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.
According to my sources, Brighton Fringe ticket sales have done well. But just when it looked like we might want to revisit the idea that Brighton might catch up with Edinburgh, Edinburgh reported huge growth leaving Brighton standing in the dust. So maybe we should instead contemplate another scenario, for Brighton Fringe to make its mark as Not Edinburgh: big enough to make its mark, but not the size that renders it unaffordable to so many. The next challenge for Brighton might therefore be to get the arts media to take Brighton seriously as an alternative to Edinburgh – if we can ever persuade them that places exist outside of London other than Edinburgh, and in months other than August.
But that’s another story. Let’s get on to the reviews.
Pick of the Fringe:
I saw twelve plays (plus five things I didn’t count as theatre). Out of those twelve, there were three duds – those aren’t reviewed in line with my policy of not doing reviews if I can neither say something nice or say something constructive (bribes accepted if you want to know what they are). But of of those remaining nine, there were six that particuarly pleased me, plus one extra that I didn’t see in Brighton but caught later on the tour.
I do have a bit of scepticism over the current fashion for autobiographical solo plays; I’ve seen more than my fair share of plays where a performer over-analyses details of their live or goes into excessive self-justification. Some artists have amazing true stories of their lives; others, I suspect, make the mistake of thinking their lives are more unique and special than everyone else’s. But Rachel Mae Brady story isn’t just about her – it’s most her her Uncle Eric who is the titular character in the story.
The wolf in question is Eric’s pet which he tamed in the wild. Or it might be a normal dog that looks a little bit like one. But when you’re a six-year-old child and your favourite uncle tells you all these amazing stories, who are we to disagree. Uncle Eric’s has also had numerous other amazing adventures from the North Pole to the pyramids, and definitely not something embellished or even made up completely. But there might a reason for these imaginary adventures other than impressing an adoring niece: it’s better than reality. In the real world, he is slowly fighting a battle against agoraphobia and drink – a battle he will ultimately lose.
Brady’s touch in the play is seeing the Eric’s story through her eyes. As a child, her family spares her the real story – but you can’t conceal the truth from children forever. When Uncle Eric’s agoraphobia stops him attending her school plays when she’s ten, she has to start learning what’s really going going on. When she’s sixteen and notices he’s always drinking non-alcoholic lager, she has to learn that bit of the story. She has her own life to be getting on with by then, but the story that underpins all of this is the tragic witnessing of the hero of her life transforming himself into a wreck.
If there’s one thing I felt this could have done with, it’s a sound plot. There is already good use of lighting and props, and sound plot for this wouldn’t be easy do get right, but with so much of the story based around Eric’s fantastical escapes, some sound and music would add a lot to this. Aside from that. however, the play is presented well, the storytelling where Rachel becomes her uncle being a particular highlight. Intentionally or not, it gives the touch that it’s up to her to be Uncle Eric now. No-one chooses what personal stories life hands them, but you can choose how to tell them, and Rachel Mae Brady’s story of loss is one very much worth seeing.
Sam Chittenden, got herself known last year with a re-telling of Metamorphoses, told through the story of not hapless insectoid Gregor but his sister Greta. Having now seen Sary, I’m now identifying what Chittenden’s strength is with her writing: she can take an existing story, find a new story arc with gaps in it, and filling in the gaps to make something original. Unlike last year’s offering based on a completely fictitious story, this is based on a piece of local folklore. “Ol’ Sary Weaver”, reputed to be a recluse and a witch, becomes the basis for a full life story.
One thing I feel I ought to mention to anyone planning to watch this is that the two women in the play are playing a younger and older Sary Weaver. Sometimes they narrate the story between them, something they talk to each other, but it’s not the easiest thing to work out. It doesn’t help that at they sometimes play other characters too, which is needed, but that further confuses who’s who. I can’t think of an obvious solution to this – what’s confusing to one audience member can be spoon-feeding to another. But once you pick this up, it’s worth it.
The play is described as a feminist-folklore-horror, but the feminist element isn’t what you might think. There are no diatribes against the way Sary is treated – if anything, the message is conspicuous by its absence. In this story, the reason she’s a recluse comes down to the abusive uncle she had to run away from. But she’s running away not to escape what he’s doing to her but to escape shame of carrying his child. The fact that she gets the shame and not him is just accepted as the way things are. The story over her witch status is also cleverly done, with her relations with the wider world drifting between suspicion and begrudging tolerance. Things often ended badly for women said to be witches – this play, however, give a clever alternative ending. This time, Different Theatre are taking the Edinburgh plunge taking both this at Metamorphoses to Edinburgh. After all the acclamation at Brighton (with the other play, Clean, also reputedly getting a lot of praise), they should be an a strong position.
I Am a Camera
You might not know this story by its title, or the title of the book it came from, but you will almost certainly know the title of the musical, Cabaret. Film and musical buffs will know that the stage musical and film musical are very different. The main story in both is the relationship between dogged aspiring writer Christopher/Clifford/Brian (they kept changing his name for some reason) and Sally Bowles, carefree aspiring singer and actress. Their own happiness and ambitions distract from what else is going on in Berlin. Beyond that, there’s a lot of changes. The film cut a lot of story threads from the stage musical, added some new ones in, and reinstated some from the original play. For example, both the film and the original play feature the romance of Fritz and Natalia – when it emerges Natalia is Jewish, that is the first real sign that the outside world cannot be ignored any longer.
But if you only know the musical, you may be in for a shock. The role of Fraulein Schneider varies in the musicals: in the film she’s only an incidental character; in the stage version her romance to lodger Herr Schultz replaces Frtiz and Natalia. But in this play, instead of anti-Semites spoiling things for her and her love, it is Fraulein Schneider herself who’s the complete anti-Semite. But not a shifty manipulative one like Earnst – she’s still a nice person who treats the tenants as her family and yet she casually spouts the most awful anti-Jewish rhetoric. What’s more, she doesn’t seem to properly understand what she’s saying, merely repeating what those nice speakers at those nice Nazi rallies said.
As with most full-length plays in fringes, this was shortened to an hour, but Blue Devil Theatre made a choice to keep a focus on the anti-Semetism as depicted here – because this is important. The Nazis didn’t get their way because of the hateful ideology of a group of fanatics – it was only when the same ideology started being adopted by ordinary and otherwise decent people people leading ordinary and otherwise decent lives. However, on this occasion I feel an hour was a little too short. By cutting fickle benefactor millionaire Clive from the story, it gives the audience a lot of work to fill in the gaps, and I wonder if the accelerated story weakens the transition of Fraulein Schneider from open-minder liberal to imminent Nazi pawn. I would have looked at lessening the snippage, in spite of the logitical problems a longer play presents at a fringe.
If there’s one thing I would have tweaked, it would have been the emotions – Sally Bowles might not take life seriously, but when the chips were doing, a balance between showing hurt and trying hard to hide it would have gone a long way. But where the play got the heaviest criticism, I thought it was unfair. I am terrible at accents so I have no idea what a German accent is supposed to sound like, but some people said they weren’t very good and maybe they’re right. But to call the pkay “borderline racist”? Oh, come on. It’s a real shame that some people missed the point of I Am a Camera so badly, because the powerful message given here is how democracy does, not with the weapons of a mob, but the quiet acceptance of everyone else. Credit to Blue Devil for reminding us of this.
I first came across the name of Anna Jordan, when I saw Yen last year and loved.If you haven’t seen it I won’t give the game away, but one plot thread that is incidental until the is internet porn watch by two neglected teenage boys – incidental, that is, until the end. In Freak, however, this is the central theme of the story: if not internet porn itself, it’s a pretty damning indictment of the culture surrounding it, and the misleading depiction of sex it gives. This time it’s the story of two women. Leah is preparing to have sex for the first time and is doing her research online on how to get it right. Unfortunately, the material she is reading spends too much time going on pulling the perfect cum face and shaving the right amount of bikini line, and not enough time going into spotting if your prospective sexual partner is a complete wanker, which her boyfriend is, but she’s too naive to realise this. Georgie, on the other hand, is left feeling unwanted after her long-time boyfriend leaves her. For her, feeling wanted means throwing caution to the wind, getting a job as a stripper and having sex with an entire stag party.
Anna Jordan remembers a playwriting rule that countless writers forget: if you want to write something persuasive, show, don’t tell. A less influential play would have lines scripted spelling out why this culture is bad; this play doesn’t need to. Neither Leah nor Georgie are made to do anything they didn’t consent to, but there’s still so much wrong with it. Thanks to the stuff Leah’s been reading, she confuses feeling sexy with having sex, and her boyfriend exploits her naivety appallingly. For Georgie, the thrill of feeling desired can’t mask her shame forever, not when everyone around you treats you with either lust or disgust (or, from the stag party who picks her up, both) – when she throws away her phone rather than take a call from her sister, it’s because, in her words she doesn’t deserve a sister. Leah and Georgie aren’t the only victims of peer pressure though. Most of the men in the story are the worst people you can imagine, but there is one man on the stag night who senses something isn’t right or shows any remorse – but everyone goading him on, he goes ahead anyway, and as the one person who’s happily married, he might pay the highest of price of all.
For a while, I wondered if there would be a twist that Georgie was in fact Leah fifteen years on. She isn’t – they have a completely different association – but that could easily have been Leah’s fate had other events not intervened. Devon-based Ratchet Theatre put on a fine performance from the two actors, and my only regret is that, as a company new to Brighton, they didn’t get a bigger audience compared to their counterparts at the Rialto. But most of all, if you want to write something influential, there are few plays that could set a better example than Freak. Countless writers lose their way by getting on a moral high-horse or going into meaningless over-analysis; Anna Jordan is a great example of how to do it right.
Ross and Rachel
Now for another play directed by Sam Chittenden, this time for Pretty Villain productions. Ross and Rachel is a play that I advise you to watch cold if you can, because they’re is a plot twist quite early on that is best viewed with no idea it’s coming. I will try my best not to give this away in this review, but don’t blame me if you guess it for yourself. If you wish to read on, what I can safely tell you is that this play doesn’t actually have that much to do with Ross and Rachel.* There isn’t even anyone who gets anywhere near the iconic always-meant-to-be-together-forever couple from Friends. But there is someone who thinks his marriage is just like this – unfortunately his wife secretly doesn’t feel that way any more. However, things are about to come to a head in a way that no-one expected – or asked for. It should be a thing that brings these two closer together, but instead it brings out the worst in both of them. She’s planning a life apart too eagerly for the circumstances. And his rose-tinted view of their marriage escalates to dangerously high levels of delusion.
(* Unless, of course, the writer declares in ten years time that the nameless couple actually are Ross and Rachel, two decades on. In which case, Friends shall be ruined forever.)
It’s a very powerful story, but there’s one artistic decision I’m not convinced by: both characters are played by the same actor (a women in this production). That is not a fresh take on the play but how James Fritz’s script was originally written. This actually works a lot better than you think – produced properly you don’t lose track on who’s who at this moment. But it felt a little like the script making you tell the story the hard way when the easy way would have done the job just as well. However, that should not denigrate the achievement of making such a difficult script work on stage: thanks to some cleverly deployed lighting and sound cues and some good changes in mannerisms from performer Joanna Rosenfeld, the thread of the story is never lost. And these aren’t in-your-face changes either – they are usually understated, but it always works. (Also: I should acknowledge there was the two-star review specifically over dislike of the one-actor-two-parts format. That is a valid view – if you don’t like it, you don’t – but with the reviews of the original Edinburgh production being overwhelmingly positive, I’d put this down as an outlier.)
If there’s one puzzle with this, it’s how is was possible for everyone to rave about this in Edinburgh without giving more – or apparently anyone else – any reason to believe it would be anything other than a love-conquers-all romance. Perhaps that was the reason for the title, to throw the audience off the scent and catch them off their guard. Regardless, anyone expecting something like everyone’s favourite 90s sitcom is in for a surprise, because this is far, far, darker. But also very powerful. And if this was the standard that Ross and Rachel was produced in the original run, it would be no surprise this was the hit it was.
Be More Martyn
I actually saw this back in the north-east, but this qualifies for the roundup as Brighton Fringe was part of that tour. The non-fringe version is a bit longer, and as a result I wrote a longer review, but there’s two things in particular that need to be summarised here. Firstly, in spite of this being verbatim theatre to commemorate a young man killed in the Manchester bombings, it much funnier and uplifting than anyone would imagine. Secondly, this:
I can’t do this play justice in a three-paragraph round-up, so go to the other article for the full praise. The short version is that Martyn Hett was a young man whose circle of friends, so they say, were the waifs and strays of Manchester he picked up. He was noted for his enthusiasm for pretty much everything, but especially the Eurovision Song Contest and all things Coronation Street. He was also a champion for LGBT rights, and he arguably was, but not in the way some of the papers said – in this play, he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks, about his sexuality or anything else, and it’s this that encourages other people to likewise not give a damn what anyone else thinks, about their sexuality or otherwise.
If this was a eulogy, it would be the celebration of a life rather than the mourning of a death, and although the that and the phrase “It’s what Martyn would have wanted” sounds like cliches, I genuinely cannot think of a better way to describe this. Even when the subject of his murder is brought up, that is usually in relation to other things he was known for. When his obesession with Coronation Street is followed up with a mention of his favourite soap starts coming to his funeral, that is one of the most touching parts of the play. If you have a choice between seeing this at a fringe or elsewhere on the tour, I would advise seeing this elsewhere, because I cannot think of anything in the longer version I could bear to cut for the fringe-length version. This tour has finished, but Hope Theatre Company (or Hive North, as they are newly-renamed) still have this down as a current production. Really hoping there’s another tour, because there is nothing like this, and probably never will be. See it next time you have the chance.
Special pick of the fringe:
Here We Are Again
How things change. When Wired Theatre began what was to become a trilogy in 2017 with And Love Walked In, I had some doubt – the play done to a high standard, but it didn’t seem to have anything distinctive to make it stand out from their other plays. But when it continued the following year with Always, With a Love That’s True, the plays’ strength as story and sequel came into play. Now this is the final installment, another sequel (and, arguably, a prequel too). Each of the three plays begins with psychiatrist Andrew (Robin Humphreys) welcoming us to his conservatory/office, but each scene marks a noted decline. First he is a respected professional embarking on an affair with a patient; then he is a more delusional and alcoholic professional having blown things with both wife Sheila and mistress Phyl; and now he is even more delusional, even more alcoholic and even more struck off.
For those who saw the first two installments, there’s little room for doubt which way the story is going to go – he’s already alienated everyone who could save him and he cannot stopping digging himself into an ever-deeper hole. The only question is how he gets there – and also what else he’s done to get to this point. One touch I liked was a throwback to his daughter leaving home. Until now, it was only incidentally suggested that their daughter moving away was the thing that started the breakdown of the marriage – now we find out whose fault it was she moved to Sweden in the first place. And the other bit of good news for anyone who saw this from the beginning: Piotr. The man who took Sheila away, then died, Robin Humphreys did one of his best performances last year with both Andrew and Piotr’s words coming out of this mouth, but I didn’t think you could round this off with Piotr coming back to torment him in person. And back he is – only a ghost and/or a memory this time, but fitting all the same.
But for those who haven’t seen the earlier stories, these plays worked surprisingly well as stand-alone pieces. Those people I asked who saw the plays individually quickly picked up what was going on. Whilst people who saw Andrew in action from the start can spot his bullshit a mile off by now, Andrew is enough of a fantasist for people new to his company to wise up sooner rather than later. Sylvia Vicker’s script is also cleverly written – enough references to the past for newcomers to piece together the story so far, but not too much for the people back for the third time to get impatient. The only thing I would advise anyone watching a Wired production to be aware of is that most plays, this included, jump forwards and backwards in time without warning, and if you’re not aware of this you might get lost – that applies to this play. But as long as you’re forewarned of this, the play has clarity both as the end of a saga and as an individual piece.
If I had to pick out a single play as the best individual story (not that the choice of “If you only have time to see one” applies here), it would be Always, With a Love That’s True, partly for Robin Humphrey’s performance, and partly for the more unpredictable storyline where Andrew’s downfall was not yet certain. But the real achievement for Wired here is completing a trilogy. Sequels of any kind are extremely difficult, partly for the two different audiences you write for, but mostly because it’s so damned difficult to get an audience: people who saw the first one are difficult to get back, and people who didn’t are difficult to persuade to jump in halfway through. You can really only do this if you have a loyal audience to come back year after year. The demand this year isn’t quite as dramatic as part 1 where most performances sold out, but the fact Wired Theatre sustained an audience at all over the three years is testament the reputation they’ve earned.
Normally honourable mention is about the same size an honourable mention, but out of the six-plus-one plays listed I couldn’t beat to leave any out. But there are two plays where – whilst I think work could still be done on these – there was a lot that stood out.
I saw this because it’s done by HOAX Theatre, who impressed me a few years ago with Hysterical. That play dealt with a mental health breakdown against a backdrop of surrealism. This time, however, surrealism has come right out of the backdrop and into the forefront to the point of being incomprehensible, but incomprehensible in a good way, if that’s a thing. What I think the play involves is we the audience being introduced to “Bright Raven”, who is going to recruit us all to become “ravens” – you will even be handed out membership cards with you date of first flight as a raven. Now, this may be verging into creeping cult-recruitment territory, but it is at least for the cause of saving the planet rather than just glorifying a supreme leader. On the other hand, there’s two alternate paths plotted out for the newly-fledged ravens at they embark on their first group flight, and one of them involves … well, I’ll hold this spoiler back, suffice to say it’s a fate that awaits many a flock of birds.
But even if Bright Raven is a baffling piece of theatre, it’s a very watchable baffling piece of theatre. And the thing that makes it work the most is the sound and music, all operated from the soundboard on Bright Raven’s chest. Even if you are completely lost, the sound and music fits the performance perfectly. There is a none of the usual pretensions that accompany this kind of theatre; you can take it or leave it as you please and no-one tries to make you think it’s your fault (for not thinking creatively enough) if you don’t understand what’s happening. And, credit where it’s due: this was a late entry to Brighton Fringe programme – it very difficult to get any kind of audience without being in the paper brochure – and yet the last performances was at full capacity. Seems that in this case, weird sells.
This, I gather, is a work in progress. I am assured that I didn’t miss anything and they’re gauging audience reaction to see where to go with this next. For once, I have no idea what they’re planning to do, but it will be an interesting one. If this appears again, I may need to give this another look.
I’m glad I saw this, because this play, I think, has fallen under the fringe radar and is very under-rated. Taboo is a solo play of Käthe Petersen, a respected German social worker in the mid-20th century. In a different period, she might have gone down in history as a hero. But much of her career took place under that period of 20th century German history. Although she personally was cleared of any crimes after the fall of the Nazi regime, and allowed to continue her work, her reputation never recovered. And worst of all – which this play captures so well – it seems a lot of what she did began with good intentions.
To understand how someone like Käthe Petersen went the way she did, one needs to remember how the Nazis came to power. The Nazis did not win elections by promising to kill everybody and invade the whole world – it was the promises of a better life for ordinary people, of which wholesome family values played a large part. And that’s where there was a crossover with a cause dear to Petersen’s heart – caring for “vulnerable women”. Karin Schmid plays very convincingly a women genuinely believing she was doing the right thing. She did at least stay consistent in her beliefs for moral fortitude – the Nazi government’s own moral stance on prostitutes, vulnerable or otherwise, was swiftly overlooked when it came to their own army brothels. But when it came to corrective action for wayward women judged in need in moral correction – well, the places they were sent to treated them the way those sorts of places always do. And – somewhat cynically – the denazified German Government set up after the war didn’t seem to have too much of a problem with that.
Karin Schmid presents this play as Käthe Petersen coming back from the afterlife and talk about her life on a TV interview. There’s a mixture of monologue, clowning, and – eventually – questions increasingly point the finger at what she’d done. However, I wasn’t sure this interview format was the best way to do this. I can see a good reason to do it this way – when you are taking an a subject as thorny as the actions of government officials during Nazi rule, I can why understand why you’d want to leave no doubt in the audience’s mind that the play is giving the message that what Petersen did was bad. But there’s no need to be that cautious – audiences are better at picking things up than many people think. The one thing I would definitely keep, though, is the testimonies of the women who endured the worst of the centres for moral correction. That, when juxtaposed with Petersen trying to justify her way out of it, was the most powerful part of the play.
So here is the paradox: I actually suspect Karin Schmid does not realise the strength of her writing here. The production currently plays it safe and spells out the rights and wrongs of Petersen’s life, but she doesn’t need to do that – the character she has written and performed is strong enough to carry this on its own. If it was me, I’d forget about the interview format completely and have just Petersen’s words contrasted with the testimonies of the people who ultimately suffered at her hands. This play is going to the Edinburgh Fringe, and what I have in mind is probably too drastic a change to do between now and August, but as it stands, this play has stuck in my mind the most. History from the first half on the twentieth century is often viewed in the comfort of black and white moral absolutes. This shows very well how easy it is for moral absolutes to astray.
Not quite theatre
Completing the roundup are four performances that I didn’t include in pick of the fringe or honourable mention because they don’t have enough in common with theatre to make a meaningful comparison, but they are still worth talking about. Usually it’s comedy that appear in the list, but this time there’s a rare entry that I counted as spoken word.
How disabled are you?
I found myself with in an unusual position with this review. I was not sure whether I was invited to see this as a theatre reviewer or someone with a personal interest in the issue of disabilities and benefits. However, I’ve chosen to treat this as the former. (Autistics Anonymousm, which I also saw, I’ve not reviewed as one of the key performers wrote a get blog post to me on a subject I’m getting noisy about.)
This blog works on a rule that political art is judged not on whether I agree with the opinions expressed by by how good a case is made. How Disabled Are You works on two levels, and the more overt one, which does the job well, is to get the perspectives of people who have the idea that disabled people don’t deserve benefits. Three people with disabilities read for the first time the experiences and views of three such people. One of them sounds like such an absurd parody of a Daily Mail reader – even to the point of hating all the takeaways selling foreign food – I would dismiss this as a ridiculous strawman were it not for the fact this is a real person. (“Oh come on, surely no-one can be that much of a caricature – oh, holy shit, maybe they can.”) The other two are a bit more understandable – one is a person who grew up with a neglectful mother and now just gets by in a job, and the other is someone at the job centre jaded by both employer and claimants – but both of them in the end come up with some pretty unreasonable views. But this is important. Whether you like it or not, you can never defeat this mindset without understanding the mindset first. And on that front, it was undoubtedly an interesting insight into the different reasons why the worst of the benefits cuts and sanctions seem acceptable to some people.
Where I think this piece might have missed an opportunity is how to respond to it. I say “might”, because this really depends on the over level this play is meant to work at, and what it was meant to achieve. It might be that this was simply to tell people already on the receiving end what other people are saying about them, in which it could be said there’s no need to say why it’s wrong because the audience already knows. If that is the intention, that’s fine. However, I get the impression there was an intention to say why they’re wrong – but if so, I think it passed up the chance to make the strongest possible case. The video at the beginning makes a lot of pro-benefits anti-sanctions arguments, such as the amount of money lost to benefit fraud compared to tax evasion and tax avoidance, but the problem is this is only a counter-argument than a direct refutation. As a strong believer in Graham’s Heirarchy of Disagreement, the strongest argument you can make against claims that disabled people don’t deserve benefits is to directly refute the arguments made by them. So I would have considered accompanying these accounts of these three people with some accounts of people with disabilities who have been treated unfairly the very way the original three think is fair and square. I suspect you wouldn’t need to look very hard to find some first-hand accounts to show why they’re wrong.
Although this isn’t really a play, it was staged like you’d stage a play and the staging was chosen very well. The testimonies were read through envelopes opened by the three actors, and the rest of the flaw was strewn fittingly with scrunched up letters. This is very much a personal piece to the writer, written is large response to someone who’d reported him to the benefits hotline for apparently not looking disabled enough. As an expose into the attitudes of people like Tommy’s reporter, this does its job very well. But if you want to fight these attitudes, human stories will be more effective that headline stats ever will.
Lisa Klevemark Waits for the Green Man (Before Crossing the Street)
Lisa Klevemark is a comedian who goes for the dead-pan style, but she takes this to the extreme, and as the lively introduction of Swedish-language music starts, she stands there giving the literal translation. Then, as promised in the publicity, she explains why Martin Luther is to blame for Swedish life being so boring. Now, this may be a departure from most comedians who, if are are going to poke fun at Christianity, go for the Catholics (who, let’s face it, don’t exactly give the comedians a difficult job). Klevemark, however. puts forward an alternative argument: you can be as decadent and hedonistic as you like as a Catholic because you can just pop to the confession box after to be forgiven; under Martin Luther’s Protestantism, however, the sinful things you did stay with you forever. The set closed with a re-enactment of some scenes from Sweden’s state-funded porn film (which I can confirm is a thing – apparently it’s funded as “feminist porn”, and I neither know nor want to know how this differs from a normal porn film, so I’ll take their word for it). This, too, is re-enacted dead-pan.
Difficult rate conclusively as I can’t think of an dead-pan performances to compare this to, but it’s a fun piece to watch. If there’s one thing that sticks out, it’s the promise in the press release of the most boring comedy show possible. So – and this is not something I would ever say on this blog – Lisa Klevemark has shown that boring can be funny. In the good way.
Fright Wig: Essential Tremors
This is the closest of the three comedies to cross over into theatre, with a series of monologues billed as Hammer House of Horror meets Alan Bennet. I’ve seen some other people dispute whether the kind of horror is more Tales from the Crypt or whether these kinds of speech are true to Alan Bennet’s form, but basically it’s a series of monologue shorts, all of a macabre theme. Opening with the Kate Hopkins-style columnist who slowly turns into shit (and redoubling her efforts to type out her bile during the process); moving on to the super-yuppie who agrees to financially help out his younger brother only if he kicks his dog to Manchester; and finishing with the man in a life-or-death face-off a drunk grim reaper; it’s all performed with the ensemble of three in a post-apocalyptic costumes, make-up and set.
I wonder whether this set would have had a more distinctive character of the stories has been interlinked somehow. I liked the stories, but they didn’t have much in common other than a generic macabre/horror theme, which is quite commonly used. On the other hand, if you’re going to do that, you need to do it well – the worst thing you can do to a set of unrelated stories is to force in a connection that looked contrived. But the style of the stories certainly is distinctive. Essential Tremors is far enough along the absurdist scale to be firmly in the comedy camp rather than theatre, but it’s enjoyable. The most distinctive thing, however, is the style, and this can be carried over into future shows. Build upon that, and this group of three can achieve a lot more yet.
Brighton favourite Jane Postlethwaite returns with a partnership with Steph Bradshaw at Junkyard Dogs. This is a sketch duo, but the best-known half is clearly Postelthwaite, who earned a lot of fans back in 2016 with her character comedy Made in Cumbria. She has been branching out since then, and I was particularly excited by Last Night at the Circus last year which brought in her own experience with bipolar disorder, which I was sadly unable to see, partly because of lack of arts council funding (alluded to at the start of the show with the barbed comment “They said I was not mental enough”). Steph Bradshaw is a recent collaboration, and this hour is billed as sketch comedy rather than character comedy. Nevertheless, there are some themes in common, most notably the setting: an old theatre with a reputation for being haunted what with all the people bricked up alive in alcoves and whatnot.
I must give Steph apologies for this review: as a Postlethwaite fan I was mostly on the lookout for her material; I realise that Bradshaw will be bringing her own influence to the act, but that’s something I’ll pick up on less. Sorry. Amongst the sketches I enjoyed was their attempt to use template stand-up routines at the beginning (with the Bernard Manning-wannabe script going pretty much as expected). But I do feel for both Jane and Steph that they were at the strongest when the character comedy was strongest. There’s a fine balance here: much as I loved Made in Cumbria, I think it would be a mistake to produce endless variations of this show, but equally, it’s too good to let it go completely. My favourite sketch has to be the National Trust representative asking a bored cynical ghost about a new haunting documentary that’s going to be filmed – naturally, she’s got complaints, such as all the female ghosts being named after the colours they’re wearing instead of named, and all of the male ghosts similarly being reduced to labels like “the viking ghost” – ghosts want to be known by their names too, don’t you know. But it was another enjoyable performance, and not a bad start for this collaboration. It was close to a sell-out, so presumably a follow-up is on the cards if they want it – look forward to seeing what it is.
And that brings us to the end of another Brighton Fringe review. Buxton Fringe coming next, I promise, and then it’ll be the big one.