Odds and sods: September 2017

Been a while since I’ve done an odds and sods, what with Edinburgh and Brighton coverage keeping me busy over most of the summer. Last one was June, which now seems to be a distant memory. As usual, not a lot happens in September, with most of the performing arts world in hibernation at the Edinburgh Fringe. But a few things have been happening, and there’s also some post-fringe fallout from some of the more, ahem, “interesting” discussions.

Things that happened in September:

Ladybirdgate Mark II

Greedy lawyers. Relevance to story unknown.

This is actually an event that happened in the run-up to the Edinburgh Fringe rather than after that I somehow missed in spite of it registering on Fringepig’s radar. But it’s on the subject of corporate censorship, a close third of the things I loathe in the arts, after religious censorship and political censorship. According to Fringepig (and proper websites too). One play showing at Edinburgh was Four Go Off on One, a Famous Five parody, and if you’re wondering why they didn’t use the less confusing title of Five Go Off on One, it’s because they got legal threats from Hachette Book Group. Amarous Prawn offered a compromise to rename themselves to The Reasonably Well Known Five: An Unofficial, Unlicensed and Unrestrained Parody. Hachette wouldn’t have it because, to borrow the observation of Fringepig, they seem to think they have exclusive worldwide rights to the number five.

This has echoes of Ladybirdgate, when Penguin Random House tried very hard to ban a parody of Ladybird books by an independent publisher. This time, it’s only a dispute over the title rather than outright censorship, but it’s still contemptible for two reasons. Firstly, there’s no way Hachette’s legal demands would have stood up in court. They might just have had a case to claim the original title might have been confused for an official Famous Five, but they didn’t have a leg to stand on over the suggested alternative. But these people know that if you have money and more lawyers you can get your way if the other side doesn’t have the time and resources to fight. Secondly, it’s tied in to these waves of “official” parody titles. The original official ladybird parodies were funny, but it got stale very quickly, with all these follow-up books being rehashes of the same joke; but once other companies got in on the act it got really tedious. Some people argue what’s funny is that they are official books done with the blessing of the owners; if you think that, fair enough. But there is absolutely no excuse to behave like you own the rights to parodies just because you’re doing your own. Few things attract more contempt from me than big corporations who think they’re entitled to more than the law allows because they’ve got the bigger legal team.

However, not all of the blame lies with them. The best way to fight publishing giants such as Penguin Random House and Hackette Book Group trampling over the right of small artists is for artists to fight back and make their brands so toxic that no self-respecting author will want to sign up to them. There are enough of us to do that. But last time, too many artists put their energy into running a smear campaign against the artist being sued, almost behaving as proxies for Penguin’s PR Team. They eventually lost the argument, but not before their shielded Penguin from some of the worst PR damage. So all of you Penguin fanboys – what happened at this fringe is partly your fault. You gave the message that publishing giants are welcome the threaten anyone they like with no consequences. Shame on you.

Wow, been ages since I’ve been angry about something. Speaking of which …

The Paul Whitelaw experience

Circling sharks. Relevance to story unknown.

Another thing that attracted a lot of anger was a reviewer from The Scotsman who gave a lot of bad reviews to female comedians. I’ve already written about this shitstorm in my live fringe coverage (scroll to 26th August 3.30 p.m. and Monday 28th August, 3.00 p.m.), but to give the quick version, Fringepig did a highly critical reviewer-review over his tendency to give bad reviews to female comedians. Nothing happened for three days, until I reported on this, and, for some reason, it was only then Paul Whitelaw picked up on this. He responded to me, politely and reasonably, but within hours of my post this escalated into a slanging match between him and Fringepig. Fringepig aren’t exactly renowned for civil discourse themselves, but on this occasion Whitelaw topped it all with the particularly ill-advised phrase “Basically, just fuck off you nasty dismal shower of nasty, incompetent amateurs”, whilst I sat back wondering what the hell I’d set off.

I cannot tell you whether he’s since made any points in his defence, by the way, because he blocked me on Twitter for suggesting it maybe wasn’t a good idea to use the words “Basically just fuck off you etc. etc.” None of this got me angry, by the way. I’m more feeling pity, that someone who’s clearly regarded as a capable reviewer could make such a tit of himself with such stupid responses.

The fallout has carried on. In another development seemingly unrelated to the reviewer-review, someone did some analysis of reviews to see if there was a bias against female comedians. It’s worth a read, but I would urge you to use some caution, as the blog is quite open they already believe in gender bias. I’ve only had time to skim-read this so far; for what it’s worth, I think the methodology itself is reasonable and fair, but I have some doubts over whether some of the conclusions are actually supported by the data. But even with all these caveats, The Scotsman’s figures look pretty bad. Then Chortle picked up on it, and they got a response from Gareth Morinan, who broadly disputed the findings, but finished off saying on The Scotsman’s reviews (emphasis mine):

It could be selection bias as opposed to review bias. Also it could be one reviewer causing that bias, as opposed to the entire publication.


Anyway, one other development is there is a show in London where the four women who got the worst reviews, plus one other woman who got a bad review from another Scotsman review, are performing a show in his, ahem, “honour”. I don’t normally cover stand-up comedy at all, but seeing as I played a small part in this (I think of it as the metaphorical equivalent of leaning against the wall and inadvertently pressing the “activate nuclear arsenal” button), this gets a free plug. I’m linking to the Facebook event because their description is hilarious/brutal (delete as applicable), especially lining up the 4* and 5* reviews from other publications against the 1* and 2* reviews from The Scotsman. Also giving reviews are incompetent reviewers Hayley and Ruth (aka Susan Harrison and Gemma Arrowsmith, who can neither confirm nor deny whether their recent Edinburgh Fringe podcast was based on any related events). It’s it The Bill Murray in Islington at 9.45 p.m. on the 12th October. As far as I can tell, it’s free and unticketed, but you have to turn up early to be sure of getting to see it.

(Footnote: In the interests of fairness, I have a rule that I do not accuse anyone of sexism or any other form of discrimination if it could be explained by something else. Based on my analysis so far, I can confirm that Paul Whitelaw did give a lot of female comedians substantially lower star ratings than other reviewers. However, for some reason, he was mainly reviewing female comedians, so it is inconclusive whether he was marking female comedians harshly or marking harshly in general. Paul Whitelaw says you need to look to earlier years to get a clearer picture, so I will have a look at this when there’s more time. For what it’s worth, I have a theory as to what happened, but it’s not much better than the allegations he’s currently facing. As I lack evidence to back up this theory, I am keeping it to myself for now.)

A ray of light in the Vault

The main bar at the VaultsBut that’s enough about the Edinburgh Fringe. We are already looking ahead to next year. Registration is nearly open for Brighton Fringe (yes, already), but before then we have got the Vault Festival, who are currently in the process of sending out offers. But as well as offers, they have also produced a blog post from their directors giving some insights into how they make selections. This is a Good Thing™ because transparency is always a Good Thing™. Now, there is an argument to be made that it’s their festival, they don’t have to explain themselves to anyone, and anyone who doesn’t like it can find another festival. But the Vault festival has a huge amount of power in the world of fringe theatre – both inside and outside the festival – and I’ve always believed that great power comes great responsibility. And some openness about how you exercise your power is a good start.

From reading this, three things stand out in particular:

  • Only 15% of applicants get programmed. The number of acts who want to perform at the Vault vastly outnumber those who do. And if you include the unknown number of artists who don’t apply expecting inevitable rejection, the ratio is even higher. The power held by the Vault’s programmers just got bigger.
  • They use quotas. Quotas. Hmm. I am sceptical about quotas. Even if there is a disparity in who’s apply to the festival, quotas feel to me, at best, an admission of failure that you cannot enough people in an underrepresented demographic coming forward. But I will reserve judgement until I know exactly how this works. For the record, if I ever got an offer from the Vault and I found out I only got it because of a disability quota, I would refuse to take part.
  • It is the performers, not the programmers, who set the trends of subject material. This isn’t explicitly stated, but it comes close. I’ve noticed the same themes kept appearing in the programme in the two years I’ve gone, and wondered who is setting it. Is it the programmers picking subject material they like, or simply a lot of performers coming forward with the same topics? According the them, it very heavily driven by the second.

The last one is the most important one. I would have been disappointed if it turned out to be the programmers deciding this. When your festival gets vastly more coverage than any other festival of this kind in London, I’d have said that controlling what is up for discussion would have overstepped the line for what’s an acceptable use of power. So that I’m pleased to hear. Are these trends a good thing, though? I can think of two contradictory arguments here. One is that trends are a bad thing, because it encourages performers who don’t bother forming their own opinions to go along with what everyone else is saying. The other is that it’s a good thing, because it means that performers who have previously been afraid to express their views can now speak out, confident that other people will listen. Either way, I don’t believe anyone else has any business telling anyone to follow or not follow trends. An opinion expressed after other people said the same thing is still a valid opinion you’re free to hold.

I’m hoping we hear more from the Vault about the selection process goes. How much experience do you need to stand a chance of success? Do they consider reviews? How much stylistic variety do they want in the programme? Do solo shows have a better or worse chance than average? In what order are all these decisions made. A lot of respect to The Vault for lifting the lid on what’s normally a murky unaccountable world – too few people are willing to open themselves up to criticism by explaining what they’re doing – but now that you’ve started, let’s go further.

Theatre N16 needs a new home

Scheming landlord. Relevance to story unknown.

Staying in London, one bit of news that’s been greeted with dismay is that Balham-based Theatre N16 have lost their venue. Eagle-eyed sleuths will have noticed that Balham isn’t in postcode district N16 and deduce they’ve moved home before, and you’d be right. This time, they’ve been given notice by the new owners of the Bedford Pub who want to redevelop the top floor where they perform.This news is only of minor consequence in the north-east (Alphabetti Theatre have exchanged plays with N16 in London but tha’s as far as it goes). Even in London, if the worst came to the worst and Theatre N16 shut up shop, the London fringe theatre scene would manage without. But this news is important because it’s a case study of something that’s a real menace for small-scale theatres: new owners taking over buildings and ejecting the resident theatre on a whim.

To be clear, I’m not outright against forced relocations. When Alphabetti Theatre had to leave Bridge Street, it was understood all along that the building was marked for eventual demolition and the deal was this could happen at any time – they would never have got the premises otherwise. That is not what has happened here. Theatre N16 was a perfectly viable theatre running in a perfectly viable pub, and, if anything, they did the pub a favour by bringing in extra business. And this still isn’t enough for new owners who don’t seem to have any idea what they’re throwing away. A closer example up north would be Alphabetti’s original move from the Dog and Parrot: they ran perfectly well, it was good business for the pub downstairs, but still the new owners decided they’d rather have yet another generic function room. It worked out in the end, and Alphabetti has long since outgrown their original venue, but only because of a massive personal financial risk taken on by the founder for the next venue. That could so easily have gone the other way. The loss of a fringe theatre in London is sad but bearable, because there are plenty of others left. In another city, where they may be only one fringe venue, losing that on the whim of a pub landlord would be a massive loss.

I don’t know what the answer is. You can’t just ban pub landlords from ejecting upstairs theatre, because then no-one would agree to it in the first place. All I can suggest is a charm offensive in the pub industry to improve the image of resident theatres, but I’ve no idea how you’d do that. In the meantime, here’s a crowdfunder for a new home for theatre N16 for anyone who has money to spare.

Max Roberts and Barrie Rutter call time


Right, that’s enough London news. Let’s get back to the land of flat caps and whippets. In the north-east, the big bit of news is that Max Roberts is stepping down as Artistic Director of Live Theatre after 30 years. This comes hot on the heels of the news that Barrie Rutter is stepping down as Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides after 25 years. (Barrie Rutter said he was stepping down in protest against funding disparities between the north and south, something I have sympathy with, but I suspect he was ready to call it a day anyway.) These are two founder members of two successful theatre companies, and in some ways in end of an era, twice.

As it happens, there’s a lot of parallels between the two stories here. Both men are only sort-of retiring: Max Roberts will still be an emeritus director at Live and Barrie Rutter is directing in The Captive Queen at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse (that’s the winter theatre for Shakespeare’s Globe) early next year. So we should look on this as not so much losing to accomplished artistic directors but gaining two new ones. When Alan Ayckbourn retired, there were question marks over whether the Stephen Joseph Theatre could make a name for itself without him. In both these cases, however, I think Live Theatre and Northern Broadsides have little to fear. Both are in excellent hands, and I even have some hot bets for successors within the company if they’re needed.

When you have a change of leadership, the big question is whether the change bringing continuity or change. For the Stephen Joseph Theatre, I think change was the right decision, as they cannot rely on new Ayckbourn plays forever. In these two cases, however, I’m minded to say go for continuity. Both have distinctive styles unique to their company, and whilst I may not always like their choices, I’d much sooner have that than a generic theatre with more of the same. Even so, things will be up in the air for a while, both during the wait for the appointment of the new artistic directors, and afterwards whilst we see what they bring. Interesting times lie ahead, but there’s no need to be alarmed.

Things I wrote since last time:

Apart from things above, and apart from my embarrassing backlog of reviews I’m accumulating, here’s what else has been going on since my last odds and sods in June:

Beyond not just the end of the road: A review of the November Club’s play set in rural Northumbria, researching life there very carefully.

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2017: Embarking on properly writing up all the things I saw at Brighton. Which I still haven’t finished, That is really embarrassing.

Edinburgh Fringe 2017 – as it happens: My usual month-long blog post of all things Edinburgh Fringe. I’m aware this is getting impractical with the length it’s running to – I am looking for a better solution for next year.

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2017: My recommendations prior to the fringe. Always interesting to look back at this list to see how the plays fared against my original expectations, because there’s always some surprises.

Edinburgh needs to become evangelical: A call for the Edinburgh Fringe to speak out on all these festivals who call themselves fringes but stand against the Fringe ethos of open access.

What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2017: My list of things I’m looking forward to this season, which I’m struggling the keep up with.

Around the World with Little Voice: Starting to catch up on my backlog of reviews, two pleasing summer offerings from two theatres in the round, Around the World in 80 Days at the New Vic and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

15 (mainly off-message) tips about playwriting: A follow-up to 10 common mistakes about play-writing, but more controversial. This is my advice that the big theatres won’t tell you. No lawsuits yet, but I’m ready.

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