Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2015

Yet again, I leave it embarrassingly late to do my Edinburgh Fringe roundup. My sort-of excuse is that I had a very busy June, July and August for unrelated reasons, so I’ve spent most of September hibernating. But no more excuses, I’d better get a move on. Once new feature I’m introducing this year is that I’ll be comparing my review to all the professional reviews, see how it compares, and give my comments on any interesting discrepancies. As a result of that, it’s going to be a long piece, so I’m going to do it in instalments. Come back here and you’ll see the article grow.

So, it’s been another good fringe at Edinburgh. This is probably due in large part to me getting to know better who the good acts are, but there was a decent number of gems from people I’d never heard of. As a result, I’m going to repeat what I did last year and have a very top category of “Outstanding Fringe performance” to separate the best of the best from the rest of the excellence.

And a new feature this year is that I will be looking at the reviews of other people. I try to avoid looking at other reviews before I write mine, because I want to avoid my verdict being prejudiced, but afterwards it’s interesting to see what other people think. Usually my verdict is in line with the other reviews, but there are few notable and interesting exceptions. I will talk about that as I come to them.

Anyone who can’t wait to know who’s going to be in my list can see it in my live coverage of Edinburgh, but for everyone else, it’s a drum roll. Who has scooped my highest honour? Continue reading

What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2015

Okay you lot, that’s enough post-fringe hibernation. It’s time to get back to work. Time to turn attention back to what’s on offer in the north-east and pick out the things that grab my attention. As always, this is limited to plays, companies or writers that I’ve seen before, and there will be plenty of other good things I don’t know about. Also a reminder that, all other things being equal, small-scale productions are more likely to be recommended than big ones. Good small-scale productions need and deserve all the publicity they can get – larger ones, who have PR teams and the ear of local papers, don’t need my help.

This will be a shorter list than usual because we’re approaching pantomime season. Oh joy. But if, like me, you’d rather be burned alive than go to another pantomime, here’s some things you might like: Continue reading

These Shining Lives: when radium was all the rage

Catherine gets a diagnosis from the lying scumbag company doctor

Courier12’s revival of little-known These Shining Lives takes time to get going, but makes interesting viewing of a time when corporate recklessness knew no bounds.

I’ll be honest here: the reason I saw These Shining Lives at the Pleasance in London was possibly my most arbitrary play selection ever (other than my odd lucky dip choices at fringe festivals). I was passing though London and my sole criterion was which theatre I could reach in time after checking into my hostel at about 7.10 p.m. The Pleasance won simply because I knew how to get there and it’s one stop on the Piccadilly line. As such, I didn’t really have any expectations coming to see this, other than whiling away a couple of hours before my onward journey to Avignon. But I’m glad I saw it, because this was a very interesting piece about a forgotten chapter in history. Partly a disturbing tale of corporate greed, but for science geeks such as me, also a gobsmacking tale of scientific stupidity.

Melanie Marnish’s These Shining Lives follows the real-life case of Radium Dial, who produced high-quality watchings that glow in the dark thanks to the paint made of, err, radium. Yes, that radium, the think which Marie Curie discovered that eventually killed her. Now, I’m no expert at the history of science, but I’m pretty sure they knew enough about radioactivity back then to realise that suggesting your workers lick radium-laden paintbrushes was a bad idea. In partial defence, radium was widely seen as a wonder substance back then, but there’s already been another case about ten years previously of the “Radium Girls” (different factory, same thing happened), so you’d think someone might start to wonder, but nope, Radium Dial dig their heels in. The most staggering moment in the play was where Radium Dial stated it was all harmless because they were a high-quality factory that used pure radium. I’d normally follow that by saying that statement is “about as stupid as …”, but here I confess I’m stumped. I can’t think of anything as stupid as “it’s safe because it’s pure radium”. Continue reading

13 tips for writing a soapbox play (from the soapbox plays’ harshest critic)

Production shot from Geoff Dead, Disco for Sale
Fiona Evans’s Geoff Dead, Disco for Sale, was probably the last good soapbox play I saw. That was seven years ago.

So, now that Edinburgh Fringe is over, it’s that month where I do my roundup, covering everything I’ve seen in detail, together with detailed analysis of how they did with other reviews, plus a look at some plays I wasn’t able to see. And that’s going to take absolutely fricking ages to write. So, in an effort to put this off to another day, I’m going to procrastinate with a tips article I’ve been meaning to do for some time. Ever since my surprisingly popular 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting thee years ago, I’ve wanted to expand on the individual entries, and for some time I expected the first I’d do would be the dreaded “trying to be clever”. But lately, I’ve found the thing which disappoints me the most is the “opinion play”, or as I’m increasingly referring to it, the soapbox play.

Don’t get me wrong – I like soapbox plays if they’re done well. I try my hardest to disregard my own opinions on the subject when I see this kind of play. But roughly speaking, for every soapbox play I see that I enjoyed, there’s another five I found disappointing, a bit like devised theatre. There is, however, a difference between the two: devised theatre is hard. Usually the people who produce disappointing devised theatre are inexperienced groups who end up out of their depth. But disappointing soapbox theatre, on the other hand, is frequently produced by people who should know better. And, most frustratingly, it’s often writers who I have a lot of respect for who are clearly capable of doing something better. How does it go so wrong so often?

When I refer to a “soapbox play”, I mean a play whose primary purpose is to express some sort of opinion to the audience. However, regular plays often have something somewhere that makes a social or political statement somehow, and what I say broadly still applies. Either way, people generally don’t like having opinions rammed down their throats. Especially me. But fear not. I’m here to list all the ways you can do a soapbox play wrong in the hope you don’t repeat these mistakes.

The very first question

Before you begin even thinking about a soapbox play, there is a very important decision you have to make as soon as possible. Quite simply: What do you hope to achieve from this play? There is no single correct answer to this question, but answer this you must. The wrong answer is to plough on ahead and worry about it later. Continue reading