This page will be added to over the course of the Edinburgh Fringe. Keep returning here for more updates, at least once per day.
Sunday 2nd September: And that bring us to the end of the Edinburgh Fringe live coverage. It’s not quite the end of all things Edinburgh, because there’s still the fallout of a few events at the end of the fringe to be reckoned with, such as the allegations over behaviour of venues and the stats for growth, but this will rumble on way beyond August.
Thank you to everyone who stuck with this through the month. In the end all the reviews will go into a roundup, but before then I have a backlog to clear going back to July. Thanks to everyone who invited me to review their shows, and to everyone who made the effort to make this fringe what it is. If I couldn’t see you, my apologies, there’s only a limit to what I can see. If you’re determined to see me, ask again, because I value polite persistence.
I will now join you in a month-long hibernation. Thank you and goodnight.
Saturday 1st September: And this is it. I have made my decision on what to put in Pick of the Fringe. For those of you who have been following this regularly, a reminder that I am a lot more choosy at Edinburgh than I am at Brighton or Buxton. Previously, shows that made it to pick of the fringe at one of these festivals have only made it to honourable mention. If you are not on the list, that does not mean I hated your show – merely that it’s a fiercely contested list and not everyone can be a winner.
As before, shows marked in (brackets) are shows I saw in the past year prior to Edinburgh. In general, I don’t have time to see plays I’ve seen earlier in the year, but in order to give them a fair chance they are eligible to be in the list if they performed at Edinburgh. Only shows I particularly liked get this treatment – if I was less enthusiastic, it’s only fair to wipe the slate clean, and start again.
So, here we go …
Pick of the Fringe:
Vivian’s Music, 1969
The Fetch Wilson
Build a Rocket
Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Maz and Bricks
House of Edgar
(Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho)
My Brother’s Drug
(Antigone na h’Eireann)
(Doktor James’s Bad Skemes)
Full details will come in the roundup (whenever I get round to it). You can stop the drum roll now.
Friday 31st August: The last review is a safe bet, but a safe bet done well. Performed at the Bedlam Theatre by Edinburgh University Theatre Company. It’s Eight by Ella Hickson, and play and author both have a special connection to both the theatre and theatre company. Hickson launched her career in this very theatre a decade ago with this play. I didn’t see this one, but I did randomly see her follow-up in 2011, Precious Little Talent, an story of unlikely love set in the run-up to Barack Obama’s inauguration. I really that one, although I felt the ending was abrupt – with a final scene set on inauguration day when people had some much hope, I wanted to know what happened next. Actually, no, in hindsight, inaugration day 2009 was good point to finish the story. Anyway, she’s gone on from strength to strength, and Fourth Wall Theatre (in action with Yen this fringe) impressed me with another one of her plays, Boys, late last year.
So, Eight is a set of Eight monologues, with four performed each performance depending on who the audience votes for. Nowadays, the most famous monologue – and presumably almost always voted in – is Astrid a woman driven to serial unfaithfulness by a partner who did it first, contrast her feeling of power now against the feeling of abandonment when she was once one the receiving end. Joining her were three other characters: Millie, a well-to-do woman descending from none other than Nell Gwyn who is not a common prostitute thank you very much, but in business of “marital supplements” to discerning gentlemen; Danny, a man whose interest in body-building goes out of control and leads to some very goulish behaviour; and Mona, a teenage girl treated as a fashion accessory by her bohemian mother who runs away and rebels. Between them, there’s a mixture of the funny, the serious, and the strange.
Eight is in the list of plays that are easy to do well but also easy to do badly. And the easy way to do it badly is to assume that as long as you learn the words you’ve got a play. No, to do the play justice, you have to understand who you’re playing and not just know their words. There’s a whole world of difference between a performance that phrases and deliver a monologue properly and someone going through the lines monotone. This is a obvious thing and I shouldn’t really be stating this, but countless groups, student and otherwise, confuse line-learning with good acting. Lucikly, Edinburgh Universitry Theatre Company gets it. It would have a traversty not to in the theatre where it all started, but everyone get their characters and delivered it the way it’s meant to go.
It’s fair to say that Eight was a ultra-safe pick for EUTC to do – you’ll need to look elsewhere in the programme for any risk taking. But for a play that played a momentous role in the history of the Bedlam Theatre, there could not be a more appropriate time to do this than its ten-year anniversary. Sadly I cannot recommend you go and see this as I only caught this on the very last day (and even then only due to a chance conversation leading to a last-moment request), but this play did not disappoint, and the EUTC today could not have done a more fitting homage to the EUTC of 2008.
So that’s it. All the reviews are written. Now it’s time for the exciting bit – my choice of Pick of the Fringe – and honestly, I have not made any decisions yet. Come back tomorrow for the moment of truth.
Thursday 30th August: Two to go, and it’s the rest of The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show. This will be a quick round-up, because if there’s one act that most definitely does not need good reviews, it’s them. I believe they had three consecutive weeks of full houses, and when audience loyalty it that effective, it doesn’t matter what reviewers say. So, as usual, I’ll pick out some favourites, which this time were spome of the more surrealistic ones:
- Nathan Built a Time Machine, where Nathan builds a time machine, which, as we all know, is easy to to do if you know how to adjust a standard wristwatch, or if your own won’t do the job, you girlfiend’s will, Then you can go back in time and put right all the things you did wrong to save relationship with aforementioned girlfriend, if the usual unintended effects of going to your past don’t create problems.You get the idea.
- The Trapped Language of Love. We’ve all been there. Sitting on a bench bench eating lunch next to the unspoken love of your life, expressing your inner feelings in Shakespearean soliloquies, because as we all know 1) romantic feelings can only be truly expressed in Shakespearean soliloquies, and 2) no-one else can hear you speak you Shakespearean soliloquies even when they’re sat next to you. You get the idea.
- Sad 2am Sex Fantasy, a surprisingly PG-rated play considering the subject material. It’s so easy to conjure up an image of banging the girl in the coffee shop you’d never have the courage to speak to in real life, but have you ever wondered how much work is put in by the actors playing the figments of your imagination? Again, you get the idea.
I think I’d pick out menu 1 as my favourite though, which an unusually dark set of plays. Never Give Up, a rather tragic comedy about the world’s worst playwright (and also nicest and most deludedly optimistic playwright) coming in for a meeting about all he terrible plays, and Green Dot Day, a poignant short drama about a marriage where intimacy is reduced to a quest to conceive. But The Retirement Position, mentioned earlier in my coverage is my firm favourite. What I hadn’t noticed is that this is written by another Bite-Sizer, Thomas Wilshire. He co-wrote Neverwant with Billy Knowelden (which has a late flurry of good reviews), but so far I’d only paid attention to Bill as it was his short plays that Neverwant was derived from. The Retirement Position, however, is a great play in its own right. It’s very early days to call this, but maybe, just maybe, Bite Size is evolving from an actor ensemble into a writer-actor ensemble. And if it does, that could open up a lot of possibilities.
Phew. One to go.
Wednesday 29th August: Time to finish reviews, and I’m on the last day now. And one thing I was keen to work into my schedule was The Narcissist in the Mirror, for three reasons. Firstly, with the Greater Manchester Fringe playing an increasing role in the fringe circuit, I was keen to get a taste of the talent they were honing. Secondly, it’s always a pleasure when the tiny productions enjoy success against the big ones. And thirdly, I really liked the idea of a modern-day take of the legend of Narcissus, in an age where vanity has never been more rewarded.
It’s such a promising start. Rosie Fleeshman sits in, we presume, her own star dressing room, adored by crowds, all cards and flowers and drinks paid for. The we hear how it all began. How, in her early days, her mother had favourites, how desperate she was to beat her brother into second place (her brother being the firm fist), and the extreme lengths she’d go to triumph. Then the quest for mother’s adulation turns into a quest for adulation of boys – she’d take on any personality to win the heart of any boy, only to discard it when she’s bored. Then a spanner in the works when she falls in love at acting school. A first real romance. A first real heartbreak. And then … not a lot else happens.
The first thing that didn’t make sense is our protagonist’s return to the dating game. Now, she’s developed a bad habit of ruining any potential romance by correcting grammar. And it’s funny – but given that we’ve already established how easily she changed her personality to be whatever a man wants her to be, I don’t get why she’d start doing that now. To give credit where it’s due, most of the rest of the play is astute, with good perception of people’s attitudes to social media and exaggerated online presences and the unfashionability of revealing your true feelings to someone you care for. But after such a promising setup for a modern-day retelling of a Greek legend, the plot stalls and little is done to advance it. I will admit, however, I did not see the twist coming at the ending. Pride, it seems, still comes before a fall.
I find myself in a difficult position with this one. A common complaint I hear about reviewers, quite justifiably, is that they unfairly penalise plays for not meeting their preconception of what the play is meant to be about. As an insight into modern-day vanities, this does a good job – but once you’re primed for a story, there’s no escaping some disappointment when that doesn’t appear. Nevertheless, it is only fair to note that this has been doing very well with other reviews, so it seems that for the people who took this for what it was meant to be, it did the job well. But no retelling of Narcissus this fringe. Maybe next time.
Tuesday 28th August: Before I get through the final few reviews, news just in, and with all the talk of peak fringe, there’s more attention that usual. Remember, with the fringe growing, you need an accompanying rise in ticket sales, otherwise it’s the same amount of income spread amongst more groups. Well, the numbers are in, and it’s 5%. Depending on whether you use growth registrations or performances as your benchmark, it’s either slightly over a target of 4.5%, or slightly under a target of 6.6%. Either way, this roughly indicates there’s enough revenue to keep income per group holding steady. Early glances therefore suggest that the talk of the fringe bubble bursting is premature.
However, I will sound a major note of caution here. I’ve always given the disclaimer that matching growth in groups/performances with a growth in ticket sales is a simplistic target, but this time I’m beginning to wonder if this target is too simplistic. This target is based on an assumption that costs hold steady as the Edinburgh Fringe grows – I’m not sure we can safely assume this any more. A frequent complaint about this fringe is the cost of accommodation, and it seems that as more groups come to Edinburgh, the costs go up and up and up. There may also be escalating costs for venue hire (either the operators or the landlords), although I know less about that works. What this means, however, is that to sustain the fringe you may need sales growth to match fringe growth in order to maintain income per group PLUS more sales growth to cover the rising expenses of performing in a more crowded fringe city. I have no idea what that target would be.
Couple of other factors: fringe-wide figures don’t tell the whole story – the extra 150,000 tickets could be selling to the big acts, the small acts or a mixture of both, and those scenarios have very different implications. (That said, I think The Space has been reporting better-than-average sales, and that would favour the smaller groups.) We should also consider ticket price – if average price is going up too, the pushes up performer income (but does raise obvious questions about affordability for punters).
Don’t go away – I may have some more analysis soon. In the meantime, come back for remaining reviews from tomorrow.
Monday 27th August, 11.00 p.m.: And one last thing before we call it a night: Sexy Sweaty Party Party. This is very much under the comedy umbrella so it will be a quick review. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting one because this ties into another shows I’ve been a fan of for years.
So Sexy Sweaty Party Party is the latest mad scheme of John Robertson, best known for The Dark Room. I saw it again this fringe, but I’m not going to add another review right now because I’ve pretty much said everything that needs to be said. However, one thing I hadn’t quite appreciated is how good John Robertson is at improvising things off the cuff. This isn’t too obvious in his flagship show, which is mostly structured around whether you Check Pocket or Czech Pocket, but it is obvious here, where virtually the entire show is improvising off the cuff.
There wasn’t anything about this this show that was particularly sexy (unless you are particularly turned on by John Robertson smearing butter over himself then seeing how long he could grab on to a pillar whilst the audience shouts “Koala! Koala!”) but I’ll give him sweaty. Other than that, is really is making up every show as he goes along. My contribution – following a long sequence where a group of girls unwisely left their pints unguarded on a front table – involved me putting the pint glass on my head after Mr. Robertson failed to do the obligatory step after downing a pint, which led to about five minutes of material, including a new religious sect where placing the plastic hit on your head is part of the strictures.
As I said, this will be a different experience any other night, but based on what I’ve heard from other performances, my observations are typical of what to expect any other night. The few nits which were rehearsed had guitar from Mike Dr. Blue, which observant fringe fans will know is a Brighton-based guitarist (and a good one at that), last seen in action in Bear North, a gentle folk group featuring a cross-dressing bear (long story, go back to my Brighton Fringe roundup for that). It’s quite a contrast, sitting there whilst Robertson does his latest crazy thing. Anyway, it’s certainly a think to enjoy, as long as you drop all expectations on how bizarre a show can get. And don’t leave an unattended pint in reach of a comedian. You fools.
Monday 27th August, 7.00 p.m.: Another review now, and it’s another musical, this time chosen purely as a gap-filler in my schedule. House of Edgar was showing in one of Greenside’s main spaces. Musicals isn’t my expertise, so take the word of experienced musical reviewers over mine, but from the few fringe musical I’ve seen, this was of a high standard.
Edgar Allen Poe is a popular author to dramatise, often with productions compiling many stories into one production. This one, however mixes it with a story of Edgar Allen Poe himself. Poe is dead, and his estate has fallen into the hands of a rival poet, Rufus Griswold. Mixed into this are many of Poe’s famous stories, and mixed in further is Virginia, once a love triangle, then Poe’s beloved wife before an untimely death.
One thing to be aware of with this play is it’s very hard work to follow. Okay, this was my last play on a five-play day and the my last full day on fringing, so I probably wasn’t best prepared for this, but it’s more to do with the fact that every Poe-inspired work I’ve seen has been tough to follow. This, I’d say, is best enjoyed if you’re familiar with the work of the man himself.
But even if don’t know the stories, even if you’re struggling to keep up with what’s going on, it is clear from the start that Argosy Arts Co is a cut above most musicals. I generally expect high standards of performance from conventional theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, but I am more forgiving of shortcomings in musical because I know that’s harder. But there is no need to make these allowances here, because their performance standards is easily comparable with similar-scale fully-professional productions inside and outside the fringe circuit. The music is fitting and original, not the easiest to pick up, and still the cast have no problem doing this in full harmony. It is highly choreographed but always flows smoothly, and little touches such as the movement of the raven add so much to the production. The only thing that didn’t quite fit – and this surprised me considering how much attention they gave to detail elsewhere – was that the table and door were obviously plastic. But that’s only a minor issue in an otherwise impressive performance.
Often when I see plays that are hard to follow, I think that an extra 20 minutes outside of Fringe constraints will bring the pace down to a level where you digest what’s going on – maybe the same would help here, but without expertise in either Poe or musicals I can’t be certain. But it’s any enjoyable and impressive thing to watch whether or not you stay on top of the stories. This is the second time the musical has been to Edinburgh (the first being at The Space two years ago), but having got this far, I hope this get legs locally. These group is based in Exeter, so if you’re around that area, do keep an eye out for it.
Monday 27th August, 10.30 p.m: Normally when I’m back, I switch back to daily updates and finish the last few reviews at my leisure. However, it’s the last official day of the Fringe today (indeed, many venues called yesterday or Saturday the last day), and I’d like to get most of this finished before the end of the fringe, so I’m sticking with extra updates today.
Before I go into my next review, however, a word about a venue. I’m getting increasingly unhappy with Bar Bados as a venue. Yes, it’s a free fringe venue, and to some extent you get what you pay for, but they’re not the only free venue in Edinburgh and I can’t think of any other venue that does this shoddy a job. Two floors of rooms seemingly disused the other eleven months of the year, rooms numbered with spray paint out of all things, and the place doesn’t appear to have been cleaned all festival, with dust and flyers littering the floor. Other venues work on a shoestring but still find creative ways to look cheap and cheerful. This looks cheap and nasty. Out of the two shows I saw, one had the wrong time listed, the other wasn’t on the board at all. All this together creates an early bad impression for the punters. That is so unfair on the acts.
Worst of all is the noise bleed – many venues have this problem but this one is easily the worst. It’s not PBH’s fault that the walls between the rooms are paper-thin, but surely there must be a way of scheduling to programme to minimise noisy acts with speakers blaring being placed right next to a piece of theatre that needs the quiet. So bad was it that a group apoligised to me after their play for the two noisy acts either side. And that is a real shame, because My Brother’s Drug deserved better than that.
But let’s forget about the things that were outside their control and focus on what was. This play is about the descent of a teenage boy into drug use, and the life he leads in order to sustain the drugs, told through the experience of an older sister. It’s not just the experience of “Frank” that’s the subject of the play, but also the effect it has on those closest to him. When he runs away, he family are of course worried sick about his safety. When he returns, it’s only a few days before he leaves with jewelry and laptop to pay off debts. When that money isn’t enough and he returns pleading to be let in the house, it’s an agonising decision to take in, turn away or call the Police.
What the script could have done better was be more like a play script. The text is highly descriptive of the world this family lives in, and it would have fitted in very well in a short story. But when you have to speak all this is, it can bog the play down. Rachel Mervis directs this well and Elysia Wilson keeps it sounding naturalistic, but I would have looked for more opportunities to act the story. As a general rule of solo performances, if you can act something out, it’s better to do that than just speak it. I really liked the way that the tatty hoodie worn by the sister is twice used to represent Frank, but so much more could have been of that – in fact, that could have been used as a defining feature of the play.
This is a good start from this pair of writer and performer though. It shows a lot of understanding about the nightmare world of drug addiction, and the emotions felt by the sister come across well. With a bit more dramaturgy and better venue a lot more could be done with this. This play has been at Ventor Fringe before Edinburgh, so hopefully there are plans to take this further, and I look forward to seeing what they do.
Sunday 26th August, 9.15 p.m.: And I’m back on the train. As usual, I am on the verge of passing out. The only good news is that should I fall asleep, I will only find myself in Leeds instead of London or Penzance.
But I have a queue of reviews to get through, and get through them I shall. So next I think I shall cover Maz and Bricks. I’ve had an interest in Eva O’Connor’s plays every since I saw My Name is Saiorse, but it was the next two, Overshadowed and The Friday Night Effect that really grabbed my attention, two plays that showed she could do something different. This play is again set in Ireland, but whilst her first pace was set in 1980s rural Ireland fully in the grips of religious traditionalism, this is set in Dublin on the day of a big pro-choice march. Maz is on her way to the demo, and sitting opposite her is Bricks, on the mobile giving away too much information about the bird he shagged last night. They have a quick chat, swiftly getting on each other’s nerves before leaving the train, never to see each other again – or so they think.
The setting, however, is far from an easy crowd-pleaser seeking approval with a message that 99% of an Edinburgh Fringe audience will already agree with. In fact, the theme of the pro-choice march is a backdrop for Maz’s own story. The first sign that something’s not quite right is when she runs into the other side. Of course feelings are going to run high, but high feelings alone doesn’t explain why you’d try to throw a stone at some counter-protesting pensioners. Maz’s reasons for taking the long journey to protest, it turns out, are far more personal that she’s letting on. Coming across the demo by chance, Bricks stops her doing something that will get her arrested, and that marks the start of an unusual friendship, and possibly more.
But neither is this play a copy-paste of the standard rom com story. Bricks, too, has troubles in his life. An early issue is his ex-partner cancelling Bricks’ vising to the daughter he adores, but that, it turns out, is the least of his problems. No, the one thing Maz and Bricks have in common is that they have demons in their life – demons that both of them, so far, have refused to confront. And now is the time that they will force either other to face up to them.
The only small issue I had with the play was the unexpected event at the end, which I won’t give away as that’s a spoiler, suffice to say that it’s a drastic act that’s not a normal thing to do. I’m of the view that characters in plays can plausibly do all sorts of abnormal life-changing things, but the more out of the ordinary it is, the more you need to do to make the action believable. Maz’s issues partly explain this, but I would have liked to have learned a little more about, if not why she’d do that, what made her do it then. But that is only a small issue in a play that is otherwise a strong all-rounder. It isn’t quite as bold as The Friday Night Effect, which I really liked for the agonising moral dilemmas it presented the audience, but it’s a very good play with a two troubled but very relatable characters, ultimately learning to make peace with their pasts. The Edinburgh run has now finished, but with an Irish tour earlier in the year and a highly acclaimed run at Edinburgh, surely a UK tour can’t be far away. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for this.
Sunday 26th August: 6.30 p.m.: Time’s up. 27 shows seen over six days. I still have reviews from yesterday and today to catch up on, so it’s not quite over here, but that’s it for what I watch. As it tradition, the moment I finish watching the last show I realise how tired I am.
I will try to get another review knocked off this evening on the train home. Before then, however, some news on the talk of “peak fringe”. As I’ve said before, we will have a much better idea of “peak fringe” as and when he hear how ticket sales have fared. However, The Scotsman has opted to make an early call and writes that “Edinburgh Ticket Sales hit a new high“. That would suggest we’re not at peak fringe yet.
Two important caveats: firstly, this report does not appear to be based on any hard stats, merely anecdotal evidence for venue managers, so it could be wrong, although – given the embarrassment this would cause it it turns out this is wrong – one would think The Scotsman would not make this claim it they’re not confident they’re right. Secondly, are more importantly, the big questions is whether the growth in sales is enough to support the growth of the fringe. Roughly speaking, if you’re going to sustain a 4.5% growth in registrations, you need a 4.5% growth in sales.
The proper sales figures should be coming from the horse’s mouth in the next few days, after which we’ll have a better idea of how right The Scotsman is. But remember, festival-wide figures don’t tell the whole story – it’s just as important where the growth goes. A 4.5% growth that goes entirely to big shows is different from 4.5% across the board. But that is hard to measure, and the festival-side growth figures are probably the best stats we’re going to get.
Whatever the outcome, next week will be an interesting week.
Sunday 26th August, 12.30 p.m.: Phew. Two Thursday, five Friday, five Saturday. Will do at least three today, maybe a fourth, then it’s home time.
One more play review to clear from Friday, and that’s Por Favor, another lucky dip pick. This play was on a week-long run at Greenside, from After Hours Theatre Company. If Hunch is a play that packs a lot into the hour, this play keeps the story simple. In this play, Jeff is looking for a cast for the school production of West Side Story. Jodie turns up to the audition simply to keep her friend company, but Jeff sees in her the perfect Maria. However, Jeff is in a minority of one here. To the rest of the teachers in the school, Jodie is “the terror of Year Ten.” A school play becomes a quest to prove one teenager is worth than the scrap heap.
This has the signs of a debut play on the fringe circuit. As such, I could spend the review listing 101 little things that could have been done better, but I won’t because that’s not where the emphasis of the review should Por Favor is a nice play to watch about turning a corner in your life, where the lead is simply a good man and a teenage girl finding an opportunity to be valued for once. There is a possibility that Jodie could be criticised as a stereotype, but as I’ve previously argued, not every character in every play can go against stereotypes and it’s more important that there’s a good reason, and for Jodie, there often is – the pride of her foster-parents getting the part of Maria was particularly touching in the play. I do feel more could have been made of other aspects of her character though – I personally would have liked to see more about the attitude of the rest of the school. We know that she’s rejected by most of the teachers as a write-off and most of her own friends as doing the thing meant for swots, but that’s just taken as read – I’d have liked to have seen a lot more about why.
I wasn’t convinced by the ambiguous ending – I am aware that the writer wanted to keep the reason for what happened open-ended, but I just felt what happened then was too important a plot twist to not explain. But this is a good start from this company, and as with all companies getting started at this level, the opportunity to see what worked well and what could have worked better will pay dividends if used wisely. I cannot for the life of me work out where this company is based (there’s a company of that name in Los Angeles, but I can safely assume it’s not them), but wherever they are, I hope this play gets another showing locally, because it’s a refreshing change to see an uncynical play. Worth seeing if it’s on your doorstep.
UPDATE: I don’t know how they found this, since they didn’t have a Twitter handle for me to tab, but After Hours tells me they’re based in Burnley. Burnleyans, keep your eyes open.
Saturday 25th August, 4.30 p.m.: Next on the reviews is All Out of Time. This was one of two plays I saw at Bar Bados. I have some thoughts on the venue which I will be coming back to later, but for now, the play. This was from Clocked On Theatre, and is described as a “semi-improvised ensemble piece”, but it is improvised element dominated proceedings. Through the play, eight members of the audience pick a random number, and the ensemble picks the number of the envelope in front of them, further randomised by games of musical chairs. From this, the actors go into monolgues of various characters
There is one thing about this performance which distinguishes it from the others: this is improvised theatre instead of improvised comedy. There’s no shortage of shows where sketches or entire shows are produces on the fly, but off-hand I can’t think of anyone who’s tried improvising serious theatre. However, this opportunity to do something is unique is diluted by all the other devices dropped into the play. Much of it is dicatated by ongoing music dictating the pace of the play, and in this, there are frequent interruptions such as strip show music or boy-band renditions. The ensemble are uick to adjust to all of this – but it’s not clear how this fits into what the press release calls “physical theatre and storytelling testing the boudaries created by rivalry”.
The ensemble work well together and the snatches of character they create on the fly were interesting, and I so desperately want to see where these stories might go, or how these characters might interact with each other. But this production seems to have fallen into the trap of trying to do too many clever things in one play, and need to make a decision on what’s the most important thing to achieve. What they choose is up to them, but if it up to me, I would stick to the improvisation and take that further. That is where there’s the true opportunity to be unique. It will take a lot of experimentation to get something like that right, but pull that off and Clocked On Theatre could secure a niche that’s ripe for exploration.
Saturday 25th August, 12.30 p.m.: So let’s get started on these reviews. I’m going to start with Hunch, one of the latest offerings from Dugout Theatre. Until two years ago, Dugout Theatre was an ensemble with a back catalogue of excellent devise work, but at the last couple of fringes, they have stepped back and been more like a theatre producer. Their first offering in the role, Replay, was a huge success, earning widespread acclamation, including here, and an unprecedented Brits of Broadway transfer. One side-effect, of course, is that it makes Nicola Wren a very hard act for Kate Kennedy to follow.
Hunch is another play with a solo writer-performer, but apart from that it could not be more different. Replay is a very naturalistic play about the slow recovery from bereavement – this is a superhero story, but not your usual story. In this world, all superheroes help people make decisions. Head and Heart help people take make their decisions with their head and hearth. Genitals helps people think with a more gender-inclusive term for what’s otherwise known as thinking with your dick. Hunch helps you with gut instinct. Real-name Una, in her own life she’s incapable of making the most trivial decisions such as what to order from the menu – until the day she trusts her gut instinct to leave a fast-food joint seconds before the bomb explodes. Now Hunch is summoned to the citizens of Hum to help them make these decisions.
I enjoyed both the story and the premise, but it is an extremely complicated plot to work into a hour-long solo play. Hum is a futuristic metropolis, where fast food is known as Oinks, and Moos and Clucks, and it might have helps to establish that earlier in the story. On top of all of this, there are the power-struggles between the decision-making superheroes, with a key role played by Hack, the only superhero who can reverse wrong decisions. And then there is the extensive inter-personal relationships within Una’s life. All of this comes together to make a great plot, but boy, it is hard work keeping up with the names of fifteen or so characters when it’s just one person telling a story.
I do recommend this, but I also recommend watching this with a clear head. If you’re watching your 20th fringe play in a row, you will probably get lost in the first 15 minutes. However, we are coming to the end of the fringe now so this is a moot point. Hunch has done well enough with reviews that I’m confident Dugout and Kate Kennedy can tour this should they wish. Tours normally pressurise performers to make fringe plays a bit longer and end up dragging the play down to a slow pace. Here, however, I think an extra 15 minutes would be a plus. It won’t be an easy hack to the script, but if a bit more time goes into establishing what the Hum metropolis is and how this world works, I think it could strengthen the play a lot. Anyway, there are two more performances at 5.05 p.m. today and tomorrow, but if you’re going to watch it, do it when you’re able to concentrate. Do that, and it will be rewarding.
Friday 24th August, 8.00 p.m.: All right, we are back in business. I have reviews pending for three plays, but I want some time to mull this over. Reviews will start tomorrow.
Before then, one bit of news from earlier today. This is something that has tied into the debate on fringe affordability, but covers the related but different issues on treatment of venue staff. Or are they volunteers? That, one suspects, is a loophole being used to circumvent employment protections. So far, I’ve not independently corroborated the report from the fair fringe campaign, so I’m going to treat this with caution until I’ve had a chance to read and digest any responses from C Venues and Just the Tonic, but, on the surface, the allegations are concerning.
The issue for payment of venue staff isn’t completely straightforward. In a smaller fringe such as Buxton, it would be impossible to run without volunteers. I’m not sure what the situation is with Underground Venues, but venues such as the Green Man Gallery and the Fringe Committee itself heavily rely on this. Of course, this argument is harder to justify for most Edinburgh Fringe Venues, which are far more commercial operations. There is an argument that if performers are willing to performer for free (or pay to perform) simply for the joy of doing Edinburgh, that principle should apply to venue staff too – certainly there were times when I would loved to have done this if I had the spare time. But there is difference that performers can gain something from doing the Edinburgh Fringe over and above having a good time. That is not the case for venue staff. True, experience in the Edinburgh Fringe venue might help you get a paid job, but the argument that you should work for free in order to get a job is already highly frowned upon. On balance, I don’t think I can justify the volunteer argument for Edinburgh – if someone else can come up with a persuasive argument that the venues can only function on unpaid work, I might change my mind.
But even if I was talked round, there cannot be any justification from gagging your staff expressing grievances over their pay and conditions, nor can it be justifiable to disciplining managers trying to stop unfair arm-twisting of volunteers into overtime. C Venues are alleged to do both. As I said, these are only allegations at the moment, but that fact they have even emerged is worrying. As far as I can tell, C Venues has not yet responded to this, but I think we are owed a response. If C venues or Just the Tonic outright denies the allegations, I will give them the benefit of the doubt until and if I see further against them. But the longer they keep schtum, the less sympathetic I will get.
Ho hum, that wasn’t a cheery thing I wanted to report. Review tomorrow, I hope.
Friday 24th August, 12.15 p.m.: First bit of theatre seen in this visit, and it’s menu 1 from the Bite-Size Breakfast Show. I’m not going to to an extensive review just now because the entire run is sold out (pretty much), but this thing that struck me about this set is – by accident or by design – it’s one of the darkest sets I’ve seen them do. Even the two “comedy” plays in this set had some pretty dark themes below the surface.
Special mention has to go to The Reitrement position, set in a deserted cove where a lifeguard forced to retire from duty on the proper beach goes “freelance”, as he puts it, and a woman meets him – as it transpires, a woman whose life he saved last year. I can’t say too much about a 10-minute play without giving away the whole story, but Thomas Wilshire wrote a beautiful piece and depression, but also the way out of it.
I’m seeing the remainder of Bite-Size tomorrow and Sunday, and I will round it up then, but as well as that, I’ve got time to see some complete unknowns. Will another lucky dip match Vivian’s Music, 1969? Watch this space.
[Correction: an earlier version of this review mistook this for menu 2, and consequently I got the title and menus wrong. That was quite embarrassing. Sorry.]
Thursday 23rd August, 11.15 p.m.: I’ve been spending my first evening back watching comedy, so there won’t be any more reviews until tomorrow at the earliest. Couple of things have caught my eye before then:
There seems to be a row over Edinburgh Fringe’s best joke. Dave’s “joke of the fringe” gave it to Adam Rowe for the quip “Working at the Jobcentre has to be a tense job – knowing that if you get fired, you still have to come in the next day,” at people quickly dug up the joke on social media from 2010. Adam Rowe’s defence is that people can indepednently develop the same jokes, which I’m prepared to accept. Other people are more sceptical about the story still, with Fringepig premeptively calling the award “I wrote that joke ages ago day”.
Have to say, I’ve never bought into the idea of “best joke”. In previous years I read through these lists one one-liners and none of them made me laugh. But that’s not the way the jokes are meant to be heard – they are meant to be part of a whole comedy routine. So I don’t find judging jokes outside of the show they belong it that helpful – and, as such, complaining that someone else made a similar joke before doesn’t mean that much. If it was up to me, I probably wouldn’t bother with these “best joke” awards at all – until then, I’d urge you to pay little or no attention to any gotcha stories of someone telling a joke before.
On a different subject, we have a report back from Lyn Gardner who went to the Devoted and Disgruntled event about the affordability of the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s worth a read – notably, she floats the idea of “peak Edinburgh Fringe”, and more notably, she’s not the only person saying this, with other people anecdotally reporting below-expected sales. At this stage, I would urge you to treat this with caution; observations based on anecdotal evidence have been wrong before (as they were a couple of years ago with incorrect reports of groups doing shorter runs), they could be wrong this time. But she makes one good point: groups come to Edinburgh often hoping to get good reviews, or good audiences, or a tour – but if none of those are guaranteed, a £10,000 budget becomes a much poorer gamble.
It will be worth keeping an eye out for ticket sales to see it an increase in sales keeps up with an increase in shows. But remember: that doesn’t tell us everything. An increase in fringe sales is useless to emerging artists if the extra sales go to established big names. It could take a lot longer to know if peak fringe has been reached. But it seems Edinburgh’s title as king of the fringe festivals – apparently secure after Edinburgh recovered the lead over Brighton after it narrowed in 2016 – might not be settle after all.
As always, we’ll see.
Thursday 23rd August, 5.00 p.m.: And I’m on my way back. Edinburgh Fringe part 2 here I come.
Let’s get the business bit done: if you sent a late review request, you should have had an acknowledgement back by now. If you have not, please get in touch ASAP because that means your request didn’t reach me. Anyone who wants to do a last-minute review request – you’re actually in with a good chance. I’ve had to say no to a higher-than-average number of requests due to scheduling, so I’ve got more gaps in my schedule than normal. Drop me a line if you want to try your luck.
Before then, I have draft two of a play to work on. My work belongs on my other site (if I ever get round to updating it), but for anyone interesting who saw Waiting for Gandalf and thought that was a bit dark – oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Wednesday 22nd August: Now I shall turn my attention back to Cost of Edinburgh. This was a session of open discussion organised by Devoted and Disgruntled over the course of Monday. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get a feel for what was discussed simply by earwigging via website and social media, but there is one interesting session written up already: In the end, isn’t Edfringe really about paying a vast amount of money in the hope of getting a five star review? The discussion was more about review than the cost, but this does make a good point: fringe festivals are often an extremely expensive way of getting some media coverage. I never got any serious media coverage until my original Brighton Fringe, but, Christ, that cost a lot of money. I daren’t even begin to think how much it would have been had I done Edinburgh instead.
The most notable thing so far, however, is Shona McCarthy’s introduction to the event. It’s not surprising she chose to head up this discussion, because she’s been expressing concerns for some time about affordability and sustainability. So far, she has not (as far as I’ve noticed) made any firm proposals for what to do about this, but at some point, she’ll have to. This event, I suspect, is her way of finding out what idea are out there and sounding out which ones have support.
One important thing to be aware of is that the Festival Fringe Society does not have that much power. It can offer leadership, but it cannot impose authority. All the performers and venues operate independently – and it’s right they should – but the price of this is that they cannot be forced to act for the greater good, however great it is. If the Festival Fringe society was to impose rules, it wouldn’t take much for the big four to break away and carry on doing what they want to do. If the Festival Fringe Society can agree a course of action with Edinburgh City Council, that may carry more weight – although it’s not uncommon for people to say the City Council doesn’t care as long as the money comes in. Even if the City Council were on board, they only have a finite amount of power. They could conceivably impose a limit on rents, but without the power to increase the amount of accommodation available, that may not have the effect they intended.
But Shona McCarthy looks serious about this, so the ball’s in her court. At some point in the next few months, surely we will start to hear what she and the Festival Fringe Society. It may not be possible to reverse the effects of growth on the cost of Edinburgh. But even if they can find a way of slowing down the rise in expenses, that will be welcome. That’s probably the last we’ll hear about the cost this fringe – the next time we hear someone, it could be some big news.
Tuesday 21st August: I’m going to give it another day to see what else comes out of the Cost of Edinburgh session. This is an interesting thing to follow though.
Before then, however, I’m going to take a look at a group that isn’t at the Edinburgh this year, but might be next year. Sparkle and Dark were last in action on the fringe circuit in 2015 and 2017 with the wonderful I Am Beast, but they do tend to go very quiet between projects. However, thanks to a casting call, we now have some idea of what’s coming next, and the upcoming play is I Hear the Fire.
Let’s get the shock news out of the way: no puppets this time (probably). This may cause some people to ask if nothing is sacred, but this isn’t a huge change from what Sparkle and Dark have done recently – in their last two plays, the puppetry was only a minor part of the production, and in Killing Roger, some people even questioned whether the old man should have been played by a human instead. Other than that, the music, choreography and subject matter define their plays just as much, and this play looks set to continue the theme of the last two.
The play itself is themed around Jerome, a 15-year-old who doesn’t fit into the expectations of his peers and ends up setting the art classroom on fire. In Sparkle and Dark’s words, “This is Jerome from his perspective”. I get the feeling that Shelley and Louisa aren’t showing all their cards just yet, and we are yet to discover what Jerome’s world is. This is at “stage 1 R&D”, so there’s quite a way to go before we see the final product. but it looks like they’re playing to their strengths. Definitely one I will keep and eye out for.
Monday 20th August: I forgot to mention one notable set of reviews: The Turn of the Screw is having a very good fringe. I won’t be seeing this because I was thwarted by scheduling. but at the moment, there’s two five stars, two fours, one three, and a Highly Recommended. There is some grounds to quibble over whether some review should carry more weight than others, but it’s now looking like this will be joining Northanger Abbey as a Box Tale Soup hit.
Now let’s move on to the thing I put off from yesterday. I’ve been noticing a number of reviews this time round that have been marking shows down for “poverty porn”. Until now, I’ve been broadly sympathetic to this. For reasons I’ve touched upon previously, I think there is a big snobbery problem in the arts. The practice I hate the most is this current wave of “Oh, you poor little thing, it’s not your fault you’re so fat and disgusting and racist, you don’t know any better and Murdoch made you do it,” but that’s a debate for another day. This thing, as far as I’ve understood it, is middle-class writers making lazy generalisations of the working class with blanket depictions of poverty and suffering. That, I agree, needs to be called out. The problem is, this is turning into a moral panic, and possibly strays into culture policing.
I’m not going to name most of the plays I suspect have been on the receiving end of this, because I don’t want plays from small groups to become moral battlegrounds if I can avoid it. However, I am going to use Build A Rocket as an example, because the Stephen Joseph Theatre has enough clout to answer back. The most obvious offender is this two-star review from the Guardian, which derides the play for pandering the the stock teen pregnancy story, but other people have echoed these sentiments outside of reviews, including people whose opinions I respect. Other reviewers are of course entitled to their own opinions – and I admit when I saw the first half of the play I was wondering the same – how can you watch the whole play and miss the point so badly?
Christopher or Paul or Serena are welcome to correct me if I’m wrong here, but surely, if there was any point at all to a story that build up everyday expectation, it’s to knock that same expectation down. Sure, you could have made it so Yasmin is a working-class girl with a good education and a stable family who do everything to support her when faced with an unexpected pregnancy. But that would be a different story. As I said before in my review, Yasmin hits what’s assumed to be rock bottom: a child, a money, no partner, no qualifications, and no help from the family – but she still makes it. You can’t challenge these assumptions if you’re forced to skirt around them the way Mark Fisher seems to want.
If you presented a play whose sole plot thread was poor people having shit lives, I would be on board with the criticisms. There really needs to be some point to a play that depicts the worst cases of poverty, but Build A Rocket does, as do the other plays I considered unfairly maligned. Yes, it is possible that you could watch this play, misunderstand the play and take away the message that the Yasmin from the first half of the play is representative of all working-class teenagers, but only if you are a fucking idiot. I trust the audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Stephen Joseph Theatre to not be fucking idiots.
My worry is that if this practice becomes more commonplace, far from giving a more accurate depiction of the poorer half of Britain, we’ll just end up erasing their stories completely. Yes, it would be great to have more writers from working-class backgrounds and not have to rely so much on middle-class ones, but that’s a big mountain to climb, and in the meantime we have to work with what we’ve got. If writers shy away from stories like this because of knee-jerk cries of “poverty porn”, these stories just won’t be written. And the stereotypes will go unchallenged. I believe this criticisms were made with the best of intentions, but if we’re not careful, they’re only going to make things worse.
Sunday 19th August: Sorry, I know I gave you teaser for something contentious, but I’d been busy all day finishing a play. I’ll save my rant for when I have more energy.
In the meantime, a couple of interesting things from FringeReview has come up. Firstly, there is this article about late reviews and the effect this has on performers. It’s written from the perspective of performers stumbling across reviews written after the fringe and finding something unexpectedly bad, or good, and recognises the nature small blod where there’s no telling when a review might appear. It would be less of an issue if people actually wrote reviews on time and not several months later, of course – which lazy bastards do this [whistles innocently]?
Seriously, though this is good food for though for reviewers as well as performers. People have all sorts of reasons why reviews might take ages to come out, but you can at least bear in mind the effect of someone stumbling across the review on Google months later. Off-hand I can’t think of any special rules for this, but it does add more importance to principles such as trying to say what was good – and when you have to criticise, keep it helpful and constructive.
The other thing of interest is a Devoted and Disgruntles discussion today about the cost of the Edinburgh Fringe. They’re meant to write up these discussions so I’ll have a better look in the next couple of days, but a few points came up on FringeReview’s Twitter feed. Have to say, what I’ve seen so far doesn’t fill me with much hope – quite a lot of talk of what should happen, but not much idea of how to achieve it.
But I’ll wait at see what other info ones out of the discussion. In the meantime, a reminder of my radical solution.
Can I go to bed now?
Saturday 18th August: It’s unusual for me to take so long to get round to this, but I really need to get round to seeing how plays I’ve seen or recommended are getting on with other reviews. To begin with the big disclaimer: in the long run, popularity with audiences is far more important than what reviewers think. However, audience reaction is difficult to measure objectively, but reviews are easier. If a play is performing consistently well or consistently badly in reviews, that’s a fairly reliable sign that the audience will feel the same way.
So the thing that prompted me to get a move on with this is a 4* review from FringeGuru for Year Without Summer. I wouldn’t normally make a big deal out of one review, but I think it’s fair to balance my lukewarm review. This reviewer, Alan Brown, is more of a literary expert than me, and he goes out of his way to praise the historical detail. It is also fair for me to remind you that at the time I was seeing this, the standard of what else I was seeing was exceptional, making it a lot harder to stand out from the crowd. So I will at least recommend this play for anyone who’s familiar with the setting, because it looks like you’ll recognise the real events quite quickly.
I’m not going to give an exhaustive run-down of everything, but some ratings catch my interest. Vivian’s Music, 1969 appears to be having a good fringe for a low-key production, with a 5* review from the list – I can also attest here that everyone I’ve spoken to who’s seen it has gone out of their way to praise it. I’m remaining the cheerleader-in-chief for Proxy though – alongside my 5*-equivalent on their site is a 4* from The List and a 3* from Broadway Baby.
Neverwant, as I said before, is one of the most interesting ones to watch. They’ve so far got a 5* from Business Daily and 4* from British Theatre Guide, and, I gather, a 4* from the Sunday Mail. This looks impressive but I would urge some caution here – Business daily and Sunday Mail are unknown qualtities, and BTG, whilst more mainstream, is one of the most enthusastic reviewers of the Bite Size Breakfast show. It also got “Good Show” from FringeReview, but FringeReview have overhauled their ratings system and I don’t understand it any more. But to go back to the original question – is it enough? Unlike some previous Bite Size experiments, Bill Knowelden’s plays could become a long-term fixture from Bite-Size in Edinbrugh. A long way to go before this catches up with the popularoity of the Breakfast show (which, let’s face it, is a massively high bar to clear), but I’d say this is easily a good enough start to keep going.
One thing I must report for sake of balance is Nina’s Got News. One crumb of comfort is that amongst all the terrible reviews are a couple of 4* ones from Broadway Baby* and Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These are probably too late to turn things round for BBC Debut and won’t be enough to pacify the critics, but it softens the blow slightly and allows those invovled to walk away with a bit more pride.
(*: One small note of caution here: The Broadway Baby review came out quite late – nothing unusual about that normally, but my spies have been telling me that review requests from other publications were declined. I’m stopping short of calling shenanigans simply because I don’t see how they could be playing the system, but it’s an unexplained oddity.)
And the last one of interest is Build a Rocket. Those reviews are mostly good, but there is a caveat here. That, however, is part of the subject for tomorrow’s update.
Friday 17th August: Rounding off the reviews from my first Edinburgh Fringe visit is Kin. Max Dickins came to my attention two years ago with The Trunk, a solo play he performed that was different: a temporary job as a coroner that turned into a quest to bring a human story back to a woman who died alone. Following on from a play the year before about the case of a missing man, I liked the theme he was developing of forgotten people getting the remembrance due. So this play, at first glance, seems to go along with this theme. Two sisters, who have not seen each other for over twenty years, are reunited for the first time by the imminent death of the father that neither of them cared for that much. This set up an interesting premise of the back-story of his life.
In the story, neither daughter cared for their father that much, but the younger sister considers it her duty to be there for him, whilst the older one washes her hands of her whole family and make a living in the financial sector. Inevitably, when they meet, the old tensions flare up again. And then … I’m not sure. Most of the play – set over the next few days as father bids the world “so long” and the funeral is arranged – consists of on-off bickering. A back-story develops, consisting of mediocre marriages and old grievances from teenage years, but nothing really grabbed my attention to make me think “I wonder what happens next”. The most interesting twist in the story is what happens to the more ambitious sister’s career whilst she’s out of the office – but that came out of the blue, with little to hint it was coming, and has little bearing on the rest of the story. Again, I found myself wanting something extra to drive it forwards.
This has a four-star review from The List – I did read this to see I’d missed anything, and whilst I didn’t pick up anything new, it’s fair to acknowledge someone else has seen something I didn’t. It’s not that I particularly disliked anything about the play – it was more a mild disappointment that the elements of The Trunk that stood out and made that play memorable here don’t seem to feature here. The acting and overall production were decent though, so if you want to catch this it’s to 4 p.m. at Underbelly Cowgate.
Thursday 16th August: I’ve been clearing the reviews from my Edinbrugh Fringe part 1 quite leisurely, but I’m down to the last two now. Time for A Year Without Summer, something that I’ve been curious about for a couple of years. Literature buffs will know that 1816 is notable for two things: firstly, there was a volcanic winter that dropped temperatures all over the world (if we all die of global warming, at least we’ll get some sunbathing in first); and secondly, this is thought to be the year that Mary Shelley had the idea for Frankenstein.
This production has had a bumpy ride – the Brighton run had to be cancelled after one cast member pulled out, but Andrew Allen held his nerve, assembled a new cast, and went ahead with the Edinburgh one. The play is situated in a Bohemian retreat at Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, but having disgraced themselves in the prudish eyes of polite society, are staying with respective lovers Claire and Mary Clairmont. Originally performed with a cast of five, it’s now a cast of three (with Percy perpetually indisposed in bed), which I think suits be play better as a more claustrophobic and intimate setting. The production flows smoothly and is acted well, with no sign of the woes it faced back in May.
There’s a lot of information in this play – clearly Allen did his homework here and studies a lot of the characters and the fateful meet-up. However there feels like there’s something missing from the play, and quite infuriatingly, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. But something extra is needed to maintain interest on top of the historical information and characterisation. The year without summer only gets an incidental mention in the script, as does the seedling of an idea for the future Mary Shelley’s future masterpiece. Could more have been made of one of these?
It’s certainly an interesting play to watch though, and certainly interesting to see a rare crossover from reviewer to artist, and also good to see a play bounce back after Brighton setback. This is running at Sweet Grassmarket at 5.30 for the rest of the festival.
Wednesday 15th August: As promised, here’s my new blog post. Hopefully a controversial one:
The TL;DR version:
- Fringe theatre is growing across the board.
- Most of the arts industry and arts media see Edinburgh Fringe as the place to go.
- As a result, more people are coming to Edinburgh than the city has capacity for, and as always happens when demand outstrips supply, costs skyrocket.
- The only solution way to balance supply and demand is to start giving places other than the Edinburgh Fringe the same amount of recognition so that people don’t feel the need to do “Edinburgh or bust”.
This stance involves slaying a sacred cow or two, but there’s no less radical solution.
But if you want to see the Monty Python reference, you’ll have to read the article.
Tuesday 14th 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 actually 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 13th 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 12th 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 11th 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 10th 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 9th 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 8th 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 7th 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 7th 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.