What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2019

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Skip to: Call Mr. Robeson, Old Bones, Jordan, Updownsizing, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, An Audience with Yasmine Day, Moby Dick, Impostors, Tomorrow I’ll the Happy, The Grandmothers Grimm, Brain Rinse, Under Milk Wood

Buxton Fringe is back, and it’s another interesting one. Two years ago there was a very unpredictable fringe when the building housing the key venue was closed for redevelopment – and yet, against all expectations, the fringe grew. This year, however, there was a change which everyone expected would push the numbers up, and it did: 213 events this year, up from 180; and about 750 performances, up from 500.

The change in question is extending the festival by three days from 18 to 21. At it stands, this is a temporary extension for just the fringe’s 40th anniversary year – but the organisers must surely be looking at registrations and ticket sales closely to see if this can be made permanent. Where there is a bit more of a surprise is where the growth has occurred. Doing the same number-crunching as I did in 2017, there are some interesting stats:

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One might have expected the biggest growth to come from Underground Venues, but their programme has only grown by four events, which is a surprise – or perhaps not when you look at the wider context. When Underground Venues went a space down in 2017, one side-effect was that the run length of many acts went down to two when before it was typically three. It seems that they’ve taken advantage of the extra three days by moving back to three-performance runs, with the average run length rising from 2.6 to 2.85 (if we exclude one audio show on for 10 half-hour performances that would otherwise skew the figures).

Instead, most of the growth is being pushed by the other venues. The Rotunda and Green Man Gallery have significantly expanded their programmes this year. The Rotunda was to be expected – it is in their interests to make as much use of the space as they can – but the Green Man Gallery is more significant. Until last year, their capacity was limited not by space but by the time their volunteers could put in. This time, someone is serious about increasing this venue’s role. Buxton Methodist Church is becoming a notable venue – this doesn’t really register on the theatre radar but they are increasing become a venue of choice for many music events.

But the thing that must not be overlooked is the combined effect of all the small venues. Even though many venues can count their registrations in single figures, when put together they are making an impact – perhaps Buxton Fringe’s efforts to incentivise the use of little-utilised venues is paying off. Within these figures, however, is something notable: there’s an unusually high number of site-specific pieces with multiple performances each day: I counted 96 of these (up from 21 last year). This might is a outlier – there’s an unusually high number of site-specific pieces this year – but this, combined with a number of longs for visual arts, could go some way to explaining how this year’s number of performances got that high.

Anyway, that’s enough number crunching. We must get back on topic:

Safe choice:

Three safe choices this year. The rules of what constitutes a safe choice are here, but the short version is that I’m confident you like the play as long as you like the sound of this play from the description. This is particularly important this time: these three plays cover a variety of subjects and one of them is quite a tough one. If you don’t want to see this, you don’t. But if you do, it won’t disappoint.

We have here:

Call Mr. Robeson

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When the Rotunda launched two years ago, there was a core programme of seven in-house productions from Grist from the Mill, the company behind the venue, and two affiliated groups. Two years on, and there’s a heavy presence from the inaugural artists again, and out of all of this, the safest bet is Call Mr. Robeson from Tayo Aluko. The story of Paul Robeson is an interesting one: a popular black singer during the Jim Crow era who found himself a hate figure in the 1950s – but not for the reason one might assume. His popularity transcended all races and he was able to defy segregation in a way that few others could. No, Paul Robeson found himself on the wrong side of public opinion over the communist scare, for showing too much enthusiasm for the commies at the time everyone else thought it was brilliant they were winning the war for the Americans.

Much of the play is simply telling Robeson’s story in first person, but his story is such an intricate one of defying the prevailing mood, falling foul of new hypocricies and defying the prevailing mood again. Aluko captures all of this well, and whether you’re an expert on his life or new to the whole thing it’s a fascinating watch. Also in the play are many of Robeson’s greatest hits sung on stage, and new to 2019 is a live piano accompaniment. This shows on the 18th and 21st July at 7.20 p.m. at The Rotunda.

Old Bones

Now from a big name to an lesser-known one. One problem with post-Pauper’s Pit Buxton is the lack of spaces for artists starting off. If you’re not high-profile or high-budget enough to get into The Old Clubhouse or The Rotunda, the only other options are spaces without the sound and lighting capabilities we’re used to elsewhere. But Daniel Hird brought an unexpected gem to Buxton last year that didn’t need this – a tale that work very well in the storytelling format. I think the play would also work well with a good sound and lighting plot, but he showed last year that with the right script and right performance you can deliver the goods without.

Old Bones introduces us to James Napier, a youthful-looking man who invites us to a game of dice. He once beat the Devil in the game and collected his prize. But, as we all know, deals with the Devil never end well, and this time the Devil doesn’t even need to twist his words to grant James his wish – instead he gets the last laugh by giving him exactly what he asked for. As they say, be careful what you wish for. The final scene and the final game is one of the best closing moments I’ve seen in solo theatre. It returns to the Green Man Gallery, this time downstairs rather than upstairs, and runs on the 4th – 7th and 13th July at 8.30 p.m.

Jordan

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Jordan is not an easy watch, but it is one of the most powerful solo plays written. It’s the true story of Shirley Jones, who stood trial for killing her thirteen-month old child. What would drive a mother to do such a monstrous thing? Alas, you don’t have to listen too long to know where this is going, and it’s driven by a ruthless and abusive partner. I’d previously heard stories about parents who can sink to a level of depression so bad that not only can they not face life themselves, they can’t face life for their children either – but this was the play that made me truly understand this.

This came to Buxton in 2013. Now it’s returning with a different theatre company. This is a play that will stand or fall based on how well it’s performed, but from the little I know of Easy Company I reckon they’ll do a good job of this. One of the people who runs this company is Sian Dudley, who ran a venue in Level 2 Nightclub a few years back. Whilst the venue itself didn’t work out, her own play WOW (about World of Warcraft) was a promising start, so it’s good to have her back in the game. This shown on the 12th, 19th and 21st July in the Arts Centre Studio at 7.15 p.m.

Bold choice:

Bold choices are plays where I know less about them and they might not work out, but I’ve have reasons to believe they’re more likely to please than disappoint. This time, I’m doing things a little differently and limiting programmed strands to one safe choice and on bold choice each – otherwise, we would have a very long list dominated by the same few people.

Lined up I have:

Updownsizing

My first bold choice is someone who’s not been around for a few years, and it’s good to see her back. I last saw Ginny Davis in 2014 with heart-warming Fashionably Late. It’s not often I would describe a play as heart-warming where a family death of a beloved but batty grandmother leads to a funeral on the day that two birthday parties were already planned, but this is the one. It covers a lot of ground, such as parents not keeping up with their children’s social media and dead-end jobs that await the educated younger and still came up with something surpisingly lovely.

It turns out that this play was a series of plays of the same character, and Updownsizing is the latest chapter. Now all three children and left home and it’s time to move to a smaller house, and she’s ready to go until a visitor arrives. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen any earlier installments though – as I said, I had no idea there were several early chapters of Fashionably Late until now. This is on at The Old Clubhouse with two performance on the 19th July at 1 p.m. and 5.30 p.m., and a last one on 21st July at 1 p.m.

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

Sudden Impulse have become a regular fixture at Buxton Fringe, usually bringing two plays, from contemporary classics to new writing. Both of the plays coming this year interest me, but with space for only one it’s the play about a Fleet Street hack that hooks me the most. Trapped in a pub after hours, our titular character recounts his hedonistic life as a hack whilst pouring himself a drink – one of many more than he’ll admit, I can’t help suspect. This is showing at the Arts Centre Studio on the 15th, 17th, 18th and 20th July alternating between 10 p.m. and 7.15 p.m. starts.

The other play is a bit more cryptic – it’s Revelation 1:18 and gives little more information that an -up-and-coming band where a single review changes everything – but how? This has five performances between the 13th and 20th at various times in the afternoon in the Old Clubhouse. Whatever’s in store, the productions have been consistently good, and you can expect the most to be made of these scripts.

An Audience with Yasmine Day

Yasmine Day is a comedy creation of Jay Bennet, the number one Eighties tribute power ballad singer in the Dorking area, give or take. Yasmine may not be able to count on her voice or her career, but she can always rely on her inflated sense of self-important. The first performance was done as a one-off as last year’s fringe, and whilst some of this may seem far-fetched, such as singing Eternal Flame using only the vowels, I am assured this is all based of real events. If you are an eighties power ballad tribute singer and you recognise yourself in the performance, I strongly advise you not to admit it.

Whilst this was a fun performance, what had real potential was Yasmine’s back-story. Last year, it was touched upon that she was washed up after her band ditched her. With a year to develop this, I’m hoping this plays a bigger role this time. It’s on at The Old Clubhouse on the 5th-7th July at 4 p.m. first two days, 7 p.m. on the final day.

Moby Dick

Truth be told, it’s Grist from the Mill who prompted me to have a limit. The combined programme of themselves and their affiliated artists could have given me seven things to list here. But if I can only pick one, I shall go for this tale of the legendary elusive whale. It’s one of Ross Ericson’s plays he’s written for himself. Anyone who’s seen The Unknown Soldier will know how good his writing can be – anyone who’s seen his other plays will know how varies and risk-taking they are.

Technically this is a preview – the first official performance won’t be until the Edinburgh Fringe. But if you can’t wait for that you can’t go much wrong with seeing it early in Buxton. This is at The Rotunda (obviously) on the 20th July at 3.20 p.m. then the 21st July at 9.00 p.m.

Impostors

This one almost slipped under my radar. One regular name at Buxton has been Off-Off-Off Broadway you brought a series of plays in the genres of horror and surrealism. I’ve only managed to see one of theirs, Peaceful, but they mastered eerie staging and everything they’ve listed at Buxton since looked very suited to this style.

Off-Off-Off Broadway isn’t at Buxton this year, but Polis Loizou, the key performer of the group, is in Buxton as part of an acts named “sinister masterplan”. This is a project of a Sam Endhoven, who is providing the music and sound for a series of folk tales like they’ve not been told before. I know little about this artist, but from the sound of this it looks right up Polis Loizou’s street. This is at The Old Clubhouse on the 4th, 8th and 9th July, various times.

Tomorrow I’ll be Happy

There are plenty of youth groups that take part at Buxton Fringe, but Shadow Syndicate have earned a just about the best reputation out of all of them, routinely doing productions on par with the professionals elsewhere at the fringe. The plays themselves are very different each year – the main reason they get bold choice instead of a safe choice – but whatever it is they’ve always given it all. From the tech-heavy plays of Redaction and We Lost Elijah to the very naturalistic but very complicated to direct Extremism, they’ve always impressed with the production values.

This play is about the aftermath of a homophobic hate crime – or is it? In a similar theme to earlier plays, amongst the friends of Darren it turns out all is not what it seems. Find out exactly what is amiss at the Art Centre Studio on the 14th, – 17th July, various times.

Wildcard

Next is a play where I don’t know how it will turn out, but it’s nonetheless grabbed my interest. It’s more of a gamble than bold choice, but it will certainly be something different:

The Grandmothers Grimm

Some Kind of Theatre’s last production I saw, The Steampunk Tempest, had its flaws – but I’m still keen to see them again. I liked what I saw last time because setting the realm of Prospero in a Jules Verne-esque world was a great idea, and my only regret was it not being more Steampunk. Anyway, it’s now three years on and they’ve now moved on to something quite different. This is a story of the Brothers Grimm poring over stories and trying to remove the darkness. (Hang on a minute, is their gory version of Snow White where the wicked queen wears red-hot shoes and dances until she dies the sanitised version? If so, what the hell is in the uncut version?)

This is quite different from what I’ve seen Some Kind of Theatre do before, so this could be anything, but I’m hoping that after the inspired idea that got them noticed three years ago, they will have something new up their sleeve this time. See it at The Old Clubhouse on the 6th & 7th July at 1.00 p.m.

From the comedy:

There are better people than me to ask about the comedy listings, but I do see the odd thing I enjoy and want to pass on. Apart from Yasmine Day which I counted as theatre, there’s one other thing worth mentioning.

Brain Rinse

Brain Rinse is a character comedy show I enjoyed at this year’s Buxton Fringe, mostly silly, with a lot of audience participation. I planned to see this last year anyway as Mike Raffone was in the same digs as me, but if I hadn’t, the think that would have clinched it was his Fringe and five performance re-enacting a synchronised swimming routine, which showed how good a showman has is. It’s a fun hour. There is also an opt-out from audience participation with you don’t want to do that – but there’s a catch. Find out what the catch is at The Old Clubhouse on the 4th July at 8.30 p.m. then 7th & 8th July at 5.30 p.m.

Also of note:

I am limiting my recommendations to artists I’ve seen, and subject to the aforementioned limit to prevent the same people dominating the coverage. But there are two other things I must mention as they are significant news for Buxton. And they both involve the Rotunda.

It’s not over till it’s over, but barring an unexpected disaster that changes the course of events, this looks set to be the Rotunda’s year. The inaugural year in 2017 was beset by cancellations, but that ill fortune was not repeated the following year, and now they’re in a tight race with the Green Man Gallery for the number two spot after Underground Venues. More notably, however, the Rotunda has finally succeeded in getting itself around to places other than Buxton. Branded as the “Nomad Festival” outside of Buxton, the venue has already made three other stops prior to Buxton with a programme dominated by their own work. (The Rotunda did make an appearance last year as one of Assembly’s spaces, but that was just the use of the structure. This year is the first time that the Rotunda has been active outside of Buxton with its own programming.)

As a result, here are the things that stand out.

Under Milk Wood: Semi Skimmed

Big coup for the Rotunda to get this one. This one-man adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s did the rounds in Edinburgh last year, but the person performing this is none of that Guy Masterson, a legendary name in fringe theatre. There is only one performance at Buxton, and that’s at the Rotunda Theatre on the 6th July at 7.30 p.m., but he’s already done a previous performance with them at Brockenhurst, one of their previous stops. Potentially, this gives the Rotunda something that no other venue in Buxton has – a chance to tour with the venue.

It’s not that the Rotunda is suddenly elevated in status just because of an association with one artist, however famous – you should never judge a venue simply by counting endorsements of the great and good. Rather, this should be looked on as a milestone. Two years ago this venue was heavily dependent on the work of the people who set it up – now it has enough respect to get people of Masterson’s calibre and status on board. He’s not the first big name to come to Buxton Fringe, and it’s likely that for the time being Underground Venues (particularly the Arts Centre) will be the first choice for most of them. But it’s no longer the only choice. And that may be the game-changer.

The rest of the Rotunda’s programmed strand

Although I limited myself to one of each in the safe choice and bold choice, I could have put a lot more in this list. Quick background info: in 2017, there were seven productions under the name of “Grist to the Mill Theatre Ltd”, but in practice this was a three-way collaboration under one name: Tayo Aluko, FRed Dragonfly Theatre and Grist to the Mill proper. This year, these artists are performing under their own names, but from what I’ve seen of them previously it’s a formidable line-up.

What you actually count as “programmed strand” is unofficial and vague, but that caveat noted, I’ve got in this list:

  • Just an Ordinary Lawyer: Tayo Aluko’s other solo play alongside Call Mr. Robeson, this one is about Tunji Sowande, the first black judge in Britain – and also a keen cricket fan. Expect another interesting and possibly counter-intuitive play.
  • Gratiano: Ross Ericson’s other solo play showing this fringe, setting The Merchant of Venice in fascist Italy. This is very ambitious, tried to do a lot of things at once and split critical opinion, but it’s a clever retelling that turns the story on its head.
  • An evening with Miss Wong and Mulan: As well as writing plays for himself, Ross Ericson also writes plays for his co-manager of the Rotunda, Michelle Yim. One play is a biopic of Anna May Wong, an actress in early Hollywood who was not allowed to kiss her leading man, and the other, I am told, is the un-Disnified version of a story.
  • Monkey and the Bone White Demon and Tom Jones: Michelle Yim is also involved in Red Dragonfly Theatre, who specialises in East Asian Theatre, and there’s a lot of artistic overlap between the two groups. One play is based on Chinese folklore – the other is another Ross Ericson adaptation, with, it appears, an East Asian flavour.

And that’s a wrap. I was going to recommend something from Greater Manchester fringe, but that’s sadly cancelled. But I intend to call in during my Buxton visit to check out this other fringe.

Manchester might catch Buxton up, but it’s Buxton’s year of glory at right now. Three years ago there was a big question mark over whether it could cope with the loss of its main venue, but it’s done it in spades. What happens next year will be interesting, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, enjoy the next three weeks.

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