What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2022

Skip to: Testament of Yootha, Under Milk Wood: Semi-skimmed, God of Carnage, The Ballad of Mulan, Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me, Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show, The Last, Underdogs, Betsy: Wisdom of the Brighton Whore, The Event, Lionhouse Cabaret, Fragile, The Formidable Lizzie Boone

And we’re back. For the first time in three years, a fringe I can cover without a crisis dominating the story. I can go back to my usual focus of looking through the programme and telling you what I can recommend. However, we’re not quite back to normal. There is one indirectly related event which has shaken up Brighton Fringe a bit.

The big change:

A lot of changes were made for Brighton Fringe 2021. Towards the end of the fringe, there was a discussion on whether any changes should be made permanent. The hot tip was that the delay to three weeks leading to a festival mostly in June would be made permanent. That was considered, but in the end they decided to revert to May. In fact, the only thing which has partly stuck is doing away with the paper programme. This year, Brighton Fringe is instead doing a printed daily guide, with details on the website only. Last year it was a faff to work out what was available today – maybe this will work better. However, it does put them at odds with Buxton and Edinburgh who are reverting to full programme.

The biggest trailblazer over the last two years was undoubtedly The Warren. When most of the theatre world shut up shop for eighteen months, they got going faster than anyone with “The Warren Outdoors” in the summer of 2020. This was a big success, and they used this as the basis for their socially distanced fringe in 2021, as well as repeat of a summer season, now called “Warren on the Beach”. With the ticket sales across all of Brighton Fringe 2021 surpassing all expectations handsomely, it seem that The Warren’s boldness was thoroughly vindicated. I was even wondering if Warren on the Beach would become permanent.

But, unknown to me, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Even though the fringe was on the surface a roaring success, complaints were emerging of staff and acts not getting paid. It does seem strange that this should happen when the income looked so good, so I wondered if they’d somehow allowed expenses to spiral out of control. It now seems more likely it was just shonky financial management. Then the story went quiet again and I assumed they’d settled this quietly. But days before the programme was announced, the bombshell was announced: The Warren would not be taking part this year whilst it sorted its finances out. Worse, it seemed the acts programme into the Warren found out the same time as the rest of us.

What this means is that this Brighton Fringe is going to look very different from what we’re used to. In 2019 The Warren was increasingly dominating the Fringe, in terms of both visibility and its share of the programme – but not this time. Warren, Sweet, Rialto and Spiegeltent between them were a kind of “Big Four” (albeit one where, unlike Edinburgh, one is clearly bigger than the other three). In a different year Sweet Venues might have capitalised on this and snapped up all the homeless acts, but Sweet is having its own grief with finding suitable venues and currently only has two spaces (Sweet @ the Welly is back, and Sweet at the Poet’s is a new one – I will report on this in due course). However, there are a couple of new additions to this list of Big venues we ought to consider.

fdb95f_0d4de895ad8f4482b887fe9d295c8663mv2_d_3264_2448_s_4_2The brand new addition to Brighton Fringe is The Rotunda. For Buxton Fringe fans wondering if this is the same Rotunda that’s been setting up there since 2017: yes it is. Buxton was only intended as the beginning for Ross Ericson and Michelle Yim’s project, and it’s been touring to other small festivals, but this is its first appearance as an independent venue at a big festival. (The Rotunda has also been to Edinburgh Fringe, but only as an extension of Assembly’s George Square venue, with Assembly doing the programming). At Buxton, the Rotunda has been a single-space venue – here’s however, there’s two spaces, Bubble and Squeak. Not sure how this works – either they’re now got a second rotunda, or they’ve split the space into two. This is setting up in Regency Square, which is the green space opposite what was once the West Pier.

But the other change is something that’s been coming at us slow and steady. Laughing Horse is one of the two big providers of the Free Fringe at Edinburgh, but they have taken on the odd space in Brighton too. It’s been mostly comedy and therefore off the theatre blog radar, but they’ve been growing and now manage five spaces in four buildings, and the programme they’ve got between them is of a size comparable to the other leading venues, if not bigger. Unlike Edinburgh, it’s not entirely on the free fringe model, with shows varying between donations, minimum price and conventional tickets. And although it’s dominated by comedy, there’s enough theatre entries to start registering with the theatre fans. Time to start taking notice of this.

Another observation I’ve made is that the length of runs appears to be getting longer. I’m basing this on the calendar I’m drawing up for review requests. Please treat my anecdotal observations with caution because there has been a media consensus about runs in Edinburgh getting shorter, which turned out to be wrong. But The Warren was the venue that lent itself to short runs in big spaces, so this would figure if it’s true.

Finally, the changes in venues means that the centralisation of Brighton Fringe around Victoria Gardens has suddenly been reversed. In the early 2010s Brighton Fringe was somewhat spread out over Brighton and Hove. The Sweet Venues moves eastwards, and The Warren set up next to Spiegeltent to form a hub. Now the Warren is on a year out, Rotunda is setting up back to Hove direction, and Sweet is going west again. We may be heading for a return of size to the late 2010s, but perhaps not the centralised feeling we had before.

A lot of food for thought. Anyway, let’s get back on topic …

Safe choice:

For those of you who have been out of the loop for two years, here is a recap of the rules. I divide my picks into various categories (you can find a deeper explanation in the Recommendations policy), but I begin with Safe Choice. All of these categories depend on you liking the sound of a play based on the description in the brochure, or me, or other reviewers, because everyone has different tastes. But if you like the sound of anything I’ve covered here, it’s my firm call that you will enjoy it. Some are plays I’ve seen before, others are groups I’ve seen before, all of them have wide audience appeal. We have three safe choices this year.

Testament of Yootha

Testament of YoothaCaroline Burns Cooke has made a big name for herself since writing solo plays for herself, and have earned particular praise for their nuance: from And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet which both depicted the worst of Catholic authoritarianism in in 20th century Ireland and explored why; to Proxy with an uncomfortably convincing explanation for why a mother would inflict Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy on her daughter. This latest one is a solo biopic, and it directed by Mark Farrelly, also a master of solo biopics, and both their influences are on display here.

Yootha Joyce is before my time, but she achieved peak fame as Mildred in the sitcom George and Mildred, against the odds. Not for being a woman as such, but one who wasn’t conventionally attractive. A lot of the play centres around the astonishingly shallow attitudes of the time, and if Caroline’s Yootha is right about what made things change, that was an even shallower reason. You can see this at two performances only at Sweet at the Poets on 28th – 29th May at 2.45 p.m.

Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed

705660This is really spoken word rather than theatre, but few performances could be considered a bigger labour of love than this one. As well as being a prolific director, Guy Masterson is also a huge Dylan Thomas fan, and he’s been doing his rendition with his own style and music for the last 25 Edinburgh fringes or more. That, of course, includes last year – he wasn’t going to let the 95% shrinkage of Edinburgh Fringe stop him that easily.

One reason he’s appearing in Brighton more is because of the arrival of The Rotunda. Apart from Ross Ericson’s own The Unknown Soldier, Under Milk Wood is probably the most eye-catching entry in any of their line-ups. Guy Masterson, it seems, is almost as big a fan of The Rotunda as he is of Dylan Thomas. One snag with Edinburgh is that performances are prone to be disrupted by the bass thump from an inconsiderate DJ in the neighbouring venue, but there should be no problems with noise bleed in Regency Square. See this at The Rotunda on the 6th – 8th & 21st May at 7.30 p.m.

The God of Carnage

It’s not often I put plays I haven’t seen into safe choice, but the combination of Pretty Villain and Yasmina Resa is about as safe as you can get here. Yasmina Resa is best known for Art, which as we all know is a massive argument over the value of a painting called “The Adrios”, if a blank canvas of white qualifies as a painting. The play isn’t so much about the meaning of art though – it says more about the three men who take different sides. This is a confrontation between the parents of two children after one gets into a vicious fights with the other – but again, it looks like this will say more about the parents than the actual children involved.

Pretty Villain needs no introduction to Brighton regulars. They have a long string of high-quality classic plays to their name, and are one of the leading forces behind the Rialto Theatre itself. You can see this at the Rialto Theatre on the 8th May at 3.20 p.m. then the 10th – 14th May at 8.00 p.m.

Bold choice:

The Ballad of Mulan

mulan20fringe20brochure20imageRoss and Michelle bring a whole variety of productions to the Rotunda under the names of their respective companies Grist to the Mill and Red Dragonfly Theatre. Any of these would be a good bet, but the one which grabs my interest the most is Michelle Yim’s adaptation of Mulan. Lots of people know Mulan from the Disney film and nothing else, and the reason this grabs my attention is that she makes the point that her Mulan is most definitely not the Disney version. This version is the battle-hardened woman after ten years on the front line.

This is showing at The Rotunda on the 10th – 12th May at 7.45 p.m. then the 28th & 29th May at 4.45 p.m. If you’d rather see a play of someone who lived more recently, you can also see The unforgettable Anna May Wong on the 18th, 21st and 22nd May. Alternatively, Ross Ericson’s own production is a solo play of War of the Worlds, on the 25th May and 4th June. Definitely a lot keeping these two busy.

Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me

Yasmine Day is a comedy act created by Jay Bennet. Her first appearance in 2018 was of an 80s power-ballad diva-wannabe, who vastly overestimates her own abilities and has a multitude of terrible grandiose ideas for her performance. Even so, there was something quite tragic about her dreams of stardom reduced to touring the pubs of Dorking and I thought there was a lot that could be done to develop this character.

And so Jay Bennet did, but the version I saw in 2019 was a lot darker than I expected. The real tragedy is that Yasmine Day is her own worst enemy. She does not learn from her mistakes, blames her disappointments on anyone but herself, and allows past conflicts to turn into lifelong grudges. Worst of all, there are hints that there are people in her life who used her, but she’s oblivious to that. However, all of that is subtext for a funny performance. We are on to her fifth comback extravaganza in this comedy, but perhaps and tragi- and a tragi-comedy can be and still be listed under comedy. See this at Junkyard Dogs at the Round Georges in the 6th, 13th & 20th May (all Fridays).

Jekyll and Hyde: A one-woman show

278830581_10158876194700756_1196150304480558715_nBold Choice instead of Safe Choice here because this is something where you really need to concentrate, but this is the perfect play for Heather Rose-Andrews, who was made a name for herself with her solo horror plays. You might be wondering how the gender flip affects this production, and indeed I wondered the same when I saw this in Buxton last year. I speculated the difference would be how a female Jekyll would be treated by Victorian society, but I was on the wrong track. The most striking thing of the play is not how much a female Jekyll and Hyde is different but how much she is the same. Every stereotypically male trait is incorporated into Heather Rose-Andrews’ act as if the original character has been created for her all along.

It does help if you know your Robert Louis Stevenson, otherwise you might get lost with what’s the original story and what’s new to JD Henshaw’s adaptation. However, it’s worth seeing along for the transformation from Jekyll and Hyde, where agonised writhings change to causal cruelty – something that earned this my acclamation as best individual performance 2021. See it on the 16th – 22nd May at 7.30 p.m. at Sweet at the Poets.

The Last

And rounding up the bold choices is Sam Chittenden with Different Theatre. When she wrote Clean for the 2019 Fringe, with the musical slated for 2020 (postponed of course to 2021), she inadvertently wrote something shortly to become very topical: a runaway disease ravaging a workplace and the agonising decision on whether to shut down or work on. However, if you really want to play the long game you need only look at Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, set in the midst of a plague in the 21st century.

Notably, however, the book was written after the deaths of Mary Shelley’s husband and three of her children, so it may well have been her way of making sense of a real-life personal tragedy rather than a fictitious dystopian one. So the focus of this play isn’t so much the plot of the book but the pieces of Mary Shelley’s own life that found its way in. Doubtless a gamble, but Chittenden is used to taking gambles that have produced pleasing results in the past. See this at Friends’ Meeting House on the 26th-27th May at 7.00 p.m. Alternatively, you can see family show The Little Prince over half-term on the 31st Mat and 1st & 4th June, or an encore of Clean the Musical at One Church on 20th – 22nd May.

Underdogs

This play is heavily advertised as coming from the co-writer of The Shark is Broken, a film-documentary about the making of Jaws. I haven’t seen that film, but I keep hearing about this from various people who’ve spoken highly of it. However, this earns a spot on my bold choice thank to the other writer, Brian Mitchell, who a few years back wrote Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks, which I loved. It spends the first minute pondering over the question of whether TV wrestling is staged. (Answer: yes, of course it is. Have you seen real wrestling? It’s really really boring.) And then it goes into the time in the 1970s when everyone tuned in on a Saturday evening to watch two overweight men pretend to fight each other

This is a very different story though, of the true story of a man who sought to break the world record for longest time spent underground in a coffin. Although by “true story” I mean a man claimed to have done this – there again, TV claimed it was the gospel truth the you were watching real wrestling. But I’m sure this play will tell us one way or the other. Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks had equal mixtures of humour, insight, fun and pathos, and I’m hopeful the same can be delivered here. Showing on the 24th – 28th May at 8.00 p.m.

You might like …

This listings are, like safe choice, ones where I’m confident you’ll like the piece if you like the description. However, I relax some of the rule. Safe choices need wide audience appeal whilst these can have more specialist interests, and I’m also less strict about it needing to be theatre. Here’s what I’ve got this time.

Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore

Jonathan Brown is one of Brighton longest-running Fringe Stalwart with Something Underground, but Betsy is probably his all-time greatest hit. It was part of a trilogy set in Brighton in the Prince George era and the height of seediness. This play ran the longest and earned a lot of acclaim. Whilst I wish they would go easy of quoting lengthy conversations in solo plays, the strength of these plays is the rich historical picture each of them paints. This shows at 7th, 8th, 20th & 21st May at Brighton Fishing Museum Loft, various times.

The Event

te1webIt’s difficult to tell you what this play is about with it being a spoiler, so if you’d rather see this cold and not give away clues to how this opens, skip tp the next entry. For everyone else, The Event surely has to get the award for the most meta play ever. David Calvitto appears on stage and embarks on a monologue about “The Man” and “The Strangers”, it is quickly transpires that he’s giving a running commentary on his experience of the play and the audience’s experience seeing it. And from there, a running commentary on the realisation that he’s giving a running commentary on his experience of the play and the etc. etc. And the scope then extends to the world outside the play. I’m not convinced the concept quite sustains a full hour, but for a concept that is different you can’t go wrong with this. Showing at at The Rotunda on the 26th – 29th May at 7.45 p.m., then 2nd – 5th June at 6.15 p.m.

Lionhouse Cabaret

The most memorable performance I saw on the massively-reduced 2020 fringe was Savage Beauty. That was the year the outdoor performances suddenly got the edge on the indoor ones, and as it happened this is what from Actors of Dionysus were planning to do anyway. It was one of the most striking achievements of staging I’d seen, and it’s a real pity that this hasn’t come back to a future fringe when it could have been shown to a bigger audience. However, all is not lost and Lionhouse (the house whose garden hosted the play) is making a return for a cabaret. This is going to be about as different from a play derived from Greek Mythology as can be, and is, in their own word “Bumfluffery and other such silliness.” I do hope they keep making use of their staging wizardry though, as that’s what really sticks in the mind. Find out what they have to offer at Lionhouse (that’s a private house near Queen’s Park) on the 6th, 7th, 13th & 14th May at 7.30 p.m.

Wildcards:

Next are two acts which I haven’t seen before, and I’ve not seen the artists before. I therefore don’t know whether or not they are any good – although, in these two particular cases, a lot of other people clearly did. However, they have grabbed my attention as something interesting, and it might be of interest to you too.

Fragile

FRAGILE2 - Agustina Dieguez Buccella - Ph Ali WrightThis was at Brighton Fringe last year, and the reason I cannot tell you how it went is that it sold out solidly. What’s more, whilst most sell-out acts are assisted by the publicity machine of one of the bigger venues, Agustina Dieguez Buccella managed to achieve the same in one of the less well-known venues. So whilst I don’t know if it’s any good, clearly a lot of other people did. The premise looks interesting though: it look like a parable where a woman is in a vulnerable situation in the wilderness, but the real vulnerability is the need to admit she needs a different kind of help. If this gets you curious, it’s on this time at Laughing Horse @ The Walrus on 28th May at 3.15 p.m., then 2nd June at 8.15 p.m.

The Formidable Lizzie Boone

3c3981679eed653edd8eab01ab10e72f7638ef482e5b8ab8488d033a8ee1fd33-rimg-w1024-h1024-gmirThis play I’ve heard of because it did the rounds at Greater Manchester Fringe and it scooped a whole host of awards there. There’s no shortage of burlesque shows at Brighton Fringe, but Selina Helliwell’s piece isn’t a burlesque act, but a play about a burlesque dancer, in this case apparently taking it up as a way of fighting back against trauma. A hybrid of burlesque and theatre, but something that certainly looks different from both genres. This shows at The Rotunda on the 19th-21st May, various times.

From the comedy:

And finally, although this is a theatre blog, I’ve also accumulated some recommendations from comedy through my time. I’ll leave it up to comedy reviewers to cover this in more detail, but I can recommend:

Crime Scene Improvisation: Quite self explanatory: the audience shouts out suggestions for a murder mystery, which this troupe then put together for you on the fly. If they make a mistake, don’t worry, that will be worked into the plot. Also striking a blow for democracy, we do away with absurd considerations such as evidence or burden of proof simply decide who the murderer is on a public vote. 8th May at 4.00 p.m. then 15th May at 5.30 p.m. at Laughing Horse @ The Walrus.

Biscuit Barrel: No Time to Digestive I saw them at Durham Fringe and they rounded off the Saturday night perfectly. Okay, they were in a venue I was hosting so I was rather pleased to see it so full, but one sketch per minute worked out well here. And now is your chance to find out what they put in a Mickey Mouse smoothie. 13th-14th May at 7.45 p.m. at the Rialto Theatre.

Privates: Great Ideas by Geniuses: The Warren might be on an enforced hiatus, but the act that opened The Warren Outdoors has a new home. Last time it was the journey of three sperms, combining the corniness of a Vietnam war movie with all the awkwardness of Year 9 sex education. Luke Rollason has also made a name for himself by thinking outside of the box and creating the “Luke Rollason memorial bursary” – be fair, there isn’t a rule that actually requires you to be dead, and it’s certainly enabled us to remember him. You can see this more family-friendly follow-up at 14th-15th at the Spiegeltent at 4.00 pm.

Alasdair Beckett-King: Nevermore This comedian built his profile a lot during lock-down with his shorts parodying pretty much every form of entertainment there is, from the crap player in an RPG game who keeps buying healing potions to the generic adult animated series that in no way imitates a particular one (*cough* Family Guy *cough*). If you like your humour pedantic – and come guys, that’s the best kind of humour – this is for you. See it at 19th – 20th & 26th – 27th at 9.30 p.m. at Laughing Horse @ Caroline of Brunswick.

Aidan Goatley: Tenacious And finally, it’s worth a mention for possibly Brighton Fringe’s most wholesome comedian. He’s done a series of routines starting with 10 Films with my Dad, which I caught up with on the Christmas edition, where was of course decide who the Muppets would play when they finally make The Muppets Die Hard. He has finally said goodbye to this series but his brand new one promises to be as gentle and life-affirming as the ones before. Sweet @ the Welly, 30th May to 3rd June, various times.

Also of note …

There are two important things to remind you of at this point. Firstly, this is a preview, not a shortlist. There are always plays I see by artists I’ve never heard of which turn out to be excellent. Secondly, this list is mostly based on what I’ve seen and rated, not what other people have seen and rated. There are a lot of names I hear of year after year coming to Brighton, but if they’re outside of the theatre section I generally don’t get round to checking them out. However, there is one name I recognise that has gathered my interest for a completely different reason:

Eleanor Conway: Talk dirty to me

I don’t follow stand-up comedians that much, but Eleanor Conway’s routine is heavily themed about sex positivity and why it’s okay to be over 40 and childless if that’s what you want. (I really don’t understand why so many people have exact views on what other people should be doing with life decisions such as this one, but for some reason they are are obsessed with it.) However, the reason this stands out for me is a completely different one: this is running the entire fringe. That’s unprecedented.

In Edinburgh Fringe, it is normal to run the entire festival.* With huge numbers of visitors coming in and out of the city it’s easy to sustain an audience for a whole month if it’s good. In Brighton, however, the conventional wisdom is that, with most of the audience being local, you can seldom run more than a week before you run out of audience. I’ve not kept track of this in detail, but the only group I can think of who have run the whole fringe before are The Lady Boys of Bangkok, which has its own tent and is practically a festival in its own right – and I’d argue doesn’t really count. This could be a big precedent-setter. In the meantime, you can see this at Laughing Horse @ The Walrus on 6th May – 5th June, at 9.15 p.m or 9.30 p.m. And there’s even some matinees. Good luck.

*: Actually, this might be about to change, but that’s a topic for another day.

And finally, one from the online programme

The one thing we haven’t heard much of this year is digital theatre. It dominated theatre in 2020 for the obvious reason, and even when fringes were getting going again in the summer of 2021, online theatre was persisting longer than many people expected. However, the sales figures for Edinburgh Fringe weren’t great, averaging 30 (for those pieces hosted by fringe player). That’s okay if you’re trying something new, but hopeless if you’re serious about getting noticed.

As a result, online theatre – whilst still supported by all the major fringes – seems to have been consigned to the margins. Online theatre made up about a third of Brighton Fringe’s programme last year; now there are only 33. This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of online theatre completely – it’s still a cheap way of getting your work out there and platforms such as Living Record (who had a heavy presence at last year’s fringe) are persisting with their own festivals. However it looks like if there is a future for online theatre, it won’t be in the fringe circuit, where almost everybody sees online as a less good substitute for the real thing.

But if this is the last we hear of online fringe, let’s finish with a last hurrah:

The Tragedy of Dorian Gray

Blue Devil Theatre have had a string of successes over the years, but Ross Dinwiddy’s retelling of Oscar Wilde’s tale – transplanted to the 1960s in the era of decriminalisation of homosexuality – has I believe been the most widely performed. And it was earned too: we don’t know if Oscar Wilde ever entertained a Dorian Gray desired by both women and men, but it’s fitting to see the version of the story Wilde couldn’t have written even if he wanted to. Some values on Victorian England, such as the shallow vanity, transplants to the new time period. Other things are new, such as the rise and brutal fall of film star Sybil Vane.

The bad news is that Blue Devil are taking a break this fringe, but if you didn’t catch Dorian Gray, the next best thing is the filmed black and white version. Available through the Brighton Fringe platform and available until the end of the fringe, this is a your chance to catch up.

And that brings us to the end. Enjoy your month. Follow me on my live coverage, or come back later for the roundup.

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