Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens

Sunday 18th August, 8.30 p.m.: Before doing any more reviews, one bit of news on the side. I’ve previously said that if I don’t see 5 plays on day 2 of Edinburgh Fringe, I consider it a personal failure. I have done 6. Some people have schedules that squeeze in 8. However, author of my guest post Flavia D’Avila is currently on a challenge to see 12 in 24 hours. To see the latest on this, you can follow it on Twitter.

One other bit of news – I’m late to the party on this, because it’s been going on all fringe, and I’ve given my thoughts on this business before, but now that this has come to a head in Edinburgh I may as well repeat this. You might have noticed there are two rival Fawlty Towers-theme dining themed plays in Edinburgh this year. There’s Faulty Tower, the Dining Experience which is a “tribute show” and has been running a few years now – indeed they’ve got a good claim to have pioneered this form of entertainment. There is also Fawlty Towers Live Themed Dinner Show. This is new, and uses the original scripts. This is also officially endorsed by John Cleese, as the posters around town states, heavily insinuating the other ones are the impostors.

I must declare at this point I’m not entirely impartial here. Interactive Theatre International, who do Faulty Towers along with other shows has been one of the most generous companies giving me press tickets. Even so, I’m not entirely convinced they are entirely legally covered here. John Cleese has previously protested against the existence of this show, and had he taken Interactive Theatre International to court, I would have respected his right to do that. But the reason I’m losing patience with Fawdinex who do the “official” Fawlty Towers is that they’ve bought the right to Fawlty Towers dining and then used that to make legal threats against their rivals. They claim that they are doing it because the unauthorised show is causing John Cleese and Connie Booth a lot of distress. I’m calling bullshit on that. John Cleese is not a delicate little flower – if he really had as much of a problem as Fawdinex claims, I have no doubt whatsoever he would have taken legal action itself. It seems (well, it’s bleeding obvious) that the real motive is to get rid of the competition.

The other problem is where Fawdinex is taking their legal fight. In a straight lawsuit between them and ITI, I’d have said fair enough, may the best legal team win. Instead, they went after the venues, threatening any hotel thinking of hosting them with consequences if they didn’t cancel the booking – and naturally, some venues, not having the stomach for a legal fight, capitulated. That is a really cowardly course of action. With Edinburgh Fringe being the must lucrative place, I strongly suspect they tried to pull the stunt here – if so, I can only assume there was at least one hotel that was having none of this.

The other thing about this that rankles is the hypocrisy over ripping off ideas. Interactive Theatre International might not have created Basil, Sybil and Manuel, but they did pioneer the concept of interactive dining comedy as we know it. I do not believe for a second that this “official” Fawlty Towers interactive dining would have existed have ITI shown it was viable and shown how it was done. I won’t be moralising and tell anyone to boycott anything just yet, and if you want the classic episodes re-enacted, go ahead and see them. But the way they’ve behaved, I couldn’t bring myself to do it if it was me. You can please yourselves.

Sunday 18th August, 5.00 p.m.: I’m now taking a break from Edinburgh and you can currently find me checking out Linlithgow. This does, however, give me a chance to keep on top of the reviews before they pile up too much. My next review, however, is going to be a difficult one to write. HiveMCR have showcased what they can do in Stephen Berkoff’s East, and a fine showcase it is. Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same way about the play they’re performing.

I chose to see a performance of East because I wanted to see how the script translates to the stage. To be honest, I’ve read the script before and I didn’t get it. But there again, I didn’t get Caryl Churchill’s A Number when I read the script, and it was only when it was performed I understood how it was meant to work. I had a similar observations with Five Kinds of Silence: I’ve seen two different productions of the same play, and I discovered the second time round how much of a difference some good movement directing puts into a play for voices. You can achieve far much more than five people on stage doing monologues in turn – you can choreograph in the whole ensemble.

The same principle works here, and HiveMCR does the best possible job of this. East refers to the East End of London, and the five character are hard-as-nails cockneys: Dad, Mum, their two sons, and the woman they’re both trying to shag when they’re not busy fighting other men or shagging other women. The whole play is done in very, so it’s, if you like, Shakespeare for Cockneys. Instead of a dry set of scene changes where one actor at a time does a piece, the whole ensemble takes part all the time, whether at a tense family dinner, an all-out street brawl or all gather together to be a motorbike. All of the actors fit their characters very well – in a play like this the last thing you want is someone who’d look like he’d follow up a punch or stabbing with “Oh, I’m sorry, are you all right.” In that respect, well done for HiveMCR for giving this play the best it could be given.

But, having seen this play on action live on stage, in the full spirit of how it’s meant to be done, I’m afraid I’m not warming to it. The entire play strikes me as nothing more than a list of negative traits about the working class of East End of London in the 1960s. Les and Mike are thugs with little more in their lives than fighting and shagging. Slyv might be hard as nails but main role in the play appear to be getting shagged by everyone. Dad is a racist who idolises Oswald Moseley. Mum is a slightly more sympathetic character than the others, but her life seems little more than letting Dad and the boys do their thing, and watching daytime TV. All of this might be fine if there was some nuance to this, but it’s either non-existent of subtle to the point of undetectable, with reasons for the way they are being little more to a few nods of boredom. The closest thing I saw to any humanity was Les’s slight of a beautiful woman on the bus. This might have struck a chord if he thought about a romantic relationship people like her have with each other – but instead it’s more like a checklist of the degrading sexual acts he’d like to perform on her.

What I find most uncomfortable about this play is how something relentlessly negative about working-class London gets so much praise. I realise Stephen Berkoff came from that background so maybe that was his own memories of what things were like, but I really don’t like the swiftness of the rest of the literary world to leap on this as if the observations of one writer validates their idea of what the prole are like. I must stress for a moment that I don’t believe for a moment that is what this company thinks about the working class, and if there is any attitude problem it’s with the literary establishment as a whole, particularly those in the 1970s when this play first became all the rage. Now, I’m prepared to consider that there might be something I’ve missed. But I cannot imagine this sort of depiction being tolerated for any other disadvantaged group. And you would not get off the hook by saying you weren’t looking deeply enough.

It is a shame that such a good performance from the ensemble is mixed with very different feelings for the script. I have no doubts that they will do other performances which will cause the scripts to shine. And for the seeming majority of literary critics who see this as a work of genius, I’m sure they’ll approve of this adaptation. But for me, this was my chance to see this on stage as it’s intended to come across – and I don’t get it. Sorry.

Sunday 18th August, 9.30 a.m.: A landmark yesterday: my first full day of Edinburgh Fringe viewing done entirely on press tickets. So I’ve got some new reviews to catch up on, but I’m going to start with Princess Party because this one I think could do with some more publicity.

Princess Party is fun for everyone, but something I’d especially recommend to actors making money on the side dressing up as Disney Princesses for children’s parties. I’ve heard numerous stories of these parties, especially where the parents have way to much cash to splash. However, these anecdotes pale into insignificance compared to the stories from Beverly Hills, where there are obscenely rich people in their obscenely extravagant using their children’s parties, I suspect, to one-up their obscenely rich friends and show how much richer they are.

Open to a story of a little princess who lived in a castle where she had everything her heart desired, we are soon joined by Snow White and Alice from Alice in Wonderland. If you are pedantic enough, you will be aware that Alice isn’t a princess, but it’s her first day on the job and she left the costume until the last moment and this was the only one on reduction. Not that this matters, as they discover now that all the kids are dressed as Anna and Elsa, and they are now realise they skim-read the e-mail saying it was a Frozen-themed party. However, even this problem pales into insignificance against the more pressing issue – as Snow White digresses from the story when she says what happened after she married the prince it become clear her real marriage has just broken down, whilst Alice found come cocaine left on the back seat of her Uber and could’t bear to let it go to waste. I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story, because you can already guess.

Before we get to the inevitable ending, though, we will meet the little girls’ older sisters, then a pair of chefs, and then a pair of mothers we’ve been hearing who spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are. The drunk/coked princesses are by far the strongest characters, but it would have been difficult to keep the joke running for a whole hour to the character comedy format suits the show well. My only regret was not getting more of a story about the families. I could’t really believe that the two mothers schmoozing with a pair of prospective business partners would end up twerking in Ann Summers gear, but as this is in the comedy section so I’ll let that off. However, I did feel that after we’d heard so much about the two mothers congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are (they are almost as angry over their princesses arriving 10 minutes late as they are for the mayhem they cause later), whilst their own marriages are in various states on breakdowns and/or infidelities, there was a missed opportunity to mix the chaos with more of a backstory about how this rich family has come this unhappy state.

Oh, did I say this is a semi-improvised show? For anyone brave/foolish enough to be on the front row there’s quite a lot of roles you play, and the act works around this. I won’t give away everything, save to give a warning that this the 10.30 p.m. slot so you can expect to happen what you expect to happen in a 10.30 p.m. slot. I gather that in real life one or both of these women were moved off princesses on to evil queens because the evil queens get to be funny. So I recommend giving this one some support at Gilded Balloon Teviot. But sit on the front entirely at your own risk.

Saturday 17th August, 8.45 p.m.: Sorry about the gap. I’ve had a bit of a fright this afternoon that involves urgently needing to move money between accounts with two different banks, with one of them I can’t get to for several days because they have no branches in Edinburgh, and the other bank (HSBC) being about as helpful as a hedgehog in a condom factory. Anyway, with a temporary resolution established, I can keep going. Looks like I’m going to be gratefully accepting a lot of press tickets between now and Tuesday.

Anyway, let’s get back to reviews. I’m going to start with Father of Lies. This is an in-house production from Sweet Venues, for a pair who normally do comedy. I found that out after the play – if I hadn’t I’d have just assumed they were straight theatre actors. This is a true story of one of the strangest murders on record. In West Germany in 1973, an widower and ex-priest murdered his nest friend, and also – so he confessed – his late wife’s child, whom he apparently believe was fathered by his best friend. But the baby was never found, either dead or alive. There are other strange events: the baby was born prematurely as his mother died in childbirth, surviving against all odds; the mother was a runaway from her religious Israeli family and possibly spent time in a cult; and the two men both have their own memories of the war from the losing side.

It’s a fascinating true story to bring to the stage, but the one decision I don’t understand was to tell most of the story in the format of a presentation, with only a few key scenes between the two men acted out. Sometimes this format is necessary if you have to convey a lot of complicated or technical information (Hitting the Wall, a play about swimming from Scotland to Ireland is a good example), but here a lot of information were the characters’ backstories, where it’s quite normal to work these into dialogue. And the other puzzle as to why there was so little in the way of acting is that the few short scenes they did were done very well, keeping the tension up and suiting the simple stage and the small space available very well. What’s more, when they did allude to their past events, it was very powerful, such as the friend recalling the fate of his mother and sister at the hands of the invading Soviet Army. Whilst I doubt you could have dispensed with the narration completely, there is a lot that I think would have been more powerful talked about by the two men than just spoken in front of a slide projector.

But this is an intriguing play/talk to watch, even if the format is a bit unusual, and the fact that this is has been done by an act normally associated with different genres is of great credit to them. Sweet Novotel if you want to catch it, and runs for the rest of the fringe.

Saturday 17th August, 11.45 a.m.: Before doing any reviews from visit 2, something that’s come to my attention in connection with Mumblegate. No, it’s not The Scotsman this time – I think I’ve kicked them enough for one fringe – instead this stays relevant to cash for reviews. Word has already got round that The Mumble was refused media accreditation this year – and let’s face it, if even I’ve got media accreditation that’s a pretty low bar. But according to The Times (via Arts Professional), The Mumble wasn’t the only publication that met this fate. The other is Short Com. I can’t find anything that goes into detail of exactly what Short Com is meant to have done, nor can I find anything on Short Com’s own site. But if this is what this story makes it out to be, this news is far far far more worrying than anything The Mumble is doing.

The Mumble is, by all accounts, a dreadful publication in every way, and not just for the cash for reviews (details available from journos with lawyers on standby). But that what makes them relatively harmless. So terrible is their reputation, hardly anyone takes them seriously. Most people with a shred of credibility steer clear of them. They know that sticking a review from The Mumble on your publicity – even one they did as a freebie – damages your reputation more than helps it. Short Com, on the other hand, is a reputable publication. The closest thing we have to a list of top-tier publication is The List’s table of top-rated shows, and Short Com is listed, between The Scotsman and The Skinny. This means they can publish pay-for reviews as credible reviews. One small but notable detail is that Short Com does not publish reviews below three stars. That doesn’t necessarily mean the reviews are corrupt – indeed, other publications do similar things for perfectly legitimate reason – but it does make it easier to operate on pay-for-praise and get away with it.

And the other problem? There’s not much the Festival Fringe Society can do about this. I’ve no objection to refusing to accredit review publications wanting payment, but this isn’t banning them from the fringe – as we’re seeing now, this isn’t stopping Short Com reviewing, nor is it stopping The List treating them as a reputable source. Short Com could be the first step to normalising paying for reviews, and as soon as you blur the boundary between independent reviews and paid for PR, this massively undermines the integrity of the entire fringe. All I can suggest is that we normalise public awareness first. We might not be able to stop paid reviews if Short Com is doing it, but we can make sure prospective punters know about this. If we can make it a basic expectation that paid reviews have to be declared – and yes, that will have to mean naming and shaming the artists who don’t declare this – it might not stop the practice for paid reviews, but it would at least keep it in check.

Friday 16th August, 9.00 p.m.: Here I am. Press tickets collected, first show this evening, so let’s get these last two reviews from visit 1 done. These were both senn on my last day chosen from the half-price ticket hut to fill in two gaps. And the two are connected by the most unlikely theme.

So I’ll begin with The Red Hourglass. Spoiler alert attached to this review: if you’re already planning to see this, don’t read this review, because the opening minute is best seen if you don’t know what to expect, but I can say one thing without giving the game away: this is my unexpected gem of the fringe so far.

Spoiler warning established, this is a solo performance from Alan Bissett, who plays different characters trapped an a mysterious research facility. What the description doesn’t mention is that these characters are spiders. Indeed, when the first character talked about being part of a proud and ancient race – coupled with the fact that this is being told in the Scottish Storytelling Centre – it had me fooled. Not that the first spider sees much difference between the two. This common spider is pretty sure it was one of his ancestors’ persistence in spinning a web that inspired Robert the Bruce himself to never give up and go back outside and defeat the English.

I probably should warn you (not that this warning will do any good if you’ve already heeded my advice not the read the spoiler), this play sets out to taunt you if you’re scared of spiders. Next up is the recluse spider, who misses his wife and three thousand kids, and mostly liked to spend time to himself. Except when they swarm, because that’s fucking mental that is. My favourite line of the play, as a non-arachnophobe was “So we swarmed into the flat of this broad … We weren’t going to kill her … although we could have if we wanted to”. If that doesn’t put the willies up you, the black widow might. That was Bissett’s funniest performance of the whole lot, as the black widow spider was a complete psychopath.

I suppose one complaint you could make about this is that for small number of people who truly have a problem with spiders, they might be landed without warning into something they really don’t want to watch. I sympathise, but this is genuinely one of the play where content that some people might find distressing works best if it comes out of the blue. This is a case where I think the Edinburgh Fringe site could do with a content warning hidden behind a spoiler alert. But, honestly, put your fears aside if you can. Very clever and very funny character comedy, with similar humour to Made in Cumbria. But with spiders. Unfortuantely, the run has already finished, which is a shame, because this doubtless would have sustained sales over the full fringe had it run three weeks. So keep an eye out for it instead.

And the other play I caught was Bang Average Theatre with Lucille and Cecelia. This time, the two characters are sea lions. And just in case you missed the bit in the programme saying they’re seal, as you take your seat you will see these two seals (embodied by two women in black leotards and moustaches) wriggling about, balancing on balls and excitedly performing sea lion-like stunts for the audience. I loved that performance and this opening is one of the best openings I’ve seen of an Edinburgh Fringe play.

But then what do you do? No matter how good your weird and wonderful idea is, you have to sustain interest for a full hour. Many years ago I saw a similarly-styled play Howard and Mimi, where the characters were a dog and a cat, with a story structured around moving in together, fighting like cat and dog, then learning to like each other before some unexpected events drive them closer. The Red Hourglass structured the show around one character at a time. Here … I can’t work out where the story was meant to go. The ringmaster announcing the acts sounded a bit shifty, but that plot-line never develops. The sea lions start off barking, then learn human words, and then they’re suddenly speaking to each other in English, but it’s not clear what that was meant to signify. One of the sea lions has a crush on her human trainer and flirts with other random humans, and the other one wants to escape, but I couldn’t establish either sea lion’s motives.

I still think this is worth seeing for the sea lion performances, but for this to fulfil its potential, we need something more. I might sound like a screaming pedant when I ask what the rules are of this setting, but even the most surrealistic setting work best when you establish what the rules are and play out believable characters in these absurd scenarios. At the moment, I feel this has gone for a scattergun approach to writing a plot. I would pick out the strongest plot element, concentrate on that, and write a story around that. There are few plays that give you a chance to identify with sea lions – this is an opportunity not to be wasted. Continue reading

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There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman

COMMENT: The Scotsman is a highly-regarded arbiter of high-profile fringe theatre, but the service they offer groups on their first fringe venture is a different matter.

Edinburgh Fringe is about to begin. And where there’s an Edinburgh Fringe, there’s Edinburgh Fringe shenanigans. This year, the first shenanigan to hit the headlines is The Mumble, who charge people for reviews. I am in agreements with, well basically everyone, that you should have nothing to do with them, especially if you are starting off on the fringe circuit. The good news is that few people appear to have signed up to their schemes – most people, it seems, know better to put their trust in someone with such a dodgy reputation.

However, I am coming to the view that there is another publication you should be wary about, and unlike The Mumble, they are very highly regarded; and plenty of performers, beginners and veterans alike, invite their reviewers along. And that publication is The Scotsman.

It’s not got to the point where I’m telling everyone to have nothing to do with them. Their Fringe First awards are something to take seriously, and if you’re already a big name and you’re in with a shot of awards of that prestige, The Scotsman is as good an option as any. But if, like the majority of performers who read this blog, you are trying to make a name for yourself, it’s a different story. Any review request is a gamble, heavily swayed by a reviewer’s personal tastes that you have no control over. But this particular gamble is one where the odds are not in your favour. There is a high chance a Scotsman review will be useless, or worse than useless. Continue reading

A Thousands Splendid Suns: the long road to darkness

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Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns stays faithful to the book, but brings a new focus to the treatment of women in Afghanistan – which began earlier than you might think.

Talk to anyone about the history of Afghanistan and they’ll tell you the Taleban took over after the US armed them during the Soviet invasion. There again, talk to anyone about any topical bit of history and they’ll probably tell you whichever cherry-picked version suits whatever point they want to make. Never trust what most people tell you. As often is the case, this version is not wrong, but it’s a very simplistic version that misses out most of the intervening steps. It is this that Khaled Hosseini’s books cover well. In The Kite Runner, the main character flees Afganhistan with his father as things are starting to go downhill and only returns when Taleban rule is at its worst. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Laila doesn’t get the chance to escape, and witnesses the descent of her country into a theocracy. But it’s a slower descent than you might think, and not just down to Osama Bin Laden’s mates.

2e70c534e-99f1-402f-a1342a622afb67e1At the beginning of the play, Laila lives with her liberal-minded parents in Kabul. Even though her brothers fought and died for the US-backed Muhadajeen, the family is still supportive of the Americans, with her father even wearing an American T-shirt. Unfortunately, Kabul is under attack, and before her family can flee, a shell hits the house and both her parents are killed. Laila only survives because of some neighbours who take her in, but what first appears to be an act of kindness soon turns out to be an act of opportunism and the start of the nightmare. Rasheed is a self-obsessed control-freak who dominates his wife, and now wishes to take Laila as his second – something she is powerless to refuse. Mariam is at first angry with Laila for being upstaged, but as Rasheed’s true colours come to light and Laila sticks up for Mariam, the two form a hasty alliance, soon to become a true friendship. Continue reading

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2019

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Wolf Tamer, Sary, I Am a Camera, Freak, Ross and Rachel, Be More Martyn, Here We Are Again

Another Brighton Fringe has come and gone. It’s been quite a busy one for me as, all of a sudden, I’ve been kept busy with review requests. It would appear that I’ve managed to end up on a list of press contacts somewhere. But that’s great – it’s a lot more worthwhile reviewing plays when I know the people involved want a review from me.

For fringe news as a whole, it’s been a bit of a slow news fringe. There was some steady growth this year, nothing as earth-shattering at 2016, but enough to keep moving. Within these steady-looking numbers, however, there’s been a lot of rearrangement: The Warren moved next to Spiegeltent and expanded its number of spaces, Sweet Venues ditched the Dukebox and re-focused its operations (including year-round operations) on The Werks, and Junkyard Dogs took on a new Fringe venue at the Brighthelm Centre with three spaces. One effect of this is that The Warren is now by far the biggest venue in Brighton. Could it become too big and too powerful? For an answer to this and other partient questions about all things fringe, you might like to read my interview with Richard Stamp. Continue reading

Odds and sods: June 2019

In the lull between Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe, it’s time for my usual catchup on various things happening in theatre that got my attention. We have for you:

Stuff that happened in June:

Battery acidgate

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Some battery acid not being thrown, yesterday.

I’m going to start with this one. I don’t like diving into every row going on in the comedy and theatre world, but this one is becoming an issue of artistic freedom, so that prompts me to stick my oar in. Everyone by now should have heard about Jo Brand’s quip on Heresy about throwing battery acid instead of milkshakes, and subsequent outrage: some justified, some opportunistic and hypocritical. You may have noticed that when I’ve made similar quips on Twitter, such as suggesting that an Edinburgh Fringe play about murdering Katie Hopkins would be cheaper if they just hired a hitman, I’ve said straight after that it’s a joke. This would once have gone without saying, but in the last few years politics has got a lot nastier, too many people on all sides are casually advocating violence against enemies, and we are now at a point where – even it’s obvious to 99.9% of people it’s a joke – we do not want to give any encouragement to the other 0.1%. For that reason, I firmly believe that joke was not at all appropriate. Even in a comedy game show that is all about saying outrageous things.

However, the thing that is being forgotten in all of this is intent. Incitement to violence dresses up as a joke is still incitement to violence – that is my one limit to my firm belief of freedom of expression. If there was any evidence that Jo Brand made this joke in the hope that someone would actually go ahead and do this, I would be one of the people calling for her head. But it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s heard this that the intent was an edgy joke and nothing more. Perhaps if there was a pattern of behaviour there might be reasons to doubt her motives, but honestly, if there was a pattern, someone would have highlighted it by now. True, it’s possible that someone might go ahead and act on this crass comment anyway, but I’m sure we’re all aware that punishing comedians for hypothetical reactions to their material is a very bad idea.

Where I think we do need to ask questions is the format of comedy shows like this one that lead to these sort of comments. Victoria Coren-Mitchell says Heresy was set up to “test the boundaries of what it’s OK to say and not say”. If you’re going to egg on comedians in that direction, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Even so, I think I prefer this to the reaction to the “Defend the Indefensible” round Fighting Talk six years ago, when Colin Murray was under similar circumstances egged into make the joke about turning Clare Baldwin, and the BBC threw him under a bus. That is not good enough – the BBC should either take the risk and take responsibility, or play it safe and leave it to other broadcasters. Either way, the current climate of joke policing is not healthy. Jo Brand was not the first comedian to go too far and she won’t be the last. But I would much rather have a situation where comedians sometimes overstep the line, apologise and move on, than the climate where everyone’s terrified of putting a foot wrong and no-one takes any risks ever. I fear we are still headed towards the latter.

Another sell-out for Joe Douglas

One review you won’t be seeing on this blog any time soon is The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil. Like its predecessor, Clear White Light the entire run sold out early on, and this time I was too distracted by other things to keep an eye on returns. I think we can safely assume this will make a return just like Clear White Light is, so I’ll give my verdict then. But the reviews don’t really matter now. The news is that the first two plays under Joe Douglas have been runaway sell-outs. It’s happened before, but never two in a row under the same person’s artistic direction. This in unprecedented, and leads to two questions.

The first question: is this the new normal at Live? I would be very cautious about making an long-term predictions just yet. Joe Douglas’s arrival at Live is still new and exciting (and, by all accounts, has quickly earned a lot of good will across Newcastle’s theatre scene). He may stay exciting, but he won’t stay new, so it may be a challenge to keep up these figures when the debut factor wears off. Or it might be that these first two plays will build his reputation and push up demand even further. We may have a better idea when we see how a third or fourth Joe Douglas production performs.

If the sell-outs persist, this brings us to the next question: what will Live Theatre do? Will they programme longer main-season runs in the future? It must be tempting – but every extra week given to a headline play is one less week the main stage can be used for something different. On the other hand, in this dream scenario where Live Theatre can produce new theatre with guaranteed sell-outs, that’ll be a windfall that they can used on new projects – but whose new projects? A long way to go before any of this becomes a reality – but it’s something that we could start contemplating.

Introducing the Spare Room

Now some news from Durham. I’ve known about for some time on my grapevines, but it’s only now that this has been officially announced and my off-the-record info is now on the record. The short version is that The Assembly Rooms at Durham is bringing up a new venue called “The Spare Room”. But it’s not the venue we had last month run by the Assembly Rooms called The Spare Room. This is a different venue run by the Assembly Rooms called The Spare Room. This may take a bit of explaining.

So, the background here is that there was a pop-up venue in Manchester going spare, and Theatre Elysium have been working with Durham Student Theatre to find a new space in Durham. During the Summer in the City festival, a venue appeared called “The Spare Room”, but it wasn’t the pop-up one might have expected. Rather, it was a room made up like the pop-venue would be – a kind of Spare Room simulation, as it were. It wasn’t a big programme as I was expecting – only nine performances over three days in the end, with (I think) only two of those coming from outside Durham Student Theatre – but now that it’s confirmed the proper venue is coming, that will have a lot more. My understanding is that this programme will be mostly – but not entirely – student productions during term time. Outside of term time, there should be a lot more slots going free.

Summer in the City wasn’t that dramatic a change from the predecessor Durham Festival of the Arts. Although this was open to anyone in Durham City to register, the programme remained mostly a student festival. But embracing an open festival, along with the imminent arrival of a possible venue, and two important milestones. The north-east is one of the few regions left without a fringe and badly needs one. With Summer in the City and the Spare Room coming along, Durham is slowly edging in this direction.

Venues North at Edinburgh Fringe

Most of the developments relating to the Edinbrugh Fringe I’m holding off until my Edinburgh Fringe coverage starts, but there’s a couple of things I want to get out of the way early. The first one related to a scheme from Venues North. Halfway through the fringe, a lucky recipient of the inaugural Venues North Edinburgh Festival Fringe Award will be announced. I don’t want to rain on the parade of whoever wins this, which is why I’m going to say now I think this award will do more harm than good.

You might find it odd that I’m not enthused with an award in a festival that anyone from the north can win. After all, one of the criticisms that grates the most with venues is that of gatekeeping. I’ve long supported the idea that artists should be able to just go ahead and present their work to an audience – surely this is a chance for you to prove your worth, so what’s the problem? For a start, there’s the process to get through: you have to apply and get down to a shortlist before anyone from Venues North will see your work. I accept practicalities may prevent them doing this any other way, but having to meet someone else’s approval before they’ll see your work veers back towards the gatekeeping the Edinburgh Fringe is supposed to overcoming. But the other problem is the more serious one: it’s a massive financial gamble to take part at the Edinburgh Fringe. Yes, there’s plenty of reasons to do Edinburgh other than the chance of getting an award, but that’s a massive thing to ask of hopefuls.

I can’t understand why the theatre industry is so wedded to the culture of “Edinburgh or bust”. There are two big talking points that venues have supported wholeheartedly: that the cost of the Edinburgh Fringe is a barrier to taking part, and the costs of a career in theatre in general is a barrier to working class participation. And yet here are Venues North promoting a scheme that entrenches both of these problems. It has been suggested cynically by some that this is simply a programming exercise dressed up as an award. I hope that is wrong, but in the absence of any explanation over what this award is meant to achieve, I don’t know what’s right.

A Venues North Brighton Festival Fringe Award alongside the Edinburgh one will shut me up. Brighton is far more financially accessible than Edinburgh, and northern representation in Brighton is sorely lacking. In the meantime, however, it’s things like this that make me wonder why we bother talking about access to the arts.

A warning about The Mumble

The other thing I want to talk about sooner rather than later is The Mumble. Unlike Venues North, I expect I will get universal support for this, and normally I don’t like to waste time repeating what everyone else is already saying. But on this occasion, it’s important for as many people to say this loud and clear: do not accept review requests from The Mumble. And definitely do not pay them for a review.

So The Mumble is yet another website that is charging people for reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. A few years ago, edfringereviews.com (not to be confused with edfringereview.com) tried to pull that stunt, but a massive outcry forced them to back down with their tail between their legs. However, The Mumble have not been deterred and are pressing on, and have even written their own defence. If that article does not set every alarm bell ringing in your head, it should do. For a start, there’s their description as “Professional Cultural Surveyors” which is just about the most pretentious wankery you can imagine, but that’s the least of the problem. The two biggest red flags are their insinuations that the Big Evil Theatre Establishment (i.e. The Stage writing a critical article) is ganging up on them, and that you have to play money to publicists in order to get reviews (which is bollocks), so paying them is okay.

Quite apart from the moral arguments, there is one overriding reason why paying for a review is a terrible idea: it’s worthless. The moment your business model is dependent on artists for your income, the credibility of the reviews are irreparably compromised. People don’t simply pay for publicity, they pay for good publicity, and it would be bad for business if The Mumble to wrote bad or lukewarm reviews of their customers (and, let’s face it, their clientele are going to be mostly people who don’t have a good enough reputation to get normal reviews). Everybody who’s anybody knows this, and knows which publications are doing pay-for-reviews. If anything, your review from The Mumble will count against you, because this suggests you would rather buy praise than earn it. But The Mumble already know this. They are targetting performers naive enough to believe this is yet another Edinburgh Fringe expense, and with the early uptake dominated by performers at The Space (no direspect to The Space but with the programme dominated by people with no Fringe experience this is the ripest ground for suckers), this suggests the strategy is working.

For the record, I am aware of even worse allegations about people who run The Mumble, but as those are in the legally actionable category I will leave it to other people to talk about those. Regardless, have nothing to do with anyone who wants cash for reviews. Yes, it sucks if you can’t get anyone to review you, but if you are not ready to get the attention of the conventional arts media, you are not ready for the Edinburgh Fringe. At best, a paid review be a waste of money – at worst, it will be career suicide.

From Edinburgh to TedX

(This actually happened in May, but I wanted to give this my full attention rather than mention this in passing during Brighton Fringe coverage.)

Finally, a blast from the past. Who remembers Yve Blake? I’d periodically been keeping an eye on what she’s up to since she did Lie Collector back in 2015, but with her moving back to Australia and few chances to catch what she’s up to in this hemisphere I’ve not given many updates. But, boy, is there a success story here. Her big breakthrough was winning a scholarship for Australian Young People’s Theatre to embark on a musical about Fangirls the following year, and that is finally coming in October. But on the back of this, she has now landed a TEDx talk. Big big deal in Australia.

The bad news for fans on this side of the world is that there’s no sign of Fangirls coming over to Blighty just yet, although I would urge Australians to be the lookout for any of her fans from Edinburgh offerings gifts of wooden horses. I’ll have a better look at what’s on offer if and when this comes our way. In the meantime, there are some clues about what to expect. I would urge anyone waiting for this not to expect something identical to what you saw last time – I get the impression she has moved on a lot since her last fringe appearance – but what we do know is that she’s in it (hooray) and it’s still branded as a “bloodthirsty” musical. Might be a personal preference, but one of her strengths for me was having just the right amount of twistedness in it.

When you’ve previously said someone had the potential to rise to greatness and they do, it’s very tempting to congratulate yourself for making such a good prediction. Reality, of course, is far less impressive – I’ve predicted great things from others who inexplicably vanished without trace. Nevertheless, it is moments like this that make my blog worth it. I remember one word of encouragement I gave after Lie Collector was an observation of how far she’d come in the three years, to think how much further she could go in the next three years. I’ve never been so happy to be right.

Stuff I wrote since March:

It’s been three months between the last odds and sods, so it’s a longer list than usual. We have:

Noughts and Crosses: the other Jim Crow: Review of another impressive play from Pilot Theatre, both story and staging.

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2019: My previews in the run-up to the number 2 fringe.

Sherlock Holmes: Nick Lane is afoot: Nick Lane’s second play for Blackeyed Theatre – sometimes hard going to follow, but captures the characters of Holmes and Watson well.

Brighton Fringe 2019 – as it happens: My month-long coverage of this fringe, with surprisingly few shenanagins this year.

Interview with Richard Stamp on fringe ethics: Ooh, this was good. I asked the editor of Fringeguru some tough questions on how the fringes should work – very interesting answers.

What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2019: The look ahead to north-east summer productions away from the festival fringes.

Interview with Hetty Hodgson on Beats and directing: As a director at Durham Student Theatre I have huge respect for prepared for her last production, I took the chance to ask some questions.

Screen to stage: Rain Man, Trainspotting and Frankenstein: Reviews of three play: two that pleased me, and one surprise disappointment.

Between the fringes: Be More Martyn and Down to Zero: Two more reviews, including one that I’d heard all-round praise for that did not disappoint.

The next odds and sods will be for September – anything that happens before then will probably appear in Edinburgh Fringe coverage. If you’re gearing yourself up for the big one, good luck. If you’re staying how, how disappointingly sensible of you.