Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2017

People outside a cocktail bar: credit ReflectedSerendipity

REVIEWS: Skip to Gratiano, And Love Walked In, I Am Beast, Between You and Me, BADD, Scorched, The Ruby in the Smoke, Blink

All right, I know I’m nearly two months behind on this. No need to get so smug about it. I’m learning the hard way how much paperwork piles up when you go for a two-week holiday in May, and I’m still clearing the backlog now. But I can’t delay this forever, so let’s get a move on.

New to this roundup is the Ike Awards. I will be writing about this properly when I have a bit more time; if you want to know why I created these awards and who this Ike is, you can find that in my live coverage of the fringe (along with my instant reviews of the plays). For now, the short version is that an Ike Award can be considered equivalent to a five-star rating. It’s a bit like the Brighton Fringe Argus Angels, except they’ve good as stopped reviewing the fringe this year. So, Ike has replaced the Argus Angels. So there.

Couple dancing at the bandstandThe one thing you won’t be seeing in this roundup is a list of stories about the fringe as a whole like last time. Last year was a very significant year for the Brighton Fringe, mostly down to the appearance of Sweet Venues, a second supervenue to complement The Warren, and also a huge rise in registrations, partly but not entirely driven by the appearance of this new venue. This year, however, it’s been much more of a “no change” festival. There was another rise in registrations: not a huge one, but enough to suggest last year’s surge isn’t going to recede. Sweet and Warren largely stayed as they are. The only notable difference was the absence of Republic, a large Spiegeltent-style venue on the beach, which I can only suppose couldn’t compete against Spiegeltent proper. The most interesting news that surfaced during the fringe was pop-up venue “Shiny Town” being cancelled after being refused planning permission – at first, it seemed odd that a venue would commit to being in the fringe before they had the go-ahead, but apparently this ran into all sorts of red tape and I’ve drawn a blank over who was at fault.

So let’s go straight into the reviews.

Pick of the fringe:

I saw a lot of plays, but in every fringe there’s a set list that stick in my memory. In a good way. Two stuck in my memory in a bad way, with one particularly contrived and unfunny one inexplicably hoovering up good reviews everywhere. But we don’t talk about that. Let’s get back to the good ones.

This list contains an unusually high number of caveats, so you’ll need to read on to check exactly why I put these in the list. Anyway, in alphbetical order, here we go.

Gratiano

unknown-32-700x455This is an unusual play to review. It’s written and performed by Ross Ericson, best known with his recent roaring success The Unknown Soldier. That play was based on a very simple but incredibly effective idea of who the Great War’s most famous casualty really was. Gratiano, however, relied on a much more ambitious premise. It’s a sort-of retelling of The Merchant of Venice, but not just any old retelling. It’s now set in fascist Italy, and whilst Shylock the Moneylender is still the same vindictive and unsavoury character, Bassiano and the other people he fights in court aren’t any better. Mostly greedy, mostly opportunistic, and all fully on board with the new craze started by this Benito guy over in Rome. In order to create this new world, Shakespeare’s tale has been extended further. It’s now after the war, Shylock has suffered a fate far in excess of his crime, Bassiano has been murdered, and Gratiano is help on suspicion of his murder.

As you can see, this is a very ambitious take on a Shakespeare play, changing the setting, the emphasis of subject material, the order in which the story is told, and the timeline. As such, this is a Marmite play – either you will like the concept, or you  won’t. I am obliged to report that one avoidable complaint I’ve heard is that some people got confused over when the play was set – I worked out that Gratiano was looking back at the fascist era myself, but this could have been made clearer. But whilst this retalling of Shakespeare might not be for everyone, it’s a very clever retelling. All of the plot points of the original play are there, but the underlying motives can be very different, where acts of love of kindness become acts of exploitation and self-interest. The biggest difference is the famous trial: Shylock is still after his pound of flesh (and still making the schoolboy error not not include blood and internal organs in the fine print), but that’s not the reason the fascist mob in the gallery has it in for him.

The Unknown Soldier remains Ross Ericson’s smash hit, and if you only have time to see one Grist from the Mill play, see that one. But if you have time for both, I’ve give this one a go. It’s not the play for Shakespeare purists, and for everyone else the only way of knowing whether it’s the play for you is to go ahead and see it. But if it is, you will find it a chilling twist on a well-known tale, had it been set in Venice at a later point in history.

And Then Love Walked In

01-08-2017-163924-7727Wired Theatre are a long-standing fixture at the Brighton Fringe, having produced a site-specific play every year for a long time. They’ve faded a little in prominence in recent years, not because they’re doing fewer plays or less good plays, but simply because the fringe has grown around them as they’ve stayed the same size. But they’ve kept a loyal and mostly-local following all this time, and with good reason, because they’ve mastered the art of site-specific theatre in ordinary homes in a way few groups do. In earlier years, they sometimes got a little too clever over what they were trying to do and ended up confusing, but they’ve got more disciplined over that in recent years. The only tip I would give a Wired newbie is to expect the play to jump back and forth in time. They usually do, but you might get lost if you don’t realise what’s happened.

So what we have here is a self-employed psychiatrist welcoming us to his house. He wasn’t always a psychiatrist – he was once a teacher, before the bottle got the better of him and his violence cost him his job and nearly his marriage. But he got his life together and the marriage was strong enough to survive. Well, sort of. Reading between the lines, it was the mutual love of their daughter that held it together. After the daughter married and moved to Sweden, it fell apart, with wife getting involved with a Polish neighbour, husband getting involved with a client – unclear who started it, but mutual suspicion drives them both forwards. We don’t hear this story in chronological order though; as often is the case in Wired’s plays, this is slowly pieced together from the flashbacks.

It’s a good play, and the only criticism I have of this is that this feels like a “jack-of-all-trades” play, strong in many areas but not much to give something to stand out from Wired’s other plays. The most individuality in this play comes from the dreams the character talk about, which start to be acted out for real as our leading man gradually allows his own self-destructiveness to consume him again. But it doesn’t really define the play in way that the depiction of the Suffragettes movement or the Greenham Common protests did in All Found and Up for Action and Come Unto These Yellow Sands respectively, nor does it connect as emotionally as last year’s Dancing in the Dark, by far my all-time Wired favourite. However, the play is well up to Wired’s standards, so if you like what you’ve done before, you won’t be disappointed here.

I Am Beast

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/835ea5_005957c681ad45408b02d5353b19883c~mv2_d_1773_2700_s_2.jpg/v1/fill/w_508,h_774,al_c,q_90,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/835ea5_005957c681ad45408b02d5353b19883c~mv2_d_1773_2700_s_2.jpgSparkle and Dark have returned to the fringe circuit after a year’s break whilst their director did an MA. They are starting where they left off, with I Am Beast. Last seen in Buxton and Edinburgh in 2015, the reviews ranged from praiseful to lukewarm. For the 2017 run, they made a number of changes to the story. I personally didn’t think there was a pressing need to make changes – I already considered this to the the best Sparkle and Dark production – but it was interesting to see what they did. I’ve already reviewed the play from Buxton and Edinburgh 2015; the story is pretty much the same in 2017, so I won’t go over it again – my old review still stands. Short version: I Am Beast is the story of Ellie, who used to read superhero comic books with her mother and make her own world. Now Ellie’s mother is dead, and Ellie lives in her own fantasy world, until the “Beast” appears and fantasy and reality begin to blur. The winning formula is the team of writer Louisa Ashton, director Shelley Knowles-Dixon, musical director Lawrence Illsley and head puppeteer Nicholas Halliwell, who’ve worked together for years to create these productions.

The new play is 20 minutes longer, but it’s not just 20 minutes’ extra material; lots of scenes has been added, moved, removed or changed. The big difference this time round was the addition of Captain Lightning, or plain old Sam in Ellie’s real world, someone who obviously has a crush on her. I was a little wary when I heard about the inclusion of a love interest – I’m not outright against these plot threads, but the ending where she (or he) meets Him (or Her) and realises everything is going to be all right is just about the most over-used trope in stories. But Sam’s not there is the stories to make things better for Ellie – rather, it’s how Ellie’s depression affects Sam, just like it affects everyone else around her. The ending remains the same: it’s not Sam who can save Ellie from her demons – it’s still up to her to to save herself.

There were a couple of lines lost from the old version that I missed, but that’s something only noticeable by people who see both. The only annoyance wasn’t with the play or production, but the noise from the fans and from outside, but I appreciate there was no easy solution to that (miking up doesn’t play nicely with fast costume changes). Anyway, they finally got a five-star review for this. That was long overdue. Now we waiting for wait Sparkle and Dark bring next.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: I Am Beast

Between You and Me

This is another unusual entry into my Pick of the Fringe, because it’s only sort-of billed as theatre. This is what SpeakUpActOut call “Forum Theatre”. A short play is acted out on stage, but its purpose is to raise an issue and start a discussion. Working in partnership with Mankind, this talks about the experience of sexual abuse and opening up to people. As this is a theatre blog rather than a blog for wider issues in society, I can only judge this on the play itself. I approve of the idea of forum theatre, but the play has to stand or fall on its own merits in this review.

Well, what do you know. It might be lower-key of the two supported by Mankind, but that half-hour piece is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen. Sadly, there’s nothing joyous in this play, in contrast to Mankind’s other play, Blooming. Patrick Sandford, star of that play and Mankind’s smash hit Groomed, where he spoke so frankly of his own real-life experiences, was lucky enough – when the time came to tell someone what happened – to be listened to. This story – not based on any one individual but compiled from the accounts of real victims – is about what happens when a victim isn’t listened to. And the thing that makes the problem worse is that the victim is male and the perpetrator is female. So as well as all the usual problems faced by female victims, he also gets the assumption that men enjoy this sort of thing, don’t they? That’s only when he reaches the subject. Before then, it explanation that he’s gone off sex is that he must be having an affair. Or gay. It says so in Cosmo.

Be warned, this is very gloomy 45 minutes. Most disturbing of all is the flashbacks to what the mother said to his 9-year-old self, practically labelling him as the perpetrator, and not the 16-year-old stepsister who did this to him. And yet, in spite of all this, there is no finger-pointing, not to the sister, wife or friend he tries to talk to, and the discussion even tries to understand why the perpetrator did what she did. Expecting a disturbing experience, but ultimately a rewarding one.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Between You and Me, StandUpSpeakOut / Mankind

BADD

badd-supporting-image-02The last one in my pick of the fringe I have to declare conflict of interest for. This play covered a subject close to my heart, that being censorship, as such I need to be careful I am judging the play and not just the message of the play. BADD is Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, which was a campaign in the 1980s to get Dungeons and Dragons banned in the 1980s for promoting Satanism. Anyone who has ever played the game will know how ridiculous that claim is, but this campaign still got a huge amount of support, because scare stories are easily propagated on things that everyone’s heard of but few people understand. I wrote a much longer rant about methods of groups such as BADD in my live coverage that I won’t repeat here, but the key tactic is to pick on a group you can make into sanctioned hate figures. Roleplayers were the sanctioned figures for 1980s Christian authoritarians, but plenty of other authoritarians of all political flavours use the same tactics against different sanctioned hate figures.

However, ignoring that and focusing on the play itself, BADD is a play that eviscerates the censorious attitudes of the 1980s Christian Right, but Hermetic Arts always does it in a funny way. Pam (Carrie Marx), is convening a meeting of a local branch, but unfortunately her local church isn’t taking her campaign that seriously, having given the second hour of her meeting to a table-tennis team. Really? They think table tennis is more important that protecting your children from the evils of Satan? So Pam has to rush through her presentation, tying herself in knots at she talks about cults the same moment she loses her place on the flip-pad and brings up “CHRISTIANITY”. You do, despite yourself, end up feeling sorry for Pam, someone who’s clearly wedded to this campaign as her only purpose in life.

By the way, if you are a Dungeons and Dragons fan, the good news is that there are plenty of references to the game in that, or rather, there’s plenty of half-arsed references from someone who obviously know what she’s talking about. Not Carrie Marx – she’s a Dungeons and Dragons player herself – but her alter ego Pam, someone who routinely confuses casting a spell in the game with actually casting a spell. This level of ignorance might seem far-fetched, but honestly, I got one of BADD’s books at the end and it really was that bad. So watch this and have fun. But the next time you hear a scare story in the news and plenty of experts discuss it without consulting anyone who actually watches/reads/plays/does the thing that’s so terrible, remember that maybe you are watching a 21st-century BADD in action.

Scorched

One scorched-by-open-sky-at-courtyard-hereford-photographer-jack-offord-high-res-9124late addition to the picks of the fringe is something I didn’t actually see in Brighton, only afterwards in Washington Arts Centre, but it came so soon after its Brighton run I may as well include it. This is a solo play from Open Sky Productions, and in a rarity for fringe solo performances, it’s a play with a different performer to the writer. The story is that of writer Lisle Turner’s grandfather, who fought in North Africa throughout the second world war, and like many war veterans, never spoke of it; not until decades later, beset by dementia.

True stories aren’t always easy to perform. Some tales take to the stage better than others. You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, wonderful though Caroline Horton’s play was, had the advantage that the true story adapted very well to a self-contained play, beginning when her French grandmother met her English future husband, and ending with a reunion after waiting six long years. Jack’s tale, on the other hand, is a more fragmented one, memories both of his time in the desert and his long and varied life afterwards, including a difficult marriage, possible strained by memories of the war. A less successful play could have struggled to maintain interest in such a disparate story. But this play is a success because of the glorious vision of director Claire Coaché. Robin Berry delivers a fine performance, but this is enhance by some very clever solo choreography, and some wonderful projected animations. Animations such as a moving tattoo, or an image projected into falling sand. Yes, sand is a very symbolic part of the play.

There is just one snag with all this use of sand, which was that a lot of the action had to take place on the floor. This wasn’t an issue in Washington Arts Centre where the steep=raked seats all get a good view of the floor, but apparently in the Rialto in Brighton this caused a lot of people to miss a bit of what was going on. That was unfortunate, but off-hand I can’t think of any venues in Brighton that were laid out in the right way. But if that’s the price that has to be paid for something this innovative, it is worth it. This tour has now finished, but surely it will be back after this much critical success. I hope Open Sky take care over where they book, but assuming there is a next time round, Scorched is the play that be scorched into your memory.

Honourable mention:

A short list of honourable mentions this time, with only two entries. Remember, this isn’t the bottom tier. I liked these. Bottom tier is stuff too bad to saying anything positive about. Oh boy. Anyway, here they are:

The Ruby in the Smoke

This is an unusual one to review. There are two well-known limitations to most festival fringe plays: firstly, you can’t run full-length plays (well, you can, but it’s hard to get an audience if you’re not already an established group); and secondly, you can’t have big casts (well, you can, but it will blow your budget sky-high). However, for many groups, festival fringes are the only to get yourself noticed by the wider world. This seems to be the case for Escapade Theatre, barely noticed until they produced this adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s story of Sally Lockhart, a sixteen-year-old sent to live with an uncaring aunt after the death of her father at sea, only to discover he was in possession of a mysterious ruby that people will kill to obtain. It was created with the support of the author himself, and if Escapade’s intention was to get themselves on the map, it’s worked, as it already picks up a good tranche of reviews from Edinburgh last year.

There’s a lot of good things to say about this production. Under the constraints of festival fringe conditions, Madeline Perham managed, I think, to do the best possible job of transferring the first Sally Lockhart mystery to the stage, bringing a very fitting atmosphere to the stage version with some clever sound and staging. However, I got the impression that this play is best watched if you already know the story. I didn’t. Most books – even ones as short as 200 pages – are an absolute bugger to adapt for the stage, and often you are faced with a choice of either cutting important plot points or piling on the running time. In this case, even with a running time of 80 minutes, I found I spent a lot of the time playing catch-up. This is not unique to this adaptation – I remember seeing a BBC adaptation of another Sally Lockhart story a few years ago, and that was also a struggle to follow. They cleverly cover all the characters in the story through some tight doubling, but even this needed a cast of six, and this required a lot of concentration to keep track of who was playing who this scene.

So here’s my advice. Escapade Theatre, I presume, took this play to the fringe to make a name for themselves, and they’ve done it. Congratulations. Now it’s time to use this reputation to develop the play back home, free of the festival fringe constraints. With a larger cast, less confusing doubling will be needed, and with a longer running time, the mystery can unfold at the ideal pace for an audience to keep up with. Escapade got what they needed from the fringe, but this play, I believe, will have its best home off the fringe circuit to get the performance it deserves.

Blink

Another tough play to take on the fringe circuit. Not because it’s a play unsuited to the fringe environment, but because the original production from Nabokov, just a few years earlier, is virtually unbeatable. The story of Jonah and Sophie, two desperately lonely people who are so right for each other – but the way the come together isn’t the way it should be. So glad that Peppered Wit have discovered this play, but such a high bar to clear.

To get the bad news for the purists out of the way, the set design of desks on grass that made Nabokov’s original so visually striking isn’t present here. This isn’t actually specified in the script, so I won’t mark them down for omitting this, but anyone who’s seen the original will know how iconic this unreal setting was. That said, Sweet Waterfront 1 is not the same as the Traverse and I’d much rather they left something out than attempt something impractical to stage. However, Peppered Wit had their own vision for the play and had some new touches of their own, with a skyline featuring the London Eye being a particularly fitting feature (as anyone who knows the play can attest). Most important to get right is the acting, and that was done well. So much of this play hinges on believing and understanding the screwed up personalities of this couple, and they got it. And with the exception of a couple of clumsy scene transitions, the play flowed well and kept up a decent pace.

The only thing I felt didn’t quite work were the projections. This was an extra touch added by Peppered Wit and not intrinsic to the play itself, and it got off to a promising start when hand-drawn artwork of Sophie’s flat appeared behind her as she spoke of her living arrangements with her father. Had they stuck with that style, I think this would have really made this production their own, but instead there was a stylistically disparate mixture of drawings, photos and videos. Most frustrating, many of the projections were barely visible against the lights. But perhaps it’s too harsh to compare this to an original production on a far higher budget; I’m far more interested that other groups are picking it up and doing decent jobs of such a wonderful script. It would have been such a pity for Blink to have been forgotten.

 

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