After the unpredictable fringe of 2017, when two key performance spaces were lost to a building development but a new pop-up venue came along, 2018 looked a lot more like a “no change” fringe. Underground Venues was still in its new home of the new clubhouse, Rotunda returned to the Pavilion Gardens, and the Green Man Gallery and United Reformed Church also carried out quite much as before. And the numbers for the fringe, and each of the venues, also held generally steady.
However, the steady figures are a little deceptive, because there’s been quite a bit of change within these figures. The most notable change was the Rotunda: last year, the programme was dominated by seven shows produced by Grist to the Mill; this year, with application to the Rotunda open much earlier, they had a considerably more diverse programme. Also – and there must a been a few sighs of relief – the Rotunda avoided a repeat of the spate of cancellations that marred an otherwise successful inaugural year. Meanwhile, if my unscientific assessment of their programme is correct, Underground Venues had a wider range of entry-level acts this year, possibly as a result of some fringe-wide rebalancing between the two big venues. They also seemed to have fixed last year’s problem of the fringe club bar never being open, with a drinks for tickets promotion seeming to have worked well. (Also, the Arts Centre has now managed to get the bar opened rather than have people queuing on the street.)
On the whole, however, 2018 has broadly consolidated the changes of 2017, with the unexpected rise in 2017 now looking to be permanent rather than an outlying year. But Buxton may not be settling down just yet – the last I heard, Underground Venues is still seeking another space to compensate for the net loss of one last year, and that could potentially increase the numbers further. Meanwhile, there’s talk of the Green Man Gallery taking on paid staff – at the moment, capacity there is seemingly constrained by volunteer time rather than availability of rooms, but if you’re paying someone who effectively becomes a full-time venue manager in July and and anything is possible.
And, to complicate things further, up the A6 the Greater Manchester Fringe is starting to become a notable event, currently clocking up 120 events against Buxton’s 180. It’s possible they might overtake Buxton. My hunch is that Buxton has nothing to fear from Greater Manchester and they will keep going whatever happens with them, but that could still have an unknown effect. 2019 will be another interesting year for Buxton.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We haven’t looked at what I saw in 2018 yet. This time I had a pretty intensive 72-hour visit, and here what I crammed in.
Pick of the fringe:
Some fringes are tougher choices than others, but this time, out of all the plays I saw, there were an obvious four who stood out – and, for a change, there;s a big spread over different venues. In no order other than the order I saw in them, they are:
I saw this a couple of years ago at Alphabetti Theatre, but I’d forgotten just how good it was. The premise of the play itself is simple enough – a new development of eight houses is built on the site of an old one, and from that there are eight stories, mostly horror stories in the style of Hammer House. Expect grisly deaths at the hands of megalomaniac computers, murderous dollies, and smug middle-class professionals who are delivered the wrong groceries, in homages ranging from Child’s Play to The Wicker Man. Normally in verse.
But the thing that makes the play stand out isn’t the story but the ways its told. True to Handheld Arts’ name, most of the play is told through an overhead projector, with moving acetates forming scene after scene. This format is not unique to Gated Community, I’ve seen other performing also use this style, but Handheld Arts does it so much better. In a lesser production, the format would run stale – here, they pull every trick in the book to vary what you see. Sometimes objects or real hands are mixed into the picture, sometimes acting comes into play, and even when it’s just the acetates, this varies hugely, from double-vision when a hapless burglar is knocked out, to red and blue dots on a house map stored on aforementioned megalomanic computer PAL-9000. To really appreciate what’s involved, though, you need to sit on the front row and see the massive stack to slides to go through. It’s staggeringly complicated operation – and, unlike a normal play, even a minor error here could spell disaster – but they get through it with remarkable slickness.
If there’s one shortcoming of this format, it’s that there’s not much time for eight stories in an hour. By the time any of the stories get interesting, it’s already over and on to the next one. Not that I think it should be changed at this stage – having developed it is this far, it would be a shame to drop some stories to let others grow. So here is a challenge I offer Handheld Arts. At some point there may be a follow-up. This, I think, would be a good opportunity to get more adventurous with the stories, maybe three or four longer ones. It won’t be easy – the stories will have to keep attention in their own right, you won’t be able to fall back on a new story in a new style every seven minutes – but that could be great it it comes off.
In the meantime, however, Gated Community is highly worth seeing as something different from anything else you’ll see. This has been touring sporadically for the last four years, and it the time of writing it’s unclear if anything else is planned, but if you find this is coming your way, definitely see it.
There’s a number of youth groups that are regulars at Buxton, but Shadow Syndicate have earned a reputation at the top of the pile. Most years, they bring a self-written play to Buxton; with the scripts themselves, some stories are better than others, but what was consistently excellent was the production values, that were easily up there with fully professional adult groups. As for the youth theatre, the awards and nominations speak for themselves.
This year, however, the origin of their play is a bit more complicated. This started off as a collaboration between Shadow Syndicate and National Theatre Connections. The script has shot to popularity since then, with all sorts of performances going on, but this production is Shadow Syndicate taking on the play single-handedly. It is set in a classroom just after the news that one of their number, Jamal, has been detained by the Police on suspicion of radicalisation. We never learn whether or not Jamal actually is an extremist, but if he is, he’s not the only one. The whole class is a microcosm of wider society, with all its suspicions and infighting. One kid takes the side of his father, a Policeman whose life is on the line against real extremists, and from that factions emerge of hawks, moderates and apologists. Soon finding herself in the spotlight, however, is the only other Muslim in the class, and worse for her, the moderates are losing and the hawks are winning.
Even if we don’t credit Shadow Syndicate with the writing or the development of the original products, and instead judge this as a revival, they do not disappoint. The stage in the Arts Centre is filled with the school desks of a classroom, but it’s only as the play gets going that you appreciate how complicate the directing must have been, with rapid movement required as words escalate into violence. But they do it, making it look so natural whilst all the time paying attention to the sightlines. The only reservation I had about the play (script rather than performance – so minor spoiler alert) was the ending. Much as I’d like to to believe that the least visible kid in the class would suddenly talk sense and diffuse the situation, I find it hard to believe anyone would listen once things had escalated that badly, but, hey, I’m a grumpy cynic, it’s a nice ending if you can put your cynicism aside. So another hit for Shadow Syndicate, who status as youth theatre champions remains undisputed.
Crossing the Line Trilogy
This, however, was the unexpected gem of the fringe. Originally a short monologue serving to complete a double bill at last year’s Buxton Fringe, it is now a play in its own right with two companion monologues to complement the original one, all performed by Joanna Lavelle. The origin begins with a story of a woman whose life change one morning when, out of the blue, Police come to the house to arrest her husband. The first thing they ask for is his laptop, which he gives, almost as if he was expecting it. Nothing said as this point as to why the Police want it, but long before she hears what it was, she knows. For the next half hour, it is a story on what effect this has on her family. Her husband, for his efforts, does seem ashamed on what he’s brought on his family. Perhaps we’d like to hear what he’s got to say for himself. But there is a reason why he can’t.
After the wife’s story comes the story of the police officer in charge of the investigation – mostly she does her job by the book, but there are a couple of occasions where she may has crossed a line herself. Writer Michael Sheath based these stories on real cases he heard of in his job. One common pitfall of plays that rely on this kind of research is the trap to pack every fact of interest into the script to the point where is ceases to function as a story, but here, the two go together – based on my work with Mankind, I can certify that everything I heard here was all too believable, but it remains first and foremost a story about the human side of who it affects and how.
The third tale is a little different from the first two – the two predecessors went through the same sequence of events from two different players – but this one is very disjointed, because it’s the story of the mother of one of the victims amongst the hundreds or thousands of images seen. Normally I would say that this story is too disjointed from the other stories to belong in a trilogy – here, however, it’s precisely the point. Every impersonal image viewed on someone’s screen ended up there somehow, and this fills in the picture of what happened at the other end.
If there’s one thing that’s missing, we didn’t hear enough about why the husband did this. If it was up to me, I would have included this as a fourth story – since he can’t tell his tale for one obvious reasons, perhaps it could be pieced together from a social worker. There is a reason why I think we need to know why. There are all sort so of reason why people look at this stuff. At one end of the scale, there are the scumbags who knew what they were doing, didn’t care who it harmed, and whose remorse solely extends to feeling sorry for themselves when they got caught. At the other end, there are the people who were victims themselves whose sole motives were trying to make sense of what happened to them. I get the impression from the post-show discussion that Michael Sheath envisaged this particular offender to be closer to the former end of the scale, but either way, I would like to have known. But with or without this, there’s plenty to think about in this play – and as a play shown in the Palace Hotel, this is a prime reason why you shouldn’t write off the plays in the minor venues.
And finally, a play in the Green Man Gallery, and my first time in their upstairs room. This was an interesting visit, because if the Green Man Gallery is serious about stepping up their fringe activities next year, this may be actually a better choice than the space downstairs. The downstairs space, popular though it may be, is limited by the fact it has to double up as their main gallery space during the day. The room upstairs is also use as a gallery during the day – but it is conceivable that you install some blackout curtains that you could open during the day to be a gallery, and close at night to be a fringe venue.
Or they may choose to keep the room how it is and continue to work as a storytelling space. That is how Jen McGregor’s Old Bones works in this venue as it stands. I confess I’m torn here. On the other hand, with the right sound and lighting it could make it a great piece of solo theatre – on the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of a young man inviting the audience to a game of dice are going on to tell his story about how this came to be. James Napier is older than he looks, for he has two gifts: firstly, he always wins any game of dice or cards; and secondly, following such a game of dice with the devil, he will live forever. Legends say that the devil will always find a way to catch you out and twist the bargain to suit himself, but there are no catches here, if you don’t count giving him exactly what he asked for as a catch. But it is a catch. Rarely does the phrase “be careful what you wish for” ring so true.
I personally would have put another chapter in this story. Performer Daniel Hird tells a great story of a descent into darkness and despair, where both his gifts turn into curses, and the triumph over death slowly turns into the despair of never having anyone close to you; but I’m old school when it comes to deals with the devil and I can’t help thinking the devil would find ways of further kicking you when you’re down before he’s done with you.
But, extra chapter or not, the ending that the play builds up to is superb. I will refrain from giving details of this because I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I think I can tell you that it’s a repeat of the dice game at the beginning – only we now know it’s a game of dice he’s desperate to lose. With Buxton Fringe slowly shifting towards bigger names in bigger venues, plays like Old Bones are one of the best reason why there’s still plenty to offer on the fringes. No upcoming shows listed at the moment but hints that there are plans for this, this deserves a much bigger tour.
[Correction: the article originally credited Daniel Hird as the writer instead of Jen McGregor.]
|Other reviews of pick of the fringe:|
|Buxton Fringe:||Fringe Guru:|
(+ nomination – theatre production)
(+ winner, youth production; winner + 2 nominations, youth actor)
|Crossing the Line Trilogy||Review|
I’ve decided to get stricter on honourable mentions than I have been before. Previously, I’ve treated this as a second tier below Pick of the Fringe. Now I’m going to insist on plays in this category have something that leaps out at me. They could be innovative, or distinctive in some way, or simply someone who I thought has done well for a beginner, but fully-professional groups who produce something that’s only average are less likely to be picked out.
Antigone na h’Éireann
Aulos Productions are highly-regarded Buxton Fringe regulars, knows for two things: classic plays such as Shakespeare and Greek tragdies; and modern plays on contemporary themes including the very popular First Class from 2014. This, however, is a more ambitious project to bring the two together: a retelling of the famous Greek tragedy set in a future Northern Ireland. It’s billed as a future in Brexit Britain, but the hard border is only incidental to the story – the real story is that sectarian rivalries are flared out again, pitting unionists against nationalist, extremists against moderates, and shutting peoples in caves is replaced with the disappeared: people who bodies are hidden so their families never get closure.
This play, I gather, got a split reception, and it can be argued this play got a bit too ambitious for its own good. It is conceivable that you could do a straight transplant, beginnings with a Protestant versus Catholic battle where brother fights brother and working from there, but instead Aulos opts to bring in new plot threads completely – or at least not anything I’d recognise from the original. One completely new thread of the story is a love interest for Izzy/Ismene, whose true loyalties are only revealed later in the story. But the problem with all these new threads is that it comes at the expense of the old ones. Apart from the structure of Annie/Antigone’s family, and the fact she ends up alone in a cave, I struggle to work out what this is meant to have in common with the Sophocles tale. As such, I wonder whether Aulos would have been better off forgetting about imitating a Greek legend altogether and just focus on a political thriller.
But Aulos make it into the Honourable Mention for the Colm. If he was meant to be based on King Creon, I didn’t get the connection, but this doesn’t matter because he is a great character in his own right: a Sinn Fein MLA with a “colourful” past. I really liked the conflict of a man, on the one hand trying to hold together a faltering peace, and on the other hand being drawn back to his old self. And Aulos’s staging of the terrorist killings using masks was one of the most striking bits of the play. Antigone na h’Éireann might not quite work to its original intention of combining an ancient myth with a modern conflict, but as a modern thriller is still has a lot to remember it for.
|Other reviews of honourable mention:|
|Buxton Fringe:||Fringe Guru:|
|Antigone na h’Éireann||Review(+ nomination, Actor – female)
There were other other plays I saw that I’m writing reviews for. Usual reminder: lust because it’s not in either of the first two groups doesn’t mean I didn’t like it – if I have nothing positive to say, I normally don’t write a review at all. Finishing of the list is:
One of the biggest hits last year at the Rotunda was Call Mr. Robeson, a solo play about the fascinating life of Paul Robeson, featuring many of his greatest songs sung on stage. This format may perhaps have been the inspiration for this play from Alma Bond. Performed by Laurene Hope, this covers the troubled life of Maria Callas. In public, she was regarded as one of the greatest classical singers on the twentieth centure; in private, her life was a lot less happy, pressurised into hasty weight loss, ignoring near-sightedness that left her almost blind on stage, and an unhappy affair with a man who it seems used her.
The adaptation does bring up a lot of interesting facts about her story, but I wasn’t convinced by the format used. The play is mostly performed as a biography told in first person, with Callas’s most famous songs throughout the production. Now, to be fair, Call Mr. Robeson was also to a large extent a biography told in person, but this play got away with it because the focus of the story was his showdowns with racial segregationists and McCarthyites. Maria Callas’s story, however, is a lot more of a story of her as a person. In a talk at the end of the play, Laurene Hope talked about her mental health, and it’s quite right that this should be the focus of the play; but to make the most of this you really need to get the emotion into the story. There are different ways you can do this, but I just felt this had to be something more than just a biography.
One other minor but annoying issue was some lack of attention to detail on the set. Little things such as a watermark visible on a photo of Maria Callas aren’t big deals on their own, but put together they add up, and at Buxton Fringe level these things get noticed. Where this play was strongest, however, was the scenes of dialogue with the various men in her life – and the callous way she was discarded by probable slimeball Aristotle Onassis was one of the most moving parts of the play. Yes, there is work to be done here – but the structure of the play is sound, and some more strategically deployed emotion could work wonders for the discussion the play wants to start.
Last year The Ladder came to Buxton Fringe as a solo play. Helen Rutter played a woman with who spends a day stuck up a ladder after getting her finger trapped. During this time, she contemplates who she is and where she is in life. That was a successful production, earning her a nomination for Best Actress. So now she’s back with a new two-hander version with husband (both story and real life) Rob Rouse, where they both contemplate and discuss things they should have talked about a long time ago.
Unfortunately – and I’m going to have to be a party-pooper seeing as this has been otherwise well received – there is one problem with the play (this version at least) that I just could not get round. Throughout the play, I was just thinking “Why doesn’t someone just call 999?” Obviously you can’t do that, otherwise the play will be over in 10 minutes, but the reasons to put off calling the fire brigade didn’t ring true. Instead, we have husband trying a DIY rescue, to the point of going round to a neighbour’s house for better tools, even though wife has made it clear one wrong move could amputate her finger. Under normal circumstances I could believe a man would obsess over a DIY solution over a more reliable one, but would he be callous enough to gamble his wife’s finger just to prove a point? I suppose it could have worked if more had been made of the wife’s relcutance for the fire brigade to see her in her grubby pyjamas, but if that was meant to be a reason to stall calling for help, it didn’t come across. There are times when you can take liberties with these sorts of decision, but not for a play that depends so strongly on the believability of the characters.
And it is a pity, because this overshadows what would otherwise have been an empathetic look at a couple working out their differences. The minor bickering that could be resolves if only they talked to each other about these issues resonated with many people, and the sequence at the end where husband tends to his wife from the indignity of peeing on the ladder was nice. It does frustrate me when easily-fixable problems stand between me and enjoyment of a play, but it should be remembered that it’s easily fixable. A little more work to make a key plot point more believable would, I believe, unlock a lot of messages that this play is ready to give.
|Buxton Fringe:||Fringe Guru:|
(+ nomination, theatre)
Not quite theatre
Rumours of completion of this article are somewhat overstated – I’m not quite done, I still have three comedy acts to review. There is a big overlap between comedy and theatre, and sometimes entries listed under comedy go into pick of the fringe if I count them as a play. This time, however, all three are firmly in the comedy camp.
Reminder of my caveat for comedy reviews: I don’t watch a lot of comedy, therefore I don’t have a lot to compare these shows to. An enthusiastic review from me might get a more lukewarm response from someone who’s seen lots of shows like this before. That established let’s run through them quickly.
This show is very much a fun piece and little more, but it’s a piece that depends heavily on showmanship, and Mike Raffone makes a great showman. Brain Rinse is billed as character comedy, first of all coming on as the official Brain Rinse ninja, inviting everyone to take part and discover their “inner ninja”, before disappearing, and then reappearing as an army officer for training, you know, the one that shouts at you a lot which apparently is how all army training works.
I am trying to explain this as if this has a plot, but it’s far too silly to try to apply a plot to this. No, what makes this what it is is that the audience is just as much part of the show as Mike Raffone is – indeed, it looks like one big draw to the show was a re-creation of a synchronised swimming scene at a Fringe at Five. Do be aware that audience participation is pretty much compulsory for this one (well, this is a way to exempt yourself from audience participation, but there’s a catch), but it’s all done in good humour and he doesn’t set out to embarass anyone. This is a hard one to rate – even if my less familiar territory of comedy – simply because I’ve never seen anything like it, but that’s pretty much its appeal: few people will see anything like this one.
Out of the three comedy shows I saw, this was the most polished show, now in its second year of touring. It is also, arguably, the most skilfully accomplished. This show is inspired by the probe sent out into space in the 1970s. As usual, I must remind readers that this is not to be confused with the 1950s probe that had a picture of a man and a lady with no clothes on; the progressions over twenty years had ruled out exposing society to such smut – think of the alien children. Apart from that, the choice of Carl Sagan’s team of which sounds, pictures and music to send into space, possibly to be read by alien civilisation, is a subject that has fascinated people ever since.
This show opens with Gemma Arrowsmith playing an alien who’s received and studied such a disc. Luckily for our planet, this alien species has not flipped out over some geezers staring at them through a telescope and ordered an invasion, and instead she gives a talk one what we’ve learned from this fascinating newly-discovered civilisation. As we are talked through the different stages in the live of these earthlings, we then switch to various related character comedy sketches, such as a teenage girl deciding she wants to be a online harasser when she grows up, and the mass shooting forecast for the week (which I think is a sketch but could just be a verbatim re-enactment). And mixed in with this, Gemma as herself talking about some interesting facts of the Voyager probe, from the sublime to the absurd, with the absurd often down to politics; apart from averting delicate alien eyes from the sight of a penis, there was a strange refusal to allow The Beatles because apparently EMI owns their IPR in outer space.
Any of these three themes could great a great show in its own right – but can you mix all three into one show and still make it work? The answer, it turns out, is yes. Arrowsmith switches between them easily and the disparate themes all come together into a single performance. When a show he already toured this successfully there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said already, but it’s proved it’s worth, and I can confirm this is a successful show for a reason.
An Audience with Yasmine Day
And last of all, a show which might not be the most polished of the three but could have the most to offer in the long run. Buxton was the first ever performance of Jay Bennett’s alter ego. Normally I advise people to practice their shows back home and get it right for the fringe, but there’s an interesting reason for doing the opposite here – she specifically wanted to try it out away from home first to see how it goes without local enthusiasm clouding the picture.
Anyway, Yasmine Day is an 80s hit sensation, a superstar – she says so herself. She has stories about herself and all the celebrities – you name it, she’s got a story. Although when we get to hear about her and Liza Minelli, it turns out to be that her mate once sold Liza Minelli posters on the market stall. The rest of the performance is about as painful. Not the singing – Jay Bennett is a good singer – but the ridiculous hammed up actions that Yasmine thinks makes a perfect power ballad, the overblown costume changes, including (as a result of a misinterpretation of a song) a ghost costume, and her latest tour turning out to be various sparsely-attended backrooms of pubs. If this sounds far-fetched, I am assured that most of this is based on real event, including singing “Eternal Flame” with just the vowels.
I can recommend this as a fun evening’s entertainment but – and this is an important but – I think this has an opportunity to be more than that. What we don’t hear much of is how Yasmin Day came to live the lonely life of pub gigs that no-one’s really interested in. Quite late on the real Yasmin slips through and bemoans how her band left her, but I think this could be explored a lot further. The show I have in mind that nailed this was the original Samantha Mann show, where a middle aged spinster poet give away her life story whilst whittering away. I’m not saying this model should be copied – indeed, Samantha Mann barely got round to any poetry, unlike this show where the songs are an integral part of it – but there’s a lot to be said for subtext behind the comedy. As it stands, An Evening With Yasmin Day is current an enjoyable comedy set – but with the right treatment it could be outstanding.
|Other reviews of “not quite theatre”:|
|Buxton Fringe:||Fringe Guru:|
(+ nomination, comedy event)
|An Audience with Yasmine Day||Review
(+ nomination, comedy event)
Show I didn’t see
And finally, a quick look at all the plays in my What’s Worth Watching list that I didn’t get round to see which – in a festival where most of them run for 2-3 days – is most of them. Obviously disclaimer is that consensus is always more reliable than individual reviews – as there are only two review outlets at Buxton, you can’t establish consensus from reviews alone, and therefore the reviews should be given the usual caution you’d give to one person’s opinion. As always, I’ve summed up reviews rather than try to apply a narrative to this, but if you want to know in any detail what other people thought of them, you should look past any star ratings and read the actual reviews.
|Reviews of shows I didn’t see:|
|Buxton Fringe:||Fringe Guru:|
|The Unknown Soldier||Review||(5* from Edinburgh Fringe 2015)|
|Samantha Mann: Behind the Agony||Review
(+ nomination, comedy event)
|A Curse of Saints||Review||★★★★|
(+ winner, actor – male)
|The Shape of Things||Review||★★★|
|I let a Six Year Old write my show||Review|
|Disgusting songs for revolting children||Review
(+ nomination – for families)
There’s no major surprises amongst these. Long-standing fringe favourites Sudden Impulse and Off-Off-Off-Broadway have both done well. One review of particular interest is Trapped. Although this followed in the footsteps of Butterfly Theatre with a performance in Poole’s Cavern, that’s all Experiential Theatre has in common with its predecessor – the performance was a very heavily dance- and physical theatre-based, and it seems that reaction to this is heavily dependent on how easily you take to a very different kind on piece.
The most interesting reviews, though, were for the latest Samantha Mann show, behind the agony. I get the impression from the review that this was derivative of the previous agony aunt show rather than a full sequel – but that would be a good thing, because this took the opportunities of the previous agony aunt show and integrated it more fully into the character created in the wonderful original story. Anyway, Richard Stamp’s review cover this better than I do, on account that he got to see it.
And that concludes Buxton Fringe for another year. But just when you thought things were settling down after a couple of unpredictable years, the news broke at the time of writing this that next year’s Buxton Fringe will be extended to three weeks. Next year’s coverage will be interesting once more.