Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens

Sunday 18th August, 8.30 p.m.: Before doing any more reviews, one bit of news on the side. I’ve previously said that if I don’t see 5 plays on day 2 of Edinburgh Fringe, I consider it a personal failure. I have done 6. Some people have schedules that squeeze in 8. However, author of my guest post Flavia D’Avila is currently on a challenge to see 12 in 24 hours. To see the latest on this, you can follow it on Twitter.

One other bit of news – I’m late to the party on this, because it’s been going on all fringe, and I’ve given my thoughts on this business before, but now that this has come to a head in Edinburgh I may as well repeat this. You might have noticed there are two rival Fawlty Towers-theme dining themed plays in Edinburgh this year. There’s Faulty Tower, the Dining Experience which is a “tribute show” and has been running a few years now – indeed they’ve got a good claim to have pioneered this form of entertainment. There is also Fawlty Towers Live Themed Dinner Show. This is new, and uses the original scripts. This is also officially endorsed by John Cleese, as the posters around town states, heavily insinuating the other ones are the impostors.

I must declare at this point I’m not entirely impartial here. Interactive Theatre International, who do Faulty Towers along with other shows has been one of the most generous companies giving me press tickets. Even so, I’m not entirely convinced they are entirely legally covered here. John Cleese has previously protested against the existence of this show, and had he taken Interactive Theatre International to court, I would have respected his right to do that. But the reason I’m losing patience with Fawdinex who do the “official” Fawlty Towers is that they’ve bought the right to Fawlty Towers dining and then used that to make legal threats against their rivals. They claim that they are doing it because the unauthorised show is causing John Cleese and Connie Booth a lot of distress. I’m calling bullshit on that. John Cleese is not a delicate little flower – if he really had as much of a problem as Fawdinex claims, I have no doubt whatsoever he would have taken legal action itself. It seems (well, it’s bleeding obvious) that the real motive is to get rid of the competition.

The other problem is where Fawdinex is taking their legal fight. In a straight lawsuit between them and ITI, I’d have said fair enough, may the best legal team win. Instead, they went after the venues, threatening any hotel thinking of hosting them with consequences if they didn’t cancel the booking – and naturally, some venues, not having the stomach for a legal fight, capitulated. That is a really cowardly course of action. With Edinburgh Fringe being the must lucrative place, I strongly suspect they tried to pull the stunt here – if so, I can only assume there was at least one hotel that was having none of this.

The other thing about this that rankles is the hypocrisy over ripping off ideas. Interactive Theatre International might not have created Basil, Sybil and Manuel, but they did pioneer the concept of interactive dining comedy as we know it. I do not believe for a second that this “official” Fawlty Towers interactive dining would have existed have ITI shown it was viable and shown how it was done. I won’t be moralising and tell anyone to boycott anything just yet, and if you want the classic episodes re-enacted, go ahead and see them. But the way they’ve behaved, I couldn’t bring myself to do it if it was me. You can please yourselves.

Sunday 18th August, 5.00 p.m.: I’m now taking a break from Edinburgh and you can currently find me checking out Linlithgow. This does, however, give me a chance to keep on top of the reviews before they pile up too much. My next review, however, is going to be a difficult one to write. HiveMCR have showcased what they can do in Stephen Berkoff’s East, and a fine showcase it is. Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same way about the play they’re performing.

I chose to see a performance of East because I wanted to see how the script translates to the stage. To be honest, I’ve read the script before and I didn’t get it. But there again, I didn’t get Caryl Churchill’s A Number when I read the script, and it was only when it was performed I understood how it was meant to work. I had a similar observations with Five Kinds of Silence: I’ve seen two different productions of the same play, and I discovered the second time round how much of a difference some good movement directing puts into a play for voices. You can achieve far much more than five people on stage doing monologues in turn – you can choreograph in the whole ensemble.

The same principle works here, and HiveMCR does the best possible job of this. East refers to the East End of London, and the five character are hard-as-nails cockneys: Dad, Mum, their two sons, and the woman they’re both trying to shag when they’re not busy fighting other men or shagging other women. The whole play is done in very, so it’s, if you like, Shakespeare for Cockneys. Instead of a dry set of scene changes where one actor at a time does a piece, the whole ensemble takes part all the time, whether at a tense family dinner, an all-out street brawl or all gather together to be a motorbike. All of the actors fit their characters very well – in a play like this the last thing you want is someone who’d look like he’d follow up a punch or stabbing with “Oh, I’m sorry, are you all right.” In that respect, well done for HiveMCR for giving this play the best it could be given.

But, having seen this play on action live on stage, in the full spirit of how it’s meant to be done, I’m afraid I’m not warming to it. The entire play strikes me as nothing more than a list of negative traits about the working class of East End of London in the 1960s. Les and Mike are thugs with little more in their lives than fighting and shagging. Slyv might be hard as nails but main role in the play appear to be getting shagged by everyone. Dad is a racist who idolises Oswald Moseley. Mum is a slightly more sympathetic character than the others, but her life seems little more than letting Dad and the boys do their thing, and watching daytime TV. All of this might be fine if there was some nuance to this, but it’s either non-existent of subtle to the point of undetectable, with reasons for the way they are being little more to a few nods of boredom. The closest thing I saw to any humanity was Les’s slight of a beautiful woman on the bus. This might have struck a chord if he thought about a romantic relationship people like her have with each other – but instead it’s more like a checklist of the degrading sexual acts he’d like to perform on her.

What I find most uncomfortable about this play is how something relentlessly negative about working-class London gets so much praise. I realise Stephen Berkoff came from that background so maybe that was his own memories of what things were like, but I really don’t like the swiftness of the rest of the literary world to leap on this as if the observations of one writer validates their idea of what the prole are like. I must stress for a moment that I don’t believe for a moment that is what this company thinks about the working class, and if there is any attitude problem it’s with the literary establishment as a whole, particularly those in the 1970s when this play first became all the rage. Now, I’m prepared to consider that there might be something I’ve missed. But I cannot imagine this sort of depiction being tolerated for any other disadvantaged group. And you would not get off the hook by saying you weren’t looking deeply enough.

It is a shame that such a good performance from the ensemble is mixed with very different feelings for the script. I have no doubts that they will do other performances which will cause the scripts to shine. And for the seeming majority of literary critics who see this as a work of genius, I’m sure they’ll approve of this adaptation. But for me, this was my chance to see this on stage as it’s intended to come across – and I don’t get it. Sorry.

Sunday 18th August, 9.30 a.m.: A landmark yesterday: my first full day of Edinburgh Fringe viewing done entirely on press tickets. So I’ve got some new reviews to catch up on, but I’m going to start with Princess Party because this one I think could do with some more publicity.

Princess Party is fun for everyone, but something I’d especially recommend to actors making money on the side dressing up as Disney Princesses for children’s parties. I’ve heard numerous stories of these parties, especially where the parents have way to much cash to splash. However, these anecdotes pale into insignificance compared to the stories from Beverly Hills, where there are obscenely rich people in their obscenely extravagant using their children’s parties, I suspect, to one-up their obscenely rich friends and show how much richer they are.

Open to a story of a little princess who lived in a castle where she had everything her heart desired, we are soon joined by Snow White and Alice from Alice in Wonderland. If you are pedantic enough, you will be aware that Alice isn’t a princess, but it’s her first day on the job and she left the costume until the last moment and this was the only one on reduction. Not that this matters, as they discover now that all the kids are dressed as Anna and Elsa, and they are now realise they skim-read the e-mail saying it was a Frozen-themed party. However, even this problem pales into insignificance against the more pressing issue – as Snow White digresses from the story when she says what happened after she married the prince it become clear her real marriage has just broken down, whilst Alice found come cocaine left on the back seat of her Uber and could’t bear to let it go to waste. I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story, because you can already guess.

Before we get to the inevitable ending, though, we will meet the little girls’ older sisters, then a pair of chefs, and then a pair of mothers we’ve been hearing who spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are. The drunk/coked princesses are by far the strongest characters, but it would have been difficult to keep the joke running for a whole hour to the character comedy format suits the show well. My only regret was not getting more of a story about the families. I could’t really believe that the two mothers schmoozing with a pair of prospective business partners would end up twerking in Ann Summers gear, but as this is in the comedy section so I’ll let that off. However, I did feel that after we’d heard so much about the two mothers congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are (they are almost as angry over their princesses arriving 10 minutes late as they are for the mayhem they cause later), whilst their own marriages are in various states on breakdowns and/or infidelities, there was a missed opportunity to mix the chaos with more of a backstory about how this rich family has come this unhappy state.

Oh, did I say this is a semi-improvised show? For anyone brave/foolish enough to be on the front row there’s quite a lot of roles you play, and the act works around this. I won’t give away everything, save to give a warning that this the 10.30 p.m. slot so you can expect to happen what you expect to happen in a 10.30 p.m. slot. I gather that in real life one or both of these women were moved off princesses on to evil queens because the evil queens get to be funny. So I recommend giving this one some support at Gilded Balloon Teviot. But sit on the front entirely at your own risk.

Saturday 17th August, 8.45 p.m.: Sorry about the gap. I’ve had a bit of a fright this afternoon that involves urgently needing to move money between accounts with two different banks, with one of them I can’t get to for several days because they have no branches in Edinburgh, and the other bank (HSBC) being about as helpful as a hedgehog in a condom factory. Anyway, with a temporary resolution established, I can keep going. Looks like I’m going to be gratefully accepting a lot of press tickets between now and Tuesday.

Anyway, let’s get back to reviews. I’m going to start with Father of Lies. This is an in-house production from Sweet Venues, for a pair who normally do comedy. I found that out after the play – if I hadn’t I’d have just assumed they were straight theatre actors. This is a true story of one of the strangest murders on record. In West Germany in 1973, an widower and ex-priest murdered his nest friend, and also – so he confessed – his late wife’s child, whom he apparently believe was fathered by his best friend. But the baby was never found, either dead or alive. There are other strange events: the baby was born prematurely as his mother died in childbirth, surviving against all odds; the mother was a runaway from her religious Israeli family and possibly spent time in a cult; and the two men both have their own memories of the war from the losing side.

It’s a fascinating true story to bring to the stage, but the one decision I don’t understand was to tell most of the story in the format of a presentation, with only a few key scenes between the two men acted out. Sometimes this format is necessary if you have to convey a lot of complicated or technical information (Hitting the Wall, a play about swimming from Scotland to Ireland is a good example), but here a lot of information were the characters’ backstories, where it’s quite normal to work these into dialogue. And the other puzzle as to why there was so little in the way of acting is that the few short scenes they did were done very well, keeping the tension up and suiting the simple stage and the small space available very well. What’s more, when they did allude to their past events, it was very powerful, such as the friend recalling the fate of his mother and sister at the hands of the invading Soviet Army. Whilst I doubt you could have dispensed with the narration completely, there is a lot that I think would have been more powerful talked about by the two men than just spoken in front of a slide projector.

But this is an intriguing play/talk to watch, even if the format is a bit unusual, and the fact that this is has been done by an act normally associated with different genres is of great credit to them. Sweet Novotel if you want to catch it, and runs for the rest of the fringe.

Saturday 17th August, 11.45 a.m.: Before doing any reviews from visit 2, something that’s come to my attention in connection with Mumblegate. No, it’s not The Scotsman this time – I think I’ve kicked them enough for one fringe – instead this stays relevant to cash for reviews. Word has already got round that The Mumble was refused media accreditation this year – and let’s face it, if even I’ve got media accreditation that’s a pretty low bar. But according to The Times (via Arts Professional), The Mumble wasn’t the only publication that met this fate. The other is Short Com. I can’t find anything that goes into detail of exactly what Short Com is meant to have done, nor can I find anything on Short Com’s own site. But if this is what this story makes it out to be, this news is far far far more worrying than anything The Mumble is doing.

The Mumble is, by all accounts, a dreadful publication in every way, and not just for the cash for reviews (details available from journos with lawyers on standby). But that what makes them relatively harmless. So terrible is their reputation, hardly anyone takes them seriously. Most people with a shred of credibility steer clear of them. They know that sticking a review from The Mumble on your publicity – even one they did as a freebie – damages your reputation more than helps it. Short Com, on the other hand, is a reputable publication. The closest thing we have to a list of top-tier publication is The List’s table of top-rated shows, and Short Com is listed, between The Scotsman and The Skinny. This means they can publish pay-for reviews as credible reviews. One small but notable detail is that Short Com does not publish reviews below three stars. That doesn’t necessarily mean the reviews are corrupt – indeed, other publications do similar things for perfectly legitimate reason – but it does make it easier to operate on pay-for-praise and get away with it.

And the other problem? There’s not much the Festival Fringe Society can do about this. I’ve no objection to refusing to accredit review publications wanting payment, but this isn’t banning them from the fringe – as we’re seeing now, this isn’t stopping Short Com reviewing, nor is it stopping The List treating them as a reputable source. Short Com could be the first step to normalising paying for reviews, and as soon as you blur the boundary between independent reviews and paid for PR, this massively undermines the integrity of the entire fringe. All I can suggest is that we normalise public awareness first. We might not be able to stop paid reviews if Short Com is doing it, but we can make sure prospective punters know about this. If we can make it a basic expectation that paid reviews have to be declared – and yes, that will have to mean naming and shaming the artists who don’t declare this – it might not stop the practice for paid reviews, but it would at least keep it in check.

Friday 16th August, 9.00 p.m.: Here I am. Press tickets collected, first show this evening, so let’s get these last two reviews from visit 1 done. These were both senn on my last day chosen from the half-price ticket hut to fill in two gaps. And the two are connected by the most unlikely theme.

So I’ll begin with The Red Hourglass. Spoiler alert attached to this review: if you’re already planning to see this, don’t read this review, because the opening minute is best seen if you don’t know what to expect, but I can say one thing without giving the game away: this is my unexpected gem of the fringe so far.

Spoiler warning established, this is a solo performance from Alan Bissett, who plays different characters trapped an a mysterious research facility. What the description doesn’t mention is that these characters are spiders. Indeed, when the first character talked about being part of a proud and ancient race – coupled with the fact that this is being told in the Scottish Storytelling Centre – it had me fooled. Not that the first spider sees much difference between the two. This common spider is pretty sure it was one of his ancestors’ persistence in spinning a web that inspired Robert the Bruce himself to never give up and go back outside and defeat the English.

I probably should warn you (not that this warning will do any good if you’ve already heeded my advice not the read the spoiler), this play sets out to taunt you if you’re scared of spiders. Next up is the recluse spider, who misses his wife and three thousand kids, and mostly liked to spend time to himself. Except when they swarm, because that’s fucking mental that is. My favourite line of the play, as a non-arachnophobe was “So we swarmed into the flat of this broad … We weren’t going to kill her … although we could have if we wanted to”. If that doesn’t put the willies up you, the black widow might. That was Bissett’s funniest performance of the whole lot, as the black widow spider was a complete psychopath.

I suppose one complaint you could make about this is that for small number of people who truly have a problem with spiders, they might be landed without warning into something they really don’t want to watch. I sympathise, but this is genuinely one of the play where content that some people might find distressing works best if it comes out of the blue. This is a case where I think the Edinburgh Fringe site could do with a content warning hidden behind a spoiler alert. But, honestly, put your fears aside if you can. Very clever and very funny character comedy, with similar humour to Made in Cumbria. But with spiders. Unfortuantely, the run has already finished, which is a shame, because this doubtless would have sustained sales over the full fringe had it run three weeks. So keep an eye out for it instead.

And the other play I caught was Bang Average Theatre with Lucille and Cecelia. This time, the two characters are sea lions. And just in case you missed the bit in the programme saying they’re seal, as you take your seat you will see these two seals (embodied by two women in black leotards and moustaches) wriggling about, balancing on balls and excitedly performing sea lion-like stunts for the audience. I loved that performance and this opening is one of the best openings I’ve seen of an Edinburgh Fringe play.

But then what do you do? No matter how good your weird and wonderful idea is, you have to sustain interest for a full hour. Many years ago I saw a similarly-styled play Howard and Mimi, where the characters were a dog and a cat, with a story structured around moving in together, fighting like cat and dog, then learning to like each other before some unexpected events drive them closer. The Red Hourglass structured the show around one character at a time. Here … I can’t work out where the story was meant to go. The ringmaster announcing the acts sounded a bit shifty, but that plot-line never develops. The sea lions start off barking, then learn human words, and then they’re suddenly speaking to each other in English, but it’s not clear what that was meant to signify. One of the sea lions has a crush on her human trainer and flirts with other random humans, and the other one wants to escape, but I couldn’t establish either sea lion’s motives.

I still think this is worth seeing for the sea lion performances, but for this to fulfil its potential, we need something more. I might sound like a screaming pedant when I ask what the rules are of this setting, but even the most surrealistic setting work best when you establish what the rules are and play out believable characters in these absurd scenarios. At the moment, I feel this has gone for a scattergun approach to writing a plot. I would pick out the strongest plot element, concentrate on that, and write a story around that. There are few plays that give you a chance to identify with sea lions – this is an opportunity not to be wasted. Continue reading

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A Thousands Splendid Suns: the long road to darkness

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Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns stays faithful to the book, but brings a new focus to the treatment of women in Afghanistan – which began earlier than you might think.

Talk to anyone about the history of Afghanistan and they’ll tell you the Taleban took over after the US armed them during the Soviet invasion. There again, talk to anyone about any topical bit of history and they’ll probably tell you whichever cherry-picked version suits whatever point they want to make. Never trust what most people tell you. As often is the case, this version is not wrong, but it’s a very simplistic version that misses out most of the intervening steps. It is this that Khaled Hosseini’s books cover well. In The Kite Runner, the main character flees Afganhistan with his father as things are starting to go downhill and only returns when Taleban rule is at its worst. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Laila doesn’t get the chance to escape, and witnesses the descent of her country into a theocracy. But it’s a slower descent than you might think, and not just down to Osama Bin Laden’s mates.

2e70c534e-99f1-402f-a1342a622afb67e1At the beginning of the play, Laila lives with her liberal-minded parents in Kabul. Even though her brothers fought and died for the US-backed Muhadajeen, the family is still supportive of the Americans, with her father even wearing an American T-shirt. Unfortunately, Kabul is under attack, and before her family can flee, a shell hits the house and both her parents are killed. Laila only survives because of some neighbours who take her in, but what first appears to be an act of kindness soon turns out to be an act of opportunism and the start of the nightmare. Rasheed is a self-obsessed control-freak who dominates his wife, and now wishes to take Laila as his second – something she is powerless to refuse. Mariam is at first angry with Laila for being upstaged, but as Rasheed’s true colours come to light and Laila sticks up for Mariam, the two form a hasty alliance, soon to become a true friendship. Continue reading

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2019

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Wolf Tamer, Sary, I Am a Camera, Freak, Ross and Rachel, Be More Martyn, Here We Are Again

Another Brighton Fringe has come and gone. It’s been quite a busy one for me as, all of a sudden, I’ve been kept busy with review requests. It would appear that I’ve managed to end up on a list of press contacts somewhere. But that’s great – it’s a lot more worthwhile reviewing plays when I know the people involved want a review from me.

For fringe news as a whole, it’s been a bit of a slow news fringe. There was some steady growth this year, nothing as earth-shattering at 2016, but enough to keep moving. Within these steady-looking numbers, however, there’s been a lot of rearrangement: The Warren moved next to Spiegeltent and expanded its number of spaces, Sweet Venues ditched the Dukebox and re-focused its operations (including year-round operations) on The Werks, and Junkyard Dogs took on a new Fringe venue at the Brighthelm Centre with three spaces. One effect of this is that The Warren is now by far the biggest venue in Brighton. Could it become too big and too powerful? For an answer to this and other partient questions about all things fringe, you might like to read my interview with Richard Stamp. Continue reading

Between the fringes: Be More Martyn and Down to Zero

Yes, reviews are like buses here: you wait for ages for one to come and then you get five at once. These are two fringe-size plays I saw between Brighton and Edinburgh. Both plays very different from what I expected, and not necessarily on purpose. But by accident or by design, two pleasing outcomes.

Skip to: Be More Martyn, Down to Zero

Be More Martyn

eurovisionAny attempt to liken this to any other play is doomed to fail. The thing that prompted Hope Theatre to create this is the thing nobody wanted: Martyn Hett was one of the victims of the Manchester Bombings two years ago. This is verbatim theatre, and there’s no shortage of verbatim pieces uses to talk about tragedies: Motherland and The 56 immediately spring to mind. But, classics though these two are, Be More Martyn could not be more different in tone. This is the kind of tribute – because that’s essentialy what the play is – that would be described as a celebration of a life rather than the mourning of a death. You could even say “It’s what he would have wanted”, and far from being a patronising cliche, this is what make the play one of the best things I’ve seen.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Be More Martyn, Hope theater Company

The story is told from “The Frigg”, which a bar that Martyn set up in his own flat in Stockport (reason for name unknown). So we are told, parties at The Frigg were wild, as were the many madcap trips to Manchester. But according to the accounts of these eight friends, there was more to Martyn than a party animal – he had a reputation for picking up with waifs and strays with few friends of their own and bringing them into his group. Continue reading

Screen to stage: Rain Man, Trainspotting and Frankenstein

Time to catch up on reviews, and to start with, three stage plays that all have one thing in common: the stories are all well-known films. One is a straight adaptation from screen to stage, one is a book with an adaptation heavily influences by the film, and one is adapted straight from a book that already has many films to its name. But there was golden rule of adaptations that relevant to all of the stage productions:

Skip to: Rain Man, Trainspotting, Frankenstein

Rain Man

Although it may seem condescending by today’s standards, Rain Man was considered ground-breaking for its day, for its depiction of someone who not that long ago society would have written off as a useless burden. “Rain Man” is Raymond Babbit, but before we can talk about him we must talk about Charlie Babbit. He is the successful owner of a car dealership business thanks to his silver tongue, or rather was – he’s bullshitted one time too many and finds himself owing too much money he doesn’t have. By chance, he gets the news that his wealthy estranged father has popped his clogs, but unfortunately for Charlie his father has not forgotten his side of the grudge and instead left his fortune to a brother he never knew he had: Raymond – severely autistic, can’t look after himself, but with some extraordinary gifts. Charlie wants to get to Raymond so his business can be saved from bankruptcy; what he really needs Raymond to save Charlie from himself.

rain-manThis stage version of Rain Man is a very faithful adaptation of the film, transplanted almost scene for scene. That’s not always easy. Most plays brings characters to one or more locations on stage, but most films follow one or more characters around. Luckily, this story lends itself very well to a being told over a set number of scenes, and also manages to do it without – one of my pet hates – unduly extravagant stage effects to reproduce moments of films that aren’t needed. There is one criticism I’m obliged to make, and that’s bringing in their own proscenium arch. At Northern Stage, this made the play impossible to view from the front side seats, and I had to move in order to see the play. It would not have been at all difficult for actors of this calibre to adjust to the slightly wider stage on the fly, so I don’t understand why they didn’t. That odd decision aside though, were it not for the fact this is film everyone’s heard of, the stage version of Rain Man could almost pass off as something written for the stage all along. Continue reading

Brighton Fringe 2019 – as it happens

REVIEWS: Skip to: Taboo, How disabled are you?, Ross and Rachel, Freak, Shit Scripts, I Am a Camera, Sary, Wolf Tamer

Wednesday 5th June: And the answer is … 3,841. That is in “Whoah” territory. This is up 293 from 2018’s figure of 3,548. That works out at an 8.3% increase, slightly under yesterday’s indication of 9.5% but still a dramatic increase. Two years ago it looked like Brighton might catch up with Edinburgh. Little chance of this now.

Of course, the harder to answer question is whether a rise of 293 is good or bad. This will depend a lot on what these extra 293 acts consists of. The ideal scenario is that the Festival Fringe Society’s hard work to make the fringe has paid off and more people are able to go. But it could also be that these efforts have got nowhere and the extra 293 are people who are made of money.

There is one oddity in all of this: the Festival Fringe Society have been strangely quiet about this record-breaking fringe. Normally this kind of news is shouted from the rooftops. And this looks like a conscious choice too – Edinburgh Fringe’s own press release gives the number of participating countries as its headline figure, with the size of the fringe little more than a footnote. Make of that what you will.

But we are going to have to leave it there because that is the end of this coverage. I haven’t quite finished with the Brighton Fringe because I will be getting some numbers from Brighton later, and of course I have to put all the reviews into a roundup, but that can all come later. Thank you all for sticking with me over the month, and join me in August when we do the same for Edinburgh.

Tuesday 4th June: I was going to fill the gap before tomorrow with some news that broke about a former Edinburgh Fringe performer that broke during May, but I’ve decided to hold this off for later. This is big news, and it deserves something better than a chaotic mention in an article about another festival.

So instead, a look ahead until tomorrow. The fringe numbers are Edinburgh are a closely-guarded secret and I don’t have any advance information – but we can try to speculate from the registrations so far. There have been several rounds of early bird going out, and on the eve of the final number, there are 3477 listings on the website. One important clarification about this number is that, unlike the paper programme, any shows that are on at two different venues appear twice. Consequently, there will be a bit of double-counting, and you can’t directly compare this to registrations. But you can compare this to the eve-of-programme figure last year, which was 3179.

At face value, this amounts to 9.5%, which one could expect to mean an increase of around this level when the final number comes out tomorrow, if – and this is the big if – the 3477 vs 3179 figure is a valid life-for-like comparison. We know from Buxton that early figures can make things look more sensational than they really are – at one point Buxton’s figures this year were a 73% ahead of the figures the same time a year before ending up with a less dramatic 21%. Part of the reason for the inflation of the early figures was the discounted early bird fee encouraging earlier registering; therefore, we must consider the possibility that this figure is also artificially inflated by earlier registration. Or the 9.5% really could be the shape of things to come. Even with seasoned journalists used to Edinburgh’s figures defying all predictions of peak fringe, a rise of this scale after all the hoo-ha about the cost of the fringe would be a big turn of events.

The other figure that will be of note is Brighton Fringe ticket sales. Unlike Edinburgh, where sales figures always come at the end of the fringe, Brighton is sporadic about whether it gives the figures quickly, or slowly, or not at all – and they have been known to be slow to announce figures that I’d have expected them to shout from the rooftops. However, Julian Caddy kindly offered to supply me with various fringe figures once things have calmed down a bit, so when I have the numbers, I will have comprehensive numbers.

So now we wait for tomorrow. Exciting, isn’t it?

Monday 3rd June: So, here it is, my pick of the fringe.

First of all, this is a theatre blog so my pick of the fringe and honourable mentions are intended for theatre. I have previously included comedy when there’s been enough crossover with theatre to judge is as a comedy theatre piece, but this time everything in the way of comedy has been more like stand-up or sketches. One other omission from this list is How Disabled Are You? – not because it’s any better or worse than the other plays, but because this was too different to the conventional theatre to draw a meaningful comparison.

Out of the eleven left, there were three duds (none of which I chose to review in the end). So out of the remaining eight, here is the list:

Pick of the Fringe

Wolf Tamer
Sary
I Am A Camera
Freak
Ross and Rachel

Special pick of the fringe:

Here We Are Again

Honourable Mention:

Bright Raven
Taboo

As you may notice, this is a bit top-heavy on pick of the fringe, but there has been a good standard of theatre amongst what i saw this year.

All of these will be collated when I get round to doing the roundup, although don’t hold your breath. I have been known to not complete this until after the Edinburgh Fringe – I’ll try to avoid anything that embarrassing this time, but that will depend what’s going on with my life.

Not quite done, yet. We have Edinburgh Fringe’s numbers to cover before we’re done. But it’s almost done now.

Sunday 2nd June: Before going into the awards, a quick digression to some breaking news concerning Edinburgh. There’s been yet another review publication trying to establish itself as a pay-for-review publication. It’s called The Mumble, and the early indication is that it’s trying to use the same arguments that edfringereviews.com tried two years ago. That’s the mild version of events. I’ve also heard allegations they’re specifically targetting groups who don’t know any better. And I’ve heard worse allegations still. However, I’m going to hang fire on repeating the most serious allegations until I’ve had a chance to investigate this better and The Mumble has had a fair chance to respond.

In the meantime – and the reason I’ve brought this up now – I want to say something for any fringe newbies reading this: have nothing to do with any publication that wants payment for a review. Even if you have no ethical qualms over this practice, paid for reviews are worthless. Anybody who’s anybody in the theatre business knows which publications only said nice things about a play because the theatre company paid them to do that. Even the general public are probably going to smell a rat sooner rather than later. Yes, if you’re a new company it’s a struggle to get any kind of review at all, and yes, it sucks if you get no reviews, but trust me, a paid-for review is worse than useless. So steer clear.

Right, back to the awards. Some interesting ones here. Last year there was not name I recognised in the awards, but this time there’s too. Quintessence got the FringeReview Award for Outstanding Theatre – this was not a big surprise because this was already one of the top reviewed plays on FringeGuru and Emily Carding already has an excellent reputation in Brighton. So a little more significant is the New Writing South Award, which went to Sam Chittenden with Clean. As I reported yesterday, she’s already been getting good reviews for all three of her plays – with this added, she looks set to be one of the most looked out-for names next year.

Audience choice of venue wasn’t what I expected – but this might be significant too. It’s gone to Nether Regions, which isn’t a normal venue as such – instead, it’s a pop-up location for one theatre company doing two site-specific/immersive pieces. It’s not even clear if this venue will exist next year. But it does mean that the theatre company behind it is doing something right. That company is 2headedpigeon, who apparently are Brighton regulars. So it looks like it’s worth checking out what they do next year, either in Nether Regions again or another site-specific space. This review is worth a read for some idea of what they do with the space – another group to watch out for next year.

But you want to hear what my pick of the fringe is, don’t you? Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have a decision.

Saturday 1st June: So, here’s the schedule of the remainder of the fringe coverage. Tomorrow (I think) is the fringe awards. After that, I will announce my pick of the fringe. But I’m going to keep the coverage going until Wednesday for one last announcement of indirect relevance to Brighton but major relevance for anyone following festival fringes: Edinburgh Fringe announces its programme- and with that, the number of registrations. There has been a lot of talk over whether Edinburgh has reached its limit, but so far, all predictions of that fringe finally hitting its ceiling have been wrong. Will the prominent discussion of the cost of Edinburgh make things different this time?

Before then, let’s get back to something I’ve not been looking at for ages, and that’s reviews. I’ve given my verdict, but what do other people think. I won’t look again at plays I’ve already checked for reviews (if you want to know my previous findings and can’t wait for the roundup, you know how to use Ctrl-F), and I don’t pay much attention to reviews where they don’t matter (such as shows with long-standing fanbases who will succeed whatever the reviewer think). Eliminating all of that, there’s one thing that’s stands out, and that’s Sam Chittenden’s plays.

She directed Sary and Clean for Different Theatre, and Ross and Rachel for Pretty Villain. Getting a reliable pattern over Brighton is difficult – you’ll rarely have more than two reviews to go on for a single play – but overall the reviews have been pretty good. With one exception, the reviews across the plays have been four or five stars (or, in the case of FringeReview’s ratings system, ratings that imply four or five). In the interests on completeness, I do need to mention there was a two-star review on Ross and Rachel from Broadway Baby, which appears to be mainly about the use of a single actor for both halves of a couple. However, given the level of success the same script had at Edinburgh Fringe for its original run, my guess is this is an outlier – still a valid view, but an outlying one. What is does mean is that Sam Chittenden has probably secured her place as one of Brighton’s best-known names for future fringes.

How Disabled Are You? also seems to be doing well in the reviews, although the caveat that applies to all political theatre is that it’s difficult to tell whether the good review is approval of the play or the cause the play is promoting. The most interesting read is from Disability Arts – this covers both the play and the issue, so it’s only a sort-of review, but it’s a thoughtful examination of both that is worth the time. This could a front-runner in the awards tomorrow, so this is the one to watch out for.

Next update will be after the awards are announced.

Friday 31st May: There’s only one thing at Brighton left to look out for during the fringe, and that’s the awards. The significance can vary from year to year – often it comes down to chance whether I’ve heard about the winners. One thing that may be of interest is the winner of best venue. Junkyard Dogs expanded to a three-space venue after winning the award two years running. Will this award this year be a forerunner of the next emerging venue? Or will Junkyard Dogs make it a hat trick.

But it’s time to turn my attention back to the north-east. I need to have a look at what’s coming up, and over this weekend I hope to get the next season’s recommendations written up. But the thing that is on now is A Thousand Splendid Suns at Northern Stage. This story is one of two very famous novels by Khaled Hosseini (set in Afghanistan, much of it under the rule of the Taleban. I don’t know this story but I do know The Kite Runner, which is excellent, so I’m confident the same astute observations will work here. Northern Stage’s new writing is about as hit-and-miss and you’d expect any new writing theatre to be, but Northern Stage has an excellent track record with adaptations on the main stage, whether producing along, or co-producing as it is i with Birmingham Rep this time. This runs until the 15th June

The other thing coming up soon, however, has just been to Brighton, and it’s #BeMoreMartyn. The tribute to Martin Hett comes to Live Theatre from Thursday to Saturday next week. I have a rule that tours that take in Brighton are still eligible for the Brighton Fringe roundup if I catch it elsewhere on the tour, so maybe this will be joining the roundup.

Speaking of which, I’d better start deciding on my own pick of the fringe. No decision yet – expect a lot of deliberating tomorrow. Continue reading

Sherlock Holmes: Nick Lane is afoot

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Sherlock Holmes is tougher going than your average Blackeyed production to follow, but Nick Lane once again produces a good adaptation faithful in many ways, and the changes work to the book’s strengths.

Few touring companies are in the enviable position of Blackeyed Theatre. A company that makes a name for itself in one thing is doing well, but Blackeyed had done this in several areas. John Ginman’s adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein were impressive enough, and their faithful but excellent performance of Teechers is another string to their bow, but to have topped this last year with Nick Lane’s adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was exceptional. The only down-side? This wasn’t quite the first performance. It was the first performance on a tour of this scale, and the addition of an extra character making it look like this was how the book was written all along was superbly executed, but the credit for risk-taking goes to a couple of earlier smaller but highly-acclaimed performances. Even so, a second play written and directed by Nick Lane was a no-brainer. This time, however, it really is a full premiere – no playing it safe and letting another group perform it first to see how it goes.

And so Blackeyed Theatre are spending the best part of a year touring Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four – not quite a Gothic horror tale that Blackeyed have built their reputation on, but still something stylistically similar. This time, Nick Lane has written a more faithful adaptation of the book, which one might think would always be the logical choice for a murder mystery, but you might be surprised. I have seen countless stage adaptations for crime stories, from Conan Doyle to Christie, that spoiled the story by mucking around with the plot from the book. And not just dumbing down – that I could at least understand – instead, I have seen major plot points such as the identity of the killer changed for utterly inexplicable reasons. Not that you should clump in Christie and Conan Doyle; that’s the other disservice done to Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s rare for these stories to work to a climax of bringing everyone together into a room to identify the villain, and you do Sherlock no favours by trying to pander to this expectation. Continue reading