Brighton Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Monday 14th June, 9.15 p.m.:

So it’s confirmed. Existing social distancing measures extended for another four weeks (save for some concessions around weddings). As far as I know, Brighton venues were planning for this already, although if any venues have been stupid enough to sell tickets over 50% capacity for the last week, we should find out shortly. Really the only decision that could have been made, and that’s obvious for at least two weeks, although the that that people were even contemplating actions as reckless as re-opening nightclubs is pretty shocking.

However, the Andrew Lloyd Webber saga won’t go away. Bojo said he’s in talks with Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s true that pilots without social distancing are happening, and it may be that Cinderella is the only thing on a large scale that will work, but to mention one particular play by name smacks of favouritism. This is maybe a red herring – the more important issue is how much compensation other theatres get – but it’s little things like this that lose so much confidence. It might be some time before we get to the bottom of this one.

In the meantime, I’ve written about 7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe. The English fringes seem to have the situation under control, but how will the big one in Scotland go?

Monday 14th June, 4.30 p.m.:

Just a small observation, but I’ve missed the paper programme more than I expected. I accept that a printed programme was impossible this time round with numerous events not programmed until the last moment, but I have heard whispers of various fringes wondering if 2021 gives them the excuse to ditch the printed programmes for good. After all, the programme is a central fringe’s single most expensive outlay (and indeed a disaster if the fringe gets cancelled/postponed after the programme is printed).

But I’ve found relying on the website alone to be cumbersome. Specifically, I’ve found myself repeatedly navigating back and forth from index to individual show page to extract information such as who’s performing what. But the thing I am really missing is the Daily Guide. Previously, when I had a gap in my schedule, I could see at a glance what was on at the time and then check out the things that interested me. The equivalent process in the website involves checking numerous pages manually for the time of performance. That wasn’t really in issue last October as there were only a few shows to keep track of, but it’s tougher this time round, and it feels like an impossible task once the fringe is back to full strength.

I’m not throwing my weight behind bringing back a paper programme at all costs, but I do think there’s room for improvement in a web-only system. Top of my list is a way of listing a day’s show by time. (The app might have this, but if so it really needs to be on the web as well.) After that, I’d really look at some sort of at-a-glance interface that gives you the information a paper programme would give you without having to repeatedly check out single pages. The web-only programme was necessary for the circumstances – but there’s work to be done if this is to stay.

Monday 14th June, 12.30 p.m. – Clean, the Musical:

So whilst we’re waiting for this announcement (or not), time for another review. This is one on my bold choices, and it’s Clean, the musical. This was originally produced in 2019 without the music, but the biggest change is the one no-one could have predicted. One of the many stories of women on Laundry Hill was the 1950s smallpox outbreak in the Tivoli laundry, with quarantines and isolations imposed, vaccines rushed out, and an agonising decision to be made by husband-and-wife managers on whether keep the business running or close. Two years ago, it felt like a tale from the dim and distant past. How times change.

Clean and Sary mark, I believe, the start of Sam Chittenden’s interest in the history of local women. As well as the smallpox outbreak (albeit represented by Dot, a composite character of the real thing), we also have: Helen Boyle, a pioneer in the treatment of mental health, and Meg; a Suffragette, but not the pre-1918 movement everyone talks about but the pre-1930 movement in the campaign to fully equalise women’s rights with men’s, culminating in the 1929 “flapper election”. Sam Chittenden’s nuance also shows where. The men referred to in the story are not part of a faceless patriarchy but their own characters. The wife-beater in the story of a 1970s women’s refuge is an irredeemable monster, but Dot’s husband Frank is a different matter. Even though they face the same struggles and dilemmas, with the death of one worker and the blinding of another on their watch, Dot copes but Frank doesn’t, until he can’t face life any more. The value of female friendship is a theme of the play, but perhaps that was a lesson of what happens without.

Chittenden has partnered with Simon Scardanelli to write the music, and the songs fit the play well and they’re quite catchy, and thanks to a a cast who can all sing and most play instruments too, it’s quite a versatile musical performance. However, this unfortunately has the side-effect I was worried might happen. I get the impression the songs have been inserted into an existing script, but even without the songs the story seems to have quite a relaxed pace. With the songs inserted, the pace drops further and begins to drag, and I realised this was an issue when towards the end I heard song after song that felt like it was the closing number but wasn’t. To be fair, there’s no easy solution to that. You may be able to quickening pace by tightly integrating the speech and music, but that difficult to do well and easy to do badly.

If it was up to me, and we were starting the musical from scratch, I would have shortened the time frame to end with the inevitable closure of the laundries, incorporating all of the female pioneers along the way. This would have lost the domestic violence stories of Ruby and Meg, but I honestly think there’s enough material there for a play in its own right. This would have left space to develop the other characters further, which I’m sure Chittenden would have delivered on handsomely. But that’s not how it works, and besides, I can’t argue with the result. Different Theatre has come out of nowhere in the last few years and the popularity of this musical is testament to how they have come in such a short time.

Sunday 13th June, 4.30 p.m.:

So, unless you are enjoying Brighton Fringe so much you’ve paid no attention to what else is happening, it cannot have escaped your attention that there’s a very important speech tomorrow on whether all restrictions are going to be lifted on the 21st June as originally planned. Well, when I say “planned”, I should really remind everybody that the date was supposed to be down as “not before 21st June”, not “21st June prompt”. I’m following the figures and freedom day a week tomorrow is a really bad idea. Whether there’s scope to relax some rules, maybe.

For the festival fringes, however, expect the impact to be minimal. For Brighton Fringe, the official position is that it’s up to individual venues, but I’m not seeing any sign of any venues poised to go to full capacity in the final week. Later fringes could in theory plan without restrictions, but the pattern I’m picking up is that most of them are in practice. Some acts may pull out if the 50% limit isn’t dropped, but the mood seems to be that this is manageable. (Edinburgh Fringe, of course, is not under the jurisdiction of this announcement.)

Where there is most likely to be an impact for theatre is the West End. Whilst many regional theatres are resigned to re-opening in the autumn (and those that are open are expecting reduced operation for the time being), without a subsidy to soften the blow, the West End theatres seem to be desperate to sell tickets as soon as possible. Regarding Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s infamous threat to get himself arrested, this seems to have morphed into a call for no social distancing but keep masks. I am still sceptical we’re ready for that, but I’m more amenable to be talked round to this than the thought of 1,000-seater full capacity and no masks.

Expect a storm to brew, but not one that will engulf the fringes just yet.

Sunday 13th June, 12.00 p.m. – Crime Scene Improvisation:

Time for another review now, and this another of the improv comedy heavyweights. Not an improv musical this time, because CSI has not yet been made into a West End musical, although coming to think of it, it’s probably going to happen, isn’t it? And it’ll feature the music of Boyzone. And it’ll probably have James Corden in it. Shit, I’m going to have nightmares about this now- … I’m sorry, I digressed. Let’s get back to this Brighton Fringe show.

I’ve worked out now that the key moment in an improv show is the first five minutes where the audience shouts out some key suggestions. For CSI, it’s the victim’s name, career, and circumstances of death. For name, several shouts of “Boris” come up, but it is pointed out that the victim has to be someone fictitious, otherwise they’d be murdering a Boris every show. Instead, we settle on the chef of a local vegan restaurant, batted to death with a seagull, which in the scene one forensics is shown to be an unusual case as instead of regular chip bag dive, this seagull was used as a restaurant. We are then introduced into the shady world of veganism, which is a bit like speakeasies, because, as we all know, vegans are very shy people who are afraid to talk about their veganism, so they instead group together with like-minded people in an open and supportive environment where it’s live and let live, and you are unlikely to be scolded over what you had for your breakfast.

One of the measures of how good an improv group knows its stuff is, strangely enough, what happens when things go wrong. Some comedians will just quip “oh, that was crap”, but the good ones make the mistake funny. Here, Crime Scene Improvisation go one step further and turn a mistake into a theme of the whole show. After a scene where replacement chef Shoe-Shoe (a vague link to the victim having no shoes) and victim’s widow Molly, have a chat, Molly speaks to another woman – and calls her Molly forgetting she herself is Molly. Never mind, there’s now two Mollys. And one of the men has Molly as a middle name too. And the girls regularly have Molly-Molly-Shoe-Shoe night. And anyone, male or female, who does not have Molly or Shoe-Shoe in their name is an outsider.

And who did it? Well, it’s the good old-fashioned method of justice: ask question of the suspects when put it to a vote. And the murderer then puts on his evil voice and explains how he did it (quite a task seeing as he didn’t realise he was the murderer until now). If there’s one flaw I’d highlight, what with everybody having an affair with everyone else and putting on evil voices when accused of murder, it feels a bit more Agatha Christie than corny American TV show. Perhaps CSI needs to make more use of the show’s signature plot device, and invite the audience to shout out the ideas for a bollocks forensic technique that delivers an improbably precise piece of information. But part from this missed opportunity, Crime Scene Improvisation shows they’ve earned their spot at the top.

Sunday 13th June, 9.30 a.m.:

Small observation: timekeeping seems to have gone down the pan this fringe. Edinburgh Fringe has always been an event where you could expect one event to finish at 4.05 and be confident you’ll be over the road in time for the next one starting at 4.10. Brighton Fringe used to be quite sloppy when I first started going, but as the operations grew, the timekeeping got a lot better.

This year, however, lots of events have not run to time. The Warren seems particularly prone to this, with numerous events I’ve been to starting and finishing 15 minutes late. An obvious defence? Venues have to factor in social distancing measures, which they’re having to learn very quickly, and that’s particularly challenging at The Warren when you’ve got a lot of people to handle. However, I’ve had to drop plays from my schedule because I no longer trust being able to get from one to the their in time.

Unless you want to re-timetable everything to a more achievable timescale mid-fringe, I don’t see what we can do about this. Hopefully next year we won’t have to worry about this, but if we do, I hope venues will learn what’s realistic. In the meantime, a warning not to try tight timescales like you use to do – that is way to risky right now.

Saturday 12th June, 6.00 p.m.:

Small update on patronage. Fairly long queue to get into The Warren at 4.00 today. I’m coming across quite a few shows that seem to be either sold out or close to sell-outs. Only weak spot seems to be the times we already know are weak times: straight after work weekdays, early afternoon weekends if hot.

No further updates from Brighton Fringe or any of the venues since the week 1 news we all heard about, but so far, there’s no sign of the start-of-fringe surge easing off.

Saturday 12th June, 2.30 p.m. – Polly, a drag rebellion:

This is the first time I’ve reviews drag cabaret at a fringe. I’m a theatre blogger and cabaret performances, drag or otherwise, are outside my area. But what the hell, this was a review request and Brighton is full of drag performers, so it’s about time I gave this a whirl. From what I know of drag, some drag performers do it for a laugh, whilst others take it very very seriously, with some aiming for convincing ultra-feminine personas and appearances. “Polly”, however, is quite comfortable sporting the big hairy beard of her alter-ego, Joe Stickland, and swaps a fantasy world of glamour and glitz for rants about the state of politics.

This doesn’t mean Polly can’t live in her own fantasy world though. After a rant and a warp-speed rap about her take on politics, she imagines how to put things to rights. She considers setting up a new political party, or just getting everyone to be more caring, but after weighing up the pros and cons she settles on controlling the British monarchy. With a tenuous claim involving a dalliance on the Isle of Wight that puts here something like 300th in line to the throne, and arranging for the 299 ahead of her to all die in tragic accidents, she gets the phone call that starts “Good afternoon, your majesty”. But, sadly, building a better society based on mass murder never works out, and soon Polly finds herself as bad as the people she replaced. Even the world’s most notorious dictators think Polly’s gone a bit too far. And the moral of the story, I guess, is that mass murder to take control of the British throne might seem like a tempting short cut, it’s more rewarding to be nice to people.

Polly/Joe certainly has a commanding stage presence that makes for a good performance. I can’t really comment on whether this bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret act is any good, because I don’t have any other bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret acts to compare this to. But if you can’t get enough of your bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret acts, or you’ve always wondered what a bearded drag mass murder/regicide-themed cabaret act would be like, or you simply like your drag cabaret performaces to be more beard-themed or mass muder/regicide themes, this is the show for you.

Saturday 12th June, 11.00 a.m

Latest from Edinburgh: the Guardian is reporting that Edinburgh Festivals are getting millions of pounds in emergency funding. At present, no details are given about who said this, how many millions this is, or how this is to be distributed between the six festivals. It does, however, reiterate the fears that anyone following this has long since put in the “No shit, Sherlock” list of deductions: the festival may never fully recover.

Have to say, there’s more in this article that concerns me and reassures me. The first thing that gets me uneasy is the weight given in this article to talking down the fringe. Yes, 2019 wasn’t exactly the Fringe’s finest year, but this reads uncomfortably close to the directors of six festivals jostling for limited bailout money and rounding on the fringe as the one who doesn’t deserve that much help. The second thing is an omission on what supporting the fringe means. Unlike most of the festival, the Edinburgh Fringe only does the central administration, with the big financial liabilities lying with the venues. Without that, the mitigation to the damage done to the fringe will be minimal.

However, I will try to propose a more positive scenario. Perhaps the reason Shona Macarthy hasn’t been as vocal as she was a few weeks back is that the Scottish Government have got the message, and they are negotiating a package behind the scenes that she’s sufficiently happy with to go along with it. And it is my understanding that the Pebble Trust’s bailout of Brighton Fringe did extend to financial support of the venues. That was an undisputed success (although there’s still some grumblings about whether venue support was fairly distributed). Maybe the same can be achived here.

However, in the case of the fringe, money may be the least of the problems. The real problem may be the confidence of performers and venues. Brighton Fringe is leading the way on festival recovery. The pop-up festivals from the Big Four in London and Coventry will probably follow. The small fringes in England appear to be in for a good summer. Even if the Edinburgh Fringe itself gets generous support, that won’t necessarily undo an impression surely – setting into many people – that you’ll get a far warmer welcome away from Edinburgh.

Part of me wonders if the Scottish Government are taking Edinburgh’s status as world festival capital for granted. Another part of me wonders if the Scottish Government are setting up Edinburgh Fringe to fail. I have a post coming up where I will consider seven possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe. As always, hot take and controversy guaranteed.

Friday 11th June, 11.30 p.m.:

And one observation before bed time. One question I will be looking for answers to this weekend is whether the excellent start to Brighton Fringe in the first week can be sustained to the (sort of) mid point. In practice, I don’t think selling the entire forecasting fringe’s sales every week is going to happen, but even a mdoest drop from a start-of-fringe peak would be an excellent result.

Well, one early sign is at The Warren, which I entered at 9.30 tonight, and there were just as many people queuing outside as I saw in the first weekend. Of course, lots of people go the The Warren just to drink, and that doesn’t necessarily mean ticket sales are going at the same rate, but so far, there’s no sign that the excellent beginning to the fringe is tailing off yet.

I’ll keep you updated as more info comes in.

Friday 11th June, 4.30 p.m.:

And here I am. No need to start off with some first-sight impressions because Brighton Fringe looks pretty much the same as it was when I left it, except that it’s somewhat cooler.

So instead, I wrote this piece about my reaction to Aware, three films done as the first in-person performance (albiet films) at the newly-reopened Alphabetti Theatre back home. At some point, I will round up the situation with theatre re-opening in the north-east, but Alphabetti seems to have gone from the most cautious to the most bullish. However, on this ocasion I am not here to commentate on re-opening plans or review something. I’m here to give my thoughts on the issue of neurodiversity that these films strive to cover. In sumary, I thought what it chose to cover, it covered well, but so far neither Alphabetti nor the other north-east theatres have made any real progress addressing the issue of inclusion. If you want me to expand on that, come this way.

However, whilst we’re on this subject, now is a good time to mention the first of two Lava Elastic shows. This is a variety show which is well outside my area of remit for reviews, but I promote this because Sarah Saeed who runs this actually is doing domething about inclusion. She understands what the barriers are, does something about it, and her other company, Stealth Aspies (not running this fringe but will hopefully be back soon) covers the issues that too many people don’t realise matter. Lava Ealstic isn’t there to educate you, though, it there to have a good time. First showing this Sunday at 2.30, Sweet Werks, and another in two weeks, same place, same time.

Friday 11th June, 11.00 a.m:

Okay, here I come again. Brighton Fringe part two, come about as it seems increasingly unlikely we’re going to have an Edinburgh Fringe part one. But let’s forget about that for a while.

Everyone who requested an in-person review between now and Monday: you should have heard from me by now. If not, please get in touch ASAP so I can sort this out.

Excuse me, the newly-build Werrington underpass is coming up. That’s proper exciting.

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