’s get cracking.

Pick of the fringe:

I’m going to stick to the format I used for Brighton and go through my pick of the fringe in chronological order. So first up is Charles Adrian’s Ms. Samantha Mann: Stories of Love, Death, and a Rabbit. I won’t repeat the review here because I’ve praised it before on many many many many many many many many occasions (so much so that Charles Adrian has started using my reviews in his publicity), but I can confirm that the third time I saw it was indeed as good as the two times I saw it last year. The only bit of information I need add to this time is a bit of good news for fans of fictitious rabbits: I have confirmed with Charles Adrian that Tennyson the rabbit did not get eaten by a fox in the story (it’s just the Samantha Mann kept worrying he might) – that’s a crucial bit of ambiguity resolved.

Eerie shot from PeacefulNow the first new entry to my pick of the fringe: Peaceful from the Off-Off-Off-Broadway Company. I’d heard good things about this play ever since it came to Buxton two years ago. Billed as a ghost story, this is a simple three-hander where an elderly woman, haunted by her father’s brutal eviction of a family of travellers many years ago, calls a medium to lay her ghosts to rest and bring her peace before her dying day. They hold a séance together with second man who’s and old family friend – and deeply sceptical of self-proclaimed psychics. But does he have ghosts of his own that need laying to rest?

It’s easy to see why this was such a success two years ago: it’s a superbly scary setting, with a simple but effective set, perfectly atmospheric sound and lighting, an equally atmospheric location for the story, and top-notch acting of the cast of three including writer Polis Loizou. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was the abrupt ending. I appreciate you don’t have to tie up every single loose end in a ghost story, but with more and more twists being revealed of the characters’ backstories, I just felt this play still needed to go somewhere further. But that’s a matter of personal preference, and Off-Off-Off-Broadway have a well-deserved hit on their hands.

My next pick is Two, a classic play by Jim Cartwright, with a cast of – yes, you’ve guessed it – two. They play a variety of characters in a working-class pub over the course of the evening: some funny, some sad, some uncomfortably dark. But the main story is the husband-and-wife landlord and landlady, bickering the night away – but it all goes back to a tragedy in the past.

I very rarely watch classic plays at festival fringes, partly because I prefer to see what’s new, but mainly because there are very few classic plays that work in a fringe setting. Most of them are usually seen in bigger theatres with proper sets and bigger stages. Against this, the stripped-down versions you see at fringes seldom compete. But Two is an exception, because it’s a play that’s deliberately written to be performed on the simplest of sets. All that you need are two excellent actors who can play the multitude of contrasting characters throughout the evening, and Sudden Impulse’s Phil Malkin and Kay Sanders do a fine job of it. Most classic plays can be given a miss, but this one was well worth a visit.

Icon of Boris JohnsonSo then we move on to what was surely the main event of the Buxton Fringe: Buxton favourites Three’s Company with Boris: World King. Tom Crawshaw has written a lot of zany surrealistic plays that are very funny (and usually involve compulsory audience participation). He’s written a few serious ones as well, but this is one of his out-and-out zany ones. Except … it isn’t. For the first time, it’s a play that has a serious message within the comedy.

As the name suggests, who would be better to feature in the wacky comedy that everybody’s favourite blustering blonde Bullingdon buffoon Boris? He takes time out of busy schedule as an MP and Mayor of London and definitely not campaign for Tory leader to talk us through this hilarious slapstick antics from his first days as Eton with Cameron Minor to laugh-a-minute his destiny as ruler of the whole world, with all sorts of LOL-tastic scrapes along the way!

But does Boris Johnson’s image of a lovable buffoon let him get away with too much? That’s a serious question that the play covers quite intelligently, without the lazy partisan soundbites that so many playwrights use for political so-called comedies. Tom Crawshaw is not the first comedian to raise this issue (Charlie Brooker beat him to it), but it’s just as pertinent an issue now. The play still does feel a little rough around the edges and could do with some tidying before it reaches Edinburgh, but David Benson’s performance as Boris is teriffic, as is Alice Benson as everybody else. This looks set to be yet another hit at the big fringe in a week’s time.

I caught Butterfly Theatre on a return visit to Buxton (and, I can tell you, going away from the Buxton Fringe then coming back is very disorientating, but anyway …) with As You Like It in Poole’s cavern. I’m not really a Shakespeare aficionado so I’ll leave it up to others to say if it did justice to the Bard. But it’s always good to see Butterfly decorate Poole’s Cavern as only they know how, and do their usual energetic performance of Shakespeare, singing, playing, and leaping up and down cave surfaces. Heaven know how this got past a health and safety risk assessment.

The Beast from I am BeastBut the thing I came back to Buxton for was Sparkle and Dark’s new show. My play finished the day before theirs started, and I decided I couldn’t bear to miss it. I was hoping I’d put my faith in them wisely, because I’ve had three occasions in the last years when artists I have such respect for produced such let-downs. But I needn’t have worried: I am Beast is just as great as the three greats plays I’ve seen before. It may even be the best.

For Buxton Fringe fans who last saw Louisa, Shelley and Laurence in their last Buxton outing, they have change a lot since their Clock Master days. What was once a family-oriented group with a few dark themes thrown is is now a very very dark group covering difficult issues. Their last show, Killing Roger, covered assisted suicide and this one covered the equally difficult area of bereavement and depression. In this play, schoolgirl Ellie has just lost her mother. It appears she was closer to her mother than her father, and it also seems the she once had a game with her mother where they imagined a comic-book superhero world for themselves. Now alone, her alter-ego “Blaze” goes on a futile quest the save a mother she’s already lost. Then the boundaries between fantasy and reality blur. Real people and imaginary villains become interchangeable. Eventually the scary prospect appears that her increasingly violent adventure may jump from Blaze’s world to Ellie’s world.

After a one-show break, I gather Louisa Ashton is back as writer, partly because it’s her signature fantasy theme common to all her stories, and partly because of the sexy villainess part she wrote for herself which she clearly enjoyed far too much. Surprisingly, the one thing that features the least is Sparkle and Dark’s signature puppets, absent from the play save for the appearance of “the beast”, a terrifying aspect of Ellie’s own mind. But Laurence Illsley’s live music was spot-on yet again, and Shelley Knowles-Dixon’s choreography of the play was outstanding, even by Sparkle and Dark’s usual high standards. Buxton was very lucky to have them on their preview tour, and keep an eye of this in Edinburghm because this could be something big.

Honourable mention:

Reviews from Fringeguru:

Two: ★★★★
As You Like It: ★★★
I Am Beast: ★★★★
Life’s Witness: ★★★
Follow/Unfollow: ★★
Redaction: ★★★★
Hey Hey 16K: ★★★★
Reverend Raccoon: ★★

(N.B. Reviews from Edinburgh will be added, but previous years are excluded.)

There’s a couple of plays I want to pick out that do have room for improvement, but have a lot of potential if they can get it right. For both of these plays, I feel the biggest room for improvement is keeping the characters plausible. As I’ve written before in my 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting, one of the biggest challenges in writing a play is that everything that each and every characters does must be believable. And the more out of the ordinary a character behaves, the more it needs explaining. The writer might have the best answer in the world when asked why a character did something unusual, but that’s not good enough. The reason has to be picked up by the audience watching that play – and it’s not easy at all. Sometimes a character has to do an implausible thing to meet the requirements of the plot, and if this can’t be explained, perhaps the plot has to be changed instead.

So one play that could benefit from this treatment is Life’s Witness, brought by From The Mill Theatre Company. This story is a simple but effective premise of famous writer Nathan, basking in the glory of his comeback smash hit, has an interview of his life as a writer. The action switches between the interview and moments in the past – his publisher’s agent, ready to drop him when his tired series of spy novels reaches its sell-by date, and Lee, Nathan’s secret lover with his own novel that’s too good to go to waste. But with Nathan’s smash hit being such a change from his normal style and Lee’s rapid descent into depression after an unknown legal dispute, it becomes clear all is not as it seems.

I do feel, however, it would have been good to get to know the characters more to see why they behaved as they did. Why does Nathan’s publisher spring it out of the blue that his spy series is crap and going to be cancelled? Is she a master bullshitter, or maybe she has feelings for Nathan that stopped her telling the truth for too long. The scene about Nathan and Lee’s accidental first meeting was nice, but what made Nathan betray Lee in the end? Yes, he needed a novel, but why else? Was it desperation, or was Nathan really that cold and calculating? Why did his publisher accept the book as Nathan’s? Was Nathan that good a liar, or did his publishers smell a rat but nonetheless choose to go with the deception? All of these questions are worth asking. Maybe an answer will require a whole new sub-plot to explain, but that is good. Trust me, exercises like this can turn a simple plot with potential into multi-layered plot with lots of depth.

Ryan videoing a selfieBut the play I really hope gets somewhere is Follow/Unfollow. This didn’t get the best reviews and yes, I agree this play has its flaws, but the premise is excellent. It begins with megastar vlogger Ryan, whose videos use to be funny, but this new year’s day video only exists to talk about his new iPad. And the new iPad is not a Christmas present but some product placement arranged by manager Dee: once an internet sensation herself with her own angry videos, now thoroughly sold out to international capitalism. When a chance hasty tweet draws attention to Chloe, and 15-year-old whose own vlog is critical of Ryan’s, half of Ryan’s fans decend on her as a hate mob. But she rises above it, and the other half hail her as an anti-bullying hero. Sadly, Chloe makes the same mistake Ryan made, gets too wedded to fame, and in a full circle she ends up just a shallow as Ryan. On top all all this, this is a multimedia extravaganza with tweets and vloggers galore.

There’s really only one weakness to this play, and this is that I suspect Lantern Theatre have underestimated just how ambitious this project is. There are five major plot threads to this play: Ryan’s journey from vanity megastar to obscurity, Dee’s disillusioned life as activist turned corporate whore, the secret romance between Ryan and Dee (remember folks: no-one must suspect Ryan’s Realationship Status isn’t really single), Chloe’s journey from principled vlogger to victim of her own vanity, and the mob mentality of Twitter. My hunch is that this needs to be a full-length play; there’s too much going on to squeeze into one hour. And I don’t mean padding the play with one extra hour of lines where nothing happens, but a a step-by step journey of Chloe’s rise and Ryan’s fall, asking every step of the way what made them do what they did. It’s a massive task. But it could be worth it. And if you ever do a full-length version, please keep Josie Sedgwick Davies as Lulu, Ryan’s number one fan, because she makes the most superb crazy mad pyscho bitch.

Next on my honourable mention list is Redaction from youth group Shadow Syndicate. So far this fringe season youth groups seem to have been at one extreme or the other, either wholeheartedly acclaimed or wholeheartedly panned. This very popular production was a conspiracy story set ten years after the 7/7 bombings. Now, before you think “Oh Jesus, are those conspiracy wingnuts still at it?”, this isn’t another tinfoil hatfest like Loose Change but very much a work of fiction. In the story,  In this story, a brother of a 7/7 victim goes over every crackpot theory looking for answer before stumbling on “redaction”, which is the erasing of not only incriminating information from government records, but also incriminating information of individuals computers, or even their minds. And on this occasion, it turns out he’s on to something.

Although I accept this was meant to be entirely a product of imagination, I did think it was a mistake to use present-day civil service as a backdrop. Maybe the civil service in an unspecified dystopian future, but not the real one. Having worked for a civil service team who redacted documents, and having learned just how useless were over things as simple as editing a PDF, I just cannot visualise people this clueless managing any kind of cover-up, let alone erasing someone’s mind. But that’s just me. However, I have nothing to fault with the production itself. The productions were very high, with good acting and choreography of the young cast and superbly executed sound and lighting. When so many theatre groups hide behind “they’re only kids” to avoid any critical scruntiny, and so many directors use youth theatre as their playground to perform any old rubbish, it’s good to see that some groups are taking this seriously and giving us grown-ups a run for our money.

Well, I’ve now gone on too long and not even got on to the comedy yet. I’ll leave the detailed reviews for a comedy blog, but I can confirm that BEASTS did indeed involve me shielding my eyes and going “Noooooooooo!” (and this time, there was compulasory audience participant and nowhere was safe). I can also confirm that Hey Hey 16K is indeed based on the song of the same name, and features the original singer, and it may have very crummy production values and appeal to a select audience of people who grew up on the ZX Specturm or BBC Micro, but that’s all part of the appeal.

Also not really in the theatre category but still worth a mention is life-size Punch and Judy from Foolsize Theatre. I was wondering how they were going to do this. I guess they could have done an hour of harrowing wife-beating scenes before somberly saying to the audience “And none of you told him to stop – that’s why society tolerates domestic violence,” but they didn’t. Instead, it’s an hour of gentle seaside humour that’s good fun for kids without being an endurance test for the adults.

Also showing:

One play I saw that didn’t quite work out was The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon from Buxton veterans Sheepish Theatre. Billed as a sermon from the Reverend, this one-man show portrays a silver-tongued conman, who once earned a living duping housebuyers into paying deposits for houses that weren’t his to sell, until one day he discovered that you can make far more money duping God-fearing deep south folk into believing they’ll burn in hell for all eternity unless they donate all their mortal money to his “church” (a bit like this gentleman did). Eventually the law wises up and the reverend is on the run, but not before he pays a tragic personal price for his obsession with guns.

It’s such a promising concept, so it’s such a frustration that some basic mistakes form a let-down. There are many settings that could have been used for the story, but I would most definitely not have gone for their choice of the Reverend on the run conducting a hold-up upstairs at Old Clubhouse, Buxton. A very strained plot and a distraction from the play’s natural setting of the deep south. Also, there was just something clumsy about the sound plot of the play. And it’s all the more frustrating because Sheepish are group who I’ve seen do competent productions before. How has such a clearly capable group made these sorts of mistakes?

I’m including this in the roundup because I still believe there is a good play to be made out of this. I would advise doing some more research on what the audience does and doesn’t like about the play’s setting and the sound plot. If in doubt, I’d be happy to suggest stripping them out completely and just have the story, because the story is strong enough to stand on its own two feet if needs be. I loved the idea of this play and wanted to make so much more of this, but perhaps a good play can be made of this yet.

Dishonourable mention:

The booby prize, however, goes to a couple of groups who committed a far worse fringe crime. I won’t mention any names (and I didn’t see them myself), but they know who they are.

One of the ongoing annoyances with Buxton Fringe is shows that don’t run to their advertised time. For managed venues, the usual bugbear is overrunning shows, because five minutes here and ten minutes there can mess up a venue’s whole schedule (which is why they tend to get strict with overrunners). But this year, the far bigger problem has been underrunning, and I’m not talking about five minutes short here and ten minutes short there, but longer. If you’ve paid for a show that’s advertised as an hour long, you should expect an hour. End of.

There’s always been the odd offender who underran in previous years, but this year, it’s gone into complete piss-taking, with some shows lasting only one third of the advertised time. I can forgive actors for putting on bad plays – there are all sorts of mistakes misjudgments to be made – but this is inexcusable. There’s no way you can mistakenly believe a 15-minute show lasts 45; that is outright false promises that shows contempt for your audience, the fringe, and the venue who’s hosting you.

On top of this, there was one show who went one step further and didn’t even turn up to do a show. Sure, people have to cancel for all sorts of reasons, but it’s common courtesy to say you can’t do it. It’s a plain contemptuous way to treat your audience if fail to turn up, no notification, no explanation, nothing.

If this carries on, we might have to look at deposits refundable on a performance to deter this sort of activity. I would be very disappointed if it had to some to that, but it might. In the meantime, I shall refrain from naming and shaming the groups responsible this time, because I don’t like rubbishing small fringe acts. But if this carries on, I might not be so charitable next year.

And finally:

One side-effect of having my own show was that I wasn’t always available when I’d like to have seen something. I really wanted to see After Party, who did a great Fringe at Five performance of Schubert, but they only had one proper performance, at the wrong time. Please come back. I also slightly owe an apology to Sudden Impulse’s other play, Departure Lounge, which I was convinced would be some hellish celebration of Club 18-30, but their bandstand preview was nothing like the horrible ITV2 documentary I was expecting.

So sorry I couldn’t review you, but I can say that both these plays have been highly acclaimed, so well done there. And thanks to everyone offering me and other groups mutual support. One of the good things about Buxton is that without the intense competition of Edinburgh, there’s a lot of camaraderie to go round. Best of luck to those of you imminently going to Edinburgh, and everyone else can have a well-earned rest.

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