This page will be added to over the course of the Edinburgh Fringe. Keep returning here for more updates, at least once per day.
Tuesday 13th August: Next on the backlog is Notflix. This will be a quick review because I don’t have much to add from my 2016 review, but it’s a pleasure to see a group who performed in one of Gilded Balloon’s smallest spaces back then now performing in one of the biggest spaces. Notflix do improvised musicals of films, preferably misremembering the plot and outdoing Hollywood for painful cliches. This time they did an improvised musical on Avengers: Infinity War. I haven’t actually seen this film but I think I followed it – if nothing else, I now finally know the in-joke behind all these “I don’t feel so good” memes. I’m told that this musical was more true to the original story than their version of The Titanic, but as their version involved the ship not sinking, that’s quite a low bar to clear.
As always with improv, a lot of what I could write about won’t be seen again – although if they reprise the plot twist in another Marvel movie where manly manly manly Thor comes out as gay, I’d be quite happy to see it again. One of the thing I liked about this is that, even when they make mistakes, it’s funny, and not just the easy get-out of “well, that was a bit crap, wasn’t it?” When Doctor Strange and Doctor Who are mixed up it’s done in a funny way (although I’d have stuck with Doctor Who – come on, who doesn’t want Doctor Who in an Marvel movie). When one of them forget the name of the character she’s playing, she just says “I’m Scarlett Johansson and I’ve forgotten my real name”. Most, of all, however, I continue to be impressed by how polished the songs are, even they are done on the fly. They are even better than some properly rehearsed conventional musicals.
So this brings me quite nicely on to a topic FringeReview brought up today, on exactly how improvised these improvised shows actually are. I’d originally assumed Notflix had a bank of tunes ready and improvised the words – they insist they don’t do that and the music is just as improvised as everything else, and I believe them. I’ve also seen improvised puppetry from Boris and Sergey which would have been impossible to pre-plan, and I also saw Murder She Didn’t Write which has fully improvised. However, I often hear complaints of people who see an improv show once, then go back and see it a second time and realise how similar it is. So the big questions is: if you plan the structure of a show in advance, is that really improv? Should you be allowed to call it that?
I’m honestly at a loss on this one. I am of course most impressed by groups like Notflix who improvise everything, including the things I thought impossible to improvise, but am I setting my expectations unreasonably high? If an improv show is really semi-scripted, does that really matter? You can still get the spontaneity and fun that a fully-scripted show can’t deliver, and if that means the audience still enjoys themselves, one might argue that’s all that counts. But is it false/advertising? Is it fair on punters who come back expecting something different? I can’t make a head nor tail of it. I’ll follow the FringeReview discussion and see where that goes – in the meantime, feel free to tell me your thoughts.
Hmm, I’ve got my other paperwork out of the way. I might have time to write by article now. It’ll be controversial. Don’t go away.
Monday 12th August: Right, let’s get back to reviews, and it’s about time I had a look at Build a Rocket, the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s contribution to the Edinburgh Fringe. This, I think, is a first for the Stephen Joseph Theatre – I’ve never known them do the Edinburgh Fringe before, and presumably this is a Paul Robinson initiative. Certainly he’s the one directing this play. Minor spoiler warning coming – I’m not going to give away any bombshell plot twists that change everything, but if you have already decided to see this, I advise you to stop reading and watch it cold. Everyone else, read on.
To get any mismanaged expectations out of the way, no actual rockets are built in Build a Rocket. Instead, this is the story of Yasmin (Serena Manteghi), a teenage girl in Scarborough who gets herself pregnant thank to a dalliance with a lecherous loverat of a local DJ. Or it might be someone else who’s the father, but that’s little consolation either way. In fact, there’s very little consolation anywhere. She comes from a household with hardly any money as it is. Yasmin’s mother can barely help herself, let alone her daughter. Her chance of getting good GCSEs was squandered by the distraction over her boyfriend before he turned out to be a lecherous scumbag.
Other plays like this might serve as a commentary on teenage deprivation. Might even attract criticisms of poverty porn. But Christopher York’s play has something in common with another Robinson-directed play I saw, And Then Come the Nightjars: the story continues after the main event. It only when Yasmin has no choice but to make something out of nothing when things start to turn around. Not immediately it will still be a long hard struggle, but by the day of her son’s A-level results*, they will. As always, solo plays usually need to be something more than an actor standing telling a story, but that is delivered handsomely here, with a highly-choreographed movement and sound plot serving the play well.
(* Footnote: I sneaked a look at the exam results paper after the play finished and all the grades were fails. I appreciate the theatrical convention is that you don’t need documents on stage to be exact replicas of the real thing if the text is too small for the audience to read, butit does bring a rather bleak twist to the play when you look at is this way.)
There is one other thing I wish to highlight here. When Paul Robinson was announced as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, with his record of new writing, one question I had was whether he would look locally for it, and if so, how local it would be. This matters. I can think of some theatres (won’t say who) who make a big deal of bringing culture to areas of low cultural engagement, who proceed to ignore all the local talent on offer and import it from elsewhere. The Stephen Joseph Theatre has done the opposite and engaged with the people of Scarborough at all levels, from beginners’ writing classes to the professional production and everything in between. Build a Rocket is a success story for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but more importantly a success story for looking beyond the major cities and appreciating what’s on your doorstep. A lot of other theatres could learn some lessons here.
Sunday 11th August: Small update of the Nina’s Got News car crash. The BBC and cop-producers Avalon have responded. The BBC’s defence is the one I expected, but a reasonable one: they support writing at all levels and the Debut scheme was just one of many ways they support new writing. Avalon’s defence is a little less impressive and saying “it’s too early to tell whether the plays worked or not” sounds very much like denail, although, to be fair, I don’t see what else they could have said – “Yeah, they’re a bit shit” may have been more truthful but not the sort of thing you can really say when the run’s going. Anyway, I’ll leave it up to aspiring screenwriters to say what they think of the BBC’s response – I guess a key consideration is how much this cost, and what else it could have been spent on.
Changing the subject, we are about to do into week two, and there’s a few shows in my pick list on short runs.
Tomorrow and Tuesday only, we have Doktor James’s Beast Klub, which is on at 9.30 p.m. at Sweet Grassmarket so I presume this is a gown-up show. I am told that Rule One of Beast Klub is “Do Not Talk About Beast Klub” and Rule Two of Beast Klub is “If you do not find true love by your twenty-first birthday you shall remain a beast forever”. I’m putting in a steward’s enquiry here – as far as I can tell, Rule One should be Rules One and Two, which would make Rule Two Rule Three. But if you want to see the genesis of the latest show, now is your chance. Be quick. (This isn’t registered with Edfringe, so you’ll need to get the ticket from Sweet Venues.)
Beasts are doing their “best of” show on a short run for a change, and that’s on Thursday to Sunday . If you’ve seen beasts before, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t – well, you’ll find out the hard way. 8.20, Pleasance Dome. And Isobel Rogers is also running Thursday – Sunday at 9.40 p.m. at Pleasance Dome (again) with Elsa, which I put on my recommendations for being something unique, straddling theatre, comedy, music and storytelling.
I will resume on reviews tomorrow.
Saturday 10th August: But that’s enough of that. You want to get on to the proper scandal, don’t you? BBC Debut is big fuck-up on the BBC’s part, but probably nothing more. This event, however, is at best, concerning, and at worst, an abuse of a position of power and trust.
So before the fringe had even got going, there was a spat between comedian Paul Sinha and The Scotsman’s #1 fringe critic, Kate Copstick. I ignored this at first, because by the time I got wind on this is had descended into mutual mud-slinging. However, having investigated this further and checked who’s claiming what, it doesn’t does look good for Kate Copstick. I should probably stress at this point that the only account of events I can find is from Paul Sinha himself. Normally I would treat that with caution, but if anything wasn’t true, Kate Copstick easily had the means to tell the world what he’s getting wrong. She does not appear to have made any response to the Chortle article, so it appears that the factual account is true.
So, based on what we know, it looks like the events went as follows:
- Kate Copstick requested a review ticket for Paul Sinha’s show on August 1st, via his venue The Stand. That’s the Wednesday before the official start of the Fringe on Friday, when, by convention, many shows are running as “previews”.
- Paul Sinha was asked about the request and he declined, for the reason that he never has reviewers on the first day.
- Kate Copstick responded by saying his show would not be reviewed by The Scotsman at all.
- The day after he declined, Copstick posted a message on Facebook beginning “What the FUCK is it with comics who have been doing what they do for fucking decades”, going on to complain about established comedians not letting reviewers in until days after the fringe starts. That one didn’t specifically name Sinha, but …
- … an article then came out in The Scotland on Sunday beginning with “The egos have landed” which went on to berate him by name, along with two other comedians.
There are two things very wrong with this.
Firstly, Kate Copstick seems to have the idea that the only thing you need to prepare on a fringe run afre the technical aspects, and therefore – so she argues – stand-up comedians should be ready from day one. Anyone who has done any kind of performance involving audience engagement – myself included – can tell you it doesn’t work like that. Audiences vary hugely from venue to venue, and it’s perfectly normal to want to do a run-through with a preview audience to get use to the space before saying you’re ready to go. There are other factors to consider, of course – expectations vary between venues, short runs are less suited to previews than long runs, and it depends a lot on how important audience engagement is – but the long-standing principle understood by virtually everybody is that the performer should have the prerogative to say when it’s ready. For Kate Copstick to act like this overwhelming consensus amongst critics and performers alike doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter is breathtakingly arrogant, or breathtakingly ignorant, or both.
Secondly – and this is far more serious – it very strongly looks like she is using her position to punish people who didn’t let her get her way. Now, Copstick is entitled to her own opinion, and if she genuinely disagrees with vast majority on the matter of previews, she’s allowed to say what she thinks. If this had been in response to other reviewers not getting the press tickets they wanted, I would have accepted this as fair comment. But to claim that some specified comedians are “a bit meh” just because they decline press tickets for previews for you personally smacks of payback for not getting the perks that you see yourself entitled to. And that is a massive abuse of her position.
And this leaves me wondering what the hell happened to The Scotsman we used to know, the one that was the trusted and respected lead reviewers of the fringe. Their unhelpful negative short-form reviews can be sort-of explained away as them providing a service to punters and not performers. Paul Whitelaw giving suspiciously bad reviews to female comedians could have been put down to one bad apple. But the most senior reviewer on the paper using the clout she has to penalise people who don’t play by her self-serving rules leave a real stench in the paper. The only consolation is that the hierarchical structure that used to give senior reviewers like Copstick vast amounts of power no longer exists. The power to make or break shows is no longer a gift handed to a select few by the major papers – you are up up against dozens of online publications and the only way you can have influence is to earn respect. The Scotsman is losing respect; Kate Copstick is hemorrhaging respect.
In fact, this is a good moment to say what I’ve been meaning to say for some time: performers, don’t accept review requests from The Scotsman. They are hard to please, their feedback is not helpful, and you are far better off seeking your good publicity elsewhere. Unless you’re already getting good reviews from other publications, in which case they become a worthwhile gamble as to can bury bad reviews. But they no longer deserve to be treated as the authoritative arbiter of Fringe greatness. And their prize definitely doesn’t deserve it.
Friday 9th August: There are two items on my shenanigans list I was planning to report, I was planning to start with the older and arguably more scandalous one. However, there’s a more recent event that’s getting a lot of attention, and for some reason I’ve been contacted by a journalist asking for my perspective even though I know nothing about this other than what’s already been reported. But, hey, whatever, since this matter is all the rage, here’s my version of the story and my thoughts on it.
So, the current shitstorm hitting Edinburgh is the fallout from Debut – a scheme heavily supported by BBC Arts where four people who had never written stage plays before got support to take a stage play to the Edinburgh Fringe. All four people on the scheme are already well-known public figures, but the best known name was surely comedian Frank Skinner. His play at the Edinburgh Fringe, Nina’s Got News, is also the best known play of the scheme, but for the wrong reason. It’s been getting absolutely killed in the reviews. I’ve already found five one-stars, and I haven’t even started counting the twos. I cannot think of any play that has done this badly in Edinburgh, or even anywhere.
There is one consolation for Frank Skinner though: Irvine Welsh got a similar mauling last year with Performers and Creatives, but those two disasters have already been forgotten. I’m 100% confident the same will happen for Frank Skinner. No, the big loser here isn’t Frank Skinner, it’s BBC Arts. The fact that they chose give leg-ups to four people who were already established figures – instead of four people seeking their first break – is questionable, but all would have been forgiven had the plays been well received, or even well-attended. Unfortunately, that is not the case – none of the plays have been particularly successful, Nina’s Got News was simply the worst of a bad lot. With a flagship BBC scheme providing neither effective support to artists nor anything that license-payers might enjoy, there will surely be repercussions.
For the record, I broadly agree with the criticisms made by, well, everybody, but I don’t mind too much. For reasons I may expand on another day, I stopped bothering with BBC Writers’ Room a long time ago, but they’ve never been a major player with stage writing, and why should they be? They’re a TV and radio company. There’s the obvious complaint that small performers don’t stand a fair chance against plays heavily backed by companies as big as the BBC, but let’s face it, with 3,500 shows going on at Edinburgh, another four won’t make much difference. Aspiring screen writers may have more cause to be upset about this (I’ll leave it up to them to say if BBC Debut is depriving them of opportunities), but, honestly, if you’re a stage writer you shouldn’t be putting all your eggs in the BBC Writersroom basket regardless. I’d just settle for BBC Arts explaining to us what they were trying to achieve and how this was meant to fit in to their plans.
One other obvious thing to state: I do feel bad for the actors involved. Actors can only be as good as the script they’ve been given, and a bad script can reflect badly on them. That should stop; it’s not their fault the script was (apparently) so terrible. I won’t name the actors involved because they don’t deserve any flak, but I will say that I saw one of them in a previous play and she was great in that. She’s in another play this fringe (done by a company who impressed me last year), so I think I’ll see that one.
That’s the small shenanigan out of the way. Bigger and juicier shenanigan tomorrow.
UPDATE: In cased you’re wondering why only three plays appeared in Edinburgh when the scheme covered four writers, one of them got pulled. The Stage (£) gives a good account of what happened when. Many thanks to Mhairi Ledgerwood for bringing this to my attention.
Thursday 8th August: One last review on the press ticket list. This is under the comedy section rather than theatre, so it will be a quick review. It’s Kiva Murphy with Match. This is described as an “absurdist” show, as this word can mean a lot of things, too often a byword for horribly pretentious, but this is the best kind of “absurdist” by which I mean very silly. Themed on the search for true love, it’s a fun show with a mixture of sketches, an improptu version of Blind Date (credit where it’s due – my night was helped by four men who all were brilliant with corny pick-up line), as a funny yet touching story how how her parents met. Played by a rooster and a cow.
This is a theatre blog, so I can’t say much more about the show except that you know it’s a fun piece and you’ll get what you expect. However, I can say a bit more about Kiva Murphy. The material and script were nice, but it was undoubtedly her performance that made the might with some great showmanship, or even showwomanship. This might not seem an important detail, but the precedent is good here. Six year ago, I saw two women with absurd clown-themed shows. Both were really just fun shows, but Alice Mary Cooper and Yve Blake have both since gone on to great things. So enjoy this show to round off a day’s fringing, but keep an eye on Kiva Murphy, because who knows what the ideas that begin in Match will go on to become.
(Full disclosure: I missed the first few minutes owing to me not checking how long the previous show ran – oops, sorry – but I’ve got a good enough idea of what I missed.)
And that concludes the press ticket reviews. I’ve got two or three more reviews to write, but I’m going to put that on pause now and cover some fringe shenanigans. Yes, I have a shenanigans queue to clear.
Wednesday 7th August: That’s part one of fringe viewing concluded. I will be back in the final week to mop up everything remaining on my must see list, and hopefully have some time for some new stuff too. Coverage continues, and now that I’ve had a time to catch up on what’s been going on, I may have a scandal or two to cover. However, I still have some reviews to catch up on, and as I give priority to those seen on press tickets, I’ll do these next.
So next on the list is The Fetch Wilson, which I saw on the morning of my last day, a simple but effective solo play from Irish group The Corps Ensemble. Edwin Mullane plays Billy Wilson, but Billy is not his real name. He’s actually Liam Wilson, but with two Liam Wilsons in the same year at boarding school, he chooses to call himself Billy instead. Little does he know how much the other Liam will influence his life. They have little to do with each other in a place where the bullies can do what they like as long as they win school rugby matches, until the day Liam takes on and beats the biggest bully in the school. But what Billy assumes was an act of bravery is all part of a game he cannot yet fathom. Leaving school, desperate to escape a soulless life of corporatism, Billy discovers poker. High stakes and danger is Billy’s drug, and Liam is there to walk him down the road to perdition.
This is almost entirely works in a storytelling format. Apart from a card-themed set and the final moment of the play, there’s very little visual in the way of the play. But Stewart Roche’s script is so engaging this doesn’t really matter. The transition of conformist boarding school to the poker dens of Prague to the final shocking destination of Liam’s managed slowly and effectively. One moment, a scene is peppered with humour, the next moment the tension rises. One risk of storytelling – as opposed to reading the story off paper – is introducing so many characters you lose track of who, but the number is kept down to something sensible and you never lose track of the story.
The only thing I had some doubts over was the abrupt ending. It’s clear early on that something like this will happen eventually, so it’s no surprise when it does, but the fast conclusion meant a couple of promising side-plots were cut dead. We never know the conclusion of Billy’s run-in with Mr. Big, nor do get to know the whole tale of the wife of a school friend. But other than that, it’s a tight, well-written well-performed story I can recommend. 11.30 a.m. at Pleasance Courtyard, running for the rest of the fringe.
Right. Time for a rest.
Tuesday 6th August, 11.15 p.m.: Here I am on the train home. I was supposed to already be in Durham by now, but LNER had other ideas. Still, I shall take this opportunity to get another review out of the way.
The next one is outside my specialty as it’s a musical: it’s You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown from Bare Productions. As such, my verdict should be treated as subservient to people who review musicals all the time. This is unusual to review for two reasons: firstly, this isn’t really a continuous story, but a set a short independent scenes from the Peanuts World; and secondly – and this the thing I hadn’t realised until now – the adaptations don’t come in the order you might think. Sitting in an audience dominated by people who would have been children at the time of the 1985 TV animation they remember, you’d be forgiven for assuming the stage version came later. But, in actual fact, the stage version pre-dates this by 18 years. That’s not a bad thing – screen to stage adaptations can be very clumsy, but when the stage adaptation comes first you can take more assurance it should work on the stage.
Bare Productions do a decent job of this. The songs are not always straightforward ones to sing, requiring a lot of harmonising and counterpoint, but the cast take to it well. This is a challenging musical to choreograph, and substandard choreography would drag the musical down to snail’s pace, but on the whole this is managed well. I particularly liked the way that A book report on Peter Rabbit was staged, with Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Schroder all sitting round a rotating block. I do, however, feel the production would have benefitted from paying more attention to the mannerisms of the characters. Normally I wouldn’t advise actors to attempt to imitate previous film and TV versions, but when you have an audience so heavily attracted by the nostalgia, you really have to play a close homage. Here, the results were variable: Charlie Brown himself was depicted quite well as the classic loser, but Sally and Lucy felt more like two lots of Violet Elizabeth Bott than the Peanuts characters a generation knows and loves.
However, it is important to remember that musicals like these are a lot harder to deliver than conventional theatre, especially in one like this where almost every scene is complicated in its movement, or music, or both. At the end of the day, this is a play where the audience come for the nostalgia value, and that is what it delivers. This is a short run and only runs to this Saturday, but it’s a nice 90 minutes of homage to a classic Peanuts story.
Oh Christ, we’re still at Alnmouth. Hurry up, I want to go to bed.
Tuesday 6th August, 3.15 p.m.: Holy Moly, Pleasance Wifi is actually working. I can write something.
There was an event at Fringe Central discussing responsible reviewing. I wanted to go to this, but sadly I couldn’t make it owing to a clashing commitment (luckily the clashing commitment was worth it). I’m hearing mixed verdicts on how useful the session was – I will go on the lookout for write-ups and then get back to you on this. In the meantime, I’m told that Quentin Letts came up – only for about five minutes, but that’s 4 minutes 59 seconds too long. For my reminder of why we should not be discussing him – albeit a futile call – come this way.
I’m giving my brain a break from writing reviews – I expect to resume this on the train home this evening. However, just a quick report on Yen. As I said, I cannot do a proper review owing to conflict of interest, but I think I can safely say the following things:
- Yen is a super play.
- Hettie Hodgson’s directing is as good as it’s always been.
- It’s just got 5/5 from the 730 review.
That’s all for now. Probably see you next this evening.
Monday 6th August, 10.30 p.m.: Before proceeding any further, it might be worth issuing a universal caveat to these reviews. In live coverage, the reviews should be considered an instant reaction to the play. When I’m up against this volume of plays, I don’t have time for the normal period where I give a play my undivided attention when I decide what I think of it. So everything I write here should not be considered the final verdict. Sometimes, between now and the roundup, I come up with further insights that affects the final review. I won’t made any radical change – I play I loved won’t become a play I hate or vice versa – but emphasis may change.
So, let’s go on to the next review, and it’s This is Just Who I Am. A solo show start sets out to be different from the start. After an opening dance, Miranda Prag announces that she’s suddenly decide her show isn’t any good and she’s going to replace the entire thing with new material she practiced in the afternoon. She comes up with a hotch-potch of descriptions of herself and issues she feels strongly in, but the first sign that something is bit off is her account of a sexist man staring at her in the Tate Modern, and the fact that the man in question was a security guard politely asking her not to blow on the 80-year-old scupture doesn’t change her mind.
To consider this play, I broke my rule and discussed the play with the performer afterwards. I find myself in an odd situation here. To be honest, during the play, I got a bit lost as to what’s going on. When actually discussing the play afterwards, it made a lot more sense – the theme of a woman trying to hard to project an image that she doesn’t care what people think of her but really does. Of course, the audience doesn’t get that privilege, and it is the performer’s responsibility to make sure makes sure the message comes across. My gut instinct is that is that the play as it stands is too abstract to follow without a prompt; some indication needs to be given of what the play is about, I’m not sure what, but a clue needs to be given somehow.
I think my favourite bit of the play is the end, where Miranda asks for feedback. Not the usual way of giving out forms, but asking for votes with yes and no – and standard questions of “did you follow this” swiftly give way to inappropriate questions such as “Do you find me attractive” and “Do I look for the sort of person who has lots of acquaitances but few real friends”? And there’s a lot she offers in the performance, and I was particularly taken in by her singing voice. There is some work to be done on this idea, I think, but I liked this for being something different and risk-taking, and that’s what you need to be remembered in the long run.
Right, 9 plays in two days. I reckon I’ll get through three tomorrow. Then it’s home for me, and I’ll be back at the end.
And it goes to Caroline Burns-Cooke for Proxy. A solo play that explores Munchauesen’s Syndrome by proxy, in common with Burns-Cooke’s last play And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet, she plays three characters: Dee Dee, the mother with the syndrome; Gypsy, the daughter treated like an invalid; and the mother of one of Gypsy’s friends who learns the horrible truth at the end. Three sides of the story, and three very important sides.
And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet received praise for its nuance – rather than rush headlong to condemn everyone conforming to the Catholic mindset, she makes an effort to understand why. And much of the first half of the play works like that here. Dee Dee did not wake up one day and decide she liked the idea of a permanently sick daughter – instead it’s a terrifying slippery slope. Any mother’s fear about a child stops breathing into the night becomes a trip to the hospital long after it’s not needed. The trip to the hospital turns into a false sense of security gained from programmes like ER. The false sense of security turns into an addiction, an addiction turns into a game of getting a second or third or fourth opinion until you get what you need, and eventually, the absurd lengths she goes to hear what she wants to hear.
But is it entirely Dee Dee’s fault? The account of the neighbour suggests that perhaps everyone else had this syndrome too; all clubbing together to help the sick child to feel good about themselves – so good, perhaps, that no-one wants to as the uncomfortable questions they should be asking. And then, of course, there is the voice of the victim herself. Such is the skill of the writing, Dee Dee’s voice as an unreliable narrator doesn’t tell everything straight, but by the time you hear the other side from Gypsy, it merely confirms the awful truth we already know.
I won’t talk too much about the ending because that would be a spoiler, but I can tell you that the blurb lets on a lot less about the ending than you might think. I some ways, the ending is a shocker – in other ways, it’s not too much of a surprise that the story would come to that. But the ending is just the icing on the cake on a solo play that is gripping from start to finish. Like Vivian’s Music, 1969, this isn’t getting big audiences, but it should do. So a reminder that you can see this at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 11.00 a.m. There are plenty of plays that tell you why things are bad, but few that try to understand what makes people do this. This does it without downplaying the effect, and this makes it a must-see.
Monday 6th August, 10.30 a.m.: Now let’s take a look at Neverwant, Bite-Size’s big project over and above their long-standing breakfast show. Up to now, I’ve described this as an extended version of Bill Knowelden’s short play, All You Ever Wanted. That’s not quite true – in fact, another one of his plays, I Do, features heavily here – if anything, more so. I was bit surprised this one was used; I loved the original version of I Do, set in a future where people are forbidden from falling in love in a world that had echoes of Brave New World, but I had some doubts about making this longer. In particular, how could you do a longer version without it being excessively derivative of the same book. But Neverwant manages to be different, and the mean reason it’s different is it’s funny.
In the future, everyone gets what they want. The social media algorithms that currently say “Recommended: Teens torns to shreds is bear attack blood bath because you watched The Care Bears” have been refined and now give you exactly what you want. In most cases anyway. Sometimes the match is wrong, which is clearly the fault of the person for not wanted what the computer says. As a substitute for love, they are rolling out Fiona 1.0, a robot you can get to love you, but only in the way romance works in games like Stardew Valley where you earn hearts. (Although it’s not entirely a bad idea – come on, who doesn’t leap for joy when you favourite bachelor or bachelorette declares his/her love for you?) The story centres round two workers in love, one in denial, the other not caring what people think.
The play carries itself on the humour. I particularly liked the two ultra-jobworths compliance officers who know every anti-intimacy rule on the book desperately ignoring their own intimate bond over their share love of bureaucracy. I did, however, feel the play missed a few opportunities to make a stronger plot. There is a very promising scene at the beginning with Fiona 2.0, a robot that passes for a human, but we never hear about that again – I’d have loved to see the reaction one of those to aforementioned guards when they get their own personal Fiona 2.0. And the one thing I felt didn’t work – or at least not work as well as the original – is the twist at the end. I won’t give away the twist as it’s a spoiler, but in the original this worked as the entire story being a sting; in the context of the longer story, it didn’t make quite so much sense.
But as a dark but funny portrayal of a dystopian future, it’s a good job. If I was to rate this against last year’s Izzy’s Manifestoes – very different plays but doing my best to compare the two, I think I’d put Izzy’s Manifestoes marginally ahead as a finished product. But Neverwant does something else – it lays to foundations for a lot of stories. With so many good idea expressed so well in this play, there will surely be more where this came from. Bite-Size has been looking for a second string to their bow for years – they may finally have found it.
, Sunday 5th August, 11.30 p.m.: Well, what do you know? Earlier today I was joking that I might not make my target of five plays. Four would be acceptable, but three would be a personal failure. But thanks to a hash of my scheduling, the only option was a gap-filler at Sweet Grassmarket where I happened to be. That’s fine, everyone should do the odd lucky dip to see what you get. And loh and behold – in spite of me having never heard of Good Works Productions – Vivian’s Music 1969 is outstanding.
The play is set in 1969 in the events that led to the race riots of North Omaha. The Jim Crow laws might have been over, but segregation and racial tension is alive and well, with Police brutality on one side and Black Panthers on the other, as extremism escalates. But for most of the play, this is only a backdrop. This is the story of Luigi, a jazz musician who navigates a world of prejudice through some shrewd bullshitting. The other character is Vivian. In real life, she was the 14-year-old shot by the Police whose death started the riots – beyond that, we know little about her. In the play, where a life is imagined for her, she is the archetypal innocent. She knows or cares little about the racial confrontations going on – she just wants to enjoy life the way any 14-year-old wants to.
The script is superb, both characters are very convincing, and both actors capture the characters perfectly. Nuance features very heavily in the play too. Vivian’s boyfriend, Duwayne, is a fearless Black Panther absolutist on the outside – when it blows up, he’s just another scared kid who wants a way out. Lives are shaped by a strong us and them culture, but the Polish family in the story are just as distant from the white community as they are from the black. But there is one thing about the play that consistently transcends racial barriers, and that’s the music. Whether it’s Luigi’s bands, drum lessons, or the idolisation of the Beatles, nobody cares who’s who when it comes to music.
The reviews in live coverage are insta-reviews with instant impressions – by the time I write this up properly in the roundup, I will probably have thought of more to say. But I’m getting this out now because the only thing wrong with this is that the audiences are so small. I counted eight in the show I’ve seen – this deserves so much more. So here is my recommendation now: 7.00 p.m., Sweet Grassmarket, running to the end of the fringe. You absolutely must catch this.
And that’s all for tonight. Bed time.
Sunday 5th August, 5.15 p.m.: Owing to me making a hash of my schedule planning, I’m currently waiting for my second show today. I may only make to to three shows today. I can hardly bear the shame. Nevertheless, I intend to have the first review out by the end of the day.
Before that, a quick bit of news via Fringepig. Fringepig was one of the first things I picked up – as usual, I am wondering how the hell they manage to print some of their stuff and get away with it – but it was a mention of a new review policy at the Scotsman who grabbed my interest. Usual caveat: this is Fringepig reporting a “source” rather than something on the record, but Fringepig says the Scotsman has instructed it’s reviewers not to respond to criticisms of their reviews or reviewers, I can believe that. Certainly after Paul Whitelaw’s, shall I say, “interesting exchange of opinions” after last year’s reviewer-review of him, that seems like a pretty wise decision.
Should this be standard practice though? I have mixed feelings about this. Given the choice between one of your reviewer tell people of “basically fuck off and die you dismal bunch of amateurs” or keeping schtum, I’d go for the latter option. But is this an over-reaction in the long run? Paul Whitelaw’s original response to me over the allegations of sexist reviewing of female comedians was reasonable – it was only later he went overboard.
My worry is that by reacting to one ill-advised outburst, it could encourage a culture where criticisms are stonewalled instead of addressed. Stopping reviewers responding to crticisms with abuse is one thing – stopping reviewers and review publications from making responses to mild criticisms is another. It would be a lot easier, of course, if publications like The Scotsman has a transparent complaints procedure. Regardless, it looks like the repercussions of Whitelawgate are not over yet.
Sunday 5th August 10.00 a.m.: And here I come. I’m on a later train than usual because, for some reason, there are no trains that arrive in Edinburgh before mid-day on a Sunday. As a result, I may have to spend my first day watch a feeble four shows instead of the usual five.
I hope to have at least one review out by the end of today. I have replied to review requests for everyone I’ve scheduled for this visit. However, it is important you process the press ticket properly. Previously I’ve managed to take short cuts with a press pass, but I applied late this year and my application is still in a queue, so I don’t think I’ll be able to get away with “They asked me to review them, honest” this time round.
If you are on a short run this side of the fringe and I haven’t got back to you, then unfortunately it’s unlikely I will be able to review you. Luck has been unkind this time round with timing and clashes. I’ve already had to drop plans for shows on my Safe Choice list, so it’s not just you who are losing out. Sorry about that.
Anyone thinking of asking me to review them now (and I get a surprisingly large number of requests mid-fringe) – please go ahead and ask. I give priority to requests made before the fringe, but it largely comes down to where the gaps in my schedule fall. I’ve previously accepted a lot of requests made this way, so it’s worth trying.
Right, let’s finish my recommendations. Three categories down, wildcard and comedy to go.
Saturday 4th August: Before I get on a train tomorrow, there’s just time to take a look at the subject of numbers.
Two years ago, the numbers at Edinburgh slightly shrank. That was the same year that Brighton Fringe has its unprecedented 25% growth. For a moment, Edinburgh’s status as undisputed king of the fringes looks a little shaky. But it turned out that was a blip. This year, there’s a 4.5% rise in registration to 3.548. If you measure it by performances, it’s up even more, 6.6%. Even though the city of Edinburgh is a finite size and the entire supply of accommodation and performances spaces seems to be used up, nothing seem to stop the growth.
The usual indicator to watch out for is ticket sales at the end of the fringe. So far, I’ve worked on the theory that growth should be matched with ticket sales in order to sustain further growth – so that would mean the target would be 4.5% growth or 6.6% growth, depending on which figure of growth we’re using. But I’m beginning to wonder if this makes sense any more. Accommodation is increasingly becoming a huge cost at Edinburgh, and as demand increases, prices go up more. Income might need to increase more to cover this.
And tying into yesterday’s debate on expense to performers, might this be the year we have a debate on whether Edinburgh Fringe expansion is a good thing. Few people would dispute the huge achievement to get the numbers from hundreds in the 1980s to the thousands today, but could the bad points outweigh the good? And, of course, the other question is that if it was decided an open festival was too big, can you actually stop it getting bigger? Place a limit on performers, and it’s not an open festival any more.
Will this be the year when we have this debate? Will it tie into the debate on expansion costs? We have three weeks to find out.
Friday 3rd August: As well as previews, reviews, and seeing how shows get on, there’s always the odd thorny subject that crops up at the Edinburgh Fringe. Last year it was all quite uneventful until I an absolute shitstorm in the final week that I played a minor part in setting off. I don’t have the energy to recount this. If you must know, a search on this blog for “Paul Whitelaw” should give you a good idea of what happened.
Anyway, one possibly early topic of debate is the age-old thorny subject of the expense of going to the fringe. The Stage has made it their editorial this week. This was prompted in part by a minor scandal of actors being ripped off by scam for accommodation. But, to be honest, that issue, whilst awful for the people being affect, is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Everyone wants to do the Edinburgh Fringe, but there is only a finite supply of performance spaces and accommodation, and when demand hopeless outstrips supply, this is just one of many consequences.
I hope this issue does get a proper debate this month, because it’s an important issue that’s never been properly debated. The Stage’s view is that artists shouldn’t have to take all the risks, which is a laudable aim, but they don’t seem to have any ideas for how this should be achieved. I have my view on what should be done, but it’s a controversial proposal that requires slaying a few sacred cows. But before that, I want to wait and see what other people say. If we do have this debate, it will be very interesting to see which way consensus goes.
Thursday 2nd August: Okay, everyone who has requested a review from me should have been sent an acknowledgment by now. If you have not got this, please get back to me, because this probably means I didn’t get your request.
As well as reviews and previews, one thing I will be paying attention to is how plays I’ve seen, or are on my recommendations list, fare with other reviewers. I am strongly of the opinion that, in the long run, the verdicts of the audience are more important than the verdicts of the reviewers. However, it’s very difficult to measure audience reaction during the fringe, but much easier to measure reviewer reaction, so that’s the best data that’s available. (I reserve the right to disregard reviewers known to engage in gross unethical practices, but that’s a short list, and none of them are reviewing at Edinburgh this year as far as I’m aware.)
One show where I’m really interested in this respect is Neverwant. Bite-Size plays produce very successful breakfast shows of 10-minute plays, but it’s always been a challenge to branch out of this, with attempts to produce longer plays having mixed success. But this play by Bill Knoweleden will be interesting. He’s a long-standing company member of Bite-Size as a sort-of unofficial number two, and he’s started contributing plays over the last couple of years, usually with a dystopian theme, and this is based on one of his ten-minuters. It showed at Brighton this year, but for one reason or another didn’t get reviewed there, so it goes into Edinburgh as a complete unknown. This time it surely will, then we shall see.
Neverwant is at 4.15 p.m. in the Pleasance Courtyard. Alternatively, if you’d rather play it safe, there’s always the breakfast shows at 10.30 a.m. each day. Those tend to sell out days in advance, so book early for those.
Wednesday 1st August: But that’s enough of that. You’ve dying to know who I’m recommending for the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Okay then, you’ve twisted my arm. Here you go:
Big Bite-Size breakfast Show
The Turn of the Screw
The Unknown Soldier
Police Cops / Police Cops in Space
Build a Rocket
You might like:
Faulty Towers / The Wedding Reception
Antigone na h’Eireann
You All Know Me, I’m Jack Ruby!
Year Without Summer
From the Comedy:
Best of Beasts
Imaginary Porno Charades
The Dark Room / The Dark Room for Kids
Doktor James’s Bad Skemes
Susan Harrison is a Bit Weepy
Margaret Thatcher Queen of Club Nights
All of this will be expanded upon in my upcoming What’s Worth Watching article. But remember, I only know about a small fraction of what’s out there in Edinburgh. This should be considered a cross-section of what’s worth watching, not an exhaustive list.
Oh Christ, I’ve got to write about 29 plays now.
UPDATE: BADD is showing on the Edfringe website and Pleasance website as cancelled. Don’t know why as of yet. Shame that.
Tuesday 31st July: The main function of this article is the reviews. For anyone who wishes to request a review off me, or anyone else interested, it works as follows:
Edinburgh Fringe is a very busy time for me. I tend to see five plays on most days (and I sometimes go higher), but even with this it is a tough job to see everything I want to see and everything I’ve been asked to review. Nevertheless, I manage to squeeze in most of this. Where I don’t see shows, it’s usually down to bad luck – sod’s law invariably dictates that everything I want to see is on at the same day every time. I do, however, have two general exclusions at Edinburgh: I don’t normally take up requests for Old English plays (including Shakespeare) or stand-up comedy. This is not because I don’t like these productions, but because I don’t see enough of them to tell if they’re any good – for those, there are better people to review you than me, and there other plays where I can be of more use. However, if you have a special reason why you think I’d want to review your Shakespeare or stand-up, you’re welcome to try.
If you invite me to review you, I expect to be issued with a comp press ticket, otherwise I will see something else instead. However, all plays I see are eligible for review, whether or not I paid for a ticket. This is a blog for theatre that’s good, and if I don’t have much positive or constructive to say, I will normally opt to write no review than a negative one. At the Edinburgh Fringe, I lower this bar quite a lot, as I get the impression that most groups want to point to reviews to say they’ve done it, even if it’s unenthusiastic. Irrespective of whether I do a review, you are welcome to contact me privately if you want to ask what I didn’t like about it.
Reviews in this article are insta-reviews, and will normally come out in a matter of days. Priority is given to shows in press tickets over those without, and smaller shows who need publicity will normally get priority over larger ones that don’t. However, if I see something exceptional, that can also jump the queue. I’m not taking part in this fringe, so there’s no embargoes to worry about.
Oh, and the sooner you ask, the better. I’ve loved some of the shows I was asked to see at the last minute, but the most common reason I have for not reviewing is that there simply wasn’t time to arrange things. And I think that’s the basics. You can read more about my rules here and here.
Finally, if for any reason, you do not want me to review you, that’s fine. Send me a message I’ll cross you off the list.
Monday 30th July: Welcome to my coverage of Edinburgh Fringe 2018. And this time, I have managed to finish off writing reviews from Brighton Fringe, so you can stop smirking. (Note: I haven’t quite finished everything to do with Brighton. And I haven’t even started on Buxton. But my backlog is nowhere near as embarassing as last year).
Edinburgh Fringe does not officially start for another four days, but for most performers at the this Fringe, it’s as good as started already. Known as “week zero”, this is when the tech rehearsals and previews happen, before the first “official” performances start on Friday. So one tip for anyone in reach on Edinburgh this week: it’s worth a punt on the previews. You can see shows at a much lower cost than the festival proper, and if you’re lucky it will be as good as the real thing.
Stay with me for another monster article with daily updates for a month. And more often when I arrive. I’m arriving on Sunday for my first stint. And then it gets really interesting.