Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2021

There’s a Ghost in my House, Between Two Waves, About the Garden, The Tragedy of Dorian Gray, Watson: the Final Problem; The Spirit of Woodstock; The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007; The Doll Who Came To Tea; Polly: A Drag Rebellion; Crime Scene Improvisation; Clean: The Musical; Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name; The Importance of Being … Earnest?; The Sensemaker

Right. Better get a move on with these. I have had the excuse of having my hands full with four fringes in three months, but it’s now October. So let’s begin with Brighton. And, boy, what a festival they had.

The year began on tenterhooks when it became unclear whether live performances would be allowed in May at all. Brighton Fringe opted to postpone itself by three weeks, so that the fringe would take place over mostly June instead of May. In the end, that turned out to be a very good call. With the go-ahead for live performances turning out to be only 11 days before the start of the fringe, to festival turned into a big celebration of the arts getting going again. I don’t have definitive figures for how this compares to a normal year, but by all account the level of business was excellent, for both the acts taking part and the social aspect of the Warren and Spiegeltent’s bars.

The only dampener on this success is that it could have been even more earth-shattering. In spite of some very last-minute organisation, Brighton Fringe managed to be about 50% of its normal size, give or take a bit depending on whether you count online. But it was during June when serious questions were being raised over whether its Edinburgh counterpart would go ahead at all, owing to some absurd restrictions in Scotland specifically applied to the performing arts. With a very late go-ahead, and Edinburgh’s programme announced towards the end of Brighton Fringe, the jaw-dropping news was that it was less than a third the size of Brighton’s. In the end, Edinburgh pipped Brighton into the lead at the last moment – the Big Four venues programmed themselves very late on – but the fact that a half-size Brighton Fringe was two weeks away from taking the title as Britain’s largest fringe is staggering.

However – even when it looked when Brighton might snatch the top spot – there has been little interest in competing with Edinburgh on this suddenly-level playing field. The focus has been entirely of getting Brighton Fringe back to where it was: a festival open to all but primarily drawing in talent from the south coast. And so, one of the things I need to get back to is talking about the plays. But before we do that, there’s a few things about the fringe as a whole to catch up on.

What went down at Brighton Fringe

Going into the fringe, it was already clear a few things would be different. Apart from the postponement, we also had a socially distanced version, with a lot of credit to Sweet Venues and The Warren for pioneering the indoor and outdoor performances respectively last year. The other notable difference was the Warren and Spiegeltent opting to run six weeks instead of four, and The Warren continuing into the summer with a reprise of The Warren Outdoors (now The Warren on the Beach).

IMG_2276A lot of questions were around how much of a the fringe would get back to business. In the end, it was back pretty much across the board. Most of the major reviewing publications stepped back into actions (some people might consider this obsolete in an age of social media publicity, but believe me, it matters a lot to performers proving to programmers and funders that they’re any good). One small but crucial detail was that The Rialto was back in business as a venue. As the venue that didn’t re-open last year, and missed out on the cultural recovery fund, there were worries they might be gone for good. As one of Brighton’s “Big Four” (if you count Warren, Sweet and Spiegeltent as the others), I believe it would have been a big loss not only to Brighton but to fringe theatre nationally. So a big sigh of relief there.

Online theatre persisted longer than many people expected. This was a very popular move at a time when there were no theatres open, or few theatres open and few willing to go to them, but the conventional expectation is that this would be just a stop-gap. However, the 2021 online programme was bigger than 2020’s, with two new online platforms (The Space and Living Record) joining SweetStream. Between them, the three platforms made up about a third of the programme. Part of the reason may have been the difficulty of getting in-person shows running at short notice. On that note, the in-person presence varied a lot between categories, with comedy dominating, and only just enough theatre to keep fringe theatre fans busy. This may have been that stand-up comedians can hit the ground running, but restarting a play from zero is slower business. The big question now is whether demand for an online fringe persists as fringe return to full strength or thereabouts.

However, it wasn’t quite as earth-shattering as it might have been. Apart from the question of whether Edinburgh would lose its lead to Brighton, there was the extended season into the summer. Last year, The Warren Outdoors pulled off a major coup by snapping up loads of big-name comedians with nowhere else to perform. This time round they didn’t manage quite so stellar a line-up – even with Edinburgh Fringe 2021 written off by most stand-ups, The Warren didn’t have a monopoly on summer festivals. I guess the interesting question now is whether Warren on the Beach (along with Assembly Coventry, Pleasance London and so on) decides it’s worthwhile to carry on into 2022 and beyond when Edinburgh picks up again.

One final note is that Brighton Fringe generally adapted quite well to social distancing, and arguably set a blueprint for Edinburgh. It wasn’t universal; some venues I felt were sloppier than others, but to be fair even the worst offenders weren’t a big deal compared to pubs and nightclubs.If the worst comes to the worst and social distancing continues to be needed into next year, I’m confident the fringes will be able to handle it, and a lot of thanks will be due to Brighton for working out how to do it.

But that’s enough of an overview. Let’s get back to business and round up the reviews.

Pick of the fringe:

Now that there are enough plays on offer, I can go back to picking out a top tier of plays into pick of the fringe. Now, to answer a question some of you are wondering: with so many reviewers highlighted for being generous in these difficult times for actors, am I being more generous here? The answer is yes and no. This top tier has always been the best of what I saw at the time, and lately the bar for Edinburgh Fringe has been exceptionally high, such being the standards. That said, I’d say off-hand for Brighton Fringe the standards needed for Pick of The Fringe are about the same as a normal year.

As always, a lot of these reviews are restatements of my live coverage, with a few rough edges filed off. Here are the plays that impressed me the most:

There’s a Ghost in My House

I rarely look at the background of a writer when reviewing a play, but on this occasion it’s very relevant. The most famous – or should I say notorious – ghost programme is Most Haunted, which was so staged and so laughable there’s even an in-joke that you can convince your children there’s no such thing as ghosts by showing them this programme. But before Most Haunted, the BBC once attempted to take the subject seriously, with a live show trying to resolve strange lighting and patterns in white noise. And it is the ongoing bugbear of Simon Moorhead, who produced Ghostwatch Live that the TV industry spurned this in favour Yvette Fielding screaming every three minutes

883827db-0b4f-401f-938a-bac2bc4d5b45In this story, Emily Carding plays Sam, a producer of a programme of a similar slow-burning style. It’s been running for a few years successfully enough, but unfortunately Sam’s just got a new boss who’s unhappy that the programme is too boring and not enough like her own series, Celebrity Ghostbusters. Sam weighs up options. Fight, submit, or look through footage of a programme for a compromise? But tonight a ghost will visit – just not the kind Sam makes programmes about.

There are two things about the play that stand out. Emily Carding’s acting skills are reputedly phenomenal, and they come to the fore here. Whist trying to work a way out, Sam keeps getting spammed by a phone call about an accident that’s not your fault. Meanwhile the same woman appears in the footage she looks through, and the way Sam takes to the bottle in reaction to both gives away that her metaphorical ghost is the memory of someone lost. And the other that that was the staging. Often I have praised a particular aspect of the staging, but this time I loved everything about it. Many people are raving about the TV footage, put together by Moorhead from a mixture of real footage and bespoke video for this play, but the thing I don’t think has been appreciated so much is the set. The background of an office wall may look decorative, but when you look closer, every item you see has something to do with the story.

If I had to pick out a weakness, I wasn’t sure what, if anything, this play had to say about ghosts. There were two promising leads over the repeated accident spam calls, and footage that didn’t seem to belong on the old tape – but neither of those escalated into the supernatural. Maybe it was a missed opportunity, maybe there was a good reason why not to go down this route. But I do feel it would have been good for the play to explore Sam’s own outlook on ghosts, and doing these programmes in the first place. Is this really a quest to reconnect with a lost beloved woman? But in a play this ambitious and complex, I’d have been surprised if there wasn’t an opportunity to do better somewhere. Good opening for Sweet as both the venue and the producing company, and impressive work from manager JD Henshaw.

Between Two Waves

I apologise for describing Unmasked Theatre’s play with the most over-used phrase in the history of reviewing, but I can’t think of a better description. The play is thought provoking. The main theme of the play is climate change. It is 2023 and Daniel is making an insurance claim following a record-breakingly catastrohpic flood. Daniel is not too concerned about his expensive designer/sustainably-sourced furniture: he has two worries. One is if his insurance policy will cover the cost of recovering vital climate science data he has on his flooded disks, The other is that, if he is correct, this flood is nothing compared to what’s round the corner.

But whilst climate change may be the central theme this this play, it doesn’t drive the story. The politics behind persuading world governments to change their ways features, but that’s only a small part of the play. No, the driving force behind this play is the character of Daniel. He lives and breathes climate data. One effect of this is that is naivety when science crosses into politics – data is little use against rhetoric if you’re not prepared. Daniel can learn to fight those battles better, but what he can never learn to do is switch off. And the data terrifies him. When he meets quirky Fiona, the eternal optimist, things are looking up. Perhaps they have what it takes to keep each other in check. Or perhaps their difference will ultimately be too much when it comes to the crunch.

The characterisation of play is excellent, and cast of four do a good job, each understand well what makes them tick. One thing I felt was overdone was Daniel’s awkwardness around women – that’s an over-used theatrical device and we got the message in half the time – that that’s just a personal preference. The play is transplanted from Australia to the UK, and one small giveaway is the references to the jobs that stand to be lost in fossil fuels: an issue Down Under, but not in a country whose fossil fuel industry is on the way out – but you’d have to be really pedantic to notice that. Some XR types might prefer a play that spells out visions of doom non-stop for an hour, but if you’re serious about reaching to people – which I suspect Ian Meadows is – this is a lot more effective. Good all-rounder to open the Rialto’s season.

About the Garden

IMG_2533Most of Brighton Fringe may have drifted away from Hove, but one group who never changes and almost always chooses Hove is Wired Theatre. Wired Theatre skipped 2020, but the original May slot and postponed October spot, but with presumably jabs all around they are back in action. Denied the opportunity to do their usual play inside someone’s house, director Sylvia Vickers has opted to perform a play in her own garden. Although this means that Wired Theatre have had to go easy on their signature site-specific format, this makes strong use of their time-jumping story lines which you get used to with Wired Theatre.

For anyone new to Wired Theatre, this play served as a good introduction. The first part of the play is almost a farce, except that farces usually explain how the ridiculous situations arise. Here, it all gets pretty random: a man gets into a petty argument with his upstairs neighbour over who’s allowed access to his garden under terms of the lease. More and more people start appearing, from alcoholic spurned lovers to mothers of work colleagues, and just when the whole concept ceases to make any sense … it all starts coming together again. The characters act of snippets from key moments of their lives. Bizarre actions made in the present day start to make sense. Youthful mistakes becomes millstones of a lifetime. True colours of some characters hidden away are revealed.

There is an opportunity for reconciliation at the end. The only loose end that didn’t feel properly tied up was a the secret one character disclosed over what really happened driving his car one night – the confession was a pretty big deal, and one would think we’d want to know what happened next there. But on the whole, there is a nice symmetry to this play, the way is almost descends into nonsense by the halfway point before putting itself back together again.

The Tragedy of Dorian Grey

Full-length plays used 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-rounders of the fringe.

dorian-gray-harry-and-dorian-contemplate-the-painting-p-e1624055642502Blue 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.

The 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 gay men (both in and 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 is still be a life-destroying offence. The other notable change is the role of the female characters. Mavis Ruxton is a new character: 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. See it and you won’t be disappointed.

Watson: The Final Problem

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

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

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

There is the odd giveaway that this play has its origins as an audio drama. This play was in fact an audio drama before it was a stage play (as a Covid precaution), and co-writer Bert Coules did in fact once dramatise the entire Sherlock canon on Radio 4, so it’s maybe the format’s not too surprising. What it does mean is that the play is highly monologue based – and, to be honest, you could watch the play with your eyes closed and not miss that much. Who knows, there may have been opportunities to make this more effective visually. But it doesn’t matter that much. The monologue is strong enough to sustain the play without needing much extra.

Honourable mention

So, if the bar hasn’t been lowered for Pick of the Fringe, is it being lowered for Honourable Mention? I did consider doing this – everybody who braved the uncertainty and took part this year has my respect. However, in the end I decided to stick to my base principle of only reviewing when I’m able to be at least one of positive or constructive. So this is not a bottom tier – everything listed here has something I like about it.

The Spirit of Woodstock

This was undoubtedly one of the most ambitious productions in the programme. It was there for the autumn fringe in September 2020, and it was back in 2021 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 (switching 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.

The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007

This was officially under the Comedy section, but it could easily have been under Theatre. 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_-york_gc_00270Annabel 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 turns 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.

The Doll Who Came To Tea

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 her 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 inner 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 as, if not 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.

Polly, a drag rebellion

This is the first time I’ve reviewed 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.

dscf7737This 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 performances to be more beard-themed or mass murder/regicide themes, this is the show for you.

Crime Scene Improvisation

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.

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. 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.

Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name

The third installment of the Police Cops trilogy continues the Pretend Men’s format of trying to condense as many cliches as possible into a single hour, this time going for as many tropes involving vampires and unlikely mentor/apprentice pairings. Only this time, our hero is the opposite of the trope, a raver from the 1990s in Madchester. Stuck in his monotonous dead-end job, he suddenly sees vampires, and a mysterious vampire slaying priest (not samurai) slaying them. How come he see them when no-one else can? Will this tie in with the unexplained disappearance of his father? Will the priest have a surname of “Badass” in order create an incredibly corny double-meaning of the title of this play? (In case you haven’t work it out, those are all rhetorical questions.)

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

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

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

The Importance of Being … Earnest?

This one is slightly complicated I saw this online, but not an online version available to the public. This play from Say it Again, Sorry? was supposed to be available as both a live performance and an online one, but, for some reason, the online version didn’t work out. However, they did send me a recorded version on a performance of the play from 2019, and having already said I’d review the online one, I decided to go ahead.

The first thing I will say about this is: don’t watch this online, watch it live, because this is a very heavily interactive show where you really need to be in the audience to experience this. But, that said, I’d rate this as the strongest of the six online pieces I saw. The premise starts off quite simply: Algernon and Lane are doing the opening for Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, when the door opens and in walks Earnest aka Jack – except that he’s not turned up to the play. How can the show go on? The answer, of course, is to get a random member of the audience to step in.

Say It Again Sorry also play fast and loose with the original script, so Lady Bracknell now asks Earnest/Jack/audience member to rate on a scale of 1-10 his ability to give Gwendolynn a good seeing-to, and there’s also a swasbuckling swordfight added in (just because). But why settle for one stand-in when you can have more stand-ins for alcoholic Gwendolynn, and Lady Bracknell who refuses to work with amateurs, half a dozen hastily-added butlers, and – eventually – the entire remaining audience as wedding guests (just because). You get the idea. But this madcap play works tightly and deals with unpredictable audience interact well to make it a lot of fun. But if you see it, see it in person.

For the other online plays I saw, you can see my roundup on my live coverage, scrolling to 1st-2nd July.

Open verdict:

After giving this a lot of thought, I have decided to add a review of one more play that I did not cover at the time. I didn’t cover it at the time because I honestly didn’t know what to make of it – and even now, I can’t decide. There would be two easy wats out of this. One would be to just not review it; the other would be to co-opt the opinions of the other reviews (which it’s only fair to say are overwhelmingly positive) and pass them off as my own. But that would be cheating, wouldn’t it? So, here, instead, is the best oi can do to explain how I’ve arrived at deadlock.

The Sensemaker

Elsa Couvreur plays an unspecified woman dialling an unspecified number for an unspecified request. We never find out any of these details, but the one thing we will all recognise is the eternal wait through the automated answering system. In this case, it’s a bittone version of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. It’s not clear whether this was chosen because it was one of the themes from A Clockwork Orange, but if that was deliberately picked as an Easter Egg, well done. In this case, any insanity induced will be though the eternal tedium of waiting to be picked up and put through to … yet another set of automated instructions.

However, this set of automated instructions is more nefarious than most. When the reassuringly soft voice isn’t saying “good”, she’s giving increasingly strange requests, with one of the signs of where things are going being that, for quality purposes and to ensure maximum customer satisfaction, this call is being … filmed. One small change I would make to this is that I would cut the expressive dance sequence near the beginning – it wasn’t clear how this added to the rest of the play, and although part of the humour is the sluggish pace of waiting for the next instruction, I don’t think it helps to drag down the pace further. However, passing time by dancing to the increasingly catchy Bittone Beethoven was a comedic highlight of the play.

So, now for the contentious bit. Those of you who’ve seen it will have already guessed which bit it is. If you haven’t, apologies that the rest of the review won’t make much sense, but I think it’s better if you don’t know the spoiler (and it’s better if you can avoid the content warnings that give the game away). What I can say is that’s not comfortable viewing, nor is it meant to be. It’s an instruction that cannot be avoided however hard you try, and any automated voice is impossible to reason with.

I am of the firm view that any kind of material – no matter how offensive, crass or uncomfortable – can have a place in a story, provided it is justified by the context. And it’s fair to say without this, it would be a different story. But here’s the difficulty. I cannot say that this is justified by the context, neither can I say it doesn’t. Why? Because the theme of this play is satire, and the most surrealistic kind of satire. It is normal for this satire to be vague about what’s going on, but here it raises questions. Our heroine has in surrealistic satirical fashion, breezed effortlessly through the automated system, inexplicably remembering 87-digit codes and intricate dance sequences on the first try, and yet doesn’t know what’s coming. That doesn’t make sense. But is it meant to meant sense? What does this mean for my principle of context justifying material.

For once, I give up. I have racked my brains for all precedents set by my previous reviews and nothing has pushed me one way or the other. So there’s plenty of other reviews to go on if you want a yes or no answer. But from me, for once, an open verdict. Sorry.

And that’s Brighton Fringe 2021, breaking all sorts of precedents. Join me next May, when we will find out if Brighton surprises us further or goes back to a safe and predictable business as usual. Bye.

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