Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

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credit: byronv2, flickr

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.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Vivian’s Music 1969, Proxy, Build a Rocket, The Fetch Wilson, Bite-Size, Maz and Bricks, House of Edgar, Eight, Neverwant, Hunch, My Brother’s Drug, Por Favor, This is Just Who I Am, Year Without Summer, Kin, All Out of Time, The Narcissist in the Mirror, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Match, Notflix, Dark Room / Sexy Sweaty Party Party

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. (Index at all the these issues as and when they were raised in the article at the bottom of this article.)

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.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre - Vivian's Music, 1969, Good Works Productions

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”.

https://img1.wsimg.com/isteam/ip/99721293-f268-4694-a578-01784bfa2ee4/4466086a-9c60-4f9c-aef4-420051d655ce.jpg/:/cr=t:0%25,l:0%25,w:100%25,h:100%25/rs=w:400,cg:trueThe 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 escalation 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.

Other reviews of Vivian’s Music, 1969:

FringeGuru: ★★★★★
The List: ★★★
★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★

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.

Proxy

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 …

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Proxy, Caroline Burns Cooke

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.

https://files.list.co.uk/images/2018/08/05/ccproxy11-LST303806.jpgAnd 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.

Other reviews of Proxy:

FringeGuru: ★★★★★
The List: ★★★★
Broadway Baby: ★★★
FringeReview
(Brighton)

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.

maxresdefaultOther 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.

Other reviews of Build a Rocket:

The Wee Review: ★★★★
Fest: ★★★★
The Scotsman: ★★★★
Edinburgh Guide: ★★★★
Daily Business Magazine: ★★★★
The Guardian: ★★

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.

Ehttps://chrisontheatre.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/0dadb-d-dqohqg.jpegdwin 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.

Other reviews of The Fetch Wilson:

EdFringe Review:
★★★★ & ★★★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★

Broadway Baby: ★★★

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

https://i0.wp.com/mytheatremates.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/BigBiteSizeBreakfastShow_edinburgh_aug18.jpg?w=600&ssl=1Bite-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.

Other reviews of The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show:

Menu 1:
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★

Menu 2:
The Young Perspective: ★★★★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★★

Menu 3:
Daily Business Magazine: ★★★
★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★
The List: ★★★

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.

Thttps://i1.wp.com/www.fishamble.com/uploads/1/1/3/7/113713777/mb-1040_1.jpghe 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.

Other reviews of Maz and Bricks:

FringeGuru: ★★★★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★★
The Stage (£): ★★★★
One4Review: ★★★★
The List: ★★★

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.

https://i2.wp.com/argosyarts.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-House-Of-Edgar-Production-Shot-2.jpgOne 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.

Other reviews of The House of Edgar:

The Young Perspective: ★★★★

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.

Eight

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.)

https://i1.wp.com/www.alledinburghtheatre.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Esmee-Cook.-Pic-Connor-OSullivan.jpgSo, 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.

Other reviews of Eight:

All Edinburgh Theatre: ★★★★
The Wee Review: ★★★


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.

Honourable mention

Starting this year, I’m getting stricter with honourable mentions. Until now, I’ve generally used this as a second tier of reviews for plays with merit but not quite enough to make it to pick of the fringe. This time, however, I’m asking for more, and to get into honourable mention you need to offer something notable. Some plays were different, some show promise for the future, and some stood out simply because they were outsiders holding their own in a highly-competitive festival. Let us begin:

Neverwant

This was a play I had a lot of interest in seeing, because this stood to make a big difference to the future of Bite-Size. There is one down-side to having a guaranteed sell-out show year after year: it’s a hard, if not impossible, act to follow. For several years they’ve experimented with different new projects, which had varying degrees of success, with last year’s Izzy’s Manifestoes one of the strongest. But the thing that makes Neverwant interesting is that is was written by two members of the company, Billy Knowelden and Thomas Wilshire.

It’s based on two short plays written by long-standing Bite Sizer Billy Knowelden: I Do, a dystopian future where love is forbidden and punished; and All You Ever Wanted, an even more dystopian future where the annoying social media algorithms actually work and correctly predict all commercial products you want to have – and disagreeing with the algorithm is forbidden and punished. A common mistake when creating an longer play out of a ten-minute one is to stretch the plot over an hour; Bite-Size however, knows better than that and their extended plays are set in worlds inspired by the original story rather than drag it to snail’s pace. And so, in the world of Neverwant, romance and relationships are being replaced with “companion” droids (i.e. sex robot) with heart meters, a bit like the bachelors and bachelorettes in Stardew Valley (although I must admit it’s a lot less complicated, and also … Penny *sigh*). One thing that has not changed is jobsworths, and particularly funny were the two ultra-jobsworths knowing every rule on intimacy and trying in vain to conceal their feelings for each other. But the story centres on another would-be-couple: one suppressing her feelings, the other not caring what anyone thinks.

Other reviews of Neverwant:

Daily Business Magazine: ★★★★★
British Theatre Guide: ★★★★

Neverwant can be best described as a play with echoes of Brave New World, but funnier, and the humour carries the play over the hour. But it was only afterwards I got thinking how this could have been more. Several scenes, funny though they were, didn’t have that much of a role in the story. That’s not really a problem – a scene with laughs is better than no scene – but did it come at the expense of something more? One promising plot thread planted at the beginning was Fiona 2.0, the very first companion droid that passes off as human – but we never hear of Fiona 2.0 again. there was also one issue with transplanting the plot thread from I Do. I’ll refrain from giving away the ending, but in the original 10-minute piece the twist was excellent – in the context of this longer play, however, it doesn’t quite make sense against the backstories of these characters.

As a standalone piece, Neverwant is a decent play but Izzy’s Manifestoes was the better of the two. But looking at the long game, Neverwant is the more notable one. Billy Knowelden and Thomas Wilshire have already penned some great short plays between them in the main Bite-Size Breakfast programme, and this was the first major test to see if they could translate it to the hour-long format of the rest of the fringe. And my verdict – based on my own assessment, audience reaction, and the other reviews – is that they’ve done enough. A good start, but having got this far I hope they don’t stop now. As I said before, a team of writer-performers is Bite-Size’s best asset for its breakfast show – keep this up, and they can make their mark on the rest of the fringe too.

Hunch

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 it’s not your usual superhero story; in this world, all superheroes help people make decisions. Head and Heart help people take make their decisions with their head and heart. Genitals helps people think with, well, a more gender-inclusive term for “thinking with your dick”. Hunch is the newest hero, to help 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.

Other reviews of Hunch:

Broadway Baby: ★★★★
The List: ★★★★
Three Weeks: ★★★
WhatsOnStage
: ★★★

Hunch gets in my honourable mentions because the concept is a great idea, even if it’s a tough one to follow. This has done well with the reviews, so 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. So I am hoping for a tour here, because free of the time-constraints of the fringe, the best could still be yet to come.

My Brother’s Drug

This is a free fringe play that wasn’t part of the Edinburgh Fringe; I may go into the intricacies of doing the Free-Fringe-but-not-Edinburgh-Fringe Fringe another time, but with registration fees being a hell of a lot for some people, this is a budget-friendly option. The down-side? In general, only the free fringe venues allow this. Now, it would be easy to say you get what you pay for, but that’s not entirely true – some free fringe venues are managed well, and look cheap and cheerful. Bar Bados, on the other hand, does a shoddy job and looks cheap and nasty. It does not appear to have been cleaned all month. Worse, wrong times are sometimes listed outside, and worst of all, they don’t appear to make any attempt to contain noise bleed. The last thing was so unfair on My Brother’s Drug, a play about drug addiction where thumping music through paper-thin walls was the last thing you need. But My Brother’s Drug isn’t in the honourable mentions as a consolation for a raw deal with the venue – this is a good play and an impressive debut from writer-director Rachel Mervis and performer Elysia Wilson.

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, his family are of course worried sick about his safety. When he returns, it’s only a few days before he leaves with jewellery 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. This isn’t a big issue, because Elysia Wilson keeps the words sounding naturalistic, but I’d 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, even with the problems with the venue.. 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.

Por Favor

Now for another play that got my attention, simply for being low-key play from a low-key group on a week-long run at Greenside that came good. In contrast to plays like  Hunch is that packs a lot into the hour, this keeps the story simple. 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.

bb8266603d5548d990f3c74b45f1d9abe405b362-original-lst292667This 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; it’s more important that there’s a good reason why a character is the way she is, and this leads to some of the most touching moments in the play, such as the pride of her foster parents that finally come good. More could have been made of other aspects of her character though – I personally would have liked to see more about the attitude to her from the rest of the school. We know that she’s written off by most of the teachers  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.

Other reviews of Por Favor:

Broadway Baby: ★★★

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. After Hours Theatre Company are based in Burnley, and I hope this play gets another showing locally, because it’s a refreshing change to see an uncynical play for a change. Worth seeing if it’s on your doorstep.

From earlier in the year …

Added to the four plays in this list are four things I saw earlier in the year. Two pieces from the Vault festival get honourable mentions: Elsa earns a place on the list for being something different, a mixture of music, storytelling and comedy; and kids’ comedy Doktor James’s Bad Skemes has to go on the list before it was hilarious – the audience at the Vault was almost entirely adults, but that didn’t stop us having a great time.

Two plays that got honourable mentions at Brighton and Buxton Fringes also get listed here. To re-iterate an important rule: getting an honourable mention at a previous fringe does not automatically get you one here – you have to hold your own against the higher expectations of Edinburgh. But both of these plays, whilst not perfect, stick in my mind: Antigone na h’Eireann, a very ambitious retelling set in Northern Ireland had a great character of a Sinn Fein MLA torn between his old life and the new, and One-Woman Alien has to get a mention for the energetic performance of Heather Rose-Andrews.

Reviews of Elsa:

Edinbrugh Festivals Magazine: ★★★

Reviews of Doktor James’s Bad Skemes:

FringeGuru: ★★★★★
Fest: ★★★


Reviews of Antigone na h’Éireann:

Broadway World: ★★★
All Edinburgh Theatre: ★★★

Reviews of One Woman Alien:

The Skinny: ★★★★
Broadway Baby: ★★★★ (Brighton)
Broadway Baby: ★★★ (Edinburgh)
FringeReview (Brighton)
Geek Chocolate

 

Other plays

There were six other plays I saw that can be counted as theatre. Before going on, it is worth clarifying something. Being the third of three tiers, you might think that if your play is in this category, it means I hated it. That is almost never the case – usually there are notable items of merit in the play, just not enough to stand out in such a big competitive festival. In general, if I hated a play, I don’t write a review at all (at least, not for real – oh boy, I’ve some reviews for terrible plays in my head).

So moving on, we have:

This is Just Who I Am

This show stuck in my mind as one of the most experimental ones. It’s perhaps an experiment that didn’t quite work out, but for reasons I will come on to later, a worthy experiment.

The premise of this show is that Miranda Prag doesn’t have one. She suddenly decided this afternoon it wasn’t any good and she’s going to do something completely different, and proceeds to give as hotch-potch of descriptions of herself and issues she feels strongly in. The first sign that something is a bit off, however, is a story of a sexist treatment from a man staring at her in the museum – and the fact that he turns out to be a security guard politely asking not to blow on an 80-year-old sculpture doesn’t change her mind.

This is an unusual one to review. To be honest, in spite of interesting bits such as the overblown confrontation in the museum, as a whole I couldn’t work out what this play was meant to be doing. It was only after the play when I discussed with Miranda Prag the intended theme that it made more sense: a woman trying too hard to project an image that she doesn’t care what people think of her, but she does care really. Of course, you can’t fall back on that for the entire audience, and there needs to be something in the play for people to pick up this theme. My gut instinct is that this is too abstract to achieve this in its current form.

Other reviews of This is Just Who I Am:

FringeReview

But there is a story to be told here. I really liked the ending where Miranda asks for “feedback”, but not the normal feedback where you fill in the form, but an audience yes/no vote on a series of questions. And after starting off with question such as “did you follow this”, it quickly descends into less appropriate questions such as “Do you find me attractive?” and “Do I look for the sort of person who has lots of acquaintances but few real friends?”, again, playing to the theme of giving away you care about what people think more than you intend people to let on. Bold ideas like this may or may not be understood the way they were meant to on the first attempt – but they are needed. Even if the play needs rework, or if the artist moves on to a new project, ideas such as these, one refined and watered down, allow more mainstream theatre to be more original. And that’s why I like it when these risks are taken – they can pay off when playing the long game.

Year Without Summer

I saw this play because I’ve been hearing about it for a couple of years through Brighton Fringe and it got me curious. Literature buffs will know that 1816 is notable for two things: firstly, there was a volcanic winter that dropped temperatures all over the world, which was a bit of a bummer (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.

Other reviews of Year Without Summer:

FringeGuru: ★★★★
ThreeWeeks: ★★★★
Broadway Baby: ★★★
The Skinny
: ★★★

The thing that seems to have split critical opinion is the level of factual information in the script. There’s a lot of historical goodies about the lives of the Byrons, Shelleys and Clairmonts, but this leaves little room for anything else. One review I read (admittedly from 2016 before a substantial rework) criticised the play for becoming a checklist of facts – however, I have also heard praise from other reviewers, mainly those with a literary interest, for getting things so accurate. I can see where both of these are coming from, but I do wonder if both camps could have been kept happy with a stronger storyline supporting the setting. And if there was one thing that could be considered a missed opportunity: the year without summer itself only gets an incidental mention in the play. This was a pretty cataclysmic event at the time – it would have been interesting to get a snapshot of the world as seen by these artists during this time.

But the play sets out to do what it set out to do; clearly Allen did his homework here and studies a lot of the characters and the fateful meet-up. It’s also good to see a rare crossover from reviewer to writer/director, and especially good to see this play bounce back from the its misfortunes in Brighton earlier this year. This play and One-Woman Alien are two very different plays so Cast Iron Theatre isn’t just a one-trick pony, and the two plays between them were a decent enough showing at Edinburgh. Andrew Allen has made his mark in reviewing with his good practices, so I hope Cast Iron Theatre go on to make their mark in Edinburgh.

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.

Other reviews of Kin:

Bouqets and brickbats: ★★★★½
The List: ★★★★
Theatre Weekly: ★★★★
The Stage: ★★★

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.

There isn’t anything I particularly disliked about the play – it was more a mild disappointment that, after The Trunk stuck in my memory, I couldn’t take home anything memorable from this. Other people, however, will disagree – the audiences were good and the play picked up some good reviews, which I did read to see if there was anything I failed to pick up. But Max Dickins I do believe is at his strongest when he tells stories of the forgotten people – it would be a shame to lose this now.

All Out of Time

This was one of two plays I saw at Bar Bados, 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 monologues 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 dictated 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 quick 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 boundaries 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.

The Narcissist in the Mirror

And last in this list is a play that everyone in Manchester is raving about. I was keen to see this partly because I was keen to see what sort of shows are succeeding at the up-and-coming Greater Manchester Fringe and partly because I like it when the most obscure productions get on to success. But I was also really taken in by the idea of a modern-day take of the Narcissus, in an age where vanity has never been more rewarded. If social media is the new way of falling in love with your reflection, this is a tale ripe for exploration. But this isn’t really a retelling of a Greek legend. Instead – I’m not sure what it was meant to be.

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 sister 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.

Other reviews of The Narcissist in the Mirror:

Young Perspective: ★★★★★
ThreeWeeks: ★★★
Voicemag: ★★★
FringeReview

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, which was good. 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 the story you’re expecting, there’s no escaping some disappointment when that doesn’t appear. Again, it’s not that I dislike the play, just that I can’t match the enthusiasm that every man and his dog is giving – and as this play has landed a tour of the back of Edinburgh I can’t argue with the result. So it’s best to look on this play as a commentary on modern values rather that the retelling of a legend. But if you want a modern-day equivalent of the downfall of Narcissus, that will have to be another story.

Not quite theatre

And the last category are some shows that I didn’t consider for pick of the fringe as this is a theatre blog and I didn’t count these as theatre. Note that this is determined by what I see the show as, not how it was listed in the programme – previously I have counted comedy listings as theatre and vice versa. This time, however, all were outside the theatre. These reviews will be shorter than usual as they are outside my speciality – anyone who wants something more reliable should read some reviews from people more familiar with these categories.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Most of the “Not Quite Theatre” entries are comedies, but here is a musical on the list. Normally I would count a musical as theatre, but this musical is more like a series of Peanuts sketches than a continuous story. Many people in the audience may have come for the nostalgia of the 1985 TV animation, but this stage musical in fact pre-dates this by 18 years. That’s a good thing, by the way – screen to stage adaptations can be clumsy, so it helps a lot if the thing was written for the stage in the first place. And thanks to the small cast size of this musical, this has been a very popular musical to revive, with snippets from the lives of Lucy, Linus, Shroeder, Sally, Snoopy, and of course Charlie Brown making up the musical. If you don’t like Peanuts this musical won’t change your mind, for if you do, the musical encapsulates everything, from the humour to the conflict to the sentiment.

Other reviews of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown:

All Edinburgh Theatre: ★★★★
Edinburgh Festivals Magazine: ★★★★
The Wee Review: ★★★★

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 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. For that reason, it gets my approval, and whilst it would have benefited to capture the characters a little more, it’s still a nice 90 minutes of homage to a classic Peanuts story.

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.

Notflix

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.

There has been a bit of a debate lately on what should be accepted as improv. Some shows that use this title may be making up the lines as they go along but still have the overall structure planned out in advance. Some people would say that is cheating; others would say it doen’t matter as long as everyone enjoys it. But Notflix genuinely don’t have anything pre-prepared at all. If you’re an improv purist looking for the best improv out there, there’s few groups that will give you better than this.

The Dark Room / Sexy Sweaty Party Party

This is the third time I’ve seen John Robertson do The Dark Room at Edinburgh, and the fourth if you count a visit to the Assembly Rooms Durham. I don’t have much to add because I’ve more or less already said everything that needs to be said. If you have not seen the show, I apologise because the rest of this won’t make much sense, but one thing I hadn’t quite appreciated is how good John Robertson is at improvising things off the cuff. Some of the show is structured – I’ve seen people choose to Check pocket of Czech Pocket often enough to know what happens there – but I’m starting to realise how much he comes into his own when he reacts to random things said by random audience members. And so we come to Sexy Sweaty Party Party, which works entirely on this level.

There wasn’t anything about this this show that was particularly sexy (unless you are particularly turned on by the grand finale 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 calmly playing the blues whilst Robertson does his latest crazy thing. Anyway, it’s certainly a thing to enjoy, as long as you drop all expectations on how bizarre a show can get. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. And don’t leave an unattended pint in reach of a comedian. You fools.

Dishonourable mention:

And finally, it’s time for the booby prize. Not for the worst play – there wasn’t anything this fringe I particularly disliked, and besides, I’ve only even once seen an Edfringe play so bad I had to rant about it – but for the worst behaviour at the fringe.

BBC Arts hasn’t come out of this Edinburgh Fringe very well. Its flagship scheme “BBC Debut”, where they heavily backed four plays to go to the Edinburgh Fringe. Part of the reason is that all the writers backed by the BBC were existing stars who’d made a name for themselves outside of theatre, prompting (justified) criticism over this support coming at the expense of people who haven’t made a name for themselves and need it more. All would have been forgiven had the plays gone down well, but they didn’t, with Frank Skinner’s Nina’s Got News coming in for particular derision. In fairness to the BBC, the rubbishing of Nina’s Got News was not unanimous contrary to what some people claim, and the BBC points out that BBC Debut is one of many schemes intended to support talent at all different levels. But it looks like BBC Debut’s won’t last beyond its debut, ironically enough. I don’t kick artists when they’re down, so I won’t dwell on this any more.

An organisation that may need a bit more of a kicking, however, is C Venues. Rights of employees/volunteers has been getting a lot of attention, and the Fair Fringe campaign ran some research on the conditions at venues. C Venues came in for the most criticism with the one of most concern is allegations of disciplinary threats against anyone thinking of speaking out on their working conditions. Annoyingly, it’s been difficult to investigate this further because the report from the Fair Fringe Campaign had a lot of rhetoric but only a limited amount of factual information, making it difficult for anyone to see the facts for themselves and make up their own minds. However, C Venues has so far not denied the allegations. Some serious questions need asking here.

But the most contemptible behaviour of Edinburgh Fringe 2018 as to be The Scotsman’s lead comedy critic, Kate Copstick. The long-standing convention understood by basically everybody is that performers are free to decide whether or not to allow reviewers into their shows, especially before the official start of the fringe where shows are previews and artists may still be getting used to the space they’ll be performing in for the next month. Kate Copstick requested reviews on the Wednesday before the fringe began. Pau Sinha and three other comedians refused. She responded by writing a hit piece in The Scotsman, naming those comedians and saying this meant they’re shown were “a bit meh”. She then followed it up with a Facebook post using, shall I say, less “journalistic” language expressing her fury over being snubbed. Paula Sinha went public, and he was completely right to do so.

This is the second time in two years The Scotsman has come under fire for its journalistic ethics at the Fringe. Last year, it was implicated is giving worse reviews to female comedians, but that could at least be put down to one reviewer gone rogue who no longer writes for them. That excuse does not wash this time, as Kate Copstick is just about the most senior reviewer the Scotsman has. Now, Kate Copstick is entitled to her own views on when a show should be ready, and if she truly believes any comedian should be able hit the the ground running in week zero, she has the right to say that, even if everyone else disagrees. What is unacceptable is naming specific comedians who refused your requests and trying to pass it off as your expert judgement that the show is rubbish. At best, this smacks of a childish “Do you know who I am” tantrum. At worst, it is a massive massive massive abuse of her position, telling – or at least trying very hard to tell – punters not to see shows as punishment for refusing her a freebie.

There are reviewers who have behaved worse than Copstick in years gone by. The difference is that these other reviewers were nobodies writing for obscure publication, She writes for a paper that thinks it’s the definitive word on what to see. And The Scotsman doesn’t appear to have a problem with how she’s behaving.

Other news:

And last of all, a quick list of everything else that I reported on during the Edinburgh Fringe, together with where you can find it in the live coverage:

  • A look at ticket sales growth at the beginning of the fringe, where I speculated (4th August), and afterwards, when yet again growth outstripped expectations (26th August, 6.30 p.m. and 28th August)
  • The Scotsman telling its journalists not to engage with criticism on social media following a certain ill-advised outburst from a certain Mr. Paul Whitelaw (5th August, 5.15 p.m.). This was before I heard about the latest antics of a certain Ms. Kate Copstick.
  • A more detailed look at the car-crash that was BBC Debut and Nina’s Got News (10th August, with follow-ups on 12th August 18th August)
  • The original look (in a bit more detail than here) on Copstickgate (11th August).
  • The debate on how imrov is improv really (14th August, tying into my original review of Notflix).
  • I give my own proposal for how to deal with the cost of Edinburgh Fringe (15th August, or read the full article).
  • The effect of late reviews on performers, particularly from theatre bloggers (19th August).
  • My concerns over the panic on “poverty porn” (20th August).
  • A first look at Sparkle and Dark’s new play, I Hear the Fire, probably coming to Edinburgh next year (21st August).
  • The big debate on the Cost of Edinburgh (22nd August and 23rd August, 11.15 p.m.).
  • The annual row over the “best joke” award (23rd August, 11.15 p.m.; spoiler alert: it’s boring).
  • The original report over Fair Fringe and the allegations against C Venues (24th August, 8.00 p.m).
  • My extended moan about Bar Bados (27th August, 10.30 p.m.).

And that’s a wrap. It took a long time, but we’re at the end. That’s all fringes covered in 2018. Join us in April next year when Brighton Fringe coverage begins.

 

 

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