What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2018

Skip to: Birdsong, Tom and Bunny Save the World, The 39 Steps, War of the Worlds, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Although this has been passing me by, what with with a very intense week taking over my life, theatre has been going on back home. And with the last of my winter/spring recommendations out of the way, it’s time for spring summer.

I don’t think I’ve said this for some time, but I’ll give a reminder that all of these “what’s worth watching” articles should be considered a cross-section of what’s out there, not an exhaustive list. I do not actively go out looking for the best plays to see, because anything that is already getting acclamation doesn’t need an extra shoutout from me, but anything I do see, from touring West End to the tiddliest amateurs, can end up in this list if it’s good and original. Let’s go:

Safe choices:

Explanation of all categories is here in my recommendations policy. Safe choices are either plays I’ve seen before (all four picks this time), or groups I’ve seen before with plays I’m confident will be good. No play will appeal to everyone, and you should always read the description before deciding if the play’s for you, but safe choices are expected to have wide appeal. This time, they are:

Birdsong

I don’t always recommend major touring shows every time they return to the region – I don’t want the little plays swamped by the big ones – but Birdsong gets a mention as one of the biggest success stories of the last few years. When Rachel Wagstaff embarked on a project to bring Sebastian Faulks’s novel to the stage, many people thought this wasn’t possible – even Sebastian Faulks himself thought it was “bonkers” to try. But try she did, and the rest is history. Continue reading

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10 ways the Brighton Fringe has changed

Upstairs at the Three and Ten logo
Remember this?

One of the early hits on my blog were my guides I wrote for the Brighton, Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes.  Brighton was the original inspiration – as someone who’d previously been used to Edinburgh, Brighton was a very different environment to get used to. I was supposed to do updated versions every year, but, true to form, I was too disorganised to keep that up and the latest version of “How to make the most of the Brighton Fringe” was written in 2014.

I was thinking of doing an update, but it then occurred to me the more interesting thing is the record of what it used to be like. A lot has changed since then. Looking through the things I listed back then, it’s remarkable how much is different now. So, for a new angle, and because Buzzfeed has decreed that articles are now only permitted if they’re done in lists, here’s my observations on everything that’s changed.

1: It’s bigger

In 2007, there were 323 shows. (For comparison, that’s slightly under twice the present-day size of Buxton Fringe, a tiny fringe by today’s standards.) Now, it’s more like 1,000. Not that you need stats to tell you this – it’s an obvious difference to anyone who remembers back that far. But stats are immune from selective memory, and that confirms just what the extent of the change is.

I could end the list here. Pretty much everything else is a consequence of this unprecedented expansion. Some changes were easy to predict, some not so easy. But almost everything that is different about Brighton Fringe now can be traced back to this growth.

2: It opens with a firework display

The opening ceremony is a recent addition, coming to Brighton Fringe in 2016. In priciple, this makes little difference to the fringe itself – the plays, comedy and so on won’t be any better or worse because of some fireworks. But it was a huge statement of status that Brighton Fringe can now afford to do this, and a landmark to its expansion. Continue reading

Interview with Jake Murray: on Jesus Hopped the A Train and Eylsium Theatre

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A completely new feature for this blog: I have an interview. Next week, Jesus Hopped the A Train begins in Durham and continues in Manchester, but what is most notable is the theatre company behind it. It has been ages since Durham has had a theatre company based in the city at professional level, and there are a lot of plans for the future. I caught up with Jake Murray after a rehearsal to ask about the play and beyond.

Fine print: This was a proper interview and not just a series of questions for an interviewee to fill in. This was recorded, types up, and a few minor edits were made to read better, but I didn’t need to make many changes and this is near-verbatim. The broad structure of the interview was agreed in advance. At some point I was probably write up the rules properly, but in the meantime, this is this as more David Frost than Jeremy Paxman.

I have with me Jake Murray of Elysium Theatre, who has just completed a rehearsal of Jesus Hopped the A Train, which is coming to the Assembly Rooms on Monday. We’ll be talking about this in the moment, but if we start from the beginning, Jake, bring us up to date of Theatre Elysium and what it has done so far.

Elysium Theatre Company is a company I set up with an actor friend, Danny Solomon. Basically, I came up to Durham a year or so ago, because I fell in love and got married and decided I wanted to bring theatre to the north, and the first person I spoke to was my Danny Solomon who lives in my flat in Manchester from my time there. The goal is to bring theatre to Durham and the north-east, but also the wider north, and we seem to be going great guns.

Our first production, Days of Wine and Roses, played at the Assembly Rooms in Durham last and then Theatre 53 two in Manchester, where it got nominated for a Manchester Theatre Award and got great reviews, but up here and over there. And the next play is Jesus Hopped the A Train, which is the northern premiere of an extraodinary play from America. It’s never been seen outside of London, and again we’re playing it at the Assembly Rooms then we’re playing it at Home in Manchester. After that, we’ve got a double-bill of Samuel Beckett plays, which is part of Durham Festival of the Arts, and we’re just in negotiations now for the rights to Jez Butterworth’s The River, which we’re going to be doing in Durham next year, and we’re talking to Durham Student Theatre about doing Miss Julie, also in Durham for 2019. So we’ve got loads in the pipeline. Continue reading

Stop treating Quentin Letts as a reviewer. Please.

smug_letts
Quentin Letts, smirking with the news that yet another article’s been written about him, yesterday.

Quentin Letts has the right to say what he likes about a play. The rest of us should exercise our right to not listen to him.

Okay Quentin, you win, you bastard. I’ve been ignoring you for months knowing that any response to what you write is exactly what you want to happen. But since everyone else (pretty much) took the rage-bait, it won’t make any difference – you’ve already got the attention you ordered. I’m relenting, damn you.

So, as it’s pretty much impossible to not have heard already, the thing that set this all off was a review he wrote (content warning: Daily Mail sidebar) of a production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich, where he questioned whether an actor, Leon Wringer, he believed to be miscast got the part because he was black. Cue outrage from everyone. Now, I have a rule that when someone is getting dogpiled, however much the brought it on themselves, I try my best to be fair. For what it’s worth, I can’t comment on this particular production having not seen it; but in the six years I’ve been running this blog I’ve seen a lot of plays cast ethnic minority actors in a part previously assumed to be white, and I’ve never once felt the play was worse because of it. However, that’s just my opinion, and if Mr L genuinely thinks otherwise, he is within his rights to say this.

However, I don’t actually believe what he writes has much to do with what he really thinks. For one thing, his reasoning was pretty flimsy. You might just have an argument if they cast someone who couldn’t act, but Letts’s argument is that the male love interests weren’t sexy enough. Physical attraction is subjective enough as it is, but to then extrapolate that into saying someone was a racial quota filler? Even Quentin must have known how weak an argument that is. And for another thing, Quentin Letts has a long track record of saying things that get reactions. He’s made a series of borderline pervy comments in reviews, but this passage from a review of Salome (content warning: more Daily Mail sidebar) takes the biscuit: Continue reading

Brighton Fringe 2018 – as it happens

This page is updated during the course of the Brighton Fringe. Come back for more updates as they arrive.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Always, With a Love That’s True, Brighton Queen of Slaughtering Places, Tom and Bunny Save the World, Susan Harrison is a Bit Weepy, Wan In, Wan Oot, Apparatus, Larkin Descending, Beasts, The Owl and the Pussycat

Thursday 24th May: Eeek. I’m supposed to be making recommendations for plays back home, and the first one, Birdsong, finished at the Gala this Saturday. Better get a move on with What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2018. This includes a last-minute entry of Tom and Bunny Save the World, based on their performance just gone in Brighton.

Whilst there is a quiet moment, now might be a good time to look ahead to the next fringe, Buxton. Last year was a big year of change for Buxton, with the key venue closing permanently* for redevelopment. Underground Venues moved to The Old Clubhouse, swapping two smaller spaces for one bigger space. But the big plot twist was the arrival of the pop-up Rotunda Theatre. Suddenly, there was another big venue to counterbalance the dominance of the old one. One unwanted effect of this rearrangement was the loss of smaller venues suitable for entry-level acts, and with it – it appear – the loss of entry-level acts from the programme. However, this was offset by higher-profile acts coming to the new bigger spaces, and the net result was an unexpected increase in registrations.

*: Permanence of closure may differ from that advertised. But that’s speculation for another day.

This year is a “no change” year for venues, and with it little change in the number of registrations. The overall number is 180, a very slight reduction of 3 from the previous year. Rotunda and Underground venues have both had slight increases, but for different reasons. Rotunda was announced very late last time round – this time, acts have had longer to consider this option, and there seems to have been an increase of uptake – they’d just better hope they don’t get plagued by cancellations this time. Underground managed to squeeze in a few extra acts due to better availability of the Arts Centre anb tighter timetabling.

The bad news, however, was that Underground Venues’ idea to set up a second space in the Tap Room hasn’t come off this time round. They’re still looking at doing this next year – in the meantime, there’s still a lack of spaces for beginners to perform. With Brighton getting a progressively worse option for groups starting off on the fringe circuit, it’s important that fringes such as Buxton stay viable. Let’s hope something comes off next year.

Wednesday 23rd May: Time again for a look at what’s coming up.

Two shows that caught my attention are in the final leg of their split runs. Whaddy Know, We’re in Love, everyone’s favourite take on the classic age of musicals is on today and tomorrow at the Rialto at 6.40 p.m. Then Franz Kafka: Apparatus, everyone’s favourite take on unnecessarily elaborate death machines, is on also at the Rialto, 6.30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Meanwhile, starting its run at Brighton Fringe is Elsa. I saw this at the Vault Festival, and I highlighted this one because it’s something different. It could be described as theatre, comedy or musical storytelling, but Isobel Rogers’ story of Elsa working at the coffee bar and the tales of all of her customers was certainly memorable. First showing at Komedia at 9.15 p.m., this Friday, with two other performances next week.

Other than that, a quite mid-week update. Have there been no fringe scandals yet? That would spice things up a bit. Failing that, someone feel free to make one up.*

* Note: That was a joke. Please don’t do that. I can’t afford legal bills for a libel case.

Tuesday 22nd May: Home time. And also the end of my reviews in the live coverage. Although I saw stuff yesterday, that was all at Sweet, so you’ll have to wait for that. But it’s not the end of my Brighton Fringe coverage, because there’s still a couple of weeks to go. Although we are back to daily updates now. So this is a good time to take a look at this article from Paul Levy of FringeReview. (These columns are worth keeping an eye on. Whether or not you agree with where he’s going, he picks his issues well and starts conversations where they’re needed – the previous column questioning the rise of supervenues is a good one.) His latest one ruffled a few feathers, and it’s on the subject of reviews that are cruel for their own sake. On the face of it, few performers would dispute this. If you haven’t been the subject of a hit piece review yourself, you’ll probably know someone who has.

For the avoidance of doubt, we’re not talking about reviewers who hated the play – this is the practice of going out of your way to turn your review into entertainment by rubbishing everything about the play and – more often than not – rubbishing the people in the play. It’s as if these reviewers want to be Charlie Brooker, except that the real Charlie Brooker’s childish insults were only an act – scraping under the surface, he was insightful and fair and only disparaged high-profile shows who can answer back. The Charlie Brooker-wannabes in fringe reviews, on the other hand, usually resort to substance-free insults and have no qualms about runing the chances of the smallest of acts.

Before I get too sanctimonious, I should probably say how I keep my own house in order. It a bit easier for me, because my general policy of only writing reviews of good stuff means I normally end up writing nothing at all about plays I hate. In recent years I’ve relaxed this rule for higher-budget productions, but I always make sure that any criticism I make does at least show what could have been done instead. “The writing was terrible” is not helpful. “The writing is terrible because the characters weren’t believable” might be. (And, okay, I did once call modern artist Paul McCarthy a pretentious piss-weasel, but only as a counterbalance to an army of sycophants lavishing praise. I would not say something like that to a fringe performer in my position.)

But that’s just me. Can you create a rule that covers everyone? A code of conduct agreed between review publications might clamp down on the worst excesses such as personal attacks, but I’ve been told that this as been tried before, and there was no agreement. I have a suspicion of a root problem in that, for all the disapproval of unfair/cruel reviews, there is little consensus on what this actually means. This quote from Simon Jenner is worrying:

I feel too there’s a significant political alignment worth contemplating. Trolling ‘reviewers’ are often right-wing, more Quentin Letts than Michael Billington. The agenda is often anti-innovation, anti-risk, non-inclusive clearly.

That is, at best, naive; at worst, blinkered. I’ve seen character assassination reviews across the ideological spectrum. I’ll give him the doubt and assume he means well, but as soon as you deem bad reviews as something that only the other side does, you render the whole concept worthless. Quentin and co could easily make exactly the same claim about the other side, and as long as everyone thinks it’s the other lot who have to get their house in order, nothing changes. It’s this sort of thing that lends legitimacy to the mindset of “It’s not online harassment if they had it coming” (said every online harasser ever).

Condemning trolling reviews is one thing, but if there’s the slightest hope of anything changing, we are going to have to be more specific about this. I can understand why people may be reluctant to specify individual reviews (and with that start arguments), but at the very least we need to specify what practices are unacceptable. I’ll open this debate my naming personal attacks and discrimination as two things that should never be tolerated. But it will take more than speculation over people’s motives to stop this happening. We’ll never stop reviews that are cruel for their own sake if we can’t agree what that actually means.

Monday 21st May, 6.00 p.m.: And now, it’s time for this year’s offering from Wired Theatre. Wired is an unusual group for several reasons. They operately entirely in site-specific theatre, and they are an ensemble of older actors, defying the stereotype for fringe as a young person’s game. Lately, however, it’s occurred to me that Wired is also a symbol of what Brighton Fringe used to be. Before the arrival of the supervenues, it was common to have plays in all sort of non-theatre spaces, with site-specific pieces one way of doing it. But as Brighton has become more like Edinburgh, as performers pursue bigger audiences in bigger spaces, Wired has stayed as they are. And, if you’ve got a loyal audience who sees you year after, and you aren’t pursuing grander dreams on grander stages, why change?

Anyway, this year, Wired brings Always, With a Love That’s True. Unusually for Wired – or indeed for most fringe companies – this is a straight sequel to last year’s play.
As such, I did wonder whether this would be suitable for people who weren’t around the year before. But, coming to think of it, And Love Walked In was probably the best Wired play to set up another chapter. The last play established that Andrew was a self-employed therapist, a forced career change after he lost his job as a teacher due to alcoholism. Sadly, his self-destructiveness was only ever paused, not vanquished. Andrew embarks on an affair with a client, Jo, driving his wife Sheila into the arms of Polish neighbour Piotr. But Jo goes back to partner Phyl, leaving Andrew with no-one.

And so, part two begins how part one began, Andrew at his desk, playing the part of the therapist. Except that he’s in a grubby T-shirt, the booze is back in plain sight, and the paper he’s currently writing “5 ways to kill your wife’s lover” – supposedly an academic paper covering an academic situation, but quite obviously specific about a certain Polish gentleman. When a client rings the doorbell, Andrew hastily puts on a clean shirt and applies mouthwash, only to be confronts by Jo Phyl about the affair he now denies. And then Sheila unexpectedly returns. Her beloved Piotr is dead of a heart attack. She knows no-one else to turn to.

Robin Humphreys gives the best performance I’ve seen him do in the nine years I’ve seen Wired’s plays. With the core cast of Wired being one male and three female, he normally ends up playing a shabby womaniser, but this character has a lot more depth. Andrew is the worst kind of ruthless manipulator – but there is also a vulnerable side that Robin brings out so well. For all his lying and cheating, Andrew doesn’t what he’d lost till it was gone, and now that her lover is dead, there is a quiet desperation in the way he wants all his lies to be true, that there was no affair with Jo, that Piotr meant nothing to Shelia. But Piotr is not quite gone – he’s still in Andrew’s head. I do miss Graham White, who played Piotr last year – it would be been really dramatic to see a confrontation between living and dead nemeses. But Humphreys running a conversation with himself in both voices was a good substitute to depict Andrew’s failing sanity.

Can you watch this without having seen the first play? I’ve got an inconclusive verdict here. I personally thought there was enough information to pick up where the last play left off, but having heard comments from other people who didn’t see it, there seems to be a split between those who did and didn’t follow it. I’m going to stand by my own assessment and say that you can enjoy this as a stand-alone play, but it might help if Wired broke the habit of a lifetime and handed out a programme before the show instead of after, so the initiated can catch up before the play begins.

I am told that director Slyvia Vickers is planning to make this a trilogy, so we probably have not heard the last of this saga. There’s two weekends to go (plus Monday 28th as that’s a bank holiday), but definitely book in advance to be sure. Continue reading