Alphabetti in May: Frank Sumatra, The Frights, Your Ever Loving

So, just before my Brighton Fringe reviews come rolling in, there’s just time to catch up with the latest offerings from the north-east’s fringe venue, Alphabetti Theatre. They’ve been having a busy month centred around a straight swap with Theatre N16 in London. First they showed their very first play shown at the current venue, whilst their very first in-house play showed in London at the same time. Then they swapped round. In the latter case, it was part of a double-bill with a choice of a second half: either another play from N16, or two “response plays”. I went for the first choice as I’ve never been convinced by the concept of response plays, although to be honest, my choice was largely dictated by the fact that was the only time I could see it.

This is going to have to be some speedy reviews and I’m typing this an my train to London, so let’s get started. Continue reading

Count me out, Rufus Norris


COMMENT: Normally I’d welcome major theatres including bloggers in their press nights – but the move by the National Theatre smacks of a move towards a system of self-censorship.

Ladies and Gentlemen, is proud to announce its first ever boycott. Up to now, I’ve done the odd “soft boycott” – for example, last year I chose to ignore the programmes of Forest Fringe and Summerhall (Northern Stage excepted) because of their involvement in political censorship the year before – but this time I’m saying it loud and clear. If I am invited to the National Theatre on a press ticket to review any of their plays, I will refuse. Observant readers will note this isn’t a terribly meaningful gesture because I don’t live in London and therefore I’m boycotting something that almost certainly won’t happen anyway. But with bloggers and online publications already stepping forward to applaud the move (“Bravo! Far better than those self-entitled newspaper reviewers’ plus ones!”), I guess it’s up to me to be the party-pooper. Because if this move is not already setting alarm bells ringing in your head, it should be.

It shouldn’t have been this way. I reject the notion that the print media has a special superior status over online media for reviews. I don’t even think I’d miss the print reviews if they disappeared. The column inch limit constrains the depth you can go into, and in the case of the National Theatre, it’s never really made sense to use space in a national newspaper for something 80% of the country can’t view anyway. The only thing where the print media might have something over the online media is with the quality of the reviews, but as I’ve already said, I don’t give monkey’s what your historical or intellectual background it – all I care about is how useful your reviews are to me as a punter. A reviewer or a publication might earn our trust, but ultimately print reviewers are in competition with online reviewers for readers. May the best critic win.

I welcome the arrival of online media, both online publications with an editorial direction and fully independent theatre blogs of individuals. The wider the range of opinions out there, the better. But arrival of the theatre bloggers has created a new problem which wasn’t there before: online reviewers aren’t just in competition for readers. They are also in competition for press tickets, and engagement with theatres in general. And this situation is something big theatres can easily abuse to exert some control over reviews of their plays. Sounds paranoid? Let me explain. Continue reading

There’s no such thing as an objective review

COMMENT: However much reviewers may try otherwise, you cannot eliminate subjectivity from a review. We should learn to embrace it instead.

One of the topics of discussion that’s been cropping up frequently ever since @NICritics took to Twitter is the concept of an “objective review” as opposed to a “subjective review”. As with many debates, this can mean different things to different people, but probably this can be summed up by the idea that a subjective review is just somebody’s opinion, but an objective view is immune to personal biases. And on the face of it, surely you’d want the latter? Why take the opinion of just anyone when you can have someone who’s considered all the facts?

To some extent, this is worthy thing to strive for. Anyone can write a review of “It’s good cos I like it” or “It’s bad cos I don’t like it”, but that’s not terribly helpful. Some reviews digress into personal opinions all the time. That’s not automatically a bad thing – bloggers are at liberty to write whatever they like and everyone else is free to read or not read the review. This can even happen in professional publications; Charlie Brooker, for instance, did this all the time when he wrote Screen Burn for the Guardian, but he got away with because he had a strong personal reputation for being insightful and entertaining, and anyway, Charlie Brooker is right about everything. However, that’s an exception, and in general you expect a certain amount of professionalism from the reviewer – if one reads a review from ThreeWeeks or BroadwayBaby, one expects it to be about the play, not the reviewer. Continue reading

Invincible: the street that socialism forgot

Alan banging on about football even though no-one else is interested
Alan banging on about football even though no-one else is interested

Coming hot on the tails of successes for both author and company, Torben Betts’s Invincible is an deliciously excruciating yet profound exploration of Britain’s endless obsession with the class system.

So, Torben Betts round two and Original Theatre Company round two. After their respective successes last month with Get Carter and Flare Path, expectations were good for Invincible. As well as the recent performance of both writer and company, I’d heard a lot of good things about this play with its original run at the Orange Tree Theatre, on the subject of what many of us call Guardian-columnist socialism – that is, well-off people who think they’re all pro-working class but are pretty clueless about what the real working class are like. So it all looked rather promising to see a play about a London couple who are forced to move ‘oop north the slums of Newcastle-upon-Yorkshire where Thatcher closed the steel mines and they’ve never heard of cricket. So when we saw preparations for a visit from the neighbours and the works of Karl Marx are laid out on the table, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Torben Betts isn’t the only playwright to be writing about this sort of culture clash; John Godber did an interesting job with Poles Apart last year, where a pro-working class actress and theatre manager got a rude awakening when bona fide working class scaffolders pay a visit. Godber’s play, however, was a subtle culture clash – Betts instead goes for a blatant and deliciously excruciating culture clash. Emily and Oliver begin preparing for a party with the kind of anxiety that only the wealthy middle class care about. Quite a lot of signs that Emily wears the trousers in this marriage, except that they’re not married because everyone knows that’s a patriarchal ploy to oppress women and Oliver is keen to express his non-sexist credentials by allowing his partner to make all the decisions. First to arrive is trashy Dawn, who seemingly has a thing for silver-spooned gentlemen; but before things get too out of hand on that front, in comes overweight husband Alan, whittering on about the football oblivious to the fact no-one else cares. But don’t worry, Emily helpfully explains to Alan that football is merely a ploy to suppress the working class from revolution because they’re so easily brainwashed. And that sets the tone of pretty much the whole party. Continue reading

Brighton Fringe 2016 – as it happened

REVIEWS: Skip to: Something Rotten, The Sellotape Sisters, The Bookbinder, Gran Consiglio, 1972: The Future of Sex, Morgan and West, The Tale of Tommy O’Quire, Dancing in the Dark, Fool

This was my live coverage of my thoughts of plays at the Brighton Fringe, along with other interesting developments that broke during the festival. For the final list of reviews, sorted in working order, please read the Brighton Fringe roundup. To see the order in which it happened, read on … Continue reading

Flare Path and German Skerries

So before Brighton Fringe coverage starts in earnest, let’s catch up on two plays from last month. Both are revivals of old but lesser-known works, both were competently produced, and whilst neither revival might have been the boldest of projects to take on, both were nice plays to watch.

Without further ado, let’s get going.

Flare Path

The commander gets some bad news on the phoneThis is play for the Original Theatre Company, who of course came to my attention two years ago with the excellent Birdsong. Sticking with the wartime theme, this time they are doing Flare Path, set in a bomber unit in World War Two. (Strictly speaking, this is joint venture between the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions – I’m not sure why this difference matters myself, but they’ve previously asked me to clarify this. So that’s what it is folks.) Taking place over one night in a nearby hotel when the bombers are called for an unexpected mission, there are many different stories of the lives of the different pilots. The main story, however, is film star Peter Kyle who can come to tell dedicated pilot Teddy Graham that his wife, Patricia, is leaving him. Continue reading

Odds and sods: April 2016

So that’s April come and gone, and once again, for some reason, nothing really interesting happened for most of April. I was wondering whether there was going to be enough worth reporting to make up an article. But the end of the month came to the rescue with quite a few interesting developments in theatre. What do we have?

What happened in April:

Brighton Fringe on the up?

The Warren venue at nightTwo months ago I (and everybody else) reported that Brighton Fringe had an unusually high surge in registrations, from 720 in 2015 to 900 in 2016. Along with this, there is an expansion of The Warren and the arrival of Sweet Venues as a second “supervenue”. Already the increase in registrations has enabled Brighton Fringe to have a firework display for its launch, something that hasn’t been done before. But is this expansion sustainable? It’s no good having a 20% increase in the number of acts if there isn’t a 20% increase in ticket sales to support this.

However, the early indications suggest the opposite. With one week before the start of the Fringe, Brighton Fringe reports an increase in advance sales, and it’s not 20%, it’s 40%. Usual caveats apply: the central fringe box office doesn’t keep track of everything, and the vast majority of tickets are sold during the fringe itself, but it looks like 900 acts will easily be sustainable; and, if anything, this will drive another big increase next year. Continue reading