What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2022

The muppets set up outside someone's house

Skip to: The Ballad of Mulan, The Formidable Lizzie Boone, The Little Prince, Under Milk Wood, Portents, Jekyll and Hyde: a one-woman show, [BLANK], War of the Worlds, Report: an enquiry into the enquiries, Adventures in Sound and Light, Nychtophilia

If 2021 was the big party for festival fringes getting back on the road, 2022 is the big hangover. Just when Brighton Fringe looked like it was set to get back to full size, its biggest venue imploded with a knock-on effect for the whole fringe. Edinburgh Fringe is making progress back to normal, but is currently facing headaches over working conditions and accommodation expenses. Which means the prize for first fringe back to full size goes to Buxton. With 169 entries going into the programme, and a typical size of 170-180 for most of the last decade, it is generally regarded as back to normal and back to business.

However, when you look a bit closer at the numbers, there are some notable shifts within these figures. The most prominent change – which might not be obvious now but certainly will be noticed in weeks 1 and 2 – is that the Rotunda is only going to be present for the second half of the fringe. Not because the Rotunda is struggling; on the contrary, they’re having an excellent 2022, taking on a second dome, emerging as the big winners of Brighton Fringe, and earning fixtures at other festivals. Unfortunately, this has not entirely worked in Buxton’s favour, because one of those festivals in Wells Theatre Festival, which clashes with the first half of Buxton Fringe. The other change – more subtle but just as important – is that there is hardly any availability of the Arts Centre Studio this year. I don’t know the story here, but it’s most likely the Buxton Festival wants it – and, let’s face it, a 352-seater event from Buxton Festival is always going to win over the 91-seater studio configuration used by Buxton Fringe.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2022

Skip to: Testament of Yootha, Under Milk Wood: Semi-skimmed, God of Carnage, The Ballad of Mulan, Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me, Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show, The Last, Underdogs, Betsy: Wisdom of the Brighton Whore, The Event, Lionhouse Cabaret, Fragile, The Formidable Lizzie Boone

And we’re back. For the first time in three years, a fringe I can cover without a crisis dominating the story. I can go back to my usual focus of looking through the programme and telling you what I can recommend. However, we’re not quite back to normal. There is one indirectly related event which has shaken up Brighton Fringe a bit.

The big change:

A lot of changes were made for Brighton Fringe 2021. Towards the end of the fringe, there was a discussion on whether any changes should be made permanent. The hot tip was that the delay to three weeks leading to a festival mostly in June would be made permanent. That was considered, but in the end they decided to revert to May. In fact, the only thing which has partly stuck is doing away with the paper programme. This year, Brighton Fringe is instead doing a printed daily guide, with details on the website only. Last year it was a faff to work out what was available today – maybe this will work better. However, it does put them at odds with Buxton and Edinburgh who are reverting to full programme.

The biggest trailblazer over the last two years was undoubtedly The Warren. When most of the theatre world shut up shop for eighteen months, they got going faster than anyone with “The Warren Outdoors” in the summer of 2020. This was a big success, and they used this as the basis for their socially distanced fringe in 2021, as well as repeat of a summer season, now called “Warren on the Beach”. With the ticket sales across all of Brighton Fringe 2021 surpassing all expectations handsomely, it seem that The Warren’s boldness was thoroughly vindicated. I was even wondering if Warren on the Beach would become permanent.

But, unknown to me, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Even though the fringe was on the surface a roaring success, complaints were emerging of staff and acts not getting paid. It does seem strange that this should happen when the income looked so good, so I wondered if they’d somehow allowed expenses to spiral out of control. It now seems more likely it was just shonky financial management. Then the story went quiet again and I assumed they’d settled this quietly. But days before the programme was announced, the bombshell was announced: The Warren would not be taking part this year whilst it sorted its finances out. Worse, it seemed the acts programme into the Warren found out the same time as the rest of us.

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What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2022

Skip to: Chicago, Opolis, Brief Encounter, A Bunch of Amateurs, Gamble, We Are The Best, All Lies, Durham Fringe

Well, a long time since I’ve done a line-up of summer picks. There was a fair amount of theatre last year (and even some the year before), but the north-east only really got going in autumn last year, so there wasn’t much to write about. But we are back. Let’s go.

Safe choice:

This is for plays where, if you like the description of something, I’m confident you will enjoy it if you see it. It also needs wide audience appeal and convincingly falls into the category of theatre. Just one this time, but it’s as safe a bet as you can get.

Chicago

This was supposed to be a safe choice for the start of 2022, but we all know what happened at the start of 2022, don’t we. But we’re now approaching the postponed dates, so let’s repost and update this.

Chicago needs no introduction, but amongst the many reasons this musical is a smash hit is its cynical yet uncannily accurate portrayal of the justice system as a popularity contest. I’m not sure the writers realised how accurate it was. It was originally performed in 1975, twenty years before the infamous trial of OJ Simpson, when seemingly the whole of America made up their minds, not on the basis of whether he did it, but how much they liked him as a celebrity. And in the 25-year run of the musical at the same time, this has increasingly become the norm.

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What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2022

Skip to: Drag me to Love, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Invisible Man, Sorry You’re Not a Winner, The Bone Sparrow, Howerd’s End, The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007, Gerry and Sewell, Red Ellen, Haddock and Chips, Sunderland Open House, Laurels Vault transfer, Everything I Didn’t Say

Before we begin this list, a small housekeeping notice. Normally I time this post for late January because not a lot happens in January, but by the end of the month most theatres have their seasons announced up to May or further. However, for some reason, Live Theatre has not announced anything beyond February. Not sure what’s going on there – at one point it would have made sense to be cautious, but I think we be be reasonably confident we’re not going to have runaway Omicron now. All I can think is that the new artistic director is putting together programme at relatively short notice and has to leave things to the last minute.

If Live Theatre announces anything March or beyond, I may add it into the article. But in the meantime, here’s what caught my eye.

Safe choice:

Are we refreshed with the rules now? Safe choices are for plays where I’m confident that if this sound like the sort of play for you, you’ll like it for real. The usual reason (which applies to the entire list this time) is that I’ve seen the play before. The other rule for safe choice is that it needs wide audience appeal. If you want to be sure of a good night out, I can recommend any one of these.

Drag me to Love

drag20me20to20love20220webWe start with a revival of an old surprise hit. Bonnie and the Bonnettes is a drag cabaret act who host a variety of LGBT-friendly cabaret nights, but it was their original performance that shot them to prominence. Drag Me to Love is the autobiographical story of Cameron, reminiscing of the time he moonlighted as a drag artists in Doncaster. You might think this is a niche interest but it had a wide appeal. Some bits of the performance are hilarious, including the performance of Total Eclipse of the Heart, but there is also a poignant ending about leaving a world behind and rediscovering it years later.

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What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2021

Emerging from bomb shelter

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

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

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

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

Safe Choices:

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

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

Educating Rita

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

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

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What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

People holding the Edinburgh Fringe logo, but spaced out.

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

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

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

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

What to expect at Edinburgh

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

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

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

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What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2021

Groups sitting outside the Pavillion
Credit: Dumphasizer

Skip to: Badass Be Thy Name, About the Garden, Skank, The Tragedy of Dorian Grey, Jekyll & Hyde: A one-woman show, Rebel Boob, Clean, Spirit of Woodstock, The Ugly Ducking, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, Dapha Baram, Notflix, Geoff Mead’s tours

Well then. Who’d have guessed it?

This time last year, I idly speculated 2020 might work in Brighton Fringe’s favour. With Edinburgh Fringe cancelled and Brighton only postponed, an autumn fringe that picked up Edinburgh refugees might have done well. In the end, Coronavirus was just too stubbornly persistent for any fringe to be considered a winner – in fact, we now know the financial situation at Brighton was so dire it was a miracle an October Fringe went ahead at all. As it was, it about a tenth of the normal size, with attention rapidly shifting towards a proper relaunch in 2021 for both Brighton and Edinburgh. Then along came the accursed Kent variant, and Brighton announced a delay of three weeks. Would that be enough?

But in the last couple of months, there has been a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. In the end, Brighton has managed a fringe about half the size of 2019. There are some caveats to this number which I’ll cover shortly, but the news that nobody predicted comes north of the border. The Scottish government is insisting on two-metre social distancing, which as it stands will extend into August, much to the protest of Scottish theatres. It is difficult for a conventional theatre to work that way, but for a fringe theatre it’s next to impossible. As a result, so far all of the major venues have held off announcing anything. At the time of writing, news is emerging for the first fringe registrations, making use of some of Edinburgh’s biggest buildings and outdoor spaces, but that’s tiny compared to what the Big Four normally do.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2020

Skip to: The Spirit of Woodstock, Geoffrey Mead’s Tours, Savage Beauty, Anytime the Wind Can Change, Make-Up, Jekyll & Hyde, Unquiet Slumbers, (The Trial of Harvey Matusow)

Normally, the problem with these Fringe preview articles in wondering how to open them without it sounding the same as all the ones from previous years. Not this time. Brighton Fringe has taken a major hit with Coronavirus, postponed five months and only a fraction of its normal size. But with Edinburgh Fringe cancelled outright and Buxton mostly taking place online, the fact that a physical Brighton Fringe has managed to go ahead in any form is a big achievement.

It’s fair to say that, this year, Brighton Fringe is playing for pride. Had Coronavirus come under control a month or two sooner and stayed under control, you might have had a huge autumn fringe absorbing many of the would-be Edinburgh acts. But instead, social distancing is still is place and nerves over the lurgi are still fraught, so it’s a much diminished programme with only the most determined and most bloody-minded pressing ahead. But we we at chrisontheatre HQ admire determination and bloody-mindedness, and anyone who is in the programme, no matter how financially reckless that may be, has our respect.

To complicate matters further, it’s this time round it’s open to debate what should and shouldn’t count as part of Brighton Fringe. For a start, although the Fringe officially runs on the 1st-31st October, you are allowed to register shows running in one month either side, and some September-bound shows have indeed taken this up, meaning the Fringe has sort-of started already. The other complication is that Brighton Fringe’s most prominent venue, The Warren, has already gone ahead with an outdoor season. That almost certainly could not have waited until the official fringe; apart from the obvious disadvantage of mixing large venues open to the elements with October, The Warren Outdoors was also heavily dependent on giving Edinburgh-bound acts an alternative for August. They had to strike while the iron was hot. But even if that was officially separate from the Fringe, with such a strong associate you can consider it the fringe coming early (or late) in everything but name.

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What’s worth viewing: Buxton Fringe 2020

Skip to: Nathan Cassidy, Crossing the Line, The Grandmothers Grimm, The Gambit, Debbie Cannon, Three’s Company Adventure Department, Flowerpot Trail

So, this is one of the strangest fringe previews I will be writing. For the benefit of anyone who’s time-travelled from 2019, we’re having a bit of a lurgi at the moment and all the theatres are closed. The most notable casualty is Edinburgh Fringe, which has been outright cancelled (although there is speculation that some of the venues may opt to put on a reduced festival in August anyway if they can). Brighton Fringe is more fortunate – without the need to recruit masses of temporary staff and hire out every space in a university during vacations, they are planning to postpone, and on my grapevines the mood is getting increasingly optimistic. (Buxton Fringe’s neighbour, Greater Manchester, has also opted for an autumn fringe, although with Manchester having a year-round fringe scene, they could easily form a programme of shows that would be on anyway.)

Buxton’s response, however, was a bit of a surprise. I was expecting them to also postpone, possibly making use of the vacant August slot in the fringe calendar. However, Buxton Fringe chose to dig their heels in and press on with July no matter what, even if it meant doing the whole lot outdoors and online. And with the latest news being that theatres can open but not do theatre in them, and outdoor and online festival is what we have. It’s mostly online, but there are a few physical events, mostly in the visual arts section.

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