Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2016

Outside the Pavillion and Bandstand

REVIEWS: Skip to: Skin of the Teeth, Lest We Forget, Samantha Mann, Jane and Lizzy, Jacques Brel: A life in a thousand words, The Beautiful Game, Women Who Wank, Hitting the Wall

And that’s it. Buxton Fringe is over and I can lift my embargo and reveal which shows I saw at Buxton were my favourites.  The big news, of course, wasn’t so much the show but the oncoming demise of of flagship venue Underground Venues. Redeveloping the entire Crescent building in Buxton has been talked about for many years, but little actually happened. This time, they’ve finally got round to actually starting the work, so it looks highly likely they’ll get round to changing Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room into a hot tub or something. I will at a later point write my thoughts on what might emerge as a replacement venue – in the meantime, you can read this article from three years ago when they first said it was their final year.

For the plays themselves … not my best year, to be honest. The plays I caught from my recommended list delivered, but the best thing that happens on a fringe is when I see a play I know little about that turn out to be outstanding. For me, whilst there was merit in the new plays I saw, there wasn’t anything I saw that really jumped out at me. There again, this was an unusual year with many plays I saw from the theatre section only debatably counting as theatre – and, as such, it was difficult for me to review this as a theatre piece.

Anyway, let’s get going.

Pick of the fringe

So, most of this list is going to be predictable, having already been seen in my pre-fringe recommendations. If fact, there’s only one new thing that made it to this pick. And as it happens, this is the first thing in my chronologically-ordered list.

Skin of the Teeth

Publicity image from Skin of the TeethOne running theme throughout my time in Buxton is that I saw quite a lot of pieces that weren’t clearly theatre – even if it was listed in the theatre section of the programme. So I was in two minds over what to do with this. Skin of the Teeth is arguably borderline between theatre and storytelling, but a combination of a good script, good acting and good sound plot pushed this into my top tier.

This piece is a modern-day adaptation of The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was. Well, sort of. In the original folklore, there’s a boy who knows no fear and want to learn to shudder, and so he is sent to all sorts of scary locations, culminating with a haunted house where disembodied zombies and demons fail to cause the slightest alarm, and so he breaks their power.  Perhaps recognising that this Grimms folklore setting wouldn’t work in the modern day, writer Anna Beecher instead takes the story into the criminal underworld.  And it’s a very different story. Naive Nicholas finds himself set up to perform one dirty job after another for a group of dodgy geezers, for the most part blissfully unaware of the true nature of the tasks his new-found friends send him to so. Whether keeping a straight face when walking past the police, or entering an area no other man dare enter, fearless Nicholas become a useful but exploited pawn in a wider game of power-struggles.

Should this count as a play? There’s an argument that this is more of a story told in first person than a solo play, but whatever you think, the production values are excellent. The script keeps up the tension through the piece, Daniel Holme’s performance suits the role of Nicholas perfectly, and the tension is made all the better with a great musical score. This is going to Edinburgh shortly, and it will be interesting to see how this does, but provided this play finds its niche with storytelling fans I think it should do well.

Lest We Forget

lestNow on to one of the few straightforward conventional plays I saw. After a lull last year, it’s not the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, so trench-based slaughter and despair is an in thing again. But rather than do another full-blown blood and guts and misery piece, this play explores the aftermath of the war with the little known debate over the Imperial War Grave Commission. Everyone knows of the war graves in France where the trenches used to be, but in this play it’s 1919 and the country is divided over those who see these cemeteries as a fitting tribute, and those who want their loved ones to be buried at home where their graves will be tended to. Of course, the real argument  is the more practical issue that too many soldiers’ bodies are in too many pieces to make mass repatriation practical, but no-one wants to bring up that detail. Certainly not to the mother of a fallen war hero, whom a representative of the Imperial War Graves Commission is desperate to enlist for support ahead of a Parliamentary vote where it all lies in the balance.

The publicity for James Beagon’s play hints that the aforementioned war hero’s story isn’t quite as heroic as it seems and the real story has been covered up. That’s not quite the case. In fact, we discover, everybody who’s anybody knows the bloodthirsty truth – it’s just that nobody talks about it. Not his sister who drove the ambulances, nor his brother who was medically discharged under questionable circumstances, nor a fellow Irish solider whose life he saved who is now facing a return to another war back home. What ought to be a family united in mourning is actually a web of half-truths and self-deceit.

One slight issue is that it took me about half the play to work out it was set after the war, but that might just be me. On the whole Lest We Forget is a more conventional play than their ambitious First Class from two years ago, and as such may struggle to stand out from all the other World War One plays, especially at Edinburgh. But I hope it does well, because it’s a tight well-written play shining some light into the less-known aftermath of the Great War, and serves a cautionary tale of why those most most eager to serve aren’t always the people you want.

Samantha Mann

Samantha Mann with a dilemmaCharles Adrian returned to Buxton with his two-time hit Samantha Mann: Stories of Love, Death and a Rabbit, but this time also brought a new companion piece Samantha Mann: You Bring the Agony, I’ll Bring the Aunt. Both were in the comedy section of the programme, but they just as easily have been down as theatre. And although these were listed as two separate shows, the two are so intertwined it’s best to take them together as a review. I’ve reviewed Love, Death and a Rabbit now at three previous fringes, and I think I’ve said everything that needs to be said, but to bring newcomers up to speed, that show involves a middle-aged spinster giving an inept poetry performance – but it is her whittering away before and between and poems where the real sad story of this lonely downtrodden woman lies.

The new piece is very much a companion piece. Charles Adrian wants people to have seen Love, Death and a Rabbit first, and I’d certainly agree that you need to see both to fully understand the new piece. Even so, it will make sense if you see this new piece on its own, and if you see the original afterwards that will be a very different experience to seeing the two in order. In this show, members of the audience are invited to anonymously submit their dilemmas to Samantha, first green cards for less serious dilemmas and then red cards for more serious ones. (Or, for some mischievous people in the audience who surely knew the format already, they wrote green cards to set up follow-up jokes with the red cards – Charles Adrian insists he didn’t organise that.) This idea, in fact, grew out of what was once a way of publicising the original show, where Samantha Mann solved your dilemmas outside the Opera House.

What really impressed me about this show was how well Charles Adrian knows his character. His creation has a life outside of his original play, particularly on Twitter and his radio show, and there’s an extended backstory that goes way beyond the original play. He remembers all of this and seamlessly brings this up when the real-life dilemmas cross into her own fictional world, with the bitchy librarian she job-shares with getting frequent mentions. And one surprise effect – something that I think even he anticipated when writing this – is that some of the dilemmas led to some really touching discussions.

This piece is still under development, and I think this could benefit from some more back-stories to bring into the show – there’s a lot of loose ends from the original show that could be used here. For those who’ve seen the original, You Bring the Agony, I’ll Bring the Aunt is a nice companion piece that complements it, and is well worth the second visit. But … if you only have time for one, see Stories of Love, Death and a Rabbit which is unbeatable, for all the merits of the follow-up.

Other reviews of my picks of the fringe:
Buxton Fringe: Fringe Guru:
Skin of the Teeth Review
(+ winner, male actor; nominated, new writing)
Lest We Forget Review
(+ nominated, production & new writing)
 Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death, and a Rabbit
Samantha Mann: You bring the agony, I’ll bring the aunt
(+ winner, individual comedy)

Honourable mention

The honourable mentions list is going to be a short one, because there’s quite a few things I saw that are borderline as to whether I could count them as theatre. However, there’s two things I saw that didn’t make it into the pick that definitely count as theatre that are worth crediting.

Jane and Lizzy

Lizzie Bennet and Jane AustenThis was a nice piece from Nonesuch theatre company, with a take on Pride and Prejudice. For one reason or another, Jane Austen seems to be the in thing at the moment, with plenty of takes of her work out there, from Bite-Size’s 10-minute version to improvised shows such as Austentacious. This one is based on a premise that an actress playing the part of titular character Lizzie Bennet, with the author herself coming to talk her through the story. It’s a three-hander completed by a gentleman playing all of Lizzie’s suitors. Will she end up with self-entitled Mr. Collins, dastardly and duplicitous Mr. Wickham, or the dashing yet misunderstood Mr. Darcy? (If you don’t know the story, you can probably guess this correctly.)

It’s a nice potted version and the cast do a good job of telling the story. Frustratingly, however, it missed an opportunity to make itself unique. At the end of this play, it is strongly hinted that the woman who really loved Mr. Darcy was not fictitious Lizzie but her creator Jane – a compensation, perhaps, for Austen’s real life where she never married. I liked this twist at the end, but why just put that at the end? Jane Austen’s role throughout this play was largely to explain the narrative structure of her novel, but I’d have loved to have seen a version where Jane Austen gives away her real feelings as the story progresses, and not just bunched into the end.

I hope that this theme is explored more, because this would introduce a whole new dimension to the play where we learn more about Austen as a human being. Nonetheless, as it stands, this is a play that does what it says on the tin, and if you’re after a version of the story performed with clarity without dragging, you won’t be disappointed with this.

Jacques Brel: A life a thousand times

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this play is the fact it went ahead at all. This play was supposed to be a two-hander, the characters being Jacques Brel and one of his daughters. The latter actor was injured at the last moment, so writer/performer Simon Pennicott hastily changed this into a solo piece. I get the impression that this was an easier-than-usual play two convert from two characters to one, but all the same, to do this at just 48 hours’ notice was remarkable.

You might not recognise the name Jacques Brel, but you probably will recognise some of the songs he wrote, most famously Seasons in the Sun. Except he didn’t write that, at least, not the most famous version. The saccharine boyband-friendly song we’re all used to took a lot of liberties in the translation. Pennicott sings Brel’s songs with far more faithful translations, my favourite one going something like “Goodbye Pierre, I’m going to die now, I always hated you and I’m gutted to think you’ll outlive me.” In fact, the whole play is lifted very heavily from literal translations of the songs, and talks makes by Brel about himself over the years.

I did feel, however, there was a price to be paid by sticking so rigidly to Jacques Brel in his own words. It’s a fascinating life with some fine performances of his songs, but the prose in the play feels like a lecture on Brel’s life and work told in first person. The mannerisms and charisma of Brel might come across on stage, but we don’t really get to see Jacques Brel as a person. I realise using these talks is the most authentic way to do it, but talks people give about themselves are glossed, sanitised, delivered with the calm air of hindsight; the one thing you don’t get is the emotion – and given Brel’s colourful life, there must have been emotional moments for him. Might just be me, but I would have gone for a bit more poetic license, and if it means using your imagination to fill in the gaps about how he was feeling, do it. I’m sure Brel would approve.

Other reviews of my honourable mentions:
Buxton Fringe: Fringe Guru:
Jane and Lizzie
Review ★★★
Jacques Brel: a life a thousand times
Review  ★★★★

 Not quite theatre …

This is an unusual section I don’t normally put in roundups, but this time round I saw three things where I’m not in the best position to rate this as a theatre blogger. All of them are pieces where it’s unclear what they could come under. Nonetheless, here are my thoughts as far as I can manage.

The Beautiful Game

Production shot from The Beautiful GameThis is a hard one to pin down. It was down in the dance section, but it didn’t really have any dancing. Instead, we saw a 75-minute piece of highly choreographed physical theatre. But then, neither is this something I could easily judge as theatre. This cast of four women perform what I’d describe as a montage of football-related scenes, of footballers, football fans, and the girlfriends of football fans who don’t get this obsession. However, there’s not really a plot structure to this, just a collection of inter-related scenes; that might be a minus point if I was judging this as theatre, but not something you can fairly mark it down for if it’s billed as dance – most dance pieces neither have a plot nor need one.

What I can safely say is that amongst people who are more into dance and physical theatre than I am, I heard a lot of unprompted praise for this. And it certainly was a well-produced tightly choreographed piece that didn’t put a foot wrong once. So really the only question Next Door Dance need to take home with them is what they want to be. They certainly could do well as a straight theatre company should they want to go down that route – this kind of choreographed staging can work wonders in a play provided someone (either themselves of a dramaturg) give a good story to structure the play around. (One word of caution: it’s got to be someone who does a good story – I’ve seen plenty of slickly-choreographed productions that ruined by abysmal pretentious plots.) Or if they want to stick with being a dance company, they’re equally welcome to stick with what they’re doing. Either’s fine by me.

Women Who Wank

Oh boy. This show was on last year and I chickened out, opting instead for Foolsize Theatre’s other show, the more family friendly life-size Punch and Judy. This year, I thought, no more excuses, let’s brave this and hope for the best. Production shot from Women Who WankThis was down in the theatre section, but I can’t for the life of me decide what I’d count this as. It could be theatre, comedy, spoken word, improv, but it’s literally Joanne Tremarco making up the whole thing as she goes along. The show is themed around female sexuality and the taboo surrounding it, and she uses her red dress to play characters such as the one left. Work that one out for yourself.

As with all improv-based shows, reviews are only of limited use because the next show could be completely different. What I can safely tell you is that this isn’t one of these stock improv shows where the audience shout out some words and a sketch is done around that – Tremarco literally makes it up as she goes along based on talking to the audience. Expect much of the first half to be dominated by phrases such as “Yes you, staring at your shoes, I can tell you’re wondering what on earth you’ve let yourself in for.” However, she does seem to be good recognising who doesn’t want to be questioned about their sex life, instead rely on those that are willing to give too much information; in this case, a graduate of an all-girls convent school where apparently all the girls got their sex education from the boys from the towns all-boys school  (because, like, nuns telling teenage girls God disapproves of sex before marriage always works, doesn’t it?). But the show does work in a number of serious issues – female genital mutilation got quite a mention.

The biggest asset to the show is clearly Joanne Tremarco who can engage with an audience on an issue where most of us would run a mile, and keep it going for an hour or more without running dry. Women Who Wank is a different show more than anything, so it’s difficult to know what to compare this to, but you will certainly be in for an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.

Hitting the Wall

The final show was a very unusual straddling of two genres. On the one hand, this can be argued to be theatre – on the other hand, it’s can be said to be a factual presentation. Either way, it tells the story of Wayne Soutter, the first person to swim between Scotland and Ireland from the Mull of Kintyre. The starting point matters. Plenty of people have swum from Scotland to Ireland, but everyone else has done a different route – because the currents of the North Channel at that point are considered too strong and dangerous. Or, as Soutter himself says in this play, maybe the reason no-one had swum this route before is because it’s a bloody stupid thing to do.

This very unusual piece is part presentation, part solo play. One man narrates the story of the swim is a broadly factual way, complete with Power-point presentation on the screen behind. The other plays Wayne, or at least says the thoughts going through his head. For long-distance swimming is just as much a psychological struggle as a physical one. To keep pushing yourself, you need a reckless belief in yourself that you’re going to make it – and needless to say, a wrong call here can cost your life. And simply saying how you’re doing from a support boat isn’t nearly as simple as one might think. The story cleverly keeps the outcome on a knife-edge, and it’s not clear until the end whether the outcome is success, failure or tragedy. (Spoiler: you can read the news as it was reported here.)

This is a very different format to a conventional play – I was sceptical about whether this was going to work, but it did so a lot better than I expected. Even so, my personal preference would have been to have made this more theatrical, but on the other hand, the current format is a distinctive one. A few annoyances: I don’t think gimmicks such as asking everyone to hold up their smartphones to represent lights on the coast were helpful; and I was a little disappointed they were doing this on-script. Okay, the nature of this piece means the scripts aren’t too obvious, but it’s something all other acts in Pauper’s Pit are perfectly capable of doing. They seemed to be almost off-script, so hopefully that’s just temporary. I can’t decide whether or not I count this as theatre, and this format won’t be for everyone, but it’s a interesting unusual piece to watch, and good retelling a true story.

Other reviews of not quite theatre:
Buxton Fringe: Fringe Guru:
The Beautiful Game
(+ winner, dance)
Women Who Wank
Hitting the Wall
(+ nominated, new writing)

Shows I didn’t see …

Finally, a quick round-up of shows on my recommended list, one of which were on the wrong days, one of other of which sold out, and one was both.

Romeo and Juliet, as expected, enjoyed sell-outs throughout their run. The only small disappointment might be not getting nominated for any of the Buxton Fringe awards this year, but it was against some tough competition on the theatre section, and, hey, when you’re selling out I doubt Butterfly Theatre cared that much.

Hidden Mother maybe performed a little less well than expected, getting just a three-star review from FringeGuru. FringeGuru star ratings at Buxton need treating with caution, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because it’s one person’s opinion, with no second opinion from another star-rated publication to compare them to. Three stars is still a perfectly respectable rating, meaning you’re up to par with the rest of the festival, but it may still be a bit of a disappointment for not living up to the height of Peaceful.

However, the strangest outcome is with Nonsense and Sensibility. In Buxton it did pretty well – as well as getting nominations for two awards, they had to arrange an impromptu performance at the end of the festival to take a huge overspill from the sell-out. And yet the reviews of earlier performances in London have been poor. Off-hand, I can think of two possibilities: it might be that this play performed artificially well in Buxton due to its strong local following; or it might be that both the London-based reviewers just didn’t get the humour. Either is possible, and anyway, no company has runaway hits all the time. Nevertheless, compared to the insanely successful Shakespeare for Breakfast and Boris: World King in the previous two years, this must be a bit of a disappointment. Seems that Three’s Company can’t walk on water all the time.

Reviews of shows I didn’t see:
Buxton Fringe: Fringe Guru:
Nonsense and Sensibility
(+ nominated, theatre production and new writing)
Romeo and Juliet Review
Hidden Mother
Review ★★★

And that’s it. End of Buxton Fringe Roundup 2016. Join me again for 2017, when we will witness the most unpredictable Buxton Fringe for years.

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