What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2017

Brighton Pier

And here it comes. Festival fringe season is almost upon us. The Vault Festival is a decent stop-gap in February, but for me, nothing beats the thrill of a festival where anyone can take part and, in theory at least, anyone can be the highlight of the whole festival. As always, the more I know about these festivals, the longer the list gets, so expect this to come in stages.

Last year I started off in quite a bit of detail about how Brighton Fringe was changing. The arrival of Sweet Venues and an unprecedented 20% expansion in entries suddenly made this fringe a much bigger event. This year, there’s been more modest changes, and more of the same: a further 7% increase in registrations, and Sweet Venues stays broadly in the same venues, taking on a new one for the sole use of a stage version of Trainspotting. The only disappointing news as that Republic, a venue similar to Spiegeltent, is not coming back this year – it seems this city ain’t big enough for two Spiegeltents.

Anyway, let’s get on. Full rules of how I make recommendations here. Most important one to repeat yet again: I only know about a fraction of the stuff going on in Brighton. So treat this as a cross-section of the good stuff out there, not an exhaustive list.

Right, so what have I got for you?

Skip to: I Am Beast, The Unknown Solider, Mobile, The Wind in the Willows, And Then Love Walked In, Doing what it says on the tin, Between You and Me / Blooming, Blink, Gratiano, Hidden Mother, Die Die Die Old People Die, BADD, Richard III, Beasts, Jane Postlethwaite, Imaginary Porno Charades, Notflix

Safe choices:

We start off with five plays from groups I’ve seen before. Sometimes I’ve already seen the play, sometimes I’ve seen other stuff they do. None of these are universal recommendations for everybody – if you’re not interested at all in this kind of play, no amount of recommendations will change your mind. But if you like the sound of this, I’m confident you’ll enjoy it for what it is.

I Am Beast

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/835ea5_53010eff9c7442769e90e5382bc1dbb7.jpg/v1/fill/w_492,h_736,al_c,q_90/835ea5_53010eff9c7442769e90e5382bc1dbb7.jpgOne of the joys of being a fringe long-timer is that, every now and then, when a group emerges as one of the best of the fringe, you can say that you were there when they were starting out. For me, this cannot be more true of Sparkle and Dark. Part puppetry, part original music, and part dark writing, they have produces a series of superbly choreographed productions. Most recently, they have been sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, first one the subject of assisted suicide with Killing Roger, and then on the subject of bereavement and depression with I Am Beast. This play came to Buxton and Edinburgh last year, but then they’ve taken a break for a year. But fear not, Brightonian, they are back, and their 2017 tour takes in The Warren on the 27th-29th May at 4 p.m.

But in case you’re wondering who’d enjoy seeing a play about depression and bereavement, it’s not just about that – it’s mostly about escapism. Ellie imagines herself to be “Blaze”, a superhero in Paradise City, sworn enemy of the evil Dr. Oblivion, searching for her missing partner “Silver”, actually the alter ego of her mother who is gone in real life. Then the “beast” starts making uninvited appearances, fantasy and reality blur, and as her anger with the world increases and revenge increasing, fantasy and reality blur in a worrying way. Blog regulars will know that shows I rave about are far and few between, but this is one of them. You must see this. I stake my repuation on it.

The Unknown Soldier

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/fdb95f_818caa1d9bae43db9ac95cd92b0eea20.jpg/v1/fill/w_179,h_223,al_c,q_80,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/fdb95f_818caa1d9bae43db9ac95cd92b0eea20.jpgGrist to the Mill are currently making a big splash up in Buxton, where they’ve set up a managed venue of their own, including a programme of seven of their plays. A lot of these plays have already been big successes, but their smash hit above all smash hits is a solo play written and performed by Ross Ericson. With us currently going the the centenaries of various trenches-themed bloodbaths, there are quite a lot of a World War One plays doing the rounds at the moment, but this is one of the best ones around. And it’s not the usual “over the top chaps” slaughter-fest, but this is set after the guns fall silent. It’s 1920 and Sergeant Jack Vaughan is still on service in France in the Labour Corps tending to the war graves.

I saw this at Edinburgh last year, and out of my five sure choices, this is the most conventional play, but what it does well is portray the little-remembered world after the Armistice. Bereaved families want their loved ones laid to rest back home; the government appeals to the sentiment of war graves, partly to skirt over messy issues over not really knowing which body part belongs with which dead soldier. But the real problem isn’t so much the glorious dead, but the not-so-glorious wounded, unemployed and aggrieved by lack of recompense. And thrown into all of this is the tomb of the Unknown Solider, very cleverly mixing fact and fiction to bring a new twist to the tale. This shows at the Rialto Theatre on the 5th, 8th and 11th May at 6.00 p.m., then 25th May at 4.30 p.m.

Mobile

cj9xm-rwsaa0yq_Normally plays that are notable for being different go into Bold Choice rather than Safe Choice, but this piece from The Paper Birds that came to Live Theatre last year is so innovative and does it so effectively it goes into the top tier. This is a verbatim play, this one on class divide. As far as the script goes, it’s comparable to a lot of other verbatim plays, with some interesting stories of Britain’s complicated relationship with the class system, and a plot from a solo performer nominally linking together some of the stories. But the thing that makes this so memorable is the staging.

Mobile is a site-specific piece set in a caravan, but it’s no ordinary caravan. Once inside, all sorts of ordinary objects play all sorts of roles in telling people’s tales. Alarm clocks, kettles, microwave ovens are overhead cupboards are used in ways you’ve never seen before. This shows at various times on the 5th-14th May (not 9th), meeting at the Otherplace box office (I presume that means The Warren). But I would advise early booking for this. Caravans aren’t designed to seat that many people, and once word gets round about this I would expect a lot of sell-outs.

The Wind in the Willows

https://i0.wp.com/broadwaybaby.com/img/shows/brighton-fringe/theatre/718749-2017.jpgI finally caught up with Boxtale Soup’s headline show, Northanger Abbey, at the last Edinburgh Fringe. Jane Austen is all the rage at the moment, but this was not your usual Austen adaptation. Performing duo Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne played the two leading characters; the rest were done with puppets; and it worked really well. Unlike fellow puppeteers Sparkle and Dark who have been getting darker and darker with each play, Boxtale Soup stay quite gentle. It wasn’t twee, the story was easy to follow, and you didn’t lose track over who was who.

Coming to Brighton, however, is The Wind in the Willows. Like their headline piece, this is going to have lots of puppets in the story, but this time it’s very much a family production. All of their plays are family friendly, but this one in particularly aimed at children with a minimum age of 4 advertised. But if you don;t have any children to bring along, it looks like something anyone can enjoy. Just one performance though, in the main house of The Warren at 4 p.m. on the 4th June.

And then love walked in

https://eventotron.imgix.net/01-08-2017-163924-7727.jpg?crop=faces,entropy&fit=crop&w=330&h=360And finally, no Brighton Fringe would be complete without a site-specific play from long-standing regulars Wired Theatre. In recent years, I’ve rated their plays as Bold Choice rather than Safe Choice because you can never guess what they’re doing, and they take all sorts of gambles. However, this year they earn a promotion to Safe Choice. All their plays in the last few years have been good, but last year’s Dancing in the Dark was moving and exceptional.

As usual, they are cryptic about what this play’s about, so I can’t tell you much about it. It’s set in a house on the way to Hove, and it involves some uninvited guests call at the home of an ageing psychotherapist and and his wife – but I’m willing to be that, knowing Wired, this will involve a long backstory and lost of flashbacks. Be aware that Wired’s plays often require a lot of concentration to fully follow, but it’s worth it. It shows every weekend (plus bank holiday Monday) at various times, but again. I highly recommend booking early, because when they’re good, they sell out days ahead.

Doing what it says on the tin

https://eventotron.imgix.net/12-06-2016-160150-5144.jpg?crop=faces,entropy&fit=crop&w=330&h=360I was going to put this in Bold Choice, but it get s last-minute promotion to safe choice following my discovery of earlier reviews of this play.

One smash hit that came to Brighton two years ago was Tom Dussek’s family play The Tale of Tommy O’Quire. Then after it’s initial run in the Dukebox Theatre, it returned to Brighton’s Natural History museum, re-presented ina  way that almost made it look like it had been written for that place all along. Now he’s moved on to another play, Doing What It Says on the Tin, last seen in Brighton in 2014. This time it’s not for children; for one thing, it’s down as 14+ in the programme. For another thing, it’s billed as containing swearing. Lots of swearing. So much, it seems, that it gets mentioned in the fringe blurb twice.

Tom Dussek isn’t saying much about the play itself, but he’s playing a builder seemingly resentful of all the houses he builds that he can never own and never afford. There’s reviews out there if you want to know more, but this looks like something he wants you to see cold. He is on at the Rialto Theatre on the 14th-15th May at 7.30 p.m., then again on the 21st-22nd May at 9.00 p.m.

Bold choices:

Next are six plays I know less about. I have reasons to believe they’ll be good, but the play or the company (or both) are new to me. So there will be a bit of a gamble in choosing to see these, but these ones I think are worthwhile gambles. And if they turn out to be excellent, you might be on to the next big thing.

Between You and Me / Blooming

Last fringe, the play that was impossible to not hear about was Groomed. This was a solo performance from Patrick Sandford telling the story of a boy who suffered sexual abuse as a child. The fact that it was his own story is extraordinarily brave thing to do.It certainly impressed a lot of people, as it swept the board with both five-star reviews and awards. At a time when society in general is only starting to work out that men can be victims abuse too, this may well go down as a ground-breaker for changing attitudes.

This year, co-producers Mankind is putting on two plays, both at Sweet Dukebox. Patrick Sandford himself is putting on Blooming (19th-21st and 25th-27th May, various times) which looks like a considerably more cheery play about asking people when they know they’re happy. Although it’s not explicitly stated in the blurb, surely part of the intention of the play must be that people can move on from the worst experiences and be happy again. Between You and Me (28th-29th May, 11.00 a.m.), on the other hand, stays on the subject material of Groomed and is based on the stories of other people.

Don’t expect a repeat of last year’s dizzy heights – many groups outperform their achievements of the year before, but sweeping the board of the whole fringe two years  is surely beyond everyone, even the maker of Groomed – but expect a lot of thought-provoking material, which, it seems, is being talked about at the right time.

(Full disclosure: I raised money for Mankind last year so I have a conflict of interest, but I broadly endorse what everyone else said about Groomed.)

Blink

https://eventotron.imgix.net/01-17-2017-215511-6202.jpg?crop=faces,entropy&fit=crop&w=330&h=360I’m so glad to see this in the Brighton Fringe programme, because this gives me an opportunity to bang on once more about one of the best piece of new writing I’ve ever seen. I caught the tour from original producers Nabakov three years ago. It’s a two-hander love story, but not your usual one. To see how much I raved about this, you can read my review from 2014, but I urge you not to because this play is best seen cold. I think I can tell you that it involves the two of them meeting in somewhat screwed up circumstances, when they could be so good together if only they could have a normal relationship. Perhaps the highest endorsement I can give is it’s one of the very very flew plays that got me emotional. But be warned; there is a sting in the tail where you’d least expect it.

It’s a bold choice rather than a safe choice because, outstanding though the script is, it’s a hard play to do well and an easy play to do badly. I don’t know who Peppered Wit are, but they’ve got a huge challenge to live up to Nabokov’s legacy. Can they do it? Find out at Sweet Waterfront 1 at 5.30 p.m. on 29th May – 4th June.

Gratiano

Now for another play from Grist to the Mill. There’s lots of their plays up in offer at Buxton, but in Brighton, there’s just one play accompanying their big hit, and that’s Gratiano, again written and performed by Ross Ericson. This play looks a lot more ambitious than The Unknown Soldier; on the one hand, it’s described as a sequel to The Merchant of Venice, but the setting is 20th century Italy in the aftermath of Mussolini, exploring how a democracy ended up as a fascist autocracy. This was performed in 2016 as a work in progress, where it got mixed reviews, but they this this version they are touring in 2017 is the final one. A big ask to repeat the success of The Unknown Soldier, but if they can pull this off it could go down very well. It shows at The Rialto on the 7th, 10th and 13th May at 6 p.m., then 27th May at 1.30 p.m.

Hidden Mother

https://i0.wp.com/www.buxtonfringe.org.uk/picture_library/2016/medium.HiddenMother.jpgThis last one on the list I wanted to see at Buxton so I could tell you one way or the other if it’s worth seeing, but sadly I was thwarted by my travel plans. Nevertheless, Off-Off-Off-Broadway have been on my radar ever since they impressed me with Peaceful, a ghost story with some superb staging and atmospheric sound effects. This follow-up is another spooky play, but a different kind of spookiness. Diana imagines herself to be a glamorous singer in Petrograd accompanied by Leon; in the real word, the two of them are committed to an asylum facing closure. This shows at The Warren of the 20th-21st May at 12.30 p.m. and the 22nd-23rd May at 8.30 p.m. The Theatre Box has a bit a of a problem with noise bleed, but knowing Off-Off-Off Broadway, they’ll probably have their own fitting soundtrack to deal with this issues.

Wildcards:

Now for a couple plays where I’ve no idea whether or not they are any good, but they still grabbed my interest as something different worth checking out. They are:

Die Die Die Old People Die

Okay, not the cheeriest title here, and very little to go on. They don’t even use their full fringe blurb. All they say is that there’s ” two crustaceous elders putting off death” in a “snail-paced farce”.

The reason this interests me, though, is that Ridiculusmus is one of the boldest most experimental groups groups I’ve seen on the fringe scene, if The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland in anything to go by. It was utterly baffling – two concurrent scenes going on at the same time, with no clues of what was real and what was imagined – but this is a very rare case where having no idea what’s going on is the whole point of it. Whatever happen here, expect it to be another marvellously bold experiment. There is one performance only at Komedia on the 13th May at 1.15 p.m.

BADD

https://eventotron.imgix.net/01-13-2017-154934-6112.jpg?crop=faces,entropy&fit=crop&w=330&h=360This last play gets my attention for a different reason. As blog regulars will know, when I’m not giving my opinions of what’s worth seeing, the other thing I spend a lot of time writing about is me long-standing opposition to censorship. The censors change, the targets change, the underlying political ideologies change, but one thing that doesn’t change is the methods. Two tactics in particular have stayed the same:

  1. Few people are interested in a campaign to ban something simply because you morally disapprove of it (which, let’s face it, is invariably the real motive). If you want to whip up wider support, you have to convince them that your chosen target for suppression is in some way harmful.
  2. The best targets for censorship are things that plenty of people have heard of but few people have actually seen and fewer people understand. That way, you can spout any old bollocks and people will fall for it.

And what could be be a better target in the 1980s than Dungeons and Dragons, the most evil cess-pit of corruption and Satanism according to people who’ve obviously never seen the game, let alone play one? Yes, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons was once a thing. Hermatic Arts will be inviting you to a meeting, and whilst I suspect many people will be coming along to laugh at all those stupid Bible Belt busybodies, I’m going to be a lot more interested in the parallels to today’s censorship campaigns. This shows at Sweet Waterfront on the 29th May – 4th June at 8 p.m.

Richard III (a one-woman show)

One late addition to the wildcards is a one-woman Richard III which I’ve been hearing about. Gender-inverted Shakespeare is a hotly-debated topic at the moment, and I might give my thoughts on this another day, but that’s not the reason this gets on the list. No, this has grabbed my interest for a completely different reason. Like many Shakespeare plays, this has a pretty hefty body count, which isn’t the easiest thing to work into a solo play. Emily Carding does this by choosing audience members to put a “dead” sticker on. I’ve no idea how this actually works, but I love to find out. Also, it’s been doing quite well touring so she must be doing something right.

Sadly, I’m going to to wait a little longer to see how these “dead” stickers work, because it’s on before I arrive. It shows 17th-21st May at 4.00 p.m. Sweet Dukebox for those around that day who wish to risk their lives.

From the comedy

Right, sorry for that minor political digression. Let’s get back to recommendations. Last thing to do is the comedy recommendations. Although I’m a theatre blogger, the odd comedy show sticks in my memory, and for me there are these four this year:

BEASTS: Mr Brighton 2017

Oh boy. Not going to forget that one in a hurry. BEASTS are now pretty much household names across the festival fringe circuit, but for those of you who don’t know, they call themselves a sketch group. Well, when I say “call themselves” a sketch group, they don’t actually end up doing that many sketches (most of which are terrible jokes anyway). Pompous Owen, nerdy James and alarmingly-uninhibited Ciaran inevitably end up squabbling. This time, however, they are presenting Mr. Edinburgh/Brighton/Buxton 2016 (or now 2017). And they’re the contestants too. What a coincidence, the three hosts also being the three contestants! Surely no-one’s going to cheat?

If you’ve seen BEASTS before, and are used to hiding your face and going “Noooo!”, I can advise you this one’s is more of that. Just one tip: you have to be brave to sit on the front row, especially if you are female and attractive and catch the eye of inappropraite-behaved Cairan. You’re little safter if you’re a bloke. Just don’t leave your pint on the floor unattended. One performance only on 6th May at 8.15 in The Warren: Main House.

Imaginary Porno Charades

I was a guest on the show last year so I’m not that impartial, but it’s a lot of fun to take part in or watch. Basically it’s charades. Of made-up titles of non-existent porn movies, such as Seven Rides for Seven Brothers or Who’s Afraid of Virginia’s Muff? (Note: when I say non-existent titles, I haven’t checked on Google to see if there’s such a flick. I did for one title, and swiftly regretted it.) They are mostly active at the Edinburgh Fringe, but as a group closely associated with Sweet Venues they always comes down for a Brighton performance. The Brighton Fringe all-nighter isn’t being repeated this year, but that doesn’t stop the IPC team doing their 12-hour marathon starting at 10.00 p.m. on 2nd June at Sweet Dukebox.

One word, though: this is not for the easily offended. By which I mean the really easily offended. Honestly, these are the nicest guys who would never set out to offend anyone, but it’s generally assumed that if you go to a show called Imaginary Porno Charades, you are okay with the idea of Charades. Of Imaginary Porno. I shouldn’t have to point out that turning up to this kind of show knowing exactly what to expect and then get offended when you discover that what you expected in the show was, in fact, in the show as expected is rather- … well, they know who they’re talking about. If you’re as easily offended as Mary Whitehouse or Moira Knox, you have no grounds to complain. Everyone else, expect a fun night.

Okay, sorry, digressed on to another anti-censorship rant there. Must stop doing that. Where were we? Oh, yes …

Jane Postlethwaite: The House

Most of the comedy acts I end up recommending are already big names in Edinburgh and beyond, so now, for a change, here’s an up-and-coming act I rather like. I’d known of Jane Postlethwaite for a few years ever since she wrote this excellently perceptive blog about performing at a fringe, but it was only last year I caught her show Made in Cumbria, where she plays five different Cumbiran women in England’s sleepiest county where no-one ever flees a nuclear meltdown without first packing some nice Kendal Mint Cake. There were a few derivations from The League of Gentlemen, but she takes very nicely to playing tour guides and hawkers who all seem to skeletons in the cupboards involving murder or the like.

This time, she has a new show, “The House”, which she’s not giving away much information about. We don’t even know what “The House” is, but she’s playing a new set of characters, and I think I can safely guess some or all of them are going round murdering people over petty grievances. This shows as Lamb @ Nowhere Man, on the 12th19th, and 27th May and 3rd June, all at 7.00 p.m.

Notflix

I only saw Notflix last year owing to a combination of extraodinary luck and persuasive flyering, and I fit them into a very tight slot on my jam-packed last day in Edinbrugh, and I’m glad I caught them. Improvised comedy has been all the rage on the fringe as long as I’ve been going, but it’s only recently I’ve been giving it a go and I’ve been amazed by what some groups can do. This troupe of six women make up a musical on the spot, always a cringingly bad adaptation of a movie. I got The Titanic – you know, that epic love story that ends with the ship sailing into New York to the chorus of “Land Ahoy” – which sadly is never to be repeated, but the thing that really impressed me was singing songs on the fly. I’d assumed they had a banks of tunes to improvise lyrics to, but they insist that the melody and live music are made up on the fly too.

This is in Brighton for two performances only, on the 3rd June at 7.15 p.m. then 4th June at 5.15 p.m. at Komedia Studio.

And that’s the list. Here we go. I will be in Brighton reviewing from the 27th May. Until then, have fun everyone.

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