Yeek. Fringe officially starts tomorrow. Better get a move on with this. I’ve done my usual scan through the fringe programme and picked out things that grabbed my attention. And to keep to size down to something manageable, I am restricting my list to acts I’ve seen before (with one exception that I couldn’t resist). Even so, the list is getting longer, and I may struggle to see all of these in the time I have in Edinburgh.
As usual, please treat this as a cross-section of the good stuff out there, not a comprehensive top 25 of the entire fringe or whatever. The vast majority of things in the programme are people I’ve never heard of who could be great, good, mediocre or shit. There are quite a few plays I’ve heard good things about from other reviewers, but they won’t come on to this list until I see it for myself. If you want to see a list that gives fair consideration to all plays across the whole programme, there are arts publications that aim to do that, but for me it’s down to what I’ve happened to see, and in a festival of this size, this largely comes down to chance.
Enough disclaimers though. What have I got for you?
(All events run the full length of the fringe unless otherwise stated.)
First of all, six picks (or ten plays) that I’m confident won’t disappoint. These are all productions where I’ve either seen the play before and loved it, or the company doing the producing has a long track record of success. Obviously this play will only please you if it’s the kind of thing that appeals to you, but if you like the sound of it from my description here, or their description on their own publicity, then it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll like it for real.
In alphabetical order, my surefire recommendations are:
What can I say. It was ten years ago that I went to a breakfast show on a whim after getting a flyer from artistic director Nick Brice, in a small obscure space at the top of Roman Eagle Lodge. Fast forward to today, and they’ve grown to one of the most popular long-standing shows on the Fringe scene. They do sets of five ten-minute plays, and it’s format they can bring back year after year with new material. That’s a rare prize that most groups would kill for. Their main attraction is The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show with trademark coffee, croissant and strawberry. This shows at the prestigious Queen Dome at Pleasance Dome at 10.30 a.m. every morning (not 16th or 23rd), and rotates through three sets of plays.
As well as this, in recent years they’ve run another show alongside it, always something different, usually something riskier. This year – and this might be a disappointment to some – they’re not doing anything particularly adventurous; but instead – and this will come to the delight of others, they’re doing Bite-Size Lunch Hour: Best Bites, with five greatest hits from the last decade as decided by a vote of viewers. Since audiences come and go, this vote is probably skewed towards the later years, but I know all five plays in the list and they are all fantastic. This is at 12.30 p.m. also at Pleasance Dome (also not 16th or 23rd).
I always make an effort to see all three breakfast shows (shamelessly abusing my power if needs be), and it’s worth you doing this do. But if you only want to dip your toe and do one, see the lunchtime show. The breakfast shows should be good, but the greatest hits will be excellent.
Boris: World King
Oh boy. This is going to be interesting. Long-standing Edinburgh and Buxton regulars Three’s Company have brought many plays to the fringe, mostly surrealistic comedies, but it was last year’s play about everybody’s favourite slapstick politician that turned out to be the unexpected blockbuster. On the surface, this seems the same as all their other comedies with zany off-the-wall humour and usually some compulsory audience participation, but this time round, the was a serious but very persuasive message underneath about all the things Boris gets away with die to his bumbling persona. As well as rave reviews and numerous sell-out shows, it’s attracted VIPs such as Kezia Dugdale, Giles Brandeth and even Boris’s own sister and mother.
Could we have anticipated this success? A braver theatre journalist than me might predicted this would be a runway hit. But surely no-one could have predicted all the zany antics Boris got up to since the last fringe. The fringe programme says that Boris is coming straight from his Brexit victory/defeat (delete as applicable), but now even that’s out of date. It has to be rewritten for the London run earlier this year and now it’s been rewritten again. I can’t wait to find out how the play has changed. Having previously shown in a smaller Pleasance Space, this year it’s upgraded to Queen Dome at Pleasance Dome, 6.50 p.m. (not Wednesdays – that’s PMQ day I presume).
Actually, just a thought. It would be even more fun if Bojo resigns half-way through the fringe prompting another rewrite. Anyone fancy spreading a vicious rumour about Boris and “that turnip”?
The best thing about a festival fringe is when you see a play from people you’ve never heard of that turns out to be an absolute gem. This year at Brighton, my very such gem came from Trick of the Light theatre. Starting off with a bookbinder talking to you as if you’re after the post of apprentice, he explains how bookbinder is not for the faint-hearted. Yes, you might think it’s a dull but secure dead-end job, but it’s actually a job fraught with danger – especially when an old woman comes to ask a former apprentice to repair an old sinister book, and the aforementioned apprentice covers a careless mistake by burning a page. That is very perilous indeed.
This play could have been a competent piece of straightforward storytelling; but instead, it is made into an outstanding beautifully crafted production. Everything on the set, be it lamp post, books, scissors, even a jug of water, is put to stunning use in the play, but the key prop is the spooky pop-up book showing the scenes of the story. Topping this all off is an exquisite sinister musical score.
Trick of the Light is a New Zealand company and this is their final UK fixture. It may never return. If you haven’t seen it before, catch it now whilst you still have the chance, and it’s at 1.00 p.m. in Pleasance Courtyard (not 15th or 22nd).
This was a bold choice in my Buxton Fringe recommendations, but has earned a promotion to safe choice after I managed to catch this myself. Aulos are an up-and-coming Edinburgh based company who do a mixture of new writing and classic plays. My interest is their new writing, they had a good start with First Class two years ago; this year they follow it up with a play set in the aftermath of World War One, about the then hotly-debated issue (but today largely forgotten) of the war graves. As the Imperial War Graves Commission is being debated in Parliament, a representative visits a grieving mother of a war hero asking for her support. In reality, however, the war hero has a secret to hide – if fact, not even a secret, just an extra not-so-heroic truth that everyone knows but no-one talks about.
It’s quite a conventional play compared to previous ventures, and this means Aulos may struggle to be noticed from all of the other World War One plays running. But they deserve to be noticed, because this is a well-written well-acted play that shed light on an interesting issue about all the war memorials we know of in France. It’ll be interesting to see how this one does; I will keep an eye on how it goes. For once, it’s a show not at the Pleasance – instead it’s at Paradise at Augustine’s at 12.00 noon (not 14th or 21st).
Stack and Swansong
It is unusual for plays I’ve never seen before to go straight to safe choice at the Edinburgh Fringe, but this pair of plays comes from Dugout Theatre. I’ve been keeping a eye on the guys and guyettes ever since I saw their outstanding Inheritance Blues in 2014. It’s not just that play though. I’ve seen three other plays of theirs, all in different forms and styles, and all of them have been pleasing to watch. So good is their track record that I’m now giving all new plays of their byes to this top tier. They are give away little information about new plays, but you can expect plenty of singing in close harmony, well-choreographed scenes, a wild imagination and some good humour.
What do we knows about these two new plays. Well, Swansong is like nothing they’ve done before – as far as I know, none of their previous plays involve apocalyptic floods, but this one does. And there are four survivors travelling around in, for some reason, a swan pedalo. Why they’re going around in a swan pedalo I’m not sure, but I’m sure this will be revealed. They seem to be hinting that this is actually a cheery play reflecting on the good things on the 21st century. I’m going to take their word for it. Showing at Pleasance Courtyard at 5.00 p.m. (not 16th).
The other play is a solo piece, Stack, is from long-standing Dugout regular Ed MacArthur. We know even less about this one, except that it’s about celebrity explorer Stackard Banks, on an expedition to the Amazon. And it’s silly. That’s all we know. But given Dugout’s track record, “silly” normally means very funny. This shows at the Bedlam Theatre at 8.00 p.m. (Not 16th again.) And if two Dugout shows isn’t enough for you, you can stay at Bedlam and watch their comedy show, Goodbear at 9.30.)
This final one is an interesting piece from Alice Cooper, or as she’s keen to clarify, she’s Alice Mary Cooper (and not that Alice Cooper). She was one of two performers I saw in Edinbrugh Fringe 2012 in the free fringe who put on very silly shows, the other one being Yve Blake. But whilst Yve came back last year with a refined version of what she’d done before, Waves could not be more different. Alice Mary Cooper switched to a series solo play, and one that I noticed in 2012 was that she had a lot of potential to be a striking solo performer if she wanted to, and she has. Last seen in 2014 at Brighton, her performance was excellent.
This is a story of a woman where a tragedy early in her life leads her to invent the butterfly stroke. One thing you ought to be aware of is that this story is largely fictitious – the real inventor of the butterfly stroke was someone completely different. But that footnote aside, it’s a well-crafted solo piece she’s written for herself. She says she’s re-worked it since Brighton 2014, so I look forward to see what she’s done, but it was already in a good state back then. This shows at Summerhall, and it’s an early start at 10.10 a.m. (not Mondays).
Now for six choices a little more adventurous. Most of these are shows from performers that I have reasons to believe will be good, but have not yet been tested. So there is a chance that it might be a disappointment. But there is also a chance that it could be outstanding. So if you want to take a few extra risks and maybe be thankful you did, these are worth considering.
Rebecca Perry’s Confessions of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl was a highly talked-about show at the last Edinburgh Fringe, and I managed to catch it at Brighton this year. It’s a story familiar to many of getting your degree, finding there’s no jobs in your speciality, and having to work in a coffee bar instead – in the case of Perry and her slightly fictitious creation Joanne Little, she passes the time using her anthropology training on her unsuspecting customers. The story itself isn’t anything too remarkable, but she made it her own with a great performance, a fitting musical score and all-singing all-dancing sections from the jazziest redheaded coffee shop girl in town.
(Note: if you are worried you are going to discover a customer being anthropologically analysed in an unflattering way is you, don’t worry. Provided you didn’t go to the specific coffee shop in Toronto where she worked, you are safe.)
So now she’s back with a sequel, partly to go into her further adventures, and partly as a pre-emptive strike against anyone thinking of making a joke about Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Bold choice instead of a safe choice because sequels are risky when the material is based on a true story – sometimes all the best material gets used up in the original. This play is not further anecdotes of customers in the coffee shop, but the next stage in her life after a chance meeting with her idol, Jane Goodall, so hopefully the risk of running out of material should be low. But if she can live up to Confessions, expect a nice play from a natural performer at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 4.15 p.m. (not Wednesdays).
LUNG theatre made a big splash on to the Edinburgh Fringe scene back in 2014. They were then known as FYSA Theatre and their show, The 56, was one of the most respected shows out there. It was verbatim theatre from three witnesses to the 1985 Bradford City stadium fire, and whilst it can be tricky to change verbatim speech into interesting theatre, they did a fine job of this, managing the transition from the party atmosphere of an end-of-season match to a disaster that no-one saw coming.
Since they they have followed this with numerous other pieces, mostly verbatim work, but E15 is their most talked about one to date. This is the stories of several women caught up in the highly controversial issue of rent rises in London, viewed by many as social cleansing. Can this replicate the impact of The 56? This work, as with lots of their work, is a lot more politicised than their original one (where pretty much everyone accepts the fire was just an accident), and there’s a lot of new pitfalls when you introduce soapboxes, whether or not you mean to make a soapbox piece. It will be interesting to see how they handle this, and if you want to find out it’s at Northern Stage at Summerhall at 6.30 p.m. (not Wednesdays).
This strangely-titled piece some from withWings, who impressed me two years ago with The Duck Pond, which was basically Swan Lake transplanted to a hook-a-duck stall. If you were told about that, you might be forgiven for thinking this was a ridicukous idea that couldn’t possibly work. And yet it did. With a highly talented cast and a super musical score, this became one of the unexpected gems of the festival.
This follow-up, it is hinted, is based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Can the treatment that worked so well last time work again? When you embark on such a while gamble, it’s always difficult to tell if the success can be repeated. But if it does, it could be outstanding.
Unlike everything up to now, this does not run the full length of the fringe and instead runs until 21st August at Bedlam Theatre at 6.00 p.m.
This play makes it on to my recommendations on the strength of the last Thrust Theatre production I saw, Request Programme. A site-specific version of the 1970s silent play, I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen this play (it’s best seen for the first time knowing nothing about it), but Rachel Wood did an outstanding performance of what’s a very disturbing play.
What can we expect from this play? Unlike Request Programme this is a new play, and it’s a two-hander. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine, because they’re being as cryptic as can be. But my guess is that this will be again be a play best served cold. The bad news is I won’t be able to give you a verdict on this because it’s on in the one week I’m not around. It shows on the 15th-21st August only, showing at Theatre Arts Exchange, twice a day at 7.00 p.m (3 p.m. Saturday 20th). Looking forward to seeing how it goes.
Ruby and the Vinyl
John Godber famously cut his teeth with the Edinburgh Fringe with an early version of Bouncers which managed an audience of zero on the second night – but as we all know, the fortunes of this play turned round eventually. Anyway, Godber still makes the occasional appearance at the fringe. I remember in my second fringe I was impressed with The Next Best Thing. This time it’s a collaboration with his daughter down in the musicals section. And like many of the other bold choices, they’re being cryptic over what it’s about, only that it’s two students who meet in a vintage shop who share a love of box sets. The teaser is “A kinda love story but not,” and like many new Godber plays, it’s cutting its teeth not in regional subsidised theatres, but grass-roots locations such as libraries.
It is tempting to treat this as a John Godber piece, but when it’s a collaboration it’s hard to tell whose work it really is. Elizabeth Godber is an unknown quantity compared to her famous father. Since leaving Hull Truck, John Godber has experimented with a lot of new ideas; some end up as rehashes of old plays, but others helped John say new things he didn’t say before, which might be some clues of what’s to come – if he’s the one in the driving seat. If his daughter’s the creative lead, all bets are off. This is showing at Underbelly Cowgate at 7.10 p.m. (not 15th).
Unlike the others, this is in the bold choices not because it’s untested but because it’s different. I saw this at Buxton, and it’s loosely based on the Grimm tale of The Boy Who Went Forth To Learn To Shudder, but in transplanting this to the modern day, it becomes a very different story. Whilst in the original a youth was sent into haunted houses and castles oblivious to the even spirits who thrive on the terror they cause, in this version fearless Nicholas is befriended by the mysterious Mr. Bacon, setting him up as a useful pawn in a criminal power-struggle that Nicholas is almost oblivious to.
It’s different because this is a lot more like storytelling than theatre – and if storytelling isn’t your thing, this won’t change your mind. But as storytelling goes, it’s a finely-crafted piece of story with a great performance from the solo actor and a wonderful soundtrack really adds to the story. This shows at Pleasance Courtyard at 3.15 p.m. (not 15th).
You might like …
This is a list of plays I’ve seen that have more specialist interest. Only one on the list this year, so decide for yourself if this is the thing for you, enjoy it if it is.
Five Kinds of Silence
North-easterners will be well familiar with the People’s Theatre. Everyone else: the People’s Theatre is an amateur group in Newcastle, but there are in the Premier League of amatuer groups, and it’s not unusual for professional to appeal in People’s Theatre plays between professional stints. They don’t often do festivals, but this time there’s spending a week doing Five Kinds of Silence, by Shelagh Stephenson, best known for the excellent The Memory of Water.
One word of warning about this play: those who how Stephenson’s most famous play will know that this was a play that started looking like a comedy, had its ups and downs, but ended on a tragic note. Not here. Five Kinds of Silence, I must warn you, is a complete gloom-fest from start to finish, about a man who was shot dead by his family after years of control and abuse where he- … yes, you get idea. But the People’s have a long history of high-quality productions and this is no exception. Don’t expect any comic relief in this play, but expect to come out with a lot to think about. Showing for one week only 22nd-27th August at Quaker Meeting House at 6.30 p.m.
Next, four plays where I have no idea whether or not they’re any good, but they grabbed my interest and they should at least be something different.
The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon
Sheepish Productions are Buxton Fringe regulars and Edinburgh Fringe occasionals, and last year they brought this play to Buxton. With a decent track record in horror tales, this tale – of an American con-man who made himself into a preacher to further his conman activities – looked right up their street. Sadly, however, it just didn’t feel right. It was hard to put the finger on exactly what it was, but I felt the key mistake was breaking the fourth wall by Reverend Raccoon taking hostages in the upstairs room of the Old Clubhouse, Buxton. That felt forced.
However, this play has had a substantial rewrite, and the setting has been transplanted back to the USA where it belongs. Will this rewrite be enough to turn the play around? Who knows? But it takes a lot of guts to go to a larger fringe after unenthusiastic reviews at the smaller one, and if you know what you’re doing, the gamble can pay off. You can see how this fares in the final week from the 21st to 29th May at 12 noon at C Nova.
Sunday’s Child got my attention two years ago with My Name is Saoirse. This solo play from writer/performer Eve O’Connor told the story of a teenage girl in rural 1980s Ireland in the days when sex education was shunned at school and instead left up to Saoirse’s well-meaning but irresponsible best friend. This got a lot of critical acclamation, and I enjoyed this too as this play covered a lot of interesting issues of the day. However, I had doubts of whether this there was enough in the performance to make this theatre – it felt a lot more like spoken word / storytelling to me.
Whatever your verdict, this play is going to be very different.This is a play about eating disorders, but it’s not another monologue – instead, it’s advertised as a piece that combines Eve O’Connor’s writing with physical theatre, seemingly between Imogene who used to love her chips with imaginary friend Caol who drives her to an eating disorder. This shows at Assembly Roxy at 1.20 p.m. (not 16th).
This makes it on to my Wildcard list on the strength of Zoe Murtagh. She’s been talked about a lot here in the north-east, but I finally got to see her for myself at the Gala Theatre’s new scratch night. There I saw an excerpt of a new pice under development, The Lamppost Petition, and whilst I didn’t see enough of this to tell whether this concept is going to work, I was really impressed with Murtagh as a solo performer, who has a way of owning the stage in a way not many solo performers do.
This piece is a joint venture between her and a Victoria Copeland, and this is on the subject of anxiety. Beyond that, I have no idea what this is going to be like. It’s described as “It’s a bubble bath, a protest, a slice of toast, a balloon.” Yes really. Will it work? It’s a very fine line. Plays using abstract concepts, especially plays about mental health, can be excellent if they work out (Caroline Horton’s Mess being my #1 example), but only if people can relate to it. But if you put a foot wrong an excellent concept can turn into an incomprehensible one – even artists who got it right the first time can get it wrong the second time. One way or the other, you can find out which way this goes at Northern Stage at Summerhall at 2.45 p.m. until the 16th August.
A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes and Then Leaves
Okay, I put this in solely because of the title. I honestly have no idea what it is – it may literally be what the title says. Whatever this is, they reckon the single performance will be a sell-out. It’s at Voodoo Rooms on August 22nd at 6.30 p.m. Beyond that, honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
From the comedy …
This is a theatre blog, but I do see the occasional comedy, and there are some good ones that keep coming back year after year. I won’t go into much detail here because there’s plenty of people who’ll tell you have good these are, but to briefly sum it up:
BEASTS present Mr. Edinburgh 2016
BEASTS are a very funny sort-of sketch group that I discovered in Brighton two years ago. You can expect a format of a typical show to start with some quick-fire sketches, but this always breaks down to the nerdy one going off on a nerdy digression, the one who takes himself too seriously getting pompous and the biggest hairiest one taking his clothes off at the first opportunity. My scouts from Buxton inform me this new show is indeed funny (when of course it was Mr. Buxton), and yes, the big hairy one does what he usually does. This shows at Pleasance Dome at 7.00 p.m. (not 13th). I advise turning up drunk. If you don’t drink, now’s a good time to start.
Boris and Sergey: Preposterous Improvisation Experiment
Boris and Sergey is a particularly twisted puppet show, with two twisted and usually foul=-mouthed puppets getting up to all sorts of twisted escapades. Their adventures vary from year to year, but highlights include a Casino game where unsuspecting audience memebrs joined as Angry Dan and Lucious Lucy (don’t ask), an escape from Hell, and a freak show where Sergey’s docile chicken Binky is pitted against him in a cock-fight battle to the death. Again, turning up to this drunk is advised. Maybe straight after Beasts.
However, behind all the twisted silliness, the think that has really impressed me is the puppetry. Thanks in part to input from the excellent (and more serious) Sparkle and Dark, they’ve done some excellent choreography with the puppeteers just as much part of the show as the puppets. And last time – and this is the icing on the cake – they had an improvised section, with three puppeteers per puppet somehow co-originating with each other new actions put together on the fly. So this whole show is an improvised show doing something that I never thought possible. Showing 9.00 p.m. at Assembly Roxy.
Okay, who remembers the classic text-based adventure games of the 1980s … What
do you mean, “I wasn’t even born in the 1980s”? Honestly, some people. Same people who don’t know what the millennium bug is … Look, these were games where the computer might say “YOU ARE IN A DEEP DARK FOREST” and you type “GO NORTH” and eventually it would say “WRONG! YOU’RE DEAD!” Well, that’s pretty much the whole idea of this show. Anyone from the audience can play, provided your name is Darren, and if you don’t understand the tactics of text adventure games, don’t worry – this game is just as arbitrary and unfair at the games of the day and the only strategy is to guess and hope of the best. Oh, and whatever you do, it’s fine to Check Pockets but don’t ever Czech Pockets.
I’ve probably lost you now, so here’s a video that shows how this all works. This is in Underbelly Cowgate at 8.30 p.m. Drinking advised. Again.
Erm, it’s charades. Where all the title of of pornos. That are imagined. You know, like the title of the classic gay porn parodies The Importance of Boning Earnest or Old Fools and Arses. Expect a host, two resident team captains, and four guests where seemingly the only real requirement is that you must be prepared to make a complete tit of yourself. You get the idea. If you don’t understand what a porn parody is, you are too sweet and innocent for this show, Everyone else. Sweet Grassmarket every Friday, Saturday and Sunday (not 28th) and 11.00 p.m. Best seen stone cold sober. No, only kidding. Drinking advised.
You might have noticed a pattern in the above four comedy recommendations, so let’s counter-balance with with a nice family-friendly piece. Morgan and West are a pair of magicians with a Victorian time-travelling theme. All of their shows have been family friendly, but this one is specifically aimed at families with children being used as volunteers rather than the usual grown-ups, although you don’t need to bring children along to enjoy this if you’re a grown-up. As with most magic shows, it’s the showmanship than makes the show more than the magic, but they are masters of distraction, doing the unexpected in front of your very eyes without you noticing. For example, in this picture, there are two people holding up a sign with five hands. This shows as Underbelly Med Quad at 1.55 p.m. (not 17th).
And one for bloggers …
There is one final event which is of little interest to punters, but of considerable interest to reviewers, and, indirectly, to performers too.
One for the critics – Networking Event
There’s been quite a lot of talk this year about the crowdfunding to enable 24 independent critics (i.e. theatre bloggers) to come to the Edinburgh Fringe. That scheme is up and running now. The crowdfunding part of the scheme was maybe a bit underwhelming compared to expectations, but another way of looking at this was that Network of Independent Critics managed to get a pretty good deal on the accommodation in the first place, with the extra modest discount from crowdfunding being a bonus. Will this be repeated? That remains to be seen, but probably the big test will be how much impact these reviews have, particularly for shows that otherwise don’t get reviews. It may be months before we know the full extent of this, but bloggers have a lot more influence than most people realise – the major fringe publications often use trusted theatre blogs as a way of finding out who’s worth seeing.
However, as well the the accommodation, there’s another thing they’re doing which is getting a lot less attention than it should. These are the networking events, and, crucially, this is open to everyone, and not just the 24 critics using their accommodation. This looks like an excellent opportunity for anyone thinking about writing about the Edinburgh Fringe, or other fringes, or anything back home. These session are on the 7th, 12th, 18th and 24th August, all at 5.30 p.m. It is being held in Fringe Central. One footnote: being Fringe Central, you can, in theory, be refused entry if you don’t have some sort of pass, but the NiC people seem confident that you should be able to get in with or without a pass. Failing that, I hear that walking in purposefully to Fringe Central usually does the trick. Not that I any experience of doing this myself, um, somebody told me, a mate, you don’t know him.
And that’s my recommendations completed, at last! Enjoy your fringe.