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 …

Thursday 5th May: Welcome to my live coverage of Brighton Fringe. I won’t be posting reviews of Brighton Fringe plays just yet because I’m not due to travel to Brighton until the third week of the festival. Until then, I will be writing daily updates of what’s coming up, and any other news and musings I have.

The festival officially does not begin until tomorrow, but some acts make a start tonight, and my first recommendations is one of those. Murder She Didn’t Write is an improvised murder mystery with colour-coded suspects in a nod to Cluedo. I can’t really comment on whether they are any good because I’ve never seen any other improvised plays and I don’t know what to compare them against. What I can say, however, is that I was impressed with them when I saw them in Edinburgh in 2014. I’d assumed they’d planned the whole story out in advance, with just a few alternatives ready depending on audience choices, but apparently not. They do, in fact, make up the entire story on the fly one scene at a time by discussing the next one in the wings. Starts tonight at Sweet Waterfront at 6.40 p.m. and then runs until Sunday 8th at the same time.

For the rest of my recommendations, you can read this list. I still need to do a few comedy additions to this, which will come in the next few days, but these are my pre-fringe recommendations for theatre. Also worth checking out FringeGuru’s day-by-day list and Fringe Review’s Theatre Picks. More to come over the next month, but until tomorrow, happy fringing.

Friday 6th May: I know you’re all currently glued to your TV screens and computers analysing every last detail of yesterday’s elections, but if I can drag your attention away from all that excitement, let’s have an update on what’s coming up in Brighton.

Today is the “official” opening of the Brighton Fringe, even though some shows started yesterday, which means that tonight’s highlight is the first ever Brighton Fringe opening fireworks display. Artistically, this is nothing significant – a firework display’s a firework display, and I can safely predict it will consist of people looking up at the sky going “Whooo!” What is significant is that Brighton Fringe is now on the scale where it can do this sort of event. And this seems to me a big statement of intent. Up to now, Brighton Fringe has been a relatively low-key event compared to Edinburgh – in Edinburgh, you can’t miss the fact the fringe is on, in Brighton, you probably will if you’re not specifically looking for it. With the dominance of The Warren and The Spiegeltent in Victoria Gardens, the arrival of Sweet Venues at the Waterfront hotel, surges in shows and pre-fringe sales, and now starting the fringe with a bang (literally), a lot of things are pushing up the Fringe’s profile.

Will the Brighton Fringe end up more like Edinburgh? This is something I’m going to be keeping an eye on over the next month (and beyond). But if that’s too much hard work to think about and you’d rather point at some fireworks today, you’ll find it at The Warren (just outside The Warren next to St. Peter’s Church, to be precise) at 9.00 p.m. It’s free, but apparently they advise you to book tickets if you want to be sure of seeing it.

And then tomorrow, it’s the first proper play from my recommendations. It’s Wired Theatre who, as always, are performing a site-specific piece at various times over every weekend (plus one bank holiday Monday) during the fringe, which means it starts tomorrow. Wired Theatre are long-standing fringe regulars for two things: firstly, they are a company of older actors who defy the stereotype that fringe theatre is a young person’s game, and secondly, they are the masters of site-specific plays. Two other things you can usually expect: normally, you need to concentrate, as plays usually end up darting back and forth in time; and secondly, Robin Humphreys (until recently, their only male actor) almost always ends up playing the dirty old man chasing after all the ladies.

Wired Theatre are always cryptic about what their play involves, and Dancing in the Dark is no exception. It’s set in a house with a “charming garden”, so we can guess that the garden will play a big part in the story, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. Which is probably how they want it. It’s performed at 41 Hollingbury Park Avenue, so two words of warning: firstly, it’s quite a long way out of the city centre (I may even have to sus out Brighton buses this time), and secondly, having gone through all the trouble to get there it may have sold out, so book in advance.

Right, back to elections everyone. We’re number-crunching for London Mayor and Assembly now, aren’t we?

Saturday 7th May: It’s not just Brighton Fringe I’ll be covering this month – there’s stuff going on elsewhere too, and one thing I’m bumping up the coverage is Frank Sumatra. This was the first ever play to be shown at the new Alphabetti Theatre, and I finally got round to seeing it on its return. I had no idea what to expect, but it turns out it’s a wonderfully surrealistic radio play. Well, sort-of radio play. It’s obviously written to be done on the stage with half the fun being watching the increasingly energetic sound effects play out by the sound engineer/orang-utan. Oh, did I mention there’s an orang-utan in it? Yes, that’s down to a slight miscommunication over what “adopt a primate” actually entails. Have I got you interested? If so, you’ve got one performance left tonight. But before the rest of you feel left out, if you’re one of my London followers waiting to hit Brighton, the good news is it’s going to Theatre N16 next week as part of the new Wandsworth Fringe. 9th-18th May (not 14/15), 8.45 p.m.

And doing a straight swap with Theatre N16 is The Frights, Alphabetti’s first in-house production, which impressed me last year. I won’t give spoilers for this if you haven’t seen it yet, but set in the aftermath of a kidnapping, it’s a very intelligent play that asks some very difficult moral questions without any moral grandstanding of its own. This time, it’s part of a double bill, and you have a choice. Either come on the 11th-14th May to be paired up with Your Ever Loving (another Theatre N16 play about the Guildford Four), or 16th-21th May to pair it up with a “response play” to The Frights. I’ll probably go for the former myself as I’ve never been entirely sold by the idea of writing to order, but the choice is yours.

If you’re in Brighton and wish I’d get back to Brighton stuff, Glengarry Glen Ross from the formidable Pretty Villain productions starts tonight at the Rialto Theatre, for two days to start with then returning Wednesday. Currently a mystery going on concerning the cancellation of another play of their, but this one’s a good substitute.

And that’s all for today. Join me tomorrow when I intend to announce my embarrassingly late comedy picks.

Sunday 8th May: Well, it’s a heatwave up in Durham today and Michael Fish tells mean it’s even better down on Brighton Beach, so if you’re down at Brighton already, you lucky lucky bastards.

Anyway, today I’ve finally completed my list of recommendations including the comedy, so hopefully there will be no more embarrassing cases where I don’t get to recommend a show until it’s already halfway through the run. The full list is as follows:

Safe choice:

1972: The Future of Sex
The Tale of Tommy O’Quire
Glengarry Glen Ross (running now)
Something Rotten

Bold choice:

The Sellotape Sisters
Dancing in the Dark (running all weekends)
The Half-life of Love (new entry – I missed this before)

From the comedy:

Murder She Didn’t Write (ends today)
Beasts: Mr. Brighton
Boogaloo Stu’s Crimplene Millionaire
Knightmare Live
The Dark Room
Morgan and West

But, to repeat a disclaimer that applies to everyone, these recommendations only apply if you like this sort of play. Always check what the play is about first; if you don’t like the kind of play described, then all the recommendations in the world won’t change your mind.

So that’s all my coverage for a busy festival opening. Next week should start calmer, and I’ll be able to talk more about what to expect. If you have any good photos of you enjoying ice creams on the beach, now might be a good time to send them in.

Okay, signing off, see you tomorrow.

Monday 9th May: That’s the opening weekend of Brighton Fringe done and dusted, so it’s the start of a new week, when things get a bit quieter, so now is a good time to explain how the reviews coverage works. At the moment, coverage is going to be ticking over with daily updates, but things begin properly on the 21st when I arrive. After that, here’s how things work:

During my stay between the 21st and 29th May, anything I see is eligible for a review. Note that I do not review everything I watch, because I generally cover plays that good or have potential to be good. If you do not get a review (or even if you do), private feedback is available to anyone who asks, but you have to ask me. (It is very rare for my to give a bad play a kicking, and in my four years of fringe coverage I have, so far, only done this twice, neither of which were at Brighton.) Most of the shows I see are shows I choose as a punter, but I give priority to shows that offer me press tickets. (Contact me if you wish to go down that route.) Please note that there are no other favours given to shows who offer press tickets – I will come and give you a chance, but that won’t affect how favourable my review is.

However, this year my coverage is complicated by the fact I’m doing my own show. I will not be covering myself on this blog because that’s against the rules – if you want to know what I’m doing you can check this page instead. What this means for review coverage is that I will be out of action between 9.00 p.m. and 10.30 p.m. every evening except the 21st. If you want me to review your show but it clashes with these times, I will try to catch you at another time (if your show runs on variable times); otherwise, sorry, I cannot review you.

The other effect is that reviews of plays I see at Sweet Venues will be embargoed until the fringe is over. This is because venue chains tend to be small places where everybody knows everyone, and it would be too easy for review of other people performing in the same building as me to turn into horse-trading or mutual back-scratching. I may bend the rules if I see something exceptional, but the rest of you will have to wait for the roundup. I realise this won’t be a much use to people on long runs who need reviews early in the run to push up ticket sales later on, but I can’t do everything.

And I think that’s all. Same time tomorrow then.

Tuesday 10th May: However, there is one Sweet Venues play I can review now due to a convenient loophole, and that loophole is that I didn’t see it at Sweet Venues. Instead, I saw Something Rotten at Richmond’s Georgian Theatre Royal last month shortly before the start of the fringe. This is a production from “Monkeydog”, but in practice this theatre company consists of writer/performer Robert Cohen, with his other half Jenny Rowe as director. Cohen is best known at the Brighton Fringe for two highly acclaimed previous solo shows, The Trial of Harvey Matusow and High Vis.

King Claudius looking suitably evilI had some doubts over whether this show could follow up this success. The previous two shows’ main strength was their clarity; could a play based on Shakespeare – inaccessible to many due to its Old English poetry – achieve the same? The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes. The story is delivered by Hamlet’s King Claudius to his court of advisers, and he’ll be the first to refute all those smears from his troublesome nephew peddled by Mr. Shakespeare. Just because his brother died unexpectedly and he married his late brother’s wife a tiny minority of people put two and two together and make five – whilst the truth is that he’s doing his best to pull the Kingdom of Denmark together and married his sister-in-law in the interests of continuity. He’s only doing his duty any monarch would do after his predecessor’s sudden and unexpected murder- … I mean, unexplained death.

Robert Cohen plays a suitably wicked and deluded Claudius – he could easily be a distant evil cousin of Quint from High Vis – but there’s more to Cohen’s depiction of Hamlet’s uncle than that. The script is faithful to Shakespeare’s play, but with an additional back-story from Robert Cohen’s imagination, we see that the rest of the world wasn’t entirely blameless. Used by his own father and brother, denied the hand of the woman he loved, and suffering state-sanctioned torment from court jester Yorrick, there are hints of a bully created by other bullies. We also learn of the sticky end that befell Yorrick whom Hamlet knew so well. and to be fair, it sounds like he was asking for it.

If you’re a Shakespeare aficionado, don’t worry. Whilst the play is clear to anyone who doesn’t know a word of the Bard, there are bonus in-jokes for those who know all the references. This won’t be showing in Brighton until the final week, but if you liked his previous two shows you won’t be disappointed with this one. And you might want to book early because he’s only in a 30-seater venue and it may well sell out.

Wednesday 11th May: Now let’s take another break from Brighton to cover another story that broke yesterday. At an event in London called everyone’s a critic, a producer called Danielle Tarento effectively said that theatre bloggers are not “proper critics” and went on to say that theatre bloggers “do not have the intellectual background, or the historical background to know what they are writing about.” Cue outrage from every theatre blogger in the country. As is often the case, the context of what she said isn’t quite as outrageous as the quote suggests, and I’ve linked to the WhatsOnStage story rather than The Stage article (that originally provoked the outrage) as I feel the former article is fairer over what she actually said. In particular, she was not trying to say theatre bloggers are worthless nor that they should be stopped, but rather that as their prominence grows they should be given support to write better reviews.

When I have a calmer moment, I will probably write about this in more detail – the rise of the theatre blogger is a new thing which raises all sorts of issues that are yet to be settled. However, to throw in my 2p’s worth now, I think that Tarento has missed the point on what critics are for. Let’s suppose she’s right and theatre bloggers don’t have the  intellectual background or the historical background to know what they are writing about. So what? Neither does 99% of the audience. Why should I care about your opinion based on your approved historical and intellectual background? If I take any notice of a review, it’ll be because I’ll want to know if I will enjoy it, not because I want to fit in with someone else’s authoritative verdict. Of course, that’s just my preference – anyone’s welcome to choose who to listen to. But ultimately, it comes down to trust. And one way or the other, trust has to be earned.

I’ll judge who I trust based on reviews of shows I’ve seen and whether their judgement is reasonable. If other people wish to base their trust on who’s got the best intellectual credentials, that’s their choice. But I hope that’s not many people. Because this is the dominant form of criticism in the fine arts, where a select group of critics are deemed to have superior capabilities to the rest of us over what’s worthy of acclaim – and, I suspect, a lot of people convince themselves that’s what also they think because if you think differently, well, you must be at fault for not being educated enough. And guess what? Places like the Tate Modern are a laughing stock to most of the country. In theatre, thank goodness, the views of real people have enough sway to decide what will ultimately succeed and fail. And I hope it stays like that.

Quickly turning attention back to Brighton Fringe, Glengarry Glen Ross restarts today after a break at the end of last week. Inconclusive verdict so far: two reviews, one positive, one mildly negative. Have to say, I wasn’t convinced about the negative one – it was critical of the production rather than the play, but I couldn’t pin down exactly what that review didn’t like. I guess the audience figure for the final performances will be final judge. However, the play that I am hearing overwhelming praise for is Groomed. I won’t be reviewing this play as I have conflict of interest (will explain another time), but it looks like I won’t need to. This is running for two weeks until the 22nd May at Sweet Waterfront, usually at 8.00 p.m. (plus some 3.00 p.m. matinees), this looks set to be a festival highlight.

Thursday 12th May: One important thing to look out for this festival is how the companies on seven-day runs at Sweet Venues do. This was an interesting development, because with most companies at highest-profile venue The Warren running for 2-4 performances, Sweet Venues actively encouraged its applicants to run for a full week, with a 7 performances for price of 5 offer. Their rationale is that there’s not enough time for good reviews and good audience feedback to affect sales in a short run, so what they hope is that by getting reviewers in early in the week, this will give enough time for good feedback to make a different by the end. That, at least, is the theory – it’s largely untested in practice. The first hurdle was finding enough artists prepared to go along with the seven-day model; they did, that hurdle has been cleared.

So now we approach the second and most important hurdle – will this work? The groups taking part in week one at Sweet will be learning in the next few days if good feedback on Monday and Tuesday really does translate into better sales on Saturday and Sunday. So we might have a good idea of whether this paid off early next week. Or we might not. Some groups always do better than others and it’s never easy to tell if one group’s fortunes or misfortunes is a sign of the times or an exception to the trend. We may have to wait until next year’s fringe to see if Sweet repeats this model before we know the answer.

If it does pay off, then there will be one other important follow-on question: how will The Warren respond? There are two conflicting possible scenarios here. One is that the acts at The Warren won’t need to lengthen their runs because they have already built up reputations elsewhere, and don’t need to to build up publicity in Brighton. The other is that the acts at The Warren will have to extend their runs to a week in order to stay competitive with Sweet. If the latter scenario occurs, that will good as make the week-long run standard, just like the long run is standard in Edinburgh (albeit three weeks instead of one). And how would venues accommodate longer runs? Fewer acts, more stages, or something in between?

But that’s something to look out for over the following days, weeks and months. Turning attention back to now, my next recommendation starts tomorrow (13th May) for one performance only (7.00 p.m., Republic), which is John Robertson’s The Dark Room. If you’ve ever wondered why an audience would all join in shouting “You awake to find yourself in a dark room!”, or groan in disappointment when you choose to “Czech pocket” instead of “Check pocket”, now’s your chance to find out. Before “YOU DIE! YOU DIE! YOU DIE! YOU DIE! YOU DIE!”

Friday 13th May: North-east reviews don’t stop when Brighton Fringe coverage is on, and my latest review to go up is Torben Betts’s Invincible, which I’d heard a lot of good things about ever since its original run in 2014. This first major revival from the Original Theatre Company does not disappoint.

Okay, back to Brighton, as well as The Dark Room that I mentioned yesterday, the next thing that’s worth a look is Hysterical. This is something I saw at the Vault Festival back in February, and it’s a highly experimental piece about seeing the funny side of a breakdown in mental health. It was very popular at The Vault, and I took a keen interest in this given my own experiences, but this is so different I honestly don’t know which way it will go in Brighton. It’s on for two performances only on the 14th-15th May at 4 p.m. in The Warren, and we should know how it did shortly after that.

Now for one interesting observation: Fringeguru has been dishing out a lot of 5* reviews in the first seven days, and today’s day-by-day listings have five different 5* shows. That is in sharp contrast to 2014’s festival when it took two weeks before Alice Mary Cooper scooped the first 5* award with the memorable Waves. Richard Stamp has stood by this decision saying he thinks it really is down to the quality of the programme. So I guess the next question is whether we hear the same from the other publications. Any word from FringeReview, BroadwayBaby or ThePublicReviews?

And finally, switching attention to the other big fringe, some news from Edinburgh. Boris: World King is doing an encore – I believe this is the first time a Three’s Company play has done this. Billed as “The thinking man’s idiot returns following Brexit victory/defeat (delete as applicable)”, it’s good news for anyone wondering how on earth Tom Crawshaw changed the ending after Boris’s EU stance spoilt the original one. But when is the e-mail address on his card going to be made a real one? I’m so disappointed my e-mails to are bouncing.

Saturday 14th May: Surprisingly, in spite of it being a Saturday, the busiest day of the week at the Brighton Fringe, I’ve got nothing new to report today. All of my upcoming recommended shows have been recommended, and I’m waiting on reviews to see how they did.

So now is a good time to take a good look at an interesting scheme at the other big fringe. As I reported earlier this month, this is a scheme set up by two theatre bloggers whose main project is get affordable accommodation for theatre bloggers. They arranged a block booking at the University of Edinburgh as a discounted rate, and aimed to get it reduced further through a crowdfunding campaign. That campaign has now come and gone and managed to raise just over £1,200. So this roughly works out as reducing accommodation costs for these 24 bloggers from £185 to £135 for a week-long stay. It was worthwhile, but still a bit of a disappointment when you compare it to other crowdfunding campaigns of dubious artistic benefit. It sadly seems that the people who’d benefit the most from these scheme are the ones with the least money to spare, and the real money is in politically partisan schemes. There again, the campaign has been re-opened following Danielle Tarento’s ill-advised remarks on theatre bloggers earlier this week, so who knows?

[UPDATE: Apparently the figures are a little more complicated than my above calculation. There’s various complications I didn’t know aboutcoming into play and I’m told it’s likely to be a bit more than the £135 I estimated. Should still be a substantial reduction though.]

[UPDATE 2: Katherine Kavanagh has commented below explaining a few more details of how the are calculated.]

When I last covered this, I said I had some reservations about the scheme, and my main concern was that this could turn into a closed shop. The 24 bloggers were hand-picked by two people (albeit from an open application process), which isn’t too different to how most fringe publications operate. Whilst it would be nice to have a quasi-publication that aims to cover specialisations ignored by the other publications, I was concerned they might end up promoting their own clique of critics and ignoring all the others. However, the latest I’ve heard is they are planning to run free weekly networking sessions open to everyone, so I’m now confident these worries of a  closed shop won’t be realised.

As well as this Edinburgh fringe scheme, their Twitter account is worth a follow because they’ve brought up all sorts of interesting discussions. In fact, I think I’ll write about one of their debates as my next blog post, there should be time before- … Oh, Jesus, I’m going to be in Brighton for my own show this time next week. It can’t be that time already, can it?

Sunday 15th May: A late update today – just when my own Brighton Fringe preparations are stepping up a notch, I got roped into another play where someone dropped out and it’s up to me to save the day, which admittedly is a part I quite like but it was the worst possible timing. My updates over the next week are probably going to be sporadic. Sorry.

The big question I was waiting on this weekend is how Hysterical would do. As I wrote in my recommendation, this is a very different play where it’s hard to guess what individuals make of it. The first review has come in (from Broadway Baby) and it’s a 3* – but the most important detail is it’s one of those 3* reviews that likes some bits but doesn’t like other bits – in this case it liked the absurdist puppetry but not the characters. It’ll be interesting to see how any other review fare, not only how it fares but also whether or not other reviewers like or dislike the same bits. Watch this space.

Meanwhile Glengarry Glen Ross‘s fortunes have picked up a bit towards the end of a run. After the first good review was followed by two unenthusiastic reviews, they’ve finished it off with two more good reviews and a coveted Argus Angel (at least, I’m told they got an Argus Angel – the Brighton Argus website is too much of a mess to verify this, but they definitely got a five-star review from them). I don’t know how much you can read into an Argus Angel for a local group – I’m always wary about local papers reviews their most highly-regarded theatre companies – but it looks like Pretty Villain can be happy with how things have gone.

[UPDATE: I can verify the Argus Angel now. I’ve been shown this photo as irrefutable evidence.]

Usual caveat applies: good reviews are all very well, but at the end of the day it’s the audience that matters. A play that fails to capture the interest of the critics can still be a runaway success with an audience, or even with just a niche audience. I report reviews and star rating because they’re easy to find out, but the thing that counts is the thing that’s harder to assess.

Monday 16th May: I’ve had a surge in pageviews over the last couple of days, presumably from Sweet Venues and Network of Independent Critics picking this up on Twitter, so welcome to everyone who’s just joined us. For anyone new, this coverage only really kicks off when I arrive at Brighton in person this Saturday and start reviewing properly. Until then, it’s daily updates mostly consisting of which plays I’ve recommended are getting started and how they’re doing once they’ve got going. For a list of all recommendations in one place, you can come over to What’s Worth Watching: Brighton Fringe 2016.

Early update today because The Half Life of Love starts at 7.15 today at The Rialto Theatre and runs until 20th May. This got my attention because it’s written by Gail Luow, who impressed me back in 2012 with the excellent solo show Blonde Poison. She’s written other shows since that I didn’t have the chance to see but heard good feedback from. Unlike the last three plays that were all based on fact, this seems to be an entirely fictitious story, so it will be interesting to see how this fares. Bit surprised that play from a writer of this calibre running this long is excluding the weekend where there’s the most business, but there’s bigger mysteries to solve at the moment.

We’ve also got a new play starting this week from Lee Mattinson (Sellotapte Sisters) but I’ll talk about the closer to the time.

baby loves fatboy.jpg.galleryAnd finally, this doesn’t really have an bearing on fringe theatre, but in case you missed it, Brighton Fringe had an unexpected guest this weekend: Fat Boy Slim, who was booked in to DJ an event and just turned up without telling anyone. Not entirely surprising that he’s chosen Brighton as his home town, nor is it surprising he turned up unannounced, because publicising big names in advance creates a log of arseache for crowd management and ticketing (his Brighton beach party holds the precedent) – and besides, I guess it’s more fun to just turn up and watch everyone go “Is that really Fat Boy Slim up there?” But it was a bit of a surprise that he chose a children’s event Baby Loves Disco. Expect place like The Warren to be secretly fuming with jealousy for the rest of the festival.

Tuesday 17th May: Starting today is The Sellotape Sisters at The Warren. This grabbed my attention because of the writer, Lee Mattinson, who’s had a string of hits in the north-east. I know I’m frequently sniffy about regional work and sometimes suggest that the local arts press gets behind work from the high-profile producing theatres out of duty rather than merit, but in Lee Mattinson’s case I’ve seen them myself and his praise is thoroughly earned. Promising to be a more farcial version of The Killing of Sister George, This is slightly different to what he’s done before because I understand this time he’s developed someone else’s story rather than start from scratch, but if it’s as good as his work up to now you shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s 6.45 p.m. today, then 8.45 Wednesday to Friday, 2.45 Saturday and 6.45 again Sunday.

(And in case you’re suspicious, yes, I nearly screwed up and thought it was going to start tomorrow. I still haven’t got the hang of scheduling at The Warren.)

On a completely different matter, let’s turn attention back to a puzzle I hinted at earlier. Pretty Villain seem to have ended up doing well with their Glengarry Glen Ross, but at the same time they were supposed to be running a second play, Myra, about the notorious Moors Murderer. This was talked about a lot – and then got cancelled at the last moment with no explanation. This raised a few eyebrows. A cancellation isn’t that unusual – often theatre companies get out of their depth at a fringe and discover their show isn’t ready – but surely not for a company of Pretty Villain’s calibre? So what other reason could there be? One possibility is censorship. We know from the sorry affairs of 2014 that some people think prestigious festival fringes shouldn’t allow artists to express the wrong views and go to great lengths to get their way. Could something like that happened here?

Well, I’ve made enquiries and I’ve drawn a blank. Even people who I’d expect to be the first to know what was going on are in dark over this. Given the mob tactics shamelessly employed against The City, it does seem unlikely that someone would get Myra censored without making a massive song and dance over it, but none of the other explanations I can think of make complete sense either. All I can say is that I really hope it had nothing to do with censorship – it will be a disaster for everyone if this practice becomes normal behaviour at open arts festivals.

[UPDATE: Turns out it wasn’t censorship – see entry on 28th May, 10.45 p.m.]

Wednesday 18th May: Won’t be much to report on Brighton until I hear how Half Life of Love and Sellotape Sisters are doing, so time for another break to look at another row that’s been going on today. According this news piece, The Royal National Theatre is ceasing to offer “plus one” tickets to its plays for reviewers. This needs treating with caution because 1) it’s a sketch piece, and 2) it’s the Daily Mail, neither of which are noted for balanced or accurate journalism. It’s suggested this is in response to poor reviews from critics, but I’m keeping an open mind on that until and if I see evidence to back this up. However, as no-one has denied plus ones are being withdrawn, we can assume that bit at least is true. Personally, I’m unconvinced by the entire concept of press nights that seems standard in London, but on this particular development, whatever the motive, I think it’s bad idea, at least for the National.

Now, I’m not too bothered about plus ones on press tickets myself, for two reasons: firstly, I’m lucky if I get a press ticket at all; and secondly, when I do get a plus one (about half the time I get a press ticket), I normally can’t use it because I’m a sad bastard with no mates. Nevertheless, I can see valid arguments why critics would value this. Firstly, being a theatre critics is a job that works unsocial hours, and if you’re giving up your evenings and weekends, it’s not unreasonable to want to do it with someone you’d normally spend your evening or weekends with. Secondly, it’s good to have someone with you to sound out for opinions. Unsure about how they staged it, want to know if everyone’s thinking that or just you? Why not ask someone you know.

For the part of theatres, let’s not pretend they’re issuing press tickets for the good of the arts. They’re doing it out of self-interest, and if they’re encouraging critics to come to their shows, it’s a calculated gamble that it’s better to risk a bad review than have no reviews at all. Plus ones are a perk to encourage critics to come. Of course, every complimentary ticket potentially comes at the expense of a ticket sale, but it’s not much of a big deal if you’re got 20,000 or so seats to sell for a month-long run, whilst a small fringe run with 200 seats to sell might have a bigger problem. Ultimately, it’s a calculated move by the performers and venues and it’s up to them do decide what’s best for them.

But if we judge the National Theatre’s decision on those terms, it’s a terrible idea. For a start, they’re making themselves uncompetitive with all the West End theatres wanting publicity through reviews. It would be fine if the West End was doing the same and the National was going with the flow, but they’re not, the National is doing it unilaterally. And that comes on to the second problem. Rufus Norris does seem to have a problem with some critics who don’t like the way he’s taken the National. I’ve no idea whether that criticism is justified, whether it’s coming from a vocal minority or a wide consensus, or whether the National really is petty enough to penalise critics by removing a perk, but if I was a critic I’d probably assume the worst. Honestly, if you’ve got a problem with critics, I’d say don’t do press nights at all. Inviting them but squandering the good will you’ve got from press is frankly the worst of both worlds. At the very least, the National needs a very good explanation for what they’ve done very quickly.

Okay, rant over, but don’t go away. I’ve got another comment piece about reviewing coming that ought to be out later today. Hopefully back to Brighton Fringe updates tomorrow.

Thursday 19th May: Plusonegate rumbles on. The detail that emerged late last night is that the National intends to use the space freed up from these plus ones to invite more theatre bloggers along, to the rapturous applause of theatre bloggers who are getting their recognition. I’m not amongst them. I smell a rat. I will be responding to this shortly.

Before then, however, I’ve written a comment piece on a different matter: there’s no such thing as an objective review. It’s there for any of you who want to read it. The short version is that whilst it’s good for reviews to have professionalism, be informed, and be free from personal biases, there’s no getting round the fact that whether it’s worth going it down to whether you’ll enjoy it, and that’s entirely a matter of personal opinion. And you only have to see the huge variation in reviews, let alone audience reaction, to see how flawed it is to believe that there’s a proper objective analysis that will lead you to a definitive verdict. What we should do instead is recognise that different reviewers have different opinions (as we are about to see below), and look for consensus between reviewers.

But that’s enough of that. We are supposed to be covering the Brighton Fringe here. So time for an update on how my fringe picks are doing. Surprisingly, they’ve not been getting much attention in a the usual sources so I’ve had to search the internet a bit further. The Half-Life of Love got a 5* from Arts Award Voice and 3* from A Younger Theatre (the difference of opinion seeming to be down to what you make of the pace). This ends tomorrow if you want to catch it. Hysterical have added a 4* from the Brighton Argus to their earlier unremarkable one from Broadway Baby – have to say, I’m surprised this didn’t get more reviews given how well this did at Vault, but add that to the pile of unsolved puzzles.

[UPDATE: FringeGuru at least puts the lack of review for Hysterical down to the short run and difficult time slot rather than lack of interest – another incentive for companies to do longer runs?]

By the way, if you’re wondering about how Dancing in the Dark is doing, I have a rule that I don’t read reviews of shows I’ve already decided to see to minimise their influence on my own review. Everything I’ve been monitoring so far will have gone by the time I’ve arrived, but Dancing in the Dark is on at every weekend. Still not sure when I’ll be able to see this – I’ve got two very busy weekends coming up, but I intend to catch it somehow. If you want to hear about the reviews written so far, find them yourself you lazy bastard.

And I’ve just realised my train to Brighton isn’t at 7.12 a.m. on Saturday as I’d incorrectly remembered. It’s 6.12 a.m. Bollocks.

Friday 20th May: And here we go. It’s time to pack. I will be in Brighton tomorrow morning, assuming I manage to get the train tomorrow. 6.12 a.m. Bollocks. After that, expect Brighton Fringe coverage to start in earnest.

But you didn’t think I’d forgotten about that dodgy business at the National Theatre, did you? Nope. Apart from packing, today I’ve written “Rufus Norris, count me out” to illustrate my cynicism over the idea that it’s all about that oh-so-nice people given reviewing opportunities to theatre bloggers. No flame war over this yet, but I can never tell which inoffensive issue causes massive outrage, so let’s wait and see.

Unfortunately, this article meant I’ve had to postpone some review of three plays from Alphabetti Theatre which I intended to do today. Sorry. Hope to squeeze it in tomorrow before things get too busy in Brighton.

Finally, one bit of news from over the border. I’ve discovered that Momentum Venues, last year’s attempt to restart St. Peter’s Church as an Edinburgh Fringe venue, has given up on a season for 2016, and not for want of trying. I saw one play there last year, which I was disappointed with, but this is nonetheless some sad new. Seems to me that if you want to run a venue of that size that far from centre of the fringe, you need a niche. Northern Stage could do that because it had a good reputation as a curated festival within an open festival. Momentum venues … well, I wasn’t sure what this venue offered that others didn’t.

I hope they work something out for 2017 as it would be a shame to lose this venue. As I see it, they have two choices: either make themselves into a specialised venue, probably splitting they biggest space into smaller ones; or going for gold and going all-out as large venue for big acts without the expense of central Edinburgh. I don’t know what’s which – all I know is that they have to do something.

See you tomorrow then, Brighton.

Saturday 21st May, 6.30 a.m.: And I’m off. I am on the train to London, and yes, you did read the time correctly. Six thirty. Six fucking thirty in the morning. And I was up at five so I’d have time to get to the station with my suitcase, which contains the entire set for my play. And to think on a weekday, this train would cost about £200 extra to travel on. Jesus Christ, people pay £200 extra to travel this early in the morning? I’d pay £200 to not have to travel this early in the morning. (Footnote: that is a slight exaggeration. I booked this early train to save money.)

Still, I must admit that there is a sense of satisfacti0n once you’re up.  Any wuss could have stayed up till 3 a.m. in The Warren last night drinking, but it takes a real man to get up at 5 a.m.

Is that Darlington coming? Right, one stop down, four to go.

Saturday 21st May, 9.00 a.m.: Just before we reach London and I go into wi-fi No Man’s Land, I’ve caught up with the three reviews of the fringe theatre plays at Alphabetti Theatre from earlier in the month. I recommended Frank Sumatra and The Frights earlier in the month, but here at last are the reviews of these two and a third play.

Right, where is this train now? Cross the M25, looks like it. Okay, let’s get ready to navigate the Victoria Line with a massive suitcase and a chair. This should be interesting.

Saturday 21st May, 12.30 p.m.: And here I am. Navigating the Victoria line proved to be quite easy in the end. The Brighton train was a bit weirder. Everybody on the train seemed to know each other. Is that normal?

Currently unpacking my things, will be along to Brighton Fringe proper imminently. You won’t get any more reviews from me today because the two shows I’m booked for are both Sweet Venues shows, which, as I’ve previously mentioned, are embargoed to minimise conflicts of interested with people performing in the same venue as me. (Also a reminder that I will not be covering my own show in this blog – you can find info here if you’re looking for that.)

I’ll first be seeing Confessions of a Redhead Coffee Shop Girl, which I’ve heard a lot of good things about since its Edinburgh Fringe run last year. Normally I’d open the review by saying this isn’t a spin-off of the film about a window cleaner who didn’t do much window cleaning played by Robin Asquith, but I’ve discovered performer Rebecca Parry has already beaten me to that joke and is calling her follow-up in Edinburgh Adventures of a Redhead Coffee Shop Girl. It’s meant to be based on the customers she sees, which fills me with a bit of trepidation. Does anyone who’s seen this know if there’s a line that goes “I worked in Costa on Durham station once, there was one guy who kept talking to me, God, he was annoying, wouldn’t stop going on about theatre politics, as if I was interested in that”? Asking for a friend.

Saturday 21st May, 4.30 p.m.: One other bit of news that emerged today: The Reviews Hub is reporting that overall fringe sales are going well. Prior to the fringe, the news was that pre-fringe sales were up 40%, and tickets are still going well. Unlike this last time, we don’t have exact figures, but fringe director Julian Caddy says that they are have “record ticket sales” so far and expect to “far surpass” figures with final sales. Record ticket sales doesn’t necessarily mean anything because any rise from 1% upwards is record ticket sales, but “far surpass” is a bit more of an indication.

When the final numbers come in, the magic figure is 20%. That is the same increase as the number of acts. If the ticket sales are rising faster than the number of acts taking part, that roughly works out as more income per act, making the Brighton Fringe a more attractive proposition for future years. But if the current increase is anywhere near the 40% suggested by pre-sales, that surpasses this easily.

Are we setting up a runaway increase for 2017 and beyond? All eyes now on the final sales figures coming in just over two weeks.

Sunday 22nd May, 9.00 a.m.: Whilst I’m waiting for my first reviewable play, I’m going to take a minor liberty of the Sweet Venues embargo. Since I don’t normally cover music, I think I can safely say now how good Mike Dr. Blue is. I caught him doing a mini-set at Sweet Release one night and, wow. This is one of the times where you can tell straight away that it’s a musician a cut above the rest. This is the sort of act I’d put into one of the good ones on Jools Holland.

So Jools, if you’re reading this, why hasn’t Mike Dr. Blues been on your show yet? In fact, I’ve got a better idea. How about Mike Dr. Blues and Seasick Steve have a blues-off? I’d totally pay front row prices for that.

Sunday 22nd May, 11.00 a.m.: I’m seeing my first non-Sweet shows today, so hopefully I’ll have my first review out shortly after.

Before I turn my thoughts away from Sweet Venues though, there’s my thoughts on Sweet as a venue itself. Yes, the most important question is whether the plays are any good, but it does matter whether it feels like a fringe venue. This is something where I feel The Space falls down badly in Edinburgh. Like Sweet Waterfront in Brighton and Sweet Grassmarket in Edinburgh, The Space heavily relies on hotel suites, but the problem with The Space is that they make no attempt to make it feel like part of the festival. With the honourable exception of Surgeon’s Hall, you turn up and wait in a soulless hotel lobby if you’re lucky – if you’re not, you stand around waiting outside.


This is the thing Sweet does better. In Grassmarket, they identified a part of the hotel they could use as a box office area, and they’ve now done the same for Waterfront. Whether by accident or by design, they’ve used a balcony over the lobby as their front of house, and that does the job. And, by a lucky coincidence, Jury’s Inn provide entertainment in the main lobby on a Saturday evening which you watch from upstairs.

Still not sure how Sweet is faring financially in Brighton, but they can be happy with the media coverage. If they were hoping to rank alongside The Warren and Republic as the fringe’s most prominent venues, it looks like they’re succeeding.

Monday 23rd May, 11.oo p.m.: Whilst Sweet Venues might be on the rise, The Warren has not been idle in the face of the new competitor. Four performance spaces (five if you include the children’s area) are now consolidated into one super-site, and they’ve also got numerous local traders on site. There can be little doubt over which venue is winning as the hub for people to hang out.

This brings me on to the review of my first show, The Sellotape Sisters. This was something that grabbed my attention on the strength of the writer, Lee Mattinson, who’s had a string of hits in the north-east. I know I’ve been cynical before by the way I suspect some artists are supported out of duty by local arts media ken to support local venues, but in this case, the praise is fully warranted. This time, however, it wasn’t his work entirely – rather it was a concept started by Signal Theatre Company, and shaped into a play by him.

The play is advertised as having parallels to The Killing of Sister George, but this play in fact does what Sister George might have done but didn’t. The famous play was groundbreaking for having a lesbian couple in it, but it was neither sensationalised nor fetishised (at least not in the original) – they were just an ordinary couple, and the secrecy of their relationship was only incidental to the plot. Not so in this play. Here, it’s the 271st and final episode of The Sellotape Sisters, where it’s an open secret amongst cast and crew that the two leading ladies are lesbian lovers, and as a joke, someone’s decided to put a final twist into the play revealing their characters as the same. No big deal now, but this is the 1960s and if the public put two and two together it could finish their careers. One woman is desperate to keep their shameful secret buried; the other decide it’s time let the world know and stop being so ashamed.

Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Sellotape Sisters is such a dreadful soap it’s a wonder this made it to episode 2, let alone 271. There are few liberties taken here as cock-ups this incompetent (such as taking a letter before the line “give it here”) would only really apply to a stage play, but that’s forgivable. What matters is by the time the climax to the episode comes, everyone is so off-script, anything could happen in the battle to reveal or bury a secret that shouldn’t matter a damn.

It’s an enjoyable play, but I do feel there’s still work to be done if it’s to reach the standards of Donna Disco. It’s a complicated thing to juggle the farcial performance of the world’s worst soap and the serious story behind it, and I felt I didn’t follow all the things I was supposed to. In particular, in the final scene where the three characters have interwoven monologues, it got a little too interwoven and I’m sure I lost track of some important developments after the fateful episode. Still, it’s a funny show with a serious message that doesn’t moralise, and even its current form it’s worth a visit, so do keep an eye out for future performances.

There was one other issue with Sellotape Sisters that wasn’t really the fault of either performers or writer. Noise bleed is a real nuisance in The Warren – I’ve been in all three of the studios and all of them are disturbed by the crowds outside, music from adjoining spaces or traffic on the A23 outside. Lee Mattinson is good at putting touches into his writing that have important effects on the play, but I can’t help thinking I missed something important because a lorry was driving past.

This is why I’m wondering if The Warren have made a mistake putting everything on the same site. Lots of acts don’t have to worry about noise bleed, but for those where quiet is important, there used to be the option of the two spaces in The Basement. What’s done is done, but if The Warren expands any further (which it probably will if the current trends continue), I think they should look at taking on somewhere quieter, so that acts that depend on quiet have somewhere suitable to go.

[UPDATE: I’ve been informed that apparently Otherplace lost The Basement rather than choose to give it up. In that case, can’t blame them for losing a venue they had no choice over. Still need to look at noise bleed though.]

Tuesday 24th May, 8.30 p.m.: When I gave a reminder the other day that reviews from shows at Sweet Venues are embargoed, I neglected to mention that an exception can be made if I see something exceptional. Today, after having gone to see a show for the second time this time bringing my mum, and hearing the praise from her afterwards on how good it was, I think I’m going to do this for Trick of the Light’s The Bookbinder. This was ultimately a storytelling play, but it was an exceptional piece of storytelling.

the-bookbinder-lst172153Set on the premise of a bookbinder explaining to a prospective apprentice that the bookbinding business is not for the faint-hearted (but what can be so traumatic about bookbinding, I hear you ask? Wait and see), he tells the story of a bookbinder’s apprentice from years ago, from his humble beginnings leaving his father’s home, answering an advert in a shop window and being introduced into the world by an eccentric master. It’s a good solo performance up to this point, but the play has only barely started. The story only really begins when an old woman comes with a particularly precious book that needs restoring. A foolish boast by the apprentice leads to an easy mistake, and he tries to cover his easy mistake by burning a single page of the book that he failed to include. But this is no ordinary book, there is a whole world inside the book, and by destroying part of the world, the hapless apprentice finds himself sucked into the world until he can restore the gap in the world.

Everything about the performance is stunningly crafted. The storytelling alone is script-writing at its finest, but the real gem in the play is the set. What started off looking like a book-binder’s table and lamp becomes a set for the story, employing puppetry, silhouettes, and lighting at its finest and most innovative; the centrepiece, however, is the largest book that forms some beautiful scenes. Much of this is products of the imagination of performer Ralph McCubbin Hopwell and director Hannah Smith, but credit must also go to Tanc Upjohn Beatson for the superb atmospheric music throughout the play.

Honestly, I cannot do justice to this play simply writing about about the good points – you must see it for yourself to see how good this is. This play runs at the Dukebox Theatre at 3.00 p.m. until Saturday (yes, that’s Saturday, and not the Sunday that’s the usual last day for Sweet runs), and it is worth catching. Bear in mind that word is already out about this and the Saturday will almost certainly sell out, so I’d urge you to be quick.

And sorry about the lack of updates at the moment – I’ve been showing my mum round Brighton. Normal service should be resumed tomorrow.

Wednesday 25th May, 11.00 a.m.: That’s me caught up on non-embargoed reviews for now, so let’s use this lull to take a look at how they fared with the other reviewers.

For The Sellotape Sisters, I’ve seen two reviews on my radar, one 3* and one 4*. There seems to be a reasonable consistency in the verdicts: everyone agrees the awful soap was hilarious – the interwoven monologue at the end was seen as weaker. This show is still under development and taking reviews on board, so hopefully something will be done about this. Clearly the biggest challenge here is achieving the right balance of comedy and drama; never easy when the comedy is this far up the farcical scale. I just hope they don’t address this by doing away with the serious bits altogether. That would do a massive disservice.

Nothing on the radar so for The Bookbinder, but it’s still early in the run for this to come through. And it’s not as if they need it – they were recommended by all and sundry prior to their arrival, and they’re getting almost full houses on Monday and Tuesday afternoons without any reviews.

Okay then, better see some new stuff. It’s Wednesday, more stuff starts to come on offer. Ooh, decisions, decisions.

Wednesday 25th May, 3.45 p.m.: One play I saw that won’t be reviewed on this blog is Groomed. This isn’t simply because it’s another Sweet Venues play and subject to an embargo, but because I am working too closely with Mankind to be able to review this impartially and therefore it would not be appropriate for me to review this at all. Some of you will know why – for the rest of you, I’ll explain in the roundup. The thing I think I can safely do, without fear on compromising my integrity, is refer you to the other reviews.

What I do want to do, however, is put in a word for what Mankind wanted to achieve with this play. I apologise for digressing from an arts blog remit for a moment, but they are very keen to get people to sign The Mankind Pledge. This simply asks people to recognise that victims of sexual abuse are not always women, and perpetrators of sexual abuse are not always men, which should go without saying, but sadly there is still too strong an attitude out there that sexual abuse against men doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. The more people who sign the pledge, the stronger a message there will be that there are people who will take victims seriously, regardless of who you are. I signed it today, so should you.

End of digression. Theatre coverage will resume shortly.

Wednesday 25th May, 8.30 p.m.: Before I resume reviewing Brighton Fringe shows, I’m going to quickly turn attention to today’s launch of Live Theatre’s new programme. One thing I’m absolutely thrilled to see in the programme is The 56, which many of you who’ve been to either of the last two Edinburgh Fringes will recognise as an excellent piece of verbatim theatre about the Bradford City Stadium fire. To date, this remains the best play I’ve seen on a press ticket, and it’s great not only that they got the success they deserve but also that Live Theatre have taken on another act that’s got to where it has by just doing something off its own back. This is showing on the 6th-7th September. If you’re not in reach of Newcastle, I’d keep your eyes peeled because there will surely be performances elsewhere.

Also of note is The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes. This was presented as a short play at Live Lab’s Christmas show, and I loved it, and this presumably helped her scoop the position of Live Lab Associate Artists. I was wondering what her project would be, and now we know it’s an extended version of the play. The $64,000 question: can this 25-minute play work as a 1 hour 10 minute play? We will find out in December.

Back to business. Next update will be a Brighton review.

Thursday 26th May, 10.45 a.m.: Time for another review now, this one Gran Consilgio showing at the Rialto Theatre. This solo show came to my attention thanks to some masterful trolling of the performer at Fringe City. Dressed as Il Duce himself, he either gave you flyers if you looked like a fringe punter; or, if you looked more like a foreign tourist, he flipped over his sign so that you could have a selfie taken with your favourite dictator.

It’s 1943 and Mussolini is about to be deposed. With Italy late to enter the war when Germany was winning, unable to conquer anything without German help, and first to get their ass whupped when they were losing, Mussolini is going to down as the laughing stock of the Second World War. But it’s only fair that Mussolini has his say. Performed by Tom Corrandini, we sometimes see Mussolini playing the deluded fool enraged by treachery, but also the hypocritical treatment of him by both his foreign enemies and foreign friends. In this play, Mussolini got one thing right: he had misgivings about the invasion of the Soviet Union – but, of course, he was powerless to go against the word of the Führer.

We also hear a bit about his life – but the problem with this play is that it chops and changes through the timeline so much we never get to settle on anything. If it was up to me, I’d have done this story in chronological order, so we can get to know Benito one stage at time, from his humble beginnings, to his rise in the Socialist party and his rejection of it, to the glory days where he was adored by everyone (or else); to the disappointments and betrayals in the war. Something, I fear, was lost in this current format.

But it’s still worth a visit for the performance and some interesting little-known nuggets of knowledge of the Hitler put-upon sidekick. This runs until Monday 30th at the Rialto Theatre to 6.00 p.m.

Thursday 26th May, 4.3o p.m.: Realised a while ago I hadn’t eaten any food other than a bowl of cereal for 26 hours. Don’t you just love fringe stress? Never mind, meal replenished, and I’ve even managed to have my statutory ice cream on the beach in suitably pleasant weather. And I’ve retrieved my favourite towel from the hostel I left it in.

As we approach the weekend, this time shows from my pre-fringe list of recommendations come thick and fast. Starting today is the wonderfully bizzare Boogaloo Stu with Crimplene Millionaire. I wish I had time to see this, because the only thing I know about it is that the web page features a rotating head of Orville the Duck. Spiegeltent Saturday running until 9.30 p.m.

Then starting tomorrow are two widely-praised theatre productions. First of the heavyweights is The Tale of Tommy O’Quire, which I’d particularly recommend to anyone who liked The Bookbinder. This is another storytelling piece, except there’s no hero, only an anti-hero whose transgression costs him dear. It was done as a straight stage play last time, but this time it’s a site-specific piece at the Booth Museum of Natural History, at various times. Or you can see 1972: The Future of Sex at The Old Market, a finely-crafted play about the not-such-a-sexual-revolution-as-everyone-thinks revolution. Both run two days only and early booking is advised: one because site-specific pieces have limited capacity, and the other because it did so well in Edinburgh early booking is advised.

Also starting tomorrow is Beasts: Mr Brighton 2016, which should be very funny but also highly traumatic if their last two shows are anything to go by. On at The Warren until Sunday at 8.30 – watch entirely at your own risk.

And of course, Wired Theatre will be returning for their fourth weekend of Dancing in the Dark (this time including Monday as it’s a public holiday). I didn’t see this last weekend but I hope to catch it this weekend. Again, site-specific, so early booking advised.

Annoyingly, I’m going to miss most of these due to clashes. Never mind, such is life.

Friday 27th May, 1.00 p.m.: I forgot to include Morgan and West. Their magic show as Victorian time-travelling magicians is on at 3.30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Republic. And I got the venue of 1972: The Future of Sex wrong. It’s The Old Market, not The Old Courtroom (now corrected). Thank you Brighton Fringe for making your venue names so easy to remember.

IMG_4682One thing I’ve not talked about much is the Brighton Festival. I tend to not pay much attention as I like festivals to be open to anyone to take part, although I will take a look at anything I’ve heard of and liked. However, one thing which is proving very popular with festival-goers and fringer-goers alike is Dr. Blighty. This is a commemoration of the Indian servicemen in the first world war when the Brighton Pavillion was used as a makeshift hospital. There’s various things going on, but the big thing that’s got everyone talking is the light projection on the Royal Pavillion. This is nothing new to those of us from Durham, but it’s good to know the rest of you are catching up. If you want to see this, you need to view it from the far side of the Pavillion (of the main road) rather than from the Pavillion Gardens. But it’s worth a detour in the evening to see it.

Friday 27th May, 11.30 p.m.: Tonight is the very first Brighton Fringe All-Nighter, yet another sign of the Brighton Fringe’s ambitions this year, and its efforts to make itself known to everyone in Brighton it’s on. There are two things of note to this: firstly the first ever evening Fringe City, and a lot of events going into the morning, including an all-night Imaginary Porno Charades where I’m about to make a complete tit of myself.

However, there’s been an embarrassing start to this. Dr. Blighty, which I was talking about earlier, has had massive crowd problems tonight – something that veterans of Lumiere 2011 will sigh over. People always seem to underestimate crowds at light projection shows, and no-one ever seems to learn lessons from this. That’s not directly the Fringe’s fault, but with the busy Fringe City not far away it’s difficult to separate whose crowd was whose.

Whilst I’m waiting for my possible complete humiliation to begin, I saw 1972: The Future of Sex a second time. I saw this and reviewed it at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and it’s as good I remembered it, with a funny yet astute commentary of the world in that year, although I still don’t get the swimming costume bit.

When you watch something the second time round, it’s always interesting to see if there’s anything new you pick up, and this time the thing I picked up was a comment, intended or accidental, on the unrealistic expectations of sex created by porn and erotica. Whether it’s D. H. Lawrence written in 1925, Deep Throat in 1972, or internet porn in 2016, they all do damage to three different relationships – and in one case, maybe all three, possibly inflict the fatal blow.

Almost full house as the Old Market, one of the largest venues, so The Wardrobe Ensemble will be very happy with this.

Okay, time for this porno charades thing. I will shortly discover if this really is the biggest mistake of my life.

Friday 27th May, 11.30 p.m.: Tonight is the very first Brighton Fringe All-Nighter, yet another sign of the Brighton Fringe’s ambitions this year, and its efforts to make itself known to everyone in Brighton it’s on. There are two things of note to this: firstly the first ever evening Fringe City, and a lot of events going into the morning, including an all-night Imaginary Porno Charades where I’m about to make a complete tit of myself.

However, there’s been am embarrassing start to this. Dr. Blighty, which I was talking about earlier, has had massive crowd problems tonight – something that veterans of Lumiere 2011 will sigh over. People always seem to underestimate crowds at light projection shows, and no-one ever seems to learn lessons from this. That’s not directly the Fringe’s fault, but with the busy Fringe City not far away it’s difficult to seperate whose crowd was whose.

Whilst I’m waiting for my possible complete humiliation to begin, I saw 1972: The Future of Sex a second time. I saw this and reviewed it at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and it’s as good I remembered it, with a funny yet astute commentary of the world in that year, although I still don’t get the swimming costume bit.

When you watch something the second time round, it’s always interesting to see if there’s anything new you pick up, and this time the thing I picked up was a comment, intended or accidental, on the unrealistic expectations of sex created by porn and erotica. Whether it’s D. H. Lawrence written in 1925, Deep Throat in 1972, or internet porn in 2016, they all do damage to three different relationships – and in one case, maybe all three, possibly inflict the fatal blow.

Almost full house as the Old Market, one of the largest venues, so The Wardrobe Ensemble will be very happy with this.

Okay, time for this porno charades thing. I will shortly discover if this really is the biggest mistake of my life.

Saturday 28th May, 10.30 a.m.: Ladies and Gentlemen, I have an exclusive for you. Well, not the most exciting of exclusives, but a bit of information you heard first here. Last night I got to chat to Fringe Director and fellow Imaginary Porno Charades guest Julian Caddy (yes, Julian Caddy is also willing to make a complete tit of himself). You may remember earlier I talked about Julian Caddy’s report on how much ticket sales were up, and I said the big question was how much: in particular, whether this rise is above or below the 20% needed to sustain the 20% rise in fringe events.

Well, I took the opportunity to clarify the details with him. He explained that he does know the figures but chose not to report them to the Reviews Hub because the figures are still in a big state of flux and are still changing substantially from day to day. He did give me the current figure – I am opting not to report this at the moment because I don’t want people ignoring all the caveats and taking it as a firm figure. However, it is now looking highly likely that when we have a final figure, this all-important 20% threshold will be passed by a convincing margin, although it’s unlikely it will match the 40% increase in fringe pre-sales.

Regarding Imaginary Porno Charades myself, I deny everything.

Saturday 28th May, 1.00 p.m.: Another break from Brighton now, and back to Durham, because this weekend there is the grand opening of the newly-redeveloped Wharton Park. This is a park next to Durham station the far side of the city centre, and up to now it’s been an obscure park with even many Durham locals not realising it’s there. That may be about to change – I certainly can’t believe Durham County Council would spend 18 months redeveloping the park with the intention of it returning to obscurity. There’s a lot of stuff planned for the opening weekend and I can only guess this is the first of many things.

From an arts perspective, it’s worth keeping an eye on this – there have always been bits of the park that would make decent pop-up performing arts spaces, but the obscure nature of the park made this a non-starter. If the Council is serious about Wharton Park, we could see efforts made in that direction. And I think we can safely guess that Wharton Park will feature heavily in the next Lumiere.

I also gather Durham’s having better weather than Brighton, where we’re having a big thunderstorm. They’re saying the energy is electric at the Brighton Fringe today, but I think they may mean that literally.

Saturday 28th May, 10.45 p.m.: Got a couple of new plays in the review queue, but they can wait until tomorrow. Both are either sold out or nearly sold out so my verdict won’t make much difference.

Before then, I have another scoop. Big mystery earlier this fringe when Myra was cancelled at very short notice. No-one seemed to know why. Even people I knew in plays at the Rialto didn’t know. So was it censorship?

Well, today I’ve been chatting to Lauren Varnfield, the would-be-Myra (and also Marilyn Monroe in last year’s Reno). Turns out it was entirely her decision to can it – she decided it wasn’t ready for performance (to her satisfaction) and has opted to postpone it to later in the year. Some people might say that you should press on anyway if you’re in the programme, but that’s a debate someone else can start if they want.

Crucially, this eliminates the worrying possibility that someone was leaning on someone to get it pulled because it was offensive. So no repeat of Incubator Theatre in 2014, thank goodness. Artistic freedom lives to fight another day.

Sunday 29th May, 1.45 p.m.: So, catching up with the next review, it’s Morgan and West’s Utterly Spiffing Magic Show for Kids (and childish grown-ups). Having never got round to this at Edinburgh last year, I’d thought I’d give it a go this time round, at Republic, which I’ve discovered is another tent like the Spiegeltent. They could easily have called it “Spiegeltent 2” – I’m not sure exactly what quality makes a tent so spiegel, but this seems to have it.

This is my third Morgan and West show I’ve seen, and for those of you who are unfamiliar with a concept of Victorian time-travelling magicians, trust me, see this and you’ll wonder why more magicians aren’t Victorian time travellers, and why more Victorians aren’t time-travelling magicians and why more time-travellers aren’t etc. etc. As well as their distinctive character and mannerisms, they are such good magicians they can explain how a magic trick would whilst catching you out with the very thing they’re explaining. I’m still watching this with an eagle eye trying to see how they do it … I think I managed to sort-of spot one this time. This is a challenge for the long haul.

Their shows have always been family-friendly, but this one is advertised as specifically aimed at children. For what it’s worth, there are only two minor differences to the format of their other shows. Firstly, all the audience participants up on stage were children, all desperate to be picked. Secondly, the theme of the show is that Rhys Morgan loves children and Robert West hates children, although I understood all stories of this format are required by law to end with the child-hater discovering he loves children after all. Maybe missed a trick there.

Anyway, I was expecting this to be a hit, and it was, and I’m currently checking how close it’s coming to Newcastle because I’d love to take my nephew and niece to this.

I’ll catch up with the other one later today, but firstly I have some business regarding a review outside of the scope of this blog on Broadway Baby. Just saying.

Monday 30th May, 1.30 p.m.: This is my last day today, and my attempt to see my last show has been nicely scuppered by the performer injuring his foot and the venue being irresponsibly responsible and insisting he go and see a doctor before attempting a performance. But this is not the end of my coverage because I’ve accumulated a few shows that need reviews.

Before that, however, the next show on my recommended lists starts this week. It’s Something Rotten, and I’ve already reviewed it in this coverage, having caught it in Richmond just before the start of the fringe. Click on the handy link at the top of the page to read the full review. Short version, this is the story of Hamlet told from the point of view of his evil megalomaniac Uncle Claudius. If you’re concerned you don’t know Hamlet well and won’t follow it, don’t worry: Robert Cohen makes this easy to follow and I’m confident you’ll get it even if you know nothing about Shakespeare. If you do, there are bonus jokes.

One touch I really liked about this play is understanding how Claudius ended up like he did. He may be irredeemably evil by the end, but using both Shakespeare’s play and his own imagination, Robert Cohen creates a backstory for the mistreatment and humiliation that drove him to regicide. It’s on at 7.50 p.m. every day at Sweet Waterfront running until Sunday. It was worth my journey from Durham to Richmond, so I’m sure it’ll be worth it for you.

Monday 30th May, 7.00 p.m.: So let’s now carry on catching up on reviews with The Tale of Tommy O’Quire. This was an unexpected hit last year, and this year it’s back, but with a difference. Last year, this beautifully simple piece was performed at The Dukebox. This year, Tom Dussek has been taken on by Brighton Museums to make this into a site-specific piece at Brighton’s natural history museum.

The script itself is unchanged – a story in verse of our hero, Tommy O’Quire, who acquires a treasure map and seeks his fortune, except that he forfeited his status as a hero by the unsavoury means he used to acquire this map. In order to make the transition from The Dukebox to this new setting, one thing that was sacrificed was the set, and with it the background illustrations. This might be a disappointment to some people, as in the original these exquisite illustrations were one of the best bits of the play.

But everything else from the original has been incorporated into this play, including the few props so cleverly used to bring the story to life. And whilst we may have lost the illustrations, we gain the use of assorted props from the natural history museum, such as a skull becoming the scary monster in the forest (actually quite harmless) and skeletons for the ghost miner skeletons (also not nearly as dangerous as they seem). The thing that particularly impressed me was the lighting. Lacking the lighting rig of a conventional theatre, they instead relied on assorted multi-coloured strip lights. These kind of lights are a recent thing, but I’ve been impressed with how effective these can be if used imaginatively (such as the improvised setup that one of my venues for my previews did with the three lights they had available), and this is no exception. Pulling every trick in the book, such as green overhead lights to make a forest and red lights underneath a grille to form a lava river, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tommy O’Quire was written for this building all along.

Some purists may prefer last year’s stage version with the pictures that were so definitive to that production, but honestly, this is good enough to watch twice so it may as well be one of each. If this Brighton Museums version is the only version you’ve seen, do keep an eye out for other performances because it’s worth seeing the original version. But with a commanding presence in this museum, it’s a job Tom Dussek, the audience and the museum who commissioned him can all be very happy with.

Jesus, I am so tired. Think I’ll have to continue these reviews tomorrow. Sorry.

Tuesday 31st May: And now, a fringe highlight for me. Wired Theatre have been a regular fixture for me ever since I stumbled across them by accident in 2010 which searching for another play that didn’t exist. They’ve had their ups and downs, but this year, to my horror, the tickets for the whole weekend sold out in advance. My only option was to turn up to this house unannounced and hope for the best. Luckily for me, somebody failed to turn up so I got to see it, and I’m glad I did. Possibly the reason why Dancing in the Dark sold out is that it is in my opinion the best Wired Theatre production I’ve ever seen.

Set in a real house on the outskirts of Brighton, a woman cheerfully introduces us to her open house art exhibition before we are rudely interrupted by the arrival of her mother-in-law, in spite of the efforts of her three children to keep her at bay. She has come all the way from France because the neighbours have been spying women at the family’s flat in Pimlico, and openly suggests that one of her son’s has been up to his old tricks. But before we can find out about these old tricks, it’s time for blind man’s buff. Yes, this is one of Wired’s many time-shift plays, and we are back to their childhood.

If there’s one criticism I’ve had of Wired’s productions, it’s that they sometimes get carried away with jumping through time and leave their audience lost, but in recent years I think they’ve got a lot more disciplined. The time transitions are handled carefully and information is carefully planted so that there’s never confusion over where we are (or rather when we are) now. Also gradually revealed is the distant nature of the family. At the funeral of the father, the lack of knowledge of the suits owned by one of the sons suggests that they are not in contact much. We find that the mother only really loved her husband – with none of her children being like their father, she just can’t relate to them. Slowly we learn of the lifestyle choices that drove the family apart, until the penny drops for the biggest lifestyle choice of all, the one that relates to the woman seen at the Pimlico flat – and this is the one that really put the love of wife, brother, sister and mother to the test.

The only tiny fault I can find is that I couldn’t work out what relationship the daughter-in-law had to the family before she married into it. I first thought daughter from previous marriage, then adoptive daughter, but I eventually settled on family friend. But that is the only loose thread in an otherwise ingeniously-woven plot. I would highly recommend this, but I think I’m too late because it looks like the remaining weekend has sold out already. Perhaps it’ll have to come back next year.

Still knackered, by the way. Last review tomorrow.

Wednesday 1st June: And we’re into June. If you’re following this blog waiting for the latest Odds and Sods monthly update, you won’t find one, because I’ve been reporting things that have been happening during May over here. But if you absolutely must have a summary of stuff that have been happening this month, here are the headlines. Things that happened include this:

  • There was a minor row earlier this month when theatre producer Danielle Tarento implied that theatre bloggers aren’t proper critics because that don’t have the necessary intellectual background. Cue uproar from theatre bloggers. (Reported 11th May.)
  • Boris: World King completed its run at Trafalgar Studios and is now planning a return to Edinburgh fringe – first time Three’s Company have done an Edinburgh encore. (Reported 13th May.)
  • Network of Independent Critics completed its crowdfunding campaign with a worthwhile contribution to the costs of theatre bloggers coming to Edinburgh, although it was a bit of a disappointment compared to how some more politically partisan crowdfunding campaigns fare. Worth keeping an eye on this to see how it develops. (Reported 14th May.)
  • The National Theatre controversially decided to axe plus ones to traditional reviewers from paper publications and followed it up by saying they’d instead issue more tickets to online media. Cue cheers of approval from some bloggers – I, however, am deeply suspicious and wonder it it’s motivated by trying to introduce self-censorship into other people’s reviews. (Reported 18th-19th May.)
  • Live Theatre launched its programme for its next season. Grabbing my interest are The 56, an excellent piece of verbatim theatre about the Bradford City Stadium fire, and The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes from associate artist Nina Berry, whose 20-minute version last Christmas impressed me. (Reported 25th May.)
  • In Durham, the newly-rebuilt Wharton Park opened last weekend. Worth keeping an eye out as this could become a prominent location for outdoor performances across the performing arts. (Reported 28th May.)

I won’t go over every single thing I reported about the Brighton Fringe, but there were four big things of significance to the whole festival:

  • Brighton Fringe had its first firework display opening: big statement of intent that the fringe wants to be seen as a dominant festival in the city. (Reported 6th May.)
  • Fat Boy Slim made his surprise guest appearance at a toddlers’ disco. (Reported 16th May.)
  • There was a very popular attraction from the Brighton Festival, Dr. Blighty, whose headline installation was a light projection on Brighton Pavillion – sadly let down by a lack of crowd control. (Reported 27th-28th May.)
  • Ticket sales seems to haver been up significantly, at it appears the final figure will be well over the 20% needed to sustain the 20% increase in performances. (Reported 28th May.)

And that’s your Odds and Sods substitute. Final review coming tomorrow.

Thursday 2nd June: Completing my catch-up of reviews is the final play I saw at Brighton. (Doktor James’s Academy of Evil, of course, being scuppered by Doktor James hurting his foot. I’m imaging a superlaser falling on to the floor on his foot in a slapstick fashion. Anywhere, where were we before we digressed? Ah yes.) The last play I saw was Fool, from Quids In Theatre Company.

I’ve chosen to include this in my reviews because I really like the premise of this play. A young man is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of an old man he killed whilst driving. He gets a strange visitor in his cell, but rather than any of the traditional prison pursuits such as preparing his defence or beating him up, the visitor is more of a showman insists he picks an item from the table for his next magic trick. After a couple of tricks, our hero makes suggests that a more useful magic trick might be turning back the clock so that none of this happened – but as it happens, that throwaway comment is an option on the table. Unfortunately, there’s a catch involved in turning back the clock; I won’t give away the spoiler, but it’s a moral dilemma where he can’t win either way.

Much as I like the premise, however, I feel this idea isn’t quite ready just yet. In order to meet the requirements of the plot, a lot of the links between the characters, the live music, the magic tricks and the storyline feels somewhat forced. In particular, the reaction of the young man to his magical visitor doesn’t seem to ring true – I would have expected him to say a lot sooner “What the hell is going on?” This is just my personal preference, but I would have set this play in the courtroom rather than a cell – it feels a little odd for a magician to be using volunteers from the audience in a prison cell, but a lot more natural for anyone to perform in front of an audience in court.

But I do hope they stick with this idea and develop it, because there’s a gripping play here if they can get it right. If they can keep the reactions of accused plausible, slowly allowing the plot to fall into place without the dialogue or the magic looking contrived, they could do a lot with this. There’s certainly a lot that can be done with the pairing of the accused and the showman with a secret, and if they take on board feedback at this stage I’m sure they be glad they did.

Friday 3rd June: Tomorrow is my final recommendation of the Brighton Fringe: Knightmare Live. This is going to be doing at a run at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, so don’t feel too distressed if you’ve already left Brighton, but if you’re still around, you’ve got two shows on tomorrow at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Apparently there have been some changes since last time, If you’ve no idea what I’m on about, now is the perfect time to discover why everyone would cheer when someone says “You’re in a room”.

With all my reviews out the way, let’s take a quick look at how they’ve fared with other reviewers. I’ve already looked at The Bookerbinder and Sellotape Sisters. The Wardrobe Ensemble, as I expected, stormed the reviews with 1972: The Future of Sex continuing their run from Edinburgh. Less predictable but delightful to hear is that Something Rotten also stormed the reviews, giving Robert Cohen an enviable status of being in two Argus Angel-winning shows in the same year.

Couple of more curious ones. Gran Consiglio got a 3* review from Broadway Baby, but it reads like a 4* to me. It outright contradicts my verdict on the non-linear nature of the story – this reviewer thinks this haphazard approach reflected Mussolini’s erratic nature. Dancing in the Dark is also a divisive one, with reviews ranging from 4* in Broadway Baby to 2* in The Stage. For what it’s worth, whilst I agree that the funeral scene dragged a bit, I didn’t think that was a big deal, and certainly not grounds to mark something down to 2*.

One completely different curious observations with the reviews: The Reviews Hub seem to have stopped functioning in Brighton. In the first two week, reviews came out thick and fast from them along with the rest of the big four (Broadway Baby, FringeReview and FringeGuru). But from the third week onwards, I’ve counted seven reviews. Okay, The Reviews Hub has the Pulse Festival to keep them busy now, but as Brighton Fringe’s official media partner I would have expected a bit more from them. Strange.

Finally, I have a hot favourite for my “How the hell did that get five stars?” award. Usually at each fringe I will see one play that’s clearly worse than anything I see, and this year was no exception. They’re not high-profile enough to warrant a good kicking from me (not someone who invited me to review them, thank God), but Jesus, they were horribly horribly pretentious – and I’ve read a five-star review which makes me think if we saw the same play.

I’ve tried to find a loophole, but it would be completely against my rules to name them. Damn my integrity.

Saturday 4th June: And here we are. The staff at have been hard at work deliberating on the plays seen, but it’s now the end of the fringe so have list is ready. My glamorous assistant is handing over the envelope now. And I can now announce the results …

Pick of the Fringe:

Something Rotten
Confessions of a Redhead Coffeeshop Girl*
The Bookbinder
1972: The Future of Sex
The Tale of Tommy O’Quire
Dancing in the Dark

Honourable Mention:

The Sellotape Sisters
Gran Consilgio
Morgan and West
Gods Have Fallen and All Safety Gone*

The items marked * are new ones. Confessions of a Redhead Coffeeshop Girl was a Sweet Venues play, which is a tightly-directed but nice undemanding tale based on a true story. (Don’t worry, you’re not in the story as one of the customers – everyone who’s in it knows by now.) Hercules is another Sweet Venues piece, this one from the comedy. It’s really just a bit of fun, but you can imagine how Mark Steel would tell the story of a Greek Legend, if he was twice as energetic. Gods Have Fallen and All Safety Gone is a last-minute entry to the list, sneaking in on the precedent that I allowed Something Rotten in the list even though I didn’t actually see it in Brighton; this play also squeezes in because I coincidentally saw it at Alphabetti Theatre last night.

Both lists are written in the order I saw them rather than an order of preference – however, if you press me for a favourite, I think it’ll be a toss-up between The Bookbinder and Dancing in the Dark. I will get all of this written up in my roundup as soon as I get round to it, but I’ve been rather bad at timekeeping last year so don’t hold your breath.

Two things are not on the list because they are not eligible: Groomed and Imaginary Porno Charades – I have too close a connection with either of these productions to be able to review them fairly. I also didn’t include Sweet Release as I don’t usually count variety shows. This leaves four plays that didn’t make it to the list. Two I feel have appeal to niche groups but I’m not in that niche – my preference is that they should try to appeal more widely, but that’s up to them. One was a comedy where the first 20 minutes were all right, then the joke wore thin and it got tedious. And one of them (not something I’d been invited to review, thank God) was absolutely godawful, horribly horribly pretentious, and they thought they were delivering a hard-hitting message that was really utterly predictable. Inexplicably, I’ve found a 5* review which now makes them the hot favourite for my annual secret “How the hell did that get five stars?” award. As per my rules, the identity of the offending play will be kept secret, unless I’m given a large enough bribe.

As always, private feedback is available to everyone I saw, whether or not they were on the list. It takes a far more guts and far more work to put on a Brighton Fringe play than it does for me to watch or review it, and the least I can do I give my suggestions for how to make it better when asked. So congratulations to everyone one the list, and commiserations to those who missed out.

Sunday 5th June: The very last thing to look at is the Brighton Fringe awards. I won’t list the whole lot, as a web page with the full results should be appearing before to long, but the big winner from this, as I suspected it would, is Groomed. This scooped the awards from Broadway Baby, Fringe Review and FringeGuru for their #1 pick.

In fact, Sweet Venues overall can be pleased with this evening, with Sparkleshark and Police Cops also getting awards. On the whole, Sweet Venues seem to have had a good début at the Brighton Fringe, with a lot of acclaimed shows under their belt, the only downer being an unexpected slump in sales in week 3 (although the jury’s out on whether this affected other venues too). The question over who is the premier league venue is Brighton is far from settled, and it looks very much game on between The Warren, Sweet and Republic for next year. All eyes now on their next moves.

[Clarification: Apparently the critics’ awards have different meanings. The Broadway Baby and FringeReview awards are based on reviews from the respective publications, but the FringeGuru Brighton Fringe award is named after FringeGuru but is based on all reviews, not just FringeGuru ones. No, I didn’t understand that either.]

[Another update: Got some more useful sources now. The definitive list of all the different awards and what they actually mean is here. A full list of who actually won what and who got nominated is here.]

But you won’t reading that here because with the end of the fringe comes the end of my coverage. If you stuck with me the whole way, well done, and thanks also to everyone who dipped in and out. It’s now back to coverage of north-east theatre, and you can find my recommendations for the summer in this post that went up today.

For the rest of you, I’ll be back doing the same festival-long coverage for Edinburgh. This can have my undivided attention because I’m not bring a show there (hooray!). No decision yet on when I’m coming – I’ll let you know when I decide. Expect it the be the usual split of two visits. Until then, thanks for reading and goodbye.

One thought on “Brighton Fringe 2016 – as it happened

  1. Katharine Kavanagh May 14, 2016 / 9:15 pm

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