Content warning: contains commentary to depictions of disability that some people may find offensive (duh)
6.00 p.m.: And thank you to everyone follow me except the Sia superfan on Twitter who’s been stalking me, straw-manned me at least twice, and paid no regard to the fact I might know something about this subject.
So, here’s the low-down of what I’ve learned:
Sia’s film isn’t quite as bad as I was only expecting, but only because my expectations were rock bottom after her fucking awful trailer.
The obvious problem which everybody is rightly calling out is the excessive amount of “cripping up” done to depict a character. I don’t agree that you shouldn’t be allowed to produced something that some people find offensive (if you did no-one could produce anything), but it is good practice to avoid causing offence if it’s not necessary. Sia failed miserably there.
The less obvious problem is that the character of Music is relentlessly portrayed as incapable of everything and anything. And yes, there are some people whose conditions are that bad. But Sia said the point of the film was to show autism is a gift. What gift? She might have intended to depict that, but I didn’t pick that up and I don’t see how anyone else could.
The other thing that might have saved the film was getting to know Music beyond the disability. But that didn’t happen. The character was barely developed in the second half of the film at all, and that was the biggest missed opportunity to redeem the film.
One thing that counts in the film’s favour is Kate Hudson’s portrayal as Zu. If you cut Music out of the film completely – and let’s face it, that depiction isn’t going to be missed by anyone – we could probably have had an okay film about an ex-alcoholic struggling with rehabilitation.
To be honest, however, I think the root problem is that Sia is completely out of her depth. You really need to know what you’re doing to pull off something this outlandish, and this is more like a Tom Hooper take on Cats than a David Lynch take on a detective series. Sia may well have intended to put positive features of Music’s character into the script, but that just doesn’t come across at all.
The worst problem, however, are the people rallying around her. The film comes uncomfortably close to saying all autistic people are incapable of anything and they’re a burden on society and all carers are martyrs – but the more her fans double down on defending the film, the closer they get to the ideology of Autism Speaks, even though they say they have nothing to do with it. I’m pretty easy going, but for once, this worries me.
So I’m signing off. Thank again for joining me on this marathon. Let me know if you want to buy the film. I paid £8. I’ll burn it on to DVD. And then snap it in half.
COMMENT: The outcome of The Colour Purple is a cause for relief for the arts – but we must not allow the organisation behind this to make it into their victory.
I never seriously expected this court case to go any other way, but I’m thankful Leicester Curve won and Seyi Omooba lost. To an outside observer not familiar with the story, you might be forgiven for thinking for believing this was a case about religious discrimination. If it had been that, I would have been on her side. It was not. This was about the right for religious people do engage in whatever form of discrimination they choose just as long as their preferred brand of bigotry is mandated by their religion. Had she won, the precedent would have been catastrophic, not just for the arts, but everywhere. Thanks goodness she didn’t get her way.
And, inevitably, the arts world is making her into a pariah, not that I blame people for feeling that way too much. I’m staying out of the dogpile because I don’t kick artists when they’re down. Seyi Omooba’s career in the arts is almost certainly finished – who’s going to want to employ someone who pulls that sort of stunt? – but I still find career-gravedancing distasteful. Even if she brought it on herself. Even if there was no option but to end her career this way. They other reason I’m not joining in is that I’m uncomfortable with the arts world’s habit of making pariahs out of individuals. Especially here. Seyi Omooba is, at best, an expendable footsoldier, and at worst, a brainwashed victim. The real enemy is the organisation who put her up to this, Christian Concern, and if we do not realise that now, we will regret it later.
Late to the party as usual, and this is is already becoming a footnote in the ongoing saga, but Brighton Fringe 2020 still deserves its place in the records.
Brighton Fringe 2020 might have escaped the fate of Edinburgh Fringe 2020, but it still took a major clobbering. There was a time – whilst Coronavirus projections were more optimistic and many theatres were predicting a September reopening – when Brighton Fringe might have been in a position to take the Edinburgh refugees and take the limelight usually reserved from the big one. In the end, it was touch and go whether a postponed autumn fringe would happen at all, for more than one reason. But in the end, it went ahead, with a lot of caveats over what going ahead actually means.
But whilst I did of course see what I could see and say what I think, the bigger story here is what this means for the future of the fringes. There were some questions over how fringes would work under current climes, and other questions over what this meant specifically for Brighton. And in my various visits to Brighton, I learned a lot. As such, this is going to be different from my normal roundup. Usually I would go straight into reviews; this time, however, the focus is on the fringe as a whole.
What I learned about Brighton 2020
So, this year I visited Brighton not once but three times this year. One was a two-day binge during fringe proper, one was as I happened to be passing through Brighton on my annual holiday, and other one I’ll get on to in a moment.
2020: the fragmented fringe
Without major venues such as Spiegeltent and major events such as The Lady Boys on Bangkok, what has the centrepiece of the fringe? What was the iconic image. Talk to any layman and the answer you’ll probably get is the venue on the beach. The Warren – normally Brighton Fringe’s biggest venue by a long way – used their expertise in constructing pop-up venues to create a socially-distanced outdoor venue on the beach. It was a huge gamble, verging on reckless, with less than a month between the Government’s go-ahead on outdoor performance and the opening of the festival. As it turned out, it was a great success, with an excellent turnout and attracting even bigger names than The Warren does in a normal year. In fact, hastily-planned pop-up outdoor festivals have been the big success story in an otherwise dire year. It’s a pity more theatres with access to outdoor spaces didn’t strike whilst the iron was hot.
However, The Warren Outdoors was not actually part of Brighton Fringe. They didn’t wait for a decision on a postponed autumn fringe, and arguably couldn’t afford to wait – it’s hard to imagine this working nearly so well had it run September-October instead of August-September. However, alongside The Warren Outdoors came their new year-round venue Electric Arcade, but although this ran events into October this too stayed out of the official fringe listings. As far as I’m concerned, this all counts as Fringe on an unofficial basis, but the lack of affiliation meant that Brighton Fringe lost out of registration fee income it could have done with. And it’s a reminder – similar to the Big Four in Edinburgh – that the Fringe’s power is not absolute, and for better or worse, temporarily or permanently, big venues can break away if they want to. Beware.
2020: the outdoor fringe
Apart from Edinburgh Fringe, with its outright cancellation, not that much actually changed with the principles of a festival fringe. Buxton Fringe 2020 was described by many as an “online fringe” but no rule was ever made saying it had to be online – it’s just that for most acts this was the only practical way to take part (apart from Nathan Cassidy who was determined to perform to an audience regardless). In the same respect, Brighton Fringe 2020 can be considered the “outdoor” fringe even though there were no rules about this – it’s just that circumstances heavily favoured this medium. If you count The Warren Outdoors as unofficial Brighton Fringe, it was overwhelmingly an outdoor event, but even without this, the biggest and most successful events were the outdoor ones.
One notable venue here is Brighton Open Air Theatre. Originally an aspiration of fringe favourite Adrian Bunting, made into reality after his untimely death, until now this had just been an obscure venue out of the way. This year, it was suddenly catapulted into the limelight, starting off with a successful summer, and (thanks to some good luck with the weather on the days it was running) a successful fringe season in October, a month when it would normally have closed for the winter. It’s too early to say what this means for the long term, but with BOAT on the minds of many people who never went there before, this venue can be considered the big winner of Brighton Fringe 2020.
2020: the long fringe
Apart from the postponement, the other notable rule change was the flexibility on the dates. Although the dates of the fringe were officially the 1st-31st October, they allowed acts to register for September or November. As it turned out, there were quite a lot of takers for September, particularly outdoor events not wishing to take their chances with the following month’s weather. No takers for November in the end, apart from a few online events continuing to be available after October – quite fortunate, in the end.
This means that instead of the usual intense four weeks, Brighton Fringe ended up with a more relaxed pace over two months, or three if you count August with The Warren Outdoors. This will almost certainly be temporary, and Brighton Fringe 2021 shows every intention of reverting to four weeks, but who knows, maybe some people will decide they prefer a more spread out event.
2020: the fighters’ fringe
For all the positive noises, however, there’s no denying that the numbers were way down on a normal year. They managed around 80; a bit more if you count The Warren Outdoors towards the number. Depending on how you count the figures, there is a claim that Buxton Fringe is temporarily the UK’s largest fringe, although that relies on accepting the extensive online programme into their total.
What is does mean is that those performers left in the programme were the most hard core of the fringers, determined to go ahead come what may. Similarly, the audience was a core set of fringegoers who were determined to have their Brighton Fringe come what may. Based on my observations of audience sizes, the drop in supply and drop in demand roughly cancelled out and acts tended to get numbers comparable to a normal fringe. But there was no way of knowing this at the time. Anyone who pressed ahead in the face of all the uncertainty gets my respect and I will looks out for them more as things return to normal.
2020: the lucky fringe
Whilst a fringe only a fraction of the size it should have been might be a disappointment, it could easily have been lot worse. There were a lot of people calling for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in October, and subsequent events have pretty much proven them right. But whilst that would have been a good outcome for containing a pandemic, it would have been the worst possible disaster for Brighton Fringe – can you imagine how devastating it would have been to be forced to postpone, move heaven and earth to get a postponed fringe going, and then have that cancelled at the last moment?
Of course, one arts organisation gain is another’s loss – in this case, Brighton Fringe’s luck came at a great cost to many theatres counting on a pantomime season to make a comeback. I don’t expect Brighton Fringe to feel guilty for this – no-one in the arts is responsible for events and decisions outside their control – but it is a brutal reminder of how perilous the current landscape is.
2020: the obscure fringe
If there’s one thing I felt Brighton Fringe could have done better on, it was getting the message out. For all the obstacles thrown Buxton Fringe’s way, the Fringe Committee still did everything they could around town to show there was a fringe on. Even if all but one performance was online, you couldn’t miss the fact it was happening. In Brighton however, there was no sign around town it was happening unless you specifically went looking for the venues. It maybe didn’t matter too much – I suspect the leftover audience were the hard core who would have come no matter what – but it was a shame to not see that.
To be far, Buxton Fringe was in a position to give it all in July. Brighton Fringe, however, had other things on its mind. Something more far-reaching than a few banners on railings.
2020: the fragile fringe
There is one thing that has drawn little attention, but it’s the most important. Although an autumn fringe was announced the moment the spring fringe was cancelled, it was far from a done deal. We now know that, not only was it touch and go that an autumn fringe would actually go ahead. In fact, it was not even certain that any more Brighton Fringes would happen. The lockdown came at the worst possible moment for Brighton Fringe, after the programme had been printed but before any performances took place. Edinburgh Fringe got a bailout from the Scottish Government – and there’s no way any Scottish or UK Government would allow that to go bust on their watch – but no such help came for Brighton.
In the end, it was The Pebble Trust, Brighton Fringe’s main sponsor, who came to the rescue. That did not come cheap, and in return for the bailout, the Pebble Trust took control of the Board of Trustees, although Julian Caddy stays as Chief Executive. The good news the The Pebble Trust do seem quite serious about a rescue package. Rather than doing to minimum needed to prevent the fringe going to the wall, I’m seen them float a lot of idea for how Brighton Fringe can bounce back this year.
However, Brighton Fringe’s worries are far from over. My biggest concern at the moment is with venues, and especially The Rialto. They sat out the autumn fringe, I’ve not heard a peep from them about fringe 2021, and, most worryingly, they were amongst the unlucky few theatres who did not get anything from the Cultural Recovery Fund, with the news somewhat cruelly breaking during the fringe. I cannot stress how important The Rialto is, not just locally, but to grassroots theatre across the country that the Rialto feeds into via Brighton Fringe. The big danger is that amongst the celebrations of big festivals and venues being saved, the small ones will be forgotten. And this one absolutely must not be forgotten.
And now, the reviews
Okay, now you’re all feeling depressed, let’s get back to what this roundup was supposed to be for: reviews of things I’ve seen. To make it easy to navigate all things Brighton, I’m going to include my earlier reviews from The Warren Outdoors here, even though it officially isn’t Brighton Fringe. The reviews from Brighton Fringe proper are largely reprints of my reviews during live coverage, with a little bit of tidying up.
No separation into pick on the fringe and honourable mention this time – under the circumstances, I’m that these performances went ahead at all. But in terms of feedback, here’s what I thought.
Given the unique nature of this situation, most of the Warren Outdoors events are comedy, with music and magic shows next in line, but there is the occasional theatre production. This one is a potted telling of all the Greek myths. Jason welcomes you to the Argo – apparently, we the audience are all legendary heroes. Eventually we will be arriving in Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece. Before then, however, we get to know the other two members of the cast, “Beta” and “Gamma”, who feel somewhat inadequate in the presence of all these Greek legends. On the journey, they will take us on a whilstle-stop tour of all the legends so far.
Unmythable may have been picked as a fun piece for this outdoor season, but it is still quite an ambitious piece. As well as whizzing through as many legends as possible with the cast of three and the aforementioned sub-plot of Beta and Gamma, we have a light-hearted take on most of the tales balanced with some questions (as seems to always be the case with ancient stories involving one or more gods) with the common theme that women can’t be trusted.
However, I do feel something has been lost in the transition from a normal fringe stage to a social distance-friendly one. They clearly made good use of lighting effects in last year’s version, and I can see the interactive element of welcoming us as fellow heroes working better with a closer audience. For what it’s worth, if Out of Choas do stick with an outdoor version of this performance, I would focus on the comedy. Most of what they want to achieve can be done through humour – certainly I’ve seen stupid stereotypes on race and gender eviscerated far more quickly and effectively with satire than any more sombre analysis.
Where the piece was at its funniest, though, I enjoyed it a lot. They say you should allow background to emerge through dialogue and never count on someone spelling out the entire backstory on stage, but in the siege of Troy the exact opposite works, where one solider wooden horse has somehow failed to take in what he’s done in this wooden horse, forcing his colleague to spell out the entire history of the Trojan wars. And my favourite moment is the arrival of Medea, who is an obvious psychopath from the outset. I maintain that mass murder and infanticide is an overreaction to a matter of adultery, but having seen her calmly chop her trusting brother into tiny little bits as part of the escape, one must question how it didn’t cross Jason’s mind something like this was going to happen.
In the outdoor version, I myself would have ended with Jason taking Medea’s hand in marriage – what could possibly go wrong? But in festival thin on the theatre side, it was a good fun piece to start the day.
Privates: a sperm odyssey
I trust we’re all acquainted with how babies are made, but have you ever wondered how all those sperm know how to swim to the egg? They attended boot-camp, of course. This, at least, is the premise from Bright Bouy productions. Three professors of the birds and bees are here to explain everything to Year 9, and by everything, I do of course mean squirming and evading whenever anyone asks anything slightly embarrassing. But who cares about boring old demonstrations on bananas? We want to see these plucky young gametes shouted at by the sperm sergeant describing them as maggots, although they’re larger than sperms so I’m not sure whether this an insult or a compliment. The privates must also answer all questions with “Sir! Yes Sir!” Unless it’s a rhetorical question, if they can ever keep up with which one is which.
The three professors do, of course, stress the importance of consent. Without a female present, they instead demonstrate the concept on a droid with a female voice, except that this particular droid is a cocky one who talks back and points out that programming someone or something to agree to something isn’t really consent, is it, and what’s the purpose of this exercise anyway? And then it’s back to the big push, which as you may have already guessed follows the format of every war film. Having completed boot camp, it’s now the scene of the maccacre, except that instead of a devastating ambush from the Vietcong it’s a devastating ambush from the white blood cells.
With lines such as “What do you want to be if you grow up”, expect an hour of suitably daft entertainment. There is of course the dilemma of how to end the journey, as you cannot possibly end a war film with three survivors turning on each other, but don’t worry, that has a suitably daft resolution too.
And I finished my first visit to the Warren Outdoors with a headline act. A lot of the acts, I gather, were happy enough to be back on stage, but it’s the heavyweights that make the money needed to cover costs of this venue. Luckily, The Warren can could upon Shit-Faced Shakespeare. Their association goes back a few years and they’ve become one of their perennial acts – even so, it is a big coup for The Warren to be number 2 choice in the month they would normally have been at Edinburgh.
For those of you unfamiliar with proceedings, the rules are as follows: five classically-trains actors put on a Shakespeare play; one of those actors has got completely sozzled immediately before stage; and it’s up to the other four to help their inebriated colleague along. In practice, there’s a couple of more subtle rules and conventions to pick up. For a start, it’s now traditional for this (along with their musical counterpart Shit-faced Showtime) to open with a musical number with complex dance moves so we can work out in first minute who the drunk one is.
However, there is a problem with following the rules to the letter: some of these actors are too good at holding their drink, and don’t fluff enough lines and forget enough stage moves to keep the others busy correcting their mistakes. Which means we have to fall back on the key unwritten rule – as well as being drunk on stage, this is also you opportunity to misbehave. In this case, as we go through our favourite love quadrilateral-theme piece A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s Helena’s turn with the bottle. So when Demetrius and Lysander suddenly show romantic interest, instead of interpreting it as cruel joke just like the book says, she gets her two new suitors to engage her in favourite fetish of barking like a dog. I realise we’re supposed to believe this is all spontaneous but – sorry, you were too good and too funny for that; that dog impression was clearly rehearsed in advance.
Not the usual remit of this production but I must single out Puck, even sober Puck, for praise. Normally when I see the bits on stage without the drunk character I’m going, “Yeah, whatever, get on to the next drunk bit”, but this particular Puck also doubled up as a master of ceremonies, and that would have been equally fitting in a more conventional performance. I suppose it’s fair to say that a bit of luck comes into play – I don’t think even the actors know how funny the latest drunken antics are until they try them and see. But this was a good one and I’m glad I saw it.
West End On Sea
One of the many founding ideas to get The Warren Outdoors off the ground was making use of some of the many West End singers who’d otherwise have nowhere to perform whilst the West End theatres are closed. And so you can see musical performances to a West End standard on Brighton Beach instead. I could end the review right here. It does what it says on the tin, and it’s a no-brainer. As Nicky Haydn says in the interview, there are performers queuing up wanting to do something, and this is a unique opportunity to hear live performances from the top flight of musical theatre for a fraction of the cost.
Although this is in the theatre section, the show is sensibly a compilation of songs from assorted musicals, rather than trying to force a story into it. All the performers have a local connection, so in theory there’s nothing to stop someone doing something similar with West End performers in another area. All the performers are playing to their obvious strengths here, so there’s little to fault, but if there was something I’d pick out as the strongest area, it’s the songs that leave room to act. I realise we’re taking all of these musical numbers out of the stories that support them, and most of the songs performed in isolation are just songs; but in Suddenly Seymour, where we get to see Seymour and Audrey at their most poignant moment, that was something special.
Here’s the odd thing though: even with all of the social distancing measures in place, at West End On Sea you will find yourself to the performers than the majority of the audience in a typical West End theatre. This is why I place the most value on the songs where you really get to act and feel it, because this is something you lose a lot of performing at a distance. This, combined with the attention given to big star names and all the other bells and whistles, means that the individual skills of these performers get undervalued.
I need to be careful here, because the livelihoods of everyone who do the bells and whistles are under threat too. There was a time when I thought a permanent West End meltdown was a possibility – I now expect the West End to eventually get back to business as usual. But even if the worst comes to the worst and the lavish-scale West End shows never return, it won’t be the end of the world. West End On Sea shows what you can do with just a bare stage and a piano, but small theatres can and have put on whole musicals with minimal resources allowing performers to shine in a way you simply can’t appreciate at a distance. Hopefully this discussion is hypothetical – I think even the people behind West End on Sea would agree that the ideal situation is to make themselves redundant as soon as possible – but if things don’t chance as the year goes on, this could be taken a lot further. For once “long may it last” isn’t what we want of a show at an outdoor festival, but if circumstances dictate, it may still have a good innings to go.
The most obvious thing that strikes you about Savage Beauty is how much they’ve gone to town on this. Most of the Brighton Fringe productions that went ahead are either already low-budget low-resource productions, or have been scaled down to work with a a smaller audience. Not here – this is an immersive production with all the works. Thena invites us all to take place in an environmental protest, making it clear to as that the law we are about to break carried severe consequences. Inside (in real life a garden of someone’s house) there is soundscape mixing live music and recorded singing, projections on the wall of news covering the repercussions of the protest. The balcony and window of the house light up to show many indoor scenes, and there’s bonus circus stunts. And judging by the size of the audience – about as much as you could have before sightlines become impossible – it’s like there wasn’t a pandemic on.
Times change. When an original production was done in 2015 without the bells and whistles, it seemed quite far-fetched that a UK Prime Minister would press ahead with a madcap scheme, sack anyone with evidence it wasn’t such a good idea and respond to questions with a mixture of vague platitudes and accusations of not believing in the country. Today, not so much. Law and order has of course featured in political rhetoric since always, but what is the act of defiance that carries such severe penalties in the play? Planting a tree. That’s actually not so far-fetched as it sounds; there are many examples in history of governments clamping down with increasingly heavy-handed punishments on increasingly trivial acts of protest (the trivial protesters, of course, knowing perfectly well how damage the government in question inflicts on itself by doing this). What the Prime Minister hadn’t banked on was this tree-planter being his own niece.
The weak point of this play, however, was the character of the Prime Minister. I fear Actors of Dionysus have fallen into the trap of depicting the other side as a set of arguments they think the other side makes – but this is a play, and you need to look at his motives. Does he sincerely believe in what he’s saying, or is he a shallow self-serving opportunist? All of these scenes are taken from various Greek texts so I don’t know which characters form the basis of Prime Minister, his niece, or his sister with the unpatriotic climate data, but I’m sure if we went back to the original characters we could get some more. One promising plot hook is a game of “would you rather” played by future Prime Minister and sister as children – so what happened that drew them apart? Resolve this, and everything that happens in the later half of the story should flow more naturally.
This is a work in progress, which is why I think Actors of Dionysus were right to press on with such a resource-heavy production. Even if they hadn’t got much of an audience, they would still have achieved the more important objective of seeing how the play is working out. One small but irritating technical issue is the sightlines to the ground floor of the house, hindered to some extent by an inconveniently-positioned hedge (although cutting down a hedge for the environment would be somewhat hypocritical), but it’s something to thing about for next time. If they can upscale to a bigger garden that might solve the problem. But having got this far, I really hope they can finish the job and get this done in a finished form. So still some to do on characterisation, but get that right and it will be worth it.
Alice in Wonderland
Billed as a family-friendly ballet, Alice in Wonderland does what it says on the tin. I’m not a dance reviewer so I’ll leave it up to them if there’s any nit-picking to be have over correct or incorrect pointing of feet, but that’s not the point of this. This is clearly intended as an accessible introduction to music, stage and dance. Most of the music to tell Alice’s story are the best-known classical tunes. There is the obligatory stilts bit for when Alice eats the relevant cake and an equally obligatory appearance of an Alice-shaped doll when she drinks the relevant drink, but there’s also some pretty clever devices to represent harder thinks to stage, such as holes and how to fall down them. Like most ballet, it really only makes sense if you already know the story (although, to be fair, Alice in Wonderland isn’t supposed to make sense anyway), but it covers all the key moments nicely and it’s an ideal family event.
More notably, however, the turnout was excellent, and this is not the only one. Their reopening performance of Abigail’s Party sold out its entire run a couple of months back, and my previous attempt to check them out met the same fate. And, okay, a sold-out socially distance performance isn’t the same money-spinner as a normal sold-out performance, but the audience at this performance are still in numbers most fringe performers can only dream of. Admittedly they had a lot of luck on their side that day, squeezing two performances into the sunny dry interval in an otherwise rain-soaked weekend – and they won’t necessarily be so lucky every time this month – but every day they get like this works heavily in their favour.
I’m starting to think that BOAT could emerge as the big winner of Brighton Fringe 2020. Until now, they’ve been overshadowed by the activities of the bigger multi-space venues, but with most of them temporarily out of the picture this is the chance to show people who are choosing BOAT as an alternative to their normal pick what they can do. It’s a fair walk out of the city centre, but that can be offset by building up regular performers and regular audiences. Or BOAT may be happy to carry on doing what they’ve always done. Either way, I’m sure Adrian Bunting would be proud of them.
Toby Belch is Unwell
This play is very much a niche interest, but right up your street for some. In case you’re wondering, the title is indeed a play on Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which theatre literary buffs should recognise. Theatre literary buffs will also be aware that Sir Toby Belch is a minor character from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night noted for liking his drink, as ending up with equally minor character Maria. Now Maria has departed, and Toby Belch has progress from tipsy comic relief to full-blown alcoholic, and he reconstructs the story with each character represented by a different bottle of spirits. (Warning: don’t play the drinking game of matching a character’s drinks in real-time as you watch the play here. You will be a in drunken coma in the first ten minutes.)
Where this gets complicated is the dual theme. This is not only a lament to forgotten minor characters forgotten – it is also a lament to the forgotten minor actors who play them. The ones one realise they will never be Romeo or Hamlet or Macbeth. But the way this is done is that Toby Belch becomes the actor who plays him, and that, I have to say, is a pretty confusing concept if you don’t know your Shakespeare in detail. The concept of a washed-up actor whose best role is Toby Belch would seem like the more obvious one – and, to be honest, that’s what I thought this play was meant to be – my my Shakespeare buff colleagues assure me it’s definitely the other way round.
However, the same colleagues who tell me this is how the play works also assure me that if you know the character and know the story, it all fits together very cleverly. Regardless, you don’t need a detailed knowledge of Twelfth Night to appreciate Sidney Kean’s performance, which was phenomenal. And even if the wider concept isn’t clear to all, there were some moving moments, such as when Toby Belch, mistaken for a top Shakespearean actor by a group of Japenese tourists, performs a selection of the Bard’s most famous speeches to great applause. You will know better than me what your level of Shakepeare expertise is, but the assurances I have are that if you know your stuff, this won’t disappoint you.
And from outside theatre …
With events in short supply, I couldn’t see that many theatre pieces, so I had to turn to other sections of the programme. I would not normally have considered these, but I was quite glad for the change.
I go on very few tours so I have little to compare this to, but anyone can tell the difference between a Geoff Mead tours and your run-of-the-mill affair. There are some tours where you can tell the information, accurate and informative though it may be, is something taught to a pool of your guides by rote. Geoff Mead, on the other hand, obviously knows his stuff inside out. We haven’t even left the grounds of our meeting point and it feels like we’ve got a comprehensive history of St. Nicholas’s Church and how this tells embodies the wider history of Brighton. I suspect the tour could be twice as long if he didn’t decide what to leave out.
The tour probably works best if you already know, or at least recognise, the area. If you are a Brighton local, expect to hear lots of fascinating facts about places you thought you knew – if you are coming to Brighton for the fringe and have never been to the city before, the finer details might be lost on you. But it’s definitely worth considering if you’ve been to Brighton a few times and are beginning to get used to what’s where. Snippets I’d heard of get a mention, as to why former Warren home Wagner Hall is pronounced WAG-ner and not VARG-ner. Even the laundrette I randomly stopped at last month on my South Coast cycle trip has a cameo appearance.
A lot has been said about his encyclopaedic knowledge of Brighton’s history, which I can now vouch for, but what nobody told me is that Geoff Mead is also an absolutely top bloke. He has an interest in what brought everyone to his tour, answers any questions with more information that you could expect, and reputedly has the same enthusiasm on his tours no matter how big or small his crowd.
So I can heartily recommend this, and not just because it’s the only thing on offer during the daytime at the moment. Most Brighton Fringe regulars are still staying at home or watching online, but when things get back to normal, I would recommend this to regulars even if you don’t normally look at the Tours section of the programme. Many visitors’ knowledge of Brighton goes as far as Prince George and the Pavilion, but there’s so much to hear about.
And I close with a quick mention for Daphna Baram. I must admit I was a bit sceptical when this started, and I wondered if this was one of these dreaded person talking about themselves and their “thoughts” for an hour calling it comedy. But it turns out she has a surprisingly evil sense of humour. As an immigrant, she makes an excellent point that the UK Citizenship Test is basically a pub quiz, so that new citizens to this country are fully prepared to assimilate into society, as long as it’s a pub on quiz night. The darker humour I daren’t repeat here, so if that encourages you to find out what it is this is the show for you. I have been asked to take into account it’s a work in progress, but it looks pretty polished to me. Hopefully she will be back with whatever she needs to polish this year.
So: what next?
So, with the festivals of 2020 (or what’s left of them) wrapped up, what do we have for this year?
The mood from both Brighton and Buxton seems generally optimistic. Both have pushed their timescales back to some extent: both Brighton and Buxton are delaying their registration process (both directly and indirectly via venues), and Brighton is also going ahead three weeks later than usual – the expectation being that most performers will only know later than usual if they can take part Most venues have signalled they intend to take part. Neither fringe has particularly grandiose ambitions, and it’s expected to be a road to recovery rather than business as usual. However, the latest from the major venues is that most of the them are planning to go to ahead. Unless things go unexpectedly worse (and we’re now reasonably confident about keeping things under control in the summer months with or without help from a vaccine), we should have something a lot more like fringe than anything 2020 could manage.
Not so good news for Vault 2021: it’s off. And it was actually called on in the summer of last year. Although they correctly predicted it would be difficult (impossible/illegal, to be precise) to run the festival now, I was surprised they threw in the towel so easily. Brighton and Buxton both demonstrated that festivals running on much smaller scales are still worthwhile, and I’m sure they could have done something in the summer if they really wanted to. Ah well. Vault 2022 is it. Hope priority is given to the week eight acts who had the plug pulled on them.
The big question mark, however, is Edinburgh. Back in the summer, there were predictions of Edinburgh Fringe 2021 only being 40% the size of Edinburgh Fringe 2019; now, surely, the forecast must be lower still. (Of course, a lot of people thought 2019 was too big anyway, but that’s a debate we’re going to be hearing a lot more of in the coming months.) The last I heard, the plan is to go ahead in August no matter what, but the form is uncertain – an online-dominated festival like Buxton 2020 remains a possibility. Whatever the plans, registration has still not opened; normally, we would have viewing hundreds of early birds by now.
The vaccine might be bringing a close to theatre’s worst chapter in over a century, but what happens next is still anyone’s guess.
I realise there’s been a lot of things going on to distract us, but it’s time I did the follow-up to the Tyneside Cinema scandal I promised once we had an outcome. Just when everybody seemed convinced the report into allegations of sexual harassment would be a whitewash, the report came out – and it was bad enough to prompt the chief executive and chair of the trustees to resign. An action plan has also been drawn up with the Board of Trustees have adopted. This hasn’t settled every dispute – I will outline those shortly – but, crucially, Save Tyneside Cinema have changed their stance from hostile and confrontational, to working with the cinema for the best outcome.
The outcome for Tyneside Cinema is in my view the right outcome, with some give or take on a few details. But … are we learning all the right lessons? The arts industry was supposed to put an end to sort of behaviour this four years ago when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the theatre and film industries drew up plans to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. And yet it has. It’s not just one bad apple either; around the same time there was a pretty bad scandal breaking about a Scottish ballet school. How is this still happening years after the entire performing arts industry vowed to put an end to it?
The answer I gave last time – the one I felt I could safely say at the time without danger of prejudicing the outcome – is that we got complacent. We collectively behaved like the job was done as Weinstein faded from the news. In particular we assumed that arts organisations forming better codes of conduct would do the job – an assumption that, in hindsight, now looks dreadfully naive. Now I can say a lot more about what this culture of complacency is and who should be doing better. And not everyone’s going to like this, because a lot of these people who are falling short have so far avoided any real scrutiny.
Hello, and welcome to the end-of year awards. First, the housekeeping.
As you might have gathered, this year hasn’t been a typical one for theatre coverage. I’ve only seen a fraction of the theatre I’d see in a normal year, and as a result, many of my categories only have one viable entry. As there’s only so much prestige you can have from winning a category against zero competition, I’ve decided that everyone who I saw this year will be rolled over to next year, when there will hopefully be some proper competition.
However, it would be a shame to not celebrate the theatre that did go ahead, so here are the scaled down awards. This time round, there are usually no runner-up spots, only winners, and I’ve left a few categories out where there wasn’t anything that stood out. But for those of you coming up in 2021, this is who’s currently top of the leader-board.
As this is a theatre blog and not a film or television blog, I have wherever possible stuck to the plays I saw in person rather than on a computer screen – however, there were a few times I’ve gone for something I saw online. So, let’s get started.
Best new writing
As always, the first award is from the strength of the script alone. Whilst there are some great performances attached to them, what I’m after here is something that any competent actors could pick up and make a great play out of it. As it happens, this was a very strongly-contested category, and many of the new writing plays I’ve listed in the later awards were good contenders here.
In the end, I went forCrossing the Line. I don’t normally consider plays I’ve seen in previous years, but the addition of the final chapter was what this play needed to make it complete. (I saw the first three parts two years ago, but I have pretty good idea of what the fourth chapter would have been had it been performed in person instead of online as was originally intended for Buxton Fringe.) It might not be obvious to someone who’s not that familiar with the difficult subject of child abuse – I only learnt about this myself in the process of bringing my own performance to Brighton and Buxton Fringes – but the thing writer Michael Sheath really had something to say about the mindset of many perpetrators: being sorry but really only sorry for being caught, and the idea that it doesn’t really count if it’s only viewed on a computer screen. Moralising is easy, but asking why is difficult – excellent job is trying to answer that question.
Oh dear, theatre’s not having a great month, is it? So many theatres hedged their bets on re-opening in time for the lucrative Christmas season, only for this new form of Teenage Mutant Ninja Coronavirus to scupper many plans. Where productions have gone ahead, it largely came down to luck, and one of the theatres on the lucky list is the Stephen Joseph Theatre. In fact, they’ve been extraordinarily lucky: as well as being in North Yorkshire that has so far evaded tiers 3 and 4, the unscheduled shutdown in November conveniently fell in a gap between their two major performances. Even in the process of writing, they’ve had yet another narrow escape.
But if any theatre deserves a bit of good fortune in their favour, it’s the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I cannot think of any theatre that has worked harder to re-open its doors. Even back in April, they had plans on standby to get going as soon as possible whenever they were able to. That original plan (a touring Hull Truck production of Two) has since been kicked into the long grass, but instead they got going relatively quickly with a John Godber play, conveniently written by, rehearsed and performed by his family. From the government go-ahead to curtain up it was about two months, not quite as fast off the mark as the impressive/reckless three weeks achieved by The Warren Outdoors, but still way ahead of most theatres.
Paul Robinson described their situation as “the canary in the coalmine”; and it’s true to say that had the ticket sales not materialised – and there was no guarantee they would – it would have been a disaster. But the gamble came good. I cannot tell you if Sunny Side Up was any good because the entire run sold out weeks in advance, albeit with a much reduced capacity. But I was able to make it to The Snow Queen, their hastily-planned solo Christmas show, and I can now tell you how it works.
The first impression I had was formed way before making it to Scarborough. Even though the SJT would probably have sold out the run regardless, they really went out of their way to assure audiences they would be safe to attend, both with publicity and actual measures. Even if they were taking a gamble financially, they’d erred on the side of caution with the lurgi. They manage arrival times to avoid the normal stepping over other people already in seats. Also, similar to The Warren they made use of at-seat refreshments, keeping two of their six rows free to make this possible. One side-effect of this is that capacity is cut further – had they filled seats up to the legal limit I reckon they could have sold 50% more tickets. But no-one can say they’re being blase about safety.
But anyway, what about the play? So, The Snow Queen is sort-of based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. It’s actually ten years since they last performed this story, last time directed by Robinson’s predecessor Chris Monks, but that was a faithful adaptation (back in the days when you could have people from more than one household on stage without fear of dropping dead). This adaptation, on the other hand, for both financial and plague-avoiding reasons, is a solo performance, with the story told by the Snow Queen’s arch-enemy, the Sorceress of Summer, played by Polly Lister. There is another challenge: normally a theatre would have two Christmas productions, one aimed as families, the other aimed at very young children. This year, when you’re lucky to have one production, it has to appeal to both groups. And this dilemma is solved quite cleverly by Nick Lane.
If this name sound familiar to you, Nick Lane has frequently been covered by me forthreeadaptations produced by Blackeyed Theatre. Two of them were quite faithful, but the one of note here is Jekyll and Hyde, where he introduced a completely new character and made it look like this was in the original story all along. He does something similar here. The Snow Queen is no longer a pawn of The Devil in an epic battle of good versus evil, but an embittered woman overshadowed by both her sister, aforementioned sorceress of summer, and the big guy in red. No-one likes winter, it’s all Christmas Christmas Christmas. She’s a very different character to the original, but if you didn’t know better you’d think this was how it was always written. What this does mean is that The Snow Queen can be hammed up to the level of panto villainess, plotting to put the nice children on Santa’s naughty list – seriously, we need fun theatre at the moment, children or no children – but without really dumbing down the tale.
Not everything new is disguised as the old. If you don’t know the story you’d probably twig the play has been transplanted to Scarborough (and the alternate world of “other-Scarborough”), Kai’s gran has been changed to a no-nonsense Yorkshire Nan, and there are various other obvious liberties taken such as the vacuous social-media savvy hashtag-obsessed wise women. One big change that’s not so obvious, however, are Gerda and Kai. In the book, Gerda is a heroic teenager on a quest to save her beloved. In this version, Gerda and Kai are just kids. Kai’s fateful gaze into the sky is now a dare he sets from himself to show he’s not a scaredy-cat, but the moments where Kai and later Gerda let their fear slip through their childish bravado is one of the most effective moments.
So, how do you do this as a solo play? Well, I counted eight characters Polly Lister played throughout the play, with some appearances of Gerda and Kai done with puppets. They went to town with the set, but by far the most praise went to her versatile performance. Some people have been amazed that you can do so much with one performer; me, not so much. Anyone who’s spent time at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes will know that actors do solo performances all the time, and switch characters using any or all of outfit, mannerisms or puppetry. As long as the actor, writer and director know what they’re doing – and I’ve seen enough of Polly Lister, Nick Lane and Paul Robinson to be sure this was the case here – they don’t disappoint. It’s just a pity that this solution, that seems a no-brainer to anyone who knows the capabilities of solo plays, isn’t considered more widely.
A few niggles. Good though the set was, I’m not sure the end-stage configuration justified the loss of one third of the seating available in the round (unless seating was already limited by getting people in and out the building, in which case ignore that). And this was maybe a little less accessible to young children as it could have been. I realise a single production that appeals to all ages is a challenge, but there were maybe a few bits where she could have spoken not quite so quickly for the benefit of the younger children. And in the final three-way showdown, it started to get a bit confusing when Lister kept switching between Gerda, Kai and the Snow Queen. Having used the puppets so effectively earlier in the play, maybe they could have made use of them here.
But on the whole, it’s a great job done under the most challenging of circumstances at a time when many theatres didn’t even try. With little enthusiasm for any more theatre in the winter months, and so many unknown variables up in the air, no-one knows what theatre will be up against in March onwards. But if it’s anything like now, there’s a lot other theatres could learn from the Stephen Joseph theatre, in terms of both practicality and artistic value. They’ve demonstrated how you can run a theatre in these circumstances and how you can achieve so much with so few on stage. The canary in the coalmine has flown outside chirping in triumph.
Note: In the two weeks prior to the performance I saw, I was staying at my mother’s in North Yorkshire. Long story how this came about – don’t worry, nobody I know has been anywhere near anyone with Coronavirus – but I assure you there is a very good reason why I temporarily needed to stay somewhere safer.
The Snow Queen runs until 31st December. Very limited tickets, returns only. Also available for online purchase via the SJT website.
Before we get to business, one announcement: Chris Neville-Smith’s 2020 awards is not cancelled. There hasn’t been a lot of theatre this year, but there has been enough for a meaningful contest. Since the competition is going to be thin on the ground next year and a best of 2020 won’t mean that much, this time next year I plan to do a set covering both 2020 and 2021, where a win be treated as a normal year. I have one review from this year pending – one thousand bonus points if you can guess what it is. (And before you attempt any Sherlock-style elimination of the impossible, my movements aren’t necessarily what you think.)
But before we wind up, it’s time for a catch-up of all the online theatre I saw. I am very much a live theatre person, with my interest in online theatre mainly limited to finding out about plays I couldn’t see in person. As such, my following only really went as far as July, after which I could switch back to live performances. I haven’t gone into the same depth as normal reviews either, so instead of my usual roundup of almost everything, I’m limiting coverage to the ones that I found notable in some way. So there are many online plays I saw which aren’t on this least and it doesn’t mean I hated it. But out of the ones I saw, here’s what got my interest …
I’ve previously reviewed and enjoyed Blackeyed Theatre’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, but this came hot on the heels of another much higher profile production. One of the earliest plays streamed by National Theatre At Home was their 2017 main-stage adaptation of the same story. The one thing you can indisputably say in favour of this version is that it is far more adventurous. Whilst Blackeyed and many other productions remain in the comfort zone and stay faithful to the original, Sally Cookson’s is billed as a “bold and dynamic production”, and in this case the boldness extents to an abstract set, original music, adventurous staging and choreography and much more.
If there’s one weakness this play has, it’s what I call “concept overload”: the play’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. All of these concepts worked individually, but bundled together it got confusing. At the same time I was putting a scene to threadbare set, listening to music that jumped in and out of the period of the story, heard Jane Eyre talking to a chorus of five expressing her inner thoughts, listening to a lead vocalist who I think was representing the first Mrs. Rochester but I’m not certain, and many other abstract concepts thrown in. This, I suspect, ended up coming at the expense of characterisation. Jane and Mr. Rochester were captured quite well, but it seemed to me there was a tendency to portray all antagonists as cold and heartless. This is generally not the case: in Blackeyed’s production, you end up feeling sorry for Jane’s cruel aunt after she is betrayed by her own children, whilst St. John’s misguided infatuation with Jane is portrayed as naive rather than controlling – both of these touches I felt was lost here.
I have one last thing to catch up on for theatre prior to The Event, and that is the Vault Festival. This is going to be a short roundup, because – in order to juggle things around a very congested winter calendar – I split my visit over the last two weekends. And as we all know, the last week did not go ahead. The weekend before was not unscathed either, with one notable casualty being the Sunday performances of 39 Degrees which I wanted to see.
As always, not everything I see gets a review, so we’re down to three. But out of these three, there was an exceptional standard, far in excess of a normal Vault itinerary. Let’s see what we’ve got.
This is difficult one to review impartially. It resonated a lot with me personally, and had I been reviewing this for a different publication I would have asked for a second opinion from someone more detached. But sod it, it’s my blog, I can say what I want, and if I don’t say this, I’m not sure anyone else will.
Glitch is set in the world of speed-runs. I actually know what speed-runs are (don’t ask me why, you don’t need to know), but if you don’t, this will need a bit of explaining. Not to be confused with e-sports (don’t get her started on e-sports), this is a special kind of computer game competition where you have to get from beginning to end as quickly as possible, cheating allowed*. Reckon you could quickly defeat all nine bosses in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Loo-ser. There are defect in the code that enable you to zip from first dungeon to last. Eight minutes easy. Yes, really. There is even niche following, and it’s when a contest comes to Sutward that Kelly has a chance to take part.
COMMENT: Yet again, a production about autism is being deservedly panned for crass decisions. And yet again, the dogpilers don’t deserve the moral high ground either.
You bastards. I’m sure you’ve specifically done this to annoy me. I’d barely finished my last piece on disability access and how much I hate grand gestures, especially from people who don’t listen. And now what happens now? A massive bonaza of grand gestures from people who don’t listen, all centred around a garish film trailer. Music is an upcoming film I’ve never heard of, from Sia, a musician-turned-director I’ve never heard of; and it would have quite happily have stayed this way were it not for a shitstorm over the depiction of an autistic character. As always, it is not right to criticise something on the internet without giving people the means to see what it is and makes up their own mind. So I am duty-bound to post this. I am very sorry to inflict this on you.
Sia says this film is about showing autism as a gift, and not a disability. Having watched this twice (I don’t think I can take it a third time. “A musical cinematic experience?” Fuck my life.) I get the impression that Music is a kind-of Blue Cross Week Rain Man. A lot of people on the autistic spectrum – tired of people who think we’re all incapable social misfits with mythical casino superpowers – are a bit narked off by this film. I don’t blame you. And with this has come a lot of people assisting us with our outrage. All in all, this looks like a re-run of All In A Row a year and a half ago, when everyone was expressing outrage over using a puppet on stage to depict an autistic child.
But just hang on a second – it’s all very well piping up every 18 months when someone does something as crass as this happens, but what about the rest of the time? During the furore over All In A Row and the furore over Music, I heard plenty of people proclaim the important of being inclusive to artists with autism; but between these two events, the effort I’ve seen go in roughly amounts to the square root of sod all. It would useful to identify and remove the everyday barriers that stand in the way of artists with autism (or any disability), but I’ve seen to next to no efforts to even ask what the barriers are. So forgive my scepticism to those of you who’ve suddenly rediscovered your dedication to the cause this month.
Pilot Theatre’s latest adaptation of a young adult book is has a narrower appeal than their usual productions, but it deserves to finish the job with the audience this play is aimed at.
The final play on my pre-lurgi catch-up list is a Pilot Theatre production. Pilot Theatre have earned my respect over successive productions for many reasons, but the biggest stand-out is the staging. It varies from play to play, but whatever they do always impresses in a way they’ve never impressed before. The subject material varies as well; last year’s Noughts and Crosses was packaged as an ordinary story of forbidden love but was in fact set an alternate world where Jim Crow laws exist in reverse. Crongton Knights, it turns out, is almost the opposite, packaged as a story of adventure and friendship akin to The Magnificent Seven (with the friends here self-styled as “The Magnificent Six”), but with the setting being a gritty housing estate in South London.
Adapted from the second of Alex Wheatle’s young adult books, five young friends embark on a mission to confront the ex-boyfriend of one of the gang to demand the return of some compromising photos. In an unfortunate twist of timing, this is the day the London riots are destined to break out, but this doesn’t actually feature much in the story. This is because although they live in the notoriously rough South Crong, they must journey to Notre Dame estate,and a typical night there makes the London Riots look like a picnic in the park. Can they make it with nothing but friendship and loyalty on their side.
Crongton Knights is a heavily character-driven story. One of the strongest themes is Bushkid. You see, this is the origin story of the Magnificent Six. Whilst the rest of the gang come from families struggling on the breadline, she lives comfortably with wealthy parents – but what she want more than anything is to fit in with friends. One character I would liked to have known more about was Saira. She is a Syrian refugee whose father is still missing, and one suspects she’s witnessed far worse horrors than anything a sink estate can muster. It would have been interesting to see how she’d react in a situation she’s desensitised to, but that doesn’t really feature in this story. Maybe the next book.