Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2021

There’s a Ghost in my House, Between Two Waves, About the Garden, The Tragedy of Dorian Gray, Watson: the Final Problem

Right. Better get a move on with these. I have had the excuse of having my hands full with four fringes in three months, but it’s now October. So let’s begin with Brighton. And, boy, what a festival they had.

They year began on tenterhooks when it became unclear whether live performances would be allowed in May at all. Brighton Fringe opted to postpone itself by three weeks, so that the fringe would take place over mostly June instead of May. In the end, that turned out to be a very good call. With the go-ahead for live performances turning out to be only 11 days before the start of the fringe, to festival turned into a big celebration of the arts getting going again. I don’t have definitive figures for how this compares to a normal year, but by all account the level of business was excellent, for both the acts taking part and the social aspect of the Warren and Spiegeltent’s bars.

The only dampener on this success is that it could have been even more earth-shattering. In spite of some very last-minute organisation, Brighton Fringe managed to be about 50% of its normal size, give or take a bit depending on whether you count online. But it was during June when serious questions were being raised over whether its Edinburgh counterpart would go ahead at all, owing to some absurd restrictions in Scotland specifically applied to the performing arts. With a very late go-ahead, and Edinburgh’s programme announced towards the end of Brighton Fringe, the jaw-dropping news was that it was less than a third the size of Brighton’s. In the end, Edinburgh pipped Brighton into the lead at the last moment – the Big Four venues programmed themselves very late on – but the fact that a half-size Brighton Fringe was two weeks away from taking the title as Britain’s largest fringe is staggering.

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Odds and sods: most of 2020 and 2021

So, who remembers the “before” times? Well, one thing I used to write on most months was “odds and sods”, rounding up the little things that have been happening in theatre that weren’t reviews or recommendations or something that required a full article. Then along came a certain event that put paid to little events happening in theatres, or indeed any kind of event.

Contrary to what it feels like for a lot of people, things haven’t ground to a complete halt for 18 months. In spite of the high-profile cancellation of Edinburgh Fringe 2020 there’s still been a lot going on with the fringe circuit to keep me busy. However, in the north-east, theatre has only really got going in the last month. But things haven’t been entirely still on regional theatre, and we’ve got some pretty significant events to catch up on. So, let’s do a catch-up.

What’s been happening between March 2020 and September 2021. Apart from Coronavirus.

There’s a been a lot to talk about relating to Coronavirus, both directly and indirectly. Most of this I’ve talked about indirectly in my live fringe coverage. I might round this up later, but here I am concentrating on what else happened. Here are some events that could just have easily taken place another time.

New artistic directors

When we left off, Lorne Campbell had just departed Northern Stage for a new challenge at the National Theatre of Wales, and the search for his successor was underway. But part-way through 2020 came the shock news that his Live Theatre counterpart Joe Douglas was also leaving. The reason I say shock is because he was doing so well. Sometimes, when an artistic director leaves unexpectedly, I later find out that some of the trustees weren’t happy with the way he or she was taking the theatre, but that looks far form the case here. His first Live Theatre play sold out and came back for another run, and the second also sold out and looked set to come back too. I will say that I did hear a few grumbles over Lorne Campbell (not that I have any reason to believe that was why he moved), but Joe Douglas was getting universal praise. Ah well. Looks like sometimes life’s demands outside of the theatre are more important.

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Don’t blame reviewers for stupid judgements of attractiveness

Above: Six people cast entirely on acting talent alone and definitely not on shallow grounds such as looks because film and TV are too virtuous to do such a thing.

COMMENT: Reviewers need a debate amongst themselves of whether to mention attractiveness in reviews. The film and TV industries, however, are the last people to be taking lessons from.

This topic reared its head back in April, and my immediate reaction was “Oh no, not this again”. Ever since I naively offered my 2p’s worth on Quentin Letts’s notorious “jolly fit” remark (and realising later I’d played straight into his attention-seeking hands), I’ve tried to stay out of this argument. I partially relented just over a year later when I begged everyone to stop feeding his attention-seeking habits (and failed miserably). But the latest version of this row was over Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. As a publication seemingly made a scapegoat out of an individual review, and the film critics’ guild subsequently weighed in, it became a censorship issue. And as with all censorship issues, I must have my say.

If you managed to miss this, well done. But for your benefit, this blew up when Carey Mulligan publicly railed against against a review that contained an ill-advised phrase that her character “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag”. Now, without seeing the film I can’t comment on the validity of this phrase. (I have heard a lot of good things about Promising Young Woman, but I’ve heard good things about lots of other films and never got round to watching them, so don’t hold your breath.) What he was possibly trying to say was that Carey Mulligan doesn’t suit looking like Harley Quinn, whom director Margot Robbie played so successfully, but I’m not really interested in one sentence of one review. This is an issue we need to take seriously, and every incident like this should spur reviewers on debate this.

However, the problem I have is hypocrisy. Whilst there are a important ethical questions to be discussed, at the moment the answers seem to be mostly coming from the film and TV industries. For reasons I will go into, they have absolutely no business lecturing the rest of us on valuing women based on looks. Even Carey Mulligan herself is not immune from being part of the problem. But before going into this, I may as well be open about how I handle this.

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Back to business: Pod and Shine

Skip to: Pod, Shine

Okay, here we go. Now that an extremely busy fringe season is out of the way, it’s time to catch up on all the other plays I’ve seen since we got going. I am planning to do most of these in the order I saw them, which I’m afraid will mean several plays are going to get reviews several months later. However, I am bumping this first article up the list due to a sort-of review request. It came to my attention that I was supposed to be invited to one of these plays, but the invitation never reached me. The details are far too boring to go into, but I thought I’d get this one out when things are still fresh.

So … Unlike the Festival Fringes, which have been running to a sort-of-normal since June, most theatres outside of London have opted for a September relaunch. And with that, a lot of eyes have been on the relaunch plays. Live Theatre and Alphabetti have both run plays for three weeks. At the moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm to praise everything simply for getting on stage. But, folks, I don’t hand out high praise as a participation prize. You still have to earn it. So, how did these do?

Pod

Pod isn’t actually Alphabetti’s reopening play – they have been bolder than most of their north-east counterparts and have been phasing in performances since April – but such was the fanfare around this one it may as well be their relaunch play. Coracle Theatre has been one of Alphabetti’s closest collaborators; indeed, they opened Alphabetti in its current venue the first time round. So whilst this play is a catch-up from a heavily postponed 2020 programme, it was good choice for a relaunch.

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What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2021

Emerging from bomb shelter

Skip to: Educating Rita, Jekyll & Hyde, Pod, Chicago, The Offing, Mulan, The Three Bears, Shine, Road

Right. Where were we? Just before the apocalypse happened and we all retreated into our fallout shelters.

Seriously, we have a lot to catch up on. The most relevant news to theatre, of course, has been when they will re-open. A handful of theatres were determined to open their doors whenever is possible, commercial theatre generally went for reopening in May, but regional subsidised theatres (who I guess have less worries about lost ticket revenue) have generally waited until this month. There are then a lot of side-effects of Coronavirus to consider, and there’s also been a lot of other developments that have nothing to do with the main event. I will catch up with those is due course.

However, it’s about time we did some business as usual. I’ve already been covering the festival fringes this way, but this is the first opportunity to look at what’s going on in the north-east again. So, what have we got coming up that I recommend you go and see.

Safe Choices:

Since most of up have been out of the loop for a while, I’ll start with a recap. Safe choice is the highest level of recommendation I give. Everybody has their own tastes, and no play is recommended for everybody, but if you like the sound of anything I have listed here, it is my firm call that you will like this for real. These are also generally productions or artists that have received widespread praise beyond my own verdict, and have wide audience appeal.

If you want to know my rules in more detail, come this way. For what I have actually picked, read on.

Educating Rita

er-1692380ae26eabff851f2f51bb6e6c50This one was interrupted mid-flow, but even in 2020 they didn’t give up that easily, with the production making best possible use of the the window for outdoor theatre, having been just about the key event in the Minack Theatre’s season. I saw this myself in 2019 and can confirm it is as good as everyone says. It’s a trio of north-east talent, with Stephen Tomklinson and Jessica Johnson in the roles and ex-artistic director Max Roberts directing. However, it is Jessica Johnson who’s the biggest star in this, capturing the character of Rita perfectly, and a lot of the glory goes to the Gala Theatre for originally casting her in 2016.

However, the upcoming performance in Newcastle has kept getting postponed, but finally, you get the change to see this. For the first time, this north-east trio perform in the heart of their own region at Newcastle Theatre Royal, on the 13th-18th September.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Friday 3rd September:

Hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Before you go, one small but crucial stat. I don’t know how The Stage managed to get hold of this when no-one else seems to have the numbers, but it looks like there are fringe-wide figures for ticket sales after all. And, crucially, they separate in-person and online.

So, it’s 381,192 tickets for 528 in-person productions, compared to 3,012,490 in 3,841 productions in 2019. This means the fringe is 12.6% the size of 2019 if we’re going on ticket sales, or 13.7% in terms of number of in-person registrations. We were expecting both figures to be hammered, so there’s little surprise there. The important figure, however, is sales per production. That’s 722 per production in 2021, slightly down from 784 per production in 2019.

But but but but but but but but – almost all productions in 2021 didn’t run the full festival, which in 2019 most did. A lot of them ran for half the festival. We don’t appear to have the number of performances, but I think we can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that sales per performance were a lot higher. This might be offset by a lot of the venues being big ones (30 sales per performance in a 35-seater is much better news than 30 in a 350-seater), but with every performances I saw being way over half occupancy, I’ll still wager those numbers are good.

Online sales, for what it’s worth, are 14,500 for 414 shows on the Fringe Player platform, averaging 35 per production. Obviously there’s no equivalent numbers to compare this to from 2019. Not all shows were on the fringe player platform, other platforms may skew the figures, but if we assume this was representative, this suggests that online is a much cheaper option, but gets much less reach. If you’re serious about getting an audience, it seems in-person remains the way to go.

There’s a lot of nuance around these figures that I’ve already discussed, but I think we can safely stick with the earlier conclusion that these are as excellent as a fringe under these circumstances could be.

And with that, I really am signing off. Thanks to everyone who over the month. Join me next May when we do it all over again, starting with Brighton.

Thursday 2nd September:

And that’s it, folks. This brings us to the end of coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe that nearly never was. We aren’t quite finished with fringes, because Greater Manchester Fringe is running in September instead of July this year (tied in, I understand, to the reopening plans of most of their venues). This had 60-ish registrations, so their recovery is comparable to that of Brighton or Buxton, as far as this city-wide fringe can be compared to the big three.

The summary of Edinburgh 2021 is as follows:

  • Edinburgh Fringe has gone ahead at a fraction of its normal size, mainly due to some very late decisions from the Scottish government on what would and wouldn’t be allowed. Supporters say this late decision was a necessary move by an administration taking the threat of the virus seriously, whilst other people say it was an act of hypocrisy by a bunch of clueless cretins with ridiculous double-standards such as more relaxed rules for pubs even though they knew perfectly well the risk of transmission is far greater, and if you think they’re any more supportive of performing arts than the other bunch of clueless cretins over the border you’ve got another thing coming. As you can see, I’m sitting on the fence here.
  • As a result, the feel of this Edinburgh Fringe is very different from a normal year. Within the core area of George Square and Bristo Square, is does feel a bit more like a festival. Outside of a core hub, it doesn’t feel like there’s a fringe on – even on the Royal Mile.
  • The fact that the Fringe only went ahead as a fraction of its normal size hasn’t stopped the nimbys coming out in force. Most notorious this month has been the Cockburn Association, who so obviously are against the fringe for the reason that they don’t like it therefore no-one else should. Their objections are textbook nimbyism, where they raise issues they would never have given two hoots were they not trying to make the fringe bad. The most outlandish claim was that the Fringe was putting Edinburgh’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under threat. UNESCO eventually said that wasn’t true, but the fact this rubbish was repeated often enough to prompt them to intervene is shocking.
  • The good news is that, for the few acts that did go ahead amidst all the uncertainty, ticket sales have been excellent. Audience numbers have been massacred, but with the number of acts massacred even more, the sales per performance have improved. A lot of acts who shied away from taking part must be wishing they had now. Myself included.
  • One notable absence this year has been second-tier venues. Nothing from C Venues, Greenside or Sweet, and the only presence of Zoo being a four-way collaboration with a temporary joint venue. This means that The Space has risen in prominence this year, taking a lot of acts that otherwise would have gone to the second tier. Big question now over what The Space does next. (See 24th August for possibilities.)
  • Online theatre has also managed a reasonable presence, in spite of early scepticism over registration fees being off-putting. In fact, so far the online medium has persisted longer than most people expected, as in-person shows are returning across the board. I wasn’t seriously expecting this to become a permanent feature of fringes, but having surprised us this far, maybe it can surprise us further.
  • The web-only booking system has proven troublesome are all sorts of logistical reasons, and the lack of a paper programme has compounded this. Although the paper programmes are one of the Festival |Fringe Society’s most expensive operations, it looks like fringe land is not yet ready to go fully paperless just yet. (That said, paperless ticketing seems to have worked – that is something that I expect to remain in place.)
  • Shona McCarthy has stated for the first time on the record that Edinburgh Fringe is no longer judging its success by size. It’s been quietly backing away from bigger is better for a few years, but this is the first time it’s been made official.

All in all, the Edinburgh Fringe is in a strong position to begin a proper recovery next year. But do not underestimate the mountain they have to claim. It’s one thing for Brighton and Buxton to build on half-size fringes, but Edinburgh is more like tenth-size. There are aspirations to rebuild in a sustainable way without it being clear how that will be achieved, but perhaps the easiest way to do it is if demand never returns to the levels it was in the 2010s.

Edinburgh Fringe’s mission this year was to survive, and they have succeeded. The job of rebuilding the fringe, however, has only just started.

Wednesday 1st September:

We now have the stats of ticket sales – or some of them, anyway. Edinburgh Fringe has chosen not to release sales figures like it usually does. The reason given by Shona McCarthy is that she wishes to “stop defining success by scale”. A cynical interpretation is that Edinburgh Fringe is really holding back the figures because they’re not good, but I think this is unlikely because 1) all the anecdotal evidence was that the figures were as good as could be for a fringe this size; and 2) under Shona McCarthy the Festival Fringe Society has been quietly stepping away from “bigger is better” for a few years now. However, it does make it harder to assess how this have gone based on proper stats.

Some of the individual venues have nonetheless released their own figures, which Chortle has summed up, but I’ve not managed to work out out anything beyond what I knew already. The two big sticking points are: most of the stats do not separate sales for online and in-person; and the prevalence of large high-capacity venues (even after social distancing) against lots of small spaces in 2019. Between them, it makes a like-for-like comparison difficult. As such, I don’t think we can on anything better than percentage occupancy, where we still only have the 78% reported by The Space. I still think the Big Four’s performance was similar based on my observations, but if anyone can draw some better conclusions from number-crunching, I’d be happy to hear it.

It might be helpful, however, to stick to first principles and consider why these stats matter. For a fringe to grow – and whatever the FFS society may say, they’re desperate to grow past their 2021 size – ticket sales per act need to be high enough to make people think it’s worthwhile the following year. I think there can be little doubt that sales around the three-quarters mark will do the job. The other questions is whether the venues think it’s worthwhile to expand. Again, three-quarters occupancy should be encouraging, but the venues get to see all the data and there might be something out of view that’s more off-putting. Regardless, the big unknown factor is public funding. It’s one thing putting together a stop-gap fringe to prevent a total collapse, but another thing to support a fringe at anything near its normal size. Will they get the backing they need to expand? If not, how far dare they go without?

Those questions, folks, are unlikely to be answered until next year.

One other bit of breaking news: after all the hints that Brighton Fringe might decide to stick with its enforced three-week postponement for good – they’ve decided to stick with May after all. Bit surprised, seeing as everyone who’d expressed an opinion on this seems to back the change, but I was a little sceptical about this – I’m not convinced blazing hot weather at the seaside is good for ticket sales. No reason given as yet, but I expect I’ll find out the thinking in due course.

What that means for Edinburgh is that they keep their status as only viable fringe for student productions. May clashes with most students’ exams, but June is better, and with even a large student cast sharing expenses getting prohibitively expensive, that might have might Brighton a tempting alternative. Whether that would have been good or bad for Edinburgh Fringe is another question, but now that’s a hypothetical debate. What is does mean is that I can go back to covering fringe season over four months – four fringes in three months got somewhat back-breaking.

Tuesday 31st August:

So it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Who has made my pick of the fringe? Here it goes. With all categories ordered in the sequence I saw them:

Pick of the Fringe:

Zumba 2021shook_capGold
Sintara Raw
Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed
Shook
Northanger Abbey
Skank (based on Vault 2020)

Online Pick of the Fringe:

Mustard
Fow
The Little Glass Slipper performed by the Queen of France and her friends
Mimi’s Suitcase

Honourable mention:

Myra’s Story
The Event
Madhouse
Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man who used to hit her)
Fear of Roses
Brave Face
On Your Bike

Observant readers will notice that everything in-person I have reviewed here gets honourable mention or higher. This is intentional: anyone who have braved the odds to come to the Edinburgh Fringe this year has my eternal respect. It wasn’t automatic though: there was one pretty major performance I saw that I didn’t review because I thought it fell way short of expectations – everyone on this list gets the honour of doing better than this unspecified major performance. (I also didn’t review a music event, a tour, and a magic show but only because they were too far removed from theatre for me to make a meaningful assessment.)

Don’t go away just yet though. I have been tipped off of a piece of news coming tomorrow that could be significant for Edinburgh.

Monday 30th August:

And that’s it, the last day. Time to wind up coverage. We’re possibly waiting for news on fringe-wide ticket sales (we currently only have word from The Space) and we may also get some news from Brighton Fringe this week that might affect Edinburgh – in a good way, in my opinion.

But before then, let’s complete the online theatre reviews with a second and last batch:

Till Love Do Us Part: There are two halves to this play. The first half starts with a new couple saying goodnight on the start of a very successful first date. By the next scene, they’ve already moved in together, and for the next half-hour it’s practically a checklist of a relationship progressing like a dream: engagement, marriage, deciding to have kids together. Sadly, the conception ends in a miscarriage (the worst kind: the one where a scan predicts a doomed foetus will continue to grow but miscarry at a later time), but surely Jen and Simon’s love can survive this, right? Wrong.

The second half is what the play is really about. Nature is cruel and nature has decided a second conception isn’t going to be anywhere near as easy as the first. Jen’s desire to become a mother becomes an obsession. News of friends having their children without any effort only depresses her. Jen and Simon now only have sex for the purposes on conception. Until, finally, this puts a bigger strain on their lives than the original miscarriage.

It’s an informative play, but I wouldn’t have given half of it over the exposition. Whilst the time-frame over the length of the relationship is a temptingly tidy one, by the time we reached to meat of the story I was getting needlessly bored. Off-hand I’d have given a maximum of 10 minutes to bring us up to speed on life before. That I think would have given a tighter play; there may be further opportunities to explore to ups and downs in this fateful period. What this does achieve, however, is drawing attention to an issue that seems to attract little attention. It does that well, so credit for that.

Cash Point Meet: An Irish play that takes a look at the world of Sex Work it titled after one particular strand. A “Cash Point Meet” actually is a thing (look it up if you don’t believe me) involving men who, for some reason, find it a real turn on to be humiliated by a pair of women who take his money off him at a cash point. When Emma and Sinead are unexpectedly offered the chance to do this via a weird request on Tinder, it proves too tempting: all the money you get from sex work without actually having to do the sex bit. However, it turns out it’s not as easy as one imagines to separate this unexpectedly lucrative line of work from the rest of their lives. Like it or not, they are in it with all the other sex workers when it comes to their own safety.

The most obvious weakness of the play is a slow-moving plot. I would have cut the first 20 minutes completely – the exposition of two close friends on the breadline with no boyfriends could easily have been covered in the rest of the play. The play also digresses into issues such as mental health and Dublin’s notorious housing market that drag the pace down further. Nevertheless, once the play gets into the nuances of the complex situation around the sex work trade things get interesting. At the forefront, commentary on controversial the sex work laws on Ireland, with writer Niamh Murphy arguing the case that making paying for sex illegal for the punter only making life more dangerous for the sex workers. With one friend wanting out and the other friend wanting to campaign for her fellow workers, that’s where I think the real story lies.

The Little Glass Slipper as Performed by the Queen of France and Her Friends: And now, another unexpected gem. This was one of the stranger concepts: Marie Antionette, famous for being wife of Louis XVI and saying “let them eat cake” (which she probably never actually said), is putting on a play for the cream of Parisian aristocracy. She has cast herself into the most glamorous role of Cinderella, or, seeing as this is France, Cendrillon.At first glance, Marie comes across as the world first hipster. The kind who think it’s cool to spend an obscene amount of wealth of looking poor because looking poor is trendy. The kind you’d want to punch if you met them.

But tonight is the night the Bastille is being stormed, and as news reaches the Queen and friends must decide whether to flee to safety or stick with their sovereign, we see what she’s really like: in this play, she is defined by her naivety. She has no idea why this event is a big deal to France, and doesn’t seem to have any idea of the danger she’s in. She does, however, sense that so many people hate her, when all she does is to be liked by everyone. She is woefully out of touch – but it’s hard to see what chance she had to know any better.

It is not without its flaws. The role of Prince Charming is hastily taken up by a revolutionary intend on killing her are claiming the price on her head. He ends up pitying her – but the explanation for why he agrees to help the show go on is vague at best. But I am still hopeful that this can come to Edinburgh fringe for real. Some changes will have to be made – it is hard to see how the play as it stands could be performed on the smaller stages at the fringe – but this has a lot going for it. This is a beautiful portrayal with equal measures of comedy and tragedy – I hope the Miles Sisters can make the journey from America.

Sunday 29th August – Shook:

Before we go into the last in-person review, one bit of breaking news. We have our first report of ticket sales from The Space. They are reporting 64,000 ticket sales, down from 120,000 in 2019, but with the programme merely at 65 shown down from 445, that’s a lot more to go round. Seat occupancy is reported as 78%, which is in line with my observations across the fringe. I can see many would-be acts wishing they’d taken the plunge.

So let’s close with on the The Space’s most high-profile shows: Shook. Big coup for New Celts Productions to get performing rights for this, because this is a very recent winner of a major playwriting competition (Papatango). Samuel Bailey’s play is set in a prison where three young offenders are either fathers now or due to become fathers soon. Cain and Ryan begin the play with masculine bravado. As anyone who’s a man or has hung around with men knows, at least 60% of masculine bravado is bullshit, but in a prison that figure is more like 90%. Jonjo is a third quieter inmate, who looks like he needs help more than he needs prison, but when you hear what he was pushed into doing you see why he’s in prison. Can Grace give them one last chance to appreciate life as fathers.

Most drama set in prison are harrowing, either through the brutality of the inmates or the brutality of the people who locked them up, so it is refreshing to see a play that offers hope for a change. Cain, a traveller who spends time in and out of the nick makes a good point: the politicians who pledge to be tough on criminals like him hate him for who he is rather than what he’s done. Grace succeeds in getting Jonjo out of his shell where everyone else failed. Even Ryan – who comes across at the beginning as a bully at best and a misogynistic bully at worst – calms down for a while. Against the odds, Grace bring hope for almost everybody. Almost.

But how does this production fare? A lot to live up to with the fully professional premiere not that long ago. However, this young company does an excellent job of it, with the London setting successfully transplanted to Scotland. The only real limitations was the fringe environment such as the small stage, but they handle this. One thing that particularly impressed me is how much was achieved when actors aren’t speaking. In one moment where Grace is listening to Cain’s bullshit, Ryan – still in his masculine bravado phase – is sprawled out trying to dominate the room, whilst Jojno is cradling the doll of a baby even though he doesn’t need to.

The only shortcoming is one perhaps unavoidable to fringe conditions. It is normal for full-length plays to be shortened to fit in the programme – and most of them time, if you don’t know better, you can succeed in making it look like this is how it was written all along. This time, however, it would appear that something major about Ryan’s backstory was cut. When he snaps, there’s very little to tell us why, other than an unclear grudge against the person he lashed out at. But with the only thing I have to fault out of their hands, everything else is positive. The best was to get performing rights to a play written so recently is to persaude the writer you know what you’re doing. I hope Samuel Bailey and Papatango were proud out this.

Saturday 28th August – On Your Bike:

Now for a rare foray into musicals. I was drawn to this one by a very promising preview at The Space’s press launch. On Your Bike is a musical about one of the most recent additions to life: the takeaway delivery cyclist. The good news is that delivering takeaways by bicycle is much more environmentally friendly than driving everywhere by car. The bad news is that this often goes hand-in-hand with another not-so-welcome recent arrival: the casualisation of labour, where zero-hour contracts and/or so-called self-employed status are used as workarounds to evade employment protections that apply to everyone else.

The showcase song, however, has nothing to do with cycling or takeaways. “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” as a song on a first date where everything is going right. Can this promising standard apply to the rest of the songs. Yes they do. Writing songs for musicals is tricky – if either the words or the music doesn’t work out, it falls flat. The music in these songs, however, is consistently good and consistently catchy. The lyrics are also impressive. Even people who have no trouble letting the words flow in regular prose can struggle when setting it to music, but the words are crafted exceedingly well here. In the opening we learn Gemma is doing this because she’s had 77 consecutive rejection letters using every platitude know to man (increasing to 78 by the time the song finishes), and her living arrangements is even more precarious than her job than her job. Aidan is a little more secure with his arrangement, fitting his art around these irregular hours, but that too is going to come under pressure.

The story, however, isn’t quite as strong as the music. The brilliantly catchy “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” loses its edge a little when you notice the two people getting together don’t really seem to have anything in common. No soon has Aidan started his whirlwind romance with a social media marketing-obsessed middle manager, she’s already badgering him to quit his art aspirations and join her in faceless middle management, which makes we wonder what they saw in each other in the first place. The play starts off making some intelligent comment about the culture around casual labour, where maximum flexibility to stakeholders is pushed at the expense of any real security or dignity, but too many of the resolutions are contrived. Yes, there are are ethical questions around animal welfare and takeaways, but a takeaway manger have a change of heart and converting to a vegan falafel restaurant after reading one leaflet from an animal rights group? Come on.

Despite these limitations, this is a good start from a student ensemble for what I think is the most difficult form of writing. Songwriting gets a lot more complicated when you are supporting a story, story-telling gets a lot more complicated when you’re mixing in music and lyrics. The ensemble of four give a strong performance, and the musical standard remains high from start to finish. Four year ago the same society came up with Six, and we know how that’s going. Good job from their successors in keeping the flag flying.

Friday 27th August:

A break from the reviews now to look at the end-of-fringe news. By now, I think everyone is confident that the Edinburgh Fringe has done enough to put itself on a firm footing to recover. Now they have launched a Save the Fringe campaign aiming to raise £7.5 million. As anyone’s who’s manage to successfully book a ticket through the fringe website how, the donations page has been asking for support for 2022 which they are now eyeing up as their relaunch year, coinciding with their 75th anniversary. This campaign, however, is a long-term one one aiming to raise money over 3-5 years, according to The Stage. At present, we don’t have details of what the Edinburgh Fringe plans to do with this £7.5m that it couldn’t do without, but we do have a list of seven principles they aspire to.

However, I think there is another factor that needs to be considered. When I previously wrote about 7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe when the situation looked the bleakest, I considered scenarios from “phoenix from the ashes” to “meltdown”. The danger of the meltdown scenario is now receding, but instead we should now consider a scenario at the opposite extreme: the Fringe recovers too well, and all the problems of a large fringe that came to a head in 2019 come back. It might even go beyond 2019 and hit breaking point. Edinburgh Fringe stopped cheerleading year-on-year growth a few years back, but with the festival open to all, they can’t stop the same people doing it all over again.

So does these seven principles address this? Debatable. The most relevant principle is number 2, which says: “Break down barriers to participation in the Fringe”. Money isn’t the only barrier, but it’s by the far the biggest one, and there’s no escaping the fact that the bigger the fringe gets, the more it costs to do it. However, whilst no-one would object to the principles, the devil is in the detail, or rather the lack of it: there is so far no information on exactly how the Edinburgh Fringe intends to break down barriers.

This ties into the wider issue of the great reset. Every man and his dog is currently taking about this year being the great fringe reset. Everybody agrees that the fringe is too expensive and needs to be kinder, and most people agree that the fringe got too big, but few people are proposing a solution, and amongst those who have, there’s next to no consensus. The only thing everybody can seem to agree on is that other people who are responsible for making the fringe too big. If 2019 mustn’t be repeated, who shouldn’t go? Never themselves, that’s for sure.

My current feeling is that whilst the aspiration to make the fringe a better place might be there, the drive isn’t. Few people are coming up with ideas, fewer still are prepared to compromise for the greater good. If the fringe does reform, it’s more likely to be market forces. It does look a lot of freelancers who have left the arts won’t be coming back, and with all fringes so dependent on freelancing, that could reduce uptake a lot. This is also the year that alternative festivals rose in prominence, and potentially will start taking people who would otherwise have gone for Edinburgh or bust. Edinburgh’s problem has been supply and demand – it looks like the cut in demand may be permanent.

There is will time for the Festival Fringe society, venues, arts industry and public bodies to get their heads together and make a plan, but at the moment there seems little will to even attempt to do this. If a recovered Edinburgh Fringe has fewer barriers and is more sustainable, it may not to because of the efforts to reform, but in spite of the lack of effort. If you want to to prove me wrong -well, that’s in your hands.

Thursday 26th August – Brave Face:

It truly pains me to say this, but although Brave Face is a story with huge potential and so much to say, it fails the “What’s going on?” test. The message that writer/performer Everleigh Brenner gives at the end of the play is that there are many women who have suffered sexual violence who put on a brave face, and few if any of the people there would disagree with that. But the play sets out to say more than that. Her character em becomes, in her words “a woman the world fears” are resort of some extreme measure. Clearly a powerful statement is being made here, but I’m completely lost as to what statement was being made.

Based on what I can piece together (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the play but I don’t know how else to summarise this): Em was raped seven years ago, and wants revenge. But with proven rapists hard to identify, Em has widened her net to exact her vengeance on adulterers, philanderers, misogynists and lecherous wankers in general. After she sees her fuck-buddy cop off with another woman, something prompts her to take action, although it’s not clear whether the trigger was that incident or a video shown after of what appears to be an attack – is this a flashback to an earlier event or something that’s just happened? Either way, she starts blackmailing the other men she’s been having affairs with and attacking some of her pick-ups with anaesthetic she took from her dental job. Her number one target, however, is a touring DJ, although it’s not clear whether his crime is being her rapist or simply liking photos of hot women on Instagram. She meets him, intending to lure him to bed for an unclear ulterior motive. And she succeeds, but not before he behaves like a gentleman and she discovers she has feelings for him (and if he is indeed her rapist that confuses me further). But in bed he doesn’t understand stop and she retaliates in the most extreme way possible.

I think I can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, I have missed something vital that’s supposed to explain what’s happening and why. I don’t have many rules for playwriting, but one of the ones I swear by is that the more out of the ordinary a character behaves, the harder you have to work to show what made him or her do this. I’m not interested in her multi-partnered sex life – there is no normal way to respond to rape – but the revenge she dishes out is as far removed from normal as can be. I’m pretty sure Brenner has a very good idea for why Em is doing this, but I don’t, and when I discussed this with another member of the audience, she floated another theory. It was a good one that never crossed my mind, I admit, but when a play is intended to sent a message loud and clear, the last thing you want is multiple interpretations of what the play was actually about.

The thing is, apart from that, I think this play has all the ingredients of a great one. Even without fully understanding Em’s motivations, Brenner gives a articulate, confident and often emotive performance. I was also particularly impressed by the technical achievement. This kind of multimedia approach usually falls foul of one of two things: either not really adding to the story, or getting out of their depth. Neither applies here This is a story heavily interlaced with the online world, where real life blends with everything from diary organisers to social media containing all sorts of casual bigotry and nastiness. And performer and tech blend seamlessly.

So here’s what I would do next. This play is currently 40 minutes along, but fringe productions typically run 60. 20 minutes should be more than enough to flesh out any unclear plot points, but more importantly, go into the depth that’s needed to explain why she’s done what she’s done. Brenner understands Em better than anyone else,so there’s little else I can suggest on who to do it, other than the obvious principle of “show, don’t tell”. And that’s it. That, I reckon, is all that’s needed to get this play to have its full reach and live to its full potential. And this has bags of potential. Don’t sell it short.

Wednesday 25th August – Fear of Roses:

This play is described as a pulp thriller, but at first glance it looks more of a play about character relationships and office politics. Nicollette works as PA for Tabby aka Tabitha, expected to be imminently promoted with Tabitha expected to be promoted along with her. Tabby is a rising star, and in a victory for gender equality proves that women are just as good as men at going to strip joints on managers’ nights out and discussing it inappropriately at work the next day. That aside, the opening is actually quite interesting. At first, it looks like the two are old friends, but as time goes on hints are dropped that Tabby is actually quite self-obsessed. In particular, Nicollette has been forced to take on a night shift to make ends meet, and Tabby is wilfully oblivious to the circumstances of her supposed old friend.

However, the balance of power is about to shift noticeably. It turns out Tabby’s career path to date has not been entirely above board, and this has attracted the attention of Keely who’s come to visit. It is never specified exactly what skeletons are in Tabby’s cupboard, but it is enough to make her agree to a sum of half a million in 48 hours. And the only way she can get that amount of money in that short a length of a time is to rob her own bank overnight. If only there was a soft target in security – wait a mo …

The plot continues at a satisfying pace as more secrets are revealed and more things turn out to not be what they seem, but this play does suffer a little from a few plot points that don’t quite stack up. Nothing is serious and it doesn’t get to the point where the entire premise ceases to make sense, but there still a few questions that bugged me afterwards. In particular, why was blackmailing Keeley so unrelenting on a 48-hour deadline once it was clear Tabby couldn’t deliver the goods in time? Surely it’s better to get the money late than not at all. There is a twist at the end which I won’t spoil. but if you’re going to do that you need to make sure the story continues to stack up in light of what’s been revealed.

In spite of this, however, it’s a decent comedy-thriller that covers bases of social comment and character relations. This show has been overshadowed somewhat by their other production, Press, which seems to be going down very well, but as long as you can resist the temptation to nit-pick too hard you shouldn’t be disappointed with this.

Tuesday 24th August, 9.45 p.m. – Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man that use to hit her)

I must apologise that I cannot cover this next play with my normal impartiality. If I was part of a reviewing publication I would ask someone else to do this, but as sole reviewer of chrisontheatre I don’t have this option. The thing that attracted me to this play was the subject of long-term trauma – in the case of Patricia, the aftermath of a violent relationship. She has long rehearsed the words she intend to she if she ever sees the bastard again – but when the bastard shows up out of the blue, she instead resorts to small talk, and when he suggests going out to dinner for the evening, she forgets how to say no.

Why would anyone agree to do that? If you’re hoping there’s somehow some sort of of remorse on the part of her ex, forget it. There’s barely any time between falling head over heels with the bad-boy man of her dreams, and the violence that follows. This is based on playwright Martha Watson Allpress’s own personal experience, but it falls into a depressingly predictable pattern: from the outset exact ideas about how a woman should behave down to choice of drinks; resorting to the fist at the first sign of disagreement; and ludicrous amounts of paranoia and jealousy over matters as trivial as dancing with a gay best friend. That’s not to say the play doesn’t bring new insights – it is recounted here how the tension in anticipation of being hit becomes almost as bad as the violence itself. At one point, a gut-wrenching phone call is played as Patricia finally tells her mother what’s been going on all this time, begging her not to cry.

However, there was one thing in this that didn’t ring true – to me. This is where I need to tread carefully. There’s few things I hate more than reviewers or whoever using someone else’s traumatic experience and making it all about themselves, so I will say this on a need-to-know basis only. My interest was long-term trauma is a personal one. You don’t need to know what – if you want to know I’ve talked about it extensively elsewhere – but before you ask: not an abusive relationship; not anything nearly as bad as Patricia’s story. Even so, it took me eight years before I was comfortable going into all the details of what happened to me. One year after the event, I was still making excuses for my gaslighters.

So here’s what doesn’t ring true for me. Patricia narrates a very convincing and harrowing account of two years’ abuse in a composed and articulate manner. But if I was in no such state to recount my experience one year after the event, I just can’t believe it would be any easier for someone who’s been though much much worse. The Patricia speaking to us is a fully recovered strong Patricia who now sees the scumbag for every despicable thing he is – but the Patricia talking to her ex, or even anybody else when going into her story, is a very different Patricia. The first Patricia struck me as someone who would have no trouble telling her ex to go fuck himself.

The message at the end, however, is an important one: there is no typical battered partner. If it was me, I would consider doing most of Patricia’s story in third person – there is enough artistic license to do this. The other option would be to write this in the mind of post-trauma Patricia; that would be a much harder thing to do if she’s reluctant to go into the worst of what happened, even though she must. But similar things have been done, and they’re very effective when done right.

Reality trumps character assessment, of course – if anyone is ready to talk about every detail of a violent relationship within a year of the event, please say so. I would love to proven wrong here. I guess, in the end, I was looking for something I can personally can relate to: that you can get on with your life and be resilient, but still shut down when made to recount a traumatic memory – the two are not exclusive. If that wasn’t the point of this personal story, fair enough. What I hope we can agree on is the fallacy of the phrase “But it was a long time ago.”

Tuesday 24th August, 5.00 p.m.:

We are currently in what’s going to be a very Space-heavy section of reviews, so now’s a good time to look at this venue. The Space has had an interesting year, and is now at a crossroads.

Historically, the Space has differed from other venues is that it runs entirely on first-come-first-served. In practice, this gives almost everybody a place to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe even if no other venue will have you. One easy criticism to make is that this makes The Space home for all the acts that aren’t good enough to be taken by anyone else, but that’s not entirely fair. Whilst it’s true to say The Space has more than its fair share of godawful plays, no venue is immune from this and The Space has also hosted some very successful plays. I am strongly of the view that it is better to allow an untested artist to try and fail than to prevent an untested artist from trying and succeeding, and The Space performs this important job.

This year, however, it’s been a bit difference. With the near-total absence of second-tier venues, The Space have taken on a lot of acts that would otherwise have gone to Zoo, Sweet or Greenside. But the other development is that The Space has pushed an online platform more strongly than any Edinburgh Venue. They ran an online programme last August when most venues shut down completely, and carried on running this after Edinburgh time finished. The third season was done for Brighton Fringe, which Space had never had any association with before. They are still running an online programme this time, which is less newsworthy as most venues are running some sort of online platform, but they have been one of the key drivers with this rise of online fringe.

So, what happens next? I honestly don’t know, but let’s sketch out four scenarios, any of which might exist in combinations:

  • Back to before: We still don’t know the long-term future of “online fringe”. Certain a lot of online fans acquired over 2020 have said how good it is to be back to the real thing. Should interest fade, the Space could return to its original role of entry-level tier.
  • Online platform persists: One of the arguments in favour of keeping an online fringe platform is that it gives artists the chance to get things out there in an environment where people take a punt on unknowns, but without the expense associated with coming to Edinburgh. It might run parallel with the fringes, it might also be moves to its own festival (maybe winter) as some people have suggested. Either way, I think it’s a safe bet that if there’s an online fringe of any standing, The Space will want to be part of it.
  • Moving up the league: If The Space have taken acts who would normally go elsewhere, it may hang on to them. If they are really lucky, the good reputation of these more experienced acts will up the reputation as the place where the good stuff is, which in turn attract other notable acts. The snag? That might spell the end of The Space as an open-access venue. I’ve seen this happen to other venues that forgot their ideal to provide a space to perform the moment everybody wanted to go there.
  • Less focus on Edinburgh: Is Edinburgh Fringe the right fringe for entry-level acts anyway? You can certainly get started a lot more cheaply at fringes other than Edinburgh. Who knows, now that The Space has been part of Brighton Fringe’s online programme, they might decide it also suits them to be part of their in-person programme. Sweet has shown the running at two fringes can work, so might The Space go for three?

As always, we’ll see.

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What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

People holding the Edinburgh Fringe logo, but spaced out.

Skip to: Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho; Skank; Watson: The Final Problem; Mimi’s Suitcase; Northanger Abbey; Screen 9; Mustard; The Great Gatsby; WSTL: Epistles; Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name; The Importance of Being … Earnest?; Could it be Magic?; Dahpna Baram: Unmuted; Those People: a play about QAnon

Let’s give credit where it is due. Two months ago the picture for Edinburgh Fringe was as bleak as can be. The mood amongst everybody was that Fringe 2021 might not be officially cancelled, but it was as good as cancelled. But Edinburgh Fringe and most of the major venues held their nerve, and in the last month has managed an impressive turnaround – given the circumstances. At the time of writing, Edinburgh Fringe has 675 registrations. This is far less than pre-Covid levels and only slightly ahead of Brighton Fringe, but compared to a month ago when the number of confirmed acts barely made triple figures, you’ve got to hand it to them.

But the fact remains that the Edinburgh Fringe has been hit much harder than fringes such as Brighton or Buxton. And whilst everybody has pulled together for the latter fringes, the same cannot be said for the big one. Most controversially: the Scottish Government’s highly questionable decision to enforce two-metre social distancing for theatres when pubs could have one. This rule has now been relaxed, and may even be dropped completely in time for most of the festival, but not before numerous acts and venues ran out of patience and opted to perform south of the border instead. On a more positive note, the Scottish Government has provided some support to many of the bigger venues to have some sort of festival. It could have been worse – but whilst Brighton and Buxton Fringes did have a feel similar to a normal year, it looks like Edinburgh Fringe 2021 will only be a shadow of its pre-2020 former self.

However, there is still enough in the programme for me to pull together a list of recommendations. Before then, however, let’s look at the fringe as a whole.

What to expect at Edinburgh

I did this for Brighton, and I’m going to do this again for Edinburgh. Whatever you want to see, there will be a lot of differences from before. These, I think, are going to be the biggest ones:

The diminished fringe: Already said before, but will say it again. Brighton and Buxton managed to pass off as normal fringes with a 40% reduction in size, but you cannot disguise an 80% reduction. This means that Edinburgh Fringe 2021 is going to be lot more like Brighton Fringe 2020, where the object of the game is to simply put on any kind of fringe. On the other hand, you have to hand it to the performers who braved the uncertainty and come anyway. The few performers here deserve a lot of respect.

The REALLY last-minute fringe: You think that Brighton Fringe left it to the last moment to put together a programme? That’s nothing compared to Edinburgh. When tickets went on sale a month before fringe opening, there were just 170 registrations – and had the numbers stayed that way, it would have been a disaster. However, that was partly because The Space and Summerhall were the only two notable venues who’d announced their programmes. Most of the venues announced their programmes later, but Edinburgh only edged ahead of Brighton with one week to go. Brighton managed to keep together with a programme known only a month in advance – we will shortly find out if Eidnburgh can get away with just a week in advance.

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What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2021

Skip to: Jekyll and Hyde, Mr. Fox, The Virtuous Burglar, Mike Raffone, Egriega and Ormond, An Admin Worker at the End of the World, Nathan Cassidy, Coppelia

Well, here’s a snag over a late start to the fringe season. You’ve only finished covering one fringe and the next one’s about the start. But don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. It’s July, and that means it’s time for Buxton Fringe.

The news from Buxton isn’t nearly as sensational as the news from Brighton or Edinburgh. (That’s sensational in a good way and a bad way respectively.) Brighton’s comeback was noteworthy because it was not clear whether an event taking place one week after performances were allowed could work that scale, but it did – the sharp contrast to Edinburgh’s misfortunes only heightening it more. But although Buxton Fringe is a lot more low-key, they are following a similar recovery to Brighton. They go into opening night with 109 registrations, about half of pre-pandemic levels (give or take depending on whether you use 2018 or 2019 as the baseline) – that’s similar to Brighton.

Many other changes noticed at Brighton apply to Buxton too. Like Brighton, the paper programme was dropped allowing registrations to come in up to the start of the fringe (with “official” deadlines meaning little in the end). Most of the regular venues are taking part, the most notable exceptions being the Rotunda and the Arts Centre (the latter in operation for the festival but not the fringe this time). The one thing that might have been a spanner in the works was that social distancing for weeks 1 and 2 were put in place unexpectedly, but few acts have been deterred by that. One might have though Buxton would take a hit with no (meaningful) Edinburgh Fringe to be a stepping stone to, but plenty of would-be Edinburgh acts seem quite happy to go without. (That’s not unique to Buxton – Carlisle and Durham Fringes also seem to be managing fine with Edinburgh.)

At this stage, Buxton Fringe has good reasons to be quietly confident. If their fortunes carry on running in line with Brighton’s, they should expect good ticket sales and patronage if Brighton’s precedent is remotely anything to go by. The worst-case scenario I can think of is if the mostly older audience at Buxton are more reluctant to return than their Brighton counterparts, but we should find out in the next few days if this is the case.

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7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe

Through most of the last year, there has been a lot of justified alarm over the future of theatres. Amongst that is what would happen to the the festival fringes. But what no-one forecasted was for Edinburgh Fringe alone to be in uniquely dire circumstances. Whilst Brighton Fringe is bouncing back better than anybody’s wildest dreams, Edinburgh has still not even listed a single show. As everybody now knows, in Scotland they’ve been ultra-cautious and planned restrictions well into August and beyond. The problem is the level of restrictions demanded: two metres indoors for performing arts, ignoring all possible forms of mitigation such as masks, barriers, or everyone facing the same way. That is virtually impossible to comply with.

Make no mistake, this is the perfect storm for the Edinburgh Fringe. Had all festivals in the UK been in this situation, it would have been more secure, but with strict rules only applying to Scotland, the festivals south of the border have stepped up where Edinburgh can’t. Last year’s Warren Outdoors was a success because they were able to programme a lot of popular acts seeking to fill an Edinburgh-shaped hold in their schedules – it now turns out this was only the tip of the iceberg. Now many of the the Edinburgh venues are staging new festivals in England: Pleasance is running “Fringe Future” in partnership with the Vault, Gilded Balloon are running a pop-up festival with their inflatable cow, and Assembly is running “Assembly Garden” in City of Culture Coventry. As a result, many of Edinburgh’s favourite acts have already signed up for these or other non-Edinburgh fixtures. There is no guarantee they’ll go back to Edinburgh.

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My thoughts on Alphabetti’s Aware

I said I wasn’t going to review Aware from Alphabetti Theatre – I don’t think I am fairly judge a performance based on artistic merit on an issue where I openly take sides. However, I presume a large part of Alphabetti Theatre’s aim is to raise awareness, I can do my bit by giving my own take on neurodiversity in respect of these issues. The short version is that I believe they did best they could realistically achieve from one production, but there’s a lot of details to get through here.

First, a catchup on where Alphabetti Theatre is.* Alphabetti Theatre has gone from one of the most cautious theatres to one of the most bullish. Last year, when most theatres were looking at an autumn reopening, Alphabetti were predicting nothing until the New Year. They did go for a low-scale socially distanced production for Christmas, but we know what happened then. But when May 17th was named as re-opening date and numerous theatres went for that very week, Alphabetti went one step further and went for an audio production, Listen In, which you could listen either online or at a table at the theatre. The table in theatre option didn’t go head in the end, but respect for trying nonetheless.

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