Edinburgh Fringe 2016 – as it happened

REVIEWS: Skip to: Bite-Size Lunch HourStack, Waves, Swansong, The Jungle Book, Le Bossu, Cosmic Fear, The Trunk, Sacre Blue, The Steampunk Tempest, ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, Made in Cumbria, Boris & Sergey, Ruby and the Vinyl, Boris: World King, BEASTS, Police Cops, Adventures of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl, The Life and Crimes and Reverend Raccoon, Communicate, The Unknown Soldier, Bite-Size Breakfast, E15, Northanger Abbey, Unnatural Selection, Notflix, Unveiled, The Club, Overshadowed

This was my coverage of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe as it happened, featuring snap reviews with my instant impressions of shows. For the more measured reviews written at a more leisurely pace, see my Roundup.  Here, however, you can see what I was thinking at the time.

Monday 1st August: Bloody hell, it’s that time already. It’s August, which means the Edinburgh Fringe is upon us. Officially, it’s not quite the start of the fringe yet – the official start date is Friday 5th – but for most performers it’s effectively started already. Often known as “week zero”, this is where many acts will be busy doing previews and tech rehearsals.

I’m not going to be in Edinburgh until the 12th August this year, but before then I’ll be covering the fringe from afar, seeing how shows do and commenting on any interesting developments as they come up. Last year, I got the endorsement of one high-profile figure and pissed off two others, so perhaps I can beat that record this time.

My first task will be to put together a list of Edinburgh Fringe recommendations, which I aim to do for this Friday. But if you can’t wait for my first article about the Edinburght fringe, here’s a hopefully controversial piece I wrote: Another open challenge for Live Theatre (and Northern Stage too), suggesting a little thing that the big subsidised regional theatres can do to buy into the spirit of openness and inclusion. Will they do it? I’ll be fascinated to see if they do.

I’ll probably do daily updates until I’m ready to go. Until tomorrow, happy previewing.

Tuesday 2nd August: My very first task will be to go through all of the shows I’ve been invited to review and all of the shows I want to see, and work out whether it is actually possible for me to see all of these. Even with 6 or 7 days planned in Edinburgh, it’s going to be touch and go as to whether this is possible, and it could come down to some complex scheduling.

The “soft” deadline for review requests was last Sunday. Thanks to everyone who asked me to review them – I should have a better idea in a day or so whether I can do everyone. Any review requests that come now will still be considered, but it’s the ones I’ve already received that will get priority. I’m not sure how many others I’ll be able to accommodate, but you’re welcome to hope for the best. Contact me if you want to try your luck, but read this first.

Wednesday 3rd August: As well as reviewing plays I see at Edinburgh, I will be keeping an eye on any news relevant to the fringe as a whole. Some of it will be unexpected, some of it we can see coming.

One thing that will be worth keeping an eye on is ticket sales. Last month I reported the news that Edinburgh Fringe growth has stalled, at least for this year. This is in contrast with Brighton Fringe which had a stunning 20% growth. Before anyone gets too alarmed, this isn’t be the first time that growth has flatlined, and growth has recovered in future years. We’ll need at least another year of fringe stats before we can draw any reliable conclusions.

Before then, however, one thing to look for this year is how ticket sales do. At Brighton, growth in the number of shows was matched by a growth in ticket sales. What will happen here? In the last few years, the Edinburgh Fringe has been remarkably resilient to economic downturns, with sales laughing in the face of Fred Goodwin and his piffling banking crisis-driven recession. Ticket sales growth this year may yet encourage growth in shows next year. If this stalls too (and the lack of news on pre-fringe sales might be an indication that it is), the festival fringe committee might start worrying.

But should we be worried? Is growth a good thing anyway? Vote in the quick poll at the top-right of this page. Some people think that the Edinburgh Fringe could do with being smaller. Cast your vote, and we’ll see how it goes.

Thursday 4th August: But this year, we don’t have to wait for news, because Edinburgh has already had its first controversy. Not the Fringe for once, this time it’s the International Festival. In an unusual development, the Edinburgh International Festival is offering refunds on an opera with sexually explicit content in it. This in turn has caused the International Festival to come under a lot of criticism.

Here is my best attempt to say whether this was the right thing to do.

Content warnings is a big can of worms for any performer or venue, which relies on a whole load of unwritten rules and expectations. Some festivals and venues has a policy of no content warnings at all, unless the person buying the ticket specifically asks. Others give pre-emptive warnings about everything, be it full-blown BDSM orgies or excessive use of rude words. There’s valid arguments either way, but either system works provided this is understood by everyone involved, performers and punters alike. It’s when this understanding breaks down that you get problems. A theatre that normally put on gentle family-friendly plays can expect some legitimate flack if they put on something graphic without warning, because their customers could not reasonably be expected to know about that; fringe venues that make it clear they have a policy of no (pre-emptive) content warning have a better defence.

Which category should opera fall in? To outsiders, the stereotypical opera audience is Lord and Lady Whortington-Smythe would would faint with shock if someone said the word “darn” on stage. As such, you might think that opera is the first place you should give content warnings – but you’d be wrong. Surprising though it might be, graphic content in modern opera is not that unusual, and if you go to the opera automatically expecting something as inoffensive as fat ladies in pink dresses and horned helmets singing top B♭, you are naive. As such, there is an argument to say that people who bought tickets for Così fan tutte should not have been offered refunds because they should have known it might be like this when they bought the tickets.

But even so, this defence – that opera audiences should be aware that anything goes – has its limits. Ultimately, the final judge of what is and isn’t acceptable is the audiences themselves, and if they decide you have crossed the line – as they did last year with William Tell – they will make their feelings known. I am a long-standing supporters of “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it,” but that principle only holds if you could have reasonably known in advance what you were going to see. Drop offensive content on audiences without warning and you do so at your own risk.

So did Edinburgh International Festival do the right thing? Without knowing how graphic this content is, and without knowing what opera audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival can reasonably expect, I can’t really give an answer. I hope they’re not pandering to moral authoritarians who dictate what other people can and can’t see, but if the International Festival is worried of a repeat of the William Tell fiasco, they are within their rights to cover their arse (although they maybe shouldn’t have left this warning till the last moment). Whatever the reason, we all know now what to expect. Either watch it or don’t watch it. You have no excuse to turn up and jeer.

UPDATE: I’ve been pondering over this a bit more, and re-checked the statements coming from the EIF, and reading between the lines, I’m beginning to think there’s more to it than meets the eye. Here’s the thing: it’s not just the explicit content that stands to cause offence; it’s that a lot of the explicit content is degrading acts against black people. One conclusion people might draw from watching this is that it’s pro-rape and racist. That conclusion is probably bollocks – as always, context is everything, and it looks pretty clear the message of this production is that what you see is bad, not that it’s okay. But that doesn’t stop people putting two and two together and getting 734. Once a narrative takes hold that a piece of art is racist or sexist, and people propagate the claims without seeing the thing in question, it’s very difficult to undo it. I suspect what EIF is doing is shutting the stable door before the horse bolts (hence the level of detail they went into about what’s in the opera and what it really means).

And this brings me on to an interesting point made by North East Theatre Guide on twitter. On the matter of content warnings, they said that Live Theatre’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour had plenty of warnings about the content (which, it must be said, was 15-rated at the worst), and Live Theatre produces stuff like this all the time. But still people took offence and asked for refunds. This probably doesn’t have much relevance to Così fan tutte, but the lesson is that if people are determined to complain, content warning won’t always stop them.

Just to be clear, I do not seriously expect a wave of moral outrage when Così fan tutte is performed at the end of this month – at least, not one that has any shred of credibility. But I could be wrong, and the power of the professionally offended is not to be underestimated. If this is what that EIF were afraid of, if this is the real reason for their overblown reaction … I don’t blame them.

Friday 5th August: Today is the first day of the fringe proper, so I’d better get on and write up my fringe recommendations. You will now find elsewhere on my blog the beginning of What’s Worth Watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2016. I’ve started off with my six safe choices, and more are to come. However, for those who cannot wait to see if they’re on the list, here is what I’ve found in the fringe programme for you to enjoy:

Safe choices:

Bite-Size (breakfast show and lunch hour)
Boris: World King
The Bookbinder
Lest We Forget
Stack and Swansong (two plays from Dugout Theatre)
Waves

Bold choices:

Adventures of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl
E15
Le Bossu
papercut-
Ruby and the Vinyl
Skin of the Teeth

You might like:

Five Kinds of Silence

Wildcards:

The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon
Overshadowed
Sacre Bleu
A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes and Then Leaves…

From the Comedy:

BEASTS present Mr. Edinburgh 2016
Boris & Sergey: Preposterous Improvisation Experiment
Imaginary Porno Charades
John Robertson: The Dark Room

And one for the critics:

Networking Event (from the Network of Independent Critics)

The detailed list for Safe Choices is up now. I don’t have a particular favoritism for shows beginning with the letter “B” – that’s just a coincidence. More interesting is that four of my six safe choices are performing at The Pleasance – and I knew most of these acts before they started performing there so it’s not just an unconcious bias to one venue. Seems that The Pleasance have a knack of scooping the best acts.

I will continue with this list tomorrow. After that, I’d better work out what I’m actually going to see. The 12th August is creeping up very quickly now.

Saturday 6th August: Couple of shout-outs from the list before I complete it though. Some of these things are only on certain days, so you might want to catch them while you can.

Firstly, if you’re considering Imaginary Porno Charades, this is a weekend event, so you you’re in Edinburgh the next few days you’ve got tonight or tomorrow to catch it, otherwise you’ll have to wait until next Friday if you’re still here. “But what is Imaginary Porno Charades” I hear you mutter nervously as you back away to the door. It’s basically a game of charades. With imagined titles of porn parodies. You know, ones like The Importance of Boning Earnest and Only Fools and Arses. (N.B. When I said imagined titles, either or both of these two might exist for all I know. If you happen to know that a porn flick exists with this title, I strongly advise you to keep this to yourself.)

It’s down as an 18+ restriction, but it’s not quite as terrifying as I thought it would be (in Brighton, when I had to do Teabagging with Mussolini). Although if you still don’t understand what a porn parody is, you are far too sweet and innocent for this show. Go and see some Jane Austen instead.

The other thing to watch out for is actually one for critics and theatre bloggers. These are networking sessions at Fringe Central, and the first one is this Sunday the 7th 5.30 p.m. – after that, they’re every 5 or 6 days. This is one of the things being organised by Network of Independent Critics. So far, their highest-profile activity has been crowdfunding for a set of 24 critics earlier this year, but this event is something they are keen for everyone to attend, whether or not you’re one of those 24.

One small issue: you might notice in the fringe programme that this is in Fringe Central, are therefore you may need a pass to get in – which of course loads of independent critics don’t have. I am assured that if you don’t have a pass, they’ll find a way of getting you in somehow. That said, I’ve been asked to meet people in Fringe Central before, and I find that just walking in looking official normally does the trick.

(Also: Fringe Central has moved. Don’t turn up at 5.29 and discover you’re in the wrong building.)

Hope to get bold choices written up tonight.

Sunday 7th August: My What’s Worth Watching list now has thirteen recommendations. Tomorrow I intend to write about the four wildcards and why they’re worth considering.

However, it’s now time for a break from Edinburgh, because other stuff is still going on outside of the Scottish capital. Most theatre wind down for the summer, but two theatres that haven’t are The Gala in Durham and the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough. I apologise for this bit being of little interest to Edinburgh Fringe performers and punters, but hey, you should tour to the north more often. The north’s great. We’ve got flat caps and whippets and Ilkley Moor bah’tat and everything.

So, Durham’s Gala Theatre has been doing No Turning Back, which is a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, and they’ve turned over the entire auditorium and stage into and interactive exhibit with four actors. Having seen it this week, I now know what they’re up to, and it’s quite a clever move. If you’re going to do something that takes your main theatre out of action, the summer is the best time to do it when business would otherwise be slow anyway. And – judging by the numerous weekday daytime showings of this piece – it’s quite clear this was aimed at schoolchildren during the summer holidays. I’ll be writing up my full thoughts on this next month, but for a piece which is aimed at an educational production, it does its job well. If you have children, I recommend taking them to this – it’s clear, informative, and doesn’t gloss over life in the trenches, but it doesn’t have the blood and guts that renders most World War I plays unsuitable for children.

Meanwhile, whilst most theatres are having a breather, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is going full pelt into its summer season, with three plays on the go from Alan Ayckbourn, which is pretty solid going from someone who was supposed to have retired seven years ago. I saw half of one yesterday – the second act of a two-parter called Consuming Passions, and although this is part of their revived lunchtime shows in the Restaurant, this could just as easily been an Edinburgh Fringe show getting rave reviews right now. Last time Ayckbourn did a lunchtime show it was a pair stories called Farcicals which were fun pieces but not much more, but this was Ayckbourn’s writing at his finest. A nice self-contained piece where a woman with a history delusions barges into a restaurant to warn her ex-boss of plot by his wife his wife to murder him, it’s a finely-crafted half-hour of tension, mystery and loneliness that permeates most Ayckbourn plays. And – the biggest achievement of all – if you didn’t know better, there was scarcely any hint that there’s already been a first half of this story. I’ll do a proper review when I see and round up all three Ayckbourn plays, but as for this one: it might not be an Edinburgh Fringe play this year, but it may well be a be a frequent visitor in a few years’ time.

Okay, digression over. Normal service will resume tomorrow.

Monday 8th August: I’ve now added four wildcard entries to What’s Worth Watching. These are plays where I know very little about whether they’ll be any good, but these all grabbed my attention one way or the other, and I’ll be keeping an eye to see how these go.

However, as well as that, I’ve got to start drawing up a schedule. This is going to be tricky, because I’ve got quite a lot of review requests this time, and I want to catch most of the things on my list of recommendations. However, I think I can accommodate most or all of the review requests. So if you have asked me for a review, I will be in touch shortly. If you have not hard from me by the end of Wednesday, please chase me up.

One other note: until now, almost everything that has been on my recommendations list has been seen and reviewed by me whether or not I was invited on a press ticket. This time round, I cannot guarantee it. I don’t mind not getting press tickets for things I’d happily pay to see anyway, but if you want to make sure, that’s the way to do it.

Tuesday 9th August: Ego-trip time. I have been accredited as a member of the press at the Edinburgh Fringe. I even get a badge and everything. I’m hoping this means I can barge into Edinburgh Fringe venues like a complete diva bellowing “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

Whilst I work out my schedule, there’s an interesting interview in The Stage with the new chief executive of the Edinburgh Fringe, Shona McCarthy, which is worth a read if you can make it past the paywall (Ctrl-C Ctrl-V is your friend). Quite a lot of the interview is how so got where she is, but the interesting bit is her attitude towards its status as an open festival. She is, unsurprisingly, very much in favour of the open format – she even says she wouldn’t have wanted the job if it wasn’t an open festival. That in itself is no surprise – the rest of the festival fringe society feels the same and she wouldn’t have got the job if she didn’t.

More interesting is this quote about what open access actually means:

“How open-access are we? .Who is it open and accessible to? Is it open and accessible to everybody – or are there still barriers? If there are, who are they affecting and what might we, as the Fringe Society, do to either minimise or adjust the barriers?

“Ultimately, at the core of this festival, there are people who want to express something through art, and it has to constantly ask itself, is it an open-access approach to those people? You would never want it to become so much about money and turnover that it forgets the thing that it is about in the first place.”

This is thorny issue that’s never really been addressed. It’s true on paper, the Edinburgh Fringe is open to everyone – but in practice, it’s not so simple. Money is a huge barrier to taking part if you don’t have a backer. But how do you overcome this? You can widen access by having bursaries or subsidised venues (like Northern Stage), but the problem with that is that someone has to decide who does and doesn’t deserve this support. If you’re not careful, the only difference is instead a vetting committee saying you can’t take part, you have a bursary awards committee saying you can’t have the money you need to take part. Which is practically the same thing.

There are other solutions. The Free Fringe has certainly provided affordable ways to take part that weren’t there before. But what does Shona McCarthy have in mind? No solution to the financial barriers to the Edinburgh Fringe is going to be easy – but it’ll be interesting to see what she says about this.

Wednesday 10th August: And I have my first press tickets. Everyone who invited me to review: some of you I have contacted today, rest of you I will contact tomorrow. After that, chase me up if you’ve heard nothing. Unfortunately, it looks like I can’t accommodate everyone, because too many people are doing limited runs in the wrong time slots. Sorry about that.

All the different fringe publications logosToday I wrote a guide to making sense of reviews. Did you think that it was simple as 5 stars = good, 1 star =  bad? Well, it’s actually more complicated than that. The learn about the intricacies, come over to 10 rules to make sense of reviews at the fringe.

If you are a performer, you might enjoy this more light-hearted guide I wrote earlier this year on 5 tips for performing at a Fringe (which no-one ever follows). Don’t obsess over ticket sales, don’t live off junk food and don’t cast anyone who you fancy … yeah, like that’s going to happen.

Finally, I last updated this two years ago, but my most generic guide for punters is How to make the most of the Edinburgh Fringe. Things haver changed a little since then, but most of it is the same. The only major update is that I believe there are now more outlets that sell tickets fringe-wide than the one on the Royal Mile now. So that should be another way to dodge queues.

Oh heck, Friday is coming. All about to start in earnest now.

Thursday 11th August: Here I am packing, reading for Edinburgh tomorrow, and the schedule for my first three-day visit is almost complete. Everyone who has contacted me with a review request: you should have heard back from me by now, one way or the other – if not, please chase me up. Sadly, I’ve had to start saying no to the odd request, because too many people on limited runs requested reviews at clashing times, and I couldn’t fit everything in. Sorry about that.

So before I being reviewing myself, let’s take a look at how shows I’ve covered so far are faring. I have a rule that I try not to look at reviews for shows I haven’t seen yet, because that may prejudice my own reviews, so right now I’m restricted to those plays that I’ve seen before. The ones I’m most interested is are plays that are new to Edinburgh – for them the stakes are highest.

So far, two shows that have got reviews have had a good start. Skin of the Teeth and Waves have both scooped four-star reviews from The List, adding to good reviews from Fringe Guru at Buxton Fringe 2016 and Brighton Fringe 2014 respectively. Fat Content and Alice Mary Cooper both ought to be pleased with this at the moment. So far, so good. Less remarkable a start for Aulos with Lest We Forget, just getting a three-star from All Edinburgh Theatre. I did wonder whether this world war one play would stand out from all other other world war one plays – but it’s only one review. We shall see.

I’m not going to pay much attention to successful shows returning from previous years – once you have a loyal returning audience, their verdicts trump whatever the reviews say. One interesting discrepancy, though, is Boris: World King. It’s moved to a space over twice the size of last year’s, and still it’s selling out (with the real Boris doing them a big favour with last year’s escapades), and the critical acclaim from their London run was just as excellent as last year’s reviews. Except The Scotsman. They gave a two-star review last year, and now they’ve given a two-star review again. Seem to be digging in their heels here.

Have to say, their review of Boris is one of the reasons I lost faith in The Scotsman’s supposed gold standard of fringe reviewing. They do short reviews that often fail to explain what the reviewer did or didn’t like about a play, at least not anything of substance, and these reviews of Boris are no exception. If there’s a reason why these reviewers disagree with all the others, I don’t get what it is. But hey, maybe other people have better experiences of that paper. Whatever your view, it’s a lesson that no matter how wildly successful you are, you can’t please all the reviewers all the time.

Friday 12th August, 8.00 a.m.: And here we go. I am on the train, and I will be in Edinburgh shortly, with a five-show day ahead of me.

The first show I’m seeing, however, I can safely write a glowing review in advance. The Big Bite-Size Lunch Hour: Best Bites is a set of five ten-minute plays taken from the greatest hits of the last ten years, including some of my personal favourites, including the internet date with both parties’ inner voices talking them down every step of the way, the 1940s-obsessed couple who take their hobby a touch too far; and an old one I’ve really glad they revived, a rottweiler giving his side of the story following a regrettable misunderstanding with the neighbours’ Yorkshire Terriers.

This was done on a public vote, and I do wonder if it’s ended up front-loaded to the most recent plays that more people remember. There’s two plays from 2014 from the same author, both of which were excellent, but I do wonder if some equally excellent plays from earlier were overlooked because too few people taking part in the vote saw them. Still, for once I’m going to make a firm call in advance of actually seeing something: the bite-size lunch hour is unmissable comedy.

The less predictable bit, of course, will be their breakfast shows. Some plays are good, some not so memorable, and some may surprise me in new ways. I’m seeing the first set on Sunday, and will report back then.

Friday 12th August, 11.30 a.m.: A rather bad selfie. Sorry.It’s official. I am an accredited member of the press. I have a photo to prove it and everything. And It’s a picture of me so I’ve not nicked it or anything.

Still not sure what this actually does (apart from lead me to discover how poor my selfie-taking skills are). Richard Stamp suggests it exempts you from being flyered, which sound all counter-intutive to me, but apparently it works like an invisibility cloak from Harry Potter when out on the Royal Mile.

Right, enough timewasting. I’d better do some actual reviews since this was what I said I’d do in order to get this pass in the first place.

UPDATE: Actually, the question of whether you stop being flyered with a press pass is being hotly debated. Other people are claiming that they get more flyers with a press pass.

For what it’s worth, I’ve got a theory that it depends on whether you look like a flyering target. If you don’t hold flyers in your hand and avoid eye contact, that seems to do the trick. As soon as you do either eye contact or flyer carrying, you press pass switched into magnet mode. But this is just a theory. More research will be needed before I can draw a conclusion.

Saturday 13th August, 2.45 p.m.: First Edinburgh Fringe review proper now, and it’s Stack. Dugout Theatre have taken a play to Edinburgh for several years now, but this year they’re also taking a second one on a side-venture from writer/performer Ed MacArthur as Stackard Banks, a “celebrity explorer”. At least, that’s nominally what he’s famous for. He seems to be more an attention seeking media whore whose ego is willingly fuelled by hordes of adoring fans. With his latest expedition of dubious ethical credentials suffering a setback of all the footage being lost by a tribe (and all the crew meeting various untimely deaths on the way), it’s up to Stack to tell the story himself in the self-serving way he knows how.

Dugout fans will know that they’ve a long record of musical talent and high production values, but until now this has been done for multi-case plays. They transfer these talents to a solo show swimmingly. Also transferred over was their humour last seen in their light-hearted Ocean’s 11 parody The Sunset Five. So on Team Stack’s latest quest  of dubious ethical value to find a lost tribe, there does of course have to be a rival expedition from Doktor Von Winklestein (or some equally sinister name). And an extra touch of surrealism is added when Sting is made the guide into the jungle – you know, the pop star who knows everything about mother nature – although Sting only ever speaks in clips that Dugout Theatre manage to get off Youtube.

The only doubt I have over this is something that might just be me. The character of Stackard Banks doesn’t seem to ring true over the whole story. I can believe him being a complete narcissist, but there were too many traits over bits of the story that didn’t go together. I can believe him to be someone in denial over his part in the deaths of his team-mates, and I can believe him to have a moment of revelation when he realises there’s more to life than his own ego, but I can’t believe both in the same story. Okay, this is openly advertised as a silly play, and it is silly, so character plausibility probably wasn’t a high priority, but I always feel character comedy works better is the character is consistent. But it’s still funny play, and as a fun piece it certainly does its job.

Saturday 13th August, 7.30 p.m.: Next up, before I get too much of a backlog, is Waves. I saw this back in Brighton in 2014 and it’s been re-worked for Edinburgh. This is the story of Elizabeth Moncello, who grew up on a remote Australian island, and after her little brother drowns, she learns to swim so that may one day save future lives. Only problem – no-one on the island knows how to swim, so she learns her own technique, through observing fish and penguins, inspiration from The Little Mermaind and wartime exercise manuals, coming up what became known as the butterfly stroke.

This might look like a true story, but it’s actually mostly fictitious – the real story of the invention of the butterfly stroke is completely different. To some extent, writer/performer Alice Mary Cooper was treading on this ice here – it never happened at Brighton, but she might have found herself under fire for rewriting history. This time round, she’s been more careful, with a programme making it clear what was imagined and what was real. One interesting reason she gave for this story is that Elizabeth’s story might be fictitious, but too many women form that period with equally impressive stories are forgotten.

Whatever the reason, Cooper’s performance is just as striking as last time. Like many other play’s I’ve seen, this is essentially storytelling, but she is a cut above most storytellers at the fringe. She’s written a script that allows her to make the most of her acting, and she plays that to the full. I stand by my personal preference that I think the story would have been best done in first person, but I know other reviewers think the opposite, so no point in trying to please everyone.

She made a few changes since Brighton, most of which are subtle, but they work in the play’s favour. The big change is a brand new musical score. No disrespect to the guys who did the original one (which was still good) but the new one is excellent and really adds to the mood of the piece.This follow-up to her fun debut in 2012 is going wildly successfully – as often is the case, the big question now is what she does next.

Saturday 13th August, 9.30 p.m.: Okay, that’s 9 shows seen so far, so that’s a lot of pending reviews. Please bear with me – I have some endorsements coming up, but I want to deliberate a little further before giving a verdict.

In the meantime, there’s an interesting article from the Guardian about the scale of the fringe. It’s already been confirmed that the growth of shows has stalled. Now it’s also being reported that more shows are opting for runs of less than three weeks. One caveat is that this article seems to be reporting a general feel that it’s going that way rather than a proper analysis of fringe registrations. I might do the donkey work at some point – however, is anyone has already analysed this to check if this really is the case, I would be interested to see.

What does this mean for the Edinburgh Fringe? My guess is not a lot – certainly not the death knell of the fringe that some people seem to be suggesting. If growth really has stalled, then the Edinburgh Fringe will adjust and continue. It’s too early at this stage to say whether the conventional wisdom that you should run the full three weeks or not at all will need to be revisited – that will take longer to find out. The one thing that stalled growth does mean is that it makes it easier for the Brighton Fringe to catch up. If the current trend of 20% growth per year in Brighton and nothing in Edinburgh continues, at some point this is going to shift the balance of power.But will the trend of 2016 continue? One important factor will be ticket sales growth in Edinburgh. So far, there appears to be no news – and in this case, no news may be bad news, because if ticket sales were on the up, you’d expect the Fringe to be shouting this from the rooftops. I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, but the possibility of Brighton closing the gap on Edinburgh is now a little closer to reality.

Sunday 14th August, 2.30 p.m.: Here I am in the press area at Pleasance Dome. No-one checks anyone’s pass up here, and I’ve no idea whether my status actually entitles me to be up here, but here I am. What I hadn’t realised is that this adjoins the wings of Jack Dome where some more socially liberated actors and/or actresses opt to change. This is awkward.

Seen menu 3 of Bite Size, and it’s a strong menu, but before that I’m going to review Swansong. I recommended this for one reason and one reason only, and this was the track record of Dugout Theatre. Otherwise, the concept of the play looked unworkable – four survivors of a great flood going around the new ocean on a swan pedalo. But given Dugout’s record of making great theatre out of all sorts of strange ideas, I made a firm call they would do a good job of this. And I’m pleased to say I made the right call and they delivered yet again.

Dugout Theatre’s previous productions have generally been high production values affairs, where you can expect casts of six, highly-choreographed scene and usually live musicfrom this multi-talented company. This time, it’s a very stripped down production, with a cast of four sitting on four seats, with pedals beneath their feet. The sole scenery is a stained glass window of this swan pedalo – and there’s a good reason for the stained glass, but I’ll leave you to twig that for yourself. One thing that has stayed is the a cappella singing, and all this suits the play very well.

Even in this absurd post-apocalyptic setting, it is – believe it or not – a surprisingly gentle play. These four survivors are a bunch of misfits, including the right-wing guy who thinks bloodsports is great and still thinks these predictions of rising sea levels is just a scare story, and the young hippy left lady with lots of absurd pseudoscentific ideals. Miraculously, they did not manage to kill each other in the first hour, and instead they spend much of their time recalling the best bits of the twenty-first century in case they can ever build a new society.

One minor criticism – I didn’t get the David Attenbrough joke and therefore felt it was overdone. But it’s still well worth seeing. Dugout, it seems, can pull off anything they put their mind to, and there’s no sign of them ever running out of ideas.

Sunday 14th August, 8.00 p.m.: Wow. Having an excellent day today, with all four shows at a very high standard. As this is blog for things that are good, looks like I’ve got quite a backlog ahead of me.

But the play I’m going to review next is The Jungle Book, which I’m prioritising because it’s come out of nowhere. It didn’t feature on my recommendation list because I’d never heard of it, I only went because of a review invitation, but what a show it was.

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Kaa the snake: In the play. But not this Kaa.

Before you start singing along to The Bear Necessities, there’s one thing you need to know: this play does not feature Molgwi at all, nor does it feature any of the events in the story we all know. Instead, this is a story that has been put together from all the plot threads that Rudyard Kipling did not use in either of his two published books. Also adding in details from Kipling’s real life, in this story, an eleven-year-old girl, nominally based on Kipling’s real youngest daughter, goes into the Jungle to look for her favourite elephant who’s run away. But Kaa the snake has vowed to eat an man-cub who ventures into the jungle, and this isn’t the cartoon version who sings “Trust in meeeeeee … Trust in meeeeeeeee” but a more sinister villainous version who eats some or all of the monkeys in the story. Can Jungle Book regulars Baloo and Bagheera foil Kaa before it’s too late?

Stung Up Theatre is a highly competent ensemble, and through a combination of stunts, live music and the story that could easily have been part of the Kipling canon, it’s an excellent production that will appeal to adults and children alike. Needless to say, it’s maybe not for the youngest of children who might expect cuter animals, but I can recommend it for everyone else. It’s also has a lot more morals in than the Dinsey version. Vilainous though Kaa is, he makes a pretty good argument as to why it’s better to eat children than allow them to grow into jungle-destroying adults, and there’s also question over whether the elephant really want rescuing back into human drudgery.

If there’s one reservation I have, I’ve doubts over the outfits used for the animals. Sometimes there were clues with ears or something similar, but Bagheera was pretty much a human embodiment of a panther. I got what was going on, but I’m not sure all the children would. But that’s my only criticism. This shows at 3.45 at C Venues South, and that’s quite an outlying one, but trust me, it’s really worth the journey.

Sunday 14th August, 10.30 p.m.: And coming hot on the heels of that recommendation is another highly recommended play, Le Bossu. Unlike The Jungle Book, this was on the recommended list on the strength of WithWings’ last production at Edinburgh, The Duck Pond, that transplanted Swan Lake to a fairground hook-a-duck stall. But when a production relies on such a gamble, there’s the question of whether a company can work its magic so successfully a second time. Well, they have, and they’ve done it in spades.

Le Bossu is an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but unlike their previous show they’ve stayed a lot more faithful to the story, sticking with the intended setting of Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral, in the days of a powerful Catholic Clergy. When a seductive gypsy Esmeralda arrives in Paris, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral takes offence in the most hypocritical way possible; imprisoned in the Tower of the Cathedral, her only friend becomes hunchbacked Quasimodo, kept there since birth due to his deformity.

Withwings might not have been quite so inventive with the setting as last time, but everything else they offer they bring to the full. it’s a musical, and all of the songs, and the close-harmonised performance of these songs, are first-rate. The staging is also excellent. They still find some inventive quirks to put in, such as using organ bellows for pigeons, and more sadly, actors as the Cathedral bells that Quasimodo talks to as his only friend. A lesser company might have shied away from doing something that could look ridiculous, but they know what they’re doing and it’s very effective.

Most notably, a successful follow-up means that Withwings have got the gift few acts get – a unique style that they can bring back year after year. There’s a limitless number of classic stories they could give their treatment to. If Withwings want to be a successful recurring act at Edinburgh, they probably can.

intermission

Monday 15th August, 4.45 p.m.: And that’s my first visit done. I’m on my way to the Channel Islands for my holiday, and I’ll be back on the 25th August. But don’t go away, because there’s an awful lot of reviews to catch up on.

Before then, however, I’m going to turn my attention to an oddity with Sweet Venues. This year, of course, Sweet became unique in that it’s the only Edinburgh Fringe venue to also be active at the Brighton Fringe. It’s been a highly successful first year, with Sweet instantly finding itself on level pegging with established Brighton Fringe giant Otherplace aka The Warren. Most notably, they managed to get their hands on a lot of successful high-profile shows, and it’s possible that one benefit they would be hoping for is that these acts they get in Brighton will stay with them in Edinburgh.

But strangely enough, there has been very little crossover. Most of the Sweet Venues Brighton acts who have come to Edinburgh have gone to other venues, particularly the super-venues. That’s not entirely surprising – as long as the perception remains that Pleasance, Assembly, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon are the most prestigious places to perform at the fringe, that’s inevitably going to draw some away. But stranger still, some Sweet Venues Edinburgh acts who came from Brighton opted for a different venue there. Very few acts have gone for Sweet at both fringes, and little sign so far of venue loyalty.

One thing to bear in mind is that this isn’t the only kind of venue loyalty going on. There’s also venue loyalty to venues you’ve worked with before, and most acts who do both Brighton and Edinburgh are established groups who have done one or both fringes before. If you’ve already used another venue at either Edinburgh or Brighton that you’re perfectly happy with, there’s not much incentive to switch.

This might change in future years when new acts who have never performed in Edinburgh rise through the ranks; if Sweet got them in Brighton first, that’s when they can hope to keep them in Edinburgh.

It’s no big deal if this doesn’t happen. There no reason why Sweet can’t run two completely different programmes in two fringes. But if they can hold on to good acts they picked up in Brighton, this would give them a distinct edge over other venues. However, it looks like we’ll have to wait another couple of years before we know if this happens

Reviews will resume next after my stopover in Birmingham, the only city to have been endorsed by both Osama Bin Laden and Pavarotti. Of course it’s true, take a look at this promotional video from ten years ago:

Monday 15th August, 10.30 p.m.: Okay, enough distractions, let’s get back to reviews. After all, that’s what this blog is for. I’ve written about the highlights as and when they came up, now let’s mop up the rest. And I’ll go through this in the order I saw them.

So, let’s rewind back to Friday when I saw Empty Deck’s Comsic Fear, or the day Brad Pitt got paranoia. In their own words, this play is “is an absurd multimedia comedy tackling our powerlessness in the face of ever-escalating environmental disaster.” The crux of the story is that three environmentally-conscious housemates, frustrated over the imminent disaster of global warming, devise a plan where Brad Pitt makes a film to raise awareness of the problem, but Brad Pitt is so affected by this film it changes his whole life. At least, I think that’s what the story is. Truth be told, I can’t be certain. For some reason, one recurring theme I finding with plays that aim to cover worthy topics is to try to present their message in a clever way, but more often than not – and I fear this has happening here – all it does is confuse what the message is supposed to be. Now, that doesn’t always stop these plays being a box office success – you can still sell a lot of tickets from like-minded people wanting to support your cause – but when you aim is to reach out to the apathetic masses, that’s not enough.

There’s certainly a lot this play could say. The issue of celebrities taking on worthy causes is a controversial one – some say an  A-lister is needed to make people sit up and take notice, but others say it’s all about boosting the aforementioned A-lister’s own profile. This is touched on in the play, but only just. There’s a lot of talk about impending global warming disasters, and I particularly liked the bit about global warming driving mass migration, with the main thought of the migrants being “why should we suffer for a disaster you’ve caused?” But for every compelling point they made, there was a another one that was sensationalised or inaccurate. If you are trying to raise awareness of an issue as important as global warming, you do the cause no favours with claims such as methane from cattle destroying the ozone layer.

Plays like this often suffer because they attempt to say too much in too little time, and for this one, I’d say at a rough guess they’re trying to cover twice as much ground as you can realistically achieve in one hour. So my advice is to decide what are the most important things they want to say and focus on that. They certainly have the means to do this – the three actors were all perfectly capable, the multimedia-intensive play went without a hitch, and I’m sure they could make more of the relationship between the three flat-mates telling this story-within-a-story. To make this into a play with a clear compelling message, other messages will have to be cut, and that will not be an easy decision to make. But it’ll be worth it.

Tuesday 16th August, 3.45 p.m.: Bournemouth for me today. Tomorrow it’s off to the Channel Islands for tax evasion a holiday. Will aim to write my next review this evening.

One thing I missed – and I wish I’d seen this now, was an event at Summerhall to discuss critics. There was a high-profile panel discussing this, and this has been talked about a lot. I’ve been looking at the multitude of tweets, and it seems a lot was discussed, but it looks too complicated to reconstruct it just from that. I think Network of Independent Critics was allowed to film this, and when I have a chance I will look at this properly. In the meantime, I did notice that for an event whose fringe picture was the phrase “everyone’s a critic”, it included only one blogger. I wonder if they’re really an inclusive as they think they are – but, as I said, I’ll reserve judgement until I see what they actually said.

In the meantime, one subject that came up again was the issue of critics being paid for the service they provide, so I should probably give my thoughts on this. At the Edinburgh Fringe, the vast majority of critics are unpaid, and this includes most of the major review publications. Generally, the only reviewers who do get paid are those from the traditional paper press, but they only cover a tiny fraction of the fringe. If unpaid reviewing from the main fringe publications stopped, the arts industry would lose the #1 way of finding out which shows are the good ones, and the artist themselves would lose their most useful way of finding out how to do better. And one well-established fact is that unpaid reviewers are limited by time, and – in the case of the Edinburgh Fringe – money for acommodation and subsistence. Lack of money may not limit quality but it definitely does limit quantity. So on those grounds, there a good argument to pay critics, both bloggers and reviewers for the fringe publications.

Well, be careful. If we pay critics, you might not like it. There are two important questions that need answering, and neither are easy.

Firstly, who decides which critics get paid? Unless you pay everybody who’s anybody who writes a review (which is impractical), you have to someone find a way of deciding whose reviews should and shouldn’t be financially supported. Should it be on quality? Perhaps, but whose right is it to decide what a quality review is? Or perhaps you could judge it on audience reached – but could that end up favouring attention-seeking over quality. One thing that must be considered is what happens to reviewers who fail to secure an income from whatever process comes into place. Will their voices end up being marginalised against those who get paid to express theirs? If you’re not careful, this could become an issue of freedom of speech.

Secondly, who pays for this? Massive conflicts of interest at stake here. It is argued that being funded by someone with an interest is no worse than a film advertising itself in a paper that reviews films, but that’s little consolation because reviews have allegedly been fiddled this way before. Now, there are ways you could minimise conflicts of interest – perhaps all theatres could chip into a shared fund free from interference from one theatre who didn’t like a review of one of their plays, or maybe it could be taxpayer funded. But a likely but unwelcome side-effect from this is less money for creating arts. I can’t imagine artists being too happy with that.

I’m open to suggestions for how to do this. I’m sure there are good ideas out there for ways you can fund critics fairly, without compromising the voices of unpaid critics, which safeguards against corruption and does not threaten existing arts funding, but we’ll need to hear them. In the meantime, feel free to support the idea in principle – but don’t commit to the idea without reading the fine print very carefully.

Wednesday 17th August 4.30 p.m.: Apologies for not delivering the review promised yesterday – took in as much of Bournemouth as possible yesterday, and I was supposed to write this up one I got back to the hotel, but I passed out instead. Anyway, I’m now on a ferry with nothing to do for the next few hours, so there’s really no excuse. Better get a move on. So, next up is The Trunk, a rather nice play from Max Dickins. It’s the only play so far I’ve seen which I’d heard absolutely nothing about in advance, and was picked purely as a gap-filler, and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a young man’s time working in a coroner’s office. Now, recent TV programmes have let us to believe it’s all about foiling dastardly murderers making the death seem like an accident – but you’d be wrong. This case was a far less glamorous mystery of an old woman who died alone, with a strange letter left apparently for a “William”, a son she never knew. Officially, it’s a mandate to identify a next of kin if possible, or arrange a pauper’s funeral if not. Unofficially, it’s become a quest for him to grant her last request and find this mystery son.

I liked the way that pieces were slowly put together to reveal the life of a woman apparently forgotten by everyone, and it did ask a lot of questions about how society modern society still gives the forgotten the indignity of an unmarked grave. But I did feel this was somewhat lost by the matter-of-fact way the story was told. Max Dickens’s character is supposed to be someone who finds himself getting personally invovled in the life of a woman he never knew, whilst in the meantime witnessing first-hand the decline of his own grandfather’s mental health, but way the story was told buried any kind of emotional involvement he had; it was a shame to lose that.

But it’s still worth seeing this for an interesting insight into the underworld of the forgotten elderly and the unglorious end faced by many. You can find this in Underbelly George Square (that’s the studio space next to the giant inflatable upside down cow).

Wednesday 17th August, 9.45 p.m.: And following on immediately from The Trunk was Sacre Blue, one of the plays that came under the Northern Stage banner. This grabbed my interest from performer Zoe Murtagh’s preview of another work I saw at Durham’s Gala Theatre, The Lamppost Petition, and she is worth seeing because she has a way of owning the stage in a distinctive style that few solo performers do. However, this is going to be a frustrating one to review because, great though her style is, I really wish she would be more disciplined.

Zoe Murtagh’s performance is about anxiety, based on her own experiences and – I suspect – a lot of other fringe performers who don’t realise (or won’t admit) they’ve got it. One of the earliest points she makes was a very good one: telling a person with anxiety to just clam down is like telling a diabetic to just produce more insulin. Beyond that, I have trouble picking out any memorable moments because there was such a mish-mash of scenes they all merged into one. Part of the problem, I feel, was the use of a “set list” (which was taped to the front of the stage but I could read upside down). It was a list of twenty or so different ways of looking at anxiety – sometimes her experiences, sometimes other people’s – but there didn’t seem to be any logical order to it, and it also seems that you could arbitrarily leave any bits out or add extra bits in without having any bearing on the other bits. In a play, all of these scenelets should make sense together and add up into something greater than the sum of its parts – this, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to amount to more than a collection of scenes on a common theme.

As it stands, Sacre Blue is probably of interest to people who are familiar with the subject of anxiety one way or the other; I’m confident they will relate to these scenes more strongly than I did. But this play can achieve more than that. So I’m going to give the same tip here as I did for Cosmic Fear: decide what it is you really want to say, and concentrate on that. Expand the scenes that get this point across, drop the scenes that don’t. It’s not an easy thing to do, axing scenes you’ve put so much work in to, but this really is a time when I feel less is more. Having the discipline to realise that a scene that looks so good in isolation doesn’t necessarily contribute to a play is a tough thing to learn, but it’s worth it in the end.

UPDATE: Zoe Murtagh replied on Twitter. It’s in interesting read. Unfortunately, due to the way Twitter displays multi-tweet messages, there’s no easy way to read them in order. Easiest way is to go to her timeline with replies, scrolling down to 6.48 a.m., 18th August, then read upward. Anyway, the key point she makes is that she considers her work to be of a collage nature. She says that there have been similar criticisms about structure before, but she also seems quite keen on the format as it as. Anyway, food for thought for another day. Right now, I have three outstanding reviews to do.

Thursday 18th August, 1.45 p.m.: Before doing the next reviews, a reminder that papercut- is showing at the Edinburgh Fringe this week only. This is from Thrust Theatre, who impressed me two years ago with the an intimate but disturbing performance of Request Programme. They’re back this year with a two-hander, and it’s one of their own pieces. Beyond that, I know little about this, but you can expect a sting in the tale if it’s anything like last year.

You have until this Sunday (21st) to see it, at Theatre Arts Exchange at 7.00 p.m. (except Saturday 20th when it’s at 3.) I can’t, and I’m gutted. Let me know how it went.

On a completely different note, I am getting a fair number of review requests after my first visit. The good news is that I’ve managed to knock off my list most of the plays I wanted to see, so I should be in a good position to accommodate these requests. I will take stock of what I’ve been invited to and what I still need to see in the next few days, and I’ll take it from there. Feel free to send in more requests, but I’m roughly working on a first come first served basis now.

Thursday 18th August, 10.30 p.m.: I’m taking the next two review together as they are both performances of classic texts. This isn’t my main area of interest so these reviews will be brief, as I can’t say that much about it. On how well the performers act out the lines in Old English, I’ll have to leave it to other to comment, but I have some thoughts on how this was produced.

First up is The Steampunk Tempest. Which is an adaptation of The Tempest. With Steampunks. I liked the concept of this – the world of The Tempest is already a semi-fantsy setting, so it was quite fitting to apply this Jules Vernesque setting the the story, starting with a spaceship crashing and the occupants emerging on to the island. The costumes of Prospero and co are full steampunk regalia, whilst the vistors to the island are more conventional Victorians. All good so far. The other touch I liked was the book being used as the background for the scenes – an when you’re in a free fringe venue and you have to get in a set quickly, this is a good way of fitting the bill.

However, I do feel they missed a trick here, with a hand-painted background of just an ordinary island – surely this was a perfect opportunity to create a world more fitting to an H. G. Wells story? Also missed a few tricks to deploy some steampunk devices in leiu of magic – waving a penny whistle around sold the idea short. One small but annoying fault was that they didn’t take into account the seating going off to a side alcove in the venue, where the blocking went to pot. This, I accept, was an oversight, but this emphasises the importance of planning your show around the space you’ve got – most frustratingly, this could have been solved very easily by putting the stool at the front left instead of front right. But it’s a good idea, this play does the job, and if you’re a fan of both Shakepsepare and steampunks you won’t be disappointed.

And the other play was Wanton Theatre’s Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s classic tale of incest, mutilation, fratricide, gore, and the good old recurring theme of Catholic hypocrisy. Unlike the Steampunk Tempest, this production doesn’t go for any fresh takes and instead goes for a very faithful setting. It also relies very heavily on complex sets that need changing every few minutes, but this company ran a slick operation quickly turning this round when scene changes might otherwise have dragged. One thing to be aware of: even with this tight production, it’s quite long for a fringe play: 80 minutes, with a finish even later due to a late start on the night I saw it. Don’t expect to be out before 12.45 a.m.

The production itself seems to be well-acted, although I’ll have to leave that to other people more familiar with production of classic plays to give a more authoritative verdict. For my part, I think I followed what was going on reasonably well, which is always a good sign as plays in Old English can very easily end up incomprehensible to a modern audience. The only limitation I saw with this production was an all-young cast in a play whose characters have such a wide range of ages. When you have to concentrate hard to work out what’s happening, it doesn’t help if the father looks younger that his two incestuous children – and whilst I’ve seem some young casts find clever ways to make young actors look older, that didn’t happen here. Apart from that, this looks like a decent production, and if you’re a purist for the classic plays, this one should do you fine.

One play to go. Anyone fancy guessing what it is? (And it’s a pretty difficult one to guess. You really need insider knowledge to get this right.)

Friday 19th August, 10.30 p.m.: And the last thing on my backlog to review is Made in Cumbria. I’m a theatre blogger rather than a comedy blogger so I tend to only cover comedy when there’s a theatrical element to it, but this one fits the bill. Jane Postlethwaite’s show is a character comedy where she plays five women in her home county of Cumbria. The running joke, as you may have guessed, is that everyone takes life gently in Cumbria, whether you’re doing away with fiancés in order to claim on the wedding insurance or selling crystal meth disguised as Kendal Mint Cake. Even when a rogue spaceship crashed into Sellafield, the radio gently advises residents to pack up some warm blankets and a nice cup of tea and head for the safety or Scotland, Lanashire, Northumbria or Durham. But not Yorkshire. One thing I learnt is apparently Cumbria shares Lanashire’s views on Yorkshire.

If I could pick out one shortcoming, Made in Cumbria isn’t the most original humour. Sleepy country life juxtaposed with friendly walking guides who murder people has been done many times before. But it’s a very funny set, she engages with the audience through the whole hour, and pretty much all of the characters deliver a beautiful passive-aggressive stance if you say the wrong thing – especially if you let it slip you’re from Yorkshire. Very much a fun show rather that anything edgy or ground-breaking, but certainly worth a visit.

Saturday 20th August: Now, whilst I’ve been clearing the backlog of reviews, one bit of news has broken with Network of Independent Critics ought to be pleased with. One of their number, Fergus Morgan, has only gone and won The Stage Critic Search 2016. Before we get too excited, I have some doubts about the reliability of this process, in particular relying on a single 250-word review as the basis for picking a shortlist of 12 in the country. If I had my way, it would be based on a track record of reviews, although I realise that may not be practical for an open call. However, the fact remains it’s a very prestigious thing to win, so well done.

Apart from the psychological boost for NIC, there are two ways this might be good news for them. Firstly, the fact that one of their number won potentially enables them to be taken a lot more seriously – this may well count in their favour if they look towards sponsorship for future fringes. Secondly, they now potentially have a highly-regarded critic fighting their corner for them, assuming relations stay all well and good. None of this is guaranteed, it could be months before we know if this has a positive impact, and I can’t imagine NIC are going to make plans for next year’s fringe until this year’s is out the way (plus however long they need for the inevitable post-fringe hibernation). But this is certainly an unexpected bonus for this.

Sunday 21st August: Whilst there’s a lull for me, now’s a good time to see how shows I’ve seen or recommended are faring with the proper reviews. A reminder of the rules for this. I try to avoid looking at reviews for shows I have yet to see, because I do not want it to prejudice my own verdict. Secondly, I generally don’t take much notice of established successful shows, because it doesn’t really mean anything. Once you’ve established a loyal following who come back year after year, you don’t need review any more. (One other caveat: I have not done full search for reviews yet – it is possible that a show may have reviews that rate it higher or lower than what I’ve seen.)

So, amongst the shows I’ve seen, no major surprises. Most of the shows I’ve seen and liked are getting a mixture of 3* and 4* reviews. The two that are performing the best, however, are also the two I liked the best: The Jungle Book an Le Bossu both of whom has managed to hit five stars. The Bookbinder is also performing very strongly with two 5* reviews under its belt. Dugout Theatre can also be pretty pleased with Swansong, which hasn’t quite managed to get 5* yet, but they’ve got lots and lots of 4* reviews to take home.

Nothing as interesting as last year, where some shows were runaway successes and other shows had an unprecedented split of critics. Still, there’s always my second visit. Will I stumble across a blockbuster when I return on Thursday?

Monday 22nd August: It’s a new week, which means there’s new shows coming to Edinburgh. Out of the shows on my recommended list, two of them starting in this final week.

Firstly, the People’s Theatre comes with Five Kinds of Silence, by Shelagh Stephenson, best known for The Memory of Water. One thing I must warn you about this plays is that it is far more depressing that her most famous play. That one had ups and downs – this one, however, is depressing throughout, concerning a mother and two daughters driver to murder their father because of the years of- … yes, you’ve probably guessed it already. But I saw The People’s Theatre do this last year and they did a good job of the production. If you want something heavy, this might be the one for you – just don’t pop along if you’re after a bit of comic relief.

The other one is more of a wildcard. Sheepish Productions are taking two plays to the Edinburgh Fringe, but the one that grabs my interest is The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon, about a con-man and faith healer (i.e. con-man who claims to do faith healing) and gun loony who ends up on the run from the law. I saw this at Buxton last year – this didn’t quite work out, due in part to trying to literally set the play in The Old Clubhouse next to Buxton’s Pavillion Gardens. Now, I’m told, it’s been transplanted to a better location of his home the good ol’ US of A. Will the play work better now? I should know in a few days.

Tuesday 23rd August: Now for a new comment piece something I’ve been meaning to write for some time: How to cope with being offended – a handy guide. This not to be taken  too seriously, but it’s an ever-so gentle suggestion that a lot of the time the best response to being offended is to get on with your life. Especially if you’re only offended because someone else told you to be offended.

There is a serious point to this. This is an extended version of a brilliant flowchart produced by John Robertson of The Dark Room fame. This is the second time I’ve seen his show, and it was just as funny as I remembered it from the first time round. I don’t have time to explain this 1980s text adventure-themed show yet again, so feel free to read the review in last year’s roundup. What I will add this time round is that it’s surprising that, in spite of the oodles of different choices open to players, so many people went for exactly the same options as last time, including the obscure “Click heels for Stalin”. How people keep finding this option and choosing it I’m not sure, but it’s a popular one.

But I digress. There’s one other thing that seems to keep happening in The Dark Room, and that is people walking out of the show having seemingly taken offence to something. Now, some edgier comedians are inevitably going to cause offence, and everyone’s entitled to their opinion on whether or not that material is justified or necessary, but this isn’t the case here. The stuff that appears to be provoking walk-outs barely registers on the offence scale. At the very worst, it was a very subtle piss-take of some of the sillier claims made by a minority of hardcore feminists. It probably went over the heads of most of the audience. And yet it still seems to be enough to outrage some people.

I am duty bound to say that on the particular incident I witnessed this time, the guy in question returned to his seat later – we think he may actually have just gone to the loo and the timing was a coincidence. But on other occasions, I gather, it’s not unusual for people to walk out in protest over the most trivial of matters. Which, I can only assume, was the sort of thing which let to that flowchart being made in the first place.

The Edinburgh Fringe is the last place I would expect the professionally offended to make a fuss, but I’m beginning to wonder. Don’t get me wrong, if you wish to use the artistic freedom of the Edinburgh Fringe to be a Jim Davidson-wannabe, you can do so at your own risk. But could we be headed for a situation where mainstream comedians shy away from including mildly topical jokes in their sets just in case someone whips up moral outrage? I’d still say that’s highly unlikely. But it’s possible. And at the Edinburgh Fringe, where freedom as paramount, that’s a threat we can do without.

Wednesday 24th August: Wow, that time already. Almost time for me to come back for my second visit. It’s going to be a jam-packed 72 hours, because the remaining shows and a late flurry of review requests means I’ve got a lot to squeeze in between tomorrow evening and Sunday. Everyone who’s contacted me about individual shows to review – you should have heard back from me by now. Promoters and venue managers offering comps to multiple shows – I will look at your invitations tomorrow.

Until tomorrow, one bit of news is that the awards are starting to come out, and one of those is the Brighton Fringe Award for Excellence, where the winner gets a heavily subsidised run at next year’s Brighton Fringe (last year’s winner being Police Cops). The shortlist came out today, and one play I recognise from the list is Skin of the Teeth, which I saw at Buxton Fringe. Fat content will be happy with that, as will the Buxton Fringe itself. Will they win? That will be known in a few days.

Incidentally, this year’s winner won’t be going to Sweet Venues Brighton – next year the host will be Komedia. Interesting that a venue so strongly associated with comedy is hosting the winner of a theatre-dominated competition. The winner of this award I expect will be a success regardless of the venue – but will it be a success for Komedia too? Are they trying to diversify into serious theatre? Can they do it? That could be interesting?

Right, not sure what time I’ll be in Edinburgh tomorrow. For reasons too complicated to explain, I’m on a flexible ticket. Hopefully there should be a seat available for me, but I think instead I’ll sit on the floor next to the toilets and make a video about how terrible conditions are on the trains. I’ve heard you get massive credibility if you do that.

Thursday 25th August, 2.00 p.m.: Just before I get on that train, I’ve caught up with the news of the passing of Moria Knox earlier this month. She’s someone I’d not heard of before, and she was active before my time, but she’s universally described as the Edinburgh Fringe’s answer to Mary Whitehouse. She endlessly called for anything that offended her moral sensibilities to be banned, almost invariably things she hadn’t seen – and, like Mary Whitehouse, anything she demanded was banned instantly got a massive increase in ticket sales from everyone desperate to find out what offended her this time. There was even a call at the Edinburgh Fringe AGM (a not terribly serious one, it must be said) to commemorate her for this very reason.

Whilst this might be a fun distraction, there’s a couple of not-so-cheery observations I’ve got from this:

  • She might have got nowhere censoring the Edinburgh Fringe, but she did get herself on to the boards of the Edinburgh International Festival society and Royal Lyceum Theatre in the 1990s. Whilst I doubt either of these two organisations would have been terribly interested in programming nude lesbian acrobats or weightlifters who use their genitals, her moral objections went far further than that, with frequent calls to ban anything containing homosexuality or blasphemy, which features in lots of plays. I thought it would be inconceivable any respectable arts organisation would allow someone on its board of directors with such a censorious attitude – certainly not in the reasonably enlightened nineties – but evidently they did.
  • And remember, whilst Knox may have failed miserably to censor the Fringe, other censorious tyrants succeeded two years ago. The difference? Knox was a laughing stock throughout the fringe, but the people who pushed so hard to ban Jews artists who accept non-approved state funding were supported by a sizeable minority of artists and venue managers. You get a lot more success with moral authoritarianism if you can find people in the arts world who share you moral authoritarian values.

I’ll say it before and I’ll say it again – people like Moria Knox and Mary Whitehouse are not much of a threat to artistic freedom any more. Nor are pressure groups, broadcasters or even governments. No, the biggest threat to artistic freedom is other artists. As soon your fellow artists jump on the bandwagon, you are in trouble. Which is why my deepest contempt is always reserved for artists who think it’s okay to censor fellow artists.

A nudey lady. Shock horror!

It’s filth! Quick, ban this blog now!

Right, enough of that, how can I get some more web traffic in advance of my second visit. I know! Let’s get someone calling for this blog to be banned. Look! There’s a picture here of a lady with no clothes on! She’s probably showing her front bottom and everything. Isn’t it disgusting? And I hear this woman wasn’t even baptised. Isn’t it sinful too?

Quick, now tell all of Moria Knox’s friends how depraved this blog is. The sooner we can get them on telling calling for this smut to be taken off our screens, the better.

Friday 26th August, 12.15 a.m.: And the first show for review in my second visit is Boris and Sergey: Preposterous Improvisation. Boris and Sergey is a creation of Flabbergast Theatre of two foul-mouthed puppets, best watched late at night after you’ve been drinking. But there’s more to the show than potty-mouthed humour (although, admittedly, this makes up a large part of it); I’ve been particularly impressed with how well they’ve choreographed some complex shows. This latest show, however, impresses me in a different way – it’s a fully improvised show, which is complicated enough to get right, but when you’ve  three puppeteers per character having to spontaneously co-ordinate with each other, it’s especially impressive. But then, the Flabbergast puppeteers have worked together so long, they can do this.

An early version of this improvised format was done two years ago as part of an otherwise scripted show. I’d little doubt they could do the same here – but could this format work for a whole hour without the joke wearing thin? The answer, I’ve discovered, is a resounding yes. If anything, it picked up as the show went along. It’s fair to say that the success of the show depends on how spontaneously and enthusiastically the audience chip in ideas, but this time round I successfully managed to chip in the can-can which they performed to great effect, and the trip to Iceland worked in the obligatory banker getting eaten by sharks, and of course the volcano. Bjork of course also had to feature, although everyone beat me to it with that idea. I don’t have space to outline the whole show, but be assured the rest was about as random. And a lot of fun. And credit in particular to the techie (sorry, don’t know her name) who spontaneously found the right music for the moment – including Bjork, of course. She was just as much part of the show as the six puppeteers.

As well as the show itself, this year Flabbergast have been busy pretty much designing their own venue. The Omintorium, round the back of Assembly George Square, is a space they pretty much designed themselves, together with a cocktail bar outside in the form of a double-decker bus, with bongoes. With many of the spaces in the Big Four venues getting generic, it’s good to see a space that a group has made their own. Should do this more often.

So a good start there. A big day tomorrow with the heavyweights from Police Cops, Boris World King and Beasts. So beddy-byes, I think.

Friday 26th August, 3.15 p.m.: Crap. Forgot laptop charger. Limited battery time left. Reviews in the next few days are going to have to be typed hastily. Sorry.

In my gap in the middle of a six-show day, I can now go back to yesterday’s other show, Ruby and the Vinyl. This show from the John Godber company is billed as jointly written between John Godber and his daughter Elizabeth. My guess is that this is, in practice, mostly Elizabeth’s work with just some steering from her famous father. Billed as an obsessive love story between two students who meet in a vintage clothes shop, it follow Tom and Lily, whose shared love of Vintage Clothes, Vintage records and Netflix box sets lead to them spending a lot of time together – but are friends or something more? This is a conversation they are slow to have.

The concept is good, but the let-down here is character believability. Okay, the rom-com genre doesn’t exactly have a great track record for plausibility, but in this story it is important. Tom and Lily both have their own reasons to escape from their families – but both take it to the extreme and spend every moment together watching Netflix together at the expense of the film studies course they are both on together. Tom’s reason for why he’s not doing his degree is pretty obvious when his secret is rumbled – Lily’s less so. Clearly she has some issues if she’s finding the worlds of Lost and other box sets more important than the real world, but we never really learn what these issues are. “Ruby” is mentioned as the owner of the shop, by she doesn’t really seem to have a role in the story other than narrator. Surely she’s going to notice something going on with these two maybe/maybe-not lovebirds coming into the shop every day? Does she play a role in match-making? Does she see a disaster coming? We never know.

What saves this play, however, is the gorgeous songs written into this musical and the beautiful close-harmony singing of the cast of three. Much of the credit for the much go to Ruby McIntosh, who plays Ruby but also acted as composer and musical director, although the musical talents of the whole cast play an important part too. Really my only frustration is that this is an okay musical that could be a great one. But it’s not a bad Edinburgh Fringe debut from Elizabeth Godber, so I’d say get the characterisation right for whatever project is coming next, and she can expect a lot more future success.

On a completely different subject, I’ve been hearing a lot of great things lately about How to Win Against History from Seiriol Davies. Seiriol, some of you may recall, was the musician and composer for Caroline Horton’s wonderful Mess. I will probably not have time to see this now (I’ve got a jam-packed schedule now), but it’s good to see his musical talents are bearing fruit. I will keep an eye out for this and maybe catch it another festival.

Friday 26th August, 9.00 p.m.: And I have now caught up with new and updated Boris: World King. I won’t do a repeat review here, because it got enough last year such as my award for Best Production 2015. Of course, acclaim is still piling up elsewhere – the play was in the top to picks in the Guardian for the whole country, not just the Fringe. And Simon Callow himself has been brought in as the new narrator – a bit step up from Buxton 2015 when Tom Crawshaw himself did the voice.

All the same, the mystery needed solving how this play was updated with last year’s EU referendum escapades – as fans will know, the original story involves Boris becoming President of the EU at the end. That’s a bit difficult now, and the challenge was to rewrite the play whilst making it look like it had been written that way all along. As it happens, the solution was a pretty obvious one when you think about it: just add in yet another half-arsed U-turn, which was quite a common theme of the play.

Also seen BEASTS presents Mr. Edinburgh. Oh Boy. Will book in some more therapy sessions before I talk about that.

Friday 26th August, 11.15 p.m.: Some better news: discovered I can update this blog on my phone. I’m not completely sunk with a flat laptop battery. Please excuse stupid autocorrects Android insists on adding when I’m not looking.

Before continuing with reviews, and update on the earlier question on whether more shows are doing short runs. Still no sign anyone’s gone through the programme and analysed this properly, but the informal word I’m picking up is that, apparently yes, this is happening. One thing that appears to be commonplace is shows running for the first two weeks instead of all three. I suppose the reasoning behind this is that – starting from the conventional wisdom that you need to run the full festival to get noticed – some groups are calculating that two weeks is enough and the last week is a an extra expense that isn’t worth it.

Assuming these anecdotal observations are correct, the next question to ask is whether this works. Is two as good as three, or is it a false economy? That could determine whether this practice becomes more commonplace. And if it does, that could significantly change how the Edinburgh Fringe works.

It won’t be too hard to work out the current extent of two-week runs, but it be harder to tell how successful this model is or how attractive this will be for future groups in future years. We will have to wait and see, but in the meantime, it looks like the gap between Edinburgh and Brighton is set to narrow further.

Saturday 27th August, 1.00 p.m.: Rounding up my triple of Queen Dome heavyweights is two more comedies. No astute political commentary in these two, just lots of silliness.

First for your pleasure/embarrassment (delete as applicable) is BEASTS: Mr Edinburgh 2016. Nominally, BEASTS is a sketch group, but their sketches (usually terrible jokes where the humour is how terrible they are) tend to be over pretty quickly before it descends into the pompous one getting pompous, the nerdy one getting nerdy, and the big hairy one taking his clothes off at the first opportunity.

This year, they add in singing talents as they host Mr. Edinburgh, where they just happen to be the three finalists. I must advise you at this point that the big hairy one has a backsideless leotard and proceeds to make persistent wildly optimistic and inappropriate advances on whichever unsuspecting attractive young lady is sitting in the front row. If this puts you off, well, that’s the tone for the rest of the hour. If you choose to ignore my warning, I can also advise you that it’s another very funny show in a traumatising kind of way, with other highlights including the drugs test, the cheating, and the worst beat-boxing in the world.

Then it was time for Police Cops, which I finally caught up with after narrowly missing it in Brighton. It’s basically a parody of every 70s mismatched cop TV show ever made. The R&D for this, I swear, must have consisted of watching every single show to list every cliche and corny catchphrase, so that you can include every one in the play. Some people might suggest that this all gets a bit homo-erotic, but it’s the 1970s you fools. Everyone knows gays men are identified by flamboyantly prancing around shops going “I’m free!” This is 100%  heterosexual manly manly manly man stuff, going round bare-chested half the time bonding over shooting, fishing, hitting things  with sledgehammers in the sweltering sun and standing in front of the good ol’ Stars and Stripes. Don’t you know anything?

It’s fair to say this play is essentially the same joke for a whole hour, and a lesser group would run dry, but this cast of three from The Pretend Man make it work with a high-energy suitably overblown performance. There is the odd bit where I felt the plot got a little too complicated to depict on stage with three people, but when it’s a whole hour of fun and silliness it doesn’t matter that much. Don’t expect any subtlety, but do expect a very enjoyable journey from a very talented trio.

Sunday 28th August, 10.45 a.m.: Okay, so six-show days don’t leave me with a lot of time to write reviews, especially when it’s all being done on a smartphone. I can start catching up tonight when I will have a proper computer again.

But whilst I have a gap, let’s cover Adventures of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl. Rebecca Perry’s sequel to last year’s Confessions, an almost-true story of how she went from dead-end job to meeting the man of her dreams who introduces her to the idol of her dreams in turn landing her the job of her dreams, it’s now time to move on to this job, three month internship in Africa with the chimpanzees.

Once again, Perry’s success formula is not so much the story, but the way she tells it. A story of three months in the house for domesticated chimps isn’t that unusual, but she makes it unique through her own funny and musical style. Watching a show of hers the second time round, I started to notice the little things that make this work. The piano riffs that jump up and down octaves as she does both sides of a conversation is something most people won’t spot, but it works so well.

But there is one important difference in this sequel. The first story had everything she wanted in her life suddenly falling into place. And the same happens here so easily, there’s something you should see coming. But you don’t. All these dreams come at a high price.

It looks like there’s going to have to a third play to resolve this. But what title can it have? We’ve had Confessions and Adventures. Can anyone think of any other shit soft-porn 70s film franchises?

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Monday 29th August 12.15 a.m.: That’s it. 2 visits over 6½ days covering 35 shows. I haven’t covered reviews as quickly as I liked because of me forgetting my charger and hastily learning the limitations of the Android WordPress app. The good news is that I’m back on a proper computer, and I’ve got all day tomorrow to start catching up.

Tonight, however, I’m going to look at an interesting development over at the dreaded Fringepig. This is a review site, but instead of reviewing Edinburgh Fringe shows, it reviews the reviewers, and the worst ones get nominations and awards. This year, when I asked in jest if this excluded blogs, they said not any more, and it turns out they weren’t joking because a blogger got a nomination for the “How to lose friends and irritate people” award. Wasn’t me, in case you’re wondering. Can’t decide whether or not I want to scoop this one. (More seriously, I fully support what Fringepig is doing. Reviewers have a lot of power and need to be held up to scrutiny, and whilst some reviewers may not appreciate the prospect of having their work rubbished, artists have to put up with this all the time. Fair’s fair.)

The winner of worst review was someone who went to the wrong show and reviewed it believing it to be the other one. Oops. But the category that got my interest was the category of “Most Politically Correct Review Prize”, and amongst those nominations was a 1* review for Imaginary Porno Charades. I was on their panel in Brighton so they or not eligible for a review here, but my reading of this review is that the reviewer disapproved of the entire concept of the show. And this raises the obvious question of why she turned up to a show that she seemingly decided in advance she’s hate. (Also, although this is an unfair generalisation, the reviewer’s bio says she has “passion for museums and Radio 4”, which isn’t exactly their their target audience.) Before I carry on, I am not naming the reviewer in question because this is not meant as an attack on her personally. Rather, it’s a concern that there seems to be a practice of people going to review shows specifically to express their moral disapproval – I don’t know how widespread this is, but given that Fringepig dedicated one of three awards to this practice, it seems she’s far from the only reviewer who does it this way.

Now, I’m not entirely against the practice of rubbishing something that you otherwise have no intention of seeing; when there was a stupid spat between a Dapper Laughs and a website with a PC-slant who lampooned his Christmas album, I was fully behind their right to say that. But review publications are different. It is a long-accepted practice throughout the review publications that reviewers opt in to see shows that they like the sound of. That way, a football play is likely to be reviewed with someone with an interest in football, and an opera will be reviewed by someone with an interest in opera. Sure, a 5* review of an absurdist dance piece is unlikely to appeal to someone who hates absurdist dance, but any punter with any sense knows to take this into account. Adding 1* and 2* reviews to the list for the sole reason that a reviewer who had already decided to hate a show can express their disapproval for this concept is not helpful. You may as well give a 1* review to Oklahoma because you hate singing on stage.

The other I’m picking up is a common practice to routinely use “white male” as a derogatory term: never directly insulting, just implied though insinuation. (Never mind the fact that this was the only all-male panel out of the eleven shows, and that the other ten included at least two women of the four guests – fact-checking doesn’t seem to be a high priority amongst the self-righteous.) Not so long ago, the insulting term was “white male public school boys” or something similar, where the jibe was that they’d got their leg up though family connections, old boys’ network, or whatever – that at least had some merit. Now sole criteria is you sex and race. It doesn’t matter if you were born into to worst of poverty and went to a sink school where all the kids end up on the scrapheap – if you have a wang and you’re not an ethnic minority, you are fair game for jibes that your achievements are undeserved because privilege. Apparently. (The term “white male” is also quite popular amongst some wealthy privileged women who – I suspect – find this a convenient distraction from their own unearned success and lets them feel hard done by.)

Unfortunately, this practice goes a lot higher than the odd volunteer reviewer – the worst offender I know is someone very senior (sadly, I cannot name and shame him because the artist he shabbily attacked asked me not to write about it). To be clear, I still think the majority of artists and reviewers and decent people who judge people and shows fairly, but there does seem to be a minority who go to shows for the purpose of taking offence in the reviews, or assume people have unearned advantages based stupid generalisations on race and gender, or both. And whilst I don’t believe this minority is big enough to be a threat to artistic freedom, someone does at least need to keep an eye out for it. And if this responsibility falls to Fringepig, then so be it.

UPDATE: And shortly after writing this, I got an interesting reply from Fringepig on Twitter:

Spot on. People ‘going to see [performances] specifically to express moral disapproval’ is a growing problem. There are people who’d bully the Fringe into conforming with their own sense of acceptability via threat of bad review.

This is interesting because it goes further than what I’d suggested. I was putting this down to over-zealous individuals expressing disapproval for the sake of it (or perhaps to display their political credentials). That is cringey and annoying but otherwise harmless – certainly not when it’s against a show with an established following who can safely ignore it and fart in their general direction. But there is the possibility that the real agenda behind this is to serve as a warning to others “Don’t say things I disapprove of or you’ll get a 1* review too.”

To be clear, there is no suggestion that this individual reviewer had these sorts of motives. Do other reviewers have those motives, and if so, is it enough to be a threat? It’s hard to say. But the worst-case scenario I can see from this is if the practice become widespread enough that people shy away from taking shows to the fringe. And this doesn’t just stand to affect Roy Chubby Brown wannabes or even a bunch of white men telling wanking jokes – it is conceivable that a plays expressing even mildly contentious views could get the same treatment. Let’s suppose you’re thinking of taking a play to the fringe where a man accused of rape turns out to be innocent – would you still want to do it if you’re facing the prospect of reviewers picking out the show or the sole purpose of telling the world how disgusting misogynistic people like you are? It’s paranoid to think this, but I can’t rule this out.

But then, if performers have the right to say what they like, reviewers have the right to say what they like about performers. Which is why it’s important the the rest of us should have the right to say what they like about reviewers so that practices like this, if and when they emerge, are brought to our attention. In short: keep doing what you’re doing, Fringepig.

Monday 29th August, 1.00 p.m.: But that’s enough of that. We must get on with reviews. How many have I got left to do? Oh heck. I make it nine.

So let’s catch up with a couple of plays from Sheepish Productions. The one that caught my attention was The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon. This play, about a con-man turned con-preacher turned con-televangelist turned plain old con, first came to Buxton fringe last year, but sadly this was let down by a number of problems, the worst one being setting this play in the venue’s real-life location near the Pavilion Gardens. However, he still went ahead with taking this to the Edinburgh Fringe. I think that’s an extremely reckless thing to do – you should really only think of going with your absolute best stuff – but I can’t deny I admire the guts for anyone who does that.

And what do you know? Writer Jeremy Fletcher has taken the criticism on board, reworked the script, and made it into something quite decent. Now the play is set back in America where a half-deluded reverend makes it to a church where some members of his faithful congregation are waiting. The sound plot that got a bit overbearing and confusing last year has been tidied up and now work better. This play given itself a clarity it lacked before, of the rise and fall of a charlatan whose downfall cost him for more than his freedom, and turned him into a deluded man whose come to believe his own stories. It’s still not perfect, in particular, I don’t think I picked up what that speech about choosing the baked potato was supposed to be about – but it’s a big improvement on last year. If you haven’t seen it before you shouldn’t be disappointed with it. If you have, now’s a good time to give it a second chance.

And the other play they brought was Communicate. This follows a young couple, James and Heather, who – urgently needing somewhere to live – move in to the spacious house of James’s father, Tom. The unexpected problem? Most of the house seems to be taken up by the father’s pen collection, everything from classic state-of-the-art pens to cheapo biros handed out for free at conferences, none of which he’s willing to let go. At least, that’s how things seem. In fact, it’s not the pens that someone can’t let go of, but that won’t be revealed until the end.

When you have a play which relies on a twist at the end, there is a unique and arguably unfair challenge that fringe writers face that established professionals don’t. When hints are dropped that something’s not quite right, you need people to think “Something’s not right here” and not “This doesn’t seem plausible, not sure about the writing”. Plays in big regional theatres don’t have the problem, because audiences are more likely to assume writers know what they’re doing. For this play, yes, it all made sense at the end, but I found myself thinking at the time why he didn’t just say to his girlfriend “Look, we can’t force him to move his belongings out of his own house.”

Personally, I think this format would be strongest with a tighter time-frame. I’d say start the play when James begins the clearing of the pen collection; the early days of James and Heather’s relationship can go in the backstory. It’s a nice play as it stands, but how knows, with Fletcher being amenable to feedback, maybe we could see a tighter stronger play emerge from this. On the whole, Sheepish might not be blowing us away this year with this double bill, but it was worthwhile and bodes well for future projects.

Monday 29th August, 7.00 p.m.: Some breaking news now, it’s the stat we’ve all been waiting for. Fringe ticket sales have finally been reported, and they show a 7.7% increase in ticket sales. Not nearly as impressive as the 30% Brighton reported this year, but the Festival Fringe Society can nevertheless breathe a sigh of relief here. Had there been a decrease, that combined with the stalling of growth might have spelled that start of a decline.

For reference, comparing this year’s figures to last year’s also show a 0.5% fall in number of performances and 1.1% fall in the number of registered shows. This means a slight increase in performances per show from 15.25 to 15.37. Hmm. That figure on its own doesn’t support the anecdotal observations that there’s a movement towards shorter runs, but there again, averages don’t tell you everything. I’ve been promised some data that analyses this in more detail, so I’ll look forward to that.

Okay, next review is The Unknown Soldier, a very successful solo show from last year that’s returning for a lap of honour. Like Lest We Forget, this is set in the aftermath of the First World War, a period of history less remembered. But for all the achievements of Lest We Forget, The Unknown Soldier does it better. Sergeant Jack Vaughan, still in France tending to the bodies, talks about his life after the armistice. The imperial war graves and the mothers who want their son’s bodies taken home form part of the story, but so does the mood back home. Whilst there’s a lot of glorious war dead to commemorate, there’s an awful lot of not-so-glorious war wounded looking for work at the height of a post-war depression. Cynical Jack suggests that the establishment likes the war dead because does men don’t tell tales; an improvement on the wounded men grumbling and start riots in Luton Town Hall.

That’s where the Unknown Soldier comes in. Officially, an individual unidentified man to be buried in Westminster Abbey with full honours to represent the sacrifices of all men – again, Jack has his own more cynical reasons why he thinks it’s done. And in a clever link between the known real events and the fictitious world created by writer/performer Ross Ericson, the unknown soldier get a backstory. This script is a good all-rounder covering the well-known horrors of the war and the less-known bleakness of the aftermath. This has now finished its run at Edinburgh (as has everything), but there’s a few more performances coming up the next few months in obscure locations. It’ll be worth the journey.

Tuesday 30th August, 1.00 p.m.: And hot on the heels of the ticket sales news, we have some figures for run length, which Richard Stamp of Fringeguru kindly analysed using his existing database.

Firstly, quick note on methodology. Exhibitions were excluded because a three-week run of some pictures in the room isn’t really the same as a three-week run of a performance. Runs of 4 or less performances were also excluded as something that’s not really a “run” (at least not by Edinburgh fringe standards). They were then categorised into 5-9 dates (about one week), 10-16 dates (about two weeks) and 17 dates or more (about three weeks).

Using the categorisation, 2016 figures are as follows, with difference from 2015 (rounded off to neariest 1%):

5-9 dates: 24% (down 1%)
10-16 dates: 16% (no change)
17+ dates: 60% (up 1%)

So a counter-intuitive result. No evidence of shortening of runs – if anything, it slightly went the other way.

If you have just theatre, the figures work as follows:

5-9 dates: 36% (up 3%)
10-16 dates: 21% (no change)
17+ dates: 33% (down 3%)

Bit of movement here, but not much. That’s a one twelfth reduction in theatre shows doing a fullish run, but not enough to support the claim made in the Guardian that companies are tending to do fewer performances.

So, the next question is how everyone came to believe this was happening? I wondered if it was possible that shows leaving after week 2 might be pushed into the top teir by the week zero performances (i.e. first weekend plus previews), but apparently there aren’t many shows at the boundaries, so this seems unlikely.

The only other possibility I can think of is that there could be shortening of runs of shows that arts journalists were looking at. That 3% drop in full-length theatre might not be much on its own, but if it’s entirely from the plays that get the most attention from review publications, that could look like a significant chunk.

Who knows, maybe someone will pick something up with further analysis. It’s only fair to point out the Guardian article had a caveat no-one had actually done any research on this, but the moral of the story is to not rely too much an anecdotal claims. Verify it with hard statistic facts whenever you can, because the real result might not be what you think it is.

Tuesday 30th August, 7.00 p.m.: Next of the catch-ups is Bite-Size. I’m not going to do a detailed critique because they don’t need publicity from reviews; they get a loyal audience selling out most shows no matter what; instead, as usual I’ll pick out highlights of my favourite plays. There were other plays that were good or so-so and a couple I didn’t get, but it’s the favourites I want to write about.

So, out of the three sets of plays in The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, I think I shall stick to my earlier preference and plump for menu 3 as my favourite. There were four new plays all of which were pretty strong. Nice Try is the story of a failed dominatrix couple where the submissive husband tries and fails to excite his wife by getting himself whipped. The only time he gets anywhere is when he suddenly gets assertive and DEMAND his wife keeps her promise to let him the dom next time, but he ruins his excitement by saying “please” – one of those times where they bring these house down with a single word. Then there was Contact, a dark tale where the only known survivor of the earth’s destruction makes contact with another spaceship whose motives are suspect; You Are, Could I, a very emotionally intense piece going backwards in three scenes of a man asking to be let into the house of a same woman over the course of a destructive relationship; and Humble, an office meeting which ends with the murder of self-satisfied manager Jeremy who talks the hind legs of a donkey and ends every long speech with “And I’ll shut up now” before moving into the another one. Honestly, if the jury was composed of twelve people who’ve ever held office jobs, they’d probably exchange knowing glances to each other and get the murderer off on a technicality.

However, the play that got my attention the most is All You’ll Ever Want. Based on the slightly-too-believable premise that internet advertisers, so convinced in their entitlement that their targeted adverts on what you want based on their browsing habit go one step further and cause you to purchase all these things through a combination of clauses in the T&Cs you accept without reading and taking over the company that manages you bank accounts. Everything is included, the expensive dress you browsed, the buzzing thing in the box you thought no-one knew you looked at online, and most funnily, the sexy Frenchman – complete with dinner suit and glass of red wine – that you revealed your taste for on dating sites. This is written by Bill Knowelden, now the longest standing-member of the company after artistic director Nick Brice. Over the years, Knowelden has acted in the plays, especially various pompous roles as the Bill Knowelden character (such as the infamous aforementioned Jeremy). He also assistant directed the lunchtime show last year, commandeered croissant procurement for the breakfast (they were a bit dry and tasteless before he took action), and now it looks like they might just have hit on a gold mine with the writing too. If Nick Brice ever was to call it a day (not that I have any reason to think he will in the foreseeable future), Bill Knowelden could be lined up as a good successor.

For The Big Bite-Size Lunch Hour, the set of the most popular plays chosen by public vote, I already gave this a pre-emptive endorsement of this set, having seen all these plays before, and I stand by that. Even so, this very funny selection of the very best plays didn’t get the laughs I thought it would. For years the Bite-Size team has been trying to set up a successful project alongside their breakfast shows, but it’s a stubbornly elusive goal whatever they try. This I thought would be the shoo-in, but even this didn’t raise the laughs I’ve seen these plays get before. It could be the different space in Pleasance Dome, it could be the different time, or maybe you just can’t sustain the laughs for five out-and-out comedies on the trot. Neither did this manage to repeat the sell-outs of the breakfast shows, although this isn’t a like-for-like comparison because you have people coming to see all three breakfast shows, which doesn’t apply for a lunchtime show showing the same set every day.

That’s not to denigrate the quality of the play itself. If you liked the ten-minute play format, the lunchtime show was the best one of all to see. But it looks like the hunt for a surefire successful format to complement coffee and croissants goes on.

Tuesday 30th August, 10.30 p.m.: And now for a tricky one to review: E15. This is LUNG theatre’s follow-up to the incredible The 56, a verbatim performance of three witnesses to the Bradford City Stadium Fire (back when they were known as FYSA Theatre). E15 is also a piece of verbatim theatre, but this is about the issue of social housing in London, with a focus on the mothers who protested against eviction in Newham. But whilst there is no controversy over the Bradford City fire – everyone agrees that was a tragic accident – the issues of social housing, benefits and evictions is far more thorny.

To be honest, I’m a bit stuck over how to judge this play. Had this been done in a similar format to The 56 and told the story from three witnesses, I could have treated this as a conventional play – and to its credit, the stories of the mothers on the estate is done well, with many of the hardships and tragic tales conveyed well. But with the play being set in the middle of an occupation and the whole cast chanting “social housing not social cleansing”, it doesn’t feel that way. There is an attempt in the middle of the play the express a range of views from pragmatists to idealists, but this doesn’t really counter the in-your-face tone of the rest of the play and it feels like a soapbox piece first and a play a long way second. I could always treat this as a soapbox piece instead, scrutinise the claims, and come back with my own argument on what I agree with and what I think is flawed. But this is a theatre blog, not a politics blog. That discussion belongs elsewhere. (I will concede, however, that Newham Council have got a very tough job explaining themselves out of the things this play claims they did.)

In their credit, E15 refrains from making any of the mistakes that render most political theatre I’ve seen unwatchable. They don’t strawman their opponents; they don’t artificially romanticise their political heroes; they don’t make daft claims that a seven-year-old can see through; and most importantly, present their message is a clear and understandable way (as opposed to most groups I’ve seen who, for some reason, prefer to present their message in a clever, abstract and utterly incomprehensible way).

Normally if I’m not sure what to make of a play, I refer you to other reviewers who may know the format better. However, in this case, even this method is unreliable, because without detailed scrutiny of the reviewers in question, it’s to tell if a positive review is an endorsement of the play or simply endorsement of the views expressed masquerading endorsement of the play. So for once, I’m going to have a draw a blank. Sorry about that. But if it is their intention to make a soapbox piece first and play second, they went about it the right way. You’ve no idea how many pretentious poorly-argued political pieces I’ve had to see before reaching this one.

Wednesday 31st August, 3.45 p.m.: One obvious thing I neglected to mention whilst catching up on reviews in that the Fringe finished on Monday. But I take you know that already. What you might not know is how on earth you’re going to manage eight whole months with no festival fringes.

But if you’re in the north-east, perhaps I can help. Three excellent productions from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe are touring, and will be making stops in the north-east shortly. In In order, we have:

  • As early as next week, on the 6th-7th September, The 56 performs at Live Theatre. I’ve just talked about LUNG Theatre, and whilst E15 may be more of a Marmite play, The 56 is an all-rounder which everyone should like. There’s also a couple of performances in Yorkshire and one in Wales if you’re not in reach of Newcastle.
  • If you missed the tour of the wonderful Dinosaur Park, you have one last chance to catch it at the Stephen Joseph theatre on the 18th September at 4 p.m. With this being part of an educational festival, this is being billed as a family show, but whilst kids will enjoy this, there’s far more to this that fun for kiddies – it’s a story within a story done amazingly well. Okay, North Yorkshire’s only sort-of north-east, but when it’s this good I’m making allowances.
  • And looking further ahead to October, on the 18th and 19th October at Northern Stage is 1972: The Future of Sex, a surprisingly good devised play about the days of the sexual revolution, or, more accurately, a confusing world for a younger generation against a still conservative and deferential older generation. This sold very well at its two-day run in Brighton – there may well be a sell-out here too.

More reviews later today. Don’t go away.

Wednesday 31st August, 11.30 p.m.: Phew. Finally able to chip away at the final day’s shows now. On my last day at Edinburgh, I opted to catch up with Boxtale Soup, a duo whose offering was their own version of the Jane Austen classic Northanger Abbey. With puppets. I’ll get on to the puppets in a moment, but for Austen novices. Northanger Abbery is her earliest published novel about seventeen-year-old heroine Catherine who led a simple life in the country with no suitors, and so is taken by her wealthy neighbours to Bath to take part in the social scene there. There she is courted by a variety of ne’er-do-wells expecting a share in her family fortune – all except the dashing Henry. But Henry’s obligations draw him away from Bath and they may never meet again. Can their paths ever cross again, and can they ever find true love? (Clue: it’s a Jane Austen novel, what do you think?)

But yes, puppets. Puppetry has become quite popular in fringe theatre finding all sorts of uses, but an Austen novel is the last place I’d imagine this working. But what do you know, this is a little gem of a play that does a really good job of it. Box Tale Soup’s only two actors play Henry and Catherine; all of the other characters are done by puppets, but lovely little touches such as dressing humans and puppets alike in clothes that resemble the pages of Austen’s novel draw the two together. In order to capture all of the scenes between human to human, human to puppet and puppet to puppet (plus assorted group scenes), the puppets have to be passed between the two actors, but they pull every trick in the book to seamlessly move on with the play. A puppet might be voice by Noel Byrne one moment and Antonia Christophers the next, either or both who might be playing their own characters at the same time, but you never lose track of who’s who and where we are in the story.

The beautiful thing about Boxtale Soup’s version of Northanger Abbey is its simplicity. Austen and puppetry might both be well within Edinburgh Fringe comfort zones at the moment, but this very talented duo make the best possible job of it. Sometimes sentimental, sometime witty and always told with clarify, these two look like they’re on to a winner with this format, and it looks like they’ve got a lot of classic tales ahead of them if they want it. Surely they will be back next year – whatever it is, it should be well worth seeing.

Thursday 1st September: Now from a well-known act with a long-running show to a new group with a new show under development. They are OPIA Theatre and they brought along Unnatural Selection. This was supposed to be a free fringe show, but their original venue fell though and Sweet Venues came to the rescue with a slot at the same place and time thanks to a cancellation. Apparently, Sweet has come to the rescue of quite a few shows in similar circumstances.

Anyway, this is set in a world very much like ours except for some sinister differences. Firstly, the world is overpopulated and draconian measures are taken to curb birth control. Secondly, almost as nightmarish, Paddy McGuinness’s show has become so popular they create a spin-off show called Select Me Out where four women compete with her to win the hand of a Prince Charming – or some future wife-beater; the women don’t get a say in who the man is. Four women wait for a show to begin, having been delayed by a feminist protest. For two of them, it’s their third and final chance to be chosen.

The concept was promising, and there’s a good play in this in principle, but in reality … It truly pains me to say this, but the idea was made next to unworkable – the moment they decided to make the play into a statement about female genital mutilation. This fate, it turns out, befalls anyone who loses the third show – but that is one thing many too that doesn’t make sense. When you’re creating an alternate world for your play, not everything has to be explained, your audience have to at least understand the rules of this alternate world. We don’t really get to understand the rules of Select Me Out: who takes part, when, what stops women having babies beforehand, the practicalities of applying this to the whole human race, nor do we get much idea of what happens in the game show itself, apart from as “presentation” round that in mentioned several times but never really expanded on. The fate of the losers is just the latest thing of many that doesn’t make sense. If some women in the world must be sterilised for losing a game show, why do it in the most barbaric way possible? This might be believable in some cruel dystopian future, but this is a contemporary world to the point of networks such as Instagram being mentioned. Why is society (bar the feminist demonstration outside) so ambivalent to this? Considering two of the women are facing this fate in a couple of hours if they lose, they seem awfully composed.

This play is going to have a rewrite before it goes to Camden in a few months’ time. If it was me, I would drop the references to FGM as something too difficult to palusibly incorporate into the play, worthy though the issue is. OPIA Theatre, I suspect, will want to keep this in the play no matter what. If so, here’s what I suggest. Start off deciding what the ground rules are of this alternate world, including all the questions I asked above. Now for the hard bit: it’s easy to explain the rules to yourself but hard to explain the rules to an audience – there’s an awful lot of stuff that needs explaining, and not only that, it really needs to be dropped in consual conversation rather than a character giving a contrived “information dump” where everything is explained. If the setting must be today’s contemporary society and not some dystopia future, then society needs a backstory. How has society come to change a practice reviewed with universal revulsion to prime-time TV entertainment? That will need revealing in the story too. Make no mistake, this will be a very tough task to achieve. But – if you listen to what audiences are picking up as you develop a play – it is still achievable. A lot of effort now may yet yield substantial rewards later.

Friday 2nd September: Okay, on the home strait. Now let’s review another fully improvised show. This is Notflix which is a group who make up a film as they go along, done as a musical because, as they are only too keen to remind us, everything is better as a music. This time, on an audience suggestion, it was The Titanic, which the anonymous contributor described as one of the greatest epic love stories of all time – this aforementioned contributor missed to end of the film but said you could see the happy ending coming a mile off. And why not?

And so there’s the grand opening with the cheery Irish Chappies below, whilst the evil captain tries to court Kate Winslet who he feels entitled to, being all rich and captainy, but Kate only loves Leonardo Di Caprio. So the evil captain plans to get his way by changing the direction of the ship. “But sir!” cry the crew. “That takes us straight to the iceberg-infested waters.” Luckily, it’s up to the rookie sailor to steer the ship through safely. And so they end up in New York Harbour to the grand finale number “Land Ahoy!” I must say there are some issues over the historical accuracy of this version, but, be fair, it can’t be much less accurate than James Cameron’s film.

What particularly impressed me about this is that the literally make up the songs as they go along. I assumed they had some stock melodies handy for all the harmonisations they put in, but they insist that’s made up on the spot too. I’m no expert on improvised theatre/comedy, but with both this and Boris & Sergey, I’ve been amazed how effectively people who are used to working together co-ordinate things so smoothly. Now, I don’t see many improvised shows at the fringe so I don’t know what the normal standard is I should be comparing this to. Either Notflix is exceptional for its genre, or I’ve been underestimated how good shows of this genre are in general. Whatever the reason, this is a funny show from a troupe a very talented ladies – if they talk you into squeezing their show into your spare hour you wanted to spend resting, you’ll be glad they did.

Saturday 3rd September: Now a review from Sheep Theatre, not be be confused with Sheepish productions covered earlier. This play they brought to the fringe was Unveiled, about the lives of five women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries. This is a solo play from Ceera Dorman, who has clearly done her homework for this play. The Magdalene Laundries remains a blot on Ireland’s history, where thousands of women were used as slave labour for no crimes other than getting pregnant, or in extreme cases, looking too pretty in a town that turned against you. Tales of women being committed to asylums or being worked to death were all too commonplace, and all of this is captured in the story.

Ceera Dorman does a fine harrowing performance of these five women, but there is one question – was the harrowing tone the right one? Had this play been done twenty-year ago, when the full scandal of the Magdalene Sisters was unfolding, this would have been considered a groundbreaking piece of work. Nowadays, however, I feel we need something more. As it stands, the plot comes across as essentially a checklist of every horror known to have taken place, but we never really get to know any of these characters as individuals beyond the abuse they suffered or witnessed. This play, I feel, could be strengthened by what happened before or after. What led to these women being committed to the ironically-named Sisters of Mercy? Did they do their best to get out of this, or were they naive to think it was for the best? What happened afterwards? How did they get out? When they got out, how long did it take for people to believe their stories?

This was a two-day run at the Fringe so this should really be considered a work in progress rather than a final product. Under those terms, it’s a decent start, but more could be made out of these stories. I’d look for opportunities to  develop these characters beyond simply victims of abuse by nuns – think about what they wanted, their pasts, their futures. Do that, and I believe this could be a much stronger piece.

Sunday 4th September: My Penultimate review is of The Club, which got my attention because this two-man show included Mark Farrelly, whose solo biopic of Patrick Hamilton, The Silence of Snow, wowed me over the last two years. This time, however, he co-stars with writer Ruaraidh Murray in his play, set in a sleazy club in the late 1990s.

The play is described as Phoenix Nights meets The Sopranos, and that’s quite a good description. The Tardis is a complete dive of a nightclub whose sole selling point to the celebrities who frequent is seems to be that it’s a hedonistic club where people take a lot of drugs. In the office is the sleazy manager planning the party of the year, and his equally sleazy friend/squatter who calls himself an “artist”, if you can count collecting orifice plastercasts of mostly inebriated girls in Manumission as art, which has does. Amongst colleagues and associates, there seem to be a long complex history of who’s been shagging who and who fathered who, but that’s not the immediate concern. Right now the problem is that owing to a combination of reckless borrowing, ill-advised investments and botch arson/insurance scams, they owe quite a lot of money to a complete nutjob.

The Club has enjoyed a very successful string of reviews, and, on paper, they do everything right. The story is easy to follow, the off-stage action and off-stage characters outside the attic office are managed well, and the two men are believable characters for complete sleazebags. And yet, in spite of this, I found it hard to care about what was happening or wonder what happened next. Perhaps the characters were just so unlikable I got just too indifferent to who which villain would end up wasting which other villain. I wonder if, in the middle scene when the two are tied to chairs awaiting their punishment at the hands of Mr. Smashos Nicapos, they needed a bit more fear in their characters. Keep the jokes in that scene, because they were funny, but maybe make it more like gallows humour.

However, this is very much billed as a comedy, and if you treat it on those terms you shouldn’t be disappointed. This has finished at Edinburgh now, as has everything, but given the critical acclaim this time, there should be other chances to see this.

Phew. One to go. I’d better start deliberating on my pick of the fringe.

Monday 5th September: Hooray! Here’s the very last review. This time round, I have got round to review all the plays I saw. The only things I haven’t reviewed are a couple of the comedies, not because there was anything I disliked, but because they are too different from the theatre I’m used to reviewing to be able to make a useful judgement. As always, if you weren’t reviewed, private feedback is available on request. If you were reviewed, private feedback is still available on request.

So the final one is Overshadowed, which was on my wildcard list, meaning that I had no idea whether it would be any good, only that it grabbed by interest. Sunday’s Child Theatre is largely a vehicle for Eva O’Connor, and two years ago I saw My Name is Saiorse, a solo performance from O’Connor herself. This was an interesting story, I thought, but the play just felt a little too static to me. This time, however, she’s worked with a movement director for a five-hander play, and – what do you know? – this touch has worked wonders.

This is a play about anorexia – it’s the third fringe play I’ve seen in five years on this subject, with the other two (Mess and Close to You) heavily based on the writers’ personal experiences. But whilst Caroline Horton and Jennie Eggleton chose to play anorexia victims, Eva O’Connor opted to be Caol, a kind of evil anorexia monster who takes over Imogen’s life. In an apt piece of symbolism, Caol is always there, at first dormant, then stirring into life, firstly tempting Imogen to be thinner than the thinnest girl in school, and then go further. Even when Imogen think she’s beaten Caol, Caol is never quite dead, still there for perhaps another time. And Eva O’Connor’s character is a pretty terrifying controlling beast, shutting Imogen off from everyone who want to help her. Only a sort-of-boyfriend/tearaway gets a chance to talk to Imogen, possibly because they have a pact to not judge each other – but even this suffers when he can’t help saying something over what’s she’s doing to herself.

The family plays an important role in the story – as is often the case, anorexia has almost as devastating an effect on the people closest to the victim watching her slowly starve herself. But this bring me on to my sole niggle: the choice of casting for the younger sister seemed odd. This is no criticism of the actress, who did a great job along with the rest of the cast, but as far as I can tell, in the story she’s supposed to be one year younger, maybe two. The size difference between the two sisters meant this small age gap didn’t look plausible. It might have been better to change the age of the younger sister to early teens and make a few minor changes to the scripts. But that’s at worst, a minor distraction which is forgotten once the play gets going. This is an unexpected gem of a play, so well done to Eva O’Connor a good way to round off my fringe.

And that’s the last review, which means tomorrow I decide on my pick of the fringe. The good news is I’ve got a lot of good plays to choose – the bad news is I’m going to have to get picky. I’m off to deliberate for the night – expect the moment of truth tomorrow.

Tuesday 6th September: And this is it. The moment of truth. The jury (me) has spoken and I have decided on my pick of the fringe. Before I begin, two changes on last year.

Firstly, in the last two Edinburgh Fringes, I had a very very top category of Outstanding Shows. This was when there were a small number of shows that were clearly a cut above the rest, even the good ones. This time, there’s been more of a continuum between the very good and quite good shows, and no clear cut-off point, so I’m reverting to a single top tier of Pick of the Fringe. Within each category, I list shows in the order I saw them – it is not an order of preference from top to bottom.

Secondly, this year, I am including shows at the Edinburgh Fringe that I saw prior to Edinburgh. This year, I had such a jam-packed schedule I had to skip a few shows I’d seen before, so this rule change means that shows I saw before Edinburgh stand a fair chance against shows I saw at Edinburgh itself. Such shows are marked in (brackets). However, in view of the high standard at this fringe, I’ve had to be stricter with the ratings. This means that a show that made it to Pick of the Fringe at Brighton or Buxton does not necessarily get the same here.

Enough premable. Here we go. Imagine me as a Hollywood starlet on a podium with ridiculously whitened teeth and a dress showing far too much cleavage. I open the envelope and excitedly read out the following:

Pick of the Fringe:

  • Bite-Size
  • Waves
  • Swansong
  • The Jungle Book
  • Le Bossu
  • Boris: World King
  • BEASTS presents Mr Edinburgh 2016
  • The Unknown Soldier
  • Adventures of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl
  • Northanger Abbey
  • Overshadowed
  • (The Bookbinder)

Honourable Mention:

  • Stack
  • The Trunk
  • Made in Cumbria
  • The Dark Room
  • The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon
  • E15
  • The Club
  • (Five Kinds of Silence)
  • (Morgan and West’s Utterly Spiffing Magic  Show for Kids)
  • (Skin of the Teeth)
  • (Lest we Forget)

Special Honourable Mention:

  • Boris and Sergey: Preposterous Improvisation
  • Notflix

The rest:

  • Cosmic Fear, or the day Brad Pitt got paranoia
  • Sacre Blue
  • ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore
  • The Steampunk Tempest
  • Ruby and the Vinyl
  • Communicate
  • Unnatural Selection
  • Unveiled

Congratulations to everyone who made it into pick of the fringe. For those who didn’t, remember this was an exceptional standard this year. All this will be written in my Fringe Roundup, which I hope to complete before November this time. The snap reviews here will give you a good idea what I think, but this will be a more considered review when I’ve had time to reflect on things. I will also, where appropriate, compare my verdict to other people’s reviews.

But I’m having a break from Edinburgh coverage first. I think I deserve one.

Wednesday 7th September: And that’s the end of my Edinburgh Fringe coverage. There’s just time before I go to report that How To Win Against History, which I earlier reported hearing plenty of good things about, has done exceptionally well with the reviews too, getting a whopping six five-star reviews. I will have to try to catch this another time.

But that’s all folks. Thank you to everyone who stuck with this over the last month and a bit, and thanks to everyone who performed giving me possible the highest-standard Edinburgh Fringe ever. All have yourselves a rest. This blog will now revert to north-east theatre coverage. I’ll be popping to London occasionally and should make it to Vault Festival 2017; apart from that, join me in April 2017 when the warm-up for the next Brighton Fringe starts.

That's All Folks (Looney Tunes ending)

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