Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

Very depleted What's On board

Skip to: Zumba Gold, Sinatra: Raw, Under Milk Wood, Shook, Northanger Abbey, Skank, Mustard, Fow, The Little Glass Slipper, Mimi’s Suitcase, Myra’s Story, The Event, Madhouse, Patricia Gets Ready, Fear of Roses, Brave Face, On Your Bike

And a final catchup of reviews before we go into the Christmas & New Year period, it’s the Edinburgh Fringe. Most of what you saw here was already in my live coverage, so all that remains here is to put this is some sort of order for posterity.

Credit where it is due. The Edinburgh Fringe held its nerve and salvaged a festival of sorts long after almost everybody had written it off for a second year running. Whilst festivals in England such as Brighton and Buxton were bouncing back, in Scotland there was a ridiculous rule that theatre – and only theatre – had to have a two-metre distance. The reason why this rule didn’t apply to pubs in spite of pubs being a far greater danger was never explained, leading some people to suspect live events were being targetted on purpose as some sort of “bleeding stump” tactic. But at the last moment a bailout from the Scottish Government and, to a lesser extent, a relaxation of the rules (lesser extent because the big venues had factored in two metres by this point), allowed something to go ahead.

Inevitably, a last-minute fringe could only be a fraction of the size of a normal year. By registrations, it was 20% of a normal year, but many of those were online (more on this later), and those that were in person rarely ran the full festival. As a result, the number of performances of offer each day were tiny compared to before times when you’d have a choice things available in walking distance in the next ten minutes. The audience numbers also plummeted, with those present generally being the hard-core regulars who were determined to be there no matter what.

But – and this is the big but – audience numbers did not fall as much as performance numbers. As a result, the numbers per performance were generally excellent. In 2019, selling a third of your tickets was considered reasonably good – my own observation, backed up by available stats, however, suggested that three quarters full was more the norm here, from the biggest names to the humblest beginners. I suspect a lot of punters who’d decided against taking a play to Edinburgh this year are now wishing they hadn’t. I’m one of those people. The only down-side is that there were times when finding a ticket for anything was a nightmare.

I will eventually get on to the reviews of the plays I managed to see. But before that, let’s go into detail about what Edinburgh Fringe 2021 was like.

What went down in August 2021

Most of what I write here is a summary of my preview and live coverage. I will just summarise things here – if you want to check further, you can go to the relevant part of those articles. The headlines are:

Social distancing: The major venues (including the Big Four, The Space and Summerhall) took a sensible approach of baking in social distancing into their plans. With only a fraction of the acts expected compared to a normal year, it made sense to have one or two big spaces per location instead of 10+ small spaces. Courtyards normally used for socialising and assembling audiences were instead used as spacious spread out venues, whilst the biggest indoor spaces were used for smaller audiences. There was a lot of flexibility around arbitrary ever-changing rules (one thing I learned in August is that Scotland’s rules are just as notoriously confusing as England’s), but in the end, most venues opted to stick with social distancing even after they didn’t need to. The only thing that I found strange was the absence of social distancing in some of the poky free fringe venues. That was legal (as of the Monday of week 1), so I can’t blame them too much for doing what’s allowed, but for a government that wants us to believe they’re more cautious than England, I’m surprised they suddenly suddenly decided this was okay.

Excellent in-person ticket sales: As summarised above, tickets sales and participation were both a fraction of a normal year, but the fall was uneven, and as a result, the sales per performance were something that most fringe performers can only dream of. (See the 3rd September entry of the live coverage for an explanation of the stats I was using.) Online was a different matter, but I will come on to that later.

No second-tier venues: As with Brighton, there has been a lot of grumbling over which venues did and didn’t get emergency support. Few people would argue they’d rather there was no support at all, but the lack of transparency certainly hasn’t helped. Whatever the reasons, the result is that none of Greenside, Sweet Venues or C Venues took part. Zoo took part as part of a four-way collaboration at “Multi Story”, but that barely counts. As a result, acts that normally went there ended up getting carved up between the Big Four and The Space. At the time of writing, Greenside and Zoo have announced plans to return in 2022 – whether they can recover from losing acts to other venues remains to be seen.

Online booking aaarrrggghh: One side-effect that’s likely to stick around is paperless ticketing. The Vault festival has been doing this for a few years now and has got the hang of it; this also has the advantage that is you lose your ticket, there’s an easy to access record at the door. The good news is that the Edinburgh venues have adapted to this well. The bad news is that booking tickets online without a ticket office proved to be a nightmare. There were lots of different problems that added up, but the biggest issue was next to impossible to identify which events had tickets available, with indications of availability and error messages for sold out tickets being wildly inconsistent. Hopefully this won’t be an issue next year with fewer sell-outs of contend with, but boy, don’t want to go through that again. (See 12th August entry in live coverage for a comprehensive list of everything that went wrong).

The reviewers return: Like Brighton, the return of performers has roughly been matched by a return in reviewers. The importance of this might not seem obvious in a world that increasingly runs on word of mouth and social media publicity, but good reviews are the best long-term asset you can take home from a successful fringe run. One quirk that is common to Brighton but not previously Edinburgh is that with so few acts on offer, many reviewers have seen the same play and can discuss it with each other – something that only rarely happened with thousands to go round. (For a detailed list of who did and didn’t take part and more details of why reviews matter, see 16th August live coverage entry.)

There are some other events to cover, but we’ll get to those later. Let’s get on to some reviews.

Pick of the Fringe:

The bar for Pick of the Fringe always depends on the overall standard of what I saw – the better it was, the pickier I have to be. So with less to choose from I’ve reserved the right to lower the bar. I’m pleased to say that at Brighton and Buxton, that was not necessary. However, I have relaxed the standard for Edinburgh. In 2019 and before, my programme was dominated by groups I’d seen before with high expectations of what they would deliver; in 2021, however, I’ve had to heavily fall back on groups I’ve never heard of.

But there’s still been a decent line-up for me to enjoy. Most of these reviews are reprints of what I write at the time, with a bit of tidying up now that I can go through these at my leisure. In the order I saw them, they are:

Zumba Gold

This is a solo play from Amelia Gann. Amelia plays Cathy, the most ambitious Zumba trainer you’ll ever see. Cathy dreams of making it big-time, but unfortunately, it’s not that easy to do that when the type of Zumba you do is “Zumba Gold”. For the benefit of all of you who still don’t understand what all this fuss is over Zumba and how this differs from regular Aerobics, “Zumba Gold” is a version aimed as people aimed at people of reduced mobility. In practice, this means senior citizens, and Cathy spends every session putting up with their petty rivalries and lack of effort, wishing she was in any other job.

Cathy ZumbaingCathy’s ambitions are wildly optimistic to the point of delusional, but you can’t help feeling sympathy and rooting for her. She blames her dead-end job on a disastrous talent show performance when she was thirteen. True, it’s never healthy to blame all your disappointments and failures an a single event in the past, but the taunting she got that day (a boy band wig made her look and feel like Ellen de Generes) is something that she’s never got over. One also has to wonder about the agoraphobic partner she lives with now, who seemingly clips her wings. She cuts out adverts for opportunities, but only with the expectation Cathy will fail and things remain as they are. But thing are about to come to a head with the village fete, where Cathy hastily arranges her over-60s as a backing dancing troupe for her big moment. We know this isn’t going to go as planned. We just don’t know how disastrously this will go wrong.

I won’t give the spoiler on whether this ends well or how badly it doesn’t, but the only criticism I will give is that, come on, you can’t let the story end there. With a current running time of 40 minutes, surely there’s space for a conclusion. This cannot be the last we’ve heard of Cathy, surely she’s not going to give up in the face of this latest setback? But this is good start to the fringe, with a good all rounder: an engaging script, a good performance from Ameila Gann covering everything from dancing to deluded ambition.

Sinatra: Raw

As I have already mentioned, getting tickets to anything proved to be a nightmare. Therefore, I was forced to choose things I would not normally consider. I would not, for example, even look through the Cabaret and Variety section for something to see, and if I did, a tribute act would be near the bottom of my list. But this was literally the only thing I could get tickets for. Never mind, I thought, let’s have an undemanding hour of Sinatra’s greatest hits … And, oh my God, I had no idea.

And, for the record, whilst I’ve lowered the bar for pick of the fringe, I have not lowered the bar for Ike Awards. This would have scooped my highest accolade any year.

Whilst Sinatra: Raw could be called a tribute act, it is actually so much more. I admin that for the first 10-15 minutes of the play, this is what I thought I was in for. Richard Shelton as Ol’ Blue Eyes gives us an opening number before welcoming us to the Purple Room of Palm Springs. It is 1971 and Sinatra is giving a private performance to his nearest and dearest. As well as being a sing-a-like, Shelton is also an anecdote-a-like and I was expecting an hour of Sinatra’s greatest songs and one-liners. But no. Frank reminiscing is going to take us to some of the darkest moments of his life.

When you think about this, the format of this performance is such on obvious idea it’s a wonder nobody thought of this before. The real point of this performance is a biopic of his life, slowly revealed through his banter with his intimate audience. A great idea, of course, counts for nothing without great execution, but that is precisely what is done here. Throwaway comments directed during his song give away deep pangs of regret and sorrow, but it is only when Sinatra begins to talk about his tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner that he gives away what a damaged individual he was at times.

Even if Shelton had performed a Sinatra set to a conventional tribute act format, this would have gone down to great reviews, because he performs the songs exquisitely and captures his mannerism perfectly. But this could not be a more perfect example of a long-held theory: that to perform songs of heartbreak and loneliness properly, you have to really mean it. The rendition of Angel Eyes is deeply moving after hearing exactly what kind of hurt he experienced to truly feel it. Even the closing of My Way, probably the most done to death song for closing shows, is beautifully performed after hearing his life story.

My only regret? An hour can’t do this justice. The final chapter of Sinatra slowly losing his fellow Rat Pack members, would have been a great addition, and if a longer version does get done, I’d love to hear more. In the meantime, I highly recommend this to everyone. It touches on just about every genre, from music to theatre to cabaret to comedy, and delivers on them all.

Under Milk Wood: semi-skimmed

I don’t have much to add to this that hasn’t been said already, but this was lovely. 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, was 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 my 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 (from Underbelly next door, as far as I could tell). 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. Not going to make a big deal out of thisr, but a little more consideration for your neighbours (both neighbouring venues and actual neighbours) goes a long way and costs nothing. Under Milk Wood deserved better than that.

Shook

Big coup for New Celts Productions to get performing rights for this, because this is a very recent winner of a major playwriting competition (Papatango). Samuel Bailey’s play is set in a prison where three young offenders are either fathers now or due to become fathers soon. Cain and Ryan begin the play with masculine bravado. As anyone who’s a man or has hung around with men knows, at least 60% of masculine bravado is bullshit, but in a prison that figure is more like 90%. Jonjo is a third quieter inmate, who looks like he needs help rather than prison, but when you hear what he was pushed into doing you see why he’s locked up. Can Grace give them one last chance to appreciate life as fathers?

Most drama set in prison are harrowing, either through the brutality of the inmates or the brutality of the people who locked them up, so it is refreshing to see a play that offers hope for a change. Cain, a traveller who spends time in and out of the nick makes a good point: the politicians who pledge to be tough on criminals like him hate him for who he is rather than what he’s done. Grace succeeds in getting Jonjo out of his shell where everyone else failed. Even Ryan – who comes across at the beginning as a bully at best (and a misogynistic bully at worst) – calms down for a while. Against the odds, Grace bring hope for almost everybody. Almost.

But how does this production fare? A lot to live up to with the fully professional premiere not that long ago. However, this young company does an excellent job of it, with the London setting successfully transplanted to Scotland. The only real limitations was the fringe environment such as the small stage, but they handle this. One thing that particularly impressed me is how much was achieved when actors aren’t speaking. In one moment where Grace is listening to Cain’s bullshit, Ryan – still in his masculine bravado phase – is sprawled out trying to dominate the room, whilst Jojno is cradling the doll of a baby even though he doesn’t need to.

The only shortcoming is one perhaps unavoidable to fringe conditions. It is normal for full-length plays to be shortened to fit in the programme – and most of them time, if you don’t know better, you can succeed in making it look like this is how it was written all along. This time, however, it would appear that something major about Ryan’s backstory was cut. When he snaps, there’s very little to tell us why, other than an unclear grudge against the person he lashed out at. But with the only thing I have to fault out of their hands, everything else is positive. The best was to get performing rights to a play written so recently is to persuade the writer you know what you’re doing. I hope Samuel Bailey and Papatango were proud out this.

Northanger Abbey

I saw this a few years back, but I was keen to see this again. Box Tale Soup is an puppetry-based ensemble mostly run by husband-and-wife team Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne (something that’s proved very handy in the era of no household mixing), and their latest works have moved heavily into Gothic horror. However, the play that shot them to stardom pre-dates their horror, and it is instead a charming adaptation of a Jane Austen story. Christophers and Byrne play the romantic leads, and the rest of the characters are played by puppets that the pair operated between them, pulling every trick in the book to keep the play running seamlessly.

Having watched this a second time, I will stand my my earlier verdict: it does help if you know the story already. They do a fine job of keeping the play accessible, and have mannerisms for each of the characters to make all the puppets individuals, but there’s only so far you can go remembering which of the six puppets is which if you’re coming in afresh. (I won’t count that seventh puppet of the sinister father in the reputedly haunted manor as that one is the most memorable – indeed, it was this small scene of a bigger story that’s morphed into the subsequent horror stories they’ve done so successfully.) But once you know who’s who – something I didn’t have the luxury of last time – it’s condensed beautifully into a one-hour play.

This was a natural choice for a 2021 fringe – something that’s got easy feel-good quality that has a wide appeal, and they had little trouble filling up the space over the weekend they were playing. My only regret is that in a venue of this size they needed to be miked up, which I accept was essential, but it wasn’t quite the same as the intimate-sized performances this play used to perform to. But given all the other obstacles of this year, I can live with this compromise. Northanger Abbey was the perfect choice of a revival at short notice, and one long-standing group we can be sure will be back in force whenever things are finally back to normal.

Skank

Normally I include plays I’ve seen earlier in the year in the Edinburgh Fring roundup if they’re programmed there – I don’t normally have time to see a play twice, and this means plays i saw before Edinburgh stand a fair chance against those I saw at Edinburgh. But with Edinburgh Fringe 2020 cancelled and Vault Festival 2021 cancelled, I’m rolling over Vault 2020.

Skank is one of the greatest success stories of open festivals at their best. Clementine Bogg-Hargroves originally performed on home turf at Harrogate, but it’s been the nearby Greater Manchester Fringe where she really made her mark. But Vault 2020, I believe, was the first foray southwards, and having missed her Newcastle appearance the year before, I was determined to catch it this time round. It does not disappoint.

Skank has been described as a “Northern Fleabag”, which isn’t a bad description, but I consider her to be a female version of Peep Show. (I’m wary of describing shows as a female version of anything, but she’s a a Peep Show fan and she approves.) Skank is a kind-of hybrid of Mark and Jeremy, combining Mark’s petty obsessions with Jeremy’s complete absence of morals and dignity. The humour should be familiar to Peep Show fans too. An attempt to take part in group knitting result in the boredom attack anyone could have predicted, and her interests alternate between finding a suitable way to recycle a baked beans can and a doomed attempt to lure Sexy Gary to bed.

But but but but but but but but … There’s one important difference, something Peep Show would never do. It’s pretty much a given that nothing will ever change Mark or Jeremy – but that is not the case here. An event is coming that will put all of Skank’s frivolous pursuits into perspective. And afterwards things can’t go back to normal; and the throwaway comments now ring hollow. To some extent, this is also how the plot of Fleabag goes, but even Fleabag’s troubles seem small fry for a while.

There’s just one niggle I have to raise. As with most solo plays, there are numerous other characters to content with. Skank uses a mixture of voiceovers and re-enactments, and the voiceovers are a mixture of herself and other people. All of these approaches are valid, but mixed together it starts to get confusing over who’s who, especially when she uses her own voice for that of her brother. That’s only an aside though. Having risen from the smallest fringes through to the biggest one, Skank could not be finer example of a play that has does not need approval of vetting committees. It is judged a success by the only judge that matters: the audience.

Online pick of the fringe:

Now for a digression away from the in-person fringe. Edinburgh Fringe wisely went for a hybrid model this year, so that anyone not confident with turning up in August can do the safer online route instead. technically, this isn’t a rule change – it’s a festival where anything goes and there’s never been a rule against an online entry – but Edinburgh Fringe created a “fringe player” platform to make it easier. There was also a confusing arrangement of various venues providing their own platforms, some of whom chose not to register with the central fringe, bit like the Free Fringe does. There was some disquiet over registration fees, with some questioning what £200 actually gets you, although a counter-argument is that you probably didn’t want a free-for-all with thousands of clips being uploaded to Edinburgh Fringe instead of Youtube.

Online theatre has persisted a lot longer than many people predicted, with Brighton Fringe having already run a successful hybrid model for two fringes. However, I think this time online theatre may have finally had its day. Once mainstream theatre properly got going in September, there was an overwhelming mood of it being great to be back to the real thing. And whilst the viewing numbers for online weren’t bad considering how many unknowns took part, it was only a small fraction of what people saw in person.

My feeling is that this time, online theatre has had its day, and whilst the option for online may persist into future fringes, traditional in-person shows will dominate again. The only thing that I think might change is some of the venues running a programme of online material that specifically works for the online format, but that will be a side-act amongst a conventional programme.

Nevertheless, I did see some impressive online plays. Most of them are listed in my live entries on the 21st and 30th August, but here are my favourites.

Mustard

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 addiction to self-harm (in fairness to our loverat cyclist, one that existed before he came along). 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.

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?

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 brilliantly, and this is one of the most impressive achievements of this online era.

The Little Glass Slipper performed by the Queen of France and her friends

Another unexpected gem. This was one of the stranger concepts: Marie Antionette, famous for being wife of Louis XVI and saying “let them eat cake” (which she probably never actually said), is putting on a play for the cream of Parisian aristocracy. She has cast herself into the most glamorous role of Cinderella, or, seeing as this is France, Cendrillon. At first glance, Marie comes across as the world first hipster. The kind who think it’s cool to spend an obscene amount of wealth of looking poor because looking poor is trendy. The kind you’d want to punch if you met them.

But tonight is the night the Bastille is being stormed, and as news reaches the Queen and friends must decide whether to flee to safety or stick with their sovereign, we see what she’s really like: in this play, she is defined by her naivety. She has no idea why this event is a big deal to France, and doesn’t seem to have any idea of the danger she’s in. She does, however, sense that so many people hate her, when all she does is to be liked by everyone. She is woefully out of touch – but it’s hard to see what chance she had to know any better.

It is not without its flaws. The role of Prince Charming is hastily taken up by a revolutionary intend on killing her are claiming the price on her head. He ends up pitying her – but the explanation for why he agrees to help the show go on is vague at best. But I am still hopeful that this can come to Edinburgh fringe for real. Some changes will have to be made – it is hard to see how the play as it stands could be performed on the smaller stages at the fringe – but this has a lot going for it. This is a beautiful portrayal with equal measures of comedy and tragedy – I hope the Miles Sisters can make the journey from America.

Mimi’s suitcase

And finally, another one from the back catalogue that I’m keen on seeing again. Refugees have been making the news a lot this year, but I always wondered if the stories of refugees are being treated in a simplistic way. Indeed, in last year’s US election it looks like the Florida vote was lost by refugees from Cuba and Venezuela narked off by people talking over them and saying they’re fleeing from wars that America started. I saw Ana Bayat’s story of her own life a few years back (mainly because she was more determined than anyone to get me to see this), and I praised this for the nuance it brings to the discussion.

Ana Bayat was an Iranian national who spent her childhood in Spain, where the biggest worry in life was whether the time you mother insisted you had to be in left another time to go on a roller skating date. All that changes when her diplomat father is recalled to Iran following the revolution. The first thing she sees that warns us things are bout to be very different is her mother telling her to put on a headscarf when flying to Iran – something completely alien to her. Inevitably, much of the story is about the treatment of women following the Islamic revolution, but it’s not a one-dimensional sensationalist story. Instead it depicts how things change gradually, from casual religious misogyny to the wholescale removal of rights.

The message the play makes very well, however, is an unexpected one. A clumsy assumption everyone makes is that refugees means fleeing wars. The war with Iraq comes and goes, but other than that there’s never really a feeling that her life was in danger. That’s not the point though. The point is the value of freedom, and it is only when you hear this that you can really understand the desperation to escape the repression and go back to the life she once knew. Whilst many online plays simply work as a substitute for seeing the play on stage, this one has a lot potential online to have a bigger reach than a festival ever could have. I hope it gets the reach it deserves.

Honourable mention

I will state up-front that, as with Pick of the Fringe, I’ve relaxed entry criteria this year. Prior to 2020, such was the competition at Edinburgh then even this this list was tough to get into. One of the reasons I am being more generous with honourable mentions is that simply taking part this year requires lot of guts and nerve. However, it’s not a free-for-all and qualification is not automatic. In particular, there was much-talked about performance I saw that I was had high hopes for that turned out to be surprisingly disappointing. (As always, not say who here – I might tell you my another channel depending on how well I know you.)

Once again: everyone who took part is a star. Honourable mentions go to:

Myra’s story:

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-810Myra 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.

The Event:

This is a review that’s impossible to do without a spoiler, because the definitive event happens in the first minute, so if you are planning to see a future performance of this, I’d advise you to read the rest of this review with your eyes closed. Everyone else, you can keep your eyes open.

te1webWhatever you make of The Event, this has got to be the front-runner for most meta show on the Edinburgh Fringe. Originally performed twelve years ago, David Calvitto starts on stage and talks about himself in third person as “the man”. What’s more, he is giving a running commentary on what the audience – referred to throughout this play as “the strangers” – are perceiving at this time: this character is a man, middle aged, likely to be in reasonably good health, and judging by the quality of clothes presumably reasonably affluent. Beyond that, one cannot at this stage ascertain much about his background or motives. The man then proceeds to commentate about how he is able to make similar cursory judgements about the strangers.

You might be wondering at this point if the entire play is going to be like this. It is – we know this because the man mentions the audience is thinking this exact question and gives the answer. And it gets even more meta after that covering the backstage, techies, lighting cues, rehearsal process, checking your watch, what’s going on outside, and even a nod to the reviewers. And I am happy to indulge in this for a moment and in fitting convention of third person, the reviewer think that the man overestimates the influence of people like himself, and furthermore would wish to assure the man that the words the man hopes to read does not necessarily correlate with the numerical volume of strangers at future events?

But can you sustain this for an hour without repetition, digression or hesitation (scripted hesitations excepted)? I’d say that, at most, about half of this monologue managed to relate to a fringe theatre performance in some way. The rest of it related to society in general – still in the absurdist third-person observational style that defines this play but very unrelated to the original theme. Now, 2009 pre-dates my theatre blog and my memory of fringe theatre back then isn’t great; here in 2021, however, commentary about society in general is done to death by hundreds of grass-roots performers showing off their worthiness. This is a shame, because what starts off as one of the most different performances on the fringe closes as one of the most sameish.

Is there a way this concept can be sustained for a full hour? Maybe something more could have been made of the prop appearance and lighting cue other than a commentary that this happened. But I am only guess here, and perhaps this is a limitation of the idea we have to live with. But it was a wonderfully bold idea.

Madhouse:

This play from Nottingham New Theatre, begins with a wild student party. This opening might trigger some critics to dismiss the play as “studenty”, but that’s unfair – we’re only saying this with a middle-aged “harumph” because we never got invited to those sort of parties. The following day, the household of six (officially five but one of them has girlfriend who perpetually hangs around). The big news is that two of the housemates had a one-night stand, and she’s making a wry observation that a one-night stand is like a kebab – you know from experience it’s a bad idea, but it feel like a good idea at the time, but before you’ve finished you’re already remembering why it’s such a bad idea, and the shame the following morning …

Madhouse takes on multiple disparate story threads into the household. The boyfriend of said live-in girlfriend discovered last night his interest my not be exclusively women, the studious medic who’s the first in her family to be to university has a boyfriend no-one seems and appears to resort to some extreme measures to keep up appearances = and the aforementioned one-night stand might be more serious that either party will admit to. However, building up and resolving such a complex six-way character plot is not an easy thing to do in 40 minutes, and it seems to me the mistake this play falls foul of is forcing implausible plot developments to meet the requirements of the story.

There are two things I would advise doing to work on this. Firstly, think about the motivation for why characters do and say things, and whenever you’re facing questions of “why would he do that?” or “what didn’t she just to this instead?”, try to address this and provide an explanation – this may even add to the plot. The other thing is a harder thing to do, but is sometimes necessary: if a plot point really cannot be made plausible, it is sometimes better to let it go and think of something different. The thing I had in mind is the social media influencer ripping up another housemates coursework in the expectation that a third housemate will be blamed for it – sadly there’s too many unanswered questions to make this believable. But remember that everybody has to start somewhere. There is a play to be made from this multi-threaded plot, just don’t be afraid to throw things away.

Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man that used to hit her)

This is a play I found difficult to review impartially for a roundabout reason. For a full review of this which goes into my own experiences and how this affected my perception, read my live coverage and scroll to the 24th August, 9.45 p.m.

The thing that attracted me to this play was the subject of long-term trauma – in the case of Patricia, the aftermath of a violent relationship. She has long rehearsed the words she intend to she if she ever sees the bastard again – but when the bastard shows up out of the blue, she instead resorts to small talk, and when he suggests going out to dinner for the evening, she forgets how to say no. Why would anyone agree to do that? If you’re hoping there’s somehow some sort of of remorse on the part of her ex, forget it. There’s barely any time between falling head over heels with the bad-boy man of her dreams, and the violence that follows.

This is based on playwright Martha Watson Allpress’s own personal experience, but it falls into a depressingly predictable pattern: from the outset exact ideas about how a woman should behave down to choice of drinks; resorting to the fist at the first sign of disagreement; and ludicrous amounts of paranoia and jealousy over matters as trivial as dancing with a gay best friend. That’s not to say the play doesn’t bring new insights – it is recounted here how the tension in anticipation of being hit becomes almost as bad as the violence itself. At one point, a gut-wrenching phone call is played as Patricia finally tells her mother what’s been going on all this time, begging her not to cry.

The thing I felt didn’t ring true, however, was the way Patricia calmly recounts the abuse she endured, with no details glossed over. I won’t waste your time with my reasons here (read the full review linked above if you want to know), but my experience of long-term trauma is that it take a long, long, long, long, long, long time before you’re in a position to talk like that.

The message at the end, however, is an important one: there is no typical battered partner. If it was me, I would consider doing most of Patricia’s story in third person – there is enough artistic license to do this. The other option would be to write this in the mind of post-trauma Patricia; that would be a much harder thing to do if she’s reluctant to go into the worst of what happened, even though she must. But similar things have been done, and they’re very effective when done right. Reality trumps character assessment, of course – if anyone is ready to talk about every detail of a violent relationship within a year of the event, please say so. What I hope we can agree on is the fallacy of the phrase “But it was a long time ago.”

Fear of Roses:

This play is described as a pulp thriller, but at first glance it looks more of a play about character relationships and office politics. Nicollette works as PA for Tabby aka Tabitha, expected to be imminently promoted with Tabitha expected to be promoted along with her. Tabby is a rising star, and in a victory for gender equality proves that women are just as good as men at going to strip joints on managers’ nights out and discussing it inappropriately at work the next day. That aside, the opening is actually quite interesting. At first, it looks like the two are old friends, but as time goes on hints are dropped that Tabby is actually quite self-obsessed. In particular, Nicollette has been forced to take on a night shift to make ends meet, and Tabby is wilfully oblivious to the circumstances of her supposed old friend.

fearofroses_aug21However, the balance of power is about to shift noticeably. It turns out Tabby’s career path to date has not been entirely above board, and this has attracted the attention of Keely who’s come to visit. It is never specified exactly what skeletons are in Tabby’s cupboard, but it is enough to make her agree to a sum of half a million in 48 hours. And the only way she can get that amount of money in that short a length of a time is to rob her own bank overnight. If only there was a soft target in security on the night shift – wait a mo …

The plot continues at a satisfying pace as more secrets are revealed and more things turn out to not be what they seem, but this play does suffer a little from a few plot points that don’t quite stack up. Nothing is serious and it doesn’t get to the point where the entire premise ceases to make sense, but there still a few questions that bugged me afterwards. In particular, why was blackmailing Keeley so unrelenting on a 48-hour deadline once it was clear Tabby couldn’t deliver the goods in time? Surely it’s better to get the money late than not at all. There is a twist at the end which I won’t spoil, but if you’re going to do that you need to make sure the story continues to stack up in light of what’s been revealed.

In spite of this, however, it’s a decent comedy-thriller that covers bases of social comment and character relations. This show was overshadowed somewhat by their other production, Press, which seemed to be going down very well, but as long as you can resist the temptation to nit-pick too hard you shouldn’t be disappointed with this.

Brave Face:

It truly pains me to say this, but although Brave Face is a story with huge potential and so much to say, it fails the “What’s going on?” test. The message that writer/performer Everleigh Brenner gives at the end of the play is that there are many women who have suffered sexual violence who put on a brave face, and few if any of the people there would disagree with that. But the play sets out to say more than that. Her character em becomes, in her words “a woman the world fears” are resort of some extreme measure. Clearly a powerful statement is being made here, but I’m completely lost as to what the statement actually is.

Based on what I can piece together (spoiler alert but I don’t know how else to summarise this): Em was raped seven years ago, and wants revenge. But with proven rapists hard to identify, Em has widened her net to exact her vengeance on adulterers, philanderers, misogynists and lecherous wankers in general. After she sees her fuck-buddy cop off with another woman, something prompts her to take action, although it’s not clear whether the trigger was that incident or a video shown after. The video appears to be an attack – is this a flashback to an earlier event or something that’s just happened? Either way, she starts blackmailing the other men she’s been having affairs with and attacking some of her pick-ups with anaesthetic she took from her dental job. Her number one target, however, is a touring DJ, although it’s not clear whether his crime is being her rapist or simply liking photos of hot women on Instagram. She meets him, intending to lure him to bed for an unclear ulterior motive. And she succeeds, but not before he behaves like a gentleman and she discovers she has feelings for him (and if he is indeed her rapist that confuses me further). But in bed he doesn’t understand stop and she retaliates in the most extreme way possible.

I think I can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, I have missed something vital that’s supposed to explain what’s happening and why. I don’t have many rules for playwriting, but one of the ones I swear by is that the more out of the ordinary a character behaves, the harder you have to work to show what made him or her do this. I’m not interested in her multi-partnered sex life – there is no normal way to respond to rape – but the revenge she dishes out is as far removed from normal as can be. I’m pretty sure Brenner has a very good idea for why Em is doing this, but I don’t, and when I discussed this with another member of the audience, she floated another theory. It was a good one that never crossed my mind, I admit, but when a play is intended to sent a message loud and clear, the last thing you want is multiple interpretations of what the play was actually about.

The thing is, apart from that, I think this play has all the ingredients of a great one. Even without fully understanding Em’s motivations, Brenner gives a articulate, confident and often emotive performance. I was also particularly impressed by the technical achievement. This kind of multimedia approach usually falls foul of one of two things: either not really adding to the story, or getting out of their depth. Neither applies here This is a story heavily interlaced with the online world, where real life blends with everything from diary organisers to social media containing all sorts of casual bigotry and nastiness. And performer and tech blend seamlessly.

So here’s what I would do next. This play is currently 40 minutes along, but fringe productions typically run 60. 20 minutes should be more than enough to flesh out any unclear plot points, but more importantly, go into the depth that’s needed to explain why she’s done what she’s done. Brenner understands Em better than anyone else,so there’s little else I can suggest on who to do it, other than the obvious principle of “show, don’t tell”. And that’s it. That, I reckon, is all that’s needed to get this play to have its full reach and live to its full potential. And this has bags of potential. Don’t sell it short.

On Your Bike:

And finally, a rare foray into musicals. I was drawn to this one by a very promising preview at The Space’s press launch. On Your Bike is a musical about one of the most recent additions to life: the takeaway delivery cyclist. The good news is that delivering takeaways by bicycle is much more environmentally friendly than driving everywhere by car. The bad news is that this often goes hand-in-hand with another not-so-welcome recent arrival: the casualisation of labour, where zero-hour contracts and/or so-called self-employed status are used as workarounds to evade employment protections that apply to everyone else.

The showcase song, however, has nothing to do with cycling or takeaways. “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” as a song on a first date where everything is going right. Can this promising standard apply to the rest of the songs? Yes they do. Writing songs for musicals is tricky – if either the words or the music doesn’t work out, it falls flat. The music in these songs, however, is consistently good and consistently catchy. The lyrics are also impressive. Even people who have no trouble letting the words flow in regular prose can struggle when setting it to music, but the words are crafted exceedingly well here. In the opening we learn Gemma is doing this because she’s had 77 consecutive rejection letters using every platitude know to man (78 by the time the song’s finished), and her living arrangements is even more precarious than her job than her job. Aidan is a little more secure with his arrangement, fitting his art around these irregular hours, but that too is going to come under pressure.

The story, however, isn’t quite as strong as the music. The brilliantly catchy “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” loses its edge a little when you notice the two people getting together don’t really seem to have anything in common. No soon has Aidan started his whirlwind romance with a social media marketing-obsessed middle manager, she’s already badgering him to quit his art aspirations and join her in faceless middle management, which makes we wonder what they saw in each other in the first place. The play starts off making some intelligent comment about the culture around casual labour, where maximum flexibility to stakeholders is pushed at the expense of any real security or dignity, but too many of the resolutions are contrived. Yes, there are are ethical questions around animal welfare and takeaways, but a takeaway manger having a change of heart and converting to a vegan falafel restaurant after reading one leaflet from an animal rights group? Come on.

Despite these limitations, this is a good start from a student ensemble for what I think is the most difficult form of writing. Songwriting gets a lot more complicated when you are supporting a story, story-telling gets a lot more complicated when you’re mixing in music and lyrics. The ensemble of four give a strong performance, and the musical standard remains high from start to finish. Four year ago the same society came up with Six, and we know how that’s going. Good job from their successors in keeping the flag flying.

Dishonourable mention:

It’s so regular it seems like it’s required by law, but every year there has to be someone who tries to spoil the fringe for everyone else. In before times, the repeat offender was The Scotsman, or, more specifically, the fringe reviews section of The Scotsman; amongst other things, self-entitlement, single-paragraph assassinations, hit pieces against competing reviewers and alleged sex discrimination against female comedians. But wait – this year, they’ve behaved themselves. I’ve heard no complaints about them, seen no examples of poor behaviour myself, and I even had a cordial relationship with one of their reporters. No, in the 2020s the mantle has passed to the Cockburn Association – or, to use their full name: the fucking Cockburn Association.

Most people accept that not everybody in Edinburgh is happy with the Fringe. For people not interested in this sort of this, it can be very disruptive to going about your day for a whole month every year; and that was certainly the case in 2019 when the record size pushed many people to boiling point. However, with the 2021 fringe being just a fraction of its previous size are no noticeable presence outside of a hub of Bristo Square and George Square, maybe the fringe-haters might give it a rest for a moment? Nope. The Cockburn Association has taken the opportunity to double down on their attacks with objections souring to levels of pettiness previously thought impossible.

First came the objections to Underbelly bringing the Big Top the Meadows as a socially distanced venue, or in the words/hysteria of the Cockburn Association, “privitisation” of a public space. Never mind the fact that the Meadows is a big public space and the Big Top would have only taken up a small part of tit. Never mind the fact that the Big Top have been on The Meadows before several times and no-one complained. Never mind the fact that’s it’s perfectly normal for part of a park to be temporarily closed off for an event. Never mind the fact that they’ve previously been perfectly fine with the Edinburgh International Festival’s pop-up venues, which is apparently different – although the only difference I can see being the International Festival doing stuff more to their liking, such as classical music. Underbelly got planning permissions – frankly, the Cockburn Association didn’t have a leg to stand on – but Underbelly abandoned the idea anyway. It’s not clear whether that decision was down to that in the end – there was certainly more than enough dithering from the Scottish Government to make anyone think “forget it, not worth it” – but the Cockburn Association still gets to clock that up as a win.

So, having not their way, now would they give it a rest? Still a resounding nope. Next came their spurious claim that Edinburgh’s Unesco World Heritage Site status was under threat because of the fringe. And along with this came the publication of a “research” paper of the impact of festivals on Edinburgh. Some of the point were valid, but take it from me, I wouldn’t have got a PhD if I didn’t know how research papers work; and one thing I can spot a mile off is rhetoric masquerading as research, where they decided on a conclusion first and then looked for evidence to support it. This event briefly sparked a parody Twitter account of the “Cockburn Association Ultras”, the association’s paramilitary wing who enforce the city’s heritage by any means necessary. More notably, however, it forged a unit between Edinburgh’s festivals like never seen before. There has been a long fractious relationship between the Fringe and the International Festival, but for once, the International Festival was thoroughly siding with the Fringe. And the icing on the cake was when Unesco itself said what we knew all along but it was still good to have it confirmed: no, there is no threat to Edinburgh’s World Heritage Status, from the fringe or elsewhere.

What really pisses me off is people who pretend to care about issues as a pretext for another agenda. In their infamous paper they decried the employment provided to the city by the fringe because there might be a gender pay gap. They don’t claim their is one, but there’s no data to show there isn’t one so let’s just assume it’s a Bad Thing. For the financial district of Edinburgh, praised by them for its economic benefit to the city, there are of course no such concerns. The opposition to the Big Top was based on how important open spaces are during a pandemic, but what about all of those outside pub tables that appeared in 202o and 2021. Are they welcoming something that nationally must have saved thousands of lives? No, of course not. It shouldn’t be allowed because It Doesn’t Look Nice, and that’s far more important than anyone’s health or wellbeing.

However, it is important to remember that the many valid criticisms of the Edinburgh Fringe are still valid, especially as the Fringe enters a likely period of regrowth. We should not dismiss these concerns just because the most vocal opponents are being a bunch of pricks. I wonder if the inflammatory tone adopted by the Cockburn Association was a deliberate attempt push Edinburgh into full-blown war between the fringe and locals – a war that, presumably, they believed they’d win. If that was the plan, Edinburgh Fringe was having none of it. Shona McCarthy went out of her way to say that it’s important to to rebuild the fringe with better consideration for the impact on the city, and the leaders of the other festivals have backed her up.

I think there can be little doubt that August 2021 was a dramatic turnaround following a terrible 18 months for the Edinburgh Fringe. From this, it looks like they are in a strong position to rebuild from 2022 onwards. The big question is whether they will make good on their promises. Few people felt the fringe at 2019 levels was desirable sustainable, but few want a repeat of the thing that got it out of that state. The ball’s in Edinburgh Fringe’s court now. If they do not want a repeat of before, it’s up to them to say how.

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