Wednesday 21st October: Some more breaking news from Brighton Fringe now, and this time it’s not good. I’d suspected this might have happened but I refrained from speculating – unfortunately, the thing I was worried about is happening.
You may have noticed that one notable absentee from Brighton – both the official fringe and unofficial offshoots – is the Rialto Theatre. I’ve not heard a peep from the Rialto Theatre since July; however, I did hear directly they weren’t going ahead because social distancing would have made it unviable for both the venue and performers. I must say I do feel that in general there’s been too much haste to declare productions unviable. If by “viable” you mean turn a profit, almost all fringe productions are unviable; money is rarely the purpose of the performance. Not sure about viability of the venues themselves, but you need to compare the (probably negative) cash flow of keeping the door closed versus the (probably negative but not necessarily so much) cash flow of opening and doing what you can. That said, my feeling is that the real deal-breaker here wasn’t so much money but practicalities. With the theatre being at the top of a narrow staircase and a busy road outside the front, managing social distancing is probably somewhere between nightmare and impossible.
However, it now turns out that’s the least of the problems. I was beginning to wonder when the list Brighton venues happily acknowledging receipt of Coronavirus Recovery Funds excluded the Rialto. I was hoping it was because they didn’t apply because they didn’t need the money, but I’m now hearing that’s wrong on both counts. We now have to start thinking about the worst-case scenario. I hardly need say that losing the Rialto would be a great loss to the Brighton Fringe, and from that a loss to theatre in general. Brighton Fringe is an important cultural feeder and the variety offered by three significant theatre-programming venues makes a big difference. I really hope Brighton pulls out its finger to keep the Rilato going.
The good news is that the Rialto has a much better chance of getting through this if it’s the only venue in this position. As I previously said, people can be very generous with crowdfunders if the venue has earned a lot of respect, but there is only a finite amount of generosity to go round. A single venue seeking rescue from closure has a good chance – several venues seeking rescue from closure at the same time: much less chance. A lot now rests on the Rialto’s next move. There’s still everything to pay for, but no room for complacency.
Monday 19th October: As we move into the home stretch of a postponed Brighton Fringe we hit another one-off: Brighton Fringe co-inciding with Brighton Horrorfest. Halloween insists it is going ahead on October 31st as planned, and Horrorfest – normally a Sweet Venues Brighton venture taking place far out of fringe season – is temporarily part of the festival fringe diary.
Most of Horrorfest won’t be found in the fringe programme, but you can see what’s on here. I have to say, I do think Brighton Fringe has missed a trick here, with high registration fees putting off many would-be registrants from bumping up the fringe’s numbers. Ignoring that, Jekyll and Hyde and Unquiet Slumbers are the most obvious two, but Fright Wig is also worth a punt. I saw this last year and their twisted monologues should suit Halloween very well. I will give reminders for all of these as we approach the day.
The good news is that any performers who are rusty from an enforced six-month break doesn’t need to worry if they can’t remember the lines. Just go on stage, say you’re an anti-masker, and cough continuously. They’ll be shitting themselves.
Friday 16th October: We have some news back from Brighton. Electric Arcade have announced their first live event. On its own, it’s not that big a deal (it’s a continuation of The Late Show that ran at The Warren Outdoors over the last two months), but is the first test of a place we could be hearing a lot more of next year.
2020 was supposed to be the big year for Electric Arcade. Intended as The Warren’s year-round venue, it was going to be part of their Brighton Fringe programme in May before everything got put on hold, only to suddenly become an indispensable part of The Warren Outdoors in August and September. The Electric Arcade bar became the Warren Outdoors bar, whilst the rooms that would normally be the two spaces took on a temporary use as dressing rooms. But this meant that the venue itself was only a footnote in the proceedings of an extraordinary summer.
However, now that the Warren has been packed up for the year, Electric Arcade stays as a stand-alone venue. I was wondering if Electric Arcade might announce a Brighton Fringe line-up at the last moment, maybe on a similar scale to Sweet Werks, but I guess the folks at The Warren were too busy running a big outdoor venue to get another venues running straight after. Instead they’ve been doing a low-key screening of LGBT films in one of their spaces.
Tomorrow, however, they throw their hat into the year-round fringe theatre ring. My guess is that this is primarily a pilot performance to see how social distancing is going to work there, but assuming all goes well, we can expect more regular performances over the next few months. And when normal Brighton Fringe comes round next May, this will be an interesting addition to their big pop-up venue. It may even be a good home for plays that previously weren’t workable within Warren spaces because of noise bleed.
I’ve gone home so I can’t check it out, but feel free to check this out for me and report back. Failing that, feel free to pop in there for a drink (if the zombie apocalypse hasn’t already started where you are). I think it’s a pretty cool place, and it could be a big hang-out next May.
Wednesday 14th October: Today was supposed to be the designated day looking at how other early openers across the country are doing, starting with The New Vic and their sound and light installation Ghostlight. But I can’t tell you anything about it because, in spite of planning a family visit around the opening date, the theatre was closed even though the website said it was running on Sundays. Grr. I suppose I should take into account that it’s been all hands on deck getting the theatre open at all, and their choice to only take walk-in bookings might have caught them out without the usual safeguards that come with advance ticketing, but even so that was a pretty basic error. To be fair, the New Vic have apologised for this mistake and corrected the website and press release, but it’s too late for me and I cannot tell you whether or not this is worth seeing.
But I can instead recommend a completely different installation over the border in Stoke. Ghostlight might be themed about showing positivity through a crisis, but I’d rather have something cynical and twisted and that is precisely what Jimmy Cauty’s brilliant Mdz Estate provides. Set in container, you can view four miniature concrete tower blocks in a nightmarish dystopian near-future. You have a choice of two modes: “Lockdown” where you can inspect the four buildings at your leisure, or if you are desensitised to The System (count me in) you can have “Full English” with smoke, sirens, helicopters and announcements threatening social miscreants with suspension of social media access and/or death. Why they’ve chosen Amber Rudd as the voice of supreme overlord I’m not sure, but I suppose Boris isn’t organised enough to set up a totalitarian regime and someone had to be quietly pulling the strings in the background.
It’s a good idea but it’s brilliantly executed. The more you look at these four tower blocks, the more details you discover. The first tower block is “residential live-work-die units”. Apparently there’s a reason why you can’t see any people there which may or may not be connected to the upside-down police car in the building, but I didn’t manage to spot that. Next is the child correction facility, with toys, ball-pools, and friendly lessons where crime leads to punishment leads to execution. The first home is a residential care home with graffiti such as “Death to Crumblies” or something like that – I’m don’t know why this facility is run by “Portion Biopharma”, but it’s probably better I don’t. The last block is afacility abandoned by the state and now apparently taken over by hippies who like their stone circles.
Strangely enough, this isn’t a response to either Coronavirus or Boris Johnson, with the project having started before either came along, but the things have been worked in perfectly, so good timing. I’ve heard pf people enjoying this so much they’ve been coming back for a second or third time. It runs at Stoke/Hanley until the 24th October, and you can book here. After that, it plans to tour to areas with social deprivation. Well, you’re welcome to come to Durham. I’m not sure it’s socially deprived enough but I’m happy to go round doing some glue-sniffing if that’ll persuade you to come. Deal?
Monday 12th October: Wait, I forgot. It was announcement day today for the Cultural Recovery Fund. This is relevant to both Brighton Fringe and beyond. The short version is that this is at the upper end of expectations, but there’s a lot of caveats and nuances involved.
Firstly, a word on what the expectations actually were. Whatever you may think of this government’s attitude towards the arts, they do have limit. They are not going to allow major cultural institutions such as the Royal Albert Hall or the London Palladium close on their watch. Major local venues such as Newcastle Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire should also be safe – even this government knows there’ll be hell to pay if that closes. Where there is less certainty is the smaller venues. They could go bust by the hundreds and attract little attention outside the arts circles, but the long-term cultural damage would be huge. And when you’re facing a massive recession that stands to make the credit crunch look like a picnic, you can expect a lot of other business to argue they deserve the money more.
So, with that obstacle in mind, it’s not too bad. In Brighton, Bright Dome (also responsible for Brighton Festival) is on the list, but so is Komedia and The Old Market, both notable on Brighton Fringe. In the north-east Live Theatre and Northern Stage are on – they were always on the likely list – but so is smallish Alphabetti. I hear that small-ish Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester is equally fortunate. I am hearing anecdotally that the overall picture for smaller venues is a mixed bag, but I was worried the DCMS would concentrate on saving larger venues and leave the smaller ones to fend for themselves, so that’s better than it could have been.
Even for those whose applications were successful, I’d still say it’s overall good news. The fewer venues are in dire straits, the better prospects for those left who are. The precedent I have in mind is Alphabetti Theatre. In 2016 they were in big trouble and resorted to a crowdfunder – luckily for them they’d earned so many friends in Newcastle the money was raised to save them easily. But can you imagine how much worse the chances would have been if all the other Newcastle theatres were asking for the same? A similar principle applies to local council support – a single venue seeking a bailout is a lot likely to get one than five venues seeking a bailout from the same council. For this reason, I’d still keep a close eye on London and Manchester where there are lots of venues – if the worst comes to the worst and there’s too many venues seeking support from the same locals, I guess that’s where the closures will happen first.
However, no analysis of mine involving this government would be complete without a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theory. What Oliver Dowden clearly wanted as a good news day was marred by the infamous advert of “Fatima” the dancer retraining in cyber. Dowden has disowned the advert and insists it wasn’t him who authorised this, and consider how damaging this was to his big day I’m minded to believe him. But whilst this timing is within the bound of plausible co-incidence, the fact the advert ticked same many boxes for its terribleness does seem rather convenient, if you’re an enemy of the Culture Secretary.
Could someone have deliberately release the advert on that day to derail someone else’s PR exercise. If you had discretion on designing and releasing government retraining adverts, it’s just about possible you could pull a stunt like this and get away with it. I’m not sure whether such a person actually wants push artists out of their preferred career, but it would certain require a willingness to treat the arts as expendable collateral. I might be over-thinking this, but quite frankly, under the current state of politics nothing surprises me any more.
Sunday 11th October: Housekeeping first: from next tomorrow, I’m stepping down Brighton Fringe coverage. I’ve had enough to keep me busy from last weekend’s visit, but now that I’m mostly caught up on this, combined with there being nothing in my picks on next week, I’ll end up scraping the bottom of the barrel if I carry on with daily updates. Obviously, if anything interesting happens, I’ll be back.
Now, for today’s update, another look at Brighton Fringe as the organisation. I have previously commented on the lack of publicity in the city that there’s a fringe on, but, to be fair, that’s the least of the worries. At the time The Warren Outdoors was launched, it was noted that all the information about the autumn fringe had disappeared from the Brighton Fringe website, raising a few eyebrows. Just when we were starting to wonder if an autumn fringe would go ahead at all, it got announced. But on the same day, another significant announcement got buried in the news.
Unlike Buxton Fringe, which runs almost entirely on volunteers and only real expense is the programme, Brighton and Edinburgh are less versatile enterprises, and in Brighton’s case they were unlucky enough for lockdown to strike after the programmes had been printed, now worthless. Edinburgh Fringe got a bailout from the Scottish Government – realistically there was no way they would have allowed the fringe to go bust on their watch – but a bankrupt Brighton Fringe could conceivably have been tolerated in England. In the end, The Pebble Trust came to the rescue. Already a major sponsor of this fringe, it turns out they have deep enough pockets to turn things round, and it made sense they’d want to protect their investment.
But the price of survival is not cheap. In return for saving Brighton Fringe, the Pebble Trust has effective taken charge. Most the the directors have left, and the Pebble Trust has chosen a new chair. Julian Caddy is staying on as Chief Executive, but with further appointments coming at the Pebble Trust’s behest, it’s a clear message that they’re going to be pulling the strings. I’m not sure who the members of Brighton Fringe Ltd. are; in theory, they can overrule the directors and this might matter if there’s disagreements over what the Pebble Trust wants to do, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
And so – given the fact that autumn Brighton Fringe and the change to the board was announced on the same day – this leads me to suspect the two were connected. In other words, the postponed fringe – maybe even future fringes – might have been hanging in the balance more than anyone was letting on in public. Anyway, we should have our first idea of what the Pebble Trust intends to do on the 21st October at an open meeting of “The Future of Brighton Fringe.” One interesting detail: it’s hosted by Paul Levy from FringeReview; make of that what you will.
Anyway, probably next see you Tuesday; in the meantime, here is a picture from last week of a very rare sight during a Brighton Fringe.
Saturday 10th October: But first, a break from fringe coverage completely to look at the latest news on “saving panto”. I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone that this has been done because it’s easy: small amount for money for lots of nice media coverage. (I know all governments do this, but this one does it more blatantly than most.) In the north-east, the most notable beneficiary is Newcastle Theatre Royal; even so, this news has been greeted with scorn by the majority of creatives whose livelihoods are on the line and haven’t been helped. When the government of the day is hated by the arts this much – and let’s face it, we don’t need much encouragement – it’s tempting to dismiss anything done for the arts as a gimmick. So, as per my long-standing policy on reaction to dogpiles, I am trying to be fair.
First, a reminder where we are with pantos in general. Pretty much everyone concedes it would be crazy to drop social distancing before Christmas. Most pantos and Christmas productions have been cancelled or postponed. A hardy few are pressing on – and the lengths some actors are going to is unprecedented – but they are the exception. A few theatres (e.g., Northern Stage, Stephen Joseph, New Vic) have filled the vacated slot with something that works on a much lower budget, and therefore is realistic against the reduced audience capacity. I think that’s a wise decision, and it’s a shame more theatres haven’t gone down this route.
However, I am aware that the one thing low-budget productions are bad at doing do is keeping people in jobs. I personally would rather sit on a spike than turn up the kind of celebrity-dominated pantomimes that make up the bulk of panto season, but even I accept that this is indispensable for many who work in theatre. As such, I can see a case for supporting a handful of large-pantos, even if the motive was publicity for themselves rather than jobs for artists. Saving eight pantos isn’t a lot, but it’s better than zero.
However, what strikes me as extremely questionable is the way these pantos were chosen. With apparently no explanation, the Government, via the Nationally lottery, is supporting Qdos-run pantos only. I’m just about prepared to accept that a one-off lump sum to a theatre chain might have been the only way it could have worked at short notice, but why Qdos? Why not ATG? Why not let SOLT and UK Theatre decide? There might be a good reason, but so far none have been given.
This is what I think you need to worry about the most. Where this government talks about “tearing up the rulebook”, the pages they seem keenest on tearing up are the ones written to prevent nepotism and favouritism, where they have been pretty shameless across the board *cough* test and trace *cough*. Sure, Arts Council England aren’t your most favourite people with their confusing arbitrary hoops you have to jump through for funding, but surely that’s better than unaccountable people allocating funding however they want, no explanation needed? This, combined with Festival of Brexit, suggests a government who’d see nothing wrong with diverting all the cash to Yes men should they wish. I don’t propose we pick a fight over panto funding, because that won’t make any friends, but now’s a good time to start asking questions over who’s in charge of this new arbitrary system.
Friday 9th October: Let’s take a quick look at what’s coming up with weekend.
Caravan of Love and Make-Up are still running until Sunday and Saturday respectively. I’ve covered these already, but scroll back to Monday 5th if you need reminding of why these grabbed my attention. Since I last wrote about this, Caravan of Love has scooped something that’s currently a very rare sight: a review! See it here.
One other thing on my radar is a rare mention for stand-up comedy. I must admit I was a bit sceptical when this started, and I wondered if this was one of these dreaded person talking about themselves and their “thoughts” for an hour calling it comedy. But it turns out Daphna Baram has a surprisingly evil sense of humour. As an immigrant, she makes an excellent point that the UK Citizenship Test is basically a pub quiz, so that new citizens to this country are fully prepared to assimilate into society, as long as it’s a pub on quiz night. The darker humour I daren’t repeat here, so if that enoucages you to find out what it is this is the show for you. I am obliged to mention this is officially a work in progress, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone cares right now – being on stage at all is good enough. 5.50 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
But tomorrow, I’m going to be checking out a very different re-opening.
Thursday 8th October: There is, of course, a cause for underlying nerves. The Fringe may have launched successfully – and there must have been some nerves in September as some graphs got too exponential for our liking. There must still be some nerves over whether Brighton Fringe can make it to the finish – especially if you are at the back end of the programme. But for one Brighton performance, the worst has already come to the worst (£).
Two days ago, the Circus of Horrors and Continent Circus Berlin were going to perform. Originally due to perform in May, they followed Brighton Fringe to October (although I don’t recall seeing them actually registered with Brighton Fringe). To minimise the risk of Coronavirus, it was to take place in Preston Park, and according them, the council gave them assurances they could go ahead as late as August 24th. And then, on October 1st, two days before they were due to move in on site. A hasty decision prompted by a national emergency may be forgivable, but what many see as less forgivable is Brighton Council posting the news on social media before people working on the event knew. (The Council says they inform the Circus of Horrors on the 1st, but it’s not clear whether this was before or after they posted it on social media.)
So far, there has been no hint that the mostly smaller performances at Brighton Fringe will get the same treatment – the current thinking is that if restrictions are tightened, it will be other things in the firing line. But as we saw from the final week of the Vault festival, events can turn swiftly and brutally. I don’t envy anyone yet to perform at the fringe.
Wednesday 7th October: But now, let’s pause on Brighton Fringe for a moment. Brighton is one of many places looking to find its feet again as some theatres tentatively re-open. So it’s time for a look at two other things that started the same time as Brighton.
So up north Greater Manchester Fringe has also started. Unlike their neighbour in Buxton, who chose to press ahead with July come hell or high water, Greater Manchester Fringe decided to postpone to autumn, and by “autumn” this have ended up meaning October and November; two months for the price of one if you like.
For Greater Manchester, out of the three options available – press on, postpone, or cancel – I think they picked the right one for them. They run a very different kind of fringe to that in Edinburgh, Brighton or Buxton, covering venues over a whole county many of whom would be putting on these events anyway. So it seems a logical choice to pick a time when the first of the fringe venues are re-opening their doors and let the shows come to them.
A far more complex operation re-launching on the same day is The Great Gatsby, also known as Immersive Gatsby – and there you have your first problem. What’s more, whilst a positive Covid test would be embarrassing for a fringe, it would take out a single show or, at worst, a venue. The same for Immersive Gatsby – and literally one wrong move could make this happen – and you’d surely put the show out of action for weeks, maybe months.
For an excellent account of how they’ve risen to the challenge, you can read details in this Stage article (£). The most prominent challenge, of course, is how to handle dress code. With the audience used to coming in their finest 1920s regalia, it’ll kind of spoil the mood if everyone wears masks – unless, of course, you re-set the play at a masked ball. For anyone who’s been the before, the bad news is the Charleston practice is out until further notice. But even by the standards of the performers who are already back on stage, the lengths that Immersive Gatsby have gone to has to be one of the most impressive.
Tuesday 6th October: My investigations on how indoor socially distance theatre is faring in Brighton is inconclusive, but the one thing that’s been doing consistently well, both at the fringe and the months leading up, is outdoor theatre. I’ve already talked about The Warren Outdoors, but the other major venue having a good time is Brighton Open Air Theatre. I only found out this year that this was the vision of Adrian Bunting, a popular Brighton figure who I know for the brilliant play Kemble’s Riot, who died of cancer and left his project to a trusted few to being it to life. Normally they would have shut up shop for October, but they’ve stayed open for the Fringe, and so far, good call.
The play I went to see was Alice in Wonderland, billed as a family-friendly ballet, and it does what it says on the tin. I’m not a dance reviewer so I’ll leave it up to them if there’s any nit-picking to be have over correct or incorrect pointing of feet, but that’s not the point of this. This is clearly intended as an accessible introduction to music, stage and dance. Most of the music to tell Alice’s story are the best-known classical tunes. There is the obligatory stilts bit for when Alice eats the relevant cake and an equally obligatory appearance of an Alice-shaped doll when she drinks the relevant drink, but there’s also some pretty clever devices to represent harder thinks to stage, such as holes and how to fall down them. Like most ballet, it really only makes sense if you already know the story (although, to be fair, Alice in Wonderland isn’t supposed to make sense anyway), but it covers all the key moments nicely and it’s an ideal family event.
More notably, however, the turnout was excellent, and this is not the only one. Their reopening performance of Abigail’s Party sold out its entire run a couple of months back, and my previous attempt to check them out met the same fate. And, okay, a sold-out socially distance performance isn’t the same money-spinner as a normal sold-out performance, but the audience at this performance are still in numbers most fringe performers can only dream of. Admittedly they had a lot of luck on their side that day, squeezing two performances into the sunny dry interval in an otherwise rain-soaked weekend – and they won’t necessarily be so lucky every time this month – but every day they get like this works heavily in their favour.
I’m starting to think that BOAT could emerge as the big winner of Brighton Fringe 2020. Until now, they’ve been overshadowed by the activities of the bigger multi-space venues, but with most of them temporarily out of the picture this is the chance to show people who are choosing BOAT as an alternative to their normal pick what they can do. It’s a fair walk out of the city centre, but that can be offset by building up regular performers and regular audiences. Or BOAT may be happy to carry on doing what they’ve always done. Either way, I’m sure Adrian Bunting would be proud of them.
UPDATE: Forgot to mention, BOAT is in action 7th-8th (Wednesday – Thursday) with Anytime the Wind Can Change, which stood out as the most interesting performance in their programme. 7 p.m. both nights, with half an hour of live music followed by a forty-minute play of shadow puppetry.
Monday 5th October: That’s it from me already, but it’s not the end of the fringe and as we go into a new week, let’s see what’s coming up. All of these are at Sweet Werks.
First of all I will draw your attention to Toby Belch is Unwell. I’ll do a proper review of this later, but in the meantime, this one is quite a niche interest, and you need to be pretty familiar with your Shakespeare to really follow this one. If you don’t know that Toby Belch is a minor character from Twelfth Night you’ll struggle to follow it, but people who know the play well have praised it for it cleverly fitting into Shakespeare’s world. Even if you can’t tell your Romeos from your Hamlets, the one thing will will appreciate is that Sidney Kean’s performance is phenomenal. This started last Friday and runs until Thursday 8th at 7,20 p.m.
Starting today is a play I’ve not mentioned yet: Caravan of Love. Not much being given away about this play, other than a happy couple are on honeymoon in their caravan until a stranger turns about and throws everything into the balance. The reason this has got on my radar now is that I’ve found out this has Oriana Charles in it. Those of you with good memories will know that I saw Bump! in 2015 and again in 2018 and this high-energy performace with Andrew Hollingworth was excellent. Whilst Andrew Hollingworth has gone on to exciting things in America, we Limeys still have the other half. I know little about the play but you won’t be disappointed by the lead. Starts tonight and runs until Sunday 11th.
And finally, a but longer to wait, but my next recommendation is starting. Make-up from NoLogo Productions runs Wednesday 7th to Saturday 10th at 8.35 p.m. The last time I was NoLogo pre-dates this blog – in fact, they were inadvertently responsible to encouraging me to get started – but the last play I saw was charming. So the story of Lady Christina when she goes back to being Christopher Langhen shows promise.
That’s all for now – tomorrow, I shall start looking at the state of play with the other major venues.
Sunday 5th October, 5.30 p.m.: I’m losing my touch. Seen five shows so far and I’m already flagging fast. Okay, two of these were tours and another two were outlying venues that were an half an hour’s walk outside the centre, but I need to up my game. At Edinburgh I would get a train a 7, see five shows by noon the following day and still be raring to go. Luckily, the last two are in the same venue, Sweet Werks, so it’s an easy finish from here. So this might be a good time to give an update from Sweet Werks.
Sweet Venues has arguably saved Brighton Fringe 2020. With most venues’ plans either cancelled or moved to different months, it’s really down to Sweet that Brighton has a programme of any standing. Admittedly, Sweet Werks has a significant advantage over most theatres – the building has stayed open all this times. Werks Central is primarily home to offices of various creative businesses with a cafe, so whilst other theatres have to worry about the logistics of re-opening a whole building to the public, Sweet can simply pick up the key to the function rooms next door. I’m sure there were other logitical challenges, but that’s the big one out of the way.
Sweet Edinburgh, like many of the Edinburgh venues, decided to do its own online programme when the plug was pulled on the Edinburgh Fringe, called SweetStream. Rather than decide whether to continue online or switch back to live, it’s doing both. So you’ll find Sweet shows hosted at Sweet Werks or SweetStream, with many shows going for both platforms. This, I think, is particularly valuable for comedy. The one complaint I’ve heard more than anything about online performances is that it’s very difficult to reproduce the optimal conditions for comedy without an audience in front of you (even a small one doing social distancing), so for many the option could be the best of both under current circumstances. Exactly how a dual platform works varies from show to show: some are bring recorded as performed, some are being recorded in tech rehearsal spots, and at least one is recording a special edition specially for the camera.
Coming to think of it, I’m surprised more theatres aren’t going down this route. It’s probably true to say that many shows are not worthwhile with the diminished social distanced capacity alone – and it now seems unlikely social distancing can be lifted any time soon – but theatre and comedy so often needs to play off a live audience. But income from live audience plus online audience combined? This might just be what’s needed to get going again.
Sunday 5th October, 10.30 a.m.: And so, for the first time since August last year, a review of a fringe play I’ve just seen, and it’s Savage Beauty.
The most obvious thing that strikes you about Savage Beauty is how much they’ve gone to town on this. Most of the Brighton Fringe productions that went ahead are either already low-budget low-resource productions, or have been scaled down to work with a a smaller audience. Not here – this is an immersive production with all the works. Thena invites us all to take place in an environmental protest, making it clear to as that the law we are about to break carried severe consequences. Inside (in real life a garden of someone’s house) there is soundscape mixing live music and recorded singing, projections on the wall of news covering the repercussions of the protest. The balcony and window of the house light up to show many indoor scenes, and there’s bonus circus stunts. And judging by the size of the audience – about as much as you could have before sightlines become impossible – it’s like there wasn’t a pandemic on.
Times change. When an original production was done in 2015 without the bells and whistles, it seemed quite far-fetched that a UK Prime Minister would press ahead with a scheme, sack anyone with evidence it wasn’t such a good idea and respond to questions with a mixture of vague platitudes and accusations of not believing in the country. Today, not so much. Law and order has of course featured in political rhetoric since always, but what is the act of defiance that carries such severe penalties? Planting a tree. That’s actually not so far-fetched as it sounds; there are many examples in history of governments clamping down with increasingly heavy-handed punishments on increasingly trivial acts of protest (the trivial protesters, of course, knowing perfectly well how damage the government in question inflicts on itself by doing this). What the Prime Minister hadn’t banked on was this tree-planter being his own niece.
The weak point of this play, however, was the character of the Prime Minister. I fear Actors of Dionysus have fallen into the trap of depicting the other side as a set of argument they think the other side makes – but this is a play, and you need to look at his character. Does he sincerely believe in what he’s saying, or is he a shallow self-serving opportunist? All of these scenes are taken from various Greek texts so I don’t know which characters form the basis of Prime Minister, his niece, or his sister with the unpatriotic climate data, but I’m sure if we went back to the original characters we could get some more from the motivations. One promising plot hook is a game of “would you rather” played by future Prime Minister and sister as children – so what happened that drew them apart? Resolve this, and everything that happens in the later half of the story should flow more naturally.
This is a work in progress, which is why I think Actors of Dionysus were right to press on with such a resource-heavy production. Even if they hadn’t got much of an audience, they would still have achieved the more important objective of seeing how the play is working out. One small but irritating technical issue is the sightlines to the ground floor of the house, hindered to some extent by an inconveniently-positioned hedge. I realise asking the house owner to cut down a hedge for a play is asking a lot, and also in a play about this environment that would be rather hypocritical, but it’s something to thing about for next time – if they can upscale to a bigger garden that might solve the problem. But having got this far, I really hope they can finish the job and get this done in a finished form. So still some to do on characterisation, but get that right and it will be worth it.
Saturday 3rd October, 11.00 p.m.: And that’s the end of my day one. And the early indication is, for those who went ahead, ticket sales looked good. All three of the performances appeared close to capacity, and whilst there is a caveat that capacity is significantly reduced by social distancing, this was priced into everybody’s plans and they ought to be pleased with this. Yet again, the evidence suggests that there is a lot of suppressed demand for live performance, and those who go ahead in a responsible way are reaping the benefits.
Of course, one thing to note is the weather has been kind today: sunny for most of the day in spite of a weather forecast a couple of days ago predicting rain all day. Yesterday apparently was a different matter, and with so many outdoor performances this time round you can expect this is cause some grief. But it seems the take-home for the diminished number of performers – which is consistent with everything I’ve seen so far – is yes, it is worth it. Last performance at Lionhouse near Queen’s Park.
Saturday 3rd October, 6.30 p.m: Two down, five to go. I made the trek to Brighton Open Air Theatre – more on this later, but the early signs is they’re in for a good fringe.
Before then, however, an observation. When I made my day trip to Buxton, one thing that struck me was – even though the vast majority of performances were taking place in cyberland – how determined the fringe committee were to make Buxton a fringe town. You couldn’t miss the fact the fringe was on even if only one performance was taking place.
Brighton is a different matter. On terms of online publicity, Brighton Fringe is being pushed just as heavily as Buxton’s, but in the city, outside of venues, I’ve not yet seen anything telling us Brighton Fringe is underway. I think that’s a shame. Okay, Brighton is bigger than Buxton and in a normal year Brighton Fringe is jostling for attention with a lot of other events, but with most other events cancelled outright you’d have thought the one that went ahead would get more publicity. It doesn’t look like this is down to lack of enthusiasm from the council – the Lord Mayor has been backing the October fringe quite heavily (and of course they were amenable to the Warren Outdoors over the previous two months.
I’m not sure this makes much difference in practice – I suspect the vast majority of punters this time round are the hard-core who would have come even if the only publicity was a tramp holding up a piece of cardboard saying “Brighton Fringe is in October”. But with Brighton Fringe being the first Fringe coming back from the refuge of online, I’d have thought Brighton would be shouting this from the rooftops.
Ah well. Time for number three.
Saturday 3rd October, 1.30 p.m.: And now, in a change to advertised services, a review of a tour. I wasn’t planning to review Geoff Mead as the Tours section is way out of my area of expertise, but I am so impressed with this I’m making a change.
I go on very few tours so I have little to compare this to, but anyone can tell the difference between this and your run-of-the-mill affair. There are some tours where you can tell the information, accurate and informative though it may be, is something taught to a pool of your guides by rote. Geoff Mead, on the other hand, obviously knows his stuff inside out. We haven’t even left the grounds of our meeting point and it feels like we’ve got a comprehensive history of St. Nicholas’s Church and how this tells embodies the wider history of Brighton. I suspect the tour could be twice as long if he didn’t decide what to leave out.
The tour probably works best if you already know, or at least recognise, the area. If you are a Brighton local, expect to hear lots of fascinating facts about places you thought you knew – if you are coming to Brighton for the fringe and have never been to the city before, the finer details might be lost on you. But it’s definitely worth considering if you’ve been to Brighton a few times and are beginning to get used to what’s where. Snippets I’d heard of get a mention, as to why former Warren home Wagner Hall is pronounced WAG-ner and not VARG-ner. Even the laundrette I randomly stopped at last month on my South Coast cycle trip has a cameo appearance.
A lot has been said about his encyclopaedic knowledge of Brighton’s history, which I can now vouch for, but what nobody told me is that Geoff Mead is also an absolutely top bloke. He has an interest in what brought everyone to his tour, answers any questions with more information that you could expect, and reputedly has the same enthusiasm on his tours no matter how big or small his crowd.
So I can heartily recommend this, and not just because it’s the only thing on offer during the daytime at the moment. Most Brighton Fringe regulars are still staying at home or watching online, but when things get back to normal, I would recommend this to regulars even if you don’t normally look at the Tours section of the programme. Many visitors’ knowledge of Brighton goes as far as Prince George and the Pavilion, but there’s so much to hear about.
Saturday 3rd October, 10.00 a.m.: So before I spend my two days exploring the most determined hard-core that Brighton has to offer, let’s talk about scores on the doors. This year, the traditional way of measuring the size of a fringe – namely counting the number of registrations – doesn’t really mean much in practice. But if you do look at it this way, it throws up a result no-one would have predicted last year.
Keeping track of Brighton Fringe registrations is tricky, because with registrations open right up until the start of the fringe, and September performances finishing before the fringe as even started, the numbers fluctuate, but we’ve currently got 70 in the website, and if you count the early starters/finishers it might be more like 80. This is a mixture of physical and online performances, plus a few things that aren’t subject to such stringent rules such as tours and visual arts. Still a lot less than Brighton Fringe’s usual numbers which lately have been verging into four figures, but a lot more than Edinburgh Fringe, which was officially cancelled and therefore scores zero.
But do you know who topped 70 or 80? Buxton Fringe. They managed 102 entries, mostly online, with a few physical visual arts thrown in. Plus, of course, one very determined comedian called Nathan Cassidy who was determined to do a live show, even if he could only gather with five other people. (As it happened, outdoor performances were permitted in the nick of time and he got nineteen.) Obviously some will argue that online doesn’t really count and it’s physical performances that matter – on that front, Brighton Fringe is the undisputed winner. Or you might argue that all the online platforms from the Edinburgh Fringe venues combined should count in lieu of an official fringe – if so, that would probably keep Edinburgh in the lead. But for Buxton to even be in consideration for biggest fringe of the UK is unprecedented.
Seriously, however, there is a lot to be learned from Buxton Fringe this year. Could Buxton have had a bigger fringe if it waited a few months? Maybe, but we’ll never know. What does seem to have helped Buxton, however, is the sense of community – most of the names in the 2020 programme were Buxton regulars who evidently wanted to be there in spirit if they couldn’t be there in person. I also think Buxton made the right call to scrap the registration fee – with most of the fee going on the programme in a normal year, this was fair enough. For this reason, much as respect Brighton Fringe for delaying instead of cancelling, I think they shot themselves in the foot by keeping the registration fee. I realise Brighton Fringe aren’t in the best financial health right now, but when performers are up against so much at the moment, the last thing you need is a hefty registration fee. Had the fee been scrapped, or at least lowered, I believe Brighton Fringe could have got a lot more under their banner.
Expect a calls for recounts and steward’s enquiries, but in the menatime, congratulations Buxton Fringe I guess. To read more about how Buxton Fringe did it, you can read my interview with chair Stephen Walker from July. But for those who think online isn’t the same, lets get back to some proper fringing. Thank God. The isolation was killing me.
Friday 2nd October, 7.00 p.m.: Here I come. Just a weekend visit this time, but I’m determined to get to this.
This might be a good time to explain how this is going to work. Time time, most of the shows I’m seeing are on short runs, so the usual speedy review won’t be much help here. Instead, I’m going to concentrate my coverage on seeing how the venues are adjusting to the current circumstances. We’ve already heard a lot about The Warren, but Sweet is also going to be interesting as one of the first indoor venues restarting.
I will still do reviews in due course, but this will be mostly after I’m back home. However, this is also a chance to look at how theatre in general is restarting, so at various time I will catch up with that.
Excuse me, Kings Cross coming up.
Friday 2nd October: Although Brighton Fringe’s official start was yesterday, Brighton Fringe event have actually been going on since mid-September. In fact, depend on how you look at this you can say that Brighton Fringe effectively started in August.
When registrations opened, it was stated that although the fringe is in October, you could still register events taking place in September or November. In practice, September meant the second half September, because there wasn’t really enough notice for early September events; but even so, a fair few events took up the September offer. Outdoor events seemed particularly keen on September over October – also, to be fair, the time a lot of these events were being organised, it wasn’t clear when an autumn fringe would be (or, indeed, if there would be an autumn fringe at all – more on this later). So Brighton Fringe has been kept quite busy publicising what’s on two weeks before the fringe was supposed to start. The event that looked the most exciting was The Spirit of Woodstock, an outdoor semi-immersive event.
However, the big event in the summer was The Warren Outdoors. Normally the biggest venue by far at Brighton Fringe, they opted to go their own way with a two-month season in August and September in a purpose-built socially distanced venue. I was lucky enough to interview artistic Nicky Haydn about this during my travels in September, and if you haven’t read the interview, please do, it’s an amazing story. Most of the plans were put in place not even knowing if this would be permitted, there were barely two weeks between the go-ahead and opening night, and the lengths that groups such as Shit-Faced Shakespeare went to in order to perform are extraordinary. You won’t find them in the Brighton Fringe Programme, and they didn’t pay any registration fees, but with many seeing The Warren as synonymous with Brighton Fringe (and certainly the most prominent feature), one can argue it’s Brighton Fringe in everything but name.
So although the advertised start date of the fringe was yesterday, you could say that in practice we are in the third month of a four-month delayed fringe.
Thursday 1st October: First things’s first: what are my picks for this month. For once, I got the list done in advance. With less to choose from than normal, I’ve had to lower the bar, and amongst the names I recognise and like are a few things where I simply liked the look of the description. So we have:
Geoffrey Mead’s tours
Alice in Wonderland
Jekyll and Hyde
For full details, see What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2020.
First up is Savage Beauty, which got my attention for being one of the most ambitious pieces coming to Brighton, originally intended for May – and to press ahead with this in October requires guts. It’s a collection of Greek poems and plays, but also includes live projection and apparently singing from around the world. This runs 2nd-4th (tomorrow-Sunday) at the Lionhouse in Hanover.
Also running throughout the fringe on weekends are Geoffrey Mead’s tours. Tours is quite a specialist section of Brighton Fringe’s programme, but with only a few events to choose from, this might be a good way to spend the daytime – and I’m aware Geoffrey Mead has one of the best reputations for tours with praise for an encyclopaedic knowledge of Brighton.
Finally not on my list because they’re a contributor to my blog but nonetheless notable is Lava Elastic, at Sweet Werks on the 2nd and 3rd (tomorrow – Saturday) at 8.35. This is “neurodiverse” performance night, and the reason this earned my respect is – with so many organisations who don’t understand the barriers faced by disabilities thinking you can solve the problem by offerings a hand-picked few a leg-up – it’s refreshing to hear from some people who actually get it. However, I saw a few of the online performances over the summer, and this is something that appeals to everyone. Don’t worry normies, they won’t pick on you.
And as well as today being the launch of Brighton Fringe, it’s also the launch day of two other notable arts events. But there will be time to look at these another day.
Wednesday 30th September: I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever be able to say it this year, but I can. Welcome to the live coverage of Brighton Fringe. We’ve had a fringe-free summer, and Brighton Fringe is only a fraction of its normal size, but it’s determined not to share Edinburgh’s fate, and it’s on.
This is going to be very different from a normal Brighton Fringe, and as such, this coverage will be different too. And the first thing that’s different in the launch. In spite of the appeal of packing hundreds of people into a room and coughing on each other, as appears to be the fashion with the Republicans right now, it’s a virtual fringe. But it does mean you don’t have to be in Brighton to see it. 9 p.m. tonight on their Facebook page.
And then we’ll get to business tomorrow.