Okay, here we go. Let’s round up the big one. After a busy spring and summer with Brighton and Buxton Fringes, Edinburgh does become a bit of an endurance test, but I can think of few better ways of pushing your stamina to the limit. This year, I managed 27 shows over six days, with thoughts on most of them dotted over my live coverage with what I thought at the time. Now it’s time to get this into some sort of order.
Edinburgh Fringe as a whole was dominated with talk of “peak fringe”. The flatline in 2016 turned out to be a blip, and now the 2018 fringe is bigger than ever – and not everybody’s happy about that. Top of the list of complaints was the over-subscribed demand on venues and especially the accommodation rendering the fringe unaffordable for many, and indeed there was a event to discuss this very issue. A secondary issue was the way that fringe workers were treated, with some serious allegations made about the behaviour of some venues that – so far, apparently – the venues in question have not denied.
At some point, I will write my thoughts on what I think should be done about employment rights at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve already said the reform I would make to bring down costs: stop obsessing over Edinburgh to the exclusion of all the other fringes. That is unlikely to be the solution favoured by the Festival Fringe Society – but they have to say something, having already backed the cause. At the moment, the ball is in their court. It will be very interesting when they finally say what they propose to do.
But enough of that. We’ve got a lot of reviews to get through, so let’s get started.
Pick of the Fringe:
As always, in recent Edinburgh Fringes – as I’ve got better at finding the good stuff – I’ve had to get pickier over what goes in this top tier. Things that might have made it into pick of the fringe in other festivals or previous years might not make it now. At some point, it looked like I might raise the bar even higher, after an exceptional start over my first 24 hours. But in the end, there were eight that I could pick out as a cut above the rest.
Apologies for anyone who finds these familiar – in a lot of cases, I have re-used the text from my live coverage reviews, and only made changes where I needed to tidy up the review, or where I now have something new to say. With that in mind, let’s get started with two truly outstanding pieces:
Vivian’s Music, 1969
Well, what do you know? Each fringe, I aim to see a few “lucky dip” productions – those are shows I’ve never heard of by performers who I’ve never heard of, and in the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe, I want to give some of these shows a chance. They vary from good to awful, but in general, the absolute best plays I see are from groups I’ve previously heard of who build on the good expectations I had from previous work. But not this time. The only reason I saw Good Works Productions’ play is because I had a tight gap in which to fit in a play, I didn’t have any time to go further than Sweet Grassmarket, and this was the only one that fit in that window, and what do you know – 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 was alive and well. The incident that set the riots off was the shooting of a 14-year-old teenager by the Police, and this play sets to ask why. Not what made one man pull the trigger – no-one seems to know the answer to that – but why the world in which Vivian lived could cause something like that to happen. Little is knows about the real Vivian either, so a fictional story is made for her, but if there’s on message that Monica Bauer gives, it isn’t “racism is bad” – that goes without saying – but “it’s complicated”.
The complex world of 1960s America is depicted the most in Luigi’s story. Luigi is Vivian’s father, but he doesn’t know this yet. Most of the time, he’s getting by, moving from job to job. He is also a master bullshitter, although that’s a skill he’s largely learnt through necessity. Used to a world where white people and black people distrust each other, with people like him losing out the most, he does his best to work this bad situation to his advantage with the odd porkie. But it’s not as simple as a binary divide between two races. Luigi is uneasy about the rise of the Black Panthers and the esclation of racial feuds, whilst the white couple he blags a job with are Poles, whom he discovers are – to use his own words – “the black people of the white people”.
But the intelligent way this world is portrayed is match by the humanity of it. The greatest tragedy us that the Vivian of this play is the archetypal innocent. She doesn’t care for the conflict between Police brutality one one side and Black Panthers on the other – she’s just a fourteen-year-old kid who wants to enjoy life like any ordinary teenager. She is only drawn into this by her boyfriend Duwayne, supposedly a Black Panther firebrand, but when the going gets tough we learn that he, too, is just another scared kid out of his depth. The only thing that transcends all racial barriers is music. When Vivian collects her beloved records, be it the Beatles or jazz, she doesn’t care who performs her favourite tunes. When Luigi gives drum lessons or forms his bands, no-one cares which tribe they’re meant to belong to. The music might have been the thing that brought everyone together. But it can’t be. Not in this story.
One thing that is distinctive about this production is that this is the Edinburgh Fringe at its best. Although it is open to everyone, to be acclaimed as one of the greatest shows on the fringe, you normally need to be programmed into the big four, or already be on the radar in some major arts publications, or have some major backing behind you. Not here. Vivian’s Music started off as an obscure entry in a second-tier venue, and on the night I was there near the start of the fringe, there was an audience of eight. But already, amongst the few people who saw it, I heard people raving about it, and audience went up and up and up. By the time the five-star reviews came in, the play was already selling out solidly. It’s rare for word of mouth to play such a definitive role in the success of a play, but this couldn’t be a better play for this to happen to.
It has been said elsewhere that this play will be career-changing for all the people involved. I don’t know enough about theatre careers to say whether this will be the case – but it could well be right. The script is superb, both characters are very convincing, and both actors capture the characters perfectly. It comes to 59E59 theatres in New York in November, and if it repeats the success in Edinburgh – which I think it will – I can seriously see this play being up with the literary greats.
And what do you know? Within the first 24 hours of my Edinburgh Fringe, it happens a second time. This time, it was a performer who I’ve see before, but still …
Caroline Burns-Cooke gained a lot of respect from reviewers, myself included, with a previous solo play And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet about the Kerry Babies scandal in Ireland. Her follow-up plays to all the strengths she showed herself to be capable of, but adds to this with a new dark subject of Munchauesen’s Syndrome by proxy. Burns-Cooke’s again plays multiple 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. A fear about her child stopping 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 and get the treatment she wants to get.
But is it entirely Dee Dee’s fault? The account of the neighbour suggests that maybe the rest of the worlds had a proxy syndrome of sorts; all clubbing together to help the sick child to feel good about themselves – so good, perhaps, that no-one would ask 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 is an unreliable narrator who 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 did wonder how the story would end; the publicity vaguely hinted that a saviour comes along to rescue Gypsy – something I was sceptical over this as it’s an overused plot resolution. But Burns-Cooke was holding something back, and Gypsy’s saviour is not all he first seems. In 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. There are plenty of plays that tell you why bad things are bad, but few that try to understand what makes people do this. Caroline Burns-Cooke has a speciality in doing this without downplaying the effect, and this makes Proxy a must-see.
Build a Rocket
In what I believe is a first for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, they took a play to Edinburgh as part of their summer season. 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.
On the whole, this was a deserved success at Edinburgh, so it came as a pity that a minority of reviews criticised the play for “poverty porn”, unfairly in my opinion. It is true that the first half of the play does play heavily to a stock teen pregnancy, but surely the point of the play was to build up the stereotype and then tear it down, rising up again when other writers would have ended the story at rock bottom. Sure, you could have written a script where Yasmin is a working-class girl with a good education and a stable family who do everything to support her, but that would be a different story. My worry is that if this knee-jerk condemnation of negative working-class portrayals persists (this wasn’t the only play that got this unfair treatment), the the stories won’t be written and the stereotypes will go unchallenged.
But we are here to review the play and not the reviewers. 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.
The Fetch Wilson
This is a simple but effective solo play from Irish group The Corps Ensemble, that finely encapslates the classic tale of straying from the straight and narrow into a netherworld.
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.
Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Bite-size are a perennial feature in my list. I am wary about having favourites on this blog and giving places on pick of the fringe out of favouritism, but this group are the masters of the 10-minute play format. I’ve seen other places do short plays – to be fair, a lot of these are development opportunities where you can’t make a direct comparison – but so far, no-one has come anywhere near.
As always: Bite Size run a cycle of three sets of five plays over the mornings. I don’t expect everyone to like every play – there’s normally one each year that I don’t get – but there’s always another one coming is the odd one doesn’t work out for you. My highlights this time were:
- 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, 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. Notably – is is in the Bite-Size cast. Long-time Bite-Sizer Bill Knowelden has contributed a good number of plays now, but this may be a game-changer. 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.
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 how varied her writing could be. 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. TWith 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.
House of Edgar
Another gap-filler, again chosen purely as a gap-filler in my schedule, but this time it’s a musical 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 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 that 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.
However, 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 for the cast to pick up, and they 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.
Is this best suited to the fringe environment where running time is constrained? Quite often I see adaptations squeezed into an hour, where I feel that an extra 20 minutes would have made the plot easier for a newcomer to follow. I wonder whether that would have helped here, although without an in-depth knowledge of Poe and his tales, I don’t know the answer to that. 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.
The last pick of the fringe was a safe bet, but a safe bet done well. Performed at the Bedlam Theatre by Edinburgh University Theatre Company. Both the play and its author Ella Hickson 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.* 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.
(* Actually, in hindsight, inauguration day 2009 was a good point to end the story, but I don’t need reminding what happened next.)
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. This play did not disappoint, and the EUTC today could not have done a more fitting homage to the EUTC of 2008.
And one from the Vault …
For newbies to my roundup, I have a rule that anything I’ve seen in the past year that is showing at Edinburgh can go into Pick of the Fringe. This is because I don’t have time to watch things I’ve already seen, however much I loved it and want to see it again. So in order that plays I see at Vault, Brighton and Buxton stand a fair chance against plays I see at Edinburgh, they are eligible provided they are in the Fringe programme and they meet the higher standards of Edinburgh. However, in spite of a strong line-up at Brighton and Edinburgh, none of these would-be-picks came to Edinburgh.
But I can include Maggie Thatcher, Queen of Soho, which I finally saw at the Vault Festival after hearing about it for so many years. In case you haven’t heard, this is in the world where Margaret Thatcher gave a last-minute speech against section 28 and then began a career as a hostess in a gay nightclub. You can read the full review in my Vault coverage, and this did indeed turn out to be as funny as everyone said. But what I hadn’t expected was how intelligent this play was. It refrains from going for easy approval with easy point-scoring and easy hate figures, and instead asks what kind of world it was that made something like section 28 palatable in the first place.
Margaret Thatcher (aka Matt Tedford) is now in a series of plays – Queen of Game Shows is a sort-of sequel, and Queen of Club Nights was a late-night cabaret (that I didn’t see because it was after midnight and my stamina wasn’t up to it.) If I can see these another time, I will, but Queen of Soho is quite rightly a classic political satire. Catch it whilst you still can.
Coming next …