One off: history repeating

Skip to: Noughts and Crosses

Ric Renton’s own story about his time in Durham prison is insightful, nuanced, raises awareness of an issue few people in the north east know about – and firmly marks Jack McNamara’s stamp as Live Theatre’s new artistic director.

Jack McNamara got off to a good start with We Are The Best back in June, but whilst the debut may have been a safe bet with an uplifting crowd-pleaser, this follow-up is a lot darker. And – if the pattern on the fringe circuit is anything like the rest of theatre – heavy going is considerably riskier in terms of audience numbers. And yet, this play is getting good audiences, and for good reasons too. This is a co-production with Paines Plough, and Ric Renton stars in his own play about his experiences of Durham Prison. There was a time when prison dramas were full of brutality, either from guards or other inmates. Now it’s a bit more complicated.

oneoff_lowres-59First, a lesson in recent local history. I must confess, I had no idea Durham Prison was such a controversial subject. The last I heard, it was a prison with reluctant guests included Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. When it came to public attention there was a high rate of suicide, the high-security women’s wing was closed it it became a men-only prison. One might have thought the authorities would have also actually tried to stop the stupidly high suicide rate – instead, it appears they just shrugged. Usual word of caution for any creative writing based on a true story: there is little to stop a theatre depicting a one-sided account without allowing those under fire their side of the story. However, Ric Renton’s account is consistent with the publicly available information about Durham Prison – and considering that this prison has recently been changed completely from a category A Prison to a reception prison – I suspect those in charge of the prison today will accept this was fair.

Ric (named “Shepherd” in the play) is in a cell between Brown and Knox. The one thing you quickly notice that these three have in common is that none of them should really be in the same prison as the most hardened criminals in the country. Yes, they have all done enough to earn themselves a stretch, but it seems the people who most need protecting from these three are themselves. Especially Brown. He seems so lost in the outside world he commits crime after inept crime on the expectation he’ll be going back. He claims to be building matchstick models of Durham Cathedral that probably only exist in his mind – and when we finally do hear his back story, it’s of someone who didn’t stand a chance in life.

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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.

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Odds and Sods: October 2022

Time for another odds and sods. One thing I have still not mentioned is the Chris Goode shitshow that blew up this month. Rest assured, I am well aware of this – I will be talking about this separately, because there’s a lot to cover there.

Stuff that happened in October

Having started off mentioning the really depressing news, I’ll carry on doing this in order. I’ll move on to the next least cheery development, and finish with some good news.

Edinburgh Film Festival under threat?

I’m starting with the most concerning news this time, so read on for the cheerier stuff. This has only really been on the Edinburgh cultural radar, but in the worst case scenario the rest of us will be noticing the fall-out very soon.

film_festival_logoSo, the news that has rocked Edinburgh is that the Centre for the Moving Image has gone into administration, with trading ceasing immediately and all staff being made redundant. Truth be told, I’d never heard of this organisation until I saw it was in this much trouble. It runs two arthouse cinemas in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, both with strong local followings. However, there is a more significant part to this that runs wider: they also operate the Edinburgh International Film Festival. That has been running as long as the Edinburgh Fringe, and is one of the festivals under the Edinburgh Festival banner. There is a long-running theory that the powers that be in Edinburgh would never allow one of its flagship festivals to disappear – but that it about to be put to the test. And if we’re wrong, which other festivals would they allow to go bust? The tattoo? The international festival? The Edinburgh Fringe itself?

 

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The Book of Mormon: out of the comfort zone

Elder Kevin and the General

The musical by the creators of South Park runs and runs because of its biting humour and its evisceration of the White Saviour complex that is prevalent amongst evangelical religions. And yet …

I’m a big South Park fan – so the news that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were doing a musical got me nervous. Not because of any misgivings about these particular two, but because of the high disappointment rate of commercially lucrative West End and Broadway productions. When the number one selling point is a big name – either well-known writers or a well-know story it’s based on – all to often the actual musical fails to live up to the hype. However, The Book of Mormon has run and run and run so we can safely assume it’s been doing something right.

First, a recap of South Park Lore. There are two strands of South Park that heavily feed into a live-action stage musical. The first obvious source is the episode All About Mormons, which was a bit of a dilemma for Parker and Stone when they first wrote it. They’d already been brutal about most other religions, but the difficulty with Mormonism is that all the Mormons they knew in real life were such nice people – but the story they believe in is just dumb. The boat that carried two of each of the 1.2 million species on earth for a month is positively believable compared to the story of Joseph Smith. The other less obvious source are the episodes with Starvin’ Marvin. This is a favourite example of the South Park haters who love to accuse the programme of punching down. “You’re making fun of black people in Africa”, they claim. No, for anyone who watches his, it’s clear that the real target are the missionaries who don’t care in the slightest about saving lives as long some of them right read their Bibles.

South Park fans will quickly recognise both themes here. Elder Kevin Price is the star pupil of a Missionary Training Centre, learning how to tell people the good news of the Church of Latter-Day Saints far better than any of his peers. Underneath, however, Kevin is a shallow character, who assumes that being top of the class will earn him a cushy mission in Florida, preferably near Disneyland. Unluckily for Kevin, the Mormon bigwigs thinks he’s such a great Mormon he’ll be perfect for Uganda, where, for some reason, the people seem more concerned about not being killed by local militias. And worse: insecure, needy and generally annoying Arnold (who worships Kevin as much as the Lord God himself) has been partnered with Kevin in the hope he’ll make a proper Mormon of him.

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Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2022

Entrance to the Speigeltent grounds at night.

REVIEWS: Skip to: 0.0031%, The Formidable Lizzie Boone, Vermin, The Huns, Moral Panic, No One, Underdogs, The Time Machine, The Ballad of Mulan, Anna May Wong, Yasmine Day, Mala Sororibous, Sex Lies & Improvisation, Labyrinth, The Last, A Pole Tragedy, Fragile, Room

I know, I’ve got into the habit of not properly writing up the fringes until the autumn, but this time I’ve had the excuses of several major projects keeping me busy. But it’s about time to do the retrospective. Almost everything you read here has already been in my Brighton Fringe live coverage, but collated together into something more orderly. I may also have some new thoughts, but many of the reviews will be reprints of what I wrote the first time round.

Oh boy, what a bumpy ride this has been across the fringe circuit. There were plenty of arguments going on at Edinburgh Fringe, but nothing was quite so sensational as the biggest venue in Brighton pulling out at short notice. There is a lot more being said about The Warren off the record than on the record, and I’ll have to be limited over what I say about that for now, but I can talk about the effect this has had on the rest of the fringe. It’s a lot.

Most of this roundup will be collating all the reviews into one place, but we begin with the overview:

What went down at Brighton Fringe

The first thing I will say is that, for all of the shitshows going on this year, the standard of the play I saw at Brighton Fringe was exceptional. Yes, the more good acts you get to know, the more likely to are to have a good fringe, but I don’t think that explains it here. Most of what I saw was based on review requests, mostly acts I’d never seen before, but even where I bought my own tickets, the two best ones where artists I’d never heard of before. And other people have been giving similar verdicts to me.

But we’ll get back to that later. Apart from that, here were the other, mainly more eye-catching, changes:

Decentralisation of venues:

In the years leading up to 2022, The Warren had been by far the dominant venue. It was getting close to the point where The Warren’s influence over Brighton Fringe was as big as the Big Four in Edinburgh. But if any one of The Pleasance or Assembly or Gilded Balloon or Underbelly ceased trading tomorrow, the other three would easily cover the gap. With the implosion of The Warren, however, would there be anything left that could be considered a fringe?

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Odds and sods: September 2022

We’re back into autumn, so it’s time to get stuck in to odds and sods again: a round-up of various things that have been happening that don’t fit anywhere else on the blog.

Stuff that happened in September

I will mention at this point that this list doesn’t mention a couple of pretty major things that happened recently: Edinburgh International Film Festival under threat, and one of the worst scandals yet of abusive directors. I am still processing the information of these, and I will be commenting by October odds and sods by the latest.

Other than that, it’s been a slow news month overall, but a few things are worth mentioning.

Unboxed aka Brexit Festival

So the big news that broke in September – if you can call it that – was the festival on nobody’s radar. I raised by eyebrows when the idea of a “festival of Brexit” was first raise, but what with one thing and another happening in 2020 and 2021 I forgot about this. I vaguely remembered hearing about the festival happening in 2022, but to be brutally honest I had no idea the festival had come and gone until I read the news about it being a flop. Now, I’m not sure what sort of numbers it’s fair to expect for this festival, but it was pretty dire: 238 thousand visitors (whatever that means) against upper aspirations of 66 million. Ouch. Even more embarrassing, it allegedly cost four times the budget of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, which was enjoyed by most of the country.

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September 2022 roundup: Sugar Baby and more

Skip to: Sugar Baby, Shakers, Brassed Off

So fringe season is over and it’s back to local plays. I saw three play in September, all bringing stories from outside the area into the north east in different ways: a straight revival, an ambitious update, and a challenging adaptation. The result vary, so let’s see how they do.

Sugar Baby

So we begin with a play at Alphabetti. Although Alphabetti theatre has made the three-week run the norm, it varies where the plays come from. Some are new plays by local artists, but this one is a revival of a play by Welsh playwright Alan Harris. It was also premiered at Paines Plough’s Roundabout at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. Having been encouraged to check out what they do in Edinburgh, this was a good opportunity for a catch up.

On the face of it, Sugar Baby could be a thriller. Marc is trying to clear some debts with loan shark Oggy. Lisa also owes Marc money, and is paying her debts by being his sugar baby. Unknown to Oggy, however, Lisa has always has the hots for Marc. That in itself could make a decent thriller. However, the twist to all of this is that 1) it all takes place in the same suburb of Cardiff and 2) everybody in this story seems to have gone to the same school, which just makes it all the more awkward. This balances up the thriller with comedy. The third part to to story, however, is an unexpected poignancy. Marc is trying to pay off his dad’s debts, but it barely registers at the beginning of the play that he has no contact with his estranged mother. When circumstance forces him to come to her for help, there are touching moments in an otherwise madcap about reconnecting with someone you cut out of your life.

The play is a good all-rounder. As well as straddling genres so well, Alan Harris’s writing is sharp and witty, always keeping up the pace, occasionally introducing moments of surrealism, but never one forcing characters to do implausible things for the sake of either plot or jokes. Natasha Haws does a fine job of directing this, and Ben Gettins nails the part of Marc perfectly. I don’t think there was a weak link anywhere amongst the team, but I was particularly impressed with Matt Jamie’s projections on the walls. It wasn’t just the technical skill for doing this, but also the styling way it was done. I don’t know how much of this was the idea of the production and how much was stated in the script, but this is one of the times where simplicity works so well.

There’s just one small irritation. I can’t remember to Alphabetti has reconfigured its seating, but there is a corner with filled in seating. As anyone used to a thrust stage knows, corners with aisles for seating are a good spot to face inwards to the stage, so that you completely have you back to no-one – but unfortunately I was sitting in that corner and spent a lot of time looking at Ben Gettin’s back. But that’s only a small issue. It’s a fun play more than anything challenging, but it’s is a very enjoyable read. Sugar Baby finishes this week and it’s work catching if you can.

Sugar Baby continues until 8th October at Alphabetti Theatre.

Shakers: under new management

Now, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Shakers is famous for being the female version of Bouncers, with John Godber this time co-writing the play with his wife, Jane Thornton. However, the focus is quite different. Ralph, Judd, Les and Lucky Eric are quite content to hand around the door of a seedy nightclub looking moderately intimidating, but that’s not an option for cocktail waitress Adele, Mel, Carol and Nicky. They have to be nice to all the customers even though many of them treat the four like shit. The inspiration for the play was the camaraderie that workers in these jobs develop when the going gets tough (something I can vouch for based on conversations I’ve had with people in these jobs for real).

However, the difference is with how the play is updated. Godber tweaks Bouncers every time he produces it, but the story is broadly the same. Jane Thornton makes the point that the lot of these waitresses hasn’t changed much either, which may well be true – however, what has changed is that this is being talked about a lot more. At the time this was written, it passed without comment that bar workers would walk home alone in the early hours – today, that is a hot topic of debate. Shakers bar, however, is stubbornly refusing to move with the times, with managers sodding off before the going gets tough, and no money on door staff – and customers who do not, or will not, think about that these three (the cast cut from four in the original) what they have to put up with.

I’m sold on the idea, there’s clearly a lot to be done with a reboot. What I’m not quite so sold on, however, was doing this as an update rather than a sequel. Some of the things translate well. For example, the group of party girls out on the lash (like Bouncers, the cast play all the parts of the people going in and out), are now a group of teachers on the lash, only to run to a group of their pupils taking pictures of them disgracing themselves. At least you never had to worry about camera phones and the internet in 1984. Other times, however, the updates feel like a bolt-on. There is a discussion of the Ask for Angela posters in the toilets – but nothing comes of that.

Which is why I’m wondering if Godber and Thornton would have been better off doing this as a new play. Keep the play format, keep the shitty conditions, but do a new set of stories to fit around the issues we know today rather than retrofit the old stories. What if someone came to the bar as actually did ask for “Angela”? We’ve already established this bar doesn’t care enough about safety to bother with security – how are Adele, Nicky and Mel meant to confront her possibly violent bad date? It was a good time to choose to revive Shakers and it’s worth catching on tour, but maybe this would be had the most impact as Shakers 2. Next time, perhaps.

Brassed Off

And finally, on to the Gala Theatre’s flagship production for the year. In some ways, this was a safe bet: anything based on the legendary 1996 film ought to be an guaranteed draw, and although the film was set in the Yorkshire coalfield, it could just as easily have taken place in County Durham, hence the logical change of location. In other ways, however, it’s a very ambitious thing to take on: Mark Herman’s script is a very cinematic script with numerous cutscenes impossible to reproduce on stage. There is also the massive logistical challenge of how to include a brass band, which, as you may recall, has a pretty central role in the story. Two colliery bands played Grimethorpe Colliery Band; I saw Fisburn on the night I went, it’s vital for the band to have a decent standard of playing if we’re to believe they’re going to win at the Albert Hall, and they did they job. Even so, putting this all together on stage is a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, the Gala Theatre can call on Conrad Nelson, who has a long track record with Northern Broadsides of making polished productions out of logistical nightmares. This is the sort of script where it’s goes unnoticed when you do things right and sticks out like a sore thumb, so the fact that this all went off without a hitch is a credit to the production.

However – and apologies for putting a hot take here – I am not taken in with Paul Allen’s stage adaptation. This script came two years after the film and has run and run, so he must be doing something right (and his biography of Alan Ayckbourn is excellent). But I’m not convinced Allen’s style of writing is suited to Mark Herman’s style of cinematography; nor am I convinced does it go that well with Conrad Nelson’s strengths as a director. To appreciate how cinematic Mark Herman’s screenplays are, it’s worth seeing both the stage and screen versions of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Both versions are great, but Herman’s screen play of Jim Cartwright’s stage play is a very different experience. Doing it the other way round and changing his script from screen play to stage play isn’t straightforward, because some of the most memorable moments of the film are a single line delivered in a single frame – the union official’s reading out of the ballot result being one that spring to mind. Paul Allen, however, is a much more static play with longer scenes and semi-permanent sets taking up the stage. In addition, the script seems to flesh out chunks of the story that didn’t need fleshing out, and sometimes knocks things out of balance. Andy and Gloria were a believable couple in the film, but in the stage script they spend 90% of their time bickering about pit closure politics and the chemistry is lost.

I know Conrad Nelson (whose previous work I’ve loved) isn’t going to agree with my verdict of the script. He’d previously directed it for the New Vic and wouldn’t have done it again if he didn’t believe in it. There are some touches in the play that I like: the men queuing up to vote in the pit closure ballot making the most important decision of their lives was a good addition, where body language said more than any words. Credit goes to Maddie Hanson for doing what Tara Fitzgerald didn’t and play her own flugelhorn. The Gala’s production does achieve every it set out to do, of bringing a story into County Durham, involving local people who otherwise wouldn’t take part in theatre, and drawing in a good audience, but it’s harder to please someone who loves the original film and carries forward the sky-high expectations. What’s frustrating is that I reckon his usual collaborator and wife Deborah McAndrew could have done an excellent adaptation if her track record of previous adaptations is anything to go by. Probably impossible to go down this route now, not without some massive arguments, but should they ever gown down that route, I’ll be up for it.

The Bruntwood doesn’t want you. Now what?

Credit: dgim-studio on Freepik

COMMENT: The arts industry does aspiring writers no favours by implying script submission is the only route into play writing. There’s a far better way to hone your craft than waiting for the thumbs up of the reading room.

Today, the Bruntwood prize revealed its longlist. And out of the 1890 entrants, 1760 of you got the news you’re not on it. And, worse, you have no information of what you did wrong. They did of course congratulate you on your achievement of writing a play and getting it out there. But that is little consolation, and when “sending it out into the world to be experienced by other people” can mean “having it read once then put in the bin” it’s a bit of a platitude. “There’s always next time” is the usual upbeat message – but how are your prospects next time supposed to be any better? What have you learned from this?

To be fair to the Bruntwood Prize and all of the other major competitions, they are aware of the questions of whether they are there for everyone or the lucky few. In the case of the Bruntwood Prize, they publish a series of “toolkit” articles from various writers on how to make your scripts better. But you have probably already read those, and you still lost. You have also probably been on playwriting courses for beginners, read books about playwriting and searched for tips on the internet – and you’re still getting nowhere. What are you meant to do now?

Well, I’ve been there. I found a way forward. And it wasn’t by playing the game of submit-reject-sumbit-reject-submit ad infinitum. I do not claim to be an authority on how to write a good play, but this year I got my first nomination for new writing award on the fringe circuit and my first professional writing commission has just been produced, so I think my experience counts for something. Nevertheless, I have something to say that many of you aren’t going to like, and I don’t think the Bruntwood will like either. I have a lot of nuance and caveats to add to this message, so please try not to take this at face value, but there’s no getting round the fact this is an unpopular thing to say:

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What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2022

Skip to: Noughts and Crosses, Brassed Off, Constellations, Watson: the Final Problem, Shakers, Terrifying Tales from Tyneside, Sugar Baby, Around the World in 80 Days, Howerd’s End, One Off, Wishes in the Wind, A Room of One’s Own, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Gatsby

I finally get round to writing up this overdue list of what’s coming up in the north-east that I recommend, and what happens? That thing. However, I have thought long and hard about this, and I have decided to continue writing this article. It is what the Queen would have wanted. However, I am writing this with my Union Jack flying at half mast and wearing a black armband. I hope you approve.

Fringe season is over, it’s time to look back at what’s happening locally.

Safe Choice:

You should all be refreshed on the rules by now, but to recap: safe choice is for plays where I think you can’t go wrong AND where the play has a wide audience appeal. Nothing appeals to everyone all the time, but if you like the sound of how I describe this, I’m confident you’ll like it for real.

Noughts and Crosses

Sephy and CallumThe top of the must see list by far is from Pilot Theatre. There are two things notable about York-based Pilot Theatre. Firstly, they are one of the best theatre companies I’ve seen for staging, and it doesn’t necessarily means high-budget or flashy staging but staging that is creative and innovative, with every play being visually striking in a different way. Secondly, they are a super-diverse theatre company. That’s not the easiest of things to do; one pitfall is casting that looks contrived, and the other is endless plays about racism – in my opinion, neither of these do anybody any favours in the long run. Pilot Theatre, I think, gets it; and for any theatre company looking to diversify its programme but unsure how to go about doing it, I’d recommend Pilot Theatre for inspiration.

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Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice

Rubbish piles high on a big
This particular mess wasn’t Edinburgh Fringe’s fault. But there’s a lot of other messes that the Fringe Society need to clean up.

COMMENT: The fundamental mistake made by the Festival Fringe Society was trying to please everybody. They must realise this is no longer possible, decide who they want to please, and be open about it.

Well, we made it. Edinburgh Fringe was set for a bumpy ride, and the first few days were particularly turbulent, with complaints about support for reviewers, the relocation of Fringe Central, the lack of an app, and all sorts of other things being aired in the first week. There were even worries that the Big Four might break away and work entirely off their own ticketing site with other venues invited to join. Then the festival got underway properly and attention turned to what was actually being performed. In a way, it had parallels to the 2012 Olympics: lots of complaining in the run-up, but taking a back seat to the festival people love. Then came the Jerry Sadowitz saga and Assembly and Pleasance started fighting each other, undermining any prospect of a co-ordinated breakaway. Meanwhile, the performers at the free fringe venues have started clashing with the Big Four again – it seems the Festival Fringe Society was caught in the crossfire.

At the time of writing, it looks like the worst is over. Ticket sales are probably going to be okay. It’s not clear what sort of size we’re looking at next year, as it’s possible that numbers this year were inflated by postponed plans from the last two years, but we’re unlikely to be facing meltdown. There might also be a reduction as expectations of what post-Covid fringes would be like have been tempered with reality, but a modest reduction might be a good thing if it brings demand on accommodation down to something sane. The worst mistakes made this year can be rectified for next year. The app can be brought back, or, at the worst, the website can be improved to do the job. We can have the discussion of how best to support reviewers. Finances should be in a better state to roll back some of the less popular economisations. At this stage, I’m quite relaxed about 2023.

However, there is a root problem that isn’t going away any time soon, which is that Edinburgh Fringe has hopelessly outgrown the city that hosts it. Demand outstrips supply for both accommodation and performances spaces, and piles up expenses for performers; and although Edinburgh Fringe has tried to source some cheap accommodation, this is only a drop in the ocean. The bottom line is that unless you have a trust fund, already live in Edinburgh, or are able to run in one of the cheapest tech-free venues (or preferably a hybrid of all three), you are taking on a huge financial outlay without anything guaranteed in return. Anyone who thinks that your reward is directly proportional to how good your play was is naive – so much comes down to luck and factors outside your control. The Festival Fringe Society, remember, isn’t that big an organisation and can’t do that much about it. Even the Big Four supervenues can’t do that much about the sky-high rents that landlords charge for their spaces.

What the Festival Fringe Society can do, however, is decide who the fringe is for. The idealistic answer is “everybody who wants to go”, and I don’t think we should change that (indeed, if they dropped the open access I would probably stop going). However, we can still decide who Edinburgh Fringe is optimised for. Does the Festival Fringe Society concentrate its efforts of helping the minnows thrive in an environment where they compete with some big commercially successful players? Or should the society concentrate on a festival which the brightest and best compete for the prestige, and work on a sink or swim basis for everyone else? Both are valid aspirations, but they are very different aspirations that will please some and alienate others. However, alienating some performers is an improvement on alienating everybody, as happened this year.

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