What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2022

The muppets set up outside someone's house

Skip to: The Ballad of Mulan, The Formidable Lizzie Boone, The Little Prince, Under Milk Wood, Portents, Jekyll and Hyde: a one-woman show, [BLANK], War of the Worlds, Report: an enquiry into the enquiries, Adventures in Sound and Light, Nychtophilia

If 2021 was the big party for festival fringes getting back on the road, 2022 is the big hangover. Just when Brighton Fringe looked like it was set to get back to full size, its biggest venue imploded with a knock-on effect for the whole fringe. Edinburgh Fringe is making progress back to normal, but is currently facing headaches over working conditions and accommodation expenses. Which means the prize for first fringe back to full size goes to Buxton. With 169 entries going into the programme, and a typical size of 170-180 for most of the last decade, it is generally regarded as back to normal and back to business.

However, when you look a bit closer at the numbers, there are some notable shifts within these figures. The most prominent change – which might not be obvious now but certainly will be noticed in weeks 1 and 2 – is that the Rotunda is only going to be present for the second half of the fringe. Not because the Rotunda is struggling; on the contrary, they’re having an excellent 2022, taking on a second dome, emerging as the big winners of Brighton Fringe, and earning fixtures at other festivals. Unfortunately, this has not entirely worked in Buxton’s favour, because one of those festivals in Wells Theatre Festival, which clashes with the first half of Buxton Fringe. The other change – more subtle but just as important – is that there is hardly any availability of the Arts Centre Studio this year. I don’t know the story here, but it’s most likely the Buxton Festival wants it – and, let’s face it, a 352-seater event from Buxton Festival is always going to win over the 91-seater studio configuration used by Buxton Fringe.

Darren Poyzer playing outside PavilionSo … does this mean Buxton Fringe is facing a capacity crunch? Possibly, but it’s hard to tell. For those unfamiliar with how Buxton Fringe works, there are “managed” venues and “non-managed” venues. The former are broadly like the venues you’re used to in Edinburgh and Brighton. In the latter it may be little more than a hired room where the owner lends you the key for a couple of hours. It is near-impossible to be taken seriously at a larger fringe if you’re performing in just a room, but at Buxton there have been some highly respected performances done this way. Even so, a lot of acts who fail to get a slot at a managed venue tend to abandon their plans rather than go down this route.

The situation I would not want to see is if Underground, Green Man and Rotunda ended up as de facto gatekeepers of Buxton Fringe (for anyone who wants to be competitive). I don’t think we’re an danger of this yet – and, to be fair, Underground and Rotunda have so far managed to strike a decent balance between established and emerging acts. However there’s a squeeze on both this time. I do think, more than ever, Buxton is sorely missing a managed venue space that’s ideal for entry-level acts the way that Pauper’s Pit and The Barrel Room used to be. A second room in the Old Clubhouse keeps being mooted, and the Rotunda’s new smaller dome might be an option, but so far neither of those ideas have come to fruition. Or might there be an option we haven’t even thought of yet. After all, when The Rotunda first appeared on the scene in 2017, nobody saw that coming.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before thinking of venues at future fringes, we’ve got this year’s fringe to think about.

Safe choice:

We begin with a list of performances where, if you like the sound of this, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed. Most of these I have seen before; others are from groups doing something new where I’m confident they will deliver. The list is a bit longer than usual; this is partly because a lot of the Rotunda acts coming to Buxton played at Rotunda Brighton first, which – as I’ve mentioned elsewhere – has suddenly become a leading venue there. So we’ll start a couple of plays that have earned promotions to safe choice based on the performances there.

The Ballad of Mulan

mulan20fringe20brochure20imageGrist to the Mill (aka Ross Ericson and Michelle Yim) provide the in-house component of The Rotunda. I finally caught up with Michelle Yim’s back catalogue of monologues in Brighton as this one emerges as the stand-out. Hua Mulan is a folk hero from fifth (ish) century China, know to many people in the West from the Disney film, but this makes a point of not being the Disney version. You don’t actually see much of Mulan’s military career; instead the story concentrates on the time up to and including her first battle, and looking ahead to retirement on the even of her last battle.

A lot of the story leading up to her enlisting covers the gender roles of 5th-century China, which aren’t unique to that period. However, the most universal theme is that of warfare. The legend may be of a woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to become a general, but the themes of the naivety of fresh-faced youth and the camaraderie of the old hands contrasted with the brutal reality of the battlefield could easily have come from World War One. This shows at The Rotunda on the 17th, 19th, 20th & 24th July at either 6.00 p.m. or 7.30 p.m.

The Formidable Lizzie Boone

lizzie-2-1024x1024-1This play was a big success at last year’s Greater Manchester Fringe and got my attention for being a play with burlesque in it but not actually that much about burlesque. That is, in fact, incidental to a story of live made a mess through (mostly) the cruelty of others – and getting on top of your life again. Selina Helliwell is a woman in therapy who is ashamed of the things she has done in her life: some with good reason, others where there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even when she’s done bad things, it’s more a case of living up to the expectations of others – or should I say, living down.

But it’s not a gloomfest, it’s a show with the message that however out of control you think things are, it’s never too late to get a grip on your life again. For those of you who saw this appear on the radar at greater Manchester Fringe, I am pleased to confirm this was earned. Showing at The Rotunda on the 21st & 23rd July at 7.30 p.m.

The Little Prince

Now it’s on to one of Buxton Fringe’s favourite names – but one you might not have heard of for some time. Three’s Company, the artistic arm of Underground Venues, were last seen performing in Buxton in 2017, although they have done some film and online material during the mostly dry years of 2020 and 2021. For those who remember, Three’s Company are best known for their plays with compulsory audience participations, from an over-friendly Boris Johnson giving you his business card to a plain old actor walking through a portal and seeing a whole room of people staring at him. However, there have been other plays from the serious to the surrealistic, and out of all the plays I’ve seen, I’ve don’t think there’s been a single weak link.

It’s not immediately clear what sort of adaptation Tom Crawshaw has in store of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story. It’s billed as a “bold and joyous new adaptation”, which suggests something more conventional, but a distant star asks for a drawing of a sheep, which I’m pretty sure isn’t in the original. I’m aware that some people consider the idea of being taken on stage their worst nightmare, and I can’t this out, but even if this happens to you, it’ll be worth it. Showing at Underground at the Clubhouse on the 20th – 24th July, various times.

Under Milk Wood: Semi skimmed

705660And we end with two in a crossover with Spoken Word. I finally caught Guy Masterson’s long-running Edinburgh Fringe performance last year, and it is delightful. Dylan Thomas’s poem of a day in the life of sleepy fishing village Llareggub has been performed in many different interpretations by many different groups; but the one thing that makes this one stand out is, quite simply, Masterson’s love of the poem. There’s also some lovely music to go with this performance.

There is one snag with seeing this at Edinburgh: in the wrong time and the wrong place, the more poignant quiet moment are sullied by the boom-boom-boom-boom of an thoughtlessly-placed DJ in the neighbouring venue. If you want to be certain of avoiding this, the Pavilion Gardens are about as safe a bet as you can have. So catch this at Buxton at the Rotunda on the 16th & 17th July at 7.30 p.m.

Portents

And the last one is in the Spoken Word category rather than Theatre; however, it does feature someone who’s been in the theatre section many times: Polis Loizou from Off-Off-Off Broadway Theatre. This isn’t actually his project, though. It is instead the project of Sam Enthoven aka Sinister Masterplan, who provides live musical soundscapes to spooky stories, usually with his regular storyteller Laura Sampson but in Buxton joined by Polis. But whilst Polis might just be the guest star, this is stylistically very similar to his own ghost stories. (Fun fact: Polis was an inspiration for me, demonstrating how well horror can be made to work on the small stage and how much better it is than big-budget-Hollywood-bump-them-off-one-at-a-time offering.)

I saw Impostors back in 2019 which formed a highlight of that fringe, so I have high hopes for this one. See this on the 18th & 19th July at 7.00 p.m.

Bold choice:

Bold choices are thing that got me interested where I’ve less certainty of what you’ll make of it. Some have divided opinions, some are new plays, some are different, but the thing that all of these have in common is the potential to be the next big hit.

Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show

278830581_10158876194700756_1196150304480558715_nI think I can repeat what I said about this for Brighton Fringe. Bold 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. 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. Instead of looking at how society treats a female Jekyll, every stereotypically male trait is incorporated into Heather Rose-Andrews’ act as if the original character has been created for her all along – including those you’d think couldn’t possibly work as a gender-flip.

This play earned all-round acclamation on the home patch of Brighton but divided opinion a bit more at Buxton. 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, everybody was unanimous in praise for Heather Rose-Andrews’s 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 20th July at 5.30 p.m. and 21st & 22nd July at 4.00 p.m.

[BLANK]

It is customary amongst fringe reviewers to lower the bar for youth productions. Most reviewers go out of their way to look for good thing in the promising ones, and there’s an unwritten rule to lay off the bad ones. One group that does not need these concession, however, is Shadow Syndicate. I don’t know how they do it, but in spite of being a small-scale venture without the backing of any major theatres, they are easily up to standard with their adult counterparts. The plays are interesting too. I’ve seen many youth productions fall foul of organisers using it as a vehicle for their own pet projects (something, I suspect, they would get away with doing with volunteer adults), but the plays I’ve seen them do before have always been thought-provoking one way or another.

Extremism, which I saw in 2018, showed how good they can be. The play was interesting enough – a classroom forming a microcosm of racial tensions in the country – but the level of organisation needed to maintain a large-cast production to that level of complexity was particularly impressive. Now they’re taking on the equally contentious topic of the criminal justice system. Expect a lot of turnover in a youth group over four years, but we will see how they fare with (presumably) a mostly new batch. Showing 17th – 20th July at 1.00 p.m. (5.30 p.m. 19th).

War of the Worlds

The one in-house Production of the Rotunda I didn’t manage to see in Brighton was Ross Ericson’s new play. He’s been experimental with his previous work, such as the ambitious Gatiano transplanting Shylock the Moneylender’s legal battle to fascist-era Italy, and of course his smash hit The Unknown Soldier which earned Grist to the Mill the reputation it enjoys now. So the next project is an adaptation of everybody’s favourite three-legged Earthling-vapourising invaders. I believe this was partly motivated by Ross seeing another adaptation that he felt missed the point, so let’s see how this compared. You can see it on 15th & 23rd-24th July at 6 p.m. (7.30 p.m. 24th) at The Rotunda.

I should clarify this is an adaptation of the H. G. Wells original rather the Jeff Wayne version. However, if you prefer you War of the Worlds to be more Dahhh! Da-Daaaahhhhhhhhh …. DDahhh! Da-Daaaahhhhhhhhh, I have some good news for you. You can also see Edy Hursts Comedy Version Of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of HG Wells’ Literary Version (Via Orson Welles’s Radio Version and Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) of The War of the Worlds at Underground Venues on the 7th and 14th July.

Report: an Enquiry into the Enquiries

Mark Reid impressed Buxton, Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe a few years back with The Gambit, where the two greatest chess masters, Kasparov and Karsov, meet up long after the world’s fixation with chess has faded. It was praised by many for capturing the obsession there was with chess over the course of the cold war, as well as the roles of these two chess masters and the tensions between them. This one stays with the historical theme and looks at major historical events – and the enquiries and conspiracy theories that invariably follow. The blurb doesn’t way which ones, but the image suggests that JFK is going to be part of this (along with Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby and probably Elvis, Lord Lucan and the Duke Edinburgh too).

But this this what it is really about. It is hinted that the real story is not what Ben and Barney are telling us about, but Ben and Barney’s relationship to each other. And on that cryptic note, I can advise you it’s showing at The Green Man Gallery on the 9th – 10th July at 8.00 p.m.

Adventures in Sound and Light

And finally, something from the music section, which I don’t normally cover at all. But Peter Egriega has grabbed my attention for two reasons. Firstly, although I’m no expert on grass-root jazz music, his band is clearly a cut above most of seen (many of whom, for some reason, seem to be obsessed with cycling through what sounds like a sequence of randomly chosen chords). Secondly, there’s always some interesting theme that goes with the music. Some and quite convention, such as online Xuxu’s Revolt in 2020 about the music of a woman from Portugal in the dictatorship years. Other’s are a bit more random, but are still enjoyable to watch even if I didn’t really follow what’s going on.

This one is billed as his most ambitious project, and looks very interstellar/physic themes, featuring lots of projection and a warning not to take hallucinogenics whilst watching. Anything that looks psychedlic gets my attention. This shows on 18th & 23rd-24th July at 7.30 p.m. (4.00 p.m. 24th) at The Rotunda.

Wildcard

The final category in the theatre picks in for production where I don’t know whether or not they are any good, but there is something about it that got me interested:

Nychtophilia

So the selling point of this one? The whole lot is done in pitch black. There is meant to be a story as well, one they describe as “grappling with love, mystery, and magic”. Performed as, in their words, “a sensory journey”, I don’t know what this will involve, but I’m curious to find out. If you are also curious, it is at Underground at the Old Clubhouse on the 7th, 8th & 10th July. Various times, but the final performance is at 10. p.m. which seems to me the right time for this.

From the comedy:

And finally, a quick run through the comedy. I lot of things from elsewhere are in the fringe listings, so this will need to be quick, and apologies to anyone who noticed me lifting the same description from Brighton Fringe. Apart from Edy Hurst’s War of the Worlds mentioned above, we have:

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 12th-13th 8.30p.m. ,Underground Venues.

Aidan Goatley: Tenacious It’s worth a mention for possibly Brighton Fringe’s most wholesome comedian, party of the Sweet Productions package coming to Buxton. 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. One performance only, 23rd July, 1 p.m., Underground Venues.

Imaginary Porno Charades: Well, given how many shows Sweet has sent Buxton’s way, it was only a matter of time before this one came along. As we all know, the most important think about a porn movie is the wittiness of the title, such as The Girl On Girl On The Train or Annie Get Your Cum. And what better way to discuss this than doing charades of it. (Imagined titles only please, any porno found to be real is disqualified – but I daren’t look up those titles I just made up.) The good news is that this is taking place after I leave, so there is no chance you will be watching me reprise my role in Franco Zeffirelli’s timeless masterpiece, Teabagging with Mussolini. Underground Venues, 21st July, 10 p.m.

Late Night Dirty Scrabble: If you think that previous show sounds like filth and you prefer nice things such as museums and Radio 4, perhaps you will enjoy a show about the great British literary institution that is scrabble. Except that this is Rude Word Scrabble, where only rude words are allowed. “But Chris”, I hear you say, “What am I suppose to do, sit and wait until I get a C and K to go with my F and U?” Just make it up. BDFM is Bondage and Domination whilst listen to FM radio, and if you don’t believe me, the dictionary corner will back me up. (Note: game may not include dictionary corner.) See it at Underground Venues, 8th & 13th July, late night.

Also in July:

This is registering a lot on my radar for obvious reasons, but Durham Fringe is on again this year after a promising start this year. They have gone up from five days to six, and from four venues to five, which means there’s 58 shows to choose from. I will be giving limited coverage on the blog here because I am running one of the venues and I have responsibilities to promote this rather than scrutinise it. What I think I can say is that there are two things to look out for. One is how much use this gets as a last stop before Edinburgh Fringe – although it should be remembered that there was barely any Edinburgh Fringe last year and Durham Fringe managed without. The other thing is how the local acts do, and by local I’m talking about County Durham. Live Theatre and Northern Stage may call themselves “north-east” but are very heavily dominated by Newcastle. I am hoping for a good counter-balance where Durham talent gets the spotlight for a change.

However, the surprise is what’s happening with Greater Manchester Fringe. In 2019 I observed that this fringe wasn’t that far behind Buxton Fringe, but this has slipped back a bit, to 90 registrations (of which many are very last-minute). There is a major caveat to this number: most of the GM Fringe hubs are venues in their own right and would be running whether or not a fringe was going on. So it’s hard to tell if fringe theatre in Manchester is still taking a Covid hit or whether it’s just fewer productions running anyway bothering to register with this fringe. However, another observation is that it does seem to be a lot more Manchester-centric this year. In previous years there was a big spread from Bolton to Stockport; but this time round the shows not in walking distance of the city centre are in the minority. Way too early to tell what any of this means, but the fringe scene is in flux all over the place.

And that’s all things fringe in July. Join me (hopefully not too far after) when I give my roundup of what I saw.

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