What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2016

Fringe City

And we’re off again. Hope you all enjoyed your seven months of post-Edinburgh Fringe hibernation, but Brighton Fringe is creeping up on us again. So, as always, I have looked through the programme, and here are my picks of things that I can recommend to you.

As always, the important thing to be aware of is that this should be considered a cross-section of good things that are on offer, rather than an exhaustive list. These are all either plays I’ve seen before, or plays from artists I’ve seen before, or both. And what I’ve seen before – and who’s been able to get my attention – largely comes down to chance. In particular, there are a number of plays I’m confident will be good based on recommendations of other reviewers who I know and trust – but those plays will be recommended elsewhere. This is just for my personal recommendations.

One other point of note is a reminder that plays I am involved in are not eligible for recommendations. This is the first time this rules applies at the Brighton Fringe. Of course, I can get round this rule by shoehorning in references to the fact that I’m putting on my own play in Brighton. Bit like I’m doing now. Anyway, if you really want to read about that, you can do so here.

Right, enough poorly-disguised self-promotion, let’s see what we’ve got.

First of all: the big change

Waterfront hotelBefore I go into the recommendations, first of all what to expect about the fringe as a whole that’s different. As has been widely reported, Sweet Venues are setting up in Brighton this year, taking over two existing spaces (including the popular Dukebox) and adding two new ones. Meanwhile, Otherplace, best known for The Warren, is going up from four spaces to seven five. Five years ago, virtually all venues in Brighton were independent of each other. Now it’s getting more like the supervenues we’re used to at the Edinburgh Fringe. I guess if we’re going to have supervenues, two is better than one – there was a very real prospect last year, that The Warren could have ended up monopolising the power at the Brighton Fringe – but the coming of Sweet surely means that Brighton supervenues are here to stay.

(CORRECTION: I overestimated the scale of The Warren’s expansion. Whilst it’s true they’re expanding their side at The Warren, this come at the expense of their two spaces at OtherPlace Basement. Still bigger than before, but not as much as I first assumed. Sorry.)

In addition, there is been a big rise in the the number of Brighton Fringe entries this year, up from 720 to 900. This rise can partly be explained by the new venue capacity of Sweet and and expanded Otherplace, but my calculations suggest that this alone doesn’t account for all the expansion. Seems that this year, for one reason or another, more people want to perform Brighton. And an increase on this scale may well change the feel of the festival.

For better or worse, the Brighton Fringe is getting more like the Edinburgh Fringe. Still little prospect of Brighton catching Edinburgh up – Edinburgh is expanding even faster – but the days of Brighton being the friendly low-key relaxing one are long gone.

Enough of that. You want the recommendations, don’t you?

Safe choices:

So first of all, four plays I rate as safe bets. This isn’t to say everybody will like them – nobody can appeal to everybody’s tastes at the same time. But I am hedging my bets that if you like the description of this play – both here and the artists’ own publicity – you won’t be disappointed when you see them for real.

Based on previous performance witnessed by me, my safe bets are:

1972: The Future of Sex

Girl with her stuff parents

I’ve already recommended this play from the Wardrobe Ensemble in my list of recommendations for winter/spring this year, but their tour is taking in the Brighton Fringe, so here it is again. It’s something I almost wrote off after five minutes as an incoherent mish-mash that seems to befall most pieces of devised theatre, but this succeeds where most devised theatre fails. This is themed around 1972, the decade of sexual revolution – well, sort of. David Bowie might be number one, and Linda Lovelace might be doing Deep Throat, but in the real world it’s still a deferntial conservative society, and it’s a confusing world for the new generation whose stories are followed in the play.

Where The Wardrobe Ensemble particularly impressed me was their use of “flash fowards”. It’s a age-old devise to dart back and forth into the past, but this darts back and forth into their future and our present: an even more permissive society than 1972 ever was, but still littered with disappointments for a generation who thought tomorrow belonged to them. There’s about five minutes near the ending that I thought got a little confusing, but they more than make up for that with a click performance, human storylines, and some telling observations of a not-totally-enlightened society of the time. Probably the strongest all-rounder in my list, this shows at The Old Market on the 27th-28th May at 7.30 p.m.

The Tale of Tommy O’Quire

Tom Dussek tells the taleNow let’s move from an Edinburgh Fringe import to a Brighton Fringe hit from last year. Billed as a children’s show, and spoken in verse the way a children’s tale might be told, this is nonetheless a dark tale that appeals to adults as much as children, if not more. Our hero, Tommy O’Quire, is a treasure hunting seeking his fortune from a treasure map he acquired. Except that to acquire the map, he had to do a terrible thing; perhaps he’s not so much a hero after all.

But if you’ve seen this before, you might want to do see it again, because this time it’s a promenade performance. Last time the tale was delivered with beautiful simplicity – some very innovate uses of a few basic props and some exquisitely-drawn illustrations (which will surely go into a book if they every publish it). It will be interesting to see how Tom Dussek transfers this to the space of a musuem. Catch this at the Booth Museum of Natural History, with three performances each on the 27th-28th May (again). As always, site-specific pieces have a low capacity and are liable to sell out, so book early to be on the safe side.

Glengarry Glen Ross

Festival Fringes get quite a lot of well-known plays coming their way, but they’re always a bit of a gamble for punters. No matter how much you like the playwright or the play, the group who performs is a big unknown quantity. Together with the limitations on sets and the tendency to squeeze full-length plays into an hour, even the best play can be a disappointment. As such, I tend to shy away from recommending plays on title alone.

However, I’ve decided to recommend Glengarry Glen Ross on the strength of Pretty Villain, who did a decent job last year with Reno. Glengarry Glenn Ross is a famous play and film set in the world of high-powered 1980s estate firm MacBastard and Sons (slight liberty with the name but you get the idea). In the high-end property market, estate agents ruthlessly market expensive properties people don’t need and can’t afford with every scumbag high-pressure tactic under the sun. But, in fairness to the amoral cold-hearted estate agents, they are treated just as ruthlessly, with a league table (known as “the board”) where losers who don’t sell enough as their peers get fired. As such, the “leads” – information on which customer might want which property – is like gold dust to these estate agents.

If you’ve not seen the play before, you might want to read a bit about it in advance, because there’s a bit of terminology it helps to be familiar with. Also do be aware that this play contains some profanities. I know most of them do at the Brighton Fringe, but this one gives the Terrance and Phillip movie a run for its money. But if this sounds like the play for you, I’ve confident Pretty Villain will do the job. Remaining at their home the newcomer Rialto Theatre, they are on for the 7th-8th May and again on the 11th-14th May at 7.30 p.m. (3.pm. 8th May only).

Something Rotten

Robert Cohen as Claudius in Something RottenThis is a last-minute entry to my safe choices, thanks to an aptly-timed pre-fringe performance at Richmond’s Georgian Theatre. Robert Cohen is a well-known name at Brighton. He performs in a number of other plays (such as the aforemention Reno and Glengarry Glen Ross), but his is best known two solo pieces as writer/performer: The Trial of Harvey Matheusow, the true tale of a witch hunter-turned-whistleblower in the Macarthy era, and High Vis, the thankfully fictitious tale of delusional traffic warden Quint. This time, he’s playing King Claudius, with the story of Hamlet told from the point of view of the baddie uncle addressing his court. And Claudius will be first person to say how unfairly he’s been represented. He only ever did his best for the Kingdom of Denmark, married his late brother’s widow in the national interest of continuity, and things would have been so much better from everyone if people like Hamlet get of with their lives and stopped brooding over the old king’s murder – sorry, did I just say murder? I meant tragic accidental death.

Prior to seeing this, I was a little sceptical about the idea. I sometimes feel the appeal of Shakespeare is overestimated at festival fringes, especially when you blame audiences of not concentrating hard enough on Shakespearian dialogue. Robert Cohen, however, delivers a clear accessible performance, and I’m confident you can follow this even with no prior knowledge of the play. If you know the play well, there’s additional in-jokes for you. It remains faithful to the story, but adds a few new things into Claudius’s backstory to help explain why he became a master villain in the first place – and we also find out exactly what happened to poor Yorrick whom Hamlet knew so well. This play rounds up the festival on the last week on the 30th May – 5th June at Sweet Waterfront at 7.50 p.m.

Bold choices:

My bold choices are things I can recommend for you if you don’t mind taking a risk. All of the performers here have impressed me in past with things they’ve done before, but it’s hard to tell whether a new play will be a hit or a miss. Sometimes a bold choice has disappointed – but in my experience, there are a lot more hits than misses.

Sellotape sisters

I’ve picked this on the strength of the writer, Lee Mattinson. He’s being promoted as a Coronation Street writer, but that doesn’t do him justice. Up in the north-east he’s been one of Live Theatre’s rising stars up here in the north-east; and whilst I don’t always share Live’s tastes in new talent, Lee Mattinson has thoroughly earned his stripes with me. On the fringe circuit, he is probably known best known for the highly successful Donna Disco, a story about a bullied fourteen-year-old. However, he impressed me the most with Chalet Lines, which, whilst not perfect, did some extremely clever writing of scenes going back in time, clearly revealing a plot and backstory as it goes on.

The play is a bold choice because it’s a new one, and Signal Theatre Company are an unknown quantity to me. The story promises to be set in the 1960s where a crummy soap opera with delusions on grandeur is being axed, but wishing to go out with a bang decides to raid the real stories of their actors for a final episode. So presumably a comedy. It’s on daily at The Warren on the 17th-22nd May at various times. Will Lee Mattinson repeat the success of Donna Disco? We shall see.

Hysterical

Weird production shot. Don't ask.This play from HOAX theatre is in the unusual position of being a bold choice even though I’ve seen the play already and liked it. Normally, plays I’ve seen go in either safe choice or nothing at all. This one’s a bold choice because it’s a very different piece from most theatre, and even though I’m able to tell you everything about it, it’s very difficult to predict who will like it.

But even if you’re not sure if it’s the play for you, it’s worth giving it a chance because there’s no really anything like this. Based on the author’s real-life experiences of caring for a brother with severe mental health problems and the toll it brought on herself, this focuses on the funny side. Yes, there is a funny side to mental illness, believe it or not. Sometimes it’s an escape, sometimes it’s a precursor to something worse. With parallels to the legend of the Great Grimaldi, it covers ground I see few productions cover. It did well at the Vault Festival, but it seems to have been extended a little since then; either way, it will be interesting to see how if fares in Brighton. Find out at The Warren on the 14th-15th May at 4 p.m.

Dancing in the Dark

Finally, something from Brighton Fringe favourite Wired. Wired is notable in Brighton for two reasons: firstly, they’re a company of older actors who defy the stereotype that fringe theatre is a young person’s game; and secondly, they are masters of site-specific pieces. Previous spaces have ranged from ordinary houses to fine old buildings, but whilst many groups struggle to make use of the space, Wired make every space their own.

It’s a bold choice rather than a safe choice because Wired take a lot of gambles and, just occasionally, it doesn’t work out. However, they’ve had a lot more hits than misses, although I do advise coming in a fit state of mind because you often have to concentrate to follow everything that’s going on. I cannot tell you if their latest play will be any good because they are always extremely guarded and highly cryptic about what their new play entails. All I can say is that it’s got something to do with old resentments and uninvited guests at what appears to be a garden party. You can see it at 41 Hollingbury Park Avenue at various times over the five weekends of the fringe. As always, we shall see.

The Half Life of Love

A very late addition to my theatre picks, I almost missed this and only find out about it by accident. But ever since Gail Luow impressed me four years ago with Blonde Poison – a solo play about a Jew in the second world war who notoriously turned over her fellow Jews to the Nazis – I’ve been keeping an eye on what she’s been up to. Sadly, I’ve never had a chance to see any of the follow-ups so I’m no wiser as to whether they like up to this, although the reviews I’ve read of these plays are generally good.

This year, like Wired Theatre, she and Hi-Lo Productions are being extremely cryptic about what the play involves. We know it involves a strained relationship between a child, adoptive parent and a gay partner, but beyond that you’re guess is as good as mine. Based on previous record, though, this one looks like there’s a good chance of a hit. It’s on at the Rialto Theatre on the 16th-20th May at 7.15 p.m. So, up until the day before I arrive. Bugger. Going to miss it yet again. Sorry.

From the comedy

Although this is a theatre blog, there are various comedy acts I see that got my attention at previous fringes. There are other people who know their fringe comedy better than me, so I’ll zip through this quickly, but if you want to know my recommendations, here’s a few …

Murder She Didn’t Write

The nine suspects/villains/victimsI was invited to review this back in 2014. It’s an improvised murder mystery, with all characters colour coded in a nod to Cludeo. I can’t really comment on this with much authority because I don’t have any other improvised comedies to compare this to, but I was impressed by how much it looked like a real play. I’d assumed they’d done this by having a framework plot which they worked round the identity of the victim and murderer, but no. Apparently they make up the whole lot as they go along, by discussing the next scene in the wings whilst the previous one is done on stage. That was quite impressive. This runs at Sweet Waterfront between the 5th and 8th May at 6.40 p.m.

Beasts: Mr. Brighton 2016

There are many comedy acts that come to Brighton year on year, but Beasts has always stuck in my mind ever since Beasts: Solo, where all three men of the trouone pe are going their separate ways, but with only one slot between them, they have to fit in a magician, a solo biopic of Nelson Mandela (doesn’t matter he’s white – it’s what Mandela fought for), and a burlesque act (from the biggest and hairiest man). You can pretty much imagine the rest of the act, but if you’re not sure, expect to be covering your eyes going “No! I did not ant to see that!” Highly recommended for – actually, no, do not see this under any circumstances. Do you have any idea how expensive those therapy seesions are I had to book afterwards? Do not under any circumstances watch this at The Warren on the 27th-29th May at 8.30 p.m.

Boogaloo Stu’s Crimplene Millionaire

iconsquarecrimplenemillionaireIn hot contention with Beasts for bizarreness is Brighton regular Boogaloo Stu, who is a kind of seventies disco parody act, except that this outfit would be considered far too revealing in the wrong places by the standards of seventies disco. He has a lot of different shows, all bizarre, all involving enthusiastic audience participation, all best viewed after drinking at least three pints, but it’s Crimplene Millionaire that I find the most interesting. Still as bizarre as the others (it’s got a rotating head of Orville the Duck on its website, for a start), but apparently, this is a giant board game where the story unfolds depending on which space you land in, and varies between comedy and pathos. Difficult to tell whether this works, and I’d be interested to know what people make of this, but it’s certainly a bold idea to take on. It’s on at the 26th-28th May at the Spiegeltent at 9.30 p.m. Other Boogaloo Stu events are also taking place, both at the fringe and throughout the year.

Knightmare Live!

blades

Hip hip hurray! Treguard and Lord Fear are back! … What do you mean, you’ve no idea what I’m talking about? Honestly, some people. Right, let’s go back to the beginning. Knightmare was a children’s TV series that ran for eight years when special effects on chidlren’s TV was still in its infancy. But whilst most modern programmes and high-tech and still shit, this was a cheap and cheerful fantasy programme where a “dungeoneer” was guided through a dengeon by advisers – the dungeoneer himself cannot see because “justice is blind” (which apparently makes sense – and had absolutely nothing to do with the technolociual limitiations of the early nineties). If you’re not following this – and, let’s face it, you probably aren’t – don’t worry. Just turn up and see someone whose lifetime ambition to wear the Helmet of Justice comes true, and hear everyone cheer when someone says “You’re in a room”. You’ll pick it up as you go along. They are currently doing a long run in London, but they are making a one-off trip to Brighton on 4th June only, at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. at The Warren.

The Dark Room

dark-room-insomnia-head-218x300If Knightmare isn’t old-school enough for you, and text-based adventure games are more your thing, you are in luck, we have just the thing for you. John Robertson brings a game where you wake up in a dark room, and from then on you have to guess your way through multiple choice answers to escape. However, it’s even more arbitrary and unfair than the text adventure games of the day, where a simple attempt to go north is rebuked with the point that you don’t know which way is north, because you’re in a dark room, obviously. One word of caution: this show is not for the easily offended, and by that I don’t mean he’s best mates with Jim Davidson and Roy Chubby Brown (which is what that phrase usually means), but that’s it’s who go to shows in order to find thing to be offended over. If you’re one of those people, I advise you for your own sake to steer clear because he’s pretty merciless. Everyone else should count on the best fun you can have on a 16K cassette game. This is another one-off at Republic on the 13th May at Republic at 7.00 p.m. only.

Morgan and West

Since I’ve gone through four shows on the trot that are best watched after drinking, let’s round off with a nice family-friendly. Morgan and West are a pair of real magicians who do it as a pair of Jules Verne-type Victorian time-travellers. Usually working their magic tricks into some sort of story, everything they do is family-friendly, but this show (full name “Morgan & West’s Utterly Spiffing Spectacular Magic Show for Kids (and Childish Grown-Ups!)“) is one they aim particularly at children, although if this other shows are anything to go by, it should be fun for adults too. Possibly making up for last year when their tyre blew on the way to Brighton and they had to cancel a show, this is a sure choice for families, probably probably a good one for us single bitter people as well. Two days only, 28th and 29th May at 3.30 p.m., let’s hope there’s no mishaps on the journey this time.

And one notable absence …

In this list, you’ll see quite a lot of shows are Brighton-based, or come to the Brighton Fringe year after year, or both. So there is one glaring exception to this, and that is that the popular and successful 10-minutes plays known as Bite-Size are missing from the prgramme for the second year running. They are still going strong at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere, so there’s no sign of them stopping, and yet their home town of Brighton is not on their list.

Last year, it was put down to a clashing commitment and they couldn’t do both. Maybe there’ll be a similar reason this time round. But that’s twice now, and to adapt the great Lady Bracknell’s words: to lose a popular local acts from one fringe may be regarded as misfortune; to lose it two years running strikes of carelessness. Even if this is down to clashes, it’s a worrying sign that a group who one would think would view their home festival as a no-brainer finds better offers two years running. Is it a coincidence, or is there an underlying reason that is making the fringe unattractive to some groups?

But, so far, this is the only exception against a trend that otherwise bodes well for Brighton as a major arts festival. It’s something to keep on eye on – if other Brighton-based groups follow suit it might be time to start worrying – but this hasn’t happened yet. This is an interesting time for Brighton, and what happens in this festival, and how it shapes the next one, could have a big impact in the world of fringe theatre.

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3 responses to “What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2016

  1. Pingback: What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2016 | Chris Neville-Smith’s blog on theatre | Rogues & Vagabonds

  2. Pingback: BRIGHTON BITES: Chris Neville-Smith – Waiting For Gandalf

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