REVIEWS: Skip to: 0.0031%, The Formidable Lizzie Boone, Vermin, The Huns, Moral Panic, No One, Underdogs, The Time Machine, The Ballad of Mulan, Anna May Wong, Yasmine Day, Mala Sororibous, Sex Lies & Improvisation, Labyrinth, The Last, A Pole Tragedy, Fragile, Room
I know, I’ve got into the habit of not properly writing up the fringes until the autumn, but this time I’ve had the excuses of several major projects keeping me busy. But it’s about time to do the retrospective. Almost everything you read here has already been in my Brighton Fringe live coverage, but collated together into something more orderly. I may also have some new thoughts, but many of the reviews will be reprints of what I wrote the first time round.
Oh boy, what a bumpy ride this has been across the fringe circuit. There were plenty of arguments going on at Edinburgh Fringe, but nothing was quite so sensational as the biggest venue in Brighton pulling out at short notice. There is a lot more being said about The Warren off the record than on the record, and I’ll have to be limited over what I say about that for now, but I can talk about the effect this has had on the rest of the fringe. It’s a lot.
Most of this roundup will be collating all the reviews into one place, but we begin with the overview:
What went down at Brighton Fringe
The first thing I will say is that, for all of the shitshows going on this year, the standard of the play I saw at Brighton Fringe was exceptional. Yes, the more good acts you get to know, the more likely to are to have a good fringe, but I don’t think that explains it here. Most of what I saw was based on review requests, mostly acts I’d never seen before, but even where I bought my own tickets, the two best ones where artists I’d never heard of before. And other people have been giving similar verdicts to me.
But we’ll get back to that later. Apart from that, here were the other, mainly more eye-catching, changes:
Decentralisation of venues:
In the years leading up to 2022, The Warren had been by far the dominant venue. It was getting close to the point where The Warren’s influence over Brighton Fringe was as big as the Big Four in Edinburgh. But if any one of The Pleasance or Assembly or Gilded Balloon or Underbelly ceased trading tomorrow, the other three would easily cover the gap. With the implosion of The Warren, however, would there be anything left that could be considered a fringe?
The answer, it turned out, was yes. Pre-2020, the only other venues of any standing were Sweet, The Rialto and Spiegeltent, with just three spaces between them in 2022. However, The Rotunda – previously only operating at Buxton as a full-standing fringe venue – was coincidentally making its inaugural year this year, and they got off to a flying start with its two spaces, not to mention some of the best shows I’ve seen this time round. Meanwhile, Laughing Horse has been more of a Stalking Horse this year. This venue chain has been around for years, but has grown and grown until in 2022 they account for just as big a share of the fringe programme as any other venue. What’s more, unlike its Edinburgh version which is almost exclusively comedy, their Brighton operation now accounts for a lot of the theatre. Even though they don’t have the lighting capabilities of the other venues, plenty of plays can manage without.
In addition, with the last-minute cancellation of The Warren and numerous acts looking for homes elsewhere, there was quite a lot going on in minor ad-hoc venues that might only have taken one or two acts in a normal year. All this between them meant a Brighton Fringe 2022 about three quarters of the size of 2019. But it’s a very different three quarters, spread over multiple small venues instead of being concentrated in a few high-profile ones. And that, many people argue, is a change for the better.
Decentralisation of locations:
There was one other notable change to Brighton Fringe 2022, and whilst the disappearance of The Warren was a contributing factor, there were a lot of other things in play too – it’s just a coincidence this all happened at the same time. Right up to 2021, there was increasingly a trend for venues to concentrate in central Brighton, in particular the hub of Spiegeltent plus Warren north of the pier. With the Warren gone, suddenly the focus was gone. The Rotunda might have taken the vacated space on Victoria Gardens if time allowed, but they seemed quite happy with their location of Bunswick Gardens, just west of the city centre. Laughing Horse’s five locations were spread over inner Brighton.
However, the big change was Sweet Venues and Junkyard Dogs relocating to the suburbs. The reasons behind the two moves were different, but the strategies were similar: stay part of the fringe system but re-focus audience appeal to a hyper-local level: Hove to the west for Sweet at the Poet’s, and Hannover to the east for Junkyard Dogs. There is a logic to doing things this way: unlike Edinburgh Fringe – where the audience is mostly visiting transitory, and unlikely to venture out of the Old Town too much – most of the Brighton Fringe audience is local. What’s more, along with the Rialto, Sweet and Junkyard are year-round venues. This means they can play the long game and build up an audience all year, with extra punters at Fringe time being a bonus rather than a necessity. That’s the theory anyway. So far, the mood seems quite positive that the respective plans are working – whether this is backed up with sales numbers remains to be seen.
There is a drawback though: it’s a right pain to get between outlying venues in Brighton Fringe itself. The Brighton-Hove train helps to the west – not sure how well buses help to the east. You’d need to be pretty confident of train/bus times if you’re on a tight schedule though. Hardcore fringers who like to pack as much as they can into a day at Edinburgh might find this new setup at Brighton not to their tastes.
The news on ticket sales, however, wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad as such, but compared to the sales per performance last year at both Brighton and Edinburgh, it was a bit of a let-down.
Ultimately, it cans down to what is recovering faster: audience numbers or performer numbers. Performer numbers were down 40-60% in Brighton Fringe 2021 (depending on how you count this), mainly because the short notice of what could be done and ongoing social distancing restrictions were a barrier for the less determined performers; however, this was the first event of any size to hit Brighton in over a year, and it easily drew an audience. Not necessarily as big as the ones in before times, but plenty to go round the performers who turned up.
This year, it seems to be the other way round. Participation is well on the way back to pre-2020 levels, but audience numbers are not – and that means there’s less to go round again. It’s not clear how tickets per performance compare to the late 2010s – and, as always, there was a big variance in how individual shows do, with some easily selling out and others in single figures – but it certainly wasn’t the wild optimism of last year.
As to why things have been a bit quiet this time, that’s harder to tell. It doesn’t seem to be anything particular to Brighton, because Buxton and Edinburgh have similar stories. One possibility is lingering Covid worries. Brighton Fringe participants are generally young, fit and healthy, with relatively low worries about getting another dose of the lurgi. Audiences, however, are a higher spread, and anecdotally I have heard of some older people who are still terrified of being in crowded spaces and still aren’t going to theatres. Another possibility is cost of living. Individual fringe shows don’t cost that much, but the costs add up, and if you were the sort of person who did this several times a day, lack of spare cash might make you think twice. The final scenario I can think of is that people who were used to doing this year on year and stopped have just got out the habit, and won’t be coming back whatever happens with Covid or inflation. That’s the most worrying scenario; the other two scenarios are temporary effects, but this would mean that some of the audience are gone for good.
It’s not a major threat – sales per performance can’t be down by that much, and it’s most likely that participation and prices will adjust round whatever cash flow ends up as. In the early 2010s Brighton Fringe ran on a much smaller budget, and it can run on a lower budget again if it has to. What it does mean is that the situation has not settled yet, and we have some way to go before we know what a post-Covid fringe will end up looking like.
Other odds and ends:
Apart from those three main things, a few other observations:
- In spite of being out of Brighton Fringe, the team behind The Warren still ran a programme over its during in its year-round venue, named “The EA in May”. This caused annoyance amongst some people who saw it as trying to piggy-back a festival they said they weren’t going to be part of. But, hey, if we didn’t allow piggy-backing of other festivals we would never have had the Edinburgh Fringe.
- In a divergence from Edinburgh Fringe and Buxton Fringe, Brighton Fringe did away with their traditional printed programme and instead had a “daily diary”. There were mixed reactions to that – and it didn’t help that the integration between QR codes and the Fringe website weren’t well thought through. Whatever the details, the verdict wasn’t positive enough, and next year Brighton Fringe is scrapping printed brochures completely and concentrating on a better website.
- Brighton Fringe does seem to be shifting back towards an evening and weekend festival. The reasons for this happening are fairly undramatic – it’s a lot more to do with how the venues taking part this year happen to programme than any sudden change in scheduling. However, there was a time when you could come mid-week and still have pack in a lot into each day. Not any more.
- I did hear numerous people mentioning that Brighton Fringe didn’t seem as “visible” as it has been in previous years. I suspect this is in part down to Brighton Fringe allowing the venues to do the job of showing the fringe was here, with the most visible venue being the biggest one. But that’s not here any more. This is a big contrast to Buxton Fringe, who go to town to show the fringe is on even in 2020 where (almost) everything was happening online. Maybe Brighton should take some lessons from them.
- The clear winner from Brighton Fringe 2022 was The Rotunda. In spite of running for their first year in Brighton, they were inundated with demand. They upscaled from once space for three weeks to two spaces over four weeks, and some of the best plays ended up there.
And that’s just about everything. You can read my thoughts on this in more detail, plus a few other observations, in the aforementioned live coverage. The summary, though, is that all conversations ended up coming back to The Warren. I’ve never heard so much anger over a single fringe venue,
But that’s enough here. Let’s get down to business with the reviews.
Pick of the fringe:
As I said, the standard of what I saw this year has been exceptional – and with almost everything I saw being groups I’ve never heard of before, I can’t put that down to finding the best stuff. The side effect? I’ve had to be VERY choosy over what gets in pick of the fringe. Pre-2020 I was also getting a lot fussier over insanely competitive Edinburgh, but this is the first time I’ve had to raise the bar this high for Brighton too.
As a result, there are some good plays I saw that would normally have made it into pick of the fringe but got squeezed out by something better. So for those left here: congratulations. You didn’t get your spot easily. Any criticisms I make here can be considered equivalent to a suggestion of how to get from four stars to five. Most of these are reprints of the reviews I did before, so let’s get cracking through this:
0.0031% Plastic and chicken bones
This is one of these plays which are best seen not knowing what it’s going to be about. Should there be any more performances of this coming up and you’re considering watching it, I advise you to stop reading this – suffice to say that this got a lot of five-star reviews for a reason.
“Dryskoll” wakes up in an unfamiliar surrounding in an unfamiliar body. It soon becomes clear that body-hopping is something that Dryskoll does all the time – in fact, in the future under the direction of the benevolent omnipresent AI system “Zimmy” everybody does this. Humans don’t really have their own bodies any more – rather they all an “ideologue”: a mind that can be transferred from body to body. The first use was evading death – since then, it has now been used for travel and even a fashion statement. However, Dryskoll is one of a few permitted to go a step further than most of Earth’s three billion subjects, and is sent through time. Only there’s a 0.031% chance of a glitch and ended up in the wrong time, place and person, and Dryskoll has been unlucky.
One early sign of things to come is Dryskoll commenting it’s a bit cold, to which Zimmy calmly responds that in 2022 this temperature was normal. The current quest of humanity is to undo the damage of the war – the one that would have destroyed humanity but for Zimmy’s intervention. When repairing damage is too difficult, the missions is to go back in time and try to stop it happening in the first place, such as nuclear disasters. However, if you’re really really perceptive, you might spot there’s a bit of this plan that doesn’t quite add up. Is Zimmy really such a benevolent dictator as she claims to be? And if you don’t spot the catch (and you’ll need to be a genius to spot this early), someone’s going to point this out, which throw everything into question. Some excellent parallels to Brave New World here, but with the catches harder to spot.
That’s as far as I can go without giving too much away. What I can say with spoiling any more is that it’s a very clever concept which is brilliantly revealed to the audience one bit at a time. If there’s one small thing I would suggest for improvement, it would be a clearer relationship between narrator and audience. I like solo plays to be more specific than one actor telling a story in first person. Who are the audience? Why is the actor talking to them? Normally I don’t discuss this as it’s just my own personal preference, but on this occasion there’s a very good reason to establish to audience as people from the present who’ve stumbled across this strangest of stranger. I can’t say why, but the reason will become clear at the end. Lot of praise for this, and thoroughly deserved.
The Formidable Lizzie Boone
Depending on which publicity you read about the play, you can expect either a play about therapy or a play about burlesque. I was wondering how the two would combine. In fact, the play is very much about the former. Lizzie is coming to therapy because she thinks she may be a psychopath. This is her fourth therapist; we can only assume the other three failed to open up. A psychopath is not a fair description at all, but she has done a lot of things in her life that she’s ashamed of. A number of those things with good reason, but there’s also things she shouldn’t be ashamed of. So messed up are things, that she is now running and hiding from something good happening in her life for once.
Selina Helliwell’s story of a screwed up life is very convincing. Lizzie is not a bad person; neither is there a single defining moment that causes her life to fall apart. Rather, it is a slippery slope. Small acts of thoughtlessness and petty cruelty from childhood snowball into bigger ones. Playground politics equates red hair with being a slag. Unfortunately, Lizzie lives down to expectations, in the naive belief she’ll fit in – and that only makes things worse. A lot worse. However, just as the catalogue of mistreatment is believable, Lizzie’s reaction to the world is understandable too. She has lost close friends when she opened up to some of the worst things she’s done in her life – but in the context of what led her to do that, it’s more understandable.
Strangely enough, the thing which I could have offered more was the burlesque. Not more burlesque, but more impact in the story. The main function of this in the story is how her worst partner of all reacts to it. There’s no surprises she ends up in such a toxic relationship – her life experiences to date have led her to believe this is normal behaviour – and the reaction of her partner to doing a burlesque strip show is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. But rather than just a plot point in the story of Lizzie’s latest bad relationship, this could easily have been a whole plot thread in its own right. Until now, Lizzie’s sex life has been almost entirely ne’er-do-wells using her – this time, Lizzie gets to be the one in control. I realise we’re in a one-hour time limit here, and there’s no straightforward way of doing this, but there’s a lot you could do with what is effectively Lizzie’s therapy to regain self-esteem.
But remember, we are discussing how to get from four stars to five here. It’s ultimately part of a story of a woman pushed to the brink and finding herself again on her own terms, and as a whole it does an excellent job of this. Ultimately it’s a story about how good people can end up doing bad things and let bad things be done to them – and how to move on from this. There a plenty of burlesque shows at Brighton Fringe, but you can see this for its story of finding yourself.
As I mention, one effect of Laughing Horse branching out into theatre is that we’re seeing numerous plays have to make do without sound and lighting. As it turns out, Tryptich Theatre’s play is ideally suited to this. The entire story is Rachel and Billy telling their story. The are the world’s most in-love love-dovey couple, and the excitedly tell as about the fateful moment they met on a delayed train. Although there’s already something a bit off about this. Most people react with either sympathy of “for fuck’s sake” when there’s a jumper on the line – Rachel and Billy, on the other had, and mawkishly gawping over whether he lives or dies. One thing mentioned in other reviews that’s important is that they may be a seriously screwed up couple, but they are very much believable as a couple deeply in love, without which the story doesn’t make sense. But it’s just how screwed up they get that defines the story.
There is a content warning I really need to give about this play: there’s A LOT of graphic references to animal cruelty in this. Billy’s ghoulish obsession with death didn’t come out of nowhere – he was a pathological animal-killer as a child, starting with bugs and creepy crawlies, but being forced to end when it became clear what he was killing and how he was doing it. He quips at one point about “everybody” getting the urge to push someone on to the tracks at a crowded tube station once in a while – but it increasingly looks like it’s just him, and the only thing that stops him are the consequences.
Benny Ainsworth and Sally Parfett are a great double-act of this messed up couple. When a rat infestation blights their new home, it becomes clear that Billy doesn’t see this as pest control – he enjoys the killing way too much. For a long time, Rachel has been egging him on – even the worst of the animal cruelty stories is a hoot to her. But when she comes face to to face with the rats, she unexpectedly becomes a sort-of rat-whisperer. That is a rather strange change of heart, but there is a reason for this. And once the reason is clear, we know this is not going to end well. And there’s only one context I could see the two of them telling this story together now.
Again, be aware you need a strong stomach for this one. In a way, this does the opposite of Lizzie Boone. The last play was someone who was a victim of circumstance and did stupid things because the hand life dealt her. Rachel and Billy, however, have so much going for them, and yet there is a twisted inevitability about how these two are doomed to be the architects of their own misfortune. Recommended if you have the stomach for this. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’m not sure why One Four One Collective named this play The Huns; I vaguely remember seeing a video on their social media feed explaining the title, which I might check at some point. Please be assured there’s no Vikings or World War One soldiers called Fritz in this, just the equally brutal world of the conference call. Three people assemble in a conference room to discuss a burglary last night. The obvious question why a break-in would require the attention of several offices around the world, HR, and the CEO of the company himself. However, that is going to have to wait. Before we can get on to this subject, we have to put up with faulty presentation equipment, nobody understanding how to do a conference call, people chipping in with irrelevant questions, and a particularly useless Vice-CEO (coincidentally married to the CEO) who won’t mute her phone to cut out wind because she’s can’t hear anyone telling her to mute.
According to the play’s press release, this starts off as a civilised and professional meeting. Hah! You don’t fool me that easily. Speaking as someone who’s been these sorts of calls, this is starts off as a passive-aggressive and superficially-professional-but-obviously-a-complete-shambles-underneath meeting. Amongst the chaotic set-up of the call and the endless stalling over what actually happened last night, one thing soon becomes clear: not only is the building they’ve moved in to a shambles from top to bottom (which faulty lifts, rubbish piling up everywhere and burglar alarms that go off every five minutes), everyone is manoeuvring themselves to say this wasn’t their fault. Clearly the routine issues in the Estates department have suddenly become a lot more important than anyone’s letting on. I won’t give away what the bombshell is, but it be honest, it’s no surprise when it comes.
There is a serious side to this. As someone who works in tech and has been on those sort of conference calls, sad to say there’s not much hyperbole here. This is considered normal behaviour. Due to the nature of tech projects, they gravitate to lots of long hours being worked at the last moment. That is far from inevitable, there are plenty of ways of ensuring it doesn’t come to that, but that requires effort. And, unfortunately, a lot of people would rather double down on defending this culture. It’s exciting, it’s team-bonding. Anyone who complains about being forced to cancel their life outside of work is decried as insufficiently committed. Of course, the problem with packing all work into the last moment is that one small setback is liable to kill the whole project. And no-one ever learns the right lessons. It’s all blame games, as we see here.
I do need to be careful about making this review into an endorsement of the opinions rather than the play. What really matters is how the characters respond to this, and yes, it is a very believable depiction of smiles and professionalism thinly hiding a survival game trying to pin the blame on anyone but themselves. If there was a weakness, the moral to the ending, much as I agree with it, was a little overdone. The human cost of crunch culture heavily dominates the last quarter of the play, but the lengthy monologues are used to spell out a lot of things already implied by the rest of the play. This drags the pace down to something that was otherwise fast moving. But even if the message is spelt out a little too dogmatically by the end, the message a good one and made well.
Now another play that took place outside of the main tech-friendly venues. As we saw with Vermin, some plays work perfectly well on the strength of just the words. Moral Panic, however, is a good example of the other solution. This took place in the basement on Conclave, an art gallery, and even though it was just a normal room, a pretty decent makeshift set of lights were rigged up which did almost as good a job as the real thing. Many groups often abandon their fringe plans if they can’t get a space in a “proper” venue, but Blue Dog Theatre did a good job of demonstrating what you can do with DIY if you’re determined to make it work.
It’s the 1980s, and there’s a panic over the “video nasty”. Owing to the proliferation of the videotape, films that previously had to be vetted through the cinema have gone straight to the corruptible public. To be fair to censor Charles, there’s is some pretty nasty stuff out there, but being the the 1980s, the panic is all over blasphemy involving demons and crucifixes. One moment you’re watching The Exorcist at home and the next moment you’re drawing pentagrams and having orgies in goat entrails. “Ah”, I hear you cry. “But why don’t the censors who see this stuff go round murdering people?” Duh, moral fortitude. Do keep up. And so we watch a perfect opening as stuffy pencil-moustached Charles (Jack W Cooper) watches Lesbian Nuns Demonic Orgy 6 or something like that, furiously scribbling on his clipboard as he does so.
Charles’s no-nonsense old-school attitude extends to his home life too. He expects his food on the table when he comes home from his loyal Susan because she likes doing that sort of thing, probably. She also probably likes his advice on what jewellery shouldn’t be worn outside the house. It wouldn’t be fair to write him off as on out-and-out sexist though. When the first woman is appointed to the board of censors, I’m sure he’d have been perfectly fine with an equally stiff elderly spinster muttering “It’s filth!” whenever someone says a rude word,such as “bottom” or “knickers”. Unfortunately, the new appointment is young Veronica. Provocatively dressed, distressingly European in her attitudes, she doesn’t seem to have a problem with anything Charles demands cutting, and goodness knows what debauchery she partakes in over in Italy. Worse, she’s been appointed by the retiring Chief Censor as his successor – a position Charles was sure he had in the bag. What is going on here?
Writer/director Stuart Warwick gets the characterisation. It would have been easy to have made Charles into a right-wing caricature, but– however silly his old-fashioned views on censorship are – you always understand what he wants and how genuinely is is horrified by the heathen liberalism of Veronica. And the references to the video at the time are of real films that caused panic. The only thing where I felt something was missing was the twist at the end. I will refrain from giving it away, suffice to say that there’s somebody who proves dangerous to underestimate. Does the dirty deed make sense? Yes – it was a pretty devious move which all made sense if you’d thought to through. What I didn’t quite register, however, is why that person would do something so extreme. I think we need something extra to show why this was the logical course of action for our unexpected malcontent. That’s only a small issue though. If you remember the Mary Whitehouse era, this will get you nostalgic – if you didn’t: it’s a different kind of stupid compared to today’s censorship, but you’ll pick it up soon enough. Hope to see this one return.
This is described a “remix” of The Invisible Man rather than an adaptation. Unlike Northern Stage, whose adaptation sought to encompass a wide part for the original story in a modern context, Akimbo Theatre concentrates on on key element of the story: the relationship between Griffin and Marvel. In the original, Griffin is a scientist and Marvel is a homeless man who is easily manipulated into Griffin’s ally. In this version, far from homeless, Marvel is a successful university student – however, he is still socially introverted and still an easy target. The play begins as Marvel is being interrogated by the Police. A woman called Mia is missing, Marvel is in the frame, and it soon becomes clear that he’s covering for someone.
Akimbo Theatre are a physical dance troupe and that plays heavily into the production. An early scene replays CCTV footage where Marvel decks an entire pub in a pub fight. Another scene is where Marvel levitates a five-pound note into Mia’s hand. Both scenes are, of course, not what they seem, and when re-run later feature with Griffin in view. The key relationship, however, is that Griffin is behind Marvel’s sudden career as a magician making all sorts of things levitate. Whatever anger Griffin had in Blackpool and whatever he did back there, he’s happy to make Marvel’s success his new project. However, Griffin can’t help getting into quite brutal fights on Marvel’s behalf, and thanks to the mask of social media and telephone, starts an online relationship with Mia who believes him to be Marvel. No chance of a love triangle as such – let’s just say Mia isn’t Marvel’s type – but we still know this is going to get messy.
I have to say, this blows the socks off Northern Stage’s production. To be fair to Northern Stage, we aren’t quite comparing the same thing there: one was a training exercise for new conventional actors; this is an physical theatre-heavy piece for an ensemble who executes it flawlessly. But ever where we compare like-for-like with the writing, Akimbo does it better. Northern Stage tried to take on a lot of issues and ended up confusing everyone, but Akimbo’s focus on one party of the story and fleshing it out works very well. I’ll give a score draw for the staging though, with both productions producing striking visual effects in their own ways.
That said, there was one bit of Akimbo’s plot that didn’t quite work. Having conveyed the tensions between Marvel and Griffin so well up to the concluding scene, it suddenly got confusing. There’s just been a row that’s broken Mia’s relationship and turned Griffin and Marvel on each other, but now they’re back at home and there’s a party and someone’s come to get Griffin and Mia’s still there? And when the inevitable fight breaks out, everybody seems to take a long time to react to someone being hurt. Something, I fear, has been lifted from the H G Wells story that doesn’t make sense in this new setting. Apart from the slightly muddled last ten minutes, however, this is an brilliantly-executed concept of physical theatre.
This was one of the Rialto’s headliners. The Foundry Group has been one of the biggest names of the fringe circuit ever since their hit Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks. Now Joseph Nixon and Brian Mitchell are collaborating with a difference strange true story. Instead of a public obsession with two men pretending to fight each over every Saturday afternoon in the 1970s, it’s the equally strange obsession over a man who tried – and ultimately succeeded – in taking the (unofficial) world record for longest time being buried alive, seeking to retake the title in memory of his mother, who once held the world record in the 1970s.
That’s not really what the play is about, though. It will surprise no-one to learn that you can’t make a hour-long story of someone shouting “Come on, you can do it! You’re half-way, just lie there for another 72 days!” The theme is in the title, “Underdogs”. Geoff Smith is a slacker with no career, a string of broken relationships and children with two different mothers. Six months underground doesn’t feel that much of a loss when there’s not much else to do. But the more prevalent theme is the everybody being treated as underdogs. This stunt was of course an attention-grabber for the media at the time, but there is always a disdainful theme of the London media types behaving not only like they’re better than that loser with nothing better to do, but that they’re also better than all the other losers in Mansfield with nothing to do. Particular scorn is reserved for the “And Finally …” section of ITV news. And then, inevitably, comes the scummier side of the tabloid press – the moment anyone grabs a bit of flashpan fame, the press rake around their lives looking for anything to make them look bad. It doesn’t matter that it’s 20% truth and 80% conjecture and insinuation – who’s going to fight them in court?
The power dynamics in the team come into play too. The pub landlord who eggs Smith on has at least one eye on the future business prospects of his pub. His wife, on the other hand, wants nothing to with the scheme, but ends up as arguably Geoff’s only proper friend, without a stake in the game herself. I think this play could do with some tightening; 75 minutes is not too different a running time for a fringe, but I felt there were a number of digressions that knocked the momentum out of the story, albeit a story that is by its very nature not supposed to be fast-moving. The reason I said this is that Big Daddy versus Giant Haystack – which does share a lot of virtues with this play – had some similar issues in the early versions. However, this were all ironed out into a great finished product for Edinburgh. So some work to be done, but a good job so far on a concept many would write off as impossible to dramatise.
The Time Machine
And here it is again. I’ve been waiting for this to happen since 2017 at Brighton Fringe, and then we get two at once.
You can get my equivalent to five stars for excellent performance across writing, stage and acting, but The Keeper’s Daughter earns for one brilliantly executed concept: quite fittingly, the time machine itself. Steampunk fans will be please to know that the machine on stage is everything you expect from the style of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and more, and whilst it doesn’t literally travel through time, it comes a close second. The machine provides all of the sound and lighting throughout the performance, operated by Mark Finbow who plays our intrepid inventor at the same time.
But the technical wizardry doesn’t come straight away. We first of all see our Dickensian Doctor Who busy recharging his contraption. Having previously neglected to check where and when he is, he discovers to his unpleasant surprise it’s 2022, and he’d rather be on his way if you don’t mind. But with another 55 minutes before he’s ready to go, he chooses to tell a story of an afternoon trip he once took eight hundred thousand years into the future to work up an appetite for the delicious lamb dinner he was due to have with his gentlemen friends that evening.
This story is a little simplified from the original H G Wells story, but is still very faithful: the intrepid traveller discovering that in the future, humankind have split into two species, with one peaceful and benign, the other malevolent and exploitative. In fact, the only notable change to the story is the reframing of the story-in-a-story format, originally told at the aforementioned dinner party, now told to the strangers met in a century the real author never got to see. But it’s when the time travelling starts that the performance really comes into its own. There is a lot of technical wizardry required to set up the light and music and sound and smoke , but that’s only half the task. The hard bit is integrating this with the action being performed on stage. As anyone who has tried leaving a technical sequence running on stage knows, there are no room for mistakes here. Go out of sync once and the whole thing falls apart. This is executed flawlessly, combining spoken word, physical theatre and puppetry for our hero’s futuristic companion Weena all playing great parts in this performance.
As for how we wind this up – well, I don’t normally give away what happens in the final third of the play, but this end of this one is too good to ignore. Like Plastic and Chicken Bones, where there’s a traveller who’s seen the future, there a chance to tell something to people in the past. And this time, pardon the paraphrasing, it’s simply that’s it’s hard for one person to change the future, but maybe all of us can. And that’s a perfect round-off to a near-perfect production. Sadly the last performance was today, and there’s no other performances announced, but surely after the overwhelming acclaim this play is getting there will be more. What’s more, since it brings along its own tech, it doesn’t even need to be done in a theatre. Keep an eye out; this could be coming to a place near you, and it may be nearer than you think.
The Ballad of Mulan
Michelle Yim’s last two plays were about little-remembered East Asian women from the first half of the last century. Most people, however, have heard of Hua Mulan, if only through the Disney film. Michaelle Yim is determined to give an undisneyfied version of the legend.
Out of the three plays of hers I’ve seen, this one I think is the strongest by a convincing margin. This shouldn’t be too surprising: biopics of real historical are difficult to keep interesting without sacrificing accuracy, but the legend of Mulan has endured for a millennium and a half. Most historians now think it’s more likely she was the product of a storyteller’s imagination rather than any real person, but if that’s the case, it’s a storyteller who did the job well. The tale of a woman who took her father’s place in the army and rose to the rank of general over ten years certainly stood the test of time.
Ross Ericson’s script, however, doesn’t so much follow the styles of Chinese Mythology. If anything, it’s got a lot more in common with the tales of World War One. There is no blow-by-blow account of Mulan’s rise through the ranks in her meteoric career; merely the events leading up to her first battle. On the one hand, we hear of how Mulan’s tomboy ways as a child would make her exactly the sort of woman who’s fall in the the man signing up for war. But the stronger part of the story is signing up to the army. There are plenty of fresh-faced conscripts excited to see something of the world, and naive to the horrors that lie ahead; there’s also veterans from earlier campaigns, less eager to go through this again, but kept going by the camaraderie of old friends from wars gone by.
Perhaps the winning formula here is Ross Ericson playing to his all-time number one strength. The Unknown Soldier was deservedly praised for its depiction of The Great War, encompassing both the catastrophe of war and the enduring human spirit. If the plan was to apply the same touches to another war, it’s worked well here. Mission accomplished here, because this is indeed her version Disney couldn’t do even they wanted to – however they approach things, they can never fully escape their expectations of being twee. Good choice of story from Grist to the Mill, and good job done.
And the roundup continues with the honourable mentions. This is not the bottom tier – if I hate a play, I usually don’t say anything at all. Some of these plays had great concepts but flaws in execution. Some were good all-rounders but not that adventurous. Some are comedies that have merit of the theatrical front too. This time round, we also have some plays here that would have made it into pick of the fringe had they not been squeezed out by tight competition. But all of these have points of merit and deserve credit for it.
The Unforgettable Anna May Wong
Out of all of Michelle Yim’s East Asian plays, Mulan is my clear favourite, but I also took the chance to catch up with another one I’ve been meaning to see. I will declare straight up this is advertised as a work in progress. Not because the performance needs to be polished – indeed I saw no problems there, with Michelle Yim treating us to show tunes with a hitherto unknown musical performance. Rather, she is learning new things about the life of the real Anna May Wong and constantly working this into the story.
The ongoing question of monologues: who is the performer addressing? I have seen solo biopics that have unironically ending with “and then I died”. This one doesn’t beat about the bush and Anna May Wong welcomes herself to the Brighton Fringe audience as says she’s dead. She then briefly goes over the last relatively uneventful two decades of her life before going back to how she got into her heyday is a Hollywood star. Inevitably, being an east Asian woman in early 20th century Hollywood cannot be ignored. It was possible to have a successful career, but there were quite specific idea of what actors of certain races should play. Anna May Wong had a successful career as a sex symbol (much to the disapproval of her more conservative Chinese descent peers – there is whole separate strand of film industry politics in play there), but it was a struggle to be anything different. One thing I’ve been learning about race relations in 20th century America is that is as well as the big things (such as segregation and the so-called “literary tests”), there was other things that were just petty. In this case, it was the bizarre rule than you weren’t allowed to have a white man kissing an Asian woman in a film – something she made it her mission to defy.
One view I’m arriving at for biopics, however, is that it’s better to allow imagination to fill in the gaps that shy away when in doubt. It’s relatively easy to piece together what people did in their lives, but much harder to know for certain how they felt. To repeat what I’ve said before: this is a play, not a documentary. We may never know what made Anna May Wong tick, but I can see a lot of potential with her quest to win acceptance of her family. The strongest thread I see is her quest she give her sister the same success she has on the silver screen, only for it to backfire. But we only heard about this late in the play, when this narrative could have built up through the hour.
A frequent sin I see with historical plays is writers who attempt to pass off their own views as the views of the character they depict. That is not done here, and the play rightly gives Anna May Wong her own voice rather that the writer’s. However, I think you can take more artistic license on someone’s hopes and aspriations. I look forward to seeing what else there is to learn about this fascinating life – but don’t be afraid to let fiction step in where the facts leave us with gaps.
Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me
This is a quick review as I am theatre blogger, and this one, whilst it does have some crossover with theatre, is moving sharply back in the comedy direction. Yasmine Day is a comedy character of Jay Bennet, an 80s diva whose opinion of herself vastly outstrips her ability to be a pop diva. She would like to glide on a moving stage, but owing to budgetary constraints and limitations of the capabilities of this space, she has to make do with a beer trolley. She is also accompanied by her pianist (also her nephew and lodger). If this sounds crummy, it’s your fault for not understanding the art deeply enough.
Yasmine Day’s previous show was painfully pretentious renditions of 80s hits. This time, however, she’s treating us to renditions of original music, which goes a long way to explain why she never made it into the charts. A light-hearted song about to teenagers getting it on gets the chorus “We are kissin’ cousins” (spoiler: cousins may be more related than advertised). And with street harassment increasingly a topic for discussion, Yasmine thinks outside the box, and in response to the time builder invited her to suck his big fat cock (or something like that), Yasmine sings “And I though: I still got it.” Actually those songs are quite catchy. There is a rule with comedy music it’s almost always funnier if the songs are musical in their own right, and that’s certainly the case here.
However, I must say I do miss the tragi-comedy of the previous show. Jay Bennet tells me that Yasmine’s lifelong feud with Cheryl Baker and the way she blames everyone else for her failures is still canonical and feeds into the character now, and I can’t expect every new show to go through this all over again. But one of the most poignant memories of An Audience with Yasmine Day was the moments when her vulnerability slipped through. But although I may miss that, it feeds well into the diva who’s scaled even more heights of delusion than her last outing. Recommended as a lot of fun.
This plays is from Troubador Theatre, and a heavy crossover with New Venture Theatre. Three middle-aged women are out walking in the countryside. They bicker over the most trivial things, but stop when their niece Beth arrives. It was only recently that Beth’s mother died, and with the two of them keen on survival in the outdoors, it’s considered a fitting way to commemorate the departed. It soon becomes clear, however, that Beth and her three aunties have not been seeing each other until very recently. A bit strange, you might think, but there’s an early explanation that might explain the lack of contact: Beth is actually quite annoying. She might not even realise this, but her mildly scolding tone when giving Barbara, Judith and Glynnis rules for survival is enough to make anyone find another engagement. But that’s only the start of it. The three sisters don’t seem to have had that happy a time at home. Beth has seemingly inherited a lot of money. Someone is not being straight with someone, and out in the middle of nowhere it’s asking for trouble.
For this sort of play, the biggest challenge by far is characterisation. The one rule you can never escape from is that everything a character does must be plausible – and the more out of the ordinary a character behaves (and the ending is as far from ordinary behaviour as can be), the harder you have to work to explain why. But when all is not as it seems, this principle has to work on several layers. Each characters’ behaviour has to be plausible to the audience at face value – you can drop the odd hint that something’s not quite right, but in the harsh world of fringe theatre implausible actions are put down as bad writing. Each characters’ behaviour also has to be plausible to the other characters – when your characters know each other, you have to consider what would be accepted as normal and what would make them smell a rat. Finally, it all has to make sense at the end – the audience should be able to retrace the characters’ steps and not think “wait, why didn’t she just do something else instead?” One similar consideration is when characters reveal secrets. Always be asking yourself: What made her open up now? Why did she never open up before? Yes, it’s a plot requirement that the audience need to know at this point in the play, but still you have to make the moment believable.
What I would say is resist the temptation to stick to the plot you have in your head when a plot point isn’t quite working. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a plot requirement that isn’t possible to write without somebody: doing something out of character; or not reacting to something obviously wrong; or failing to register danger. You might have an explanation in your head but the audience don’t, and if it’s not possible to get that across, it’s sometimes better to abandon that plot point completely and find another way to make the story work. The framework for a farcical comedy masking a thriller is there. Pleasantries mask greed and resentment; the questioned is left in the balance as to who will outwit who, who will get their way in the end, how far they are prepared to go to get it. The icing on the cake would surely be showing why it’s the ending is the only way it could have gone.
Sex, Lies and Improvisation
This is a bit of an unusual one to review. You rarely hear the term “improv” outside of “improv comedy”. In theory, this should be no exception. It’s literally called “Sex, Lies and Improvisation” and it’s in the comedy section of the programme. But where did the assumption come from you can’t have one without the other? We have scripted comedies, so why not an improvised drama?
Sex, Lies and Improvisation started off its life as Between Us, which has been on my Edinburgh Fring radar for some time. The rebrand, I understand, was mostly for marketing purposes, but it also gave the premise for the seed to the improvisation: a lie told to your partner. Originally, they asked for people to shout out suggestions, but they weren’t always forthcoming – and, seriously, do you think I’m going to own up to that? So instead they asked people to own up through the more anonymous medium of a website. With lies numbered from 2 to 69 available tonight, I was incredibly dismayed that the whole audience wasn’t crying out for 69 – come on, the play has the word “sex” in the title folk – and we ended up with “I tell my partner I vote Labour, but I don’t really.”
And so Rachel Thorn and Alex Keen begin their story and notch this lie up a few levels. Not only does Rachel openly vote Labour, she’s a Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner superfan. Alex Keen, on the other hand, is a closet Tory (albeit a Tory with sense, which I’m told still exists somewhere), but he’s gone along with canvassing for Labour. That gets some laughs, as does the mention that Alex’s father as really right-wing. From this point onwards, however, the laughs peter out, and it goes on to two more serious subjects. In spite of efforts to win him over, Alex’s father is an steadfast lech and bully. Rachel, on the other hand, has no room of difference of opinion in her world and wants ideological purity.
It’s a pretty decent story for something knocked off the cuff – to be honest, it’s better than some conventional scripted plays. There is a school of thought that playwriting should be based on rounded characters and how they respond to each other, and to some extent it’s an exercise in seeing how it can work if you leave characters to their own devices. There’s not much point in analysing the story I saw too much, as this is only played once; but the only bit I thought got a bit repetitive was them hesitating in wondering how to answer a difficult question from their partner. I realise a two-hander is improv in hard mode when there’s no opportunity to knock up the next scene in the wings, but anything that avoid “umming” overkill would be a plus.
This is a very different form of improv to Murder She Didn’t Write or Notflix or Crime Scene Improvisation. Those work as out-and-out comedies very well, but I think it would be a mistake for Sex, Lies and Improvisation to trying outdo them on playing it for laughs. Like Room, it’s difficult to rate this as there’s not really anything like this to compare it to. But it’s different, it’s worth seeing for being different, and it makes it mark for showing this concept can work.
I was slow to review this one because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure sure what to do with it. To explain the issue here, this is a play where you really need to know in advance what it’s about. That might seem like a stupid question – surely anyone who decides to see any play reads the publicity blurb first? If you are a reviewer or a hardcore fringer, however, it doesn’t always work like that. When you have half a dozen shows to schedule, any background reading that fed into choosing what to watch can be forgotten. All I can be sure of knowing about a play I’m reviewing is the title, time and place.
“Today I killed a man” are Marta Carvalho’s fist words as she enters the stage, before embarking on an hour-long monologue in the style of a Greek Tragedy. She killed him, she says, without remorse, without pity. Already I’m thinking of which figure from Greek mythology she is representing. The obvious murderess that springs to mind is Medea, who was noted for her guilt-free killing spree. Then, I got a bit lost as to what the story was meant to be. It was only when I re-read the press release later that I realised this was supposed to be something different: a woman driven to kill a man she was in a toxic relationship with. (This contrasts with Medea; whilst Jason wasn’t exactly a model husband, she was a psychopath with murders under her belt long before she married him.) I fear I have missed something important from not knowing this important bit of background info.
Normally, I am quite harsh about plays I don’t follow. It is my long-standing position that it is the responsibility of the performers to make sure their plays are accessible to their intended audiences – and I especially have no time for people who blame their audiences for not thinking about the play deeply enough. But is it really fair to mark a play down in this situation? Most people who saw this play would have known the basics of what the play is supposed to be about; it is really only a subset of reviewers and the most hardcore of fringegoers who go into a play completely cold. That said, I do think it pays to not assume background knowledge for a play if you can avoid it. Prose in the style of a Greek tragedy isn’t the most accessible of language, but perhaps more emphasis on the abusive relationship at the start of the monologue (which is currently packed with the triumphalism) might have helped anyone on an early wrong track.
The presentation of the monologue was good though. Marta Carvalho’s delivery and conviction did the job, and the way it was staged was also fitting for the setting. Had scheduling not made this impossible, I would have watched this again to see if I picked up more the second time round. I don’t think there’s much more I can say about this. Ultimately, it comes down to what this play is meant to achieve. If it’s aimed at fans of classic literature who are familiar with the style of Greek tragedies, maybe there isn’t much more that needs to be done – after all, we rarely expect Shakespeare to be more accessible because you don’t know the plot to Romeo and Juliet. If it is supposed to be accessible to someone watching this cold – well, that’s where the hard work begins. Good luck either way.
Sam Chittenden of Different Theatre has been busy this year, and I caught her adaptation of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Shelley’s most famous book, Frankenstein, is of course considered one of the greatest genre-defining works of fiction, but The Last Man has a strong claim to that too. This is set in a future world where humanity is almost entirely wiped out by plague. Unlike Frankenstein, however, this book bombed when first released. And yet over a century later it went on to provide the inspiration for countless cult favourites set in plague-apocalyptpic worlds. The book itself may only be an obscure footnote, but the legacy is almost as big as her famous one.
The original book is almost 500 pages. As we all know, when a book is that length you can’t hope to get more than a fraction on stage in an hour. Sam Chittenden manages a good abridgement of the story, keeping the structure of the original and not feeling anything’s been missed out. Performed in a mostly storytelling format from Mary Shelley (played by Amy Kidd), it has some parallels to today’s events, presumably highlighted deliberately: beginning with news of a diseases but it’s far away and people there die anyway, until things come closer, and then comes to Britain until it’s no longer background news, and finally life goes on hold. Only this time, the plague hasn’t even got started. Covid is a picnic compared to this.
What makes this play different from a straight storytelling adaptation is the parallels with real life. If you’re wondering why Mary Shelley had to go for such a downbeat story, it’s probably because she’d lost almost her of her family to disease. The promising opening is a tearful Mary Shelley hugging the coat of her dead husband Percy. Annoyingly, however, this strongest thread of the adaptation is over before it’s really begun. Mary says that she shall base characters on the people closest to her who she lost, including Percy and Lord Byron – but we never what these fictional characters have in common with their true-life counterparts, which I was looking forward to.
I try to avoid saying how other people’s plays should be written, because it’s easy for that to turn into turning their play into your play. However, I will break this rule here because I can easily see this format working as – rather than Mary saying she’ll write a book, announcing the characters are diving straight in to the story – deliver this as if she’s confiding with someone as a story she has in her head. The delivery could drift between her reminiscing about the lives of those closest to her and how this is playing out in the story. The parallel with the ending is clear though: Mary Shelley was not the last man on earth, but it felt like she was. This was on for two nights, so hopefully there are plans to bring this back another time with more development. It’s a good call to make the story of The Last Man the story of Mary Shelley – so let’s make the most of it.
A Pole Tragedy
This review needs a caveat. This is part of the Dutch Season, which I’ve heard a lot about in previous years but never got round to checking out. Virtually all of reviewing is done against a set of expectations that we’ve come to expect on the UK fringe circuit; I don’t know what conventions and expectations have grown around Dutch Theatre, and the best I can do is review against what I’m used to.
In The Formidable Lizzie Boone, the burlesque was incidental to a wider story. However, in A Pole Tragedy, this is integral to the entire performance. You could in principle not do the pole dancing and still have the story, but it would be a completely different performance. Anyway, Sofie Kramer tells us her father loved his little girl but also loves his country and wants to win. He also has something about shooting deer whether or he’s allowed to.
She then moves on to the lead-up to the siege of Troy. Now, granted, the Greek myths do have a rather weird attitude to women (albeit no worse than any of the other religions around at the time): frequently that women can’t be trusted, it’s perfectly fine to make a hot woman a prize in a war between the Greeks and Trojans, and sacrificing your daughter to ensure a victory is also okey-dokes*. Say what you like about modern society, but even the most deranged misogynists today think murdering your own child is a bit of an over-reaction. Anyway, Sofie’s character has the hots for Achilles (or more accurately, a soldier that looks like Achilles). It’s fine to to have your own private fantasies, but for some reason Sofie is pretty detailed about exactly what he wants to do with him.
* Actually, you do get your comeuppance over that one in the end, but that’s a different Greek story.
This is leading up to a problem. And – I repeat – this is my perspective as someone used to UK fringe theatre, but the problem is: metaphor overkill. There’s quite a lot of references to her 17-year-old self being “ready for the slaughter”. Is this a parallel with the unfortunate Iphigenia on the sacrificial altar, her own gun-crazed dad shooting deer, or the Achilles-look-a-like soldier she fancies ready to deflower her? We can go into the details, but this builds up to the key question: what has any of this got to do with pole dancing? There’s plenty of interesting themes in the promo material: pole dancing can anything from titillation for men in strip clubs to a dance done on whatever terms a women chooses; there is indeed an uncomfortable overlap between violence and eroticism. But how does this relate to deer shooting and child sacrifices and weird attitudes to women in Greek legends? I got lost in all the metaphors long before making any connection to the pole dancing.
The production values are pretty good. Sofie Kramer certainly knows her stuff with the pole dancing. However, one less obvious thing she did was the sound design. When she strikes the pole, the sound is looped and reverberated in all sorts of ways. And one particularly awesome effect was warping the repeated strikes of the pole into something that sounds like the marching of soldiers. I guess this ultimately comes to what is meant to be achieved here. As I’ve said before, I you want your play to make a point, it has to be accessible. I’ve seen a lot of artists fall down by assuming tons of background knowledge on the issue and presenting it in an abstract way that nobody who hasn’t already been won over will understand. That defeats the object. However, perhaps the object is to normalise a completely different style of theatre to an audience not used to it. Perhaps an audience more used to this will pick up the intend theme sooner. Perhaps performances like this will make people pick up other plays like this in the future. At I can’t say much more than that. Your call.
This one did very well at Brighton Fringe last year and it was back for an encore. Agustina Dieguez Buccella has had a moment of triumph. She has single-handedly made it to the end of a trail. How’s that for everyone who said she couldn’t do this? Admittedly, the guy at the tourist information who she said was talking him down did make some fair points. For example, the trail is closed in the summer for a good reason. Never mind, what does “closed” mean anyway? You can’t just fence off a long-distance path in the mountains – that just means there’s no organised tours. And who is this geezer at the tourist information office to say it’s not safe for a woman to do this on her own? That’s how she’s done everything before.
And that’s the point of this play. This isn’t an high-octave daredevil adventure on woman versus nature – it’s the parallels with the rest of her life. In the next scene, things aren’t going so well. She lets on that even in less dangerous globe-trotting adventures flitting from city to city, she always does that alone. And not just travelling alone – the people she meets along the way never become more than acquaintances. That, she admits, is the barrier she put up. And that’s the barrier she puts up in the rest of her life too. The advantage of being a strong independent woman is that no-one gets close enough to you to be able to hurt you. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way, and the more we learn of this, the more it seems Agustina latest solo adventure is her doubling down on doing things the way she always has.
This story is open based very heavily on personal experience. This is an approach I’ve seen done a lot and frequently backfires; all too often it’s twenty-somethings whose life experience hasn’t stretched beyond house-sharing and drama school romances – and still mistake it as something as unique and profound to share with he world. Buccella’s piece, however, succeed by doing the opposite. Rather than trying to be different and special, her experience of shuttering off emotions is something relatable and, from what I can gather, resonating with a lot of people.
The only thing that I thought slightly missed the mark was not making the most of the parallels between her way of doing a mountain adventure and her life in general. After such a promising build-up the mountain journey fades from prominence as the focus grows more and more on life decision in general. The reason I think this was sold short is that in Buccella’s real story, she was rescued from the mountain. That, to me, seemed like a perfect thing to leave in the story: as well as the added tension of how this story is going to end, this could have provided the perfect parallel ending on getting help on the mountain, and getting help in general. However, the play stands up without this because the story of her life is strong enough to carry it alone.
Special honourable mention:
There was one other thing which I kept in my honourable mention list, but I put in its own category because it stood out in a different way to the others: creating a completely new genre.
Room, based on a Room of One’s Own
Heather Alexander adapted a classic text by Virginia Woolf. What she didn’t mention is that this text is not – as is the case with every other adaptation since time memorial – a novel, or a short story, or any kind of story at all (save for a recollection of a visit to an unspecified Oxbridge college). This is an essay. In the same same that George Orwell’s essays are so highly regarded they form part of his literary canon, A Room of One’s Own does too.
There is a good reason for this. A Room of One’s Own was pretty on point for its day. Originally delivered as a lecture delivered twice to the only two women’s colleges that existed at Cambridge University, it began with an observation that women’s colleges in Oxbridge, step in the right direction though they may be, were still a second-rate service compared to the men’s world. The focus, however, is the position of women in literature, as characters in story but more notably as the authors, or rather lack of them. She was one of the first to observe the era from Austen to the Brontës, women normally wrote anonymously. It wasn’t so much that society disapproved (indeed the only bit of her identity that Austen disclosed on her first book was that she was a lady novelist), but the expected repercussions, real or perceived, from those who’d have no wife/daughter/sister of theirs taking up writing.
However, this is a review. We are not here to discuss the arguments of Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction essay, we are here to discuss the theatrical performance of it. To be honest, we’re at a bit of a blank page here. I guess the first question is to ask what a stage adaptation offers that the text doesn’t. Why not just read the essay? The obvious thing: perform it as Virginia Woolf, with the passion and conviction the real Virginia Woolf would have had – that is without a doubt Heather Alexander’s strong point the give this play its mark. The play is mostly delivered as Woolf giving the lecture, but it’s not an exact reproduction, but, it’s face it, standing still at a lectern for an hour would get a bit boring. Instead, the performance is done more as solo play, with the same liberties taken on moving through time and location as we’re used to in standard solo plays. That said, there’s only so much you can do to move to a political essay, and sometimes it feels like movement to various locations for the sake of it. On the whole, however, the format works fine.
It is normal to rate plays against others of the same genre and format. Here, it’s closer to say Heather Alexander has invented a new genre and format. It’s probably fair to say that you’re best off going into this play understanding what this is an adaptation of, but I managed to work out what was going on so I wouldn’t worry about that too much.
What I will say is this: there’s a trend amongst some in theatre that annoys me. For all the talk about giving a voice to writers, usually women, some try to use this to attribute their own views to a respected historical figure who’d probably never heard of these issues. I remember one adaption attempting to give Mary Shelley a voice on what she’d have thought about Brexit and Trump. To be honest, the end result was incomprehensible, but even if there had been a clear message – so what? That’s not Mary Shelley’s voice, that a writer and director talking over a woman who can’t answer back. This is the right way to do this, and I recommend this play as something different which respects the voice of an influential figure the right way.
And that winds up Brighton Fringe coverage. Stay tuned, I will be moving on to Buxton Fringe shortly.