It’s been quite a busy March in terms of interesting developments, mostly as the build-up to the fringes continues. So here’s a catchup on things that grabbed my interest.
Stuff that happened in March
Before I go looking at the fringes, a quick bit of local news. Paddy Campbell, hot on the heels of his success with Leaving, has now got himself on this BBC New Talent Hotlist. Before you get too excited, it’s not clear exactly what this entails. He’s one of 200 people in various fields earmarked “as ones to watch.” This is the full press release if anyone can make any more sense of it, but it’s meant to be something good, anyway.
What it does suggest, however, is that out of all the new writers to appear on the scene in the last few years, Paddy Campbell is possibly pulling ahead of the others. With his first two plays getting extra runs to meet demand, and early signs that his third will be getting the same treatment, if the BBC are rating him as the top bet for a writer in the north-east, it looks to good bet to make.
Empty Shop goes old school
Not much new to report on the exciting goings-on at The Empty Shop. The new arts studio space above the bus station is up and running, but The Empty Shop Think Tank is a project with much wider scope than this. As of yet, we don’t know what else is in the pipeline.
But in the meantime, there’s yet another new thing that’s throwback to the early days. In the first few years after Empty Shop HQ opened, there was an annual event called The Empty Shop Open where lots of artists had their work hung up in the building for everyone to see, and it became a popular annual social event. Well, now we have the first Open Studios, which looks like it will be a similar event. It’s not going to be quite the same thing: the notable difference is that the Empty Shop Open was an open submission event, whilst this event just exhibits the work of the artists with the studio space. Anyway, this is on Friday 21st April from 6, and it should be a good night out.
Introducing the Buxton Fringe Rotunda
Okay, that’s the north-east rounded up, let’s turn attention to the upcoming festival fringes. In the Peak District, Buxton fringe lineup is starting to take shape, and we are beginning to get a better idea of what the first post-Pauper’s Pit festival is going to be like. I’m going to save my analysis for next month once registrations have closed and the full programme is known, but the one thing we now know for certain is that the apocalyptic scenario that the number of events would plunge without Pauper’s Pit has not happened.
However, there is an unexpected development that has throw all the predictions and speculation. In the new year there was talk of a new venue for Buxton Fringe. I, and pretty much everyone else, assumed this meant a new old venue, i.e. Underground Venues in a new home. Instead, however, it’s a new new venue. The Rotunda will be a temporary structure in the Pavillion Gardens, seating a whopping 130, topping the Arts Centre Studio’s 93 (although we are now getting the odd fringe performance using the full auditorium with its 369 seats). Can a fringe of this size sustain a 130-seat venue?
Well, Grist to the Mill Theatre seems to think so. They are running this venue and they are putting on seven of their own plays there. Yes, seven. The headliner has to betheir smash hit The Unknown Soldier, but they have a good track record with their other plays. At the time of writing, there are six other acts registered at this venue. Whether this works financially is hard to predict – but if it does, suddenly this shifts the balance of power in Buxton quite radically.
Sweet Edinburgh expands
Quite a few bits of breaking news from the Edinburgh Fringe in last month, the first of which comes from Sweet Venues. Last year they had grand plans in Brighton, joining The Warren as a super-venue. Now it’s the turn of Edinburgh for their grand plans. After years being based in one hotel in Edinburgh (Apex grassmarket), they are now moving into a second, the MacDonald Holyrood, increasing their capacity from four spaces to seven. Last year Sweet was in an unusual position where they had a bigger Brighton programme than Edinburgh one (albeit shows with generally much shorter runs), but this definitely put their Edinburgh operation back as the biggest. Still a long way behind the Space, which uses a lot more hotels, but I’d say Sweet is the clear winner on quality over quantity.
Sweet, however, is just one of many players in Edinburgh. The more interesting question is whether Sweet becomes the preferred destination of groups who did Brighton first. On that matter, the jury’s still out. I’ve tried comparing Sweet Brighton 2017 listings to Sweet Edinburgh 2016 listings, and not yet seen any conclusive pattern, although Sweet Brighton appears to be holding on to the returning acts from 2016. But I’ll keep an eye on this, because if they pull it off, that’ll give them an edge in Edinburgh that no-one else has.
Turning attention to other venues, one notable casualty is St. Peter’s church. Once doing well as the location of Northern Stage at Edinburgh, Northern Stage moved to Summerhall when the future of the venue looked uncertain, and they show no sign of moving back. Momentum venues tried running it in 2015, but the last we heard in 2016, they said they wouldn’t be operating. They said they hoped to be back in 2017, but with the info from 2016 still up on their website, it looks like that’s not happening. So we must sadly conclude that St. Peter’s Church is probably gone for good, at least from the Fringe scene.
NICritics is on
But one thing that isn’t going anywhere any time soon is the network of Independent Critics. Once again, they’ve block-booked some accommodation in Edinburgh for reviewers operating under their own publications, with a particular interest on specialist reviewers covering genres that the more mainstream publications would be less likely to review.
One notable absence from this year’s scheme is the crowdfunding scheme. That didn’t surprise me too much; whilst the one last year was better than nothing, it was a bit of a disappointment compared to some other crowdfunders that rake in thousands or even tens of thousands on a sea of goodwill – for this, I suspect the people who stood to benefit the most from this were also the people with the least money to spare. However, that, I’m told, wasn’t the reason for not running it again. Rather, it was down to unhappiness that some participants made little effort to promote the crowdfunder whilst others did lots, but everyone benefited equally. The stance this time is that anyone who wants to be crowdfunded can run their own campaign and keep the money for themselves.
It’s still worthwhile though. One change this year is that there’s going to be a choice of single or shared rooms, with the shared rooms being working out cheaper than the scheme last year, even with the crowdfunder factored in. And the overall cost of this still seems to work out cheaper than hostel accommodation for the equivalent period, without the lottery of who you end up sharing with. If you want to apply for this, you’ve got until this Sunday, so get a move on.
Now for a highlight from the Edinburgh International Festival listings for a change. There’s a new Ayckbourn play at the Edinburgh Festival, The Divide. This wouldn’t normally be a headline grabber (at least, not when you live close enough to Scarborough to see new Aycbourns all the time), but on this occasion the surprise is that it was possible to produce this at all. This was written years ago but never performed on the account that it was five hours long, had 33 characters, and regarded as utterly impractical to stage. It finally got a rehearsed reading in 2015 as part of its 60th anniversary programme with the expectation that this is all that would ever happen, and in spite of numerous household names in Ayckbourn-land doing the parts and a very positive response from those who saw it, it was pretty much still assumed this was as far as this would go.
But the Old Vic begs to differ, and they’ve actually gone ahead and done this for the Edinburgh Festival. Programmed as a two-parter in the Edinburgh International Festival at the King’s Theatre, it will then run at the Old Vic itself in the autumn. For once, it’s not Alan Ayckbourn directing this, although he’s got two plays to direct in Scarborough to keep him busy. As with all Ayckbourn’s, you can never predict in advance what will be the timeless classic and what will be run-of-the-mill, and this will apply here too. But it shows that Ayckbourn is far from a spent force and still has ways to surprise us.
And closing off Odds and Sods this month, a mini-review of The Twits, visiting Northern Stage. I don’t normally review children’s theatre as I’ve not seen enough to have a reliable verdict (apart from James and the Giant Peach due to its exceptional production values), but I’ll give it a mention here. The Twits is, of course, one of Roald Dahl’s most famous stories for youngest children about the two most horrible dastardly people who play nasty tricks on each other and glue birds to the dead three to make bird pie. Roald Dahl’s estate, I’ve learned, is quite relaxed about who can adapt his work, because there’s a wide variety of adaptations out there from the very faithful to new experimental takes. Anyway, this co-production between The Curve Leicester and The Rose Kingston does this the only way you can really do a story aimed at young children, and that’s as a play where they all take part. So now, when the Muggle-Wump monkeys and the Roly-Poly Bird try to trick Mr. and Mrs. Twit into believing they’re upside down, it’s up to us to join in the trickery and wear our shoes on our hands.
It’s a talented ensemble cast who play lots of instruments, tell the story clearly, and come up with some clever ways of tells the seemingly unstageable bits of the story, such as Mrs. Twit floating away with balloons tied to her, or both of them getting the dreaded Shrinks. The only thing which I wasn’t quite convinced by was changing the order of the story so that the tricks they play on each other are spread out through the whole play. One of the biggest strengths of the book was its simplicity, and I did miss the opening where the rotten tricks they play on each other in revenge escalates and escalates. Apart from that, however, it seems to be at the right level for the age it’s aimed at, with my nephew watching attentively and my niece hiding under the seat during the play – be fair, the Twits are scary people. So I’ll defer judgement of this play to people who know children’s theatre better, but put my inauthoritative verdict down as a job well done.
Stuff I wrote in March
Apart from these little things, here’s what I wrote about:
Roundup: Vault Festival 2017: A slightly late roundup of the seven plays I saw at the Vault Festival, plus one non-Vault play I caught whilst I was there. Not as late as my usual Edinburgh Fringe roundups though.
Leaving and Queens of the North: One major pair of plays showing on Stage 1 and Northern Stage, and a lower-profile production in Stage 2 showing at the same time. My verdicts could not be more different.
No easy answer to #OscarsSoWhite: A comment article I wrote on why I think it’s going to be very difficult the absurd practice of whitewashing in Hollywood.
Sorry this post is a bit late, and March posts have been a bit thin. Had a lot of stuff on this month. Don’t go away though – fringe coverage is about to start, and soon you can find out what I’m recommending in Brighton.