Brighton Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Saturday 3rd July:

And that’s all from me, folk. Extended Brighton Fringe continues until the 11th July, but we’ve seen enough to know how this is going – and every indication is that the 2021 Brighton Fringe, intended as a relaunch after the tiny and postponed 2020 fringe, has gone like a dream.

To summarise what we’ve learned:

  • Patronage of Brighton Fringe has been excellent. Targets of ticket sales for the entire fringe were surpassed in the first week. My own observations is that the big venues were as busy as they’ve always been, and where venues operated at reduced capacity they were mostly sell-outs or close to that. The only times that ticket sales looked weak was during the day when the weather was hot, but that’s the same in normal fringes.
  • The pop-up venues have adapted well to social distancing, perhaps helped along by last year’s Warren Outdoors showing how this could be done. I have a more mixed reaction to indoor venues: some handled this well, but others I felt were more sloppy. It would only have taken one outbreak linked to a venue for the naysayers to say “I told you so” and reinstate extra restrictions on theatres – luckily, that didn’t happen.
  • Crucially, The Railto is back in business. This venue didn’t reopen for the October Fringe and when it didn’t get Cultural Recovery Fund money, there were a lot of worries they might close for good. Thankfully, they have weather the storm, thanks in part to support from a crowdfunder. Had they closed, I believe it would have done a lot of cultural damge, not just to Brighton but the whole country.
  • The reviewers have also come back in force for Brighton Fringe 2021, and they stayed the course. This might not seem like a big deal to those who prefer word of mouth, but a good review is valuable for those who want their play to have a life beyond the fringe.
  • The mood around the changes to Brighton Fringe 2021 varies. There has been a surprisingly high amount of support for making the temporary move to June permanent – turns out most poeple like this, so this will probably happen. However, the online-only programme, whilst necessary, has not been popular. Whilst there are ways to do this better, the consensus seems to be that Brighton is not ready to dispence with the brochure just yet.
  • Although in-person performances have been the focus, the online programme is persisting longer than anyone imagined, with four online platforms taking part this year. One option being considered is moving this to a seperate festival, possibly during the winter when in-person fringing is less appealing.
  • This fringe has been very comedy-heavy – if anything, it’s dominated the fringe even more than it dominated Edinburgh. It’s not too surpising it happened during this fringe when 1) a lot of peple would appreciate some comedy, and 2) comedy is generally easier to get going at short notice. We don’t yet know whether this is a long-term change, and if so, whether it shold be a cause for concern.
  • And finally, Brighton Fringe’s good fortune is a sharp contrast to Edinburgh’s misfortunes. Based on initial lists of shows, Edinburgh Fringe 2021 could be smaller than Brighton. The Scottish Government has given some support late in the day, but a lot of people still blame them for unfairly singling out live perfomance with more stringent rules for no good reason. But that’s a story for another day.

So now I sign off, but don’t go away. Buxton Fringe starts next week. I’d better get a move on with my recommendations.

Friday 2nd July:

[Sorry for the backdated post – I’ve been without internet for most of the last 24 hours.]

And now, here’s the remainder of the online reviews:

The Importance of Being … Earnest?: Technically this was not part of Brighton Fringe’s online season – it was supposed to be live-streamed at one point, but that didn’t work out. But with me unable to make it to the live performance at The Warren, and having already agreed to review it online, I instead reviewed a recording from an old pre-lockdown performance. The first thing I will say about this is: don’t watch this online, watch it live, because this is a very heavily interactive show where you really need to be in the audience to experience this. But, that said, I’d rate this as the strongest of the six online pieces I saw.

The premise starts off quite simply: Algernon and Lane are doing the opening for Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, when the door opens and in walks Earnest aka Jack – except that he’s not turned up to the play. How can the show go on? The answer, of course, is to get a random member of the audience to step in. Say It Again Sorry also play fast and loose with the original script, so Lady Bracknell now asks Earnest/Jack/audience member to rate on a scale of 1-10 his ability to give Gwendolynn a good seeing-to, and there’s also a swasbuckling swordfight added in (just because). But why settle for one stand-in when you can have more stand-ins for alcoholic Gwendolynn, and Lady Bracknell who refuses to work with amateurs, half a dozen hastily-added butlers, and – eventually – the entire remaining audience as wedding guests (just because). You get the idea. But this madcap play works tightly and deals with unpredictable audience interact well to make it a lot of fun. But if you see it, see it in person.

A red square: This one is, without a doubt, the most different of all the online entries I’ve seen – and possibly the entire fringe. Everything else has a video or audio of some sort of performance. This, however, is an animation that is not only created in Powerpoint but viewed in Powerpoint. The lead character is a red square who falls in love with another red (slightly more maroon) square, and they adopt a baby red square together. But after maroon square drowns in a beach accident, Red Square must bring up his child alone. (I’m not sure if red squares have genders, but Liam Neeson eventually plays Red Square in the film adaptation, I’m guessing it’s a he.) But when child square drifts away in a helium balloon floating incident, Daddy Red Square must get his child back. And in the course of the investigation, Red Square find a portal to the computer desktop his world was made in.

With this being so far out from what I normally review, there’s little I can compare this to. One thing I will say fro the perspective of someone who does a day job in IT is that I wouldn’t have sent out powerpoint files to viewers. Although it is fitting poetically to view a Powerpoint-based play in Powerpoint, and it allowed for some customisations not possible elsewhere (such as Julian Caddy appearing in this Brighton Fringe edition), it was I think more throuble than it was worth. I found it a faff to get it to work, and 220MB files do not play nicely with a lot of computers. Whilst less adventurous, I would have used the video format like the trailer did, which I found quite effective, and more versatile for sound. Other than that, the play is highly surrealistic, sometimes as naturalistic as a red square family can be, at other times highly absurd – I just wondered if sometimes I miss something because of an in-joke. But I can recommend this for being as a different as a fringe entry can be.

Head or Tails: The last one is a return to filming of a conventional stage play, this one through the Living Record platform. This time, however, the filming is a lot more “talking heads” style which suits a monologue of this format. Steph (Skye Hallem), who died aged 25, has been given 40 minutes to return to the land of the living to tell us about what it’s like in the afterlife. In this gentle-paced speech over five parts, she tells us how much more relaxed and contented things are in eternity, in a bit to encourage those on us on earth to take heed and make the most of our time on this side.

What the play had an irritating habit of, however, was bringing up some of the big subjects but never resolving them. We hear that God is aware of all the questions of why such an all-powerful entity would allow Donald Trump and Coronavirus and millennia of wars, and we hear that God has low points and accepts there were screw-ups – but Steph changes the subject before going further. Another promising lead is when Steph starts to broach the subject of her own death, but switches to general life advice before resolving this. It is only in the last fifth of the play where things start to get really interesting and emotive. In earth, people eventually forget the departed, but the memories Steph has of the living stay with her forever. That, I think, is where the real story lies.

Thursday 1st July:

Sorry, remainder of online reviews will have to wait until tomorrow. Having a bit a of a crisis here.

What I will report is that the first Edinburgh fringe tickets have gone on sale. I said less that Sunday that anything under 350 entries (the equivalent number when Brighton opened sales) would be a jaw-dropper. Well, it’s 180. Almost half. Jaws have officially dropped.

There is some mitigating news though. The only major venues to have put tickets on sale straight away are Space and Summerhall. We are still expecting more entries from the Big Four, C Venues, Zoo Venues, and the two Free Fringe venues. Edinburgh will need to quadruple its numbers if it’s to move ahead of Brighton, but I still think that’s achievable. But the fact that Brighton is even in the running for UK’s largest fringe this year is absolutely gob-smacking.

Wednesday 30th June:

Before I sign off, I did a late catch-up with online theatre I was asked to review. I’m maybe not the best judge of online work, because I focus in a theatre in a way I never really to in front of a computer screen. As such, I’ll keep the feedback concise – as always, anyone who wants further feedback is welcome to ask.

What did strike me about this overall, however, was the sheer variety of how “online” is being done. Out of everything I’ve seen so far, each one took a different approach to the medium. Here’s a review of three; I’ll do the other three tomorrow.

The Old House: Out of all the online pieces I saw, this was the closest to an in-person performance. Originally meant for Brighton Fringe 2020, it was performed as a conventional play for streaming, first for the Actor’s Centre on Demand season and now for Brighton Fringe. A solo play written and performed by Kate Maravan, she plays both daughter and mother. Daughter is driving her mother to “The Old House”, one-time a holiday home they used to go to – but when she has to explain repeatedly where they’re going, along with every other aspect of the journey. The mother has Dementia, and this journey is an attempt to bring some memories she can relate to. The daughter also has some difficult memories of her own to deal with.

Maravan has based this on her experiences with her own mother, and she knows her stuff. Much has been made of her playing both characters, and she plays them both well and seamless switches between the two. However, tin doing this, I feel this has missed out on something important – this is the sort of play where it’s not just about delivering your lines; it’s also about how you react to other character’s lines. The moment when she realises here mother no longer knows her daughter’s name or age is heartbreaking – but we don’t get to see the impact at the vital moment. I may be in the minority here, as lots of people seem to like this solo format, but if Kate Maravan would consider a two-hander, I’d be happy.

And Helen: Whilst most online performances have gone for some sort of streamed video, the Coily Dart Theatre Company has gone for an audio production. There is a case for doing this. Simply filming a stage performance can feel like a substitute for the real thing, but doing something more like a screenplay puts you in competition with people who do better. However, audio plays are relatively easy to do to a comparable production standard as Radio 4. This is a musical in the style about Gilbert and Sullivan about a name few remember. D’Oyly Carte is known for the opera company who brought G&S to the world, but amongst the historians, Helen Black holds an important part of history. Originally a secretary to Richard D’Oyly Carte and eventually his wife, she’s a prime example that – for all the stupid barriers put in the way of women in the 19th century – you could still achieve great things by making yourself indispensable.

I do think, however, Coily Dart underestimated how difficult the task is they set themselves. Writing play about Helen would have been easy enough, but writing anything in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan – as they are doing here – is a huge challenge. The songs are done well and suit the style, both in terms of music and lyrics, but to really pull it off, the dialogue needs to match the style too. Someone, you’d have to find a way to tell Helen’s story with late Victorian prose without sacrificing clarity, and surely you have to take up the opportunity to lampoon civil service bureaucracy. I really like the concept of this, but there’s work to be done to give Helen the tribute she deserves.

Devil’s food cake: This one took an approach I’ve not any group do before. It’s one of the online plays done on Zoom or something similar, but rather than just read out the lines, or reframe the play as a chat over Zoom/Skype/etc, Putney Theatre Company tries to make a conventional play out of it. With a cast of five, with three living in one house, they pull a few tricks to make two or more different locations look like the same place. Conversations between mother and daughter take place through doors (in real life two different houses), and 18th birthday bunting in put over two scenes to make it look like a family of four sitting round a table. Some techniques worked less well though: having a parent and a psychologist sitting sideways in two different rooms to make it look like they’re talking to each other is a bit much to believe. I would have just done that as a normal Zoom call – I think we have a valid enough reason why the doctor wouldn’t want people turning up in person at the moment.

I won’t dwell on that too much though – this approach, innovative though it is, will at some point become redundant. What we hope last longer is the play. Presumably written originally as a conventional stage play, it’s about a teenager who’s teetering into anorexia, and the effect is has not just on her but her family. It was nearly ten years ago that I saw the excellent Mess, but already things have changed – now there’s a whole load of websites telling you why it’s good to anorexic, and how to hide it from people who want to help you. However, I do feel this play falls foul of the common mistake of writing lines to be read. There’s a of details – and correct – technical information in the play, but in real life people don’t normally talk that way. One good scene is when Dad stumbles across said pro-anorexia sites when trying to find the opposite, thanks to irresponsible algorithms on social media – but you don’t need to the other daughter to spell out how this works. My advice would be not to underestimate your audience – they are better at picking things up than you think. Concentrate instead on developing the characters, and that will convey the message with a lot more power.

That’s me halfway. Hope to complete this tomorrow.

Tuesday 29th June:

Should probably sound one other note of caution about Edinburgh Fringe. Not wishing to stoke up too much panic, but the Coronavirus case rates in Edinburgh are pretty horrendous at the moment, and, worse, they seem to be doubling every week with no sign of a let-up. At the moment, the Scottish Government’s position seems to be that there’s nothing to worry about as vaccination will get things under control. I am used to this kind of complacency from Boris Johnson, but I’m surprised to get this attitude from Nicola Sturgeon, whose careful-careful approach earned her a lot of respect. I hope I’m wrong, but I worry that these two have suddenly gone into a contest of boasting over whose vaccination programme is the most awesomest.

The counter-argument is that’s it’s only cases that are skyrocketing and it’s we’re okay as long as hospitalisation and deaths numbers stay low, but that feels like a risky assumption to me. I still think the health risk is bearable, but the problem with a complacent approach is that complacency is easily replaced with panic. The knee-jerk reaction to ban travel to Scotland from Manchester – even though Edinburgh has a way higher infection rate – suggests that politics is taking still taking precedence over pragmatism, and it would be really easy to issue euqally knee-jerk reactions against the Edinburgh Fringe to be seen to be doing something. Suffice to say if I was running a venue, I would really not be comfortable with committing to Edinburgh right now.

Changing the subject, I’ve started going through the online theatre review requests. I’ve seen most of them, got a couple to go, and hope to write up a few thoughts on each of them over the next couple of days. What I can say in general though is that I see what people mean about online being difficult to operate. The combination of ticketing and viewing over multiple different platforms does seem to be getting confusing. Can’t think of an obvious solution to this, and there’s 101 little issue to sort out rather than a few big ones, but it’s something to think about should online become a permanent addition.

Monday 28th June:

So as we go into extra time, let’s take a look at what’s coming up one last time. All of these are at The Warren.

My hot pick of extended fringe has to be Skank. This is one of the big success stories of the Greater Manchester Fringe, and one of the finest examples that you can come out of nowhere with a play everyone loves on the fringe circuit. Skank is a sort-of female Peep Show, but there is a twist to this. Mark and Jeremy will never change, but something happens in this to change things for Kate. 6.30 this Thursday and Friday.

We also have a return of The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007 (Wednesday next week, 10.00 p.m.) and Crime Scene Improvisation (Closing Sat/Sun next week, 4.15 p.m.) And running pretty much continuously at 9.30 p.m. from now on is Shit-Faced Shakespeare, who pretty much carried The Warren Outdoors as a viable venture last summer.

And, of course, Warren on the Beach is coming soon. Still no announcement of the line-up, but surely can’t be long.

Sunday 27th June:

And so we’re at the end of “core” fringe. I’m going to close this shortly; I’m not expecting anything particularly sensational to happen in the extended two weeks. However, I’m going to keep running a little longer to see what size Edinburgh Fringe we’re looking at. Tickets are now going on sale July 1st.

Three big caveats to mention here. Firstly, registrations numbers alone don’t tell everything. Prior to 2020, there was little doubt that Edinburgh Fringe was much bigger than Brighton Fringe, which in turn was much bigger than all the other fringes, no matter what measurement you use. If the numbers are close, however, it might make a difference. The other thing to be ware is that the numbers will increase after July 1st; Brighton Fringe’s numbers almost doubled between opening of ticket sales and opening of the fringe. Also, there’s in-person and online to consider – some people would argue that online doesn’t count.

I’m not going to try to unpick these factors until we have some info. But the baseline in 3,841 entries in 2019. Here’s what the numbers on Thursday might mean.

Over 1,500: Cause for celebration, under the circumstances. 1,500 is a 60% reduction, which was the forecast last summer, before the outlook got much much worse. If they surpass this figure, we’re looking at an impressive turnaround.

1,000 – 1,500: Edinburgh Fringe remains the undisputed king of the fringe circuit. Brighton gets close to 1,000 in a normal year, so if it clears this hurdle they will have a convincing lead.

650 – 1,000: Edinburgh Fringe remains in the lead, but with Brighton Fringe snapping at its heels, even if there’s no push to expand. They’ll have to count on regaining lost ground in 2022.

350-650: Edinburgh’s title is in trouble. They are below Brighton 2021’s eventual numbers – they will have to count on late registrations in the last month if they want to gain ground.

Under 350: A jaw-dropper. Below Brighton at the start of their ticket sales, would need a surge in last-minute registrations to get ahead. Edinburgh may still be ahead in terms of ticket sales or performances, but the fact it is behind on any measure would be a bombshell. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s game over for Edinburgh, but it will throw things wide open.

So yes, Thursday’s a big news day.

Saturday 26th June:

So, we’ve had a very different Brighton Fringe – but must all these changes be temporary? it’s entirely possible that Brighton Fringe might decide it likes some of the changes made out of necessity and stick with it.

For this exercise, I am ignoring the possibility of Covid restrictions continuing into 2022 and instead looking at changes that may persist without. The possibilities I can think of are:

Brighton fringe in June – likely: I honestly wasn’t expecting this to stick – whilst attendance in this June fringe was a success, I did notice that hot afternoons and England matches did have an adverse effect on those shows on at the wrong time. But at the Future of Brighton Fringe online meeting that I dropped into, apparently the vast majority of people who have an opinion on this decided they liked it. The main reason is that most people think May is too crowded, with Brighton Festival and The Great Escape on at the same time; it was also noted that June is a better time for student participation. There was a consensus that May half term should remain part of the fringe, but as the first week rather than the last one.

Warren on the beach – too early to say: We’ll have to wait and see how a second summer does before making any predictions here. But the one-off pop-up venue has already become a two-off. I suspect a lot of this will depend on the national trend for summer alternatives to the Edinburgh Fringe. If big names decide they prefer Assembly Garden and Underbelly Festival to the Edinburgh Fringe, my guess is The Warren outdoors will have the same fortunes.

Extended fringe – too early to say: Whilst there was a lot of enthusiasm for a June fringe, there was little mention of carrying on six-week runs at Warren and Spiegeltent. However, if Warren on the Beach becomes permanent, it might make sense to carry on running the pop-up venues until then. Which would raise the question: how would the other venues feel about that? But I’ll wait for an answer to the previous question before speculating too much.

Web-only programme – unlikely (in the short term): Whilst everyone agrees the decision to dispense with the paper programme was a necessary one, it’s not been a welcome one. There have been multiple complaints over the website not being as easy to use as the Daily Guide in the programme. That could be addressed, but the other issue is some people simply not being used to online brochures at all. It’s not a “no, never”, but the strong consensus is that Brighton Fringe is not ready to run without the paper programme, in spite of the expense.

Big pop-up outdoor venues – probably not: I have no inside knowledge over this one, but I can’t see the McElderry and the Oil Shed continuing any more than they need to. If it was me, I’d want to get back the multitide of smaller spaces and lighting capability as soon as possible. Warren on the Beach will probably remain outdoors though, should it go ahead. The performances against the sunset is something special.

Online programme – maybe: Strictly speaking, online theatre has never been disallowed – it’s just that Brighton (along with most other fringes) made it easier to integrate online streaming, either directly through the website, or through third parties. However, online theatre has persisted longer than most people expected, with three platforms (SpaceUK, Living Record and Sweetstream) emerging to host online work. One possibilty that’s been floated is a separate online festival (probably in winter) when there can be an online focus. This will probably depend on the overall future of online – that is still up in the air – but if it prevails, Brighton will probably be part of it.

Relocated Fringe City – maybe: I admit I’m the only person I kno who’s pondered this, but I think Jubillee Street might be a better location than New Road just to the south. There was a time when it made sense to put Fringe City on the busiest street to get attention, but if you’re flyering it’s a pain to waork out who is and isn’t there for the fringe. A self-contained hub might make more sense now.

Snapping at Edinburgh’s heels – no: Depending on how much damage has been done to Edinburgh Fringe 2021 through dithering, Brighton might come close to being the UK’s largest fringe, or even overtake. However, this has barely registered with Brighton. There was a big – and successful – push to expand Brighton up to 2016, but there’s zero interest in pushing further. As far as they’re concerned, Brighton Fringe may expand further if more people want to take part, but don’t expect any more proactive pushes.

Or I might get this catastrophically wrong again. You have my permission to take copies of this and laugh and point it the opposite of my predictions comes true.

Friday 25th June:

So as we approach the end of “core” fringe, time for a second look at review coverage. When I last looks at review coverage, at the start, I noticed that initial coverage was good, but the question remained over whether Broadway Baby, Fringe Review and Reviews Hub would stay the course. Review publications have tailed off in mid-fringe before, might that happen this time. Well, the answer appears to be no. I haven’t done much number crunching here, but reviews appear to have come out at an even pace throughout the fringe.

One other caveat I didn’t mention but nonetheless needs considering is how generous the reviews are. It became an open secret last year, when live theatre productions were far and few between, that reviewers were being a lot more supportive than usual – some people even did the analysis and noted that hardly any one- or two-star ratings were given. Well, there’s no obvious sign of this happening here. I don’t remember seeing any one-stars, but I’ve seen a fair number of twos. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no leniency – it might just not be so blatant this time – but it does mean you can take the good reviews more seriously than a participation prize.

I haven’t monitored other reviews that music precisely because of the uncertainty over reliability. However, there is one thing that stands out: Jekyll and Hyde: A one-woman show is doing exceptionally well. A five-star from Broadway Baby, and an “Outstanding” from FringeReview (whose ratings are confusing, but Outstanding is still considered an equivalent to five stars). I will hopefully get to see for myself in Buxton shortly, but this could be a front runner for best reviewed new play.

Thursday 24th June – Police Cops: badass be thy name:

Before I come into this review, a regrettable entry in the chrisontheatre corrections corner. When I had previously covered the lastest in the Police Cops trilogy, it was incorrectly suggested that our hero, a 90s raver from Madchester, teams up with a samurai to slay vampires. It has now come to my attention that the vampire slayer is not a samaurai but a vampire-slaying priests. That was an unacceptable oversight as everyone knows priests in horror movies make a living out of this sort of thing. The person responsible for this shoddy journalism has been sacked.

Anyway, on with business. Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name continues the Pretend Men’s format of trying to condense as many cliches as possible into a single hour, this time going for as many tropes involving vampires and unlikely mentor/apprentice pairings – only this time, the hero the opposite of the trope, our aforementioned raver. Stuck in his monotonous dead-end job, he suddenly sees vampires, and a mysterious vampire slaying priest (not samurai) slaying them. How come he see them when no-one else can? Will this tie in with the unexplained disappearance of his father? Will the priest have a surname of “Badass” in order create an incredibly corny double-meaning of the title of this play?

It is fair to note this trio’s performance was a little rusty, but if anyone can be forgiven for a slightly rusty performance, it’s them. This was easily the complex high-energy devised performance out of everything I saw, and I’m sure they’ll be back at Edinburgh Fringe Pleasance Dome standard in no time. It was also a little unlucky that they had an outdoor venue, because this did have a few scenes which were designed with a dark lighting plot in mind. Luckily, both of this disadvantages can be spun into advantages. As Police Cops fans will know, their longest running joke is their use of crummy props to recreate whatever effects a big-budget movie would do with expensive CGI. Early visual gags such as insides of coats forming vending machines and ping-pong balls for drug-induced eyeballs bring the house down, so when someone forgets to stand in the right place or a hidden figure meant to take us by surprise shows up in broad daylight, qupis and swift recoveries at to the humour.

There is only one worry I have about this, and it follows on from the same observation with Police Cops in Space. The Pretend Men are excellent at getting laughs, but sometimes I wonder if they pursue laughs for the sake of it. Yes, I know it’s a comedy, and a silly comedy designed for laugh-a-minute, but even these stories benefit from consistent characters. Even if the character is a movie cliche. Perhaps I’ve been overdosed on arses – this is Brighton after all – but I have the Devil pulling a moony in mind as an example; that, I feel, undermined an opportunity for a conclusion to the funnier threads about how Lucifer was only evil because the other angels picked on him and pulled to lady angels he fancied. Sometimes it’s better to sacrifice one laugh and get something better elsewhere.

But, hey, who am I to care? No-one’s marking this on character development, they’re marking this on fun, and this is exactly what it delivers. The socially distanced version of The Warren might not be the best venue for this show, but I’m sure they’ll be back indoors in no time and make the best of this again.

Wednesday 23rd June:

One quick note from Brighton. I dropped on the virtual “Future of Brighton Fringe” meeting on Tuesday. Will look at this in more detail when I’m less busy, but in the meantime: one notable detail:

As we all know by now, Brighton Fringe moved back three weeks on the bet (a correct bet, as it turned out) that you would be allowed to perform by the end of May. Until now, I’d assumed this would be temporary and would change back for next year. A June fringe out of necessity was one thing, but hot afternoons and football between them seemed to be denting audiences in some performances.

But wait … it turns out the overwhelming consensus is that most people like the new dates. There is a mood that the late May bank holiday should stay in the fringe dates, but they’d be happy for the rest to stay as it is.

Expect an 80%+ chance of this happening. And expect an even busier summer for those of us who do both Brighton and Edinburgh.

Tuesday 22nd June:

Finally, we have a decision from the Scottish Government – and it’s not too bad. I might be only saying this because my expectations were already at rock bottom, but if we ignore for a moment the questions over how much sooner this decision could have been taken and just look at the announcement in isolation, it’s broadly good news.

So, “Freedom Day” in Scotland is now down as August 9th, down, so the Scottish Government claims, to the success of their vaccine programme. I have some issues with that claim, but this is a theatre blog and not a politics blog so let’s move on. That would allow most of the Edinburgh Fringe to go ahead without restrictions. Before then, however, the stupid rule over 2 metres for performing arts gets changed to 1 metre on July 19th. That is important. There is no guarantee that the August 9th date will stick (and certainly not in Edinburgh where the figures are currently quite concerning). A two week slippage that causes Edinburgh to have to stick with one metre is manageable – after all, Brighton and Buxton are managing with a slippage at this very moment. But an unexpected change from 0m to 2m would be a disaster. I would not have been happy going ahead without this buffer.

However, accompanying this is finally some news of meaningful financial support. I previously said that support for the festival fringe society is not enough – you also need support for the venues. Well, they have gone for support of some outdoor events, in conjunction with the Big Four and a few of the more artsy ones such as Summerhall. Of course, something organised at this short notice doesn’t apply to all venues, so expect grumbles from those who haven’t been supported. The bigger frustration, however is why this took so long. With outdoor events the one thing that was never in doubt, this support could have be arranged two months ago, and done more fairly. Suffice to say that whilst the venues see this as a positive move, they aren’t exactly queuing up to thank Nicola Sturgeon with tears in their eyes.

Too little too late? Probably not are far as “too little” goes – the changes in rules and the support should make a meaningful difference. But as for “too late”? Maybe. Is six weeks really enough time to turn things round? We will find out shortly.

Monday 21st June:

I’m on a sound job for the next three days, so coverage is going to be minimal, but there’s a couple more recommendations I plain forgot about.

Firstly, I forgot Rebel Boob for Speak Up act Out. This was inspired by the artistic director’s own battle with breast cancer, but it looks at the journey to recovery and restarting a life put on hold rather than the fight against cancer itself. Their last Brighton Fringe work, Between You and Me, was very perceptive, so lots of promise here. Brighton Girls’ School, Thursday and Saturday, 7.30.

However, the play I completely missed and would have gone straight to Safe Choice had I seen it is You, a two-hander play about adoption, that tells the story from all perspectives: the birth parents, the adaptive parents, and the child himself. Acclaimed for being moving, it started tonight. After that, it runs tomorrow, Wednesday and Sunday at 7.30 at The Warren.

So apologies for lateness there. Tomorrow, however, is the big day. Exactly what sort of Edinburgh Fringe 2021 are we going to see?

Sunday 20th June:

And we’re about to go into week 4, and the last week of fringe if you don’t count the extra two weeks that Warren and Spiegel added on themselves. Brighton Fringe, incidentally, has started calling the conventional four-week window as “Core dates”. The extra two weeks will be interesting, of course. The conventional wisdom is that they are there to compensate for limited capacity due to social distancing, but who knows, if it is popular enough it might stick. That would put Brighton way out of line with Edinburgh if this happened, but who knows what sort of Edinburgh Fringe there will be to compares this to this time next year.

Anyway, two things of note in Week 4. The interesting one, which I’m missing but hope to catch up on in Buxton, is Heather Rose Andrews’s female version of Jekyll and Hyde. As I’ve said several times, simply gender-swapping a lead character in itself isn’t that interesting, but contrasting this with a society who would treat a central female character differently to a centre male one is where there’s something to go on. Or it might just be her take on the world of Jekyllified Victoriam London. Starts tomorrow at 7 p.m., Sweet Werks.

The other thing I would have recommended is the second run of The Tragedy of Dorian Gray, but that’s already sold out. See the online version though Living Record instead if you’re determined not to miss out. Speaking of which Blue Devil’s production does seem to have got a lot of good reviews from publications who don’t normally cover Brighton thanks to the online channel. Is that an incentive to stick with parallel live and filmed versions? That’s another legacy for 2021 we should consider.

Saturday 19th June:

Now to return to subject I touched on early on in my coverage. Brighton Fringe 2021 has been a very comedy-heavy fringe, seemingly at the expense of theatre. Even if you’ve not been doing the number-crunching, this is noticeable. I frequently fell back on comedy for my gap-fillers this fringe, and choices for theatre were thin on the ground (although still a distinct improvement on 2020). This seems to be driven in part by The Warren. They have run a very comedy-heavy programme this year, with the few theatre entries tending to occupy slots early in the day. To be fair, there are good reasons for this. With both of The Warren’s pop-up venues partially outdoors, little or nothing can be done with lighting, which so many theatre productions depend upon. The other problem is that the protection from noise-bleed is non-existent – most comedy shows can cope with this, but few theatre shows can. (This observation also applies to Spiegeltent to a large extent, but the difference there is that Spiegeltent never had much of theatre programme in the first place.)

So, the big question: should we be worried about this? Quiet honestly, I don’t know.

The most pessimistic outlook on this is that it’s the same imbalance that sullies the Edinburgh fringe. As we all know, many people view the Edinburgh Fringe as synonymous with the “Edinburgh Comedy Festival”. Whilst the controversial branding used by the Big Four has long since been dropped, the term has stuck – in fact, it stuck long before the Big Four co-opted it. There are ongoing worries that the increasing focus on comedy comes to the cost of everything else: audience and attention is increasingly centred on comedy, whilst other categories are increasingly marginalised and face increased costs as comedy crowds out the fringe. With Brighton Fringe 2021 having a far greater imbalance than any Edinburgh Fringe, there’s valid reasons for concern.

However, there is a counter-argument. For a start, whilst stand-up comedians can hit the ground running, it can be slower work to get a theatre show running again. Maybe next year theatre will catch up. Even if comedy is dominating the Brighton Fringe, big-name comedians aren’t overrunning it (yet). Brighton appears to have a long way to go before saturation of accommodation and venue space becomes an issue. And if more and more comedy comes to Brighton, perhaps the larger size brings more attention that benefits everyone.

To be clear, I do not want comedy acts stopped no matter how comedy-dominated a fringe gets. It would fatally undermine an open festival to place limits on genres. Instead I think we should pay more attention to support in other genres. We will probably not know until next year if the comedy surge is permanent – but we can start thinking about this now.

Friday 18th June:

Now we come into weekend four (or weekend three, if you consider the first weekend to be weekend zero), so there’s a couple of new things coming up, with a heavy leaning towards the wholesome.

Let’s All Dance return to Brighton Open Air Theatre tomorrow with The Ugly Ducking. They were the unexpected centrepiece of last year’s autumn fringe with Alice in Wonderland, and it was a nice hour of family-friendly ballet with tunes everyone knows, and I’m hoping we will have the same this time. Dancing isn’t my area of expertise, but for all the clever and innovative dance pieces out there, it is good to have thing that are accessible and enjoyable by everyone of all ages. Runs tomorrow (Saturday) at 12.30 and 3.30, but the 3.30 performance is already sold out.

Or if you prefer your poetry, Guy Masterson is doing one weekend only of Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas. This was originally a companion piece to his popular solo show Under Milk Wood: Semi Skimmed, but this time it is coming to Brighton as a show in its own right. Unlike Let’s All Dance, this is something that will appeal the most to fans of Dylan Thomas, but even if you don’t know your Llareggubs from from Buggeralls, you can’t help to be touch by his affection to his stories and rhymes. This is at 3.30 tomorrow and Sunday, and somehow isn’t sold out.

Also running this weekend is the delightfully wholesome Aidan Goatley’s Twelve Films of Christmas features The Muppets’ Die Hard, running at Sweet Old Steine at 6.45 p.m., and Wired Theatre’s arguably wholesome About the Garden, various times over the weekend. And a happy wholesome weekend to you.

Thursday 17th June – Watson: The Final Problem:

This is a solo play that, quite simply, retells some of Sherlock Holmes’s most famous stories from the point of view of his most loyal companion Dr. John Watson. That’s pretty much all there is to it. There is no bold re-invention of any of the stories, and no radical new perspective of any characters. Instead, it’s as faithful to the originals as a Watson-orientated narration can be. But whilst this is safe treatment compared to a Cumberbatch and Freeman, it’s done very well.

Watson is penning a Sherlock story for publication. He reminisces over his artistic differences with Holmes: Watson (Tim Marriott) likes to write about the thrill of the chase; Holmes would rather concentrate on an academic analysis of the evidence. But that matters little now: Sherlock Holmes is dead, and therefore this is Watson’s final book. (Shh, Sherlock fans, don’t spoil it!) John Watson talks about the time they met, and some of the most memorable scrapes the two of them had together, before coming on to Holmes’s final case: Professor Moriarty. Holmes has orchestrated the downfall of his criminal empire, but Moriarty escapes and is out for revenge – if Holmes can’t keep on the run, that it is.

Watson: The Final Problem works very much as a storytelling piece, but there are no lengthy narrations of Sherlock adventures that Watson didn’t see: almost everything that Watson talks about is what he saw with this own eyes. In the non-fringe version, I gather we will hear a lot more about The Hound of the Baskervilles (the one adventure that is Watson-heavy with Sherlock incognito for much of the tale), but this is left out of the fringe version with the hour-long limit. What features more heavily is Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan. In Arthur Doyle’s books, he meets marries her in The Sign of Four, but we don’t hear from her again until Watson is a widower. Here, she gets the prominence that John Watson would of course have given her.

There is the odd giveaway that this play has its origins as an audio drama. This play was in fact an audio drama before it was a stage play (as a Covid precaution), and co-writer Bert Coules did in fact once dramatise the entire Sherlock canon on Radio 4, so it’s maybe the format’s not too surprising. What it does mean is that the play is highly monologue based – and, to be honest, you could watch the play with your eyes closed and not miss that much. Who knows, there may have been opportunities to make this more effective visually. But it doesn’t matter that much. The monologue is strong enough to sustain the play without needing much extra. So well done for this, and a sheepish apology that I didn’t get this review out in time for the final two performances yesterday and today – I could have sworn it was later. Hope this got a decent audience without my help, because it’s deserved.

Wednesday 16th June:

I’m always flattened on my first day back, so please allow me a break from the outstanding reviews. In the meantime, the latest on the big three fringes:

  • The Stage is reporting that the announcement about reviewing the stupid two-metre rule for Sottish performing arts will now be on the 22nd, fifteen days after it was supposed to be done. Justification for the delay is caution over the Indian variant, which i might have accepted if it this sort of thing only ever seems to affect performing arts and never pubs. Judging by Shona McCarthy’s continuing downbeat statement, I think we can safely assume there isn’t going to be a last-minute rescue package that all parties are quietly negotiating. That date, plus the date of first tickets going on sale on the 1st July are the two key dates now to learn size of the fringe – or, as increasingly looks the case, to assess the scale of the damage.
  • Buxton Fringe posted an upbeat announcement on Twitter today. One of the deals of registering this time round, both with the fringe itself and most venues, is that you would be allowed to pull out and get your money back if full audiences turned out not to be possible. However, few acts have taken up this option, and if Brighton is anything to go by, you should be able to have a good fringe as it is.
  • We’ve already heard Brighton Fringe’s reaction, so something on a completely different subject. When I previously reported on reviewers being active in Brighton, I did raise the caveat that we didn’t know if they’d stay the course or run out of steam after a week or two. Well, we’re now over two weeks in and so far all of Broadway Baby, Reviews Hub and FringeReview are keeping up the pace. Maybe the doubts over whether there’ll be anything to review in August is an incentive, but this is another piece of good news from Brighton Fringe.

So, running theme continues: optimism in Brighton and Buxton, pessimism in Edinburgh. I’ll let you know if anything upsets this, but don’t hold your breath.

Tuesday 15th June, 9.00 p.m.:

Had a look at a reaction to yesterday’s announcement now. Most of it is as expected. Starting with Brighton Fringe, they have calmly announced they are going to carry on as before. No sign of panic, and no sign of any venues unwisely selling to full capacity and now discovering they can’t.

In wider theatre – perhaps not too surprisingly – opinion seems to be spilt along subsidised/commercial lines. The subsidised theatres, most of whom aren’t planning to open until September anyway, there’s been broad support from caution. In commercial theatre, who have no other income stream to count on, they are getting restless over the delay. There’s some vague signs the Government might get on with this insurance/underwriting scene they’ve promised, but I’ll believe that when I see it.

On the Andrew Lloyd-Webber saga, the plot thickens further. Just when everyone suspected a cozy deal to exempt his play as a “pilot”, he’s now saying he won’t take part without support for other theatres. I suspect we won’t have heard the last of this for some time yet.

None of this affects the Edinburgh Fringe, of course, but there has been news today that the Scottish government is considering easing restrictions. There again, in between reading the article and linking it here, the Edinburgh Evening News has already backpedalled and changed emphasis to Shona McCarthy expressing disappointment over delays to decisions. That takes care of the hope I had that they were on the verge of making a deal. And the fact Sturgeon is referring to the blatant double-standard against the performing arts as a “perceived anomoly” suggests she’s not taking it that seriously.

In summary: not a lot changed today.

Tuesday 15th June, 6.00 p.m.:

And that’s a wrap. Yesterday was my last day seeing Brighton Fringe plays. No big catch-up today because I was working my day job from Brighton, saving the world one software test at a time.

I gather there’s quite a bit of fallout over yesterday’s announcement. Not so much from Brighton Fringe, who were pretty much planning against this anyway, but amongst West End theatres planning to play to full audiences next week. Will catch up on this then report back.

In the meantime, for those of you still in Brighton, quick recommendation for Adian Goatley’s 12 Films of Christmas. He and his film-listicle shows been one of Sweet’s regulars for a few years, but having seen this now, this has to be a hot contender for most wholesome comedy routine. Runs at Sweet Old Steine at 6.45 until Sunday.

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