Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2017

Rotunda and Old Clubhouse

REVIEWS: Skip to And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet, Call Mr. Robeson, Bouncers, We Lost Elijah, The Empress and Me, Vincent River, Persuasion Transposed, Labels.

Ah well, better late than never. At least I can get this out before the registrations open for Buxton Fringe 2018. Apologies for everyone waiting for a review. Usual excuse applies over my ridiculously busy summer. I have learnt my lesson.

So, I’ll leap into reviews in a moment, but before that, a few thoughts on how the fringe went as a whole. This was the most unpredictable fringe for years, firstly due to the delayed but expected loss of Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room, and the second unexpected twisted: the arrival of the 110-seat Rotunda. In my preview of Buxton Fringe, I had a look at the changing face of the fringe, looking at who was going to which venues. The headline is that in spite of the loss of a major performing space, the fringe has grown, through a mixture of the arrival of the Rotunda, smaller non-managed venues being stretched to the limit, and the shrinkage at Underground Venues mitigated with some very tight programming. I won’t repeat the details, all that remains is a postscript of how the two major venues fared.

The Rotunda had a hit-and-miss inaugural season. The best-selling shows did very well, other shows had less impressive sales, although that’s not unusual for a typical fringe venue. The only thing that stood out for the wrong reason was a large number of cancellations. Some reasons were better than others, but one or two cancelled due to poor ticket sales – a practice frowned upon in many quarters. However, the only question that really mattered was whether the Rotunda did well enough to want to return the following year. They must have done, because they announced they’d be returning shortly after the fringe ended, and they have even opened for bookings already.

Underground Venues, meanwhile, has settled into its new home very well. There had previously been some doubts over whether a converted function room could offer the same capabilities at somewhere like Pauper’s Pit with its permanent lights. In the end, it did, in fact, it surpassed the capabilities handsomely. The newly-relocated Fringe Club also seemed to work as a social hub, although it would have worked better if The Old Clubhouse had actually staffed the bar there (apparently the pub was unexpectedly short-staffed during the fringe, but it was the main annoyance for the venue staff in an otherwise successful transfer). No confirmation yet, but it seems like a foregone conclusion that Underground will stay there next year.

The only down-side to the changes is the reduction in opportunities for fringe first-timers, with both major venues dominated by established acts and few opportunities to perform elsewhere. So the next thing to look out for is whether Underground Venues succeed in their aspiration to get back up to full strength with a new space. If so, where? Or will another venue take up shop completely? We are not yet done with the interesting times here.

Pick of the fringe:

Okay, that’s enough of that, let’s get on to reviews. In the plays themselves, there were few upsets amongst the ones I saw, with the Pick of the Fringe dominated by groups who already had good reputations coming into it.

And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet one respect, Caroline Burns Cooke’s solo play is a depressing account of the culture of sanctioned hate figures. It used to be entire races and nationalities. Now that this isn’t nearly so socially acceptable, people have united themselves around more palatable targets for foaming prejudice, such as goths or hoodies or football fans. In Ireland through most of the 20th century, near the top of the list was unmarried mothers. That, it seems, is the only explanation of the Kerry Babies scandal. A murdered newborn baby is found on a beach. Nearby lives Joanne Hayes, an unmarried mother, whose second baby was stillborn but she couldn’t remember where she found the body. The local Police put two and two together and make eighty-seven. As evidence swiftly mounts she’s obviously innocent, they resort to increasingly ludicrous (and horribly misogynistic) explanations to back up their original finger-pointing. As it escalates to national attention, the authorities close ranks with the Police. And throughout all of this, a narrative of insinuations that she’s a slut so she must to bad. The married man who got her pregnant in the first place even gets a public apology for the public distress of questioning.

But there is a silver lining to this story. The horrors of the similarly-motivated Magdalene laundries went unchecked barely a generation earlier. In 1984, however, people are starting to fight back. Joanne Hayes may have been hated by the great and the good, but she became a cause celebre for the fledgling Irish feminist movement, rallying to her support.

Caroline Burns Cooke plays many characters, and between them create a very convincing portrait of County Kerry of the day. Joanne Hayes herself, a victim of the naivety that the education system fostered; a ringleader of the feminist movement standing up for her; a police officer caught up in an investigation drifting further and further away from the truth. Most interesting was the depiction of Sister Maria, who taught her girls never to sit on a boy’s lap unless there’s the width of a telephone directory between you. Not because she believes that any girl who disobeys her advice deserves everything she gets, but because she genuinely believes it’s for the best in the society in which they’re raised.

The only thing I felt was missing from this story is what happened next. The play evokes the pain of losing a baby and the despair of the establishment ganging up to blame you, but – and we can assume this happened as the Kerry Babies affair went down in history as a scandal – we never heard about the time Joanne Hayes felt when she discovered the world believed she was innocent, and I’m surprised this didn’t make it into the play. Maybe if Caroline Burns Cooke does a longer version it can include this. But this play had deservedly earned praise for a very informative portrayal of a needless miscarriage of justice.

Call Mr. Robeson to the Mill took two big hitters to their new venue, the first one being their own The Unknown Soldier. The other big hitter was a play written and performed by Tayo Aluko about the extraordinary life of Paul Robeson, a famous black singer who fell out of favour in the 1940s – but, surprisingly, not for the reason you’d expect for a black singer in the 1940s. Where a lesser singer could have his career finished for being outspoken on racism, Paul Robeson commanded huge respect over all races, taking on the establishment all the time. No, the fight that almost cost him his career was the Red Scare.

Aluko, playing Paul Robeson himself, tells the tale in fascinating detail. Beginning with his early rise to fame, his careful choice of battles to pick, and a stand-off with a theatre that segregated the audience (which he won), it moves on to the age of McCarthy. It is not known why Robeson spoke highly of the Soviet Union – it may be been a mixture of naivety to begin with, stubbornness later on – but as the Russians swiftly fell out of favour after the end of the war with the Nazis, so did he, and like many other stars found to be insufficiently opposed to the commies, found himself blacklisted, banned from travel to sing in countries not quite so hysterical about communism, and summoned to testify before the Senate in one of the key scenes to the play. It is fair to say that a lot of strengths in this play come from Paul Robeson’s story itself, and plenty of people could have made a good play of his story. But few people can sing like Robeson, and it’s Tayo Aluko’s songs that makes this play something special.

If there was one thing I felt was missing, it was that we didn’t see enough of Paul Robeson as a character on stage. The play did say a lot about his personal life. The play shows that Robeson wasn’t a flawless saint; in spite of being married to a woman who made him the star he was, he just couldn’t keep his trousers on, and the understated guilt as he lets this slip suited the play fine. However the recounting of the showdown with the McCarthyites I thought was a bit too matter-of-fact – one would have thought he’d have shown a lot more anger of bitterness talking about how he was treated. But that’s the only fault I have to find. It’s a big hit for a reason, and it was a big coup for The Rotunda to get him on board.

Bouncers was a time a few years ago when Bouncers was a staple feature of the Edinburgh Fringe; so much, in fact, that there were a recurring in-joke of counting how many times it appeared in the programme, along with Abigail’s Party. But there is a reason why Bouncers has enduring popularity: one of the very earliest plays written by John Godber giving a bleak portrayal of nightlife, this story has resonated throughout the years.

I am at odds with my colleagues at FringeGuru here, who liked the play but considered the material dated. I don’t agree. I wish the play was dated, I wish we lived in a world where this play was a memento of how this used to be, but things aren’t that different today. The music changes, the bouncers get older, the clubbers get younger, but the things covered by the themes in the play – the fashion for ridiculous drinking, the thin line between looking for casual sex and looking for a fight, living for Friday night because there’s nothing else to look forward to – have stayed the same over the decades. It is true that the lads and the girls in the play (all played by the four bouncers) are written to blatant gender stereotypes, but that this the whole point. Like it or not, clubbers panders to gender stereotypes just as much now as they did in the 1980s. And a lot of the bad things that happen in the night can be attributed to the pressure to be the lad about town or the wild night girl. Depiction is not endorsement.

With the production itself, Bouncers is quite an easy production to get right provided you have a competent ensemble who know what they’re doing. It’s a play where simply remembering lines isn’t good enough – you need a vision of how it will look on stage and deliver on it. Fortunately, Sudden Impulse showed they were capable of this last year with a tight and slick production of Two, and we see the same here. The transitions with characters are done smoothly, and the story is delivered clearly. This is standard stuff you should expect from any group worth its salt, but I despair of the number of people who think this doesn’t matter.

I did feel they could have been bolder with the music – different directors do of course have different styles, and of course if music gets too obtrusive you lose the story, but it does feel a bit weird when there’s a scene in the middle of a club with quiet or no music. And the chimp scene at the end was a good substitute for the original joke ((in the original the bouncers watch a porn movie that turns out to actually be a video of Thriller – this time, they’ve accidentally acquired a nature video), but it wore thin after the first minutes and would have been best left there. But on the whole, I expected a good job from Sudden Impulse, and they delivered.

We Lost Elijah

This play, however, was the unexpected highlight for the fringe for me. Shadow Syndicate is a youth group who I last saw in action in 2015 with Redaction. I did have some doubts over the plausibility of that story, but there again, given my personal experience that the Civil Service can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery (at least not the ones in charge of the shambles that was ID cards), maybe it’s just me who has trouble believing they could ever organise a sinister conspiracy of memory erasure. But the production values were excellent, with a youth ensemble performance that would put many adult groups to shame. The characterisation in the story was also good – I could really see myself getting behind a play with a script I could connect to.

Well, that’s exactly what they’ve given me. This time there’s no conspiracies, except a scheme devised by a couple of teenagers. It could be summed up by a quite simple observation: when there’s a missing person’s appeal, do you ever hear anyone say “He’s a bit of a nobody, to be honest”? No, it’s always how amazing they were. Teenager Elijah is on the pile of social rejects. Overshadowed by his brilliantly successful brother, tormented by the school beauty queen who he loves, he gets talked into a scheme by a sort-of friend to fake his disappearance. When the London riots happen, he takes the chance. As expected, everyone’s memory of Elijah suddenly becomes far more rose-tinted. But his co-conspirator is more interested in using the attention for herself. We know this cannot end well.

One thing issue was some masking of actors towards the beginning of the play, but I’m putting this down to the step change between fully end-stage Pauper’s Pit and the Old Clubhouse’s stage where the chairs surround the stage a bit more – that could have caught anyone out. Other than that, once again, Shadow Syndicate did a great ensemble performance with the production values we were used to. And a play with unexpected moments of humour in the cynicism, especially the self-serving concert for Elijah where his aforementioned crush (who is also a complete self-obsessed drama queen) declaring her undying love for him, after the two lads doing toe-curling rap for Elijah.

There is a lot of youth theatre on the fringe scene, but most of it aims to be an great experience for the actors first and a play second. Youth groups at the standard of Shadow Syndicate are far and few between. May they show the way.

Other reviews of my picks of the fringe:
Buxton Fringe: Fringe Guru:
And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet Review  (5* from Brighton  Fringe 2016)
Call Mr. Robeson
(+ nominated, best male actor)
Review ★★★
We Lost Elijah
(+ winner, youth production & youth actor)

Honourable mention

As I get better and finding the good stuff to see, the standard to get into pick of the fringe gets tougher. But there were three other plays that deserve a mention for the merits this time.

The Empress and Me

As well as the two plays written by Ross Eriscon performed for himself, Grist to the Mill have a solo play touring on their other area of interest, East Asian culture. Performed by Michelle Yim, Grist Theatre’s other director,  this tells the story of Yü Derling, who may be forgotten now, but was for a time a celebrity due to her extraordinary story. Born to a diplomat, raised for much of her life in Paris, before being transferred to the Forbidden City in China, made a princess by an Empress who took a shine to her, before finally moving to the United States, few people could have led a life of more sharply contrasting cultures.

It’s not always what you might expect. With a Chinese father and a European mother, there is a clash of values, but not the way round you might think. It’s Derling’s liberally-minded father who values his daughters’ freedoms more, with her more conservatively-minded mother happy to conform to whatever culture she lives in. There’s a certain kind of Westerner who annoys her, but not overtly racist ones as one might imagine, but the condescending ones who claim to be more enlightened about Chinese culture than someone who actually lived there. Added to the tale, there’s a dangerous mix of power-struggles and coups going on, and there’s always the lingering worry that the next ruler could see them as a threat and have them arrested or worse.

Ross Ericon’s script covers a lot of ground understanding the intricate nature of society in Imperial China, but there is one thing that feels missing. The play almost entirely consists of Yü Derling telling her life story in first person, but little else happens. This surprised me a little, because in The Unknown Soldier the script is a roller-coaster of emotions; in this play, the story is told straight. I’m not certain what should have been done here – maybe Derling was always the sort of person to talk calmly in all situations – but this did lack the edge of Ericson’s plays he wrote for himself.

But the play easily achieves what it set out to do. With the typical layman’s perception of east Asian history dominated by the era of Chinese-style communism, it is easy to forget the complex history before then. On that front, the play did a fine job, and it’s a good extra string to have to their bow.

Vincent River

VincentNow for Sudden Impulse’s other Buxton Fringe play this year. This is a slightly more recent play than Bouncers (and much more if you’re comparing the original 1970s version) from Phillip Ridley. Vincent is a young man killed in a seemingly random attack one night in a station toilet. His devastated mother Anita gets a visit one day from Davey. He found Vincent’s body, is traumatised by the experience, and wants to know about Vincent. But something about Davey’s story doesn’t add up. For one thing, the story about taking a dodgy short-cut after his own engagement party doesn’t sound right for several reasons: for one thing, it seems odd that the girlfriends he was walking with didn’t discover the body with him; in fact, the fact he’s had a engagement party at all is a bit strange when he’s 16. But there are reasons for this – those uncomfortable truths will emerge later.

Once again, I’m a little at odds with my colleagues at FringeGuru here, this time the other way round. The Bouncers review saw this as the better play. I, however, had reservations. It’s quite clear early on in the play that Davey is hiding his real relationship with Vincent, and from that the truth emerges of the real motive for Vincent’s murder. But the challenge common to all plays that are reliant on a single twist is what happens after the audience twigs what the twist is. Too often, there’s nothing else to keep the audience guessing. This play ends with a long harrowing account of exactly how Vincent was murdered – but I’m of the school of thought that harrowing content is fine but there needs to be a point to it, and probably something more than x is bad (where x is something everyone already agrees is bad). Here, the sole purpose of the last 10 minutes seemed to be spelling out how bad homophobic murder is.

However, I have little to fault with the production, and the two actors here do a sterling job of the intense performances required by the script. And the backstory developed by the play is good, especially Davey who leads a double life, on one hand confident and comfortable with the sexuality, but on the other hand going to extreme lengths to hide the truth from his dying mother and keep her happy. Every time I’ve seen Sudden Impulse take on a play, they’ve done a fine job of it, and they continue to be a safe bet for each fringe they go to.

Persuasion Transposed going into the play itself, there thing where I have the most respect for Nonesuch – indeed, something I respect just as much as the best performers at the fringe – is the fact that the play went ahead at all. Every year (more so this year for obvious reasons), a few plays who fail to get a slot at Underground Venues hold their nerve and find another venue at short notice before the deadline for registrations. Nonesuch Theatre, however, lost their venue days before they were due to go on. It is not clear what caused them to lose Buxton Community School, but they managed to rebook at the Palace Hotel, publicise the changes, and go ahead with a respectably-sized audience for an outlying venue. Nonesuch is setting an example of the dedication shown by some performers; performers who pull out over matters as minor as low ticket sales, please take note of this.

That’s not the reason for the honourable mention though – that is judged on the play itself. I saw Nonesuch do Jane and Lizzy last year, a potted version of Pride and Prejudice with a cast of three, told through a series of discussions and re-enactments with an actress playing Lizze Bennet and Jane Austen herself. It did a decent job of telling the story, but the new take only really got interesting at the end, when it was suggested that perhaps Mr. Darcy was Jane Austen’s escape from her own life where she never married. More could have been made of this.

Well, Nonesuch are back with a new take of an Austen story, Persuasion Transposed, and they have made more of it. This time, the story is discussed between nineteen-year-old Anne Elliott and twenty-eight-year-old Anne Elliott. It begins just before younger Anne is talked into declining the marriage of Frederick Wentworth. Older Anne can’t bear to go through this painful memory again – but, of course, younger Anne doesn’t know this yet. Once again, the story is told in a potted version with a small ensemble cast, and even if you don’t know the story, it’s quite easy to follow.

I still think they could have made more of the format though. After the opening, a lot of the exchanges between Anne and Anne analyse the book. All very well, but I did feel it missed an opportunity to develop the character of younger Anne looking at older Anne’s story, increasingly regretting the decisions she made and getting despondent about the nine lonely years she has ahead of her. The ending, however, was a good touch, where they look at what happens to Anne and Frederick after the wedding bells ring. Still some work to do for Nonesuch to make the most of their take on Austen, but good amount of progress and they are creating a good niche for themselves on the Buxton scene.

Other reviews of my honourable mentions:
Buxton Fringe: Fringe Guru:
The Empress and Me
Vincent River
(+ winner, best female actor; nominated, best male actor & best production)
Persuasion Transposed
Review ★★★★

Not quite theatre:

There is one last production to write about, which I can’t rate above or below the others as it’s too different from conventional theatre to make a fair comparison. One thing I have noticed with increased frequency in the last few years are productions which are essentially a solo actors as themselves talking about something important to their lives. They are usually listed under “theatre”, but I consider them a lot more like talks with theatrical presentation. There were two things like this I saw at Brighton (Blooming and Catching the Ghost), but this one is one of the most widely acclaimed.


Call it a talk, or a play, or what you will, Labels is performed by Joe Sellman-Leava, talking about the words we use to label people. In his case, even is own name is of relevance to the story. Before then, however, he imitates speeches about race from various public figures. Many of them are the usual suspects, such as Jeremy Clarkson, Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump, with their comments ranging from crassness to general nutjobbery. But there is one person in this list you wouldn’t normally expect: Idi Amin, blaming all of Uganda’s woes on those nasty Asians. One might imagine Idi Amin is included in this list as an example that anyone of any race can be a bigot, but here the connection is more personal. Joe’s father was expelled along with all the other Asians from Uganda, which is how he ended up growing up in Devon.

This is a theatre blog and not a politics blog, so discussions on race relations and immigration belong elsewhere. But there is one thing in his monologue which is notable: he is fair. One of the labels he stick on him is “You ain’t English”. That could have been presented as an example of a insult used to bully him, but it reality this was just a silly ill-considered remark from another student at university who want on to become a friend. Other labels aren’t so kind. The obvious racial slur is used. At least one conversation on a dating app was just some bigot taking the opportunity to ask stupid questions.

So should you see this? This is not a straightforward question to answer. The perpetual problem with making sense of reviews of plays that express strong views is that you don’t know whether the praise is praise of the play or praise of the views expressed within the play, but for a play in this format the two thing become almost the same. What I can say is that Joe Sellman-Leava, as far as I can tell, says what he has to say in a frank and honest way, and he does not cherry-pick events to fit a chosen narrative. So here’s my answer to the question. If this play grabs you attention and you’re keeping an open mind on whether you’ll agree with this, see it and see if it influences you. If you want to see this because you think it will back up your existing views, then see it, but see something else as well – something that might back a position you’re not so sure about. Plays like Labels are there the challenge views – just remember that applies to everyone.

Buxton Fringe review of Labels

Show I didn’t see

Finally, let’s sum up all of other shows in the recommendations that I didn’t get round to seeing, mostly because they were on different days. No major surprises here, with a lot of them being returning shows or returning formats. Poole’s Cavern regulars Butterfly Theatre got good reviews with Alice in Wonderland UndergroundThe Unknown Soldier also landed a nomination for Best Production, which is hardly surprising since it’s had a wildly successful run before.

Reviews of shows I didn’t see:
Buxton Fringe: Fringe Guru:
Alice in Wonderland Underground
Review ★★★★
Nonsense and Sensibility
The Unknown Soldier Review
(+ nominated, Best production)
(5* from Edinburgh Fringe 2015)
Gratiano Review
Stuck Review

And that’s a wrap for Buxton. Two fringes down. Now for the Edinburgh roundup. Erk.


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