Spring 2023 fringe roundup

Skip to: Tiny Fragments, Howerd’s End, Juggling, Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me

Before I get into the thick of festival fringe coverage, here’s a roundup of four local fringe-scale plays I saw, with the consistent pleasing standard.

Tiny Fragments of Beautiful Light

Usual caveat applies for reviews about anything involving neurodiversity: these reviews are the most likely to be skewed by personal perspective. I loved Glitch, but I was upfront about the specific prejudices that resonated with me so much. Most of you who want to know my views on this already do – if not, you are welcome to come this way for some background reading. (And sadly, no, I haven’t seen any progress away from the grand gesture culture in the last two years.)

tfobl-victoria-wai-photography-4Alphabetti Theatre programming is dominated by representation of various minorities, but the worst mistake you can make is to assume everybody within a minority thinks the same and has the same experiences. It was great that Alphabetti took on Aware as one of its first projects coming out of lockdown, but that couldn’t cover everything; and the last thing I would have wanted is endless follow-ups that portray autistic people as nothing other than people who need constant care and/or care about casting Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. So I’m glad that the next play on the issue, Tiny Fragments of Beautiful Light, takes on what is, in my opinion, the more important issue to be talking about.

Alli Davies’s story follows Elsa, whose experience is one of many people. She is perfectly capable of living an independent life; and sure, she has a host of eccentricities and specialised interests, but none of this should be a barrier just so long as the rest of society doesn’t made stupid snap judgements over things that don’t matter. Unfortunately, society does. The story follows Elsa’s life from childhood to marriage, and early on in childhood she all too often falls foul of other bully kids getting away with it because the teachers made stupid snaps judgement of character against Elsa. The key message of the play is that so much could have been understood so much earlier if only a diagnosis could have been made earlier. Autism diagnosis is still in infancy, and one particular problem is that for some time it was perceived to affect mostly men, symptoms were designed around that, and it turned into a bit of a self-fulling prophecy. But even without this, so much would have been avoidable without stupid judgements.

As far as the depiction goes, Alli Davies gets it. Elsa has her own obsessions and overthinks things in a way that means something to her and is no harm to anyone else. The only time this ever becomes a problem is when something that means a lot to her is taken away. She has an intense interest in one particular thing (in her case gardening), which proves a godsend when someone, rather relatedly, lets her get on in a job doing the thing she good at. The only thing I would say is that I think the play was too kind to the workplace before. In the play, Elsa quits an NHS job because she felt like she didn’t fit in. Oh boy, take it from me, that only scratches the surface, some workplaces go to extraordinary lengths to get rid of people whose faces don’t fit – but hey, that’s just my experience, you can’t put everybody’s experience in everybody’s play.

However, my verdicts don’t come down to approval of message, it comes down to the story. And on that front, strangely enough, I’m not the right person to ask. Most plays hook people’s attention with something that’s out of the ordinary in some way, but to me Elsa’s story is just something completely normal. As such, I’ll have to leave it to others to say how engaging it was to them. I do have reservations over the increasingly common practice within theatres of compartmentalising programmes to appeal to different minorities – but if you’re going to have designating “neurodiverse” plays, this is the right way to do it. Tiny Fragments of Beautiful Light moves the conversation beyond stock talking points, to less talked about experience of everyday life that matters to a lot more people. For that reason, well done.

Howerd’s End

This has been touring for years, it’s made it to the north-east on several occasions, and I’ve never been able to make it. But finally finally finally, I’ve caught Mark Farrelly’s play about Frankie Howerd. In a rare break from solo biopics that Farrelly does so well, this is a two-hander. Simon Cartwright plays the national treasure comedian, whilst Farrelly plays Dennis Heymer, Howerd’s lifelong companion. We begin with a elderly Dennis introducing a party to the home of the legendary comedians, when Frankie Howerd makes his comedic entrance, gesturing the audience to sush and sneaking up on him. Frankie is back to pay Dennis one final visit.

howerds-end-2-frankie-howerd-played-by-simon-cartwright-d_standardWe go back to the first meeting of Frankie and Dennis. Homosexuality is illegal at this moment in time, but only for a few more years. Nevertheless, Dennis is kept a secret throughout Frankie’s life, only ever appearing in public on the pretext of lighting designer, runner, or other assorted crew. Which raises an interesting question: if Frankie Howerd was terrified of being outed as gay, why did he give away such an obvious cue with the camp characters he played on TV? (Kenneth Williams is a similar paradox.) Mark Farrelly’s theory is that it was because this was the only way Howerd could be himself in public, with TV audiences of the 1960s and 1970s okay with certain acceptable depictions of homosexuality as long as it wasn’t the bits they found icky.

The main theme of the play, however, isn’t Frankie Howerd’s life, or the mannerisms reproduced by Simon Cartwright, or society’s changing attitude to homosexuality. It’s really about relationships. The thing Farrelly excels at time and time again is getting under the skin of the characters he depicts, and this is no exception. After the first flush of love, Dennis is relegated to the background, with one particularly stinging line: “Oh him? He’s just Dennis.” Farelly says that whilst the key events are based on authentic biographical information, much of what is said to one another is a product of his imagination, and more often than not, based on his own observations of other relationships that were taken for granted. On top of this, there’s Frankie Howerd’s self-hatred, and one almost thinks he never allows himself to be truly happy because he was ashamed of what he was. Even his promiscuous lifestyle seems to be self-punished for a man who didn’t really like intimacy.

I know a lot of this because I stayed around for a post-show discussion which was an absolute treasure trove of information, both of known facts of the real Frankie and Dennis and the stories from real life that fed into the inspiration. If I have to single out one weakness, Mark played a lot of characters in Frankie’s life other than Dennis, but it sometimes got difficult to keep track of who was who. Still, I am used to high standards when Mark Farrelly does what he does best, and this does not disappoint. Recommending viewing – but for the best experience, come to one with a post-show discussion and stick around.


Now it’s over to The Laurels. 2022 was dominated by its unexpected smash hit Gerry and Sewell. Now comes the challenge of finding something that can live up to those dizzy heights. There are several performers down as “full press run”, and the first is a play written and directed by Ian Smith, with the Laurels more like a co-producer than the direct creative influence. However, one thing that has not changed is an appearance of The Laurels’ own superstar Becky Clayburn.

a9eb4751-2a59-4f22-8c51-c7a557457b04I don’t know in which order this was planned, but the lead role could easily have been written for Clayburn. This is a day in the life of Neve, in the office of Signed and Sealed, a delivery company scaling heights of uselessness that DHL and Hermes can only dream of. Neve, I presume, has cottoned on to the dysfunctional state by adding on to the tally of deliveries her own tallies such as parcels lost and (by far the biggest) “customers I’ve pissed off”. However, due to some misfortune with a family tragedy and another misfortune involving a bet for next Prime Minister (“Oh come on, no way is that Liz Truss going to win”), Neve also has to work two other jobs to make ends meet. At the same time. If she’s very lucky, she might manage a date tonight. But having any kind of life outside of work, love life or otherwise, is treated by all three of her employers as “not for the little people”.

Adam Donaldson joins Clayburn as numerous customers on the end of the line, wondering where their parcels went. Some of them are arseholes, including one self-proclaimed alpha male who unwisely treat Neve like dirt whilst she is in possession of his very important parcel. I’m not sure why such a guy would ask a woman out on a date after behaving like that, but I suspect Ian Smith’s going to tell this this is based on a real event. At the other end of the scale is an old lady who has got her parcel but nonetheless needs to waste Neve’s time monologuing about things that are nothing to do with her. It soon becomes clear, however, this is a an lonely woman who just wants somebody to talk to. Also played is the mother at a children’s party with Neve doing her inept clowning on Zoom. Now, this one I can believe: for some reason, parents at children’s parties are notoriously entitled I keep hearing horror stories of how they treat the entertainers.

Donaldson’s main character, however, is Mark, Neve’s inept boss with enormous amounts of unearned wealth. He is constantly on the golf course, and he’d just signed a deal through a stroke of luck so unjust it would make Pope Francis renounce his belief in God. The character did, however, come across as a caricature. Budding writers: resist this temptation at all costs – no matter how obnoxious your antagonists are, they need to be believable and respond in a plausible way. Again, I’ve got a feeling this is based on a real event and somewhere in the world a real-life Mark really did ask a real-life Neve out to dinner immediately after laying her off without redundancy pay, but in the words of Tom Clancy: the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

I get the impression that Mark’s defining weakness is that he’s out of touch with everything. He doesn’t understand why his business is performing so poorly and he’s oblivious to how his staff are going to feel about being sacked when the business is closed down. That I think could be played on more, and if we can establish early on the real power dynamic (i.e. Neve is the one really running the business), it will become more believable when he make the mistake that costly for him and salvation for Neve. But the central theme of this play is surely to fight the corner of those stuck in casual labour at the behest of uncaring and/or incompetent employers. Worth a watch – and I will make an effort to to nicer to those on the end of a phone.

Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me, but Banjos Save My Life

And finally, something that caught my attention on a very roundabout route. Long story, that’s for another day, but to cut a long story short this was picked up by Carol Wears Productions, which is why Keith Alessi is currently touring this around the north-east. This isn’t really what I’d count as a play, and had I seen this on the fringe circuit it would have gone in the “Not quite theatre” category. Apart from theatre, however, it straddles most other genres. In some respects, it’s a music performance, with Alessi bringing along and playing four banjos from his extensive collection. In other respects, it’s spoken word, as he recalls how he had a successful working life as an accountant turning round failing businesses who decided he’d like to spend his retirement learning the instrument he’s been putting off for 40 years. But before he can do that, he was diagnosed with cancer, with a 5% chance of living another 5 years. (Spoiler: it’s currently 7 and counting.)

tomatoes2This performance basically does what it says on the tin – or, since any container will do as a metaphor here, does what it says on the banjo case. Alessi simply talks about his life experiences with frankness, and plays fitting banjo music at various point. That, however, is I think the way this should be done. There’s no shortage of plays where people talk about themselves, but they frequently fall down one of two ways. One way is people who wildly overestimate the importance of a relatively minor chapter of their life and expect you to think they’re unique and special; that certainly doesn’t apply here, a mortal struggle is about as big a deal as you can get. The other mistake – and this could have been made here – is to add unnecessarily flashy staging effects. But that rarely pays off: interesting self-narrated stories don’t need embellishing this way, and I can spot a mile of when it’s being used to compensate for the lack of an interesting story.

However, as far as I can tell, Keith Alessi never set out to day anything fancy. Getting on stage and telling his story was simply his way of getting back to a normal life. What he does have in his favour is the way he speaks about his story with frankness whilst keeping it engaging. Even though we know how the story ends, his account of how his life turns upside down – how the man with all the answers suddenly has to let other people take charge, how the small group of banjo player he joined suddenly because a life-saving support group – is captivating enough to make you root for the happy outcome. The four banjos on stage, too, are chosen for reasons relating to the stories; most profound of all is a custom-made banjo on a five-year waiting list, chosen as a sign of optimism that he would be one of the 5% who makes it five years.

Apart from a warning to take action if you have persistent heartburn, tomato-induced or otherwise, the other main message from his relatable philosophising is to spend less time regretting what you haven’t done with your life and more time thinking about what you’re going to do now. This is too difference from theatre for me to really rate amongst the plays, but you know what you’re getting here, and if you’re after gentle yet inspiring talk on facing the worst and coming out the best, you won’t regret this.

Postscript: the rise of headphones

Going back to the first play, there’s one other thing I’d like to give thoughts on. In Tiny Fragments of Beautiful Light, everybody was supplied with headphones. A few years ago I would have warned against this a a technical nightmare with so much that can go wrong, but I’ve seen a few plays that do this and the people behind this know what they’re doing and it’s been quite reliable. That alone is a technical achievement what impresses me.

Even so, headphones often feel like an unnecessary complicated novelty. Not here. One issue with making performances accessible – and a play about neurodiversity most definitely needs to be up to speed on this – is that some neurodivergent people don’t cope with loud/sudden noises well. The solution that’s commonly used is to designate some performances as “relaxed” performances, which usually means relaxing rules on audience behaviour and/or turning down the volume. (To be honest, I’ve frequently turned up to a relaxed performance, and I don’t notice the difference, but if it benefits other people, that’s good.) This setup, however, went one step further and allowed individual audience members to pick their own settings. There were three settings, for full sound effects, full sound with some of the louder ones tones down, quiet sound – or you can just take the headphones of and listen to the voices on stage.

I really like the idea of this – apart from the obvious issue of relaxed performances restricting when you can come, the other weakness is that it’s a one-size-fits-all approach. If you can give everybody their own individual choice of how to hear sound, that will be a good thing. However, there was one snag which I think Alphabetti underestimated: hearing voices through headphones isn’t the same as hearing voices on the stage. Especially on a stage such an Alphabetti’s where the audience is so close to the actors. Normally you just take for granted that different voices come from different directions; one you hear everything through headphones, you realise what you’re missing. That’s just me – but I did notice that by the end of the play, about a third of the audience had given up and taken off the headphones.

However, I do hope somebody persists with the idea. Perhaps Alphabetti wasn’t the best to try this out. But actors are miked up all the time in large-scale plays and that seems to be fine; however, this is generally in end-stage theatre with a good distance between audience and actors. I wonder if this would have better results in a space such as Stage 2 at Northern Stage. And if we get the hang of it there, we can then revisit how to make it work in trickier spaces. Probably more ambitious an idea than was envisaged, but if we can pull off something that gives everybody the choice to make a play accessible to themselves, that will be a great achievement.

So that concludes a set of four fringe-scale plays. Sorry not to include Person Spec – liked the idea of that but a plumbing disaster put paid to my attempt to watch it. I’ve got a roundup of Vault Festival coming up with more fringe plays. And then we go into fringe season. Get read for rush hour.


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