Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2022

REVIEWS: Skip to: Beast in the Jungle, Animal Farm, Nyctophilia, Miss Nobodies, Runny Honey, Report: an inquiry into the enquiries, Support your local library, The Glummer Twins, Forthinghay, Harp-Guitar

Apologies for those of you I saw at Buxton still waiting for a review. There is an anomaly in my coverage, as whilst I do live updates on Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe and get most reviews out within days, for various reasons I save Buxton reviews for the roundups. As usual, I meant to get roundups out of the way by September at the latest but didn’t. Maybe next year. Anyway, let’s go.

The most notable thing about this roundup is that I don’t have much to say in the way of a preamble. Which, in this case, is a good thing. I had a lot to write about the various shitstorms going on in Brighton Fringe, and I’ve got another load of shitstorms to summarise for Edinburgh. Buxton, by contrast, seems to be largely back to normal. The registrations seems to have made it back to the 170-mark, which was the typical size for most of the last decade. And you could look around Buxton in July and see something that looks similar to any July from before times. However, when you look under the surface, it’s not quite back to business as usual. There are two things I noticed that were different, that aren’t immediately clear from looking at the listings.

Firstly, it’s the same root problem that’s affecting Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes: participation numbers are recovering well, audience numbers not so much. The ‘rona is the obvious thing to blame, and anecdotally I’ve heard of some people who used to loads of events who are still not going out because they’re worried about catching the damn thing again. In that respect, Buxton is particularly vulnerable because of its older-than-average audience age. However, there are other possible factors in play too, not least a cost of living crisis that was putting the willies up people even before this winter closed in.

IMG_6130Comedy seems to be recovering faster than theatre. I need to be careful not to use my own experiences and assume it’s the same for everyone else, but I think I saw enough acts over the ten days I was at Buxton to see a pattern. It’s difficult to tell what was down to category and what was down to performance time (theatre performances were generally in the afternoon which generally sells less regardless), but even the theatre performances in the evening generally had numbers that weren’t too great. Contrast this to the mid-2010s – when it was reasonably easy for an unknown to get an audience of 15 in Pauper’s Pit in an off-peak slot – and something has definitely changed.

The second notable thing about 2022 is a capacity crunch. Due to competition from the more lucrative Wells Theatre Festival, the Rotunda was only around for the second half of the fringe. Meanwhile, the availability of the Arts Centre Studio (where Buxton Festival effectively gets first dibs) was tiny this year. The Green Man Gallery ran to its normal programme, but they choose to programme only 15-ish shows per fringe to stay within the capability of their volunteers and they’re not budging. This means that the only venue running a non-sporadic programme over the whole fringe was Underground Venues at the Old Clubhouse.

One issue that must be acknowledged is that we’re once again in a situation where one venue is dominating an open festival. After what happened with The Warren over at Brighton Fringe, I do get a bit nervous about this – although I must stress that in all of my dealings with Underground Venues, I have never once come across questionable practices, nor has anyone else I know. The more pressing issue, however, is not enough managed venues to meet demand. True, there are plenty of non-managed venues available for anybody who wants one (either as a first choice or as a fall-back from a failed managed venue application), but it appear that most would-be performers want a managed venue or not at all. I wonder if Buxton is losing its selling point as the place to get stared – I’m not sure what I’d advise to someone in the state I was in when I began.

Those issues, however, will have to wait until registrations open for next year. Before then, we have reviews to catch up on.

Pick of the Fringe:

It is completely against my interests to point this out – having scooped a nomination myself that I’m milking for all it’s worth – but this time round my picks are completely at odds with the Buxton Fringe awards. I enjoyed the winning entries amongst those I had the chance to see, and there was nothing amongst the winners or nominees that I hated, but all of my favourites didn’t get on to the list. Make of that what you will – I guess the lesson, as always, is that you can’t please all of the reviewers all of the time.

Here are my favourites:

Beast in the Jungle

Despite the Monkey made their mark on Buxton Fringe in 2019 with their take on Dennis Kelly’s Debris. But not just any old revival but a very technically ambitious one. For 2022, they are doing a new retelling, but instead a new play from this century, they’ve opted for a story from 100 years earlier. Henry James is best known for The Turn of the Screw, but Beast in the Jungle is not far behind in the list of literary greats. John Marcher believes that his life is defined by some catastrophic event that is yet to come. He doesn’t know what it is or when it will be, but the thought of it terrifies him – so much that he keeps himself emotionally distant from May Bartam, who he fears will go down with him. In truth, the only catastrophe headed his way is a self-fulfilling prophecy of him own making.

However, there is another side to technically ambitious pieces: there’s no shortage of production out there that are flashy for the sake of flashy, but does this work for the story? This, I gather, has a split verdict, and seemingly everybody who has expressed an opinion on the tech-heavy concept either loving it or hating it. That surprised me, because I really liked this, and thought the abstract setting suited the fantastical and ominous tones of the story perfectly. Transplanting the story a century ahead made sense too – if anything, the modern practice of doomscrolling makes dreading for the future far easier than it was was in the early 20th century.

292960783_1131511657431165_3705541408522854738_nOne thing that is underappreciated in a technically ambitious play is how high the stakes are. This play was the clear winner in terms of technical spectacle, but any rewards you got from wowing an audience are minor compared to the disaster that awaits you if it all goes wrong. And when you are sharing a venue with other acts it’s doubly dangerous. Admittedly, tech lead Dylan Howells was at a bit of an advantage of also being a tech lead at Underground Venues (and I could few venues willingly taking on something this risky otherwise), but he pulled it off. Everything from the lighting to the intricate sound plot to the effect use of the lighting grid came together and added a new dimension to the story. I was a bit sceptical about the use of headphones – that must be especially vulnerable to technical mishaps – but, hey, it works. And as far as I can tell, speakers surrounding the audience would have covered had any headphone failed.

There was just one artistic decision that seemed strange, and that was to have May singing a song in a different accent to how she spoke in the rest of the play. With so many fringe plays having the same actors switching to different parts with no change in appearance, I found this confusing and wondered whether this was a new character being introduces into the story. Luckily, though, the script is strong enough to clarify the confusion before the play finishes. Beast in the Jungle a fine showcase of what can be done on the fringe stage; and though fringe theatre is getting bolder with technical accomplishments on stage, Despite the Monkey is leading the way here.

Animal Farm

George Orwell’s famous story needs no introduction. Nowadays, when an oppressive regime is overthrown and replaced with something that turns out to be even worse, everyone roll their eyes. However, there was a brief window during World War 2 when everybody thought this Communism thing was a great idea and Joseph Stalin was the best thing ever (coming soon: we hated the evil commies all along and anyone who supported them is now a social outcast). Orwell was already jaded by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and wrote a parable where the animals of Manor Farm overthrow Farmer Jones, only for the pigs under President Comrade Napoleon to be just as bad.

The obvious challenge is how you play farm animals on stage. There’s a major production touring this year that did it entirely with animal puppets – this, however, relied on humans playing the embodiments of the animals they represent. And why not? The animals are, after all, the embodiments of various characters in the Soviet Union struggling for supreme power. The challenge? There is already an adaptation by Ian Wooldridge out there, which is excellent and a hard act to follow. But Sprinkle Theatre have a pretty good go with their own adaptation anyway. By far the most important important thing to get right in any adaptation is the propaganda peddled out by Napoleon and his sycophants, promising better days for the other animals whilst doing the opposite, and that is captured well here. Meanwhile, the other animals are believable kept in a state of apathy, through a mixture of naivety over the hollow promises, and fear of the consequences of dissent.

I do feel, however, the adaptation is over-dependent on people already knowing the story. As someone who knows the central, I liked the way that the seven animal laws were represented by numbers written out in grain over the front of the stage – and erased as the pigs broke the rules and claimed something different was the rules all along. Even so, I did need to concentrate to remember which law was which. I would keep that despite the confusion, but I felt the practice of having different actors playing the same animal was a bridge too far. Thug Napoleon is represented by a leather glove: officious sycophant/propagandist Squealer is represented by whoever’s wearing the glasses. That’s a great effect if you know what you’re looking for – but I gather it confused people who didn’t.

My recommendation would be to forget about multiple actors per character and just keep the same people playing Squealer and Napoleon respectively. Whilst the current format is good for fans of the book, Sprinkle Theatre’s stated aim is to introduce stories such as this to school children; that being the case, you need to do everything you an to make the story accessible. Other than that this has everything it needs for a strong adaptation. It deserves to find its way to school, and I hope they are getting that.

Nyctophilia

If Beast in the Jungle stood out as the most technically ambitious play, Nyctophilia stood out for the most ambitious artistic concept: performing the entire play in the dark. The challenge for all plays with a wild idea is what you make out of it? Can you achieve a good execution of an eye-catching idea, or does it simply come across as novelty that fizzles out after five minute. More specifically, there’s a challenge here of what the point of this is? Why go through all of the trouble of a pitch black stage? Why not just do radio play?

Haywire Theatre’s answer is to use the darkness to support the story. This is a series of shorts, all of which are set in the darkness on the same hillside, with individual stories separated by decades or centuries. One moment it’s a couple out on a hillside looking for either a lost mobile phone or a first kiss; a woman says goodbye to her fiance signing up to fight in the trenches; later a medieval mother giving birth seeks the help of a stranger in a life-or-death situation. Sometimes the stories are naturalistic, sometimes they are tinged with the supernatural.

57381aea-e68b-4342-a85f-fea82168c016Now for the surprise observation. Although the performance was billed as being in pitch black, they still act out the scenes on stage, and I could just about make out what was happening. I gather there were some nerves over whether this was spoiling the play – should they reinforce the darkness with blindfolds? Actually, I thought it was quite effective as it was – just enough visibility to give an idea of what’s happening, but only just, with the partial ambiguity doing its job. There are moments in the play when there’s a brief moment of light, be it a found phone or the sunrise at the end. Apparently that was put in at the last moment to break up the continuous dark, but I though this was one of the best touches. Potentially more could be made of this – I could see a shock moment when something is lit up that you weren’t expecting to see.

If there’s one thing I would ask, I wish the play would make up its mind whether or not these stories are supposed to be interlinked. I’m personally leaning towards yes – the introduction of a faerie spirit sets the scene rather well for all these tales having some sort of link to the faerie folk who inhabit this spot. Other than that, I can recommend this – a good concept executed well.

Miss Nobodies

This one, I confess, I almost skipped. With Ruth E Cockburn having two shows on this year, my interest was primarily drawn to wildly out-there Support Your Local Library: A Ghothic Rock Opera, over a much more conventional play about the stories of ordinary women from Lancashire. I’m glad I did give this a chance, because this turned out to be my favourite of the two, and one of my favourites of Buxton Fringe overall.

One reason I am sceptical about this format in general is my suspicion that some artists collecting stories cherry-pick the ones the want and ignore the ones they don’t, in order to prove whatever point they intended all along. Here, it looks like Cockburn just went in with an open mind see where the stories took her. I hope so, because that’s the way it should be. Miss Nobodies compiles a whole host of stories of women making little differences to the world and big differences to the people around them.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, male sexism doesn’t actually have that much of a role in these stories, other than background noise of the gender expectations of the time. What does play a big role, however, is male vulnerability. One domineering husband signed up for the great adventure that came to be known as World War One, returning physically unhurt but mentally beyond aid; another husband-to-be would be recognised as dyslexic today is being treated by everyone around him as lazy and stupid; and it falls upon another woman to find a way to save her husband’s fishing shop when he cannot bring himself to admit how bad the finances are.

Ruth E’s main act is comedy rather than theatre, but she’s brought her style of humour to this play really well. The performance is framed around a raffle for a fundraiser event, with some lovely banter between her and her husband (and real-life partner) Keith Carter. A small liberty is taken transplanting all the real-life stories to the same shop-unit, but a whole variety of techniques are used to tell the stories, from straight storytelling to conventional two-hander acting to a couple of pigeons telling a story in between discussions on which car to crap on next. I am obliged to mention that a lot of the performance was done on-script, and although efforts were made to disguise this, there’s only so many times you can be reading from a book before people twig. Other than that, I really enjoyed this one. I hope this does not get forgotten in the shadow of their better-selling other show.

Honourable mention:

As I was at buxton for quite a long time this year, my list of reviews is longer than usual. One thing I have left out of reviews is stand-up comedy. I loved some of them, but even after ten years of reviewing theatre I still don’t know where to start on stand-up. Anyway, let’s move on.

Runny Honey

Spanner in the Works is another theatre company who did well in 2021, this one based in northern Ireland, and this year they returned with Runny Honey. This is not an early draft of an Abba song but prison terminology for liquid heroin that gets smuggled around, but that is only incidental. The main focus of Patricia Downey’s play is on three women inside. One is institutionalised and commits petty crimes every time she’s release in order to get back inside. One is from a wealthy family who treats her like she doesn’t exist and has ended up drug dealing. The strangest case is a woman inside for apparently abusing her baby, even though it seems pretty obvious to all her abusive boyfriend did it.

Here’s the thing. After the play, three of us who saw it discussed, and discovered to our surprise we interpreted the play in three completely different ways. That isn’t necessarily a bid thing – indeed some works of arts get a lot of praise for meaning different things to different people – but when the intention of your play is to give a message, which appears to be the case here, you probably don’t want ambiguity of what your message is supposed to be. I did think when I saw this that there was over-reliance on the long-term resident telling what are presumably the writers’ views, but having discussed this further, it seems the main messages were in the backstories of the characters – it’s just that the aforementioned ambiguity was standing in the way.

In particular: the alleged baby-molester is released, only to end up back inside for getting beaten up by her boyfriend. Huh? Surely he’d be the one arrested for that? What I found out later is that this was supposed to be the whole point: the abusive boyfriend has done such a good job of portraying himself as the good guy to friends, family and the authorities he can do these things and get away with such absurd cover stories. That, I think, could have had a much more effective role in the story. Suppose it’s not just the Police and Courts who believe the abuser’s story – what if the other inmates also believe this? Child abusers are the least popular kind of person amongst other prisoner, and you could expect any notions of sisterly bonding would fly out the window. Maybe she’s so gaslighted she believes what the others say about her. What if the twist is the realisation that nothing she has confessed to is true?

Interestingly, One Off that I’ve just reviewed at Live Theatre covers a lot of the same themes: a habitual offender who’s obviously committing crimes to get back inside; inmates who clearly need protecting from themselves; and a senseless decision to clump in petty offenders with hardened criminals. Ric Renton, I think, did the better job with the rule of “show, don’t tell”. Still, Runny Honey get best production at Buxton, so they’ve done something right. There is no easy way to deal with ambiguously interpreted plays – you might know perfectly well what your play is about, but it’s another matter to predict how someone new to your story will perceive the. But I still think there’s a lot of unrealised potential with back-stories and subverted expectation. I’m sure there’s a way of unlocking this to make the most.

Report: an inquiry into the enquiries

This might be just me, but I just can’t get my head round the name of this company. The Institute of Managing Performance makes me think of a soulless accountancy firm with offices in Bracknell and Stevenage. But name behind the company is the one those in the know at Buxton look out for. Mark Reid made his mark a few years back with The Gambit, an imagined meeting between the two chess masters Kasparov and Karsov, looking back of the insane cold war politics around chess, secondly only to the moon landings. Speaking of moon landings, did you know that some people think that’s fake. This, along with JFK, 9/11, and Prince Philip driving a white Fiat Uno (coming soon: whatever batshit theory QAnon cook up next) are all covered in this play about conspiracy theories – or rather, the politics surrounding them.

Mark Reid earned a lot of praise with The Gambit for his intelligent analysis of the issues surrounding the play – for anyone thinking “for heaven’s sake, what’s all this fuss over a game of chess”, his writing explains why this was such a big deal. The same treatment applies here. Not so much the analysis of the conspiracy theories themselves – most of them, let’s face it, are bollocks – but the politics surrounding it. People, they argue, are inclined to believe or disbelieve conspiracy theories depending on how convenient it is to their own politics. There is also the spin-offs of both the conspiracy theories and the inquiries. There may not have been a cover-up of a secret cabal of Dubya Bush, Osama Bin Laden and the Lizard People, but there’s a lot more evidence of a cover-up of the sloppiness that allowed 9/11 to happen. The original inquiries can be bad at picking this up, hence the inquiries into the enquiries. All gets quite meta, and this subject that spirals into mind-boggling complexity is handles intelligently, fairly and objectively by the play.

What doesn’t work quite so well is the relation between the two men doing to podcast. The subtext stated in the publicity is that their own friendship is being explored. It’s clear enough that’s the theme of the play, but I got lost when trying to work out what their friendship is meant to be. There is certainly a lot of potential for this theme: as we have learned the hard way in the last few years, some people are as fanatical about their conspiracy as the biggest fanatics are about their religions. It’s not a matter of being proven right or wrong, it’s whether your chosen central tenet of your existence is being validated or destroyed. That might have been the purpose of the story, but if it was, it got drowned in the complexity of all the conspiracy theories it was exploring. As such, I’m sceptical whether the two alternative endings were a good idea. It was clever, but I fear the plot points needed to make this work came at the expense of the characterisation.

It’s important to remember, however, this this is the first step on a journey – and in Mark Reid’s case, there is encouraging precedent on where this leads. The Gambit got three stars when it first started out, but the time it got the Edinburgh it got five. This is a very ambitious piece, but if anyone has what it takes to pull this off it’s Mark Reid. I hope this isn’t the last we hear of this play, because there’s a lot to be discovered yet.

Support your local library! A Gothic Pub rock opera

This one goes into Honourable Mention rather that Pick of the Fringe because I didn’t count this as theatre. Although this was in the Theatre section of the programme, for me this was firmly under the comedy heading. For a start, it’s the other production of Black Liver, aka Ruth E Cockburn and Keith Carter, who are most definitely a comedy duo. True, Miss Nobodies can be counted as theatre, but this is far dafter. Ruth and Keith come to the stage excitedly announcing the first performance of their smash hit musical which is definitely going to top the bill in the West End very soon with a star-studded cast. In the meantime, however, they’re just going to have to tell you what happens and play some of the songs.

1405818_0_support-your-local-library-a-gothic-pub-rock-opera_1024The story itself is set in a soulless town where everybody is addicted to smartphone and skinny frappucino lattes and basically anything that isn’t sitting down and reading a good book. There is a run-down local library in the town, which a giant multinational named MacBastard Toxicorp wants to change into yet another Starbucks-cum-Wetherspoons-cum-JJB Sports. (Note: I may not have remembered the name correctly but you get the idea.) Then the young people of the town get interested about the building full of books and decide it’s awesome. Can our young heroine persuade her property developer father to have a change of heart at the last night and rediscover his creative side before it’s too late? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

Their sentiment for the cause is genuine and the performance is an affectionate tribute to libraries. The other half of this, however, is Ruth and Keith’s long-standing double-act that features in all of their performances (including their other play and their set at the Buxton Fringe launch party). They are essentially playing exaggerated versions of themselves and play off each other as a couple. And the sub-plot is that, for all the outlandish dreams of the big time, there’s a fresh £250 on offer for a gig at Black Bull in Wigan, as we learn from Keith’s endless product placement of said pub. Will Black Liver pursue lofty dreams or take the ready money?

This is a lot more character comedy than theatre, but taking it for what it is, it’s a lot of fun from one of Buxton’s longest-standing names.

The Glummer Twins: The Beat Goes On

The Glummer Twins might be in the spoken word section of the programme, but they actually straddle four categories quite smoothly: as well as their beat poetry what puts them in the spoken word section, they crossover with music for the tunes than accompany some of the performances, comedy for the warm humour than comes throughout their poems, and theatre for the characters they adopt for their double act.

The Glummer Twins bill themselves as “the beat poets for the Saga generation”. It is often assumed that the fringe is a young person’s game, so it is refreshing to see a pair of older performers become such fringe favourites at Buxton. Crucially, however, they don’t appeal to one age range at the expense of another. This set of poems is set through the decades of their lives, starting with nostalgia of decades gone by and the later part featuring their signature hit “He’s just turned sixty, he’s taking it badly,” but at every point the performance remains accessible to everyone. The nostalgia is broad topics than younger whippersnappers have heard of; the dodgy nightclub they reminiscence about may be specific in Rotherham in the 1970s, but there are plenty of clubs in other towns and other decades this could relate to.

Ray and David, too, are perfect as a double-act, they banter they share with each other might be scripted between them, but it’s perfect for their stage personas and shares a similar style to Morecambe and Wise. They do give the game away – mentioning different birthdays during the aforementioned poem about turning sixty – that they’re not actually twins. But whilst they’re not literal twins they are certainly showbusiness twins. I’m a theatre reviewer so trust the verdict of comedy and poetry reviewer ahead of mine, but I loved it. I can confirm they are Buxton favourites for a reason.

Fotheringhay: An Audience with Mary Queen of Scots

And finally, one from the Green Man Gallery. Mary, Queen of Scots (not the Queen Mary who went round burning Protestants, the other one who had her head chopped off by the sister of the Protestant-burner) is spending her last night in the tower, awaiting her execution. But she has visitor – a spirit she sense from the future, an audience even. With time short, she takes the opportunity to state her case, starting with her youth and her marriage to a French prince, to her long-standing captivity by the English authorities.

I’ve seen quite a few plays lately from historians who’ve gone into acting. You can have an encyclopaedic knowledge of a historical character that would make a fascinating 90-minute talk, but can you translate it to a play. Jane Collier certainly knows her stuff and gives the entire saga. Her demise is well known; her trips to Buxton whilst in perpetual house arrest is a pieces of local knowledge; but she also gives the blow-by-blow account of everything else. In particular, the power struggles for the Scottish throne play a large part; and, unluckily for Mary, on losing the power struggle and being forces to seek refuge in England, she’d already made too many enemies south of the border. She also does a fine job reproducing some exquisite costumes of the period, and acting-wise does a good portrayal of her mannerisms.

But here’s the thing. I trust Jane Collier to give an honest and accurate depiction of Mary Queen of Scots’ life – but I wouldn’t trust Mary Queen of Scots to do the same. When Collier went out of character at the end of the play, she said that ultimately Mary Queen of Scots was her own worst enemy. That, surely, would have been great as the defining feature of solo biopic: Mary as the unreliable narrator of her own life. Which, I accept, is ten times harder to write than a straight chronology of events, but if you could pull this off it would be great to pick up when she’s telling the truth, when she’s leaving out inconvenient facts, and maybe, at the end, a realisation that she picked the wrong battles. Excellent display of historical research, decent start into theatre, but a lot more potential if you play this game on hard mode.

And one completely different thing:

So that wraps up nine performances that were either theatre or within theater crossover. As I said, I did see more comedy that I haven’t reviewed because I don’t really have anything to add that hasn’t been said by other people already. However, this one thing I’m going to mention that is completely different from what I normally cover:

Harp-guitar in concert

If you hang around the managed venues, it’s quite easy to forget that there’s more to the fringe than theatre and comedy; and in fact the music and visual arts sections make up a much larger portion of the programme than most fringes. Admittedly, the names of the music performances aren’t the most eye-catching ones: teasers such as Oh Vicar! and Dark Revenge give way to more descriptive but less exciting titles such as Flute Recital and An evening of Mozart. But even if classical music isn’t your number one thing, there’s some surprises in store. This event happened to be on as my mum was passing through Buxton, I thought she would like this, and I did too.

So: this is a performance of a harp-guitar. Not a harp and a guitar – a single instrument that combines the two. As we all know, guitar strings play at different pitches thanks to frets and fingering – a harp, on the other hand, relies on lots of strings playing one note (give or take a semitone if you use pedals). A harp-guitar uses both kinds of strings: guitar format in the middle, and extra harp-style strings above and below to give an acoustic instrument with a lot of versatility and a huge range. So obscure is this instrument, Jon Pickard not only taught himself how to do it but also built his harp-guitars in the first place.

It was a lovely performance, but it’s also an absolute must for musical instrument nerds. You can close your eyes and enjoy the music, or you can watch with fascination how this instrument works in practice. I can’t rate this against other music acts as I don’t have anything to compare it to, but if you want to see something completely different, I recommend this.

And that’s a wrap for Buxton Fringe 2022. The performer numbers are back, but audiences are not yet. How will this affect Buxton Fringe 2023. How will this affect the fringes in general? Next year is going to be another interesting one.

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