What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2015

Eeek. Edinburgh Fringe starts Friday and I still haven’t done my list of what I recommend. I’d better get going.

This year, I’m going to be a little stricter with recommendations than I have been in previous years. So far, I’ve been listing a mixture of plays I’ve seen before and liked, new plays from groups whose previous work I’ve seen and liked, plays from groups I haven’t seen but I’ve heard good things about, and the odd play I simply liked the look of. However, as my knowledge of fringe regulars has grown, my lists have grown larger. So from 2015 onwards, my new rule for Edinburgh Fringe recommendations is that I have to have seen you before. I’m hearing good things about other plays from too many third-party sources now to be able to handle this consistently and fairly. I will continue to have a more open policy the rest of the year. You can of course increase your chance of a recommendation in a future Edinburgh Fringe by inviting me to review you.

Please also remember that I am only familiar with a small fraction of the plays on offer at Edinburgh. There will be plenty of fantastic artists out there who I’ve never heard of. So, as always, think of this as a cross-section of the plays worth watching, not a full list. If you want to see a comprehensive guide to the best Edinburgh Fringe shows, try one of the many reviewing publications – they have whole teams of reviewers that try to keep track of everything.

Anyway, what have we got in store north of the border this year? Unless otherwise noted, all shows run the full length of the fringe. Shows such as …

Safe choices:

In this list, the five “safe choices” are all companies I’ve seen before and, in all cases but one,plays I’ve seen before. I’m confident they’ll be great and – if you think this sounds like the sort of play for you – I’m confident you’ll find it great too.

Three people sitting on a football standAnd I’m going to start with a play that I was invited to review last year: FYSA Theatre with The 56. This is a piece of verbatim theatre about the 1985 Bradford City Stadium Fire. This was one of two major football stadium disasters in the 1980s, but with the other disaster holding the most enduring memories (for both the awful numbers and the even more awful awful aftermath), the Bradford disaster has been largely forgotten, and this is a noble attempt FYSA Theatre to give the people involved the tribute they deserve. Told through the account of one witness and two survivors, the cast of three provide a tragic yet gripping story of the party atmosphere leading up to their pre-promotion final match, the horrors of the fire itself, and the extraordinary community response in the aftermath.

I’d particularly recommend this play to fans of Fringe First-winner Steve Gilroy’s and verbatim plays such as Motherland and The Prize. Whilst FYSA don’t quite have quite the same depth and breadth that Steve Gilroy masters, there’s a close second. It’s fair to say The 56 is one of the more static plays out there, but I don’t really care, because it’s down to the strength of the stories alone. Really my only complaint was the one outside their control, which was the noise bleed from next door. This time, they’re performing in Assembly George Square, so hopefully this will solve that problem. Catch it at 12 noon (not 16th or 17th).

Now for a couple of plays I saw at Buxton and liked (but already had high expectation of anyway). I’ve already reviewed both plays in my Buxton Fringe roundup, but here’s a reminder of how good they are:

The Beast from I am BeastFirst up is the welcome return of Sparkle and Dark. Sparkle and Dark started off as a puppetry company that specialised in children’s theatre, but ever since they started going to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, they have changed a lot. Their third Edinburgh production, I Am Beast, could not be more different. Far from their beginnings, this play is set in part the real world, and part the fantasy comic book world she created with her mother. But with her mother now dead and her father losing her, Ellie’s escapism grows more violent and the line between fantasy and reality becomes scarily blurred.

One thing you won’t see much of in the play is puppets. This time, it’s just one puppet, “the beast”, seemingly a darker side of Ellie. But the play is superbly choreographed and it yet again it has superb live music to bring the play up another notch. This is on at 15:20 in Pleasance Courtyard (not 18th).

And the other piece coming from Buxton is Boris: World King, from Buxton favourites Three’s Company. It might be fair to warn you at this point that one thing Three’s Company are particularly famed for is compulsory audience participation – and the more unsuspecting, the better. In this particular case, I can advise that you can reduce your chance of coming on stage by not being an attractive young lady, which Boris always seems to be keen on.

But, that warning aside, this is a play that, on the surface, seems to be a slapstick comedy of everyone’s favourite buffoon. Boris Johnson, comes up to Edinburgh to do a show (on top of his two other jobs) and getting into all sorts of wacky scrapes. Underneath, however, there is a serious point to the play, questioning whether playing the buffoon is a substitute for proper public scrutiny. And it’s an intelligent message, in a fringe scene where so many political comedies are unfunny regurgitated political soundbites.  This is something I can recommend to everyone from the Boris Brigade to the Corbyn Crew. This is also on at Pleasance Courtyard at 1.45 (not 19th), so you could even make a double bill of this with Sparkle and Dark.

Next up, the only sure choice that isn’t a play I’ve seen before: The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show. This is a long-running fixture in the morning with a set of five 10-minute plays, with the added freebies of coffee, croissant and trademark strawberry. This year, one sad omission from their intermarry was their usual performance at the Brighton Fringe – which was a little odd as they’re based in Brighton – but the side-effect is that I didn’t get my usual Brighton sneak preview as to what’s coming to Edinburgh. What I can say, however, is that they are the masters of the ten-minute play and they manage to find all sorts of scripts with these weird and wonderful ideas that can only work in a short play.

Bite-Size do a cycle of three sets of ten plays, and believe me, it is often well worth seeing all three sets. They’re performing in their usual location of the Pleasance Dome at their usual time of 10.30 a.m. This is a very popular event, so consider getting your tickets in advance as it may sell out.

Caroline Horton as ChristianneMy final recommendation, surprisingly, is for an artist I’ve not been too kind to lately. Caroline Horton is an artist who’s big project was a play called Islands. Sadly, I didn’t think much of it, neither did most of the London critics. To be fair, there is a core of supporters who liked that play. It’s coming to Summerhall in Edinburgh, and who knows, maybe in a festival where they’re a niche for everything it will do better there. But for those of us who wondered what happened to the Caroline Horton who was such a wonderful solo performer, I’ve got some good news: that Caroline Horton is back too, with the lovely lovely lovely You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy.

This was a play I saw by accident in Brighton in 2012 (in a hastily-arranged play after half the shows I wanted to see were sold out), and it was one of those rare moment that the festival fringes are all about – seeing something you’ve never heard of that turn out to be amazing. It’s based on the real-life story of Christianne, Horton’s own grandmother, who was separated from her English fiancé throughout the second world war and waited for six years. The play is performed with beautiful simplicity, with the four suitcases she brings to Paris Garé du Nord forming an all-purpose set for an epic love story. All artists are allowed duds once in a while, but it’s gems like these that we keep the faith. This is for one week only on the 22nd-29th in Pleasance Attic. Pity this isn’t on for longer.

Bold choices:

My bold choices are plays that I have reason to believe could be good but I can’t be certain. It could be because it’s a new play, it could be a tough piece to produce, it might be one where audience opinion could go either way. Whatever the reason, a bold choice mean you might be disappointed – or it might be the best thing you’ve ever seen.

Publicity image from The Sunset FiveSo the first bold choice – which almost made it to safe choice – is The Sunset Five from Dugout Theatre. They are best known for the outstanding Inheritance Blues, which I not only gave a glowing review to last year but also acclaimed the best play of all. Yes, they are as good as the fully professional productions and do it on a fraction of the budget. This time, the story promises to be about a pub quiz who stage a casino heist.

I almost made this a safe choice. The reason it’s a bold choice rather than a safe choice is that after a smash hit such as Inheritance Blues, it’s a tough one to top. Their last attempt, Fade (reviewed in 2013) was close but no cigar. Even so, I think we safely expect another great set of musical pieces from their excellent music team. To find out if they top their personal best, come to Pleasance Dome at 5.40 p.m.

My next bold choice is Bite-Size’s other Edinburgh venture: Lunch in Cairo. Although the Bite-Size team are best known for the sets on ten-minute plays, they try to avoid being seen as always doing more of the same. It’s no easy task. When you’ve got such a good reputation for doing one thing, you have to produce something exceptional to be recognised for something else. They’ve made many attempts to try different things over the years. Some have worked better than others; the most successful, I gather, was their family plays they did for a couple of years.

So this time, it’s a double-bill of thirty-minute plays by Tom Coash, who did a pretty decent ten-minute play (Thin Air) a few years back. Like Dugout Theatre, it’s going to be a huge challenge to compete with what they do best. Will they pull it off? Find out at Assembly Checkpoint (that’s the one quite near the Bedlam Theatre) at 12.10 (not 18th or 25th).

Chess piecesAnd the last bold choice, and a production outside the big four supervenues for a chage, is Rampant Plays’ The Gambit. I saw this at the Buxton Fringe back in 2013, about an imagined reunion between the two chess legends, Kasparaov and Karsov. Of course, in their heyday chess was far more than a pursuit for nerdy 14-year-olds – it was one of the many ways that the US and Russia fought a cold war by proxy. For a change, Russia came off best with both the greatest players in the world being theirs. It was a very strange relationship between the two – even though they didn’t like each other, they would still discuss the games with each other after the match simply because no-one else understood what they were doing.

This is a bold choice because you really really really really need to concentrate. Their relationship is almost as complex as the chess match they play on stage. This time round, I gather thay’ve got a direct to polish this up, but whether the play can be made any less taxing on the brain is anyone’s guess. Luckily, it’s at 1.50 in the afternoon (not Sundays), so hopefully your brain won’t be worn out that early in the day. This is shown as Greenside Venue a rather nice small venue away from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile. (Oh, and credibility slightly let down by a claim of a five-star review from a publication that doesn’t do star ratings, but I’ll let them off that because the did get the prestigious award for Best New Writing at Buxton instead.)

(UPDATE: Rampant plays have been in touch about the star rating. It looks like this was some sort of mistake and they are doing what they can to rectify it. So I’m giving them benefit of the doubt.)

You might like …

I’m including a couple more here. I’m undecided exactly what to make to these two, but they have points of merit, and both different from the run of the mill, so I’m including them for you to decide.

So one play that is returning to Edinburgh is My Name is Saoirse. This is officially a production of Sunday’s Child Theatre, but it’s really the brainchild of writer/performer Eve O’Connor. I saw this last year. To get my gripe out of the way first, I felt this fell into a trap that many solo plays fall into of writing a monologue first and thinking about how to act it later. As a result, it was a performance that works very well as spoken word but didn’t quite seem to know what to do with the movement.

However, the story itself is a very interesting portrayal of 1980s rural Ireland. The setting is important. At a time when the sexual revolution had come and gone in most of Britain, Saoirse still lives in a very different conservative world. Her world affects many parts of the story, but most importantly, it’s a land where the only source of sex education is her well-meaning but irresponsible friend who keeps calling her frigid – and no, it doesn’t end well. This might fit better in the spoken word section of the programme, but they’re interesting spoken words. Catch this as Assembly Hall at 12.15 p.m. (not 17th).

Another play you might want to consider is DBS productions with Subsist. I last saw this play in 2011, and with so many decent Edinburgh Fringe plays – even successful ones – vanishing off the face of the earth as soon as the fringe ends, it’s good that some of them are making comebacks. This is a play set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The obvious complaint? It score zero points for originality. The setting of four survivors fending off zombies in a nightmarish future is pretty much the same plot as the last 500 zombie movies.

What the show lacks in originality, however, it makes up for with a tight and tense stage version, with a bare set, darkness and silence, four humans struggle to survive. They remember the old days. The remember the apocalypse. The bicker, sometime dangerous bickering that could get them killed. And yes, this is plenty of zombie movies, but DBS does a better job than the majority of movies that rely on stupid CGI and stupidly stereotypically bump-them-off-one-at-a-time characters. If this is your sort of thing, it’s on for five days towards the end of the fringe: 26th-30th, 3.50, Sweet Grassmarket.

From the comedy:

There are three comedy shows I recommended for the Brighton Fringe, all on their way to Edinburgh. They are BEASTS: Live DVD, Morgan & West’s Utterly Spiffing Spectacular Magic Show for Kids (and Childish Grown-ups!), and Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Just for Graphs. These are all big names who are already getting lots of publicity. I wrote about why I recommend them in the Brighton Fringe recommendations, and I won’t repeat them here, except to say that I broadly endorse all the good things people say about these three acts. Oh, and I saw BEASTS at Buxton and it was just as traumatising as I feared. Great, that’s me booked into therapy for another 15 months.

The men of Hey hey 16KHowever, I want to add to this list a lesser-known act called Hey Hey 16K. You will all of course be familiar with this title, as it was a classic … Come on, surely you all remember this? Anyone? Oh … Okay, around ten years ago I saw this video of the same name, and the MJ Hibbert who is doing this show is indeed the same MJ Hibbert who did this song. For those of you under 25 who have no idea what I’m talking about, 16K refers to the classic age of the first home computers and a generation who think reaching level 14 of Manic Miner is far more fun than completing Call of Duty.

This is the crummiest act I saw at Buxton by a mile, but that’s all part of the fun. This extended show decided you couldn’t spend a whole hour going on about the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro (not that I see a problem with that) and instead broadens the scope to 80s nostalgia and the hope of 80s teenagers and the disappointments of today’s fortysomethings. Based on a premise where MJ Hibberts falls through a wormhole (that looks very much like a wormhole), he meets his past self (that looks very much like his mate Steve wearing a wig). This is at Sneaky Pete’s  (that’s part of the PBH Free Fringe, and it’s on Cowgate) on the 8th-22nd at 6.15 p.m.

And I think that’s it. I’m coming this Saturday. Let’s see what happens. Coverage continues over here.

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