REVIEWS: Skip to: Richard Carpenter is Close to You, La Vie Dans Une Marionette, The Friday Night Effect, Victim, Love+, Cockroached, Lists for the End of the World, Replay, Was it Good for You?, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Izzy’s Manifestoes, Penthouse, Just Don’t Do It, You, Me and Everything Else, Boris and Sergey, Goblin Market, One-Man Apocalypse Now, Mimi’s Suitcase, No Miracles Here, The City, BlackCatfishMusketeer
Tuesday 22nd August, 9.45 p.m.: Okay, back to reviews. Next up is Richard Carpenter’s Close To You, which I’d heard quite a lot of good things about in Buxton so wanted to see for myself. First thing to get out of the way is that this is not a tribute act as such. For one thing, Richard Carpenter reminds us at the start that you can get round copyright law by exaggerating a character, changing lyrics to songs and making a few tiny changes to the tune that you probably won’t notice anyway, then you can call it parody. Ever heard of the classic song Stormy Days and Thursdays? You have now.
But after an opening 10 minutes when Matthew Floyd Jones plays just about every known instrument (very well, as it happens, including his Yamalka piano), we get into the story, as Richard Carpenter goes from one degrading store opening to another, all using the memory of Karen in increasingly inappropriate ways, such as putting a fake handprint of Karen into the concrete of a new cinema. Meanwhile, Richard gets on the phone to his agent who’s not interested in him any more. Hope rise when a journalist going by the name of Sayton (not to be confused with the other guy whose name is pronounced the same but spelt differently) interviews him for an article he’s writing. Will this turn his fortunes around?
There is one avoidable issue with this play, and that’s the confused timeline. I found myself spending a lot of the play trying to work out whether Matthew is meant to be playing Richard Carpenter himself or just some washed-up tribute act pretending to be him. (It’s the former.) The changed lyrics, funny though they were, confused matters quite a bit – why would Richard Carpenter not be able to sing his own songs – but I accept that was unavoidable. But I think it was needless to throw in so many references to the modern day when the real Richard Carpenter is now 70. Pinning the setting to the 1980s after Karen’s death, I feel, would have avoided this confusion.
But apart from that, this play has a lot to go for it. As well as the musical talent on offer, the play is very funny with many serious message conveyed in the satire. The real Richard Carpenter was often thoughtlessly described as “the piano player from The Carpenters”. That features heavily in the story, as well has hypocritical beatification of deceased celebrities, the obsession society has with stars whilst ignoring the talents of the many who got them where they were, the depths the gutter press sinks to, and the hypocrisy of the people who try to make entertainment out of gutter press victims. So no, Richard Carpenter is Close to You is the last thing you’d call a tribute act – but it’s arguably a better tribute to Richard Carpenter than any tribute act could manage.
Tuesday 22nd August, 7.00 p.m.: Now a change from reviewing and a brief controversy break. One of the things that has been getting attention from the fringe media are these Bechdel Test stickers. There’s coverage on FringeReview, along with a collection of other stories, but prior to the fringe it was being suggested you might see these stickers all over the place. As I understand it, it was a group Bechdel Theatre issuing these stickers rather than the performers of Bechdel-passing plays – I’m not sure whether they asked the performers concerned if they wanted this label. If they did, and the performers agreed, then I have no objections – performers have the right to promote themselves any way they like. However – and I say this is someone who supports what the Bechdel test is meant to achieve – I think it’s a bad idea. Here’s why.
For films, the Bechdel Test is generally quite good, provided you use some common sense. You can read my thoughts here on its strengths and weaknesses, but it does hit the nail on the head of what the problems is: that in films, Hollywood films in particular, there’s a tendency women to only get roles of someone’s mother, sister, daughter or – most commonly – love interest. There is some evidence that it’s an issue in theatre too. I’ve always found my local theatres to be quite even-handed with male and female characters, but I get the impression that it’s a different matter in commercial theatre in London (as the Arts Council can’t make diversity a condition of funding if you’re giving no funding anyway), and I can see the Bechdel Test making reasonable sense there too. However, fringe theatre is a different matter completely. I can see two big problems with this.
Firstly, this excludes lots of plays with good female roles. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for films with great female leads to fail the Bechdel test, but in fringe theatre, where casts are usually small and there’s fewer chances for any kind of female-female conversation, suddenly lots of plays Alison Bechdel would approve of fail, including over half the plays I’ve reviewed here with strong female leads. Daftest of all is that this blanket excludes all female solo plays. To be fair, Bechdel Theatre have attempted to mitigate this with “Bechdel-friendly solo shows”, but that still excludes masses of fantastic female solo shows out there. A minor limitation in film becomes a massive problem at the fringe.
The other issue is more serious, in that this focus on Edinburgh addresses a problem that isn’t there. I’ll happily change my mind if someone’s done some more comprehensive research, but I can tell you from the analysis of my own reviews – where I make no attempt to balance any demographics of artists and simply go for whatever takes my fancy – that male-led and female-led plays is a pretty even split. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, because actors generally have far more power over which parts they play than fully professional theatres who control the purse-strings. So if there’s nothing unusual about female-led plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, and given that the Bechdel Test makes no comment on the the quality of the play, it seems – someone please correct me if I’m missing something here – that the Bechdel Test reduces to a participation prize. Now, I can’t speak for any women here, but if it was me, I would find this condescending: the idea that, never mind if the play’s any good, the fact that I’m a woman taking part is an achievement in its own right.
What is most frustrating about this is that there are better ways of analysing the issue of female representation in theatre, developed by women, that have been forgotten. Sphinx Theatre came up with the Sphinx Test the same time Bechdel theatre got started. Okay, the Sphinx Test has the disadvantage that it’s subjective and open to far more interpretation that Bechdel, but it does actually get to grips with the issue of whether the female characters are good ones, not simply whether two of them talk to each other on something about men. But with Bechdel seeming to be treated with such reverence, nothing else seems to be getting a look-in.
But, hey, whatever. It’s really not my business to tell other performers how to promote their shows. What I can say, however, is that if someone did an equivalent test for actors on the autistic spectrum – and there definitely is under-representation if you include the entire spectrum – that is the last thing I’d want on my posters. I want consider myself judged on equal terms with my peers, and that’s not going to happen with stickers coming across as “Fuck, it’s amazing, the disableds can put on plays! Like, in proper theatre!” In fact, you can hold me to this. If someone promotes me as “autism representation”, I don’t want it. If I’m offered a slot in someone’s programme because of my condition, count me out. If I take up an offer and find out later it was only because someone wants to make their diversity stats look better, I will resign. That’s just me though. Rest of you can please yourselves.
Okay, rant over. Let’s get back to reviews.
This is a charming little piece from the family section of the programme. As we enter, we are greeted by a woman who says we are all beautiful in an accent that is supposed to be French. Well, more like an absurdly fictitious French accent, but that’s okay, because the fact they’re really from New Zealand is a running joke throughout. In fact, the entire thing parodies the classic black and white movies of France – the only thing that was missing was “Fin” at the end. After she give her run-through of ‘ow to be a good audience or bad audience, we go into the story, where our silent hero gets a delivery of a life-size marionette. From what we can tell he’s a lonely man, left by his one true love when younger, and this puppet is his only friend to him.
I’ll get the problem out of the way: it’s tough to get what’s going on here. This wouldn’t normally be such an issue, but this show is aimed at children 7 or above, and I can see little chance of kids that young to follow this. Okay, silent plays aren’t the easiest things to explain, but in this play we establish that the man and his marionette are silent but the moon that comes up every night can talk. I would have given the moon a much stronger role as a narrator – she says “You are all beautiful” quite a lot, but it was a missed opportunity to make the play easier to understand.
However, it is a strange delight to explain to punters that this play the man and the puppet can’t speak but the moon can. The puppetry effect of pulling hidden strings was done very well, and the music used for the dance sequences was gorgeous. This is more experimental that I’d normally recommend for a family show, but given time I think we can see a lovely and accessible family-friendly show come from this. In the meantime, you can enjoy this for what it is.
Sunday 20th August, 10.15 p.m.: One more review before I call it a night, and that’s Victim from Bruised Sky productions. This play is a sort-of follow-on from a previous play Villain, about public vilification, but don’t worry if you haven’t seen that play, because this one is a good stand-alone play in its own right.
Louise Bereford plays Tracy, a prison officer wanting to do the right thing, but pressure at home from a sick father and useless husband are taking their toll. Louise Bereford also plays Siobhan, a long-time inmate happy to be on the inside after doing away with an abusive partner, now building a status for herself on the inside as the prison fixer, especially with smuggled mobile phones where she always stay one step ahead. But Siobahn isn’t the most notorious inmate – that is a new prisoner who stood by and allowed her baby to be ritualistically murdered by her partner.
Bereford does a slick job switching between down-to-earth Tracy and confident but intimidating Tracy. It does take a couple of scenes to establish she’s switching between the two, and there maybe an avoidable bit of confusion at the beginning (when Siobahn talks about a treat her late parter was planning for his new woman, followed immediately by Tracy talking about a treat from her husband), but that was only a small issue. Most of the time, it’s a well-written script from Martin Murphy of power games that Siobahn masters. But there are no unambiguously good or evil characters here: Tracy has integrity but also her weakness; Siobahn is ruthless but sometimes understands the personal demons of other inmates, even if she’s working a plan to her advantage.
It’s hard to know how this compares to Villain without having seen it – I gather that play did very well – but Victim is a good play that give a lot of insight into the murky world of prison fixing, explaining how even decent people can get sucked into these schemes. Whether or not you know the original, this is well worth a visit.
So in the short amount of time I have, I don’t have time to write a full review, but that’s okay, because I’m going to recommend The Friday Night Effect. I will say why later, but honestly, this is a play that is best seen cold, with no clues given by anyone else on what to expect.
Will try to get another review out later because I’ve still got a lot of catching up to do.
Sunday 20th August, 12 noon: Phew. That was a big day yesterday. A six-show day, including a late-night Boris and Sergey that finished at 2.30 a.m. I’m really too old to be staying out that late, but I have to do it occasionally to prove the point that I can do it if I want to.
Anyway, let’s get on with the snap reviews before the backlog gets any bigger. It’s back to Malaprop Theatre; I originally scheduled myself to review one of their plays, but after BlackCatfishMusketeer impressed me last week, they’ve earned themselves a bonus review. And so I saw LOVE+. The other play may have been a love story facilitated by technology, but the story was very much grounded in reality. This one, however, goes into a more fictitious future where a woman falls in love with a robot.
This is a cleverly-written script here, from someone who understand how computers think. The woman as a bot, who is both a housekeeper and companion. Unlike a human, bot never tires of work and also understands everything the woman wants. Not through empathy as a human would understand it, but more like the way social media does it. We never know much about the woman’s life outside this relationship, but we can guess that she finds human-human relationships too complicated. But the question this play raises is a strange paradox: is someone who has everything you ever wanted really what you want? No matter how well bot adjusts herself to the woman’s desires, there’s no getting round the fact that she’s doing that because that’s what she’s programmed to do. And bot’s biggest strength of knowing someone so well is also her biggest weakness – human being just don’t like being predicted this accurately.
There is only one thing about this play that I didn’t like, and that was the breaking of the fourth wall towards the end of the play. Breaking the fourth wall can be necessary if you need to make a point that can’t be told in the play, but this comes at the expense of disrupting the story you’re telling. In this case, I didn’t think this was necessary – the questions about whether a robot can feel love in the same way a robot can feel temperature was a good one, but this could easily have been worked into the script. They don’t need to break the fourth wall – the play is easily capable of saying everything it needs without.
Apart from that niggle, LOVE+ is a really interesting that complements their other play well to take todays love/technology mix to the next level. And I really liked the way Brefinni Holohan played Bot, with an understated but perfect mix of methodical robot movements and human-ish warmth. Summerhall’s best specialty, I’ve always thought, are plays that mix art and science, and Malaprop’s double-bill couldn’t have been a better choice. More like this please.
Saturday 19th August, 5.30 p.m.: Big moment. The second Ike Award of the fringe has been given. And it goes to pretty much the last play I’d expect to get this. I have given a fair few positive write-ups of some plays with little or nothing I found at fault, but they’ve stayed within tried and tested formats. That’s not enough for my equivalent to a five-star review. For this, there has to be little or nothing I have to fault and it needs to be something different. And the play I just saw that fits the bill is Cockroached.
At first glance, this appears to be yet another zombie apocalypse story. I’ve nothing against zombie stories as such, just that this is surely the most done to death trope ever. But that’s not what this story is about. Instead, this is a tense tale of power and mind games. Taylor arrives back at his place, a fancy dress shop where he’s holding out against “those outside”. On a CB radio, a voice comes on asking for Max, and Taylor answers. On the radio is another survivor. She won’t give her name and she’s guarded over where she is. But who is she really? And who is Taylor really?
When the entire play involves one person talking to a CB radio, you’d be hard pressed to do without making the play look static. But Theatre63 rises to the challenge, and the combination of Ruby Etches’s directing and William Proudler’s superb script means there’s never a dull moment, and Taylor and his unseen contact drifting between distrustful co-operation and psychological warfare. On top of the, Proudler also manages to provide a perfect musical score for this apocalyptic world. Plenty of plays and films of this nature say it’s not about the zombies, it’s about the survivors, but trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this story.
For the sake of completeness, I am obliged to say that the version I saw is only shown on alternate performances; in the other performances, the two swap round so that Taylor is now a woman and the radio voice is a man. As far as I can tell, the story will work about the same the other way round. Theatre63 did draw attention to this being a non gender-specific production. I am of the opinion that it is rare you can do a straight gender-swap in a play without a loss of plausibility – normally, if you want to avoid gender imbalance or gender stereotypes, you need to think about this first before your ideas stick. Cockroached is an exception because it’s set in a world where all societal norms go out the window. But don’t see this because it’s non gender-specific. See this because it’s one of the best hidden gems in this fringe.
Let’s get another one out the way then. I finally saw Lists for the End of the World, which has been under development in the north-east for some time and I finally took the opportunity to see it. This is a very unusual one to review because it pushes the definition of theatre to the limits, and with it pushes the rules of reviewing theatre to the limits too, but I will try. So, first thing to get out of the way is that the end of the world doesn’t actually feature anywhere in the play. Instead it’s just lists. Really, one hour of lists.
But for a concept that might seem dull, it works a lot better than you might think. FanShen theatre’s preparation for this play was literally asking people to fill in lists, from the light-hearted to the more poignant. At one point, we hear an alarmingly long list of “Places I’d hide a body”; someone, it seems, has been thinking about this too much. When it gets to lists such as “Things I’m afraid of”, we get things from people opening up and telling their thoughts they wouldn’t normally reveal.
The trouble is, for all this hard work researching people’s inner thoughts, I don’t understand the purpose of doing this as a play. There’s only so many ways you can read out a list. FanShen do put variety into this with a variety of staging and theatrical devices; some of these were appropriate, such as the dark quiet setting for “Things that keep me awake at night”, but some other devices, such as singing a list to Mambo Number Five, felt forced. I am normally the first person to bemoan unimaginative productions that don’t use opportunities for sound and lights, but here even I felt this was staging effects for the sake of it.
So here’s a suggestion I’m going throw in: do this as a book. A book just of these lists if you like, but there’s opportunities to put in fitting artwork if you so wish. The thing is, the point of lists is something you can go back and check again, and you don’t get this opportunity in a play. Once you hear something that you don’t take in, it’s gone. That’s a shame. These lists say a lot about people, and they deserve to be remembered. You can have that idea for free.
Right, where are we? Six reviews in the backlog, after three to be added by the end of today. Looks like another long day today.
Friday 18th August, 4.30 p.m.: Observant readers will notice there’s been quite a gap since my last update. This is because I’m currently in hardcore mode with five plays per day, and even this barely covers everything I need to see (both review requests and things I wanted to see anyway). I’ve got to the stage of the fringe where people say “So what are you seeing today?” and I answer “I don’t know”.
But reviews must go on, but the next one is easy because it’s Replay. Short answer: what everyone else said.
Long answer: Replay is the latest play to come under the banner of Dugout Theatre, but this time, artistically at least, it’s Dugout’s play in name only. Dugout have earned a great reputation of plays in all sorts of surrealistic settings, usually to music, from an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist in the Fens to four survivors of an apocalyptic flood on board a Swan pedalo, but this solo play written and performed by Nicola Wren has no songs and is very much down to earth. But don’t dismiss this as someone riding on Dugout’s coat-tails of success – she came into this fringe with a good reputation in her own right, and Replay was another excellent performance and play.
She plays a Police Constable very much married to her job, on a routine call on day with her well-meaning but overbearing colleague. It’s just a normal visit to support a woman whose husband killed himself the other day, and yet she feels sick and has to vomit in the street – the effect, she assumes, of the dodgy prawns she ate the night before and the old coffee in the house having limescale. Wrong. An indeterminate amount of time ago, her brother James killed himself. But that was such a long time she’s surely over it now. Then she gets birthday present in the post. An old present sent again, a happy birthday tape originally sent by James, is going to keep these memories at the surface.
“But why is the poster for the play a man with a cassette for his head?” I hear you ask. Well, no, you probably didn’t ask that. But you should. You see, this is a memory of the day when her child self went to visit the brother she adored, now at University in London. A ride on the simulator in the Trocadero and being bought an album (James, obviously) mean a lot when you’re ten. The only hint what what’s to come is her father quipping that James better not be having an off day. But clearly at some point it was never more than days.
There is no moment of revelation in the play, no plot twists, no breakthroughs, just a woman getting on with her life, with a tragedy from years ago still leaving its mark. And that is the whole point of this thoughtful and moving play. Dugout Theatre proper can take some share of the credit here her the writing and directing, but this is Nicola Wren’s moment of glory. If Dugout’s name has introduced her to a new audience that never knew her before, that can only be a good thing.
So now let’s look at Was It Good For You? In case the title didn’t make it obvious enough, this is a play about a one-night stand. A guy is brought back to the pad of whatshername. The fact he can’t remember her name is one of many insecurities the two of them will be thinking over the following few hours. You don’t actually get to see any of this sex, so don’t get excited. Instead, whilst you silhouettes of this couple getting busy, one or both of the couple concerned are talking through their worries. Things get particularly surrealistic when their heroes start talking to then in their heads, such as Colin Firth querying whether the two of them were married and Mary Poppins exclaiming “Good Heavens, what are you doing with that woman”?
However, for an hour-long play, the humour gets a bit repetitive after a while. One thing that might have been worth making more of, old joke though it is, is playing out the two thoughts of them in quick succession, with him thinking one thing and her thinking another. The final man to enter her thoughts, however, isn’t a film character but someone quite different. I won’t reveal that as it would be too much of a spoiler, suffice to say that was a good twist. What I think I can say without a spoiler, however, is that this play would have been a lot stronger if this had affected to rest of the play more. We never really get to know what these two see in each other and what’s made either of them to decide to go straight to bed – and the aforementioned twist has a big bearing on this that needs to be considered.
Still you can’t fault Bareback productions for putting themselves through those indignities on stage that others would have shied away from. In the right circumstances, you can have a good comedy purely about a one-night stand, but my gut feeling is this story would be strongest with two characters with lives outside this night of passion. So I’d put more thought into what led to this and why, and then we’ll have a stronger play.
Thursday 17th August, 6.00 p.m.: Urk. Four plays back-to-back, including one that I’d scheduled as a review request that I forgot about until I double-checked my notes. Somehow, in spite of making endless fuck-ups with my scheduling today, I’ve managed to avoid missing anything. That’s not organisation, it’s luck.
One thing I’ve been able to start catching up on is The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show. As usual, I’m not going to review the whole concept or cover every single show, just ones that particularly jump out. So one such play was Fightbook, and yes, that is based on that website people inexeplicably believe determined their social standing. Not their first play on this subject – we’ve already had Candy Likes Your Status back in 2014. Who remembers 2014, eh? Back then it was all about getting competitive over who can outdo each other exaggerating their success and social life. Now it’s 2017 and we’ve move on to shaming people for saying things that may or may not be objectionable, but we’d better publicly tar and feather them just to be on the safe side. So A, B, C and D (their names, it’s on their T-shirts) engage in discussions to catch each other out and exposing who is not sufficiently supportive of the prevalent orthodoxy within this social sphere. Think you can duck out of this with humourous kitten memes? Buhahahah, guess again clueless newbie! The crucial question is: what’s the earliest acceptable opportunity that D can call A, B or C a Nazi? You get the picture.
But the gem of this set was A Different Time by Lisa Holdworth. I recognise the name from another play she did for bite-size three years ago. But don’t look her up. If you’ve forgotten the name it’s best you see this play cold. All I can tell you is that there’s a reunion of three women who were friends as teenagers. Two of them arrive first and discuss the third, who’s got a pretty bad reputation: today an alcoholic dating awful boyfriend after awful boyfried; as a teenger the school bike who copped off with some celebrity and worked her way round the boys in the school. At least, that’s the story no-one questioned. When the truth comes out, it’s the best kind of twist: something that makes sense all along, and yet never crosses your mind beforehand. And that is important, the fact that what really happened didn’t cross anyone’s minds. But I’ve already said too much. Might say more in the roundup, but see this, and you’ll know what I mean.
And then is was straight on to on of their two lunch-time shows. Not the Bets Bites, I’m seeing that tomorrow, it’s the other one, and their riskier one, Izzy’s Maniefstoes. According to the programme, this was developed from a 2014 Bite-Size play. I was a little sceptical of this, because most attempts I’ve seen to exend 10-minute plays to an hour – even good 10-minute plays – just don’t work, plodding along at their new length. But here, I’m happy to say it worked extremely well.
Claira Wetson-Parr plays Izzy, telling her story. At first, it’s quite an ordinary story. Izzy writes her first manifesto at seven years old: unable to choose her dream career, she wants to be everything. This manifesto, like most of her manifestos, is something that’s wildly unrealistic, or she hasn’t thought through, or both. Nor does it help that she keeps overestimating her abilities, always expecting some visiting professor to the school or art expert at art college to discover her as a genius. But it’s not the seven-year-old Izzy that’s the problem. It’s the older Izzy. As the things that bring some stability to her life slowly fall away, Izzy’s eccentricities, once harmless, start to go unchecked, the the point of self-destruction.
Kevin Jones has written a very clever script, carefully managing the transition of Izzy starting off in a normal life, to the mad woman in the shopping centre who’s been filmed and made a Youtube superstar. Culminating in the turning point – at least what we must hope is the turning point – was Izzy learning to realise she needs help, in a very moving ending with the ex-housemate she never had that much to do with. It’s fair to say Izzy’s Manifestoes isn’t quite so adventurous as they last extended-length venture, Lunch in Cairo – this is a lot more conventional by Edinburgh Fringe standards – but I think this is the best non-Bite Size venture than the Bite Size team have ever managed. The reviews for this look quite good too. After years of experimenting with creating something different, it seems bite-Size may have finally cracked it.
Another review coming later, but I’ve still got one more show to see. Hope I don’t fall asleep.
Thursday 17th August, 8.00 a.m.: And here I come again. As usual, I am wondering why on earth I thought it was a good idea to book that 07:24 from Durham. I will aim for another review later this morning, but I’ll try to boot up my brain first.
Now, however, might be a good time to talk about a couple of plays that haven’t done that well. I’ve suspected this for about a week judging from the lack of reviews being promoted through social media channels, but I’ve now checked and it turns out The Divide is performing quite disappointingly. It’s good if you use The Scotsman as your gold standard, having scooped a 4* there. After that it goes downhill quite quickly; most reviews are 2* or 3*, with the odd 1* thrown in. Oh dear, what went wrong there? I haven’t yet had time to study the reviews in an detail, but it seems the main problem the reviewers have is the length. Looks like the gamble of a long play thought to be unstageable hasn’t paid off after all. Ah well, Ayckbourn can’t win them all.
However, that’s nothing compare to another couple of high-profile plays. Irvine Welsh brought a pair of plays to Edinburgh, Performers and Creatives. Both plays are set in seedy underworlds, one in 1960s gangster-ridden London and the Chicago music scene respectively. The other thing they have in common is that they both got absolutely panned, with the two shows between them scooping seven one-star reviews. Oucharoonie. (A few two-stars as well, but that doesn’t really make thing better.) I haven’t yet got to grips with just what was so bad about it, but I’m bracing myself. Alan Ayckbourn may have had a narrow escape here.
There’s a small comfort if your show’s not doing well. Most shows, at the worst, will get one or two one-star reviews. That will eventually be forgotten. Performers and Creatives won’t be forgotten in a hurry. So whatever happens, remember it could be worse. It’s just that we now know how much worse it can be.
Wednesday 16th August: We have our first fringe controversy. Someone is suing The Wee Review (formerly known as TV Bomb) over a one-star review. No more details about this yet, so it’s only fair I hold off making a conclusive judgement until we know more about what the actual grounds are for legal action, but there is a track record of legal threats against reviews turning out to be frivolous. This story from five years ago doesn’t fill me with much respect for litigants, especially when that particular one threatened libel over factual information that, as far as I can tell, was true. But the tactic there, I strongly suspect, had nothing to do with showing the law was on your side – rather, it was the hope that bringing out your big scary lawyers would intimidate the other side to back down rather than call your bluff and win any fight in court.
As I said, I shall refrain from naming and shaming until I know for certain whether there’s a valid case, but if the case is as bad as all the other legal threats, I fully intent to invoke Streisand’s law. One-star review? Meh, big festival, lots of acts get one star. One-star review of an act that sues? Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!
Anyway, if we may now return to the subject of sex (hurrah!), I am next reviewing Penthouse. A new play from Scintilla Theatre, this begin with high flyer city hot shot Ewan checking in to a Penthouse, for a quiet afternoon for drugs and prostitutes. Well, one prostitute, or, as Eloise is keen to stress, an escort. Certainly she’s intelligent enough to realise something’s not gone his way; after all, so she says, half her clients just end up wanting to talk. What she doesn’t yet realise is how bad things actually are. Ewan hasn’t just ruined himself with his reckless trading, and a lot lot more. His plans for the night end in the only way out he knows.
Whilst the concept stands to make a decent enough play, however, I did struggle to pick out anything particularly memorable – I feel this was due, in part, to the publicity heavily hinting how this play was going to end, leaving no room to keep us guessing. Perhaps the ending had to be inevitable, but there was still more room for the unexpected as we progressed towards this denouement. The greatest plot device this play can utilise is the enormity of the situation. Ewan’s excesses haven’t just brought down his career – he has brought down the bank, possibly the whole country. That is something you can expect to be beyond anyone’s comprehension. Eloise is evidently smart enough to guess he’s lost a lot of money, but can she fathom how much? His cocky co-worker who gate-crashes the party clearly sees merchant bankers as immortal – you could expect him to be in denial when he learns the truth.
The ensemble of four seem competent enough actors. The set was a convincing penthouse, the acting was decent enough and the blocking was good. But what this play really needs is an understanding of what makes these four character tick? What are they really thinking? The cast might know, but getting this to come across to the audience is a much tougher challenge. Rise to that challenge, then you can really get yourselves on the map.
Right. Let’s pack. Back tomorrow, with plenty of plays still on my “to see” list.
Tuesday 15th August: Whilst I have a rare evening off, I wrote an Edinburgh Fringe-themed blog post: Edinburgh needs to become evangelical, in which I criticise the appearance of these new so-called “fringe” festivals that carefully curate the content just like the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t, and call on the Edinburgh Fringe to speak out on this. By doing this, I have probably burnt my boats and said goodbye to the chance of appearing in the Great Yorkshire Fringe, but I’d pretty much already decided I couldn’t bring myself to appear in a festival that calls itself a fringe that doesn’t believe in its ideals. Ho hum, such is life. Also making a guest appearance is Monty Python’s own Vice-Pope Eric, explaining the Catholic Church’s position on sex.
So now let’s stay on the subject and review Just Don’t Do It, a play on this very subject, in particular the American Abstinence movement, which, like, always works, like, all the time. (Note: I was being sarcastic.) A play from Beside Ourselves collective, this is a two-woman collaboration, with the medium of clown advertised as a large feature of the play.
The play was a collection of mini-scenes and mini-sketches. There was some sense of an overall structure to this, but one recurring issue I’ve seen with “clown” plays is that it becomes difficult to work out what point they are trying to make. It’s doubly-difficult at the Edinburgh Fringe where virtually every crazy idea has been done already. Vagina puppets play quite a role in this play, and some of the points raised were good, but I can think of at least to other plays off-hand that feature talking vaginas. Nothing easily shocks or surprises at the fringe any more. The thing I felt this play needed most of all was some consistency. In particular, they need to be clear what kind of performance this is. They could be a comedy duo where these two engage the audience and then go into the sketches. Or it could be more of the theatre performance where they play scripted characters, even if these characters are based on themselves and pretend to be a comedy duo engaging the audience. My hunch is the latter thing would be the most effective.
The thing is, when their scenes and sketches are easy to follow, they are by far at their strongest. The sketch at the beginning where they play a pair of camp counsellors at some weird Christian abstinence camp was deliciously excruciating, although it did confuse things a little when to two kept the camp T-shirts on. And the scene where one of them plays a woman on her white wedding night making small talk to stave of the thing with the man she obviously doesn’t really want was quite moving. It’s those nuggets I would work on. Clowning is fine, but don’t let it take over the play to the point where the audience lose track of what’s happening. Think about what you want most want to say, focus on making sure the audience pick this up, and then you’ll be in business.
Oh, and next time, please pick a venue other than Bar Bados. I know it’s the Free Fringe and you can’t expect wonders, but that’s really not a theatre-friendly space. There are better spaces out there.
Don’t go away. More sex tomorrow.
Monday 14th August: What do you know, I spoke too soon about No Miracles Here. No sooner had I reported reviews being split down the middle, Broadway Baby give them a 5* rating. Still a lot to play for here, but that makes their aggregated reviews look a lot better.
So now’s a good time to look at The Camisado Club, the company start by North Stage the year after The Letter Room, who have brought their own show to Edinburgh, You, Me and Everything Else. This is the story of the Voyager Golden Record, attached to a probe sent into outer space on the off-chance some aliens find it. Not to be confused with the picture of that nudey man and nudey lady they sent last time. That was filth, everyone agrees. Think of the alien children. This time, it’s going to have wholesome family values. That’s means no same-sex couples, and S-E-X is going to be explained with diagrams, not photos. But the main theme of the story is Carl Sagan’s quest to decide on what else should go on the record. What music can represent the whole of humanity to another civilisation? It’s a delicate balance between a quest to showcase the planet and the moral constraints of the period.
The Camisado Club do a good job capturing all of the story, and it’s easy to follow whether or not you know anything about this. The cast of seven have a lot of theatrical devices up their sleeves which they execute with flawless precision. However, I did think this sometime strayed into theatrical devices for the sake of it. The effect of Voyager in space was good, but I wasn’t sure, for instance, what was the point of representing everyone with pairs of shoes at the beginning, well-managed though it was. The other issue is that I had trouble keeping up interest in this. The process of choosing what to go on the record makes for an interesting talk or encyclopedia entry; as a play, it’s tougher. It is only when Carl Sagan’s personal life comes into play – as he drifts away from his wife and towards another woman in his project – that things get more interesting. I would have introduced this a lot sooner – the personal journey of Sagan, I feel, would have helped sustain interest in the story with the science running alongside.
But they’ve told the story faithfully, and the last I would have wanted would have been to take short cuts with the truth. I certainly can’t argue with the critical reception so far – whilst their counterparts in The Letter Room’s star ratings are all over the place, they’ve been getting consistently positive reviews so far. Not a bad start for the Camisado Club in Edinburgh – I recommend the challenge for future years is a seek out a speciality they can use to distinguish themselves from the other groups in Edinburgh.
Sunday 13th August, 10.15 p.m.: I am going to carry on with reviews tomorrow. Part of the reason for my early departure was that I have rehearsals to direct on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday. But none of us are planning to have an evening off until October, are wet? Anyway, my brain is a little too scrambled to write reviews at the mo, so I’ll come back to this tomorrow when I’m a bit more with it.
However, whilst I’ve taken my foot off the gas, now’s a good time to see how plays are faring with other reviews. I’ve only had time to thoroughly check the compilation done by The List so far, which is incomplete but by far the quickest to use, but a couple of interesting results have stood out. Usually, I’ve found myself in broad agreement with other reviews – this time, however, there have been some notable splits. In particular, I am obliged to report that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for No Miracles Here, with star ratings raging from 2* from Fest to 4* from The Stage (up to 5* if you count mine). From what I can see, either people do buy into the concept of a whole Northern Soul night being a metaphor for a fight with depression, or they don’t. Hard to see what to do about that, except carry on for the people who do.
However, opposite surprise applies for the one play I was expecting to split critics. Gratiano got mixed reviews last year prior to re-working, and even with the re-worked version I’ve heard very split views off the record. But on the record? So far two 4*s from British Theatre Guide and Broadway Baby and a Highly Recommended from FringeReview. Can’t really argue with that result if that’s how it stays.
Speaking of reviews, on thing I expect to start in earnest tomorrow is Fringepig’s reviewer-reviews, now that they’ve had a chance to check over several reviews. That should be interesting. Wait, I’ve just realised. If my reviews are going on edfringe.com as professional reviews, I think I might count now. Oh shit.
Sunday 13th August, 5.00 p.m.: Sorry for the down-time. I spent the morning having a break from Edinburgh to visit North Berwick. It’s a long story why I spent the morning there, best understood if you know about All the Stations. If your first reactions to “All the Stations” isn’t “Does that include Newhaven Marine?”, it’s going to take much explaining, but anyway, North Berwick is lovely. 40 minutes by train, hourly service, an ideal getaway from the fringe if you need one.
After that, I was able to squeeze in one more show before it was time for my train. I have rehearsals to direct tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday, then I’m back for another session.
So whilst I’m on my way to Durham, let’s catch up with another review, this one is Boris and Sergey’s One-Man Extravaganza. This foul-mouthed puppet duo are back for their fifth show. Last time it was completely improvised, this is back to a scripted one. So if you sit on the front row, you too could be crowned king and queen of Machapachatan (name of made-up monarchy may vary), or you could be on their game show. Don’t worry, Sergey has chosen Karma Sutra positions as his specialist subject. Absolutely no chance of you being lumbered with those questions. “But Chris,” I hear you cry, “how is this a one-man extravaganza?” We’re coming to this. You see, with our intrepid duo in debt to the local loan shark, Sergey is launching is own highly artistic solo show. Boris is just a dead weight to him – he can go and make his own show.
And so on. The story is about as silly as the last four. But the thing which is outstanding is the puppetry and choreography. It is impressive enough that six people, three to a puppet, can improvise moves on the fly, but when they choreograph the whole play this it reaches new heights. One little thing that makes such a difference is the puppeteers being part of the performance, with facial expression matching those of the puppets, not their puppets have faces of course. Their versatility means they can introduce their first villain, hopefully recurring villain, a dastardly white-coloured lady puppet explain her master plan and how she exploited them all along like all dastardly villains do. And there’s some lovely twists at the end where the puppeteers swapping over allows some impossible things to happen.
It’s fair to say this humour isn’t for everyone (such as sober people), but the skill Flabbergast Theatre have honed over the last five years will blow you away. And with this company also getting their own space at Assembly, Flabbergast and their notorious puppet duo look set to be a long-term fringe fixture.
Excuse me, I’m about to fall asleep on my keyboard. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz Oh what a coincidence, it was the z.
Saturday 12th August, 10.30 p.m.: Before I continue, one small development I need to explain. As a condition of getting a media pass, I am required to notify the festival fringe society of my reviews. I never got round to it last year, but this year I decided to keep my side of the bargain. What this means, I’ve discovered, is that all of my reviews go into the Professional Reviews section of the website. I didn’t go into this intending my reviews to be listed alongside Three Weeks and so on, but apparently that’s the rules.
One complication is that I don’t use star ratings, but the fringe people encourage you to have star ratings for everything. However, for reasons I’ve explained before, I don’t routinely apply star ratings, but I now have Ike Awards that I’ve previous said is equivalent to a five-star review. Having discussed this with the fringe media desk, we have agreed that Ike-winning plays will be shown on their site as five stars, whilst other plays will be shown without star ratings. Not sure if anyone cares, but here’s the explanation in case there’s an argument later.
Next to review is Goblin Market, originally a poem by Christina Rossetti, now adapted for the stage by Jennifer Jewell and Mark Cabus. Sticking to word of the poem, it tells the fairy tale of the sisters Laura and Lizzie. Laura buys forbidden fruit from the goblins in return for locks of her golden hair. When she can’t pay for any more, she falls sick for want of it. Can Lizzie save her, or will she too fall prey to their forbidden fruit. It is often said this poem is full of suggested sexual imagery, but to be honest, I didn’t see it that way in this poem. If it went over my head, maybe I’m too sweet and innocent for this world.
In this adaptation, Jennifer Jewell transplants the setting of the story from England (we presume) to Appalachia. That transfer is handled well – the test is whether you can watch the adaptation believing that’s where the story was set all along, and this does that job well. This performance is borderline between spoken word and theatre, and if you look on it as a theatre piece, it was a minimalist piece, with only herself, a chair, and quilt on stage. On balance I felt this was a little too minimalist; there’s only so many things you can do with a chair and quilt to represent a story. This isn’t too different from big hits such as The Bookbinder which use a few props in numerous different ways to tell a story, but this I felt went a little too far – one or two extra props used creatively, I feel, could have added a lot more versatility to this adaptation.
But Jennifer Jewell puts in a good performance that evoked the story very well, and the best touch added to this was Chris Tench’s music. These two things between them did a lot to turn this from a generic reading of a famous poem to an adaptation that is indisputably theirs. Expect to need to concentrate on the poem lest you lose the story, but I’m confident that if you know the poem you won’t be disappointed. This runs at Greenside Royal Terrace at 3 p.m. for the rest of the fringe.
Saturday 12th August, 12.15 p.m.: Phew. Tickets booked for day three. It’s crossed my mind that nothing particularly controversial has happened at this fringe yet, apart from that half-arsed attempt at censorship before the fringe started. Is there anything I should have a swipe at which I’ve managed to miss?
Time for another review whilst I have a quiet moment. This time, it’s a lucky dip entry, seen purely because I had a gap in my schedule to fill. This was Chris Davis’s One-Man Apocalypse Now, a one-man version of one of the many films set in the Vietnam War. Most conspiracy theories work in the Vietnam War, but you sheeple have got it all wrong. The plain truth staring you in the face is that Jim Morrison started it, deliberately escalating the tension between the US and the Vietcong so that he’d rake in a fortune when they used The Doors as the soundtrack for all the films.
Anyway, back to One-Man Apocalypse Now. This is a bit different from most one-man stories I’ve seen. Most of them are broadly faithful retellings, partly narrated, partly acted. This is a lot more tongue-in-cheek. For a start, all of the characters are referred to by the name of the actors playing them, together with their exploits in future films thrown in. It stops short of Harrison Ford suggesting they all fly to their target in the Millennium Falcon, but that line could easily have been in there. It’s lucky Helen Mirren wasn’t playing the stripper, otherwise they’d be committing treason, being the future Queen and all. One of the funniest lines in the play went something like “Oh shit, that black dude just got killed. I’m black too. I really don’t hope this isn’t the bit where all the black guys get shot just before the white actors have their oscar-winning scenes.”
However, there is a price to be paid for all of these in-jokes. So much of the play is parodies lines and scenes from the film that you really need to know the movie quite well to follow this play. This was most evident in the reaction of the audience to many of the jokes, some people getting the reference and finding it hilarious, others having no idea what’s going on sitting in confused silence. When you are liberally mixing in reference from the film, other films the actors are in and flyering on the Royal, you really do need to know which film is which. As such, I’m not sure it was wise to call this an adaptation. A parody would have been a better description.
But I have nothing to fault with Chris Davis’s performance. He makes to most of a set consisting on one mattress in tiny Sweet Studio 3, he uses sound to support his performance very well, and he captures the mannerisms of the characters very well. I can recommend this best for fans of the film – if you haven’t seen it, I’d advise you to at least read read the plot on Wikipedia first. On the whole, however, I’d forget about trying to sell this as an adaptation and unashamedly promote this is a comedy take on the film. Come on, these Vietnam films are all a bit of a gloom-fest, I’m sure we’ve earned some laughs by now.
Time for a doze, I think. Long day ahead.
Friday 11th August, 11.15 p.m.: Finishing today’s coverage with a late update because I want to rush out a review for Mimi’s Suitcase. One of the reasons I prioritised reviewing this is that Ana Bayat was more determined than anyone else to get me to come and review. Glad I did, because this is quite possibly a hidden gem of the fringe.
This play is quite simply her own story of life in Iran. There does seem to be a fashion for autobiographical solo plays, something that I feel is being overused by actors try to make their lives more interesting as they really are, and also often used as a vehicle to list the actor’s opinions. But there is no need to do either here. Ana Bayat does not need to atach a message to her play – her story tells enough as it is. It’s life in the eyes of a naive fourteen-year-old in the years following the revolution. Before then she lived in Spain, taking freedom for granted, and the worst problem she had to put up with was the early time her mother wanted her back after seeing boys.
There is nothing particularly harrowing in the play, but the scary part is the way women’s freedoms were being progressively erodes. The new government didn’t make the headscarf mandatory on day one – it was a creeping introduction, first some shops refusing to sell goods to bare-headed women, then more shops, then workplaces. Tales of women fighting with new hairstyles to make their headscarf sexy, sadly a losing battle, for a play she wanted to be in, where the authorities said wigs instead of headscarfs was fine, get banned.
The dimension Mimi offers with her perspective in crucial – fourteen years thinking nothing of it, so confused why men would want to break up a party in someone’s house. The play is billed as exploring the consequences of displacement, but there’s no tirade against immigration policies. But play nonetheless makes a powerful argument to explain how desperately people like her are to escape to somewhere with more freedom.
The play is spoken in three languages (don’t worry, the Catalan and Iranian are subtitled) and whilst this would have made a decent piece as straight spoken word, it’s choreographed quite nicely into a solo play. The only decision which seemed a bit odd was to mike her up. I appreciate St. John’s Church is a big space, but I’ve seen performances in similar-sized spaces manage fine without. However, that does not detract from the fascinating story.
This has one more performance in St. John’s Church tomorrow at St. John’s Chuch as part of the Just Festival at 9.30, and then from next week it transfers to the Quaker Meeting House at 6.30 or 8.30 depending on day. St. John’s is a bit out of the way and struggles to get an audience, but she definitely deserves more of an audience in the new smaller venue.
Right, battery on laptop almost dead. Guess that means it’s bed-time.
Friday 11th August, 5.30 p.m.: And here we are. It’s only day two, but as hinted on Twitter, we have our first Ike Award winner, to the Letter Room for No Miracles Here. They were in a strong position two years ago with Five Feet In Front, strong all-rounders in every area with a relatively safe bet story. All it took was a gamble to push the boat a little bit further. That they have done, and it’s paid off.
No Miracles Here begin with Ray and the Rayettes, a soul band – on stage at least. In the story, the band is really a metaphor for Ray’s story. So, too, it seems, is the Northern Soul dance marathon he goes to. In reality, Ray has depression, which he once through he’d get over in days. But days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years. In another story, a miracle would happen and he’d suddenly see the light, But, of course, there’s no miracles here. The entire dance marathon might only exist in his head, but the one thing firmly grounded in reality is that there’s rarely a quick fix to end depression – only slogging on and maybe one day realising things might get better.
The tale flits back and forth between the imaginary dance marathon Ray once heard his father talk about, and mental struggles that he and other in his position face. It’s fair to say I think I lost the odd reference, and sometimes I wasn’t sure which experience this was meant to talk about, but that doesn’t really matter. As the play itself quite rightly says, no two experiences of depression are the same, and often the best someone can do who’s been through it is say that they got through it, so maybe you can get through it too.
And everything that The Letter Room showed they could do in the last play carries through to this one. I’ll single out the music for particular commendation, Surely thanks in large part to their musical collaborator Jeremy Bradfield. It’s a great strength to have an entire ensemble that can play the right instruments, but with the wrong tunes and wrong chord you can still produce something bland and unmemorable. This was anything but.
Northern Stage’s North scheme was intended to give new actors a start on the stage, but surely this must have surpassed even Northern Stage’s expectations. Catch this while you can – and bar set by The Letter Room for its successors to clear has got even higher.
Whilst I deliberate on what I’ve just seen, I can now finally review The City: A Detective Hip-Hop Opera properly, ignoring all the stupid politics surrounding this. I will only make one final comment on the politics at the start of the show, which was that they announced at the beginning that this is just a play, and nothing to do with anything else going on. I’d have thought that would be clear to anyone watching this. Presumably people are still attempting to see parallels where there obviously aren’t any. The fact that it was necessary to say this at all makes me despair for humanity.
But let’s forget that and focus on the play. A film noir parody set to hip-hop. I had heard it say beforehand that this was a daft idea that woiuld have flopped of its own accord had it not been left alone. Now that I’ve seen this, I can say that was an unfair statement, because however much a film noir set to hip-hop sounds unworkable, it works. For the first five minutes, you may have concentrate when you get used to the idea, but – crucially – after then you just follow the story and forget it’s using this format.
The story itself features everything you would expect. As we all know, all private detectives are bitter disillusioned loners, all attractive women wandering in to ask for cases are femme fatales with secrets to hide, and there’s always an evil overlord out there who controls all crime, controls the Police, and kills anyone he chooses – this one just happened to be called “Steve”. But this is not just a tick-the-boxes parody; they are all well-developed characters, especially our own PI whose own view of the world may not even be what it seems.
The only weakness I saw with this play was the ending where we discover who killed who all along. It didn’t help that our hero had already been established as someone who goes off on tangents of questionable sanity, but it did make it difficult at the end to understand exactly how he’d worked out who to unmask. That’s the only thing I’d suggest another look at, if this comes back. But comes back it should. It’s great to see this back at the Fringe, and if Incubator Theatre wish to call this job done, that’s their choice. But the play deserves better than an obscure venue away from the hub of the fringe. So here’s my challenge for the big venues: one of you should grow a spine and take this on. There was a protest, but a pretty feeble one compared to before, and if that’s the best they can manage when they don’t smell victory, they won’t even come close to stopping you this time. If a festival where people increasingly question the supervenues’ commitment to its openness, whoever does this will earn my respect. And, I believe, the respect of everyone else who sees this and discovers how idiotic this campaign is.
Thursday 10th August, 8.45 p.m.: So here comes the first review, BlackCatfishMusketeer. I confess, I still don’t get what the title had to do with the play. It’s possible that Black Catfish or Musketeer might have been profile names of a dating website, because it takes about five minutes to work out that this entire play is conversations through a dating website. After a few blow-outs (pro-tip: don’t use the word “gold-diggers and feminazis” in your conversation opener. Even if you do believe in gold-diggers and feminazis) we come to a conversation between a couple. They never speak to each other throughout the play. Instead, the entire story is in the instant messages they send to each other. Oh, and another woman plays a multitude of links and multimedia attachments they send to each other.
This might sound overly clever or pretentious, but bear with me. This starts the way an online relationship would. With him being in Dublin and her being in London, a date in person is a long way off, so instead they cyber-date. Then he has a business trip to London. Suddenly fears emerge about meeting for real. Is the person you have feelings for online the same as the person in real life? Except that’s not quite the real reason. That’s hidden in a throwaway comment. But that is a truth that will emerge later. One might have expected a play in instant messages to be dry and dull. Instead, as the story develops we sometimes have moments of humour over various bits of internet pedanticism, but most of the time, it’s a story that’s surprisingly moving.
There is only one thing I have to fault with the play, and that was the excessive digressions into philosophical discussions. Although the way they discuss this so easily helps explain how they click so easily, it went on way too long and occasionally dragged the play to snail’s pace. I have seen lesser plays get deadly dull over attempting to discuss every philosophical topic under the sun. However, apart from maybe padding 10 unnecessary minutes, it doesn’t do much harm to the play and doesn’t undo the two excellent character Dylan Cobrun Grey created. This is part of a double bill from Malaprop with the two shows on alternate days, at 7.10. Summerhall sometimes gets a reputation for programming plays that are clever for the sake of looking clever, but this is exactly the thing they should be showing. Highly worthy seeing.
Thursday 10th August, 3.30 p.m.: With this being the last day of The City, I went to this first. I’m not going to a review straight away because I want to separate this from all of the stupid politics surrounding this. Mainly because this is a good play that deserves better than being a political football. Whether your interest in justice for Palestine or freedom of speech or whatever, that is not what this play should be judged on. The review, when it comes, will be a good one though.
However, what I will get out of the way now is the visit. That was a surreal experience. The place was crawling with Police and security guards – I must have seen at least five Police vans outside. Even though the demo was reportedly pretty feeble compared to what’s be mustered before, they clearly weren’t taking any chances. Having not had time to drop off my things from the train, I still have my suitcase with me, and this was watched like a hawk.
There was no trouble on my particular visit, so this might come across to some people as over the top. Of course, I’ve seen first-hand what these people are like at their worst, I can see why someone would think they might need this. A heavy security presence is the last thing you want at any fringe event, and inevitably this made the atmosphere a little uncomfortable. But my view remains that the only correct way to respond to mob censorship is to do whatever it take to ensure the people whose rights to free speech are threatened get to speak. And if it means a massive police and security presence is needed to make sure of this, so be it.
Right, next update will be back to normal fringe. The one where we get to perform what we want to perform and watch what we want to watch without your safety being threatened. Just realise how much you’ve got to be thankful for.
Thursday 10th August, 8.45 a.m.: And here I come. I’m somewhere between Berwick and Dunbar ready for a full day. Hopefully the first snap reviews will be appearing on this page shortly. I haven’t even decided what to see today, but I have a lot of shows on my to see list, both recommendations and review requests, that will require a lot of tight scheduling on the fly. Will we see our first Ike Award today?
And I’ve been up since 6 a.m. for this early train. Yes, 6 a.m. Bugger. Does anyone know how to do these power naps they keep talking about?
Wednesday 9th August: Well, the time is almost upon us. Tomorrow, I board the 07:24 to Edinburgh. As usual, I am wondering why on earth I thought booking a train that early was a good idea. One of the first things I have to do is catch a play on a limited run before it finishes, and that is The City, which I am seeing out of principle. With no news over mobs shutting venues down this time, I’d assumed that things had gone ahead as planned. But I checked for news anyway. The plot thickens.
Turns out that although there was no visible censorship campaign this time, that wasn’t for want of trying. There was an open letter signed by a number of artists, in protest of the Shalom festival that The City is part of. Whilst it was not explicitly calling for the festival or The City to be banned, the fact that they singled out the presence of Incubator in the letter and back-patted themselves for the “successful boycott” back in 2014, it is strongly implied they would have preferred the play to be censored again. Fortunately, this time everybody who was anybody, including the leaders of the three biggest parties in Scotland, told them to fuck off. There was a demo, but only a small one. It’s only fair to acknowledge that any kind of campaign against Israeli foreign policy, from the mildest mainstream action to the most viscous anti-Semitism, always peaks where there’s the latest outbreak of hostilities – the low turnout does not mean the campaign has gone for good. Mind you, the cynic in me says that the reason most people didn’t turn out once they knew they wouldn’t get their way.
To make it clear, I don’t particularly support anything about the Shalom festival other than giving some artists the platform they were wrongfully denied three years ago. Sure, the festival’s aim of coexistence is all well and good, but you must be suspicious of any supposedly pro-peace movement that consists solely of people from one side. (Their social media certainly seems to give a one-sided account of who’s to blame.) But opposing the existence of the festival is a pathetic response. If you don’t like what they say, the correct isn’t to carry on trying to silence them with mobs and megaphones – you respond to what they say and tell world why they’re wrong.
The list is a lot shorter than last year, but one name stands out: Ken Loach. Shame on you, using your position as one of the most influential artists to try to silence the smallest artists starting off. Ah well, you’ve just persuaded to never watch I, Daniel Blake. I was planning to catch up on this; the subjects raised in this film are something I want to know more about. But if you behave like you are entitled to deny other people’s rights to say what they want to say to people willing to listen, I really don’t see why I should waste any of my time listening to what you have to say. But, unlike you, I will not demand other people be deprived the right of hearing you if they wish to do so. That is what sets us apart.
Oh shit. Nearly 11. Still haven’t started packing. Better get to it.
Tuesday 8th August: But that’s enough negativity. I’m not coming to Edinburgh to bitch about other reviewers, I’m coming to look for outstanding theatre. So there is another new rule coming to this fringe, to recognise the best theatre.
As blog regulars will know, I do not use star ratings in my reviews. I may start using them one day, but I’ve been making up the rules as I go along and I don’t trust myself to be consistent. However, I did want something to recognise the absolute best theatre I’ve seen, something equivalent to a five-star review, not limited to any specific number, but only handed out rarely, bit like an Argus Angel or Scotsman Fringe First. So, inspired by the conventions of applying arbitrary names to awards like the Oscars and the Tonys, I have decided to name this an Ike award. And in case you’re wondering how I arrived at Ike, Ike is a character in The Girl With No Heart, the first play I reviewed on this blog that was good enough for this award.
I will at some point backdate these Ike Awards all the way back to the start of the blog, but this is the first festival where Ike awards will be issues as the fringe goes on. So here’s what you will see whenever this happens:
That was a demonstration. Next time you see this, it will be for real. When shall it be?
Monday 7th August: Reviews have started coming in, but also, at an earlier stage than last year, reviews of reviewers are also coming in. Yes, it’s the mag every reviewers fears, Fringepig. I’ve said this before, but for the record, I broadly support what Fringepig does. I don’t agree with everything they do: I feel they sometime engage in excessive savageness (something they frequently criticise reviewers for), I feel their reviews have too much weight on negatives over positives, and I don’t have a problem with performers doing reviews provided safeguards are in place. But reviewers have a huge amount of power at the Edinburgh Fringe, and someone has to hold them to account. Even if an online dressing down is hurtful to the reviewers affected. The Edinburgh Fringe is a brutal business, with all performers standing to be subjected to the same if the reviewers turn against them – I don’t see how reviewers can be exempt from what they can subject performers to. And if you don’t like the criteria that Fringepig judges reviewers by, either say what they’re getting wrong or start your own reviewer-review site and create your own rules.
Anyway, this nicely brings me on to a reminder of my new rule, introduced at the Brighton Fringe this year. As blog regulars will know, I monitor how plays I review or recommend fare against reviews. Whether review consensus agrees or disagrees with me, I though it fair to include this. But following some shennangins last year, I have introduced a “ban list”. Any reviewers that I determine have engaged in gross unethical practices will have their reviews excluded from my analysis. My reasoning is that I have to justify why I include reviewers from publications such as Three Weeks and Broadway Baby but not every freelance blogger: I make a de facto assumption is that the editorial oversight means that reviewers can be assumed to be trustworthy. But squander that trust and the privilege lapses. And one important clarification – any reviewers that are banned have all their reviews stricken from my records, not just the ones that earned them the ban. If you show you can’t be trusted with one review, then you’ve good at shown you can’t be trusted for any review.
So I will be monitoring Fringepig so that any cases of bad behaviour brought to my attention, although I must stress that I will decide for myself when a ban is warranted. I will try to write proper rules at some point, but the short rule is that to be banned you will have to be judge plays on things other than artistic merit AND try to pass it off as judging artistic merit in the review. I will always check the reviews for myself, and it will have to strong evidence for a ban to be triggered. Usually it will mean a pattern being observed over several reviews, but it is possible to get banned for one if it’s blatant enough.
Any bans I make will be done quietly – I am leaving it up to Fringepig to openly name and shame. I am not particularly interested in other people contacting me with complaints of reviewers; I do not want me blog to become a battleground between performers with grievances and reviewers – complain to Fringepig if you must complain. And I’m not intending to go to war with all reviewers – most reviewers, I believe, do their jobs properly for little or no pay. For the record, none of the reviewers on my ban list are doing Edinburgh this year as far as I can tell. I would much prefer it if this could stay at zero.
Performers who requested reviews – I’m doing that now. I promise. Sorry for the delay.
Sunday 6th August: What’s worth watching is growing in size. I have now written up my recommendations for the safe choices and bold choices, and I hope to complete the list tomorrow. That’s where you’ll see what makes me endorse these picks.
However, for once, there’s something in the International Festival that has grabbed my attention, which is a new Alan Ayckbourn play. Normally this wouldn’t register much interest, because we tend to get one new Ayckbourn a year, and other there’s no knowing whether this will be a landmark one until you see it. However, this one is notable because it’s remarkable this is being produced at all.
The Divide, billed as a dystopian epic where men and women are separated, was written by Ayckbourn ages ago pretty much on the assumption it would never be performed. With an absolutely massive cast as a running time of eight hours hours, it was impractical to do in every respect. It finally got a rehearsed reading in 2015 as part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s anniversary celebrations, pretty much on the expectation that this is as far as it could ever go.
But no. The Old Vic has decided it can be taken further, and they actually have gone ahead and produced the unproduceable. Now trimmed down to five hours, and a relatively easy cast of thirteen, it’s showing as a two-parter at the King’s Theatre between the 8th and 20th August. Of course, five hours eats into a lot of time you could spend discovering new acts as the Fringe, so if you’d rather devote your time to fringing, it will be on at the Old Vic in the autumn when schedules are less hectic. No-one yet knows how this will turn out, but getting a performance of a five-hour play is surely an achievement in this own right.
Saturday 5th August: So, a reminder of how this works. Any play I see is eligible to be reviewed, whether or not I attend on a press ticket. However, reviews by invitation take precedence: I will make an effort to see plays I am invited to, and I will make an effort to see them first. If you are on my list of recommendations, I will probably see you anyway (if I haven’t seen you already), but you can always bump yourself up my list of priorities by inviting me on a press ticket. Please note, however, that my schedule is now getting so busy that your presence on my recommended list is no a guarantee I will see you, especially if I’ve seen the same show before. Offer a press ticket if you want to make sure.
I have now gone through all the requests from groups made before my “soft” deadline of the 28th July (meaning that all reviews received before that date will get equal consideration). Having checked when all these plays are and when the plays I want to see are, I am pleased to say that it looks like I can accommodate everyone. For anyone who contacted me after this deadline, I will do my best to fit you in, but groups before the deadline get priority.
If you are contacting me as a promoter or venue, I am interested in your offer of press tickets, but I prefer to review groups who have said themselves that they want to be reviewed. If it’s a flat list of all the groups who are with you, I don’t know who’s interested. I may well still take up your offer, but if an individual group is keen, make sure I know about it.
Finally, I generally work on the assumption that anyone coming up to Edinburgh Fringe is willing to stick their neck out for critical feedback. I do try to be constructive and generally only give kickings to bad high-profile groups who should know better. However, if, for any reason, you do not want to be reviews, contact me and I will respect your wishes.
Changing the subject, I won’t be spending much time on this blog tell people which recommended shows are starting and which are finishing, because almost all of them run the whole festival, but whenever anything comes up with a limited run I will try to give a mention. So, one play with a very limited run is Knightmare Live. If you are an eighties child, yes, this is based on the CGI TV show of the early nineties. If not – you’ll pick it up as you’ll go along. However, there are only three performances over the whole fringe, on the 6th and 13th at 5.15 then the 21st at 7 p.m. So the first one is tomorrow, so if you want to see it, you’d better be quick.
And that’s enough for today. I need to do my power sleeping to prepare myself for a busy four days from Thursday.
Friday 4th August: It’s the first official day on the Edinburgh Fringe, but before it’s even started we had our first controversy, with New Town Theatre apparently spending a lot of time complaining about losing St. Andrew’s Square at their launch. The alleged criticism is they they spent too much time complaining this wasn’t their venue of choice, which maybe isn’t the best timing if you’re trying to persuade people to see acts at this venue. However, I’m hearing conflicting reports on this, so I’m reserving judgement until I have a better idea of what’s going on.
However, this pales into insignificance against the big media flurry before the fringe over the controversial edfringereviews.com. Not to be confused with edfringereview.com (singular). The latter is a proper review site – and okay, the don’t have the greatest of reputations, but they do at least stick to the basics of deciding what to review then reviewing it. edfringereviews.com (plural), on the other hand, was going to review for a fee, along with a nice list of all the publicity you get in exchange for the fee. Now, there is an ongoing debate over the ethics of critics working for free, but even the most ardent proponents of paying critics came out in opposition to this. I agree, but even skipping over the morals of this practice, anyone who’s anyone at the Fringe could tell you it would be a terrible idea to take this up. Audiences are less gullible than some people think, and if a reviews site’s business model depends on performers paying them for reviews – and, let’s face it, they won’t be paying for bad reviews, will they? – their credibility will be torn to shreds. Along with the credibility anybody who attempts to display their reviews.
Anyway, the project was “postponed” a year, with the seemingly anonymous organisers claiming they need more time to prepare, but I predict right now they won’t be coming back. It’s too late, review sites work on trust and their trust have been irreversibly shattered before they started. I won’t miss them. My only reason to be relieved is that it was just about possible they could have made money from naive fringe newbies who are led to believe you have to fork out for everything. Still plenty of ways to rip them off, but this is one less to worry about.
However, before people get too celebratory over this, we do need to think about one of the causes of this: Chortle. Chortle offer a review to anyone was buys more than £150 worth of adverts on their site. Now, I must stress that Chortle’s practices are in no way comparable to enfringereviews.com – Chortle makes it clear that a guaranteed review is just that, with no promise it’ll be good one. But can we really be sure there’s no influence? It wasn’t that long ago it emerged that the Telegraph was upgrading star ratings of films to satisfy advertisers, and whilst Chortle is making no indications it offers the same service to its advertisers, they do not appear to have any safeguards against this influence either.
Chortle should not get a free pass here. If they can explain how they ensure no comedians get favours for adverts, fair enough, but they should at least be questioned for this, because it is practices like this that give sites like edfringereviews.com the excuses they need to go full-blown cash for praise. edfringereviews.com failed because it was blatant. Next time, it might be less obvious, and by the time we wise up to what’s going on the damage may already be done. Chortle should know better than to be an accessory to this.
[Full disclosure: I paid Broadway Baby for advertising last year and was subsequently reviewed by them, but the review was never part of the advertising deal. I had no idea I was getting a review off them until a reviewer turned up, and, as far as know, the fact I advertised had no effect on their review.]
Thursday 3rd August: So let’s leap in at the deep end. What is coming up at the fringe that I can recommend for you. I went through the programme today, and now I can announce my decisions.
Before I do this, a reminder of some important rules. Firstly, with one exception, I am only recommending shows where I have seen the performers in action before. Unlike other fringes, I don’t make recommendations solely in good feedback I’ve heard from other reviewers – those shows get more than enough publicity from those review publications. Secondly, I don’t recommend plays on the strength of the script, no matter how good, if I don’t know the group performing it. It’s too much of a lottery whether an unknown group will do justice to a play, and besides, what works well normally doesn’t always work as well in a fringe environment.
So here we go …
- Bite size (breakfast and lunch shows)
- Call Mr. Robeson
- The Jurassic Parks
- Police Cops in Space
- Bite Size: Izzy’s Manifestos
- The Friday Night Effect
- The House
- Mars Actually
- No Miracles Here
You might like:
- The Empress and Me
- Your ever loving
- Give me your love?
- The Writers’ Room
- You, Me and Everything Else
From the comedy:
- Boris and Sergey’s One Man Show
- Imaginary Porno Charades
- The Dark Room
- Knightmare Live
- Morgan and West
- Murder she didn’t write
Over the next few days, I will be creating the full What’s Worth Watching list to explain how and why all these are things I recommend seeing.
As I said, to keep the list manageable, I don’t usually include performers I haven’t seen before, no matter how much praise they have received. However, I am making one important exception, and that is Incubator Theatre with The City. This play, as you may recall, was the first and only play to pull out of the fringe owing to political censorship, partly due to the support of a lot of high-profile artists. As I’ve said many times before, I’ve come to the conclusion that artists have nothing to fear from censorship when it is driven by governments or officials or even angry mobs. No, you only have to fear censorship from other artists, and the fact that so many people used they power and status to silence artists with less prominence that them is nothing short of disgraceful (And before you ask: yes, if they did this to a Palestinian group instead of an Israeli group, I would be saying exactly the same thing.)
But there is some good news. Incubator Theatre is back. They are showing at Drummond Community High School doing nine performances in three days, of 12, 4 and 8 on the 8th, 9th and 10th August. Whilst I have not seen it myself, the people who were able to review it have given very good feedback. But it’s not just because it’s a good play that you should see this. It’s an important stand against censorship. Remember, Incubator Theatre were targeted not because of what they said but because of who they were. If being the wrong nationality is grounds to be banned (setting impossible double standards of “rejecting state funding” is no excuse), no-one is safe, and you could be next. The artists who cheered on the mobs in 2014 are bullies who thought they were powerful enough to get their way. I doubt they’ll try nearly so hard if the voices they want stifled end up being heard more than ever before. That, I believe, is the best way to beat the censors.
Oh, and Liz Lochhead’s got a show on, I’ve found out. Anyone fancy exit flyering her show with The City? Go on, I dare you. Go on, go on, go on.
Wednesday 2nd August: Welcome to my live coverage of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe. Over the next month I will- … What did you just say? “But you haven’t even finished writing about Brighton Fringe yet.” I didn’t hear that.
Right, where was I? … Welcome to my live coverage of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe. Over the next month I will be covering developments as they happen in the Scottish capital. Coverage will happen in earnest once I begin my first visit a week tomorrow and my reviews start coming out. Before then, I will be writing about anything that gets my attention.
The very first thing to do, however, is come up with recommendations. Officially, the fringe doesn’t start until Friday, but for the performers it’s effectively already begun with previews and launches already underway. So expect me to spend a lot of time flicking through the programme.
I will be doing daily updates before the 10th, so my next update comes tomorrow.