Edinburgh Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Saturday 21st August:

And I will be back at Edinburgh Fringe tomorrow for my second visit. One housekeeping notice: I am trying to book some press tickets for The Space, but I’m having trouble getting the media ticketing system to work properly. I intend to turn up to their press office tomorrow to sort things out, but feel free to get in touch before then if you fancy sorting out the techie problems.

Before then, let’s start getting through these online reviews. I’ve just over halfway through my online review requests, which, for some reason, have made up the majority of my review requests this time round. Apart from Mustard (scroll to Wednesday 18th), here’s what else I’ve been watching.

Those People – a play about QAnon: One year ago QAnon was barely heard of – and if you had heard of it, chance are you read about it for laughs. Even the batshit delusional ramblings of the flat earthers are nothing compared to a belief that Hollywood is really all part of a Satan-worshipping cabal and Donald Trump (and someone making anonymous posts to social media called “Q”) are on a secret mission to stop it. It was only in January this year when the world discovered just how fanatical and dangerous this actually is. But a less prominent problem is the effect this has on individual families, and the pain of seeing someone you love – usually parents – lost from their own families to something that’s essentially a cult.

As someone who’s been exploring down the rabbit hole, Those People captures a lot of the aspects of QAnon. Most people know of the bollocks arguments about the election being stolen, but much of QAnon is the playbook of conspiracy culture. People who believe in QAnon tend to also believe other stupid conspiracy theories, such as the mother who falls for every get-rich-quick cryptocurrency scam. There’s the ever-promised Day of Reckoning – in this case the day St. Donald of Trumpton will reveal the indisputable evidence of Hollywood kiddy-fiddling – with the promised date forever being pushed back when it fails to happen (although, to be fair, the particular QAnon fan asked about this almost seems to wising up late in the day). Some of the rallying calls are reasonable points about hypocrisy and self-interest in mainstream politics – but the solution is always to legitimise their crazy conspiracy.

However, I felt the way the information was presented was messy. Unless you stick to one character per actor, it’s hard in verbatim theatre to keep track of who’s currently playing who, but in spite of the play being split into five parts, it seemed to jump from back and forth from aspect of QAnon to another without any clear pattern. In addition, the numerous visual aspect of the play didn’t seem to serve any purpose – although, to be fair, this is exactly the sort of staging where filming struggles to capture the intended experience. I would look at a much tighter structure of the five parts: maybe what QAnon believes, what’s wrong with it, the effect on families, getting people out (if we’re lucky), and one other. Having got this far, however, I hope they continue refining this. The one thing multi.modal.theatre have excelled at picking up on this issue before anyone else did – please persisent and make the most of your initiative.

Marrying Jake Gyllenhaal: This might not follow the strict real-life rules of verbatim theatre, but Melissa Center’s play is still very heavily inspired by real life, even to the point where her character is also called Melissa Center. She announces she’s marrying a Mr. J Gyllenhaal, and yes, we are referring to the one we starred in Brokeback Mountain and numerous other films. And this all came about from one of the many overbearing calls from her mother about why she’s not married yet, an experience everybody single over 35 has to deal with. (Well, not me, my track record is so disastrous my parents gave up on that front a long time ago, but apparently happens to everybody else.) Melissa’s Jewish mother is very keen on introducing her to a nice Jewish boy, and she met this nice Mr. and Mrs. Gyllenhaal the other day and apparently they’ve got this nice boy called Jake, he’s about your age, maybe you should meet up.

There are two parts to the play: firstly, it’s Melissa’s experiences on the dating scene after breaking up from a 10-year relationship; and secondly, it’s her attempts against all odds to snare this eligible yet near-unattainable bachelor after actually seeing him. It’s not clear exactly how much of this is autobiographical, but I get the impression that the date half is very much influenced by real events; whatever the source, it’s a string of abortive dates and relationships. If this is real life, however, it hits a problem: real life stories, even fascinating ones, does only translate well to the stage. One problem is the real life has an irritating habit of being so absurd no-one would believe it on stage; here, however, I suspect it’s the problem that real life doesn’t usually play out in a sequence that work . The ongoing reference of mum’s obsession over Melissa’s marriage (preferably Mr. G but anyone Jewish) is worked in well, but the plot amounts to little more than an unrelated series of disappointing dates. There are some promising moments of story development when a relationship turns toxic – but it ends and the story moves on before much is made of it.

If it was up to me, I would forget about being so true to life and instead take whatever liberties are needed to work in all the back-references and running themes and build narratives you need. However, I will throw in an even crazier idea: keep everything true to real events, but repackage this as a stand-up comedy routine. Serious suggestion. The strongest element of this story is surely its relatability, and relatability is one of the best tools in the more interactive environment of comedy. There again, this play is currently in the less-than-ideal environment of a filmed version with on audience. Who knows, if and when this gets performed in front of a live audience, a lot could be done with it – if Melissa Center is not afraid to make her audience part of it.

Fow: This, however, is an unexpected gem in the online programme. A few minutes into the piece, I wasn’t sure I’d loaded this correctly. There are three actors, but most of us will only understand one of them. He’s speaking about the latest instalment in his all-night computer game marathon – we don’t know what the other two are saying because one is using British Sign Language and the other is talking in Welsh. You do have the option of turning on subtitles in either English or Welsh to cover everybody, but here’s the thing: you are encouraged not to do this. The point of this play, they say, is to give the experience many deaf people have of only understanding part of what’s going on. That might be a worthy theme but surely this isn’t going to hold anyone’s attention over over 90 minutes?

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Well, hold your horses. Fow is surprisingly good. I’d assumed the whole play would be like the opening five minutes, with only one third understandable and hard luck for the other two thirds. No, it’s smarter than that. In the English-langauge experience, tidbits of info in the other two stories seep through. Siôn only speaks Welsh as a second language and the odd English phrase slips through. Lissa gives away information though visual cues. When the two of them meet on an impromptu first date, even though most of the information about how they met is missing, we can tell the date is going well. Meanwhile, we get to know more about cynical Josh, whose latest video game marathon leads to his wife throwing him out – something he seems strangely indifferent to. Even without the wizardry of filling in the cross-language gaps, Alun Saunders’ regular writing is also great, with Josh’s cynicism making him an interesting character whose motives keep you guessing to the end. And the language-related gaps in the plot are strategically filled in later in the story.

It’s not clear when this was filmed, but it could have been done in height of lockdown with the cast of three in in their homes. Rather than attempt to reconstruct a naturalistic scene, Taking Flight goes for something like Zoom, but a more comic book style. A pub scene is created by drawing pub livery over Siôn and Lissa’s frame. The only criticism I would make is that having employed that so effectively, this is not used for some later scenes where it got needlessly confusing over where we were supposed to be now. Not sure whether the actors had access to anything outdoors, but if that was available that might have helped explain which location was which.

In the interests of completeness, I should say that I don’t know what the experiences in the other languages would be – I’m assuming the Welsh audience also understand English, but it might be difficult to follow with Welsh alone. (Deaf people using BSL get the whole lot signed, which some people may argue is cheating as English and Welsh speakers only get some of this, but whatever, this is Taking Flight’s game, they make the rules.) This is a concept that works specifically for video and would not work on stage, but it is a very clever concept executed brilliants, and this is one of the most impressive achievements of this online era.

Friday 20th August:

But now we take a pause in Edinburgh coverage and turn attention to a pretty major event that’s been happening this month. There has been a resignation at one of the major drama schools over a possible scandal. I say “possible” because the investigation is still ongoing; nevertheless, Sarah Frankcom has stepped down as director of LAMDA. From what we know, the allegations in question surround bullying. It is not clear exactly what the alleged incidents are that led to the complaints, but the thing that sticks out is apparently a large number of resignations of staff. If that detail is true – and that would be easy to disprove if it wasn’t – this suggests something is going seriously wrong. What’s more, Sarah Frankcom joined as director in 2019, two years after the infamous scandal that was supposed to be the great reset for the performing arts.

Before I go on, I must state one obvious but very important point: Sarah Frankcom is innocent until proven guilty. We have already ended the careers of some people by trial by media, which wasn’t ideal, but the info that came out then was generally pretty damning. Here, we only know some broad-brush details. The other important thing is that it’s only fair to allow Frankcom the chance to defend herself. That won’t be possible until this investigation concludes and reports, one way or the other. Unless you know something about this that the rest of us don’t, you are in no position to make a pre-emptive verdict.

But the worrying trend I’m seeing here is not with her attackers, but her defenders. Don’t get me wrong: people must have the right to defend the accused. But amongst those people who I’ve seen who’ve stated support for her, the overwhelming theme is character references: they worked with her and had a nice experience, therefore – so their logic implies – she should keep her job. I find those arguments quite uncomfortable. Surely, if we should have learned one single lesson from the last four years, it is that you DO NOT EVER EVER EVER ignore or dismiss complaints over people in positions of power just because you personally had a good experience working with the accused. You have no way of knowing if your experience is shared by others, and you absolutely must not assume the complaints are false – certainly when there’s barely any details about what the complaints are.

Many of the complaints have rallied around a single blog post. I won’t link because I don’t want to start a dogpile war, but the grounds for defence there were even worse. It started off by saying that we people we admire can cause harm and complaints must be taken seriously, and rightly so – but then goes on to insinuate that the board must have had it in for her because she wants change, as if questioning the motives of those conducting the investigation invalidates the complaints. There is also outrage that The Stage was biased in their reporting, when all they did was state what the allegations were whilst making it clear they were just allegations. But plenty of figures in the arts have had allegations against them reported factually and no-one complained then. I’m really struggling to see what the difference is here, apart from partisan loyalty.

One thing I should make clear (and I’m saying this because everything else I’ve covered of this nature has involved this) is that there is no suggestion of sexual harassment – either from Frankcom herself or anybody she’s responsible for – but I we cannot relax our guard for other kinds of bullying and harassment. I suggest a valid wording of defence could be “I worked with her and did not have that experience myself. I hope she is able to clear her name.” Here, the defence is far more loaded to moral approval of her character. But we should not be judging cases according to the popularity or unpopularity of the unpopularity of the accused, we should be making judgements on facts and evidence. Every time I think the theatre world has finally made a step in the right direction in this post Weinstein era, shit like this happens that destroys my faith As long as discrimination, bullying and harassment is judged as a popularity contest, things are never going to change for the better.

Okay, rant over. Back to Fringe tomorrow.

Thursday 19th August:

Don’t go away, I have more online reviews on the way. However, before that, let’s take a look at the rise of “online theatre”, and, more specifically, online fringe.

Online theatre has been quite an unpredictable phenomenon. In the early days it hastily filled a gap left by conventional theatre, with a mixture of filmed productions from the archives, readings of scripts over platforms such as Zoom, audio plays, and the odd bit of purpose-written medium suddenly made popular out of necessity. Buxton Fringe 2020 ended up working (if not officially but in practice) as an online fringe, which many of us felt at the time worked for Buxton because of the small community that knew each other. For larger fringes where the sense of community didn’t apply, however, there was more scepticism, particularly Edinburgh. When you have to pay to see a video, and the performers in turn have to pay to be listed in the respective fringe, isn’t this just a more expensive version of Youtube?

However, online theatre has so far confounded the sceptics. It turns out that £200+ registration fees of Edinburgh haven’t driven people away, although the patronage of online Edinburgh Fringe can be partly explained by the majority of Edinburgh Fringe regulars staying at home and seeking out the next best thing. I’d say Brighton was the bigger surprise. By April it was pretty clear that Brighton Fringe was going to bounce back, but still there was a sizeable online programme, which got a lot of attention and respect in spite of most Brighton regulars having a normal enough fringe on their doorstep.

There does seem to be an all-round consensus that online theatre will never replace the real thing, but with uptick in online theatre having held out so far, will it be permanent? And will it be permanent at the fringes? There is certainly an argument that this is a good thing. For all the complaints about registration fees for online work bring a rip-off, that’s not much compared to the expense of bringing a theatre group up to Edinburgh, or even Brighton. Maybe this is a way to give entry-level artists a fair chance to be noticed without the costs of coming in person. (The small fringes already serve this purpose, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be another way.) There is also the rise of online theatre that works specifically for online, where in-person wouldn’t be the same thing. In that respect, online theatre does seem have unique uses that are outlasting its original purpose.

But, we should remember we are not back to full strength fringe yet. I can only keep up with online review requests at the moment because I’m still short of in-person events to see. That will not always be the case, and how many other people will stop watching when they have a full offline programme to choose from? So I’m going to suggest we keep an eye out for one idea doing the rounds in Brighton, maybe Edinburgh too: a separate online fringe. We don’t know if online will be squeezed out on the traditional fringes again, but perhaps there’s a space in the winter months when no-one want to traipse round different venues. Enough of the venues now have the infrastructure in place to do this if they wanted to.

Or maybe the online fringe will carry on defying expectations. All i know if that there’s countless unknown factors in play here – I haven’t even listed half the things I think could influence this. All I can say is to keep an eye out for what happens next: anyone who wishes to make a prediction is braver than me.

Wednesday 18th August – Mustard:

I’m returning to Edinburgh for visit 2 on Sunday 22nd to Tuesday 24th August. Before then, however, I’m working my way through a few online plays I’ve been asked to review. I tend to cover several in one batch, but I’m going to give some more attention to Mustard because this is the play from 2019 that I wanted to see but just couldn’t schedule in.

Mustard is without a doubt the most bizarre theme that Eva O’Connor has chosen for a play. Smearing mustard over herself is actually part of the play and not just a metaphor, but the key theme of the play – for the second time, I believe – is the effect of an unhealthy relationship. Eva’s character begins the story of getting-back-together sex with her ex-boyfriend, but it’s not long before we’re questioning whether this sex session is actually going to get them back together. We then go back to the start of their relationship. She’s trying to get by as an artist in London, he’s a quite successful (and also quite rich) professional cyclist. They meet in a pub, but sadly by the time she’s come back to his there’s already warning signs he’s not the Romeo she takes him to be. There are subtle hints he’s using her just for sex, but she ignores them – and as the play moves into strong hints, and obvious hints, they are ignored too. Until something happens that she cannot possibly ignore.

So where does the mustard-smearing fit into this. Well, my reading of this – given the emphasis on the pain part of the process – is that it’s a mild form of self-harm (in fairness to our loverat cyclist, a pre-existing addiction). It is implied that this is part of a wider self-destructive personality, even to the point of looking for a short-term disastrous relationship at the start (her cyclist boyfriend, sadly, proving far more than she bargained for when she least expected it). It’s also a vehicle for us discovering who really care for her. Cyclist’s reaction is predictably one of disgust, but there are others in her life who, misguided though their efforts may be, turn out to be her real friends.

O’Connor has also taken some themes that were weak points in earlier plays and made them a lot stronger. In her other play about a toxic relationship, The Friday Night Effect, Brian is a monster with no redeeming features, but we never saw the side of him that his abused girlfriend fell in love with. This time round, it is spelt out clearly, and things deteriorate over time, not so much through active abuse but through neglect. It’s easy for you the viewer to small a rat early on; for someone you’re in love with it’s harder to stop giving the benefit of the doubt and easier to not think about it. The other thing I thought has come a long way was the visualisation. I thought the weakness of the otherwise decent My Name is Saorise was that there wasn’t much visual about the play that contributed to the story. This time, something very relevant is worked in (and not just the mustard bit), but that would be a spoiler, but it’s suits the performance well.

I have one small concern. I’m easy-going and I promise I don’t always usually sound like a moral busybody, but I do wish it was made clear what this mustard addiction actually is. It could be a entirely product of Eva O’Connor’s imagination, or it could be something real that she researched. Either one is perfectly fine, but I do wish it was made clear which it was, even if it’s just a footnote in the programme. Medical conditions are one of the few things where I think we should be careful over inadvertently misleading people, although I’d say the risk is low here. But the play itself, for something I thought was a risky concept, has paid off. We may be none the wiser on the mustard bit, but we may be wiser spotting the early warning of when you’re being used.

Tuesday 17th August:

We’re now into week 2, which means that lots of new shows are starting, including a whole load of “second half” runs covering weeks 2 and 3. Quite a lot, so I’ll group this by venues.

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Two second-half runs have begun with Pleasance. Skank begins at Pleasance Courtyard, whilst Could it be Magic? starts at Pleasance EICC. The former play I particularly single out for the open festival culture at its best: this came out of nowhere thanks in a large part to Greater Manchester Fringe, which openly encourages people to see plays from artists they’ve never heard of at venues they’ve never been to – and it was that which catapulted it to success at Vault Festival, Brighton Fringe and – if the first night sell-out is a shape of things to come – Edinburgh Fringe. The latter I’ve listed as something different, a mixture of magic and character comedy as four magicians battle it out for a magic title – if they can manage to avoid talking too much about their broken marriages.

Over at Assembly, we have Watson: The Final Problem at Assembly Roxy, with Sherlock’s pivot showdown with his greatest foe – and an overview of the whole saga – told through the eyes of his most faithful companion. I saw this at Brighton and recommend it – this runs for this week only. Whilst at Assembly George Square it’s the world’s greatest vampire hunting / 90s rave mash-up, Police Cops: badass Be Thy Name.

And not quite started, but coming soon from Thursday at Laughing Horse Counting House is Daphna Baram: Unmuted. She braved the worst of lockdown with the hardcore-fringer-only 2020 Brighton Fringe, and took me by surprised with her unexpectedly twisted humour. That runs until the final weekend.

And on a related bit of news, Screen 9, which started last week and runs to the end of the fringe, seems to be doing exceptionally well with the press coverage. Reviews are hard to keep track of because it’s hard to tell what’s good in the current climate, but this seems to have had a lot of media attention prior to the start of the fringe. Piccolo Theatre seems to have hit upon the thing that everybody wants every fringe: the choice of subject material that grabs everyone’s interest. That largely comes down to guesswork: if we knew in advance this would grab attention we’d have had five verbatim plays on mass shootings in America. But well done Piccolo, good call. This looks set to emerge as one of Edinburgh Fringe’s big winners.

Monday 16th August:

I’ve been hanging fire on this, but we need to have a look at review coverage for Edinburgh Fringe 2021. I asked the same question for Brighton Fringe, but with only a few publications to track, it was quite easy to get the picture in the first few days. Edinburgh, however, has a lot more publications on the scene. Most annoyingly, an extremely useful web page normally produced by The List isn’t being done this year. That wasn’t perfect, but it was a useful at-a-glance resource. If anyone is aware of a good substitute, I’d be happy to know.

I’ve already said this is in relation to Brighton, but I’ll say it again: why does review coverage matter any more? The days when The Scotsman could make or break a show are long gone. Today, word of mouth and social media carries so much power you can enjoy sell-out audiences on that basis alone – and neither does a good review guarantee you a good audience. The answer is longevity.

Whether you are seeking future performances or getting people on board for new work or applying for funding, reviews are taking seriously after word of mouth praise and social media hype has died down. There are good reasons for that too. Anyone can claim everybody loved their show, and it’s not hard to flood social media with praise from their mates. Boasting good ticket sales is better, but there’s so many complications over whether those numbers mean anything it’s no reliable. But in reviews, where the performers don’t get to call the shots (or at least aren’t supposed to be able to), you’ve got something impartial and hopefully well-considered. Whether you like it or not, reviews are the main thing that gives performers a future, and the best we can do is make sure they are fair, and everyone has a fair chance to get them. Neither of these are possible, of course, if reviewers have ceased to exist.

Looking down the main publications active in 2019, this is my assessment of the state of things:

Operating business as usual: British Theatre Guide, Broadway Baby, FringeReview, The Wee Review, The Guardian, The Scotsman, Three Weeks, The Wee Review.

Noticeably reduced review coverage: Chortle (seems to be only be covering part festival), The List, One4Review (part festival?), The Skinny, The Stage (mostly a round-up from Fergus Morgan in the first weekend).

Coverage but not reviews: The Independent.

Active but not covering Edinburgh Fringe: WhatsOnStage.

On pause: Fest (no Edinburgh 2021 coverage, but a little What’s on from Adelaide Fringe 2021).

Gone for good?: Edinburgh Festivals Magazine (404 error), Edinburgh Guide (403 error), Short Com (domain bought by weird promotional site for some arthritis gel).

It’s difficult to translate this into review coverage per show, but with a roughly 80% reduction in shows to review I’d say there’s enough surviving websites to go round. I’m more interested in what happens in 2022. Will reviewer recover as fast as shows do? In 2019, there was an average of one and a bit reviews per shows (as counted by The List), but with many shows having everybody reviewing, there were also a fair number that got none. If reviews don’t recover, there could still be a situation in the next few years where far more shows got no reviews. And if you invested thousands on the hope of that, we could have a problem.

Sunday 15th August – Myra’s story:

Time for a final review of visit 1. This is another one at the Assembly’s Spiegeltent in George Square. This time, we are introduced to Myra, starting her day being turfed out the hostel. She won’t be going back this evening because the hostel doesn’t take people who are paralytic, and Myra is spending the day begging for money that she insists is for anything but booze even thought it obviously is. The reason she drinks, she say, is to forget who she is, or more accurately, what she once was. Like many homeless people, she could try harder to get herself out of the state she’s in, but she doesn’t because she’s given up. When you hear her story, you’ll understand why.

Myra goes back to when she was sixteen, happily courted in Dublin by her husband-to-be. Her father isn’t keen on the idea of a teenage wedding, but he’s in a poor position to argue because he is a not-that-secretive alcoholic and Myra spends more time looking after him than he does for her. The two of them marry and move in together and get by with a rag-tag bunch of friends with an assortment of petty vices but their hearts in the right place. I wondered if this was going to be a domestic violence case in waiting – a man who does no work but his poetry seems like a warning sign – but that turns out to be a red herring. Her useless husband pulls his socks up when a child’s on the way. She’s seen first-hand what the demon drink does to people. It’s going to take a lot more to push her off the rails. But we know the worst does happen, and whilst it’s not too difficult to guess what happens in the end, when it comes, it hits hard.

Brian Foster’s play is well-written and Fionna Hewitt performs it well, and there’s no weak link anywhere in the 90 minutes. There is just one problem: the tale of a homeless person revealing how he or she got into the situation they’re in is one of the most over-used tropes in theatre. As such, this play struggles to stand out from all the other plays with the same story. The closest this gets to an original stamp is the backdrop of Ireland at the worst of The Troubles, but whilst this played a role in Myra’s descent, it was only incidental. I wonder if this could have had more individuality with a tighter integration into one of Ireland’s more turbulent points of history. That wouldn’t have been easy, but it had been pulled off it would have taken this play up another level.

However, it is only fair to judge this play on what it was meant to achieve. It gives a story with understanding and compassion it deserves, and succeeds on those fronts. Myra’s Story might not excel that much on originality, but then, it should be of little surprise if so many people want to speak out on this.

Saturday 14th August:

Now for a brief look away from Edinburgh. As we have already seem, after all the barriers put in Edinburgh Fringe’s way. they are having a good relaunch. Brighton and Buxton have also had good fringes. But the West End is a different matter completely. Fair dos, the West End has been bolder than many of their regional counterparts and got started from the word go, but they have been plagued with cancellations. Not because of audience problems – there doesn’t seem to be any problem selling enough tickets to be viable – but with the performers. Just one covid infection can send the entire cast of a large-scale musical into self-isolation. Fringe productions haven’t been immune from this – boy, I could tell you about the battle I had to save my Durham Fringe play, and I don’t believe I’m alone here – but actual cancellations have been far and few between.

This ties into the thorny subject of government-back cancellation insurance. We owe a lot to the brave souls who staked a lot of money on getting venues and events and plays up and running in the face of the biggest financial risks, but as we are seeing, the West End now is not having the same luck at the Warren Outdoors this time last year. We cannot expect people to carry on risking money like this, and sooner or later the people with the purse strings are going to cut their losses and stop investing in a climate of such poor prospect. Less investment means less theatre, and the consequences of less theatre are obvious. You could do a lot to keep the money flowing with a way of mitigating the risk, which is where cancellation insurance comes in.

Unfortunately, details have just been announced and the mood is the West End’s not happy with it (£). Sometimes you need to be sceptical out reaction from the theatre industry – there are certainly some people who would disagree with the Tories no matter what – but the people unhappy now are generally the same people who were positive about last year’s cultural recovery fund. Most notably: there does not appear to be any cover for cancellations due to isolation, which is exactly the problem facing the West End at the moment.

That said, I do wonder if the West End was wise to go for a relaunch that didn’t seem to have any resilience built in. I remember last year, when The Warren Outdoors was heavily dependent on Shit-Faced Shakespeare to make the event worthwhile, hearing that there was an entire backup cast ready should anyone in the main cast get infected. Obviously, an entire backup cast is not nearly so viable in a full-scale West End musical – but should it have been full-scale? Would it have been safer to stage smaller productions that could cope with these setbacks? In fairness to the West End, at the time they were planning this, no-one was expected a fourth wave of infections or a pingdemic, but even then, projects such as Cinderella on the most lavish of scales seems like a crazy gamble to have taken and lost.

There is a counter-argument though. Maybe the reason the West End went for such big (and risky) productions was because they had no choice. It could well be that the finances are in such a dire state they simply can’t survive on the modest income of a show small enough to have a B cast on standby. If that’s the case, they’re in an even more dire state now. For the crisis that’s been facing the festival fringes over the past year, it looks like the worst is over. The crisis facing the West End may only just be beginning.

Friday 13th August:

It’s Friday 13th, which means several things. Firstly, if you are planning to go off for any hedonistic partying in a remote location including drugs and skinny-dipping, best to wait until Saturday 14th.

richard-sheltonApart from that, we’re approaching the end of week 1, which is also the end of a lot of runs. There is a complex pattern over who is and isn’t running the full length of the fringe, but a lot of venues are splitting this into two halves, with one batch of shows running weeks zero and one, and the other batch running in weeks two and three. This means that for Zumba Gold (Pleasance Courtyard) and Sinatra Raw (Pleasance EICC), both of which I saw during the fringe and loved, you have until Sunday to catch it. There’s a couple of short runs from my pre-fringe recommendations also finishing this week: the funny and surprisingly intelligent Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho (Underbelly George Square) and the funny and silly audience interaction-heavy The Importance of Being … Earnest? (Pleasance EICC).

The other thing we are headed towards is weekend 2, and the big question is whether there will be a repeat of a sell-out across the board like weekend 1. The would be an excellent result for the Edinburgh Fringe (although not so much for any punters intending to turn up and buy a ticket). Looking at the ticket sales now, there do seem to be some shows sold out on Saturday or Sunday or both, but it’s difficult to tell if this is the same effect of supply/demand out of kilter like last weekend, or if these were just the shows that would have sold out anyway. There should be more capacity this weekend than last weekend with a relaxation of social distancing rules, so you could still sell more tickets than last time without a sell-out, but if the sell-out across the board does happen, that will be a champagne moment.

Thursday 12th August:

Now let’s take a look at something that’s not gone so well at Edinburgh: the reliance on a website-only programme. All of the main fringes this year have opted to do without paper programmes this year, and as they all had plenty of last-moment registrations and cancellations to deal with, it was probably the only way they could have done it. However, relying on a website alone have proven troublesome. The experience at Brighton has quickly led to a consensus that they’d like the paper programme back, and the mood at Edinburgh hasn’t been much better.

Different people have different experiences, but these are the issues I’ve found with Edinburgh Fringe website:

  • Searching for shows on a a particular day/time is unreliable. For example, if you are searching for a show at 6 p.m. today, you can get a match on a show on at 3 p.m. today and 6 p.m. tomorrow.
  • The filter for online v in-person isn’t easy to find. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, a search for in-person shows on today are drowned out by online shoes that you can see today or any other day.
  • It is implied that online on-demand shows are shown throughout the fringe, but at one show I’ve been requested a review from turns out to not start until later in the fringe.
  • The online venue map is difficult to read. Please, if you’re going to do this, don’t use Google Map with their absurd choice of white, light yellow and light grey colour scheme – use the vastly superior and more legible OpenStreetMap.
  • There is no daily guide. Admittedly Edinburgh’s not had an official one for a few years now, but it wasn’t so much of an issue when there were dozens of shows to choose from in the next few minutes. I find the best way to plan a day is a list of what’s on in chronological order, but there’s nowhere to view that.

The other issues aren’t things a paper programme would solve, but were nonetheless annoying.

  • The are numerous ways you can navigate to a page for a play that says tickets are available, only to be refused a sale when you try to book. Reasons can include: today shown as on sale on the play page showing as sold out on the booking page; tickets only being available for an earlier performance in the day that’s already come and gone, saying there’s no allocations when you try to select a number of tickets (even one), and everything going fine until you actually go to the basket page.
  • The edfringe page can tell you that they have “no allocation” (but not sold out) and advise you to ask at the venue – but the venue in turn tells you to check the fringe website. It would be a lot easier if you could just say so when you’re sold out.

Personally, I would look at a tighter integration of design of the website and app. The app’s old “nearby and now” features would be handy on the website – surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to have the same features on both?

To be fair, this hasn’t been the first time I’ve struggled with tickets. The Vault Festival was surprisingly disorganised in its early days, and Brighton Fringe in to early 2010s was a confusing mess of fringe versus venue allocations – and neither of them had the excuse of a pandemic to contend with. But if Edinburgh Fringe is hoping to dispense with the paper programme for good – and I gather some people would like to dispense with that expense – the experience of the first weekend suggests they’re nowhere near ready for that.

Wednesday 11th August – Under Milk Wood, semi-skimmed:

Time to catch up on another review, not that I have much to add to this that hasn’t been said already. Guy Masterson’s rendition of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem is a long-running show that has been heavily reviewed, although I hadn’t quite realised how long it’s been running. This, I gather, is his 27th consecutive fringe doing this show. He didn’t perform last year with an outright cancellation of all Edinburgh festivals, but I think it was a safe bet that if anybody was going to plough on in the face of Covid uncertainty and ever-changing stupid rules, it would be him.

There’s really only one think you need to know about Guy Masterson’s take, and it’s that this is a labour of love for him, both the Dylan Thomas poem and doing it at the Edinburgh Fringe. If you can, it’s good to watch this in conjunction with his companion show Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, because that says a lot about both the style of Dylan Thomas that fed into his most celebrated work, and Guy Masterson’s own personal affinity to the story. As for the performance itself – I’ve seen various stage versions of Under Milk Wood performed where the characters of sleepy Welsh village Llareggub are acted out with a little as two in the cast, but when it’s one person it very much stays as a poetry performance.

Even so, Guy Masterson supplements his performance lighting and an exquisite musical score. Without the mutli-part acting seen in most stage versions, there is a lot more focus on listing to Thomas’s words, so you will have to concentrate a bit more, but there’s some gems to pick up. One thing I’d never really registered before is how Blind Captain Cat (the only costume change in Masterson’ version, as he put on dark glasses) know how’s passing by from his other senses – and in the case of local lady of ill-repute Polly Garter – recognises her from the silence of the other townsfolk.

So it is such a pity that I have to take issue with something that was not the fault of the performer at all, but nonetheless reduced by enjoyment. In what should have been some of the most poignant moments of the performance with music to match, it was overpowered by a boom-boom-boom-boom from the loudspeakers outside. Using my detective work, I think the culprit may have been not Assembly, who was hosting the show, but Underbelly George Square next door. Whatever the source, that was particularly inconsiderate. There was no need to do that – okay, Assembly and Underbelly in their George Square sites are doubling up as drinking destinations, but most pubs don’t find it necessary to play obtrusive music as early as 9 o’clock in the evening. Also, I was under the impression that the Big Four were getting financial support as cultural attractions, not drinking attractions.

I’m not going to make a big deal out of this, because this is a temporary situation that shouldn’t apply next year, but a little more consderation for your neighbours (both neighbouring venues and actual neighbours) goes a long way and costs nothing.

Tuesday 10th August:

We are now into week one of Edinburgh Fringe (the established term for the first Friday-Sunday and the previews in the days before that being “week zero”). With that we have the first two plays on my list of picks coming into play.

Screen 9 is probably the most interesting play starting off. This verbatim theatre of the not-terribly-cheery subject of mass shootings in America. Written in conjunction with American support group Survivors Empowered, it seeks to give a voice to the victims rather than focus on the killer – unfortunately, one side-effect of this is despairing over the apparent inability of anyone in America to learn the obvious lesson. This runs from now until the end of the fringe (except Mondays) at Pleasance EICC, with this week’s performances at 8.30.

Alternatively, if that sounds too heavy for you, at the complete opposite end of the scale is The Importance of Being … Earnest? Like the Oscar Wilde play, except that the actor playing Jack aka Earnest hasn’t showed up so it’s up to someone in the audience to step in – and eventually, as the rest of the cast drop out, the entire audience (pretty much) is brought on stage. Also expect plenty of liberties with the storyline, but you weren’t coming for the authentic Oscar Wilde experience, were you? Also at Pleasance EICC this week only, mostly at 2.30, with an extra 6.30 on Saturday.

I’ve almost got my recommendations ready and should have them done by this evening, by the way. Sorry for the delay.

The other thing to keep an eye out this week is how ticket sales compare to last week, especially the weekend. Last weekend practically sold out across the board, but this weekend will be difficult to predict because of changes in social distancing rules. The echo what Brian Ferguson said: the state of the fringe at the end of the festival will be just as important as the state at the start.

Monday 9th August:

But wait! Regulars to my Edinburgh Fringe coverage will notice something is missing. We haven’t had our Fringe shenanigans yet. One might have thought that in this particular year, where the future of the fringe is under threat, and in turn one of the biggest contributors to Edinburgh’s economy, this might be a good idea for everyone to forget their differences and work together to find a solution. One might also have though that with Edinburgh Fringe only a shadow of its former presence, the fringe-haters might take a break for a moment. But no. The Cockburn Association (or, to give its full title “the fucking Cockburn Association”) has no intention of giving it a rest.

I fear that the falling through the Underbelly Big Top on The Meadows (or, in their words “privatisation” of a public space), far from prompting them to claim victory and rest on their laurels, has emboldened them to go after the rest of the fringe with even more outlandish claims. The latest bout of fearmongering is to point out that Liverpool lost is status as World Heritage Site – they don’t claim the same is going to happen to Edinburgh, rather just insinuate it very strongly, as if some temporary hoardings over some buildings one month every year is remotely comparable to the demolition of historic buildings in Liverpool docks.

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Make no mistake: this is textbook nimbyism. It seems (well, it’s blindingly obvious) the people running the Cockburn Association don’t enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe and therefore hold the position that nobody else should be allowed to enjoy it. In true nimby style, they are plucking any argument they can think of for why the fringe is bad for Edinburgh, with seemingly no consistency to their position. The Cockburn Association doesn’t object to pop-up venues for the International Festival, which has nice things such as classical music and poetry and opera, and when they disparity was pointed out to them, they dismissed as different with no explanation why. They are concerned about health and well-being when it suits them – they never stop banging on about the the life-saving benefits of open spaces during a pandemic – but the outdoor tables of pubs which are also saving lives in a pandemic are unacceptable to them because It Doesn’t Look Nice.

But … it is very important we do not take the bait here. The Cockburn Association’s ability to make big issues out of things that aren’t a problem to anyone is only matched by their uncanny ability to ignore all the things that are problems, of which there are many – but we should not ignore the valid problems other people are making. Flavia D’Avilia, who wrote a guest post for me a few years ago, has a pretty good list of issues we should be taking seriously. We shouldn’t allow these issues to be drowned out by the stupid objections of the people the loudest.

The good news as the the Edinburgh Fringe has refused to take the bait. If the Cockburn Association are desperate to turn this into a binary conflict of fringe haters wanting no fringe and fringe lovers wanting to return to uncontrolled growth, Shona McCarthy has categorically rejected it. She’s stated that there are real issues that need to be considered – we can debate how good she is at addressing these later, but acknowledging that there are issue to be addressed and the Cockburn Association doesn’t speak for all fringe sceptics is a start. What’s more, in a rare display of unity, Fergus Linehan from the Edinburgh International Festival has stood shoulder-to-shoulder and said virtually the same thing. If the Cockburn Association were hoping go have the EIF on their side, it hasn’t worked. So please don’t lose sight of the urgent need to address the relationship between the fringe and the city – but I still vote we tell the Cockburn Association to fuck off.

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