Brighton Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Thursday 10th June:

The third weekend looms, so it’s time for another look at what’s coming up.

This big one is Police Cops: Badass be Thy Name, which looks to be as silly as it sounds. Having already parodied cop shows and sci-fi-shows, this mashes things up a little further and combines the Chan/Wilson pairing (this time a Samuri and a raver) with the vampire genre. You get the idea. The three-hander is very energetic and popular precisely for this reason. It started yesterday, and runs through to Saturday at the Warren at 7.45 p.m.

Or for something more adventurous, you can sea Clean: the Musical . Sam Chittenden’s site-specific stage about the lives of women from Laundry Hill over a period of 150 years play went down very well a couple of years ago, but this is the first time it has been done as a musical. Will it build on the success of the play, or will it be a musical for the sake of being one? Find out at One Church Brighton, Saturday or Sunday, at 3 p.m.

Also returning this weekend is Wired Theatre’s About the Garden (Saturday-Sunday) and Something Underground’s Spirit of Woodstock (Friday-Sunday). But as I retun to Brighton tomorrow, what will I be giving acclaim the that I don’t yet know about?

Wednesday 9th June:

Today I am in Hull to see Moby Dick, which I think may be the first notable outdoor production of the year this side of the Pennines. I will do a fuller review of this at some point, but if you’re thinking of seeing it, it’s a nice accessible production of the sailor’s yarn most likely to make you go: “Mate, let it go, it’s really not worth it.” It’s a big outdoor venue (Stage @ The Dock) so there’s plenty of spaces, but you’ll need to be quick because it ends this Saturday.

However, let’s have a look at who’s hit the headlines today. Andrew Lloyd Webber has been threatening to run his theatres at full capacity in July whether or not social distancing is lifted – and says he is prepared to be arrested over this. This has come via the Telegraph, which should be treated with scepticism as they have a track record in quoting people out of context to make an interview more sensational than it really is, but his quote is literally “You’ll have to arrest us to stop us reopening theatres”. Boy does he know how to grab headlines.

I have spent a lot of time complaining about theatres being unfairly singled out, but on this matter I can’t back him up. Andrew Lloyd Webber is right that there have been next to no Covid transmissions in theatres, but that is partly because not that many theatres have been open prior to May 2021, and those that were were generally ultra-cautious. I have seen the figures, and scrapping all restrictions on June 21st (which, I must remind some people, was expressly a “not before” date) is just insane. It’s just about possible that someone with better knowledge of the figures might talk me round with small theatres, but a thousand-seater? No way. One of the biggest risk factors is large densely-packed crowds, and that risk has not gone away.

But do I think Andrew Lloyd Webber is actually going to do this? Sorry Andy, I’m calling your bluff here. He might be outspoken but he’s no Laurence Fox. His approach to business is generally pragmatic and calculating, and I don’t believe for a second he will invest everything in a law-breaking production that the Police can (and almost certainly will) stop. Even if he is prepared to make this grand gesture, who’s going to join him? Everyone working the the theatre stands to get a criminal record – who’s going to want to join him in martyrdom.

Where I think he does have a point is the disparity in support. The culture recovery fund is better than nothing, but it still pales into insignificance compared to Eat Out to Help Out. If large venues are to be singled out – which may sadly be necessary – there is a strong case for compensation, and maybe the real aim of this publicity stunt was to draw attention to that. But if that really is the goal, he’s blown it before he started, but making such an obviously hollow threat. That’s a pity, as he’s someone we really need on our side – but at the moment he’s being a liability to the cause.

So, in conclusion: move along, nothing to see here.

Tuesday 8th June:

In the interests of balance, there is one point I need to make in favour of caution. I have been arguing that the both the Edinburgh Fringe and Scottish Government could learn a lot from the Brighton Fringe. In particular, the fringe scene owes a lot to The Warren and Sweet Venues who paved the way for safe running of outdoor and indoor venues respectively, last year when most theatres when most theatres were too cautious to open. As I have previously said, it is great the Rialto Theatre is back in business this time round. However, I’m a bit uneasy about the way the Rialto has chosen to manage social distancing.

I’d assumed there were two ways the Rialto could have gone. One would be to do the Sweet model, where chairs are arranged prior to each performance according to the groups coming, like a particularly tricky game of Tetris. The other would be to go with the Warren model and arrange seating round tables, maybe even serving drinks at tables like the Warren (or Live Theatre in Newcastle if you want an indoor example). Instead, they’ve opted to stick with something close to their normal seating plan, but instead of unreserved seating, everyone gets a specified seat.

Unfortunately, based on the two productions I’ve seen, this does not seem to be working as well as it was meant to. The lack of spacing between some groups and the empty spaces elsewhere makes we suspect that some people are either not understanding or not following the instructions on where to sit. The other problem is that people are regularly squeezing past each other to reach their seats. As such, I’m not sure it was wise to put so many seats into the auditorium, even if not all of them are meant to be filled. And, at the very least, I would have a staggered entry, with people in edge seats going in first and people with aisle seats going in last.

The bar, however, has been properly managed, which is more than can be said for have the indoor bars along the sea front. I don’t think what the Rialto is doing is particularly dangerous to anyone. But as stupid double-standards against the performing arts now seem to be the norm, it would take just one case of Covid transmission in a venue such as the Rialto for the naysayers pulling the strings to say “I told you so” and further turn the screws on fringe theatre, even if it means ignoring worse cases in pubs and clubs. Contrary to what some people seem to think, fringe theatre isn’t the nation’s leading threat of a fourth wave of Coronavirus, but the people who think it is still have the power to make like very unpleasant for us if we give them the excuse they need. For that reason, please be careful.

Monday 7th June:

So here it is. The news from Edinburgh is that there is no news. It appears that the announcement made on the 1st June replaces the announcement due today. The rules in Edinburgh are basically staying the same, which means the ludicrously unfair two metres for theatres but one metre for pubs stays. Nothing in the announcement acknowledging the discrepancy the arts industry has been bellowing about, but one or two happy notes dropped in about the reopening of the hospitality industry. Now, it might be that there’s an announcement yet to be made that I don’t know about, but Chortle (with a blunt headline of “Edinburgh venues are still screwed…“) doesn’t seem any more cheery. I’ve seen enough government platitudes to recognise boilerplate acknowledgement of concerns the authorities have no intention of engaging with, so I wasn’t expecting much better, but it now really looks like they’re going to dig their heels in over this.

What I find particularly irksome is the strawman Edinburgh Fringe being portrayed by defenders of this decision. They seem to have the idea that the if the Edinburgh Fringe goes ahead, it be exactly the same as 2019, with huge crowds packed into stuff basements with no ventilation and actors and crew crammed together in narrow backstage corridors. There’s no way that sort of plauge-fest going to happen – even in the summer of last year Edinburgh Fringe was forecasting a 60% reduction in size, and now even with a relaxation of the rules we’d be looking at more like 90%. Besides, if poorly ventilated basements and cramped backstages are the issue, surely those are the things we should be discussing rather than an arbitrary distance in the auditorium that ignores all of this. At the very least, they could at looked at how festivals such as Brighton Fringe are doing it and see if there was anything to take on board.

The only consolation from this news – if it can be called a consolation – is that the Covid situation in Edinburgh isn’t great. At the moment, ironically enough, Brighton’s figures are quite a way down the scale, whilst Edinburgh is one of the highest, and rising rapidly. And the one thing you can’t blame Edinburgh’s figures on is theatre. If I had invested some money in an Edinburgh venue, I might be a bit worried by this. I still expect things to be more under control by August, but, who knows, maybe this obtuse policy means venues end up dodging a bullet.

I really don’t know which government I object to more here. It’s gone from one extreme to the other: in England, a government with an appallingly complacent track record that’s still considering a fucking insane end of restrictions in two weeks; in Scotland, a policy that hits the performing arts so hard the argument of caution doesn’t stand up. In both cases, preferential treatment to pubs even though they’ve been a far bigger spreader than any play ever will be. If the Edinburgh Fringe must be singled out and cancelled, stop pretending it’s anything else. Make it clear why it’s a different rule for the Fringe, cancel it, and move the debate on to compensation. But the longer this goes on, the more I suspect this is about setting the Edinburgh Fringe up to fail.

Sorry that wasn’t very upbeat. I’ll try to write something more positive tomorrow.

Sunday 6th June:

I’d been picking up signs of this on various fronts, but now it’s official: Brighton Fringe have announced that in the first week, ticket sales “exceed expectations“. And even that headline is an understatement. It’s only when you reach the end of the press release when you see the whatever you call the opposite of a bombshell: ticket sales have surpassed the target for the entire fringe in the first week. Now, exactly how good this is depends on how cautious Brighton Fringe was with their expectations in the first place, but this has been consistent with my observations. The indoor venues have been sell-outs (within their limited capacity), the outdoor venues have had excellent take-up from what I’ve observed, and the bars at Warren and Spiegeltent have both had people queuing to get in.

The only thing that hasn’t been that great are daytime ticket sales. That, however, is something that is known about in Brighton (and, to a lesser extent, Buxton too). It is very difficult to persuade someone to see a play or a comedy show during a heatwave when the beach beckons. The applied to Brighton Fringe prior to Covid, and that even applied to The Warren Outdoors when the venue was literally on the beach. So it’s not clear whether everyone’s having a good fringe, and those programmed in the afternoon may still look enviously on those in the evening slots. But there can be little doubt that the fringe overall is having a good time.

The next question is whether this is a flash in the pan from an audience in their first week with theatre and comedy on offer, or whether the surge in sales keeps going through the rest of the fringe. But before we find out that, tomorrow we discover whether the Scottish Government allows the Edinburgh Fringe parity with the hospitality section, or whether they’ll dig their heels in. If they relax the rules, it will probably be too late to salvage much of a fringe. In contrast to Brighton, the situation in Edinburgh is dire – we will find out tomorrow just how dire it is.

Saturday 5th June: The Tragedy of Dorian Grey

And the wrap up reviews from visit 1, Blue Devil Theatre’s production, intended for last year, postpone to this year. Full-length plays use to be quite common at Brighton Fringe; now they are quite rare – but with Blue Devil having become of the the Rilato’s most prestigious acts, they were happy to go along with it. And the Rialto were right to have faith – the run at the start of the fringe was very close to a sell-out (albeit under reduced capacity conditions). And having seen it for myself, I think I’d rate this as the strongest all-rounder I’ve seen so far.

Blue Devil’s adaptations are always fresh takes on the originals. It is an open secret that all of Blue Devil’s adaptations have some sort of LGBT slant added, though never at the expense of the original story, and it retains broad appeal. However, I do think it’s particularly fitting to give this treatment to an Oscar Wilde story. We will never know what kind of story Oscar Wilde really wanted to write, but he certainly could not have written anything that might hint at his own sexuality. As we all know, Oscar Wilde was eventually imprisoned for that, and this, in all probability, was the cause of his untimely death. And in a second nod to Wilde, the laws and attitudes to homosexuality feature heavily in this version.

Dorian-Gray-Dorian-and-Sybil-argue-P-e1623232957934The other change made by Ross Dinwiddy is the transplanting of the play to the 1960s. Things are different and yet very much the same. At the start of the story, homosexuality is illegal, but that does not stop guy men (both in a out the closet) practising it illicitly. Thanks to the painting that grants Dorian Gray his eternal youth and make him desirable to both women and men, the story stretches into the 1970s and beyond, after homosexuality is decriminalised, but for many gay men it may as well still be a life-destroying offence. The other notable change is the role of the female characters. Mavis Ruxton is a new characters: a celebrity journalist so devoid of morals she makes Kelvin Mackenzie look like Martin Bell – she even seems to her writing a hit piece about you is a great honour. And Sybil Vane is upgraded from a minor actress in a movie hall (all that most women could manage in the day) to a major actress on the path back to Hollywood. But, alas, the fall from grace is just a brutal as before.

The challenge for any production is what to do about the painting. The picture of Dorian Gray is supposed to be an artistic masterpiece, that gradually turns cruel and malevolent as he turns into a sociopath. Blue Devil play it safe and the portrait is never seen. The references to the transformation are cleverly written in, but you might not follow it if you’re completely new to the story. The other side side-effect is that the famous ending to the novel where a tormented Dorian finally confront to painting is toned down to a quieter goodbye. There again, I’ve yet to see any stage adaptation pull off the ending in the original.

I am used to a high standard from Blue Devil and this is no exception. A common assumption often made is that a play with an LGBT theme is only of niche interest to an LGBT audience – this is most definitely not the case here. There is another run at the fringe on the 22nd-24th June when we are 100% promised social distancing will no longer be needed, but there again, that is a Boris Johnson promise which is different from a normal promise, so I’d still book early if I were you. If you’re out of luck, there is also a streamed version through Living Record, and there’s also plans for a London run. See it and you won’t be disappointed.

Friday 4th June

Small housekeeping notice before I carry on. I had previously announced that my second visit to Brighton Fringe would be the 10th-13th June. Due to some last minute rearrangement of rehearsals here in Durham, it’s now going to be the 11th-14th. One side-effect of this is that I’ve been holding off responding to review requests until I knew what was going on. Now that I know what’s what, I will start responding. Thank you for bearing with me.

So, as we go into the second weekend, what do we have coming up? My recommendation is Between Two Waves, which I saw last weekend and recommend. They re-started today at 6.45 (soz, wasn’t fast enough) and runs to Sunday, same time, the the Rialto. This may seem like a climate emergency play, but the focus is a lot more on the characters within the play, and is worth checking out.

Wired Theatre’s About the Garden also goes into its second weekend. If you’ve not seen Wired Theatre before, this is a good introduction; their plays tend to jump around in time and can get a bit confusing if you don’t know what to expect, but here they keep it simple: a story that gets more and more confusing up to the halfway point – and then it all gets put back together. Runs about twice a day over weekends at various times, and the director’s house in Hove.

And finally, Nathan Cassidy gets a free plug, because anyone who turns up to a fringe to do a live performance when everyone else was resigned to doing it online has my respect, as he did for Buxton Fringe last year. (He also created a loophole than enables me and 18 others can say they saw every performance at a festival fringe.) Nathan Cassidy is a lot more experimental than most comedians, and this apparently involves chasing a burglar to The Flight of the Bumblebee. Runs tomorrow and Sunday at 7 p.m. Laughing Horse.

Speaking of which, we should probably start paying more attention to Laughing Horse, who are running events in various pubs for the course of the fringe. Their three venues between them aren’t far off the number of shows offered by Sweet or The Warren. Whether they can keep snapping at their tails next year when most venues should be back to more normal levels is another question, and Laughing Horse barely registers on the theatre radar as the programme – as to be expected for a venue with the word “laughing” in its name – is mostly comedy. But there is a bit of theatre, so if demand for theatre rises faster than other venues can accommodate them, who knows?

Thursday 3rd June: The Doll Who Came To Tea

Now for a review of what is by far the most ambitious play I’ve seen; in fact, it could even be the most ambitious play of the whole fringe. This is the story of Alice, who is a voice-hearer. This is a known condition, and the play aims to put you in the shoes on someone in this condition.

It’s Alice’s 50th birthday, and she’s organising a celebration, but she’s only laid out three party plates. One is for herself, another is for her favourite doll, and the third is for a woman who’s coming later today to fit a smart meter. Even for a 50-year-old who chats to a doll, the speech feels a bit odd, frequently retorting to people who aren’t there. The we replay the scene, and this time add in the voices. There’s a variety of voices going around in Alice’s head of varying personalities, but the dominant ones put her down, or call her a cunt, or both. As we soon discover, Alice’s voices were brought on by abuse as a child, and we later hear some video testimonials of some real stories.

No-one can fault Unfiltered Productions for taking on a tough challenge, nor can you fault their intentions of raising awareness of a little-known issue. What you do need to be aware of, however, is just how abstract the subject it. I’m a great believer in the rule that if you’re going to make one thing complicated – and few things are more complex than recreating a mental health problem – you should try to keep everything else simple. For this reason, I wouldn’t have tried getting the audience to all put headphones in their ears via their own mobile devices – when you’re trying to get to grips with what these iner voices are, you don’t want to be distracted by whether you’ve programmed your phone correctly; and there was the inevitable phone call to the person who misunderstood the step about setting flight mode. The voices through the speakers done for the rest of the play, I felt, did the job just as well without all the the fiddly techie instructions.

Even without these distractions, there’s a lot to get your head round then it comes to this subject. The beginning is very confusing, and I assume that was deliberate. When the gas meter woman comes along and the inner voices go into overdrive, I can’t help thinking I didn’t pick up half the things I was meant to here. One thing it might be worth considering – and this is one of many ways to make the story more accessible, other methods are equally valid, would be to intersperse this with reports from a social worker. When it’s hard to understand a subject from the inside, an outside perspective make a difference.

And I should mention this this was billed, if not as a work in progress, something that’s open to feedback. It would be a nigh-on impossible task to get something like this right the first time – but the sky’s the limit if they do. My advice would be to talk to people who’ve seen the play, and find out what they are aren’t picking up; it is very difficult to guess what an audience will pick up without this conversation. They clearly know their stuff inside out, now the challenge is getting the messages across; and that will be trail an error, no way round it, but the rewards for this trial and error could be great.

Wednesday 2nd June

For those of you unfamiliar with how this works, when I’m away from the fringe and back at my job, coverage steps to to one update per day. Anyway, now is a fitting time to look at how other fringes are doing. Prospects at Edinburgh are pretty dire, but in England things are looking better.

A few days ago Buxton Fringe announced they had 90 entries, with only a small number of online ones, with the expectation they can get it to 100. Their 2019 size was 213 entries, but that might have been temporarily inflated by the extended 40th anniversary fringe. The previous personal best of 183 in 2017 might be a fairer benchmark. Details aside, we’re looking at a fringe roughly half the size of pre-covid levels. Most of the venues are taking part, although The Rotunda will be a noticeable omission, and the Arts Centre is being used for festival only. Overall, we’re looking at a recovery at a similar pace to Brighton’s.

But one fringe that appears to be recovering surprisingly quickly is Camden Fringe. This takes place in August, and normally gets no attention outside of London because it’s the same time as Edinburgh, but with Edinburgh apparently out of the running, it seems attention is turning to the Camden. Today they reported 150 registrations, compared to 250 in 2019. Usual caveats apply: all fringes are different and numbers alone don’t tell you everything ; but with two months still to go for registrations, they might be looking at the fastest recovery.

Before we get too excited, however, a note of caution. As it stands, all restrictions are due to be lifted by the time July and August comes along, but also as it stands, a lot of people think this isn’t achievable any more. This has always been priced into Brighton Fringe’s plans, but there’s no knowing who will have second thoughts if the relaxation of rules stalls. Celebrations now would be premature.

Finally, a small update on Greater Manchester Fringe. This normally runs in July but has again postponed, this time to September. This fringe mostly runs in permanent venues, so I presume they’re working around their reopening plans. Just 14 registrations showing at the moment, but presumably more will come as venues finalise their plans.

The big question remains whether Brighton will be seen to overtake Edinburgh’s prestige in 2021 – indeed, I’m hearing from some people who’ve monitored media coverage more than me that there’s be an rise in Brighton Fringe coverage this year. But don’t forget about the little fringes. They could have a key players in the balance of power over the next few years.

Tuesday 1st June, 9.00 p.m.: The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007

Think I shall close today’s catchup with something from The Warren. This was officially under the Comedy section, but it could easily have been under Theatre. Luckily, this performance suits getting miked up, and in spite of efforts from a particularly raucous table outside, Annabel York kept them at bay. The reason I am reviewing this as if it was from the Theatre programme is because I saw a play when I watched this. Feel free to heed or ignore this as your genre sees fit.

Annabel comes on stage in her sash and gown that her 18-year-old self wore the moment she was crowned the beauty queen of South Yorkshire’s largest town. In a fairy tale she would go on to land movie deals, perfume commercials, are marriage to a major pop star. In the real world, Miss Donny is now in her thirties, and starry-eyed dreams have faded away. She works in a crushingly dull dead-end job, and the closest she gets to a fairytale wedding is a string of one-night stands with men who, for some reason, all turn out to be nutcases in the bedroom.

On the surface, this looks like an out-and-out comedy. York’s routine involves lots of show tunes, dancing, one-liners, and stunts on a wheeled office chair that laughs in the face of Health and Safety, and this carries the audience all the way – until the side-plot of a dying father takes over as the main story. But even before this point, there was something desperately sad about her past: the show tunes she bursts into turn out to be a talent she had during school days that made her parents so proud. How is she so in denial over what she’s become?

However, there is a gap in the story that I’m desperate to know, and it is ironically enough, the time she became Miss Doncaster. We know it was this teenager’s dream come true, so I wonder: how did this all go so wrong? Full-time jobs as beauty queens are thin on the ground, but what about the men she brings back? Given that she didn’t even fancy one or both of the men she tells us about, what happened to her self-esteem to allow herself to be treated this way? And the other thing which is hinted at is that, on the rare occasion some notes she is a former title holder of a beauty pageant, it’s never mentioned in a nice way.

If I was to judge this as a play, I’d be crying out for Annabel York to fill in the timeline and reveal what it was about the aftermath of Miss Doncaster fame that set her on the wrong track. This performance could say so much as society’s shallow attitudes to beauty. But this is a comedy, and on those terms I have nothing to fault with it. You can’t go wrong with this for fun – for the full story, maybe we’ll have to wait for the next show.

Tuesday 1st June, 6.30 p.m.:

And before pressing on with the review backlog, let’s look at what’s coming up. Just one thing to keep you busy through the week, at that’s Box Tale Soup’s take on Alice in Wonderland. Recent Box Tale Soup fans will know them for their style they’ve developed for gothic horrors such as Great Grimm Tales, but this is from their back catalogue from the days when they did lighter family-friendly puppetry. The format is usually Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne playing some of the main parts, with puppetry for the rest. Should be a lot of fun for children without being an edurance tests for parents.

Okay, three reviews to go. Let’s see what I can clear on the train.

Tuesday 1st June, 1.00 p.m.: The Spirit of Woodstock

Home time today. Normally I would squeeze in a one or two more before getting the train, but the current evening-centric line-up means that there’s one family events on during the day. So instead, let’s get on with reviews.

So next up is one of the most ambitious plays in the programme. It was there for the autumn fringe in September, and it’s back now for the more Woodstock-friendly weather for May and June. Billed as a semi-immersive experience, this play covers not only the three days of the ground-breaking festival of 1969, but all of the events surrounding this point in history. Race riots, political assassinations, banal TV commercials, moon landings, and in increasingly futile military operation in Vietnam all contributed to making Woodstock what it was. Jonathan Brown, performing this as a solo show for his company Something Underground, performs dozens of characters inside and outside Woodstock over the two hours of the performance.

Here’s the rub though: it feels to me as though this play is crying out for an ensemble. Although Jonathan Brown does a commendable job playing so many characters, there’s only so much one person can do before we lose track of who’s who, which characters we’ve seen before and who’s new. More importantly, however, is the immersive element. It’s a great idea to do Woodstock as an immersive play, but it’s near-impossible to pull off an immersive experience with just one person in the cast. With fellow festival goers (switch as necessary to psychotic policemen and angry mobs and so on) mingling and interacting with the cast, however, I could see the immersive element go down really well.

I am reluctant to ask someone to upscale a fringe production – there are very good reasons to opt for the security and reliability of a cast of one. The only reason I’m suggesting this here is because I know Jonathan Brown can do it – I’ve previously him direct large multi-cast plays with complex movement plot and do a slick job of it. Your call, if you want to stick with the safe option of the solo show, fair enough. It’s just that should I hear the news of this play being redone as an ensemble play, I’d find that news exciting.

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