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.
Friday 16th August, 6.00 p.m.: Okay, I’m coming back, see you in Edinburgh shortly. Eeek. Better get three reviews out of the way before any more pile up. So next review is Box Tale Soup’s latest offering, Great Grimm Tales. This is a compilation of four of the numerous Grimms Tales worked into one over-arching story. In this tale, a mysterious fearless youth encounters a man tending to a grave for three nights. A shifty man comes along offering a bribe to relieve watch on the final night – coincidentally the last night The Devil can claim the man’s soul for his own. The story of the man in the coffin, and other tales that become relevant in the face of the shifty stranger, become the subject of three tales, but the ultimate tales is the showdown by the grave. The two founder of Box Tale Soup are pretty much established in their roles now – Antonia Christophers as the youths and women, Noel Byrne playing the older men – but the most memorable addition here is Mark Collier (I think) who plays all the bullies and baddies, including The Devil himself.
I’ll start with the controversial news. For anyone who’s of Box Tale Soup because of their puppetry that was the defining feature of Northanger Abbey and Dorian Grey – there’s not many puppets this time. But there’s a lot more to Box Tale Soup than the puppets, and their staging of numerous scene in numerous tales is handled well, with sinister-looking trees providing a ideal Grimmish backdrop for all the tales. One small but unfortunate issue was that a lot of the acting took place sitting down, and if you weren’t on the first two rows it was difficult to see this. However, unlike The Red, where this could have been easily avoided by putting the set a little further back, I couldn’t see any easy way around the problem here – an unlucky effect of the space Box Tale Soup happened to have.
But don’t let that put you off – Box Tale Soup have produced another show with their own signature style, whilst keeping the clarity of the original stories. They’ve gone off in an interesting direction too – their original hit, Northanger Abbey, was quite a gentle piece as you’d expect from a Jane Austen adaption, but it turns out their speciality is gothic horror. There will almost certainly be a tour coming up (hopefully in venues with kinder slightlines), but you will probably have to wait at least a year for that, so if you can’t wait to see this, you’ve got just over a week left.
Right, where am I? Oh, I recongise that mound. North Berwick or thereabouts then. See you in Edinburgh shortly.
Thursday 15th August: Sorry for the late update today but I’ve been out at Darlington Hippodrome for Educating Rita, which was so good this warrants a brief respite of Edinburgh coverage. This has been a touring production that started at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, and for many people the big name that would have drawn them in is Stephen Tompkinson, who’s been in numerous TV series. In the north-east, however, he is also known for the plays he does with Live Theatre, including the complete psycho Freddie the Suit in Faith and Cold Reading and shady non-league football manager Kidd in The Red Lion. This time he is of course playing Frank, who isn’t a psychopath, unless it emerges that in this version the joke about throwing students out the window wasn’t actually a joke. The other big name from Live Theatre is Max Roberts, who stepped down as artistic director last year and – as is a good idea for recently-retired artistic directors wishing to give their successors some space – is keeping himself busy directing this touring production.
But whatever big names might be selling the tickets, it is Jessica Johnson who makes this play what it is. Three years ago she played Rita as the Gala Theatre restarted its in-house productions and – no disresepct to the other guy – she stole the show. There is of course a whole range of emotions Rita needs to go through in any successful production of this play, but Jessica Johnson brings it out from the start. In scene 1, Rita walks into Frank’s life brash and in0your-face and ready to be educated, but it doesn’t take much for her insecurities to come through, the result of a lifetime of being told this life’s not for people like her. As the story continues, and the goes through the end of her marriage and a discovery of a new self and finally standing up to Frank as an equal, Johnson gets all of this.
Max and Stephen deserve credit too. Tompkinson’s touch I liked the most was Frank’s alcoholism. As the scenes progress, his movements become increasingly impaired, whether or not he’s actually drinking anything at the moment. Much as I enjoyed the Gala production, one small but annoying issue was the set and movements that messed around the sightlines for anyone sitting in the front half of the theatre. This set is laid out more sensibly and, although he was in aneviable position to have such good actors to work with (not to mention such a great play), Roberts did what he needed to do. But on this occasion it’s Jessica Johnson who the glory goes to. The Gala’s production in 2016 was surely the clincher for her casting, if not the decision to do the whole tour. Educating Rita may have moved on from the Gala now, but I hope they realise how much they have to be proud of. There’s three more performances, tomorrow night then two on Saturday, then that’s it, the tour is done. Hurry hurry hurry.
Edinburgh Fringe coverage will resume tomorrow. And it had better do, because it’s the start of my second visit. See you soon.
Wednesday 14th August: Eeek. Only two days until I’m back in Edinburgh. Better clear this backlog before any more join the pile. So let’s look at two solo plays from big names.
Firstly, I caught From Judy to Bette from Rebecca Perry, who made her name for herself with her Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl plays. This piece is very different, and arguably not really a play. I’d describe this more as a musical celebration of four iconic women from the golden age of Hollywood, featuring many of their greatest songs sung live on stage. The songs was one of the strongest parts of Perry’s last two play, so her performance here is, as expected, excellent.
With only 15 minutes per Hollywood icon, you’ve got to be choosy over what you cover and what to leave out. Such are the struggles of the road to stardom – and, let’s face it, the treatment of aspiring Judys, Lucilles, Bettys and Bettes today isn’t exactly covered in glory today, never mind the 1930s – I’m sure you could have enough material for four shows. But the focus here isn’t how they got famous, but what they achieved once they did. And not just their greatest hits on stage or screen, but what else they did for the world, such as Judy Garland not giving a damn how people live their lives accidentally making her the original gay icon, and Lucille Ball making herself a household with I Love Lucy showing that female comedians are a thing.
The fringe version is the 60-minute version. There’s a 90-minute version too – if you do have the option to see this later, I would pick the 90-minute version because I’m sure the stuff that couldn’t make it into 60 minutes would be just as good. Overall, this is a nice, and uplifting show, and if you want a musical hour free from cynicism and instead celebrating the good things, this is for you.
And the other solo play is Moby Dick, Ross Ericson’s latest play for Grist from the Mill. Again, this isn’t unambiguously a theatre piece – there is a case count this as storytelling. It’s some very faithful storytelling though, as told by Ishmael, the only person who can give an account of a hunt for the great white whale captained by a determined Ahab. Now, one might question what Moby Dick did to warrant the attention in the first place, and given that the original attempt to hunt him resulted in the whale smashing up one of the boats and biting Ahab’s leg off, one might have thought the sensible thing to do was admit defeat, put this down to experience, and go hunting for some less dangerous whales. But that’s kind of the point of the story – Ahab’s obsession with settling this score is what leads him and all who follow him to destruction.
This is not an easy thing to adapt for any sort of stage production. With the original manuscript over 600 pages long, you can put a fraction of the story in a one-hour play. But you wouldn’t guess that from Ericson’s adaptation. Even if this just edited highlights of a much longer saga, it captures the story well, from the diverse band of misfits who came together on the whaling mission, to the camaraderie of the sailors all in it together, to the doomed final mission as Ahab persists with increasingly suicidal offensives, this is all covered well by this hour-long story.
However, based on what I’ve seen Ericson do before, Moby Dick was surprisingly safe. Although an hour-long storytelling format staying faithful to the original story is a perfect valid and workable format, it also takes the least risks. Which isn’t a bad thing – so unforgiving is Edinburgh if you get it wrong, it’s understandable why anyone would want to play it safe. There’s various things that could have been done with the staging. It could have been presented for as a retrospective as a rambling Ishmael reflects on the folly cost so many lives. Or maybe the set that only served as background decoration could have been brought in to re-enact the story. I’m not saying this should have been done – either to these done wrong would do more harm than good. But I’ve seen Ross Ericson take a lot of gambles with his solo plays before, particularly Gratiano which took huge risks with its retelling of The Merchant of Venice before it came good.
However, Moby Dick does what it sets out to do. I would advise seeing this one when you’ve got more energy if possible, because it’s although you don’t need to pick up every detail, it’s a complex story to squeeze in an hour, with the prophecy guaranteeing Ahab’s safety containing some particularly important clauses in the fine print. (Pro-tip: never assume you can’t die because of a prophecy that says you won’t until something unlikely happens. There’s always a loophole you didn’t think of.) If you know the story, you won’t be let down by Hollywood liberties. If you don’t, you can come out finally knowing what all the fuss was about a whale.
Three to go, I think. Better get a move on.
Tuesday 13th August: Okay, let’s get back to reviews. Next up it’s Rich Bitch with personal embetterment guru Casha Bling, who is in fact a character creation of Cristina Lark. Now, I confess, when I first saw the video for this I had a lot of trouble working out if it was a parody or the real thing. I mean, it was entirely possible that in Sweet Venues’ spoken word section they might have programmed a garish get-rich-quick motivational speaker, but no, it’s a parody of one. Even though it’s hard to tell the difference. Poe’s Law is coming true in ways Poe never dreamed possible.
Rich Bitch is a satire on all these make-money-now schemes that apparently plague Facebook. For the benefit of anyone grumpy and middle-aged enough to not use Facebook, it’s basically the same as those newspaper ads that said “Want to be rich? Send me £1 and I’ll show you how.” (Answer: put an ad in the the paper saying “Want to be rich? Send me £1 and I’ll show you how.”) Except that you add in a load of god-awful garish filters (and randomly-place hashtags for no reason) whilst showing off how hot you are and how awesome your life is, because apparently that’s how you do pyramid marketing schemes on Facebook. Not that Casha Bling does pyramid marketing schemes. Oh no. Pyramids are three-dimensional objects and here diagram is two-dimenions. Completely different. And look where you are on the diagram. Near the top, giving money to Casha Bling. Everyone else will definitely be giving money to you. Another notable technique advocated by Casha is to you the power of your mind. You can do anything if only you believe in it. And if it doesn’t work, it’s your fault for not thinking sufficiently positive thoughts. A place in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet surely awaits this woman.
There is, however, a weakness with this format, and this is sustaining the joke for an hour. Cristina has a great stage presence and starts off the seminar with lots of gems of wisdom that actually just waffle. But then what? One thing she includes in numerous examples of real-life charaltan bollocks – I would have put more emphasis on this as there’s a lot to say here. But the real opportunity here is the ending (spoiler alert). It’s only in the last few minutes that it’s revealed Casha Bling has been found out and now everyone wants their money back. There’s so much potential here of a confident Casha slowly reveals she’s more desperate for you money than she’s letting on, as the mask slowly slips away. But this is a good start for Cristina Lark’s character, and there’s a lot she could do with Casha Bling, and it doesn’t just have the be character comedy either – you could let vulnerability increasingly slip through as it becomes clear the game is up. Yasmine Day holds the precedent here – her debut last year was fun but mostly same-ish, but after a developing the character returned this year with a far more interesting story. In the meantime, however, you can see this new character at Sweet Grassmarket 6.15 p.m.
Monday 12th August: I will restart reviews tomorrow when I’ve had a chance to recharge my brain. Before that, some thoughts on the new-look Bite-Size. Normally I start the review after I’ve seen the first show, as before there’s always been some plays I liked more than others, but this time it’s been a close-run thing between the five I’ve seen so far, so I’m going to hang fire on my verdict until I’ve seen the rest. However, I’ve a few observations about the move to the bigger space.
First of all, an entry in the chrisontheatre corrections corner. I’ve previously said that Pleasance Forth was twice the size of Queen Dome yet they were still selling out. It turns Pleasance Forth isn’t quite as big as I remembered (I was last in there several years ago), and it’s roughly 50% bigger than the old space rather that double, so it’s not quite as sensational as I first made it out to be. Still remarkable to be selling out though. One thing I hadn’t realised, however, is that these sell-outs are hard-earned sell-outs. I’d previously assumed that they didn’t need to do anything now that word of mouth was so good, but they’re still flyering hard to get the last few tickets sold each day to reach the full quota.
One change that Bite-Size regulars will notice this time is that all of the furniture for the fifteen plays is arranged along the back wall. This, I am told, was mainly down to practicality – they are allowed to keep their furniture at the back so that saves them carrying everything on and off every day for a month. However, I quite like this novelty, because the variety of tables and chairs in different style work for me as a teaser for what’s coming up. And if the most eye-catching chairs aren’t used this time – well, that’s your cue to buy a ticket for the other two sets, isn’t it?
I learnt one other thing on my first Bite Size visit. According to the company history on the Bite Size flyer, the original run in 2006 was a very late decision, so late there it miss the programme deadline. What’s more, the morning slot what all they could get a short notice, so the coffee, croissants and strawberry theme was all some on-the-hoof marketing to make the best of the situation – it’s just that the time and format worked, so it’s stuck. So that’s an interesting lesson. Previously I’ve advised people – based on terrible audience figures I’ve witnessed of shows that registered after the programme deadline – to either get yourself in the paper programme or don’t bother, but here is an example that you can succeed in this situation. So maybe I should revise my advice to say that you shouldn’t register for the fringe after the programme deadline unless you really know what you’re doing. If you do, then who knows?
Reviews resume tomorrow. What shall I do next? Decisions decisions.
Sunday 11th August, 11.00 p.m.: And I’m back in Durham. Time for one last review before bed.
Pamela’s Palace is very much in the style of its predecessors, Faulty Towers and The Wedding Reception (now Confetti and Chaos). As such, it has a plot that doesn’t exactly tax the brain. Diva-extraordinaire runs a beauty salon with two staff. Tiffany, always made up to the nines, and dowdy Bronwyn, who sweeps the floor and desperately wants to be given a chance to cut hair. But we’ve come in at a tense time at the salon as Pamela is up against a hated cheating rival salon for an award and a mystery judge. Will Tiffany’s new boyfriend who works at aforementioned rival salon turn out to be no good? Will Bronwyn get the chance to cut hair and in doing so unexpectedly prove her worth to both herself and others? Those are rhetorical questions, in case you haven’t worked that out.
This is Interactive Theatre International, so this is is if course interactive. Every time the door buzzer goes, that is the cue for a braver audience member to move seats, which in turn is the cue for Pamela, Tiffany or Bronwyn to welcome aforementioned audience member as a new customer. It’s probably fair to say that this play stands or falls on how enthusiastic the audience is for taking part. Had they got an audience where everyone looked at the floor, the performance would probably fall flat. On the Friday night I went, though, the audience were great sports, with extra laughs added from the random man playing Bronwyn’s sheep farming father on the phone who told her he could speak to her favourite sheep right away as she was in in bed with him.
However, I did miss the interactive dining that made The Wedding Reception such a fun event. That format obviously wouldn’t work here, and in leiu of this Pamela’s Palace fills in the gaps with a lot of groaners (such as the hasty rebranding to one-up their Ancient Greece-theme rivals as “Scissor’s Palace”), musical performances and general silliness. Which, to be fair, is all the audience were expecting here. But without the dining bit to vary things a bit, I eventually found the silliness a little repetitive. Personally, I would have made the characters more than caricatures – that suited the eight characters in The Wedding Reception fine but with only three there was room to make more of this. One missed opportunity, I thought, was satirising the beauty industry. This is touched upon when Bronwyn shows a bit of armpit hair and Pamela and Tiffany tell her how important it is to shave them, before going on to list an increasingly expensive and painful set of make-up procedures / surgical enhancements – but this is never mentioned again until the end of the play when Pamela suddenly says there’s more to life than that. I could imagine Tiffany ruthlessly peddling these treatments on unsuspecting customers by eroding their self-esteem.
At the end of the day, however, Pamela’s Palace should be judged for what it is, which is fun. It is fun, and the slickness that I’ve seen Interactive Theatre International so before carries over to this well. If you only have time to do one Interactive International Theatre event, I’d pick one of their dining experiences, which is where they’re at their strongest, but if you don’t have time/money for that or you want some late-night fun long after the suitable time for three-courser, this isn’t a bad alternative. Just don’t turn up after an expensive hairdo.
Sunday 11th August, 5.45 p.m.: Before we do any more reviews, however, I’m going to turn my attention over to the latest furore. A casting advert on Spotlight for an Christmas advertising campaign for Milka chocolate was noticed by an eagle-eyed user who alerted the entire internet to it. It’s quite an achievement, but the casting spec is offensive in just about every way possible. Can’t have a fat girl because you’re advertising chocolate, no redheads because reasons, and must not be pre-pubescent. Errrm, okay. But as my regulars know, I rarely write about the latest outrage to agree with everybody else. I’m not defending the ad for a moment and I have no objections to Spotlight taking the ad down under pressure. But I do think there has been a lot of furore over one advert and a lot of celebration over a small victory whilst the underlying problem is being ignored. And the underlying problem is casting culture, or more specifically, casting culture in adverts.
Now, I could write at length about where I think the problems are in casting, and one day I probably will. There’s no end of stupid judgements made on appearance in the arts industry. But, for all their faults, nothing is anywhere near as bad as the advertising industry. It might be fair to say that my poor opinion of advertising culture is heavily shaped by Charlie Brooker’s programme (N.B. I do not endorse punching employees of advertising firms, neither, I’m sure, does Mr. B), but what I’ve observed is heavily consistent with this. The days when TV adverts gave actual reason to buy products are long gone. Instead, modern adverts work on a subliminal level. Why should I buy a new smartphone? More battery and disk space? Nope. According to basically every advert, people who buy the latest phone are cool and sassy and if you buy it you too will be cool and sassy and get to mix with the cool and sassy people. And in order to make this point, the advert requires cool and sassy people in the advert. And not just any old cool and sassy people, but exactly the right kind of cool and sassy, because this, along with everything else, is micromanaged by marketing executives in order to sell as much stuff as possible.
That, I strongly suspect, is the real reason why adverts pay so well. I don’t begrudge any actors for doing this – everyone’s got earn a living somehow – but it seems to me the real reason is not an act of charity on the part of advertisers, but so they get huge numbers of people to choose from and pick exactly who they want. And my other suspicion is that the spec seen in this advert is normal – it’s just that every else knows not to do it too obviously. Simply send out a vague spec, audition far and wide, and then pick based on what you’re really after, that need not bear any resemblance to what you said you wanted. Hair colour, age, weight, skin colour, perceived sexuality, you can pick based on anything you like. After all, how can anyone prove that’s what you based your casting on?
This is why I think getting Spotlight to withdraw one advert is a red herring. One would like to think that this would be a lesson to advertisers that you can’t have those casting requirements nowadays. It’s more likely that advertisers will take this as a lesson to not put this out on a Spotlight advert. I think we can safely bet that Christmas Milka ad featuring non-overweight non-redhead pre-pubescent girl is off, but it they’d kept that under the radar I have no doubt this would have gone ahead. In which case, how much else is going on under the radar? I’ve no idea what the answer is though. It’s very difficult to make people change their ways if they think it’ll cost them money. The might if you could somehow persuade them that stupid appearance-based casting doesn’t sell more, but that looks like a long shot. The first step, however, is to recognise this casting call as a symptom of a much wider problem and not just an individual problem that’s solved. Fail to realise this, and the chance of anything changing is zero.
Sunday 11th August, 10.30 a.m.: And another review, this time to the Free Fringe with Life Between Yes and No from Kahlo Theatre.
Anna is a call handler at the DWP taking calls from prospective disability claimants. This subject, of course, has been a thorny one for the last nine years. But this play isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the law – it’s about Anna who’s having to put up with being the middle man, or rather middle woman. In theory, her job is nothing more than entering data for benefit claims; in practice, however, it’s hard to stay out of it. When people wait ages to get through to a human, she’s the one who gets shouted at. When people call, she has to hear the desperate circumstances in which they’re even though there’s nothing they can do. One oddity as the standard question about whether your doctor has said your claim will have “special circumstances”, which means less than six months to live. Presumably someone in the DWP thought this was a way of tiptoeing around a delicate subject – in reality, of course, Anna has to explain this every time. Worse, when someone actually is such a case, all that caller really wants to do is talk about family. All this might be fine if Anna was a jobsworth, but she cares about, and the strain on her as she goes through the calls works very well.
What works less well is the physical theatre element of this play. For Anna her life between call centre stints (or “Yes or no”) is her time with her housemate and best friend Lily. When Lily excitedly announces she’s quite her job, in the wildly optimistic belief she’ll definitely earn money as a writer instead, that’s a promising plot twist as it makes Anna sole rent-payer and locked into a job she hates. But the next bit of the plot thread I can pick up – Lily’s dead and Anna is speaking at her funeral. Something vital, I fear, has been lost in the physical theatre sequences before then.
Other experimental elements work better – the replies to Anna’s phone calls as musical instruments works surprisingly well, even managing to indicate the emotions of the callers. One thing I do have to mention is they’re in Bar Bados, with its usual noise bleed from paper-thin walls. For theatre, Bar Bados should only really be considered if you’re trying something out and are prepared to ignore all the problems with putting on plays there. But in the process of trying this out, I hope Kalho Theatre does pick up what works best. The portrayal of helplessness passing messages between desperate people at one end as decision-makers at the other is very strong, and that is where there’s a much more of a story to make.
Saturday 10th August, 4.00 p.m.: Next review is Numbers. This is a student production from Oxford-based Mercury Theatre. Student theatre often carries a certain degree of apprehension – although some student groups produce gems, there’s also a lot of unmemorable productions loosely knows as “studenty” productions, being productions making the mistakes commonly made by student groups. So having seen this, I’m pleased to say the Numbers, whilst not perfect, is a good start for this group.
The key strength of this play are two well-written monologues. Jack sits in a therapy session giving a list of what he’s good at. That, in isolation, means nothing. It is only as he digresses and expands on what he meant that things fall into place. We hear a lot about his like, his hopes, his insecurities, but now he has some demons he must face. He is drinking heavily. He punched a mirror the other day in a moment he felt like punching himself. Meanwhile, another man in the group lets his own story slip. His parents were dedicated to him, working every hour God sends so he could go to summer camp, staying up until the early hours talking to him, then two things are dropped that aren’t right. On his eighteenth birthday they hire him a prostitute. Shortly after, they cut him out of their lives. If you haven’t already figured out why they’d do that, the penny will shortly drop when you discover they are devout Christians. Now he only had two sort-of friends: he cat, and the guy at the off-license. Where he spends a lot of time.
What is less clear about the play is exactly what the mental health problems are. This play was developed in collaboration with the charity SANE, so I’ll take their word that what they’re depicting is accurate – but I wasn’t sure what they were depicting. The room problem, I suspect, is that writing characters with mental health problems is hard. If there’s one golden rule in theatre, it’s that everything the characters do must be plausible. People with mental health problems may do something irrational to someone in a fit state of mind, but nonetheless this needs to be explained. Not easy. A quick off-the-cuff explanation is unlikely to cut it – some plays, indeed, decidate the entire script to explaining why. In addition, I couldn’t work out how Jack’s girlfriend Brianna was reacting to this. Had she worked out something was wrong, or was she mistaking Jack’s issue for not being interested in her any more? I suspect – and this is a difficult thing to avoid in writing – the writer and company had a clear idea of what was going on and why, but it wasn’t obvious enough for a newcomer to pick up.
But that can be fixed – what is important here is that where the play was at its strongest, it was excellent. An easy trap during exposition is characters making implausible digressions to cover plot points, or worse, the “information dump” where the plot development pauses which the entire backstory is spelled out in bullet point form. This was a one-week run that has now finished, but having got this far, it would be a shame to stop now. Rationalising the irrational is never an easy thing to write, but sort this and combine it with the writing used for the monologues and there’s going to be a strong formula.
Saturday 10th August, 1.30 p.m.: One bit of news before I do more reviews: Ladybones is doing pretty well with the reviews so far: with two five-stars and a four-star on the notices so far. Usual caveat applies in this situation – when you have a niche show aimed at a particular, interest, you’ll generally get people interested in that reviewing. But if a play about living with OCD at all interests you, this is becoming an increasingly safe bet.
At some point in the next few days I will have a better look at how my picks are faring with other reviews, but I’ve got more than enough reviews of my own to keep me busy for now. Starting on review #2 now, but I’ve got play #6 coming up in 45 minutes so that will probably be finished later.
Saturday 10th August, 9.30 a.m.: For the two of you waiting on press ticket reviews, I will aim to get these out of the way today, tomorrow at the latest. Before then, however, Testament of Yootha from Caroline Burns Cooke.
Caroline Burns Cooke is a highly respected name on the fringe circuit. After two plays examining two uncomfortable issues with objectivity and nuance, her third play is about the life of Yootha Joyce, a much loved sitcom star who drank herself to death at the age of 53. I had high hoped she would bring the same level of thoughtfulness and humanity that she brought to her other plays, and she did. I confess, however I’ve not paid nearly enough attention to the other respected fringe name: director Mark Farrelly. Testament of Yootha is Burns Cooke’s first foray into solo biopics, but Farrelly already has two of these under his belt. And the style that’s served his plays so well comes through here. That doesn’t necessarily mean the format of the play is his idea, but the alternative is that the two of them have very similar ideas of how to do a solo biopic. Either way, this match is paying handsome dividends.
One of the big challenges of a biopic is that life histories are invariably complicated. You can sometimes get away with over-simplifying a life story, but what Mark Farrelly is very good at is packing a lot of information into a story without losing interest, with particular emphasis given to life events the steering the story. In this case, the driving factor is how society treated women who weren’t conventionally attractive, both inside and outside the acting profession. Outside, as a wartime evacuee, she was last to be picked for a home. Inside, she was cast as various prostitutes and floozies, which apparently was the done thing in those days. Hot women playing sluts, it appears, came into fashion after you were allowed to have tits out in films.
That, surprisingly, doesn’t have much to do with Yootha’s journey to the bottle. If anything, it was the success, in a world where the nation’s beloved George and Mildred never stopped and Yootha didn’t want to disappoint her fans. Before then, there is Yootha’s rise to stardom, and this is one of my favourite touches of the play. Originally, she reads her parts in a cynical “girl upstairs … whore … whore …”, but after a chance cameo in a Harold Pinter film, the roles get more exciting. Roles over a whole episode are exciting, then that’s normal and the new excitement is roles over a whole series. And all of this and more is packed into an hour. This could easily have been 30 minutes longer and not have got dull.
One thing I would have clarified, as a matter of personal preference more than anything, is exactly what Yootha is doing in the play and what her relationship is with the audience. It’s hinted this is present day and that she does get our modern technology, but that isn’t expanded upon. Few people will notice nor care about that though. There’s a lot to get through in this play, but unlike Farrelly’s Quentin Crisp play, where I do recommend knowing the basics first, Testament of Yootha is something I you can watch cold. But you will need to concentrate, so maybe avoiding scheduling this on your last day when you’re knackered. See this first and you’ll enjoy it more.
Friday 9th August, 8.30 p.m.: Okay, pardon the gap – this is the first spare moment I have to do a review, and this one is a big name, and this time I mean really big: Marcus Brigstocke who has penned a completely serious play called The Red. As avid followers of my blog will be aware by now, being famous is no guarantee of fringe success, as fellow comedian Frank Skinner learnt the hard way last year (and Carrie-Anne Moss is learning now). And given how quickly bad play by famous names get mauled by the critics, it would be understandable if Brigstocke had some nerves about doing this. But he needn’t have done. The Red is a simple but moving play about dealing with loss and keeping an old demon at bay.
Benedict is in his late father’s wine cellar, reading a letter send by his executor. Father _____ has tasked his son with the task of dividing up his prized vintage collection between his three children, with Benedict chosen because he doesn’t drink. But there is one particular 41-year-old bottle ____ refers to in his letter, bought the year Benedict was born – “the red” referred to in the title. Having never had the chance to drink the wine together, now might be a good time, so the father’s letter says. But Benedict is an alcoholic who has been teetotal for 23 years. Such is the addictive power of alcohol to alcoholics that even one glass could send you back to where you were – Benedict knows too well, having seen the fate of less fortune people he had therapy with.
We know this because this, along with the rest of the play, is revealed through a conversation between the two, starting as Benedict reads the letter, with the father looking just like he did when he was newly-retired. We know all along this is nothing more than an imagined conversation in Benedict’s mind, but the script handled his well. Benedict’s dad may look every bit like the father, but on closer examination it’s a father as recalled by the son, and the entire discussion over whether to drink a glass of wine is really a struggle with himself. Brigstocke cleverly works in the backstory casually – Benedict’s sister’s relationship is brought in with a passing comment about giving her the champagne on the off-chance her boyfriend actually proposes. Benedict’s past, too, is alluded to this way. The first we hear about his alcoholism is the father saying he’d originally intended to share the bottle on a special occasion, like his son’s 21st – obviously that’s now too late. Regrets over the father-son relationship are also expressed, with the father he’d never had the chance to do a father’s job once the therapists took over caring for Benedict, whilst Benedict gives a convincing depiction of life on the outside being unable to join in his friends’ drinking – writing help, perhaps, by Brigstocke’s one battle with the drink.
One small but irritating directorial/staging decision was to put the set so close to the front of the stage, limiting the view of the people in the back rows. I could see this but someone a little shorter might have had problems. The cellar set itself was great, however. I also liked the touches with the directing. At some points, father and son talk without facing each other; as the intensity increases, it becomes more like a normal conversation as the two face each other. Intentionally or not, this does well to create the impression of an imaginary conversation ebbing between the real and the unreal.
The Red is a slow-moving play. On the whole this pace suits the play – this is about exploring two characters with a lot of history rather than fast-moving events. Even so, the play might have benefited from shaving off a few minutes at some of the slower-moving points. But I’m please to say that in spite of my doubts over how you could develop the story over whether or not to have a drink, in the end this is resolved in a way I can’t possible refer to without a massive spoiler, just to say it’s clever and subtle. Make sure you were listening earlier or you might miss it.
Now, I am obliged to say at this point that I reviewed this on a press ticket. It is rare for me to get asked to review shows this this high a profile – as such, it is possible my judgement is skewed by the flattery. However, judging from the sell-out audiences, it looks like I’m not alone with the verdict. Seriously though, this is a good time to say that although I do not actively seek press tickets, I do appreciate when anyone, megastar or minnow, ask me along. But we’re discussing big names here. This was originally part of a radio series where comedians wrote radio plays, in which case it must be asked how Pier Production got this right where BBC Debut got it so wrong. At the end of the day, though, how famous the writer is matters for little – see it on the strength of the script.
Friday 9th August, 11.30 a.m.: Good news: I’m on the computers at Fringe Central, for the absurdly cheap cost of £2.00 for the whole fringe. With it being Edinburgh in August, I was expecting the cost to be £15,000, legs broken if bill not paid within 6 hours. Getting ready for my first play – always a buzz when this happens. Before then, a couple of updates on plays on my watchlist doing well.
Best Girl is off to a good start, so far with two reviews from BTG and One4Review at four stars. I can’t review this as Lois Mackie is in the same theatre company as me, but I can now watch this safe in the knowledge of so far, so good.
One other update is from a group I didn’t mention because I don’t really know the play or the people doing it. Last year I raved about Yen as far as it was permissible to do so when the student group in question regularly hires your own theatre, and especially the director, Hetty Hodgson. (Did I say I did an interview of her? It’s here.) This year, they’re doing Ladies who Lunch which Hetty isn’t involved in, and so far that’s passed me by, but I’m getting news that this is doing very well with ticket sales, having already bagged multiple sell-outs. I will try to check this out at some point; in the meantime, this is an early sign Fourth Wall Theatre is doing something right.
Okay, here we go. Play number one.
Friday 9th August, 8.00 a.m.: And here I go. Get up at 6.15 a.m. and it’s tanking down outside. Also tanking down inside Newcastle station somehow. Not the best start.
This is a good time for a recap of how reviews work here. One this page you will get instant reaction, which may be as little as a few hours after I see the play. The roundup, which will come after the fringe finishes, will have a longer cooling-off period; it may be the same insta-review or it may have more in it, depending on how I feel after reflecting on it.
However, the bad news is that I’ve forgotten my charger for my laptop. Looks like I’m going to have to ask Fringe Central for access to one of theirs very nicely. Oh dear, this isn’t a good start.
Just gone through Morpeth, so will be with you soon.
Thursday 8th August: And Bite Size gets another sell-out. I’m going to stop doing updates on this now because it now looks certain that most or all of the shows will sell out. Even the Bite Size team themselves seem surprised by this.
One small thing that happened yesterday was that the half-price ticket hut opened. I rarely use that now because my schedule is jam-packed with review requests, but if you fancy seeing a play at a certain time and you don’t care what, this is a pretty good option for you. One easy misconception is that if a show needs to sell some tickets at half-rpice that means it’s not doing too well, which in turn must mean it’s not that good. In my experience, however, I’ve not found this to be the case. I’ve discovered some absolute gems through the half-price hut in my time. And some absolutely fucking abominable ones too. But no more likely than those I’ve paid full price for.
But enough of that. I’m packing. I’m coming to Edinburgh tomorrow. Once I do, I will be going up to multiple updates each day with reviews as I see them. See you there.
Wednesday 7th August: I’ve now added more recommendations to What’s Worth Watching. One groups I’ll give a bit more of a plug to, though, is Bare Productions with The Addams Family, because they are on a one-week run and they finish on the 10th and I’ve been slow to list them. They bill themselves as performing musicals for amateurs to a professional standard, and based on You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown last year, they certainly do. They could have done a better job of reproducing the mannerisms of the Peanuts characters last time round, but having seen the trailer for this year’s show, I think they may have cracked it this time.
Now returning to some of yesterday’s news. Bite Size has sold out again – and this is significant. Unlike Monday and Tuesday, which were the 2-for-1 days which would always inflate the sales figures, this is just an ordinary day where you wouldn’t expect anything unusually high. If this continues, Bite-Size could be set to sell out most of their performances in a venue twice the size of their old one. If they do, that will be remarkable.
One other thing’s caught my eye. I was talking yesterday about Frank Skinner’s ill-fated Nina’s Got News, but this isn’t unusual – every year there seems to be one show with a big name that everyone goes to review then it bombs. The year before, Irvine Welsh was the surprise casualty with Performers and Creatives. (Alan Ayckbourn had a bit of a let-down too with The Divide, though not quite as bad at Welsh’s woes, also technically not a fringe disaster as it was with the International Festival.) This year, it’s the turn of Carrie Ann-Moss – yes, the one who was in the Matrix – was was Executive Producer of Drowning. So far, there are six reviews; five two-stars and one one-star. Oh dear, what went wrong here? The story is about four nurses in Austria who were once convicted of murdering 49 patients; the reviews vary in their criticisms, but I get the impression that the key problem was trying to be clever, with so many concepts rammed into the play that is became impossible to understand the nurses as characters – the thing that you would think was most important.
The Edinburgh Fringe really does seem to a be a brutal place if you’re a well-known name turning your hand to stagecraft and you disappoint. And I can’t think of any reliable way of avoiding the risk either. The only consolation is that no megastar’s career was ever ruined by a fringe flop. Irvine Welsh and Frank Skinner are still household names, and Carrie-Ann Moss will still be a film star even if she gets a dozen more bad reviews. That luxury does not hold for lesser names, where a flop can be devastating. For that, at least, the stars have something to be thankful for.
In other news, I only put round to sending my press pass application yesterday, and it’s been approved already. I can’t believe I got away with that.
Tuesday 6th August: I clean forgot. I posted a guest post two days ago. It’s from Flavia D’Avila, director of Green Knight and also I think one of the most objective and intelligent commentator of the fringe and theatre in general. I’ve been interested on the effect that the Edinburgh Fringe has on locals, so I asked for the perspective of an Edinburgh resident. It’s an interesting read.
Now, one thing I do during my coverage is see how plays I’ve previously rated are doing. I have a rule that where I’m yet to see a play, I try to avoid looking at reviews in case it prejudices my own verdict, but one I’ve given my verdict it interests me what other people think.
One early bit of good news comes for Bite-Size. For long-running successful shows I tend not to pay attention because, well, they don’t need them – and Bite Size certainly doesn’t with its sell-outs almost entirely down to word of mouth. But ticket sales in their new much bigger venue will matter – having got this far, it would be a shame to play to a half-empty Pleasance Forth. But there’s no chance of that happening – yesterday and today sold out in the bigger space. These two days are the 2 for 1 ticket days for a lot of shows and are quite popular with locals, and Bite-Size has always been in big demand on these days, so if they were going to get any sell-outs, it would have been yesterday and today. But that’s the best start they could have hoped for.
The other thing that got my attention is something I haven’t mentioned at all. Last year I and everyone else witnessed the car-crash that was Nina’s Got News. Frank Skinner got roasted for this play and the BBC came under fire for supporting this over new writers, but amongst all of this there was the possibility of collateral damage to the actors. One name I recognised was Breffni Holahan, who I saw the year before in Malaprop’s Love+. It is unlikely that she or any of the other actors had much of an idea how much of a disaster they were walking into, but it could nonetheless have damaged their careers. But not for Holahan. She’s back in a completely different play called Collapsible this year, and it’s already getting good reviews, and everyone who has reviewed it is unanimous in praise for her performance. I’m very pleased that what might have been a cautionary tale for actor is now a story with a happy ending.
There is one other eye-catcher in the early reviews, but that is something I need to investigate further first. But if confirmed, we may have our successor to BBC Debut.
Monday 5th August: Bit more housekeeping now. If you have requested a review, you should have an email back from me acknowledging your request. If so, there’s no need to do anything else. If you do not, however, please get in touch with me ASAP as that means something has gone wrong I don’t have you on my list. Unfortunately, it’s not practical for me to give a yes or no e-mail – I only plan things a short distance ahead and the only time I’ll know for certain I can’t make it is when my time at the fringe is almost finished. If you haven’t asked me for a review but want one, it’s not too late. In principle, I prioritise requests made before the fringe begins, but in practice, it’s more likely to come down to where I have a gap. End of housekeeping.
So the news that came to my attention today is that it’s emerged that The Scotsman only went ahead with the review coverage this year after a last-minute sponsorship deal from the Big Four. I’m aware that this is the third time I’m writing about The Scotsman and already people are going “Jesus, give this a rest”, but this is an important issue that goes wider than The Scotsman. The issue here is about paid reviewing – something that has been on the decline in the age of the internet. (There are also reports that with the sponsorship being so last-minute, some reviewers cancelled their trips to Edinburgh and specialised coverage may suffer because of that.)
For a change, I’m going to say something positive, which is that I think what the Big Four’s doing isn’t a bad idea. There is a widespread consensus amongst reviewers that it would be good for reviewers to be paid – I certainly wouldn’t have such big backlogs myself if I could split my work between my day job and this – but what no-one can agree on is where the money comes from. The idea of charging performers for reviews keeps getting raised and shot down in flames for the obvious reason that pay-for-reviews have no credibility (and the early signs are that the latest pay-for-review venture, The Mumble, has not managed to find many suckers willing to part with their cash). But are other sources any better? A theatre sponsoring a reviewer has been talked about, but could you really trust a reviewer paid that way who says everything that theatre does is awesome? I couldn’t.
The best sources of funding, surely, are those where there’s no question of favouring certain acts. Last year The Stage were able to cover the Vault Festival thanks to sponsorship of We Are Waterloo, a coalition of local businesses. They hopefully gain business from Vault punters, but they have no horse in the reviewing race so there’s no question of bias. So funding from the Big Four looks like a reasonable idea. If it was one venue it would raise questions of bias, but four venues that between them account for most of the high-end fringe means on one venue gets a leg-up. The only question might be whether The Scotsman will end up favouring Big Four productions over other productions. To be honest, if they did, it would be no worse than some other publications who never venture out of the Big Four of their own accord.
However – the question still has to be asked: why The Scotsman? Why do they deserve payment more than other publications where people review for free? And closely coupled to this: what does this achieve? If you’re going to pay some reviewers and not others, what are the paid reviewers offering that the unpaid ones aren’t? And that is where my criticisms of The Scotsman come back into play. Their short-form reviews offer little in the way of constructive feedback, unlike many of their volunteer counterparts. One reason to fund the Scotsman is so that they can review lots of plays, including ones that otherwise get no reviews, but with the tendency to dish out two-stars more than most coupled with their lack of helpful comments, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
If The Scotsman would like to state its case for what their paid reviewers offer than volunteers don’t, I’d like to hear it. But I’m very heavily leaning towards advocating The Scotsman forgetting about reviewing all and sundry completely and instead concentrating on more in-depth coverage of the big hitters. There are better options for fringe newbies. So that is a slightly cynical reason why I’m okay if The Scotsman’s sponsorship skews their coverage. If they concentrate on the Big Four at the expense of the little acts in cheaper venues, it won’t be that much of a loss.
By the way, Bold choices are almost written. Should be up tomorrow mid-day-ish.
Sunday 4th August: The safe choices of my What’s Worth Watching list are up. Next up will be eight bold choices. Before then, however, I’m going to take the opportunity to review three plays I saw at Buxton. As I’m not going to get round to a Buxton Fringe roundup until after Edinburgh’s finish, it’s only fair that the acts going to Edinburgh have their reviews now.
So first up is An Audience with Yasmine Day. This was first seen at Buxton Fringe last year, with Yasmine an 80s power ballad singer whose ego way outstrips her talent. But whilst this was fun, the real potential I saw here was the story of how she got where she was, something only hinted at in the original. Now, after a year’s work, this is exactly what Jay Bennett has given us – but the story now is something much darker than I was expecting.
Unlike the original, where Yasmine was little more than a trumped-up pub singer, now Yasmine is someone who very nearly made it big, having been pipped to the post by Cheryl Baker to be in Bucks Fizz. But instead of holding her nerve and trying again, she lets bitterness get the better of her and her current career of the Slough pub circuit is the result of a series of bad decisions too often driven by score-settling. Worse, it is hinted that she is exploited and taken advantage of a lot – but poor Yasmine is so wound up in her long-standing feuds she doesn’t seem to realise who the real villains were in her life. One example of how well the new setting works is her anecdote of a brush with a celebrity. Last year her connection with Liza Minelli was a piss-poor story of a friend selling Liza Minelli posters. This year, her connection to Witney Houston was seeing her outside the window of her car, and throwing away her takeway and shouting “Witney, it’s me” with a heartbreaking air of desperation.
If there’s one thing I’d change about this new format, it’s the timeline. If Yasmine was an almost-there in the 1980s and the performance is set in the present day, that would mean she would now be in her fifties. Jay Bennet clearly isn’t that old, and as a result I intitially wasn’t sure if the Buck Fizz story was a real piece of backstory or just another delusion. It might have been a better idea to set the story somewhere in the nineties for this to make sense. But that’s my only question is this is a fine performance that works on two levels, the humour of her pretentious performances and the pathos of how she’s come to this. I did wonder whether this might have been inspired by Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit, a similar story where a middle-aged spinster doing a poetry performance gives away her story whilst whittering away between the poems. It isn’t – Jay Bennet didn’t know of this – but it’s a worthy successor, which you can enjoy for the laughs, or the tears, or both.
Next in chronological order is Green Knight. I’ve already written about this in the safe choices of the Edinburgh Fringe picks, but I can go into a bit more detail here. Debbie Cannon’s writing and performance is sometimes billed as storytelling and sometimes billed as theatre, but it fits very comfortably into both. An impoverished woman is handing herself over to the convent, but before she does, she tells a story she knows about King Arthur. It is, of course, the tale of Sir Gawain, but in this story she is the woman who tempted Gawain into dishonour. But, as with many of the best retellings, something new is brought to this. None of the events of Gawain and the Green Knight are changed – but something new is brought to it. In the original, the nameless wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert has a sole role in the story as a temptress; in this, she’s still still a temptress – but only because she’s in love with this perfect chivalrous man who’s come into her life. In this version, she only married to escape her own father, and her husband is, to be honest, a bit of a cock.
Although this would have worked perfectly fine as storytelling, the few belongings of the former Lady Bertilak as expertly deployed to act out the story. being performed in a room with no lighting or sound rig there’s no opportunity for sound or lighting effects, but here I think the beauty lies in the simplicity. In solo plays it’s difficult to know what was the performer’s idea and what was the idea of the director, but credit must be shared with director Flavia D’Avilia for such simple but effective moves.
If I was to pick a fault with this, it would have to be on a very pedantic level. In the original story, Lord Bertilak sets up the whole thing to test Sir Gawain’s valour. In this version, bit of a cock that he is, he seems oblivious to how his wife is feeling. I suppose that could raise the question of how he could set up this test without knowing what his wife would do, but – who cares? Debbie Cannon is an academic and an expert in this field of history and folklore, and this has played to her advantage very well, but ultimately it’s her imagination to give the other side of the story that makes it what this is. Only a few performances in Edinburgh, out of the way from most venues, but trust me, well worth the detour.
And finally, there’s The Grandmothers Grimm. Some Kind of Theatre, I should declare, have been one of the groups most determined to get me to review them. I saw The Steampunk Tempest a few years back, and whilst this could have benefited from seeing through the concept (i.e. “more steampunk please”), it was a good idea and I was interested to see what else they’d do. Their latest work, however, isn’t Shakespeare but about the origin of the Gimm Tales. In this, the Grimm Brothers are discussing some of the tales and how to adapt them for their anthology of children’s tales. They are sounding them out with a female friend and a serving girl. What follows gives a lot of food for thought. But, to start with, Little Red Riding Hood. The one where the wolf tells her take off all her clothes and burn them, as she won’t be needing them any more …
For the uninitiated, there’s two things known about fairy tales. The first is that the Grimms Tales are famous/notorious for their extremely harsh punishments and unnecessarily painful deaths for the villains of their fairytales. (e.g. The Wicked Queen in Snow White is made to wear red-hot shoes and dance until she dies, just because. Bit of confusion over the ugly sisters – they don’t get put to death – a bird just comes along and pecks their eyes out.) The second thing that has been discussed is the role of women in fairytales. Is it okay to kiss a sleeping princess, some people say. Oh boy, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Yes, I am judging these on modern standards when the original tales were presumably a lot more about fertility or something, but believe, I had no idea how fucked up some of these stories were, even compared to the Grimm Brothers version, which I already found pretty fucked up.
However, the story here is a power-struggle. For the Grimm brothers, one side-effect of their sanitisation of the stories (gory deaths of baddies excepted) is to gradually reduce the role of the women in the stories to more passive ones – and, somewhat more self-servingly, avoiding crediting any of the original story-tellers so that only they are credited by name. But it’s subtle. What starts as a good intention to compile stories to immortalise the culture of the Germanic people is eroded by self-serving and self-interest from all parties – it’s just it’s the Grimms book so they get their way.
When I see plays with historical settings, I normally do some cursory checks to ensure this is not a wild re-invention of history. I am obliged to say that on this occasion I couldn’t easily find anything to verify this one way or the other – I’ll have a more thorough search when I write the Buxton roundup. So I will reiterate one disclaimer that applies to all historical stories – always check an independent source before treating it as historical fact *cough* The Imitation Game *cough*. That does not affect the enjoyment of the story though. It’s pleasing to see how much Some Kind of Theatre has come on , with something that is surprising and thought-provoking in equal measure.
Other plays I’ve seen that have made it on to this list on the strength of performances earlier this year are Sary, Taboo, Trainspotting Live and Ladybones, so I’m providing links to those articles. Hopefully, I’ll get the bold choices up tomorrow.
And in the next 24 hours, I should have a surprise for you.
Saturday 3rd August: I almost have the first batch of recommendations ready to go online, but before then, time for a bit of housekeeping for anyone asking me for a review, seeing as some people are already chasing things up.
If you’ve asked me for a review and haven’t yet heard back – don’t panic. I’ve not forgotten you, I intend to send acknowledgement emails tomorrow. I’ll announce when I’ve done that – if, after that point, you still haven’t heard anything, please get back in touch as that’s the warning sign something’s gone wrong. After that, you will only hear from me if I want a press ticket from you. Whilst I don’t like to give no answer at all, I really do have to plan my reviews on the fly, and if I can’t fit you in I won’t know until time is almost up. Unfortunately, I have to do this quite a bit now – there are so many review requests and so many things on my must see list that a lot of it I can’t fit in.
As an aside, for anyone on my what’s worth watching list, just a reminder that this is npo guarantee you’ll get a review from me. There used to be a time when I saw everything I recommended and gave my verdict – now, the lists are so long, this is impossible. Even entries on the Safe Choice have fallen foul of scheduling. So if you want to make sure I review you (and to jump up the queue), it’s best to ask me yourself.
One other reminder: if you are a venue or publicist and you’re contacting me with lots of shows, please make it clear if this is a review invitation – often this is ambiguous and I probably won’t have time to chase this up. Even then, I’m only really interesting in taking press tickets when the request comes from the acts themselves. Very occasionally I will accept a request if there is something on the list I was already interested in, but acts are much better off if they make it clear it’s them, and not just the venue/publicist, who wants the review.
Okay, let’s finish off the safe choices. On number 6 out of 8.
Friday 2nd August: Officially this is the first proper day of the fringe, but we still have some week zero-themed activities going on, and that includes some more venue press launches. I tend not to comment on these because these are mostly showcases of acts I hear about third-hand, but today we had the launch of C Venues – or what’s left of it. C Venues lost its key venue and another building after a row over treatment of venue staff. It’s too long to go into a recap here, so here are my thoughts from earlier this year. The short version is that it’s not certain whether C Venues deserved what it got, but at best C Venues handled the matter badly and at worst they were guilty of everything they were accused of. I also recommend Robert Peacock’s article in The Wee Review, that looks at an even bigger picture than I was. Whatever the rights and wrongs, it must have been a brave-faced launch today – having lost the two biggest of its four venues, C Venues’ programme is only half the size of the year before. But they are not going down without a fight and they are pressing on with that they still have.
The one reason C Venues may have some respite is that their arch-nemesis Fair Fringe appears to have moved on. After they persuaded/arm-twisted the Royal Society of Edinburgh to take away C Royale, I did wonder if Fair Fringe – where there’s still serious questions over lack of accountability – had gone into full-blown vindictiveness and wouldn’t rest until C Venues were destroyed completely. This year, however, they’re getting more upbeat, celebrating improvements in practices a lot more than berating bad practices. If any venues are getting the brunt of criticism, it’s Pleasance and Zoo rather than a continuing vendetta against C. At some point I will look at this in more detail, but not tonight.
For the Edinburgh Fringe’s part, they and Unite-backed Fair Fringe seem unable to agree on anything, so the Festival Fringe Society has instead developed its own best practice code, in conjunction with BECTU, Equity, and Volunteer Edinburgh. Notably, all the major venues, C Venues included, have signed up to this, although I have a suspicion that in order to get everyone on board that easily the standards won’t be anything more than a bare minimum. Whatever the standards, an ongoing bone of contention will be the use of volunteers. Fair Fringe wants all venue staff to be paid – the Festival Fringe Society argues that is unworkable. My guess is that the Festival Fringe Society will win this argument based on cold hard economics. But whatever the outcome, don’t expect this issue to be put to bed just yet.
Thursday 1st August: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We have our first moment of Fringe drama already, and it’s famous/notorious head comedy critic of The Scotsman again – on exactly the same grievance as last year. For those of you not up to speed, last year Kate Copstick had a bit of a strop over four comedians refusing to give her press tickets during preview week, promptly writing a column saying they were “a bit meh”. Now she’s a guest columnist for Broadway Baby, and she’s used one of her early columns to have a go at comedians who charge money for previews and/or work in progress. But it’s not long before she moves on to her bugbear she just can’t let go, and that is those insolent performers with the temerity to say no to her requests for review tickets.
There is so much wrong with this. I suppose there is a discussion to be had over how much is a reasonable price for a preview performance, but nobody is forced to pay if they don’t want to. The practice of only inviting reviewers after you’ve done a few runs in the space is a long-established convention, but even if it wasn’t, so what? Performers owe you nothing, and it is entirely their choice who they give press tickets to and when. There is a debate over whether it’s ethical to buy a ticket and turn up anyway, but I’d much rather have that than the prestigious critic practically screaming “It’s not fair!”
I suppose – given that I’ve already had a go at The Scotsman for not addressing criticisms – the fact that Kate Copstick is addressing the subject again last year ought to be an improvement. And Copstick is entitled to how own opinion, even if the vast majority of the fringe feels differently. But responding to overwhelming opposition nearly a year after you were calling out for it, and doing little more than repeating the same rhetoric, does not impress me. Neither do her childish insults; calling the standard practice of no press tickets until preview are done as “dick-waving”? Oh, come on. Some criticisms of previews are valid: one thing that is particularly frowned upon is comedy acts that charge full-price for something obviously WIP-quality without advertising it as WIP (with a lot of complaints coming from Brighton and Buxton) . This, I’m afraid to say, comes across as a screechpiece of “Do you know who I am?”, because you can bet that anyone else who demanded this would never be invited to review again.
Ah well, I was looking for an opportunity to mention the article I wrote before the fringe began, and this is the right moment: There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman. I’ve come to the conclusion that, unless you are an established act, you are better off declining the review request, even if it means no reviews at all. It wasn’t just down to the behaviour of Copstick last year, but that was the final straw for me. And the fact The Scotsman’s only response to criticism is to double down with more of the same won’t do anything to change my mind.
Wednesday 31st July: So the first matter to cover – probably contentious more than a controversy – is the size of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. This has come as a surprise for two reasons.
The first surprise is how much the growth was this year. The growth between 2018 and 2019 is 8.5%, up from 3,548 registrations to 3,841. That is an unusually high number, but it was all the more of a surprise after all the hoo-ha last year over the cost of doing the Edinburgh Fringe. One might have thought that this cold hard dawning of how how it costs might have finally put the brakes on Edinburgh Fringe’s growth, but instead it’s sped up. Either the joy of doing Edinburgh is proving irresistible, or – at this scenario would be more concerning – performers feel they have no choice but to do Edinburgh in order to get noticed.
But the other small but significant surprise is how Edinburgh Fringe reacted to this news; or rather, how they didn’t. For years, throughout the fringe, it’s been a given that when you have high growth you shout it from the rooftops – and when growth flatlines, you keep quiet about it. The news that accompanied these figures, however, skipped over this fact completely, instead making a big deal over the record-breaking number of countries sending acts to the Fringe. I had to dig very deep into the press release to find the figures at all.
So what does that mean? Any answer would be mere speculation, but it does throw into doubt whether the conventional mindset of “bigger is better” still holds. It is fair to say that the Festival Fringe Society has made an effort with costs this year – even if they they can’t do much about the forces of supply and demand, perhaps their efforts to help find accommodation might save acts from paying through the nose for accommodation even more expensive than the market rate. But an increasing number of artists chasing a finite supply of accommodation is surely to going to put costs again.
If this switch from a positive stance to a neutral stance on growth becomes permanent, that is one major departure. The other possibility: will the Edinburgh Fringe encourage prospective acts to consider the smaller cheaper fringes? It’s been advocated by other people before (myself included), but previously the possibility that the Edinburgh Fringe itself might back this was unthinkable. Still probably remote, but now we must consider this outcome – and if it comes to be, that will be a game-changer.
Tuesday 30th July: So let’s leap straight in at the deep end. Here are my recommendations for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, along with a few other things I think will be interesting:
Bite-Size Breakfast Show
From Judy to Bette
Great Grimm Tales
Police Cops in Space
Testament of Yootha
An Audience with Yasmine Day
The Grandmothers Grim
Police Cops – Badass Be Thy Name
You might like:
An Evening with Savvy B
The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland
We Apologise for the Inconvenience
Also of note:
From the comedy:
The Dark Room
Imaginary Porno Charades
Murder She Didn’t Write
I’ve introduced a new rule this time that groups can have a maximum of one listing per category. This is because some groups who have been coming back year after year now have a big catalogue of shows to choose from, and the list’s getting long enough as it is. When I write up WHat’s Worth Watching in full (hopefully this weekend) I’ll mention anything else these groups are bringing that got my attention.
Just a reminder that this list should be considered a cross-section of what’s out there at the Edinburgh Fringe rather than a comprehensive list – I cannot keep track of more than a fraction of what’s going on. But for anyone who is feeling down about not getting on lists, this Twitter thread from Eleanor Morton is a good read.
Join me tomorrow when I do my first report on a fringe controversy.
Monday 29th July: Welcome to the coverage for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It’s Monday of preview week (also known as week zero) so goings on this week will be dominated by venue launches. My first task, however, will be my own pre-fringe recommendations. I’ve already picked the list, so expect an announcement tomorrow.
The main purpose of this month-long article, however, will be reviews of plays I’ve seen. The first day of fringe coverage is also conveniently the first day I’m back from holiday, so I will be catching up with paperwork shortly. If you have send a review request, please bear with me. In the meantime, I can announce I’ll be at Edinburgh on the 9th-11th and 16th-18th August, and possible some extra dates too.
First of all, however, I need some sleep. Those who know me will be aware my holidays are far from relaxing.