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?
Outstanding fringe shows:
Buxton Fringe will be pleased with the news that my two favourite plays were both previewed at Buxton Fringe. One was from an up-and-coming Buxton regular and favourite, but the other was a big coup for Buxton to get back. I did think long and hard as to whether I’m biased to shows I’ve seen at Buxton first, but when listed all the good things these two shows did, I couldn’t think of anyone else who can compete.
Let the roll of honour commence …
I Am Beast
Wow. Sparkle and Dark does it again, with possibly their greatest show to date. Only five years ago, they were a little-known family-orientated puppetry group who were a surprise hit at Buxton with The Clock Master. That doubtless would have been a success at the Edinburgh Fringe, but they took an extraordinary gamble and too something new and untested, The Girl With No Heart. That gamble paid off, because it scooped them funding from the Wellcome trust for Killing Roger. And after a one-year break, they are now back with I Am Beast.
Sparkle and Dark have moved into plays that are progressively darker and dwell on more moral issue, from nuclear war to assisted suicide. I Am Beast is very much a story of bereavement and depression. Fifteen-year-old Ellie, unable to cope with the loss of her mother, retreats into a fantasy superhero world that – we must presume – she created with her mother. Whilst in reality, she grows ever more distant from her father. Then the two worlds begin to blur, and it’s not clear where fantasy stops and reality starts. When Ellie’s alter-ego blaze takes revenge on the whole of Paradise City, there’s a terrifying possibility it’s going to overspill into our world.
Other reviews of I Am Beast:
There’s so many great things about the play it’s hard to include them all. Sparkle and Dark members come and go, but the there is a core of three who make the company what it is: musician Lawrence Illsley, director Shelley Knowles-Dixon and writer/actor Louisa Ashton. Louisa took a break last time but is back this time round having written herself the part of sexy villainess Yolanda, which she obviously enjoyed too much. Lawrence can seemingly provide live music for any event, this time a fitting bass guitar and synthpop. Whilst Shelley once again tightly choreographs the piece, with a cast of four playing numerous characters in the two worlds. Oh, yes, one credit I nearly forgot: resident set designer Anna Shuttleworth for the multi-purpose house interior or Paradise City, depending on if the UV’s on.
The more I think about it, however, the more impressed I am with the performance of Lizzie Muncey as Ellie. The superhero performance alter-ego Blaze looked a bit amateurish – but then, that’s the whole point of it. It’s when Blaze slips back into Ellie when the real fears and insecurities start to seep through. The only dampener has been that the other reviews have only been mildly enthusiastic, when I think this deserved a lot better. But with Sparkle and Dark’s plays getting better and better and better, there’s plenty of time to win them round.
Boris: World King
Like Sparkle and Dark, Three’s Company have been slowly working their way up the fringe scene. They’ve done a mixture of funny plays and serious plays, and had many spin-off projects, but their trademark piece remains the comedies of Tom Crawshaw. Partly because of his surrealistic sense of humour, but partly because – be warned – his plays contain lots of compulsory audience participation. And no, you don’t escape by sitting at the back.
This year, it’s put to use where Boris Johnson puts on his own comedy show in Edinburgh, and everyone’s favourite ping-pong-playing potential Prime Minister gets up to all sort of wacky escapades. When he’s not getting out of another zany scrape Boris (actually a superb impersonation from Dave Benson) spends for too much time chatting to the attractive young ladies, and it’s up to his PA (an equally superb Alice McCarthy who also plays everyone else) to sort it all out. Cripes!
Other reviews of Boris: World King:
Broadway Baby: ★★★★★
The Times (£): ★★★★
Evening Standard: ★★★★
The Stage (£): ★★★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★
The Student Newspaper: ★★★★
The Independent: ★★★
The List: ★★★
The Scotsman: ★★
But unlike Crawshaw’s previous comedies, which were laughs, laughs and more laughs, this time there’s a serious message to the play worked in so well. Yes, the real Boris might be some comic relief in the real world, but some suspect he gets away with too much. This is worked into the play when you least expect it and it makes – who’d have guessed it? – an intelligent thought-provoking piece hidden inside a harmless looking piece about a blonde Bullingdon buffoon.
Sparkle and Dark might not have made the impact with reviewers they deserved this year, but Boris: World King has outstripped all my expectations and been a runaway success. The excellent verdict from the reviews (apart from The Scotsman who said the pay barely raised a smile – seriously?), this is even acquired a following of real politicians, including glowing endorsements from Keiza Dugdale and Gyles Brandeth. With this amount of success, there are surely a lot of doors open to Three’s Company now. They could becomes an established London name, they could keep getting bigger and bigger in Edinburgh, or a whole load of other things. All eyes now on what Three’s Company does next.
Rest of the best:
Whilst Boris and Beast might have scooped by highest accolade, there were plenty of other things I enjoyed. Once again, I’ve tried to be choosy, but there were just too many things I couldn’t not include. So please be patient, this is going to be a long list of plays I fully enjoyed.
(Plays are listed in the order I saw them. Please don’t ask me to rank them in order of preference – that would be an impossible task.)
Yve Blake: Lie Collector
Now, this was a surprise. I first saw Yve Blake back in 2012 with a character comedy show called Am I a Good Friend? This show, along with another show I saw at the same fringe (Alice Mary Cooper’s When Alice (Cooper) met (Prince) Harry) relied heavily on the comedy value of being bizzare, and they both did that job well, but I remember thinking both acts had things about them that could form the foundation of more ambitious projects. Last year, Alice Mary Cooper switched to serious theatre with the impressive Waves. This year, it’s Yve Blake’s turn to come back, and unlike Cooper, she’s stayed with the comedy. I was looking forward to seeing how much she’d come on in the last three years, but – my God – this outstripped all my expectations.
Yve Blake’s promising character comedy from three years ago was an exaggerated version of herself (at least, I assume it was exaggerated): on the face of it, an enthusiastic hyperactive millennial obsessed with everything social media says about her – but underneath, hints of vulnerability and insecurity. She’s spent the last three years building on this, and changed it from a fresh but rough-around-the-edges act into a slick and refined act. It still had the same enthusiasm and hyperactivity I knew and loved, but now with an added and hitherto unknown signing ability (and well done too to Scott Quinn for his work arranging the music). We were treated to songs about lies, such as warning little kids that flying sharks eat anyone not asleep by midnight, and pretending to be a suicide risk in order to get an extension on an essay, because this show is songs and stories about lies people have told. (There again the stories of lies could be lies themselves, so think carefully.) The stories were sharp, they were funny and they were intelligent.
Other reviews of Lie Collector:
But the thing that surprised me the most – the thing I didn’t see coming at all – was how dark the routine turned when you least expect it. I held off mentioning this in my instant review because it would have been a spoiler. Far better to have the experience of laughing along without noticing the stories are getting progressively more screwed up, until finally, two stories of lies with heartbreaking consequences, not a laughing matter at all. Very, very, very brave to include this is a show that then has to bounce back to hyperactive comedy, and whilst it’s inevitable that some will find their inclusion inappropriate, I thought it was handled very well.
So that brings me on to the subject of reviews. I’m not going to analyse how every single act fared against reviews, but this is of particular interest because, as you may have noticed, opinion is extremely divided. I don’t think I’ve ever known an Edfringe show split opinion this sharply. I’ve tried reading the reviews to make sense of this and I’ve drawn a blank; it seems either you like this or you don’t – there’s not even any consensus on what people do and don’t like. Interestingly, she managed to get a sell-out when the bad reviews were outnumbering the good ones, which suggest that something – be it word of mouth, a clever social media campaign or whatever – is trumping reviews. But the bottom line is this is inescapably a Marmite play. Sometimes it’s prudent to tone down what you’re doing to appeal to a wider audience, but not here. My firm call for Yve Blake is to hold her nerve and stick with what she’s doing, and definitely don’t water down the things that make her routine so distinctive. In a crowded fringe scene, it’s always better to be loved by some than middle of the road for many. And if the difference she’s made in the last three years if anything to go by, I can’t wait to see what the next three bring.
Where do little birds go?
Now on to another solo performance, but this time, it’s someone I’d never heard of. This play by Duckdown Theatre was one of my lucky dip choices, picked solely because it was showing at the right time and right place during a free slot in my schedule. Jessica Butcher does an excellent Lucy Fuller, an 18-year-old hostess who was used by the Krays as a sex slave which hiding an escaped convict, Frank “The Mad Axeman” Mitchell.
Other reviews of Where Do Little Birds Go?
With little known about Lisa Prescott, the woman in the true story whom this play is based on, playwright Camilla Whitehill mixes fact with fiction and imagines a backstory for Lucy, and what a sad story it is. In this story, Lucy is a naive teenager who dreams of being on the West End stage and sees being a barmaid and later hostess at the Krays’ clubs as a step up the ladder. But of course, in those days “club” and “hostesses” were little more than codewords for “brothel” and “prostitutes”. For a while, she has an “uncle” (actually only ex-partner of a distant relative who is officially her landlord) who treats her like his own daughter and protects her from the dark side of the Krays’ empire. After he dies in a car accident, her innocence and her life go downhill. And yet the play resists the temptation to categorise everyone into goodies and baddies, and whilst the Kray twins themselves are irredeemable, Frank Mitchell was little more practically a child trapped in a giant’s body, and through Lucy’s ordeal, it’s evident he’s just was much a captive as her.
It’s quite a conventional solo play, heavily reliant on narration of the lead character; but it’s a very well-produced conventional one, with tried, tested and stunningly effective use of costumes, set and music. The only small criticism I had was some lack of attention to sound balancing, and I sometimes found I couldn’t hear what she was saying because of the loud music – and I’m surprised that such a professional group would make such a basic oversight. But that slight issue does not detract from a play that’s been getting praise all round, and deservedly so.
I was invited to review this play last year by the obscure FYSA Theatre and they impressed me. And it seems I wasn’t the only person they impressed because they’re back with the same play again. The 56 is a piece of verbatim theatre about the Bradford City Stadium fire, once the worst football disaster in modern history until this was eclipsed by Hillsbrough, the disaster that was more famous for all the wrong reasons.
Other reviews of The 56:
I already reviewed this is last year’s Edfringe roundup so I won’t go over the details again, but as a summary, the story of the disaster is told through the recollections of three people: two survivors of the fire, and one witness to the awful events at the other end of the stadium. It’s a cleverly paced play which covers so many aspects of the day: starting with the carnival atmosphere of final match of league champions, moving to shuffling away from a stand when people though it was a bit hot, to the sinking realisation that this might be lot worse than they first thought, to the full horrors, to the aftermath when the local community rallied out to help, and finally the retrospective.
There wasn’t much they could do to improve on last year’s performance, but they found the opportunity for a few tweaks that improved the play. They worked in the odd move to make a static play a little more fluid. And more importantly, by luck or by design, they found a space that didn’t have a noisy production next year with noise bleed. It was a pleasure to have been invited to review this last year, and great to see how well it’s gone on since.
1972: The Future of Sex
I confess, three minutes into this play I was started to think I’d made a mistake. Having chosen to see this play purely because the curiosity over the publicity, the first scene I was greeted with was a young-looking 70s DJ going on about ooh, baby, let’s get it o-o-on, which the rest of the young cast sat behind looking queasy. Nothing wrong with this opening scene as such, but warning lights were already flashing. Usually, this marks the beginning of devised theatre where a series of barely-related scenes get progressively more mediocre and unrelated, played by students obviously too young for the parts they’re trying to act. I braced myself.
Well, hold your horses. 1972: The Future of Sex is actually really good. For one thing, they’re not a student company even though they look young enough to be one (not that it would matter if they were – the best student theatre is as the good as their non-student counterparts). More importantly, after this opening scene, we go into a series of interlinked stories set where this free love thing is rather new, and for young people who live in the formalised homes of their parents it’s a confusing world to make sense of. One girl wonders if she should lose her innocence to her boyfriend; another girl, fresh from the thrill of seeing Bowie on telly, discovered feelings she didn’t know she could have for another woman; a student, enthralled by the world of Lady Chatterly, sees her lecturer as her Oliver Mellors; and a boy, lost in the world of gender-unspecific Bowie, finds himself questioning his own identity.
Other reviews of 1972: The Future of Sex
They are all strong stories in their own right, but the Wardrobe Ensemble strengthen the play further with music, cleverly-executed narration revealing the feelings of these confused characters and – most clever of all – flash forwards to the future. When old lovers reunite, we see how much things changed: some sticking to their bohemian ideals of their youth; and some settling down to the alienation of their still-bohemian soulmates. Youthful ideals clash with middle-age disappointments, and the 1970s feminists all feel betrayed by Germaine Greer’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother (who wouldn’t?).
There was just one point where I felt the play got lost, and that was towards the end when they (ooh, baby, let’s) get it on. I’m not sure exactly what running round the stage in swimming costumes was meant to represent, but I didn’t get it. (Before you ask, no, I don’t think they should all have got naked instead. Apart from the obvious problem over who would agree to do that, something that gratuitous would have distracted too much from the story. I’d have abandoned that idea and done something different instead.) But that’s a small issue, and a strong 55 minutes more than outweighs an uncertain five. With so many pieces of devised theatre disappointing and so few delivering, it’s good to have groups like Wardrobe Ensemble to keep the faith.
The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Bite-Size team would make this list. Ever since their humble beginnings at Roman Eagle Lodge in 2006, Nick Brice’s company have gone of to become one of the most popular fixtures every August with their sets of ten-minute plays. What’s more, they they can come back with the same format year after year, with a mixture of new plays and tried and tested old ones, and be in the envious position where they are virtually guaranteed a hit every year. The only snag with this sure-fire popularity is that it becomes difficult to do anything different. This year, they attempt at something different was a separate show, Lunch in Cairo. I will return to this later.
But staying with their breakfast show, I am used to a high standard of their 10-minute plays and this is no exception. 10-minute plays might seem easy to write but it’s actually fiendishly difficult to write a decent stand-alone piece that doesn’t look like an excerpt of a larger piece. I know, I’ve tried. I’ve seen other places present their own 10-minute plays, but Bite Size always smokes the competition. However, the downside to this is that, such are their high standards, they make their own good plays look only average. It takes something exceptional or different to be memorable. Because of this, I won’t go through every single play but instead pick out some of my favourites.
Other reviews of The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show:
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★★ (menu 1)
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★ (menu 2)
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★ (menu 3)
UK Theatre Web: ★★★★ (menu 2)
Scotsgay: ★★★★ (menu 2)
Edinburgh Spotlight: ★★★ (menu 3)
Broadway Baby: ★★ (menu 2)
I think I found the first two plays on menu 3 most memorable. Bite-Size’s plays have a long record of weird and wonderful ideas – the 10-minute length is idea for this – and they’re usually comedies, but two years ago they surprised me with the dark and moving Elephants and Coffee. This year, they surprised me with the unexpectedly sentimental Quack, told by a duck about her best friend, the human who hatched her egg. Then it moved on to Blabbermouth, a three-hander play told entirely in one-word lines. It all works through some cleverly deployed actions between the lines, and it’s testament to Nick Brice’s directing that this came off.
Other highlights included Metal Musik, a play that guarantees that I’ll never be able to listen to a Kraftwerk song again without sniggering, and Pride and Prejudice in 10 Minutes Flat, again an ambitious project that again worked through Nick Brice’s directing. But my favourite play of all had to be Somewhere Between the Sky and the Sea, a story of a composer whose ambition is for his dream violinist to play his concerto. By luck or by fate, they meet, she falls for the concerto and also for him – but not before another devoted woman also moved in with him. Even though it’s clear by the fourth minutes this can only end badly, it’s beautiful story of fantasy and reality colliding. Writer Mark Broun also did the funny if somewhat surrealistic Cate Blanchett Wants to be my Friend on Facebook. That’s a name I must look out for.
So it’s another successful run for Bite-Size’s breakfast show. I never expected anything less, but well done all the same.
The Sunset Five
DugOut Theatre have come to my attention in the last couple of years, and out of the three plays I’ve seen, two were good (Dealer’s Choice and Fade) and one was outstanding (Inheritance Blues). This year, they’ve come up with a brand new play which is basically the plot of Ocean’s Eleven transplanted to a small town in East Anglia. A dastardly megalomaniac businessman has bought the debts of a much-loved local pub and wants it closed. The only chance of saving it is if the pub’s star quiz team can raid the vault of the aforementioned villain’s casino – because apparently, all megalomaniacs have a casino in every town that’s vulnerable to a hastily-assembled team of misfits that just happens to have an assortment of skills needed to get through the defences.
Other reviews of The Sunset Five:
There is really only one way to do this play, which is to assemble a checklist of all the clichés in Ocean’s Eleven and make sure you include every single one, and I’m pleased to say that’s exactly what they did, with added humour of uprooting everything from Vegas to the Fens. The only departure from the plot is replacing the predictable chemistry between George Clooney and Julia Roberts with a bloke who has a doomed flame for the pub landlady. The Sunset Five is very much a fun play, and therefore doesn’t quite hit the dizzy heights of Inheritance Blues, where the humour was beautifully balanced with pathos, but it still has all of DugOut’s trademark staging, live music and jokes. This is a play I can safely recommend to anyone with a sense of humour. Maybe not for some die-hard Clooney fans.
Now for another thing from a group I’d never heard of before. The only reason I saw saw Bump! was because I was in a hurry one lunchtime and give flyerers a time limit of three second to pitch the play to me. This one won by promising me a love story featuring quantum physics. In hindsight, Buckle Up Theatre maybe overplayed the quantum physics bit, with a slightly overstretched analogy between chance meeting of two particles and a chance meeting of- … well, it’s a rom com, what do you think it’s a chance meeting of?
But although this might be a disappointment to hardcore theoretical physicists, I’m glad I saw this because it’s a nice play to watch. One difficulty with rom coms is that they’re so popular, they’ve been done to death. It’s virtually impossible to pen something original because practically everything storyline’s been done before, and this surely include a story where he and she have a chance collision of their cars, their eyes meet, whirlwind romance, and suddenly it all seems a bit too much etc. etc. (And do you realise how misleading that is? I’ve tried shunting loads of vehicles in the hope of this sort of chance meeting, and all I got was blokes, women who don’t fancy me in the slightest, nutjobs who kick your head is and rocketing insurance premiums. What a swizz.)
What Bump! lacks in originality, however, it makes up many times over with a sharp script, good acting from the two performers, and some excellent energetic yet imaginative choreography. It’s little touches such as exchange of text messages and expressing their inner thoughts that change the play from a run-of-mill romcom to a distinctive play with a style of its own, and it’s a great start from these fringe newcomers. Looking forward to seeing what they do next.
Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo)
This play is a product of The Letter Room, which in turn is a product of one of Northern Stage’s recent ventures known as NORTH. The idea behind this is that they assembled an ensemble of six northern actors each year and provide them with the support needed to get started. The 2013 and 2014 intakes are now stand-alone companies, and the 2013 intake, after a one-night appearance last year, are here with their first show on a full run, Five Feet in Front. It’s essentially a variant of Sodom and Gomorrah, when The Wind tells little Johnny (a girl) that her town is wicked it’s going to be destroyed in a storm. Johnny pleads for the town to be spared and goes looking for good people. She actually has an even harder job than Lot, because everyone else in the town she thinks might be a good person seems to be dead set on trying to kill her. (On the plus side, unlike its Biblical counterpart, this play contains no fucked up bits involving incest, or offering your virgin daughters to rapists.)
Other reviews of Five Feet in Front:
With Northern Stage having such a wide choice of talented actors to choose from, I was hopeful of a decent production and decent acting. What I hadn’t realised, however, is just how multi-talented this ensemble of six are. As well as a decent devised play and decent acting, they all sing and play instruments, and they devised an excellent atmospheric set with some brilliantly deployed lighting. My only small criticism of the play was that they maybe got a bit undisciplined with the doubling, as I sometimes got lost with who’s playing which part at the moment. Other than that, wow, good work Letter Room and good work Northern Stage for getting this started. If this is the typical output we can expect each year, every year, this bodes really well for their NORTH programme.
And to round off a satisfyingly long list, The Gambit from Rampant Plays. This is a play I saw in Buxton back in 2013. Over the follow two years, it was refined for this Edinburgh Fringe run, but the premise and format remain the same: is an imagined meeting between the two chess greats, Karpov and Kasparov, the two greatest chess players of the 20th century, and possibly the 21st century too. But gone are the days when it was all about politics and chess was the symbol of Soviet national pride. The play imagines a meeting between the two long after the limelight has faded, but their relationship is still damaged from a match Karpov once withdrew from.
The play is very heavy-going and requires 175% concentration from the audience. In a way, the Edinburgh Fringe wasn’t the most ideal environment for this play, where weary punters watching for plays a day aren’t in the best state to pay attention. But if you could get your brain in gear, it was worth it. The cast are the same, but the performance has been tightened and the tension has been mastered. So much has been packed into the hour, including a complex back-story heavily based on fact – Karpov happily retiring to the Netherlands whilst Kasparaov embarked on a political career in the naive belief that Russia is now a democracy. So much is in the play, even after two viewings I still don’t remember all the details. Maybe this needs a third viewing.
The follow four plays didn’t make it into my hotly-contested pick of the fringe for various reasons, but still have good things about them I want to highlight. Some are out of the scope of this blog, some are outside the plays I normally see, some I had reservations with, but these all have points of merit that are worth of recognition. They are:
The Dark Room: Symphony of a floating head
John Robertson’s The Dark Room is firmly in the comedy section of the fringe, but it’s a lot of fun from those of use who remember text adventure games. But if you’re a young whippersnapper who grew up on Sega Megadrives or Nintendo Gamecubes, this may take a bit of explaining. Try to imagine a screen containing the following text:
YOU ARE LOST IN A STRANGE ALIEN WORLD
> GO NORTH
> GO SOUTH
> GO EAST!
BOOM! YOU’RE DEAD.
Other reviews of The Dark Room: Symphony of a floating head
The Dark Room goes on this format, with multiple choice answers, but the outcome is even more arbitrary and unfair than the example above. If you still have no idea what I’m talking about, there is actually a playable version of the show here.
Now imagine this performed in room full of sloshed punters, many of whom have been to previous games and recite the words along with him. In theory, you can win £1,000 if you win the game, but heaven knows how you’re supposed to guess that. This might not be the most realistic story – in fact, is probably the most unrealistic ever, by design – but it is surely a hot contender for my annual “What the fuck?” award. Can he beat off the competition? Watch this space.
Bite-size lunch hour: lunch in Cairo
Now on to this interesting number. As covered above, their breaskfast show is a format any artist would kill for: something that is popular and successful, but you can keep bringing back year on year with new material in the same format. There is, however, a downside to this. So used are Bite-Size fans to the ten-minute play format, it’s a bugger to get them interested in anything else. Various attempts have been made to do something different – longer shows by the same company, the same 10-minute format for children’s shows, and even tinkering with the breakfast show itself. These have had varying degrees of success, but it’s never been easy.
This year, their experiment was Lunch in Cairo, a double-bill of 30-minute plays by Tom Coash, author of the impressive Thin Air performed in previous years. Both cover issues in the African and Islamic worlds, and the first one, Veils, lives up to expectations. This covers a discussion between two women after a demonstration in Cairo. One is a American Muslim who doesn’t fit in America becuase she’s too Islamic, and doesn’t fit in Egypt because she’s too Westernised. The other is a student activist standing up for women in Egypt in a world where – something many of don’t realise – the people who feel most threatened by the burqa are other Muslims. Although very little happens in the story other than a discussion between the two women, it’s a very interesting piece that shows how much more complicated things are than most of us think.
Other reviews of Bite size lunch hour: lunch in Cairo
The other was Ukimwi. This was also interesting, but I felt it didn’t work quite so well. This is a scene where a prostitute attempts to do business with an oil worker, who’s blatantly not interested. So instead, she ends up telling him a lot about her life and life where she came from, a society that’s not too bothered about selling children for sex, and has weird ideas such a sex with a virgin being a cure for HIV. Again this was a thoughtful sight of life elsewhere in the world, but I just wasn’t convinced by the two-hander format. We hear very little about the back-story of the oil worker, and he serves little function in the play other than asking her to go on with her story. I would have dropped that character completely and made this a monologue. He did a decent job for Thin Air, and I’m sure he could do the same here.
One practical decision that I though was unwise was to price the tickets as high as they were. When you’re experimenting with a new format and you’re not sure if you can get an audience, you really don’t want to risk putting off punters with a noticeably higher price. Nevertheless, judging from the reasonably good ticket sales and reviews, it looks like this has been successful enough to stick with this format if they want it. Will we see another double bill next year? We shall see.
Nell Gwyn: an epilogue
Concluding my honourable mentions are two plays where I can’t really say whether they’re any good, because they’re too different from what I normally watch – but they are going down well with people who know these genres better than me.
So starting with Nell Gwyn, this is set at the time of the Restoration, and the good news for women is that they’re finally allowed to act on stage. Hurrah! The bad news: it’s pretty difficult to have a career in acting without sleeping with the sponsor. Oh. Still, some women seemed happy to use this to their advantage, and one famous historical figure Nell Gwyn, who as well as bedding her sponsor, worked her way up to bedding the King Charles II.
Other reviews of Nell Gwyn: an epilogue
You would be forgiven for thinking this is a classic post-restoration play, but it is actually a new play from Orange Girl productions, written in very convincing Old English. Unfortunately, one side-effect of writing a play in Old English is that it makes the play difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with this language. For my part, I got some bits – such as Nell’s sponsor being jealous of the dick-brained monarch, and Nell likewise being jealous of the aforementioned dick-brained monarch’s new “mistress”, which apparently ranks above her in the heirachy of the king’s strumpets – but I’m pretty sure there were a lot of other threads to the story that I missed.
However, the play had good acting and production values. In particular, I was impressed by the way that they used this small space in the round. I thought this would be the worst possible space to perform a monologue in, but they pull every trick in the book to make this into a slick intimate production. This play is probably best recommended for the niche of classical theatre buffs who understand and follow Old English, but judging by the reviews, presumably from people who do follow this sort of language, Orange Girl must be doing something right.
Titus Andronicus: an all-female production
A few years ago, there was an Edinburgh Fringe game of seeing whether Abigail’s Party or Bouncers had more plays going on. Nowadays, however, the play that seems to be all the rage is Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare’s classic Roman tale of bloody revenge. One such version is Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s, first shown in 2013 and returning this year with another play, Othello. This is one of Three’s Company’s offshoots, and undoubtedly their most successful one, with their primary of theme of playing the Bard’s works with an all-female cast. Is that a valid way of doing Shakespeare? I don’t see why not. There’s a convention to adapt Shakespeare in every possible permutation – in a swimming pool, in a hotel, on a bouncy castle – so an all-female cast is yet another take. And besides, after decades of all-male Shakespeare (albeit something he didn’t get a choice over), it’s only fair to have an all-female version for a change.
The other thing this has been noted for is being a surprisingly comical for a murder-rape-torture-cannibalism-mutilation-filicide-gore-fest. The weapons and blood are represented by, out of all things, paintbrushes. (“No! Not the maroon paint! Please, not the maroon! Aaaaarrrrfgggghhhh!”) But before you imagine a cross between Bugsy Malone and Saw, this remains pretty much the harrowing play it’s supposed to be.
Other reviews of Titus Andronicus: an all-female version
(plus various 4★ reviews from original 2013 run)
Smooth Faced Gentlemen have a good reputation for fully-polished productions, and this did not disappoint, but it did have a problem that it’s hard to follow what’s going on if you don’t know the story. That’s nothing unusual – it is extremely rare for me to see a Shakespeare production that I think could be followed by someone who’s never seen it before – but one price of a single-sex production is that it introduces an additional confusion of working out which character is which sex. I felt they could have done more to clarify this. Nevertheless, for the Shakespeare faithful, this is doing a good job, and Smooth Face Gentlemen have clearly earned their place as reputable performers of his work.
Special honourable mention:
Before I move on, a special mention for something that’s not a play as such, but nonetheless very funny. Before the Edinburgh Fringe, I toyed about with the idea of handing out some of my flyers from a completely different fringe for no reason other than confusing the hell out of everyone. But I must stand aside for an even better idea, which was to hand out flyers for a show that doesn’t exist at all, unless you count the act of handing out the flyer itself. Enter Half-Arsed Flyerer.
Advertised as showing on the Royal Mile between 12 and 2 (the time when the half-arsed flyerer hands out his flyers), the blurb on the flyer is priceless:
“Clive’s had enough. He’s sick of the fringe. He only came up because he thought he might get laid. Now all he does is give out flyers and he hates it. This is the entire show. It is just flyering. The fact that you have this flyer means you’ve probably already seen the show. Thank you.”
This “show” is, in fact, a mad creation of George Vere and Adam Willis, who also brought along a real show, Interview with a Genius. Tragically, by the time I found out about their other show, it was time for me to go home. But well done nonetheless so a very funny piece of silliness.
There are four other shows I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe that I commented on during my coverage. Please note that although this is a lower tier than the three tiers above, this does not mean that it’s the booby prize. These are all plays where I see points of merit but I usually think more work needs to be done. If I didn’t like the play at all, I wouldn’t put it in my roundup at all. And, boy, amongst the ones I haven’t written about were some bloody awful plays.
So, let’s continue the roundup with:
An Illuminating Yarn
In general, I don’t give plays from my local area any special attention, but I made an exception for An Illuminating Yarn because this is set in my home town of Saltburn. Having seen a work in progress at Northern Stage the previous year, I liked the way it was going. The premise, surrounding mysterious Saltburn Yarn Bombers, imagines a story where the identity of the mystery knitter is discovered by a friend. But far from a woman bursting with pride over what she’s done, this is actually a women who’s lost her job, depressed, knitted because she needed something to do, and now plans an unexpected finale. And with Button Box Theatre having popular Live Theatre regular Jill Dellow on board, this had so much going for it.
There was only one thing I was worried about – but, alas and alack, the one thing I hoped they wouldn’t do, they did. They made Saltburn into a generic north-east town. I should stress here that this is a common mistake made throughout north-east theatre companies. It is so heavily Newcastle-centric that anything set outside of Tyne and Wear is usually portrayed the same as a generic suburb of The Toon. Sometimes you can get away with this, but Saltburn is too different for this to work (as is Durham). They attempted to cover this by working names of some local businesses into the script, but that’s not enough. Amongst the problems is the use of the word “man” in dialect, the references to the feral youths who live on the seafront, and portraying Saltburn as another town angry at the bastard cuts from the bastard Tories when in fact it’s one of the strongest Conservative wards in the borough of Redcar and Cleveland. None of the things invalidate the story, but this and many other aspects of Saltburn need taking account if the story is to ring true.
Now, it’s only fair to point out that I was probably the only Saltburnian to see the play, so a tempting response might be to ask why should it matter – after all, who’s going to know any better? The reason I think it matters is that this was a lost opportunity to stand out from the crowd. A recurring problem with new writing from the north-east is that it ends up sameish with generic Tyne and Wear locations used for everything, and a play set in Saltburn has the chance to be different. The plot as it stands is a decent enough one, but it would be a lot stronger if Button Box really got to learn what makes the town tick. So if they want to persist with the play, here’s the goal I think they should aim for: never mind Edinburgh, do a performance in Saltburn Community Theatre with a play the people of Saltburn can relate to. Achieve that, and we may make a gem of this yet.
Ben Dali: Strictly Come Trancing
This is a hypnotist act, which I wouldn’t normally review at all. I came to see this as I was invited as a reviewer, but since this entertainment isn’t really my speciality, I can’t really say whether it’s any better or worse than similar acts on offer. I do have a good deal of respect for hypnotists though. A mediocre dancer or actor or comedian can still put on a show, but a hypnotist requires willing participation of an audience to have any kind of show at all. And a lot of that comes down to showmanship. Hypnotists aren’t the only of entertainers who use showmanship; virtually every act on the Royal Mile is mostly a showman – but the difference is that you can still do knife-juggling, fire-eating or stunts without the build-up. Fail to manage the build-up in a hypnotist act, and the whole thing falls flat.
Other reviews of Ben Dali: Strictly Come Trancing:
Broadway Baby: ★★
(but see below)
It’s fair to say that although I’ve not seen any another hypnotists for yonks, it didn’t seem that different from hypnotist acts I’d seen in the past. That might be a let-down to anyone who was expecting the act to be more cabaret-themed. Nevertheless, I can safely say the audience loved it, and there were some very funny moments in it, such as the volunteers being split into Kanye West fans and Kanye West haters when out favourite egotistical rapper did his thing.
I don’t normally comment on other people’s reviews, but I will take issue with this Broadway Baby one for a change. This one seem to be critical because it had a slow build-up with the hypnotism process. That, I feel, is unfair – this is perfectly standard for hypnotist acts and, as far as I know, unavoidable. A fairer summary: well, do you like hypnotist acts or don’t you? If you do, you’ll probably like this one. If you don’t, it won’t change your mind.
This play from TheatreState was possibly the boldest show I saw at the Fringe. The premise centres of the lives of the two actresses’ real-life fathers. Both fathers have a lot in common, both were lifelong labour supporters, but felt alienated by New Labour – and both had affairs with younger women. Already a lot of potential here: two men feeling betrayed by Tony Blair, two daughters feeling betrayed by their fathers. The obvious challenge with this play is that with fathers and respective daughters not really having talked about this for a long time, they’re not likely to start now. The solution? Each actress would interview the other actress’s father about these thing, and maybe get it all out in the open that way. And we did learn about about their lives in the Labour Party, and the relationships with their growing daughters.
Other reviews of Tribute Acts:
Be it through courage or recklessness, it take a lot of guts to mix art and life this closely, and with something this different, it’s forgiveable if the gamble doesn’t quite work out. But the one thing you shouldn’t do when trying something this different is flood the play with lots of abstract theatrical devices. The play’s going to be abstract enough as it is, and the last thing you need is lots of sequences which I’m sure were supposed to represent something but I don’t know what. I’ve no idea why they dressed as astronauts, and I suppose that one of them appear in a pointy bra and a Margaret Thatcher mask was some sort of statement on the 1980s, but your guess is as good as mine. And that was frustrating because it distracted from what the play could have been. How did the two fathers feel on the 1st May 1997? When did they realise Tony Blair didn’t speak for them any more? What happened to their relationships during the divorces? Perhaps these two women shied away from asking the questions that matters. If that’s the case: don’t shy away, I’m sure there’s still a good story waiting to be told.
This is an unusual one to consider. When I was invited to review this and I gave my usual yada yada about how difficult it is to please me on devised theatre, they said that they still wanted my opinion as the play was under development and they wanted to know what people think. I’m not sure it’s wise to take work in progress to the Edinburgh Fringe myself – such is the expense and attention of Edinburgh, you really don’t want to be taking anything but your best work. But is the the route that The Pack chose to take, so I’ll judge it in those terms.
So, Future Honey is set in a nightmarish future where everybody is even more obsessed with social media bullshit than they are already, difficult though that is to imagine. It starts off with a very well-executed tightly choreographed piece with a finely-crafted sound plot. The same routine is repeated day after day, with every facet from brushing your teeth to ordering a latte getting running commentary on Facebook or whatever hellish replacement we have in the future. Until one day, all of this disappears and they don’t know what to do.
But annoyingly, this is where the story starts to unravel. There was some sort of being who pulled the plug on social media for some purpose, but I didn’t get who this being was what the purpose was meant to be. They were set challenges, the first of which were presumably making statements about cyber-bullying and cyber-vanity – but for the later ones I got completely lost. So taking this play on its own terms to get feedback, my advice is that the play, as it stands, is trying to do twice as much as you can realistically achieve in one hour. It either needs simplifying – so that it says less by says it more clearly – or it needs expanding into a full-length play so that there’s more time to explain the story. But if they pull that off, who knows?
In general, I don’t write reviews of plays I found bad. I made an exception last year with Looking for Paul, which was so irredeemably and inexcusably awful I had to say something. This year, there was thankfully nothing terrible enough to warrant my wrath. There were, however, a couple of shabby incidents I heard about that flew in the face of the spirit of the fringe.
The first incident I’m going to have to keep non-specific. There was a high-profile piece in one venue which was very popular amongst a lot of the venue’s other performers. But this found itself as a minor target for some self-righteous Twitterati who accused this piece of being there so that a cis-white-male-etc-elite can reinforce their cis-white-male-etc-privilege. Anyone who’d spent five minutes checking the artist’s website and what this piece of work was about would have realised they were talking utter shite. But, of course, they didn’t check, and when anyone tried to explain what the work was actually about, they either pretended they didn’t hear it or dug their heels in and came up with piss-poor excuses to back up their original conclusions. This is how manufactured outrage starts, and it’s increasingly becoming a menace in the world of arts. Nothing came of this particular incident, but we know that things like this can turn very nasty very quickly.
I cannot tell you which people were stupid claims about which artists, nor can I tell you whether the stupid allegations were about sexism, homophobia, racism, disablism or transphobia, because the artist in question has asked not to be identified and the venue advised the artist not to draw any more attention to this. I respect that – but when the advice venues give to artists taking this sort of crap is to keep their heads down in case they make things worse, something is not right. What I can tell you is that one of the participants in this attempted public shaming was a reasonably high-profile journalist. That is bad.
In this blog, I have frequently berated individuals over various issues, and sometimes I’ve really laid into them, but the one thing I always always always do first is a bit of basic fact-checking online. I do not attack individuals for saying things they haven’t said, I do not berate them for holding views we don’t know they hold, and if I suspect they are concealing a true motive, I give them a chance to come clean about their intentions. None of that happened here. I expect little better from the ill-informed gobshites that comprises most of Twitter, but I do expect some sort of professional journalistic standards from, um, professional journalists. Since I cannot identify the culprit without identifying the artist, I will instead give this message to all journalists: if you are making these sorts of allegations and cheap jibes against artists without some basic fact-checking first, stop it now. Do your job properly. You know who you are. I may not need to keep your identity secret next time.
In the other incident, I can name the artist concerned. She is Alison Chabloz, are her most notable “contribution” to the Fringe was doing the quenelle salute in front of Edinburgh castle. For those who’ve not followed the story, the Quenelle salute is a gesture popularised by French “comeidan” Dieudonné (if you stretch the definition of “comedy” to include anti-Semitic bile to a baying audience), and Chabloz pretty much idolises him. In turn Dieudonné’s most notable “contribution” to comedy this year was try to turn poor little Amedy Coulibaly into a victim (that’s the anti-Semitic murderer who killed four people in a Jewish supermarket in January). Alison Chabolz arguues that her gesture had nothing to do with antisemitism or her unwavering support for her favourite anti-semitic comedian – it was merely a gesture of defiance to “her haters”. Yeah, right.
(For the record, abhorrent though I found this, I still think the Festival Fringe society was right to refuse demands to chuck her off. Whatever she may have done, the Festival Fringe’s ethos of allowing anyone to perform whatever their views is sacred. There is just about an argument that this strays into law-breaking, but if she’s broken the law, it should be a matter for the Police or no-one at all – and considering people like Nick Griffin have been acquitted for doing a lot worse, I doubt there’d anywhere near criminal case. All the same, if her views to censorship of Israeli acts are what I think they are, she didn’t deserve to be kept on.)
My dishonourable mention isn’t, however, for Chabloz herself. She is, at the very worst, a hateful little sad-act but otherwise quite harmless. And I do not believe in chucking acts off the fringe to score political points. But Liz Lochhead and co do believe in chucking acts off the fringe – if somewhat selectively. If an Israeli group takes funding from their government (same as most artists have no choice but to do), they must be hounded out of Edinburgh, with most of them tacitly endorsing harassment and intimidation as legitimate means of getting their way (and never mind that none of them said anything in support of Israeli foreign policy). But a supposedly pro-Palestinian artist performing a gesture that could be straying into endorsement of anti-Semitic murder? I can’t find a peep of disapproval from any of them. Surely these icons of culture couldn’t have double standards? Heaven forbid!
Shows I didn’t see:
And before I close coverage of Edinburgh Fringe 2015 for good, there’s just time to catch up with the shows I didn’t have time to see but listed as things worth considering. Let’s first take a look at the comedy shows on my list:
Reviews of Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Just for Graphs:
|Reviews of BEASTS: Live DVD|
Reviews of Morgan & West:
|Reviews of Hey Hey 16K:|
As expected, the Nerds, the Beasts and the Victorian time-travelling magicians all did well with the reviews. No surprises here, because they’re all long-standing respected acts sticking with successful formats. I already reviewed Beasts back in Buxton, but I’m too traumatised to recall this a second time. Sadly I never managed to squeeze in Morgan and West at any fringe. I finally caught up with Just for Graphs at Northern Stage on their subsequent tour, and it was more of the same, but I wouldn’t have wanted anything different.
Hey Hey 16K is the relative newcomer that didn’t attract much attention, but I think they can be happy with what they got.
Now for the two plays in my “You might like” section. I’ve seen them both before, and I might have seen them again in a less crowded festival, but it’s good to see they’re still going.
Reviews of My Name is Saiorse:
|Reviews of Subsist:
Again, nor surprises that My Name is Saiorse did well – that was performed last year and came into this year’s fringe season with numerous recommendations. Subsist had a fairly low-key return to the Edinbrugh Fringe, but they evidently got what they wanted from their single review.
So finally let’s turn attention to Caroline Horton. She brought two shows to Edinbrugh: one universally popular much-loved old favourite, and one deeply divise play. How did they do? This gets interesting …
Reviews of You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy:
|Reviews of Islands:
A Younger Theatre: ★★★★★
Again, no surprises at all for universally loved Chrissy. But Islands … this is unprecidented. Islands is apparently either a smash hit or a dismal failure depending whether you read the Edinburgh reviews or the London ones. But then, it’s as unprecedented as it appears when you bear in mind how reviews work. Major London productions attracted high-profile meanstream reviewers with largely mainstream tastes – and Caroline Horton learnt the hard way that this doesn’t appeal to mainstream London critics. But alongside the professional reviews appeared a large number of positive reviews from theatre blogs. It’s not clear whether their acclaim was motivated by approval for the play itself, or simple approval for the political message of the play, but verdicts are not invalid just because you don’t like their motives.
So, on to Edinburgh, and reviews work very differently. Acts fight for reviewers, and almost all publications end up sending someone who wants to see the play anyway. In the case of Islands, where everyone must have surely heard about the play in advance and decided in advance in they’d like this sort of play, I guess this led to a fortuitous bit of self-selection for the reviewers. These Edinburgh reviews are no more or less valid than the London ones, just an unusual case where different systems of reviews can give very different sets of results.
Anyway, I’ve been following the fortunes ands misfortunes of Islands ever since my own review, and I think we can safely conclude that this, like Yve Blake’s Lie Collector, is a Marmite play that everyone either loves or hates. So, like Yve Blake, Caroline Horton has the option of holding her nerve and sticking with plays like this one, and indeed a recent article she wrote hinted she’s ready to that that. On this occasion, however, I think this would be a mistake. Here’s why.
The problem with appealing to your fanbase when you’re doing political theatre is that you’re probably reaching out to people who already agree with you. That’s by no means a career-killer – plenty of comedians make a living making political jokes to like-minded regulars – but we know that Caroline Horton can do far better than that because she has done before. So I would advise her to be grateful for the loyal fanbase who helped her through a difficult beginning to 2015, but don’t retreat to this fanbase. Think about what went right, learn lessons from what went wrong, and next time she’s doing a political play think about how to appeal beyond her fanbase.
Most importantly, resist the temptation to blame those who didn’t like the play for not understanding it. I firmly believe it is the sole responsibility of you the artist to make sure your audience understands the play. With the accessibility of Chrissy or Mess and the passion of Islands combined, I still believe Horton can write something with a real impact one day.
And that is it! Four months, 10,000 words and 27 plays later, I can finally close my coverage of Edinburgh Fringe 2015. Thanks to everyone who followed this and slogged it out.
And it’s only a few weeks until the programme for Brighton Fringe 2016 is published. Ready to start all over again?
[A note on reviews: These lists are collated from the lists complied by Edinburgh Fringe and Broadway Baby. Where there have been pre-Edinburgh reviews from FringeGuru. The Stage or Broadway Baby at Brighton or Buxton, these are also included, as plays reviewed earlier in the year rarely get a review from the same publication at Edinburgh too. I haven’t gone out of my way to find reviews listed by neither Edinburgh Fringe or Broadway Baby, but I have included the odd extra review if I think it’s of interest to include it.]