Category Archives: Reviews

The Red Lion and East is East

Newcastle’s big two theatres have been busy in the last month, with main shows going head to head at the same time. Unusually, both productions are revivals. Not too unusual for Northern Stage to do a revival (though less often than it used to be), but unusual for Live to do this. The Red Lion only just counts a revival, having premiered at the National  Theatre in 2015, but off-hand, the only revivals I can think of at Live are re-runs of successful shows previously premiered there. Even Northern Stage haven’t done that many revivals lately if you don’t count the “concept” productions such as Hedda Gabbler and Cyrano de Bergerac.

But as far as revivals go, both productions are revivals of excellent plays, and but companies have done an great job of bringing the plays back.

The Red Lion

Red_lion_7I didn’t pay much attention to The Red Lion when Live Theatre first announced it because neither the play nor the author rang a bell. But it should have done, because whilst I didn’t remember the name, I certainly did remember one of his plays, Dealer’s Choice, performed by a then-unknown Dugout Theatre shortly before their rise to stardom. This play, a dark play about six men trapped in a dangerous spiral of high-stakes poker, always stuck in my mind amongst the hundreds of plays I’ve seen. He’s notable for other plays too, but this is the one I based my high expectations on, and he did not disappoint.

Set in the world of semi-professional non-league football, this play is inspired in part by Marber’s own experience in saving his own local club from bankruptcy. So you might think that such a play would be a homage to the beautiful game, free from the influence of spoilt millionaires, and self-serving sha. Guess again. Cheating and greed are just as rife, and the story centres around a bung that goes wrong. Continue reading

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Brighton Fringe 2017 – as it happens

REVIEWS: Skip to Doktor James’s Akademy of Evil, Catching the Ghost, BADD, Blink, The Ruby in the Smoke, Decide-a-Quest, Shit-faced Showtime, Blooming, Between You and Me, I Am Beast, And Then Love Walked In, Gratiano

https://i1.wp.com/static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/the-end-or-is-it_3544.jpgWednesday 7th June: And that’s it from this year’s Brighton Fringe coverage. I had been holding out for news of the ticket sales, but it’s getting on a bit now. If I hear news in the next few days, I might post an update.

I can. however, leave you with news of the registration figures for Edinburgh. It’s up from 3,269 last year to 3398 this year. This is 3.9% growth, although part of this offsets the slight shrinkage last year. To look at it another way, if you measure fringe size by number of registrations, Brighton is up from 27.5% the size of Edinburgh last year to 28.5% this year. Brighton closes the gap a little further, but nothing as dramatic as last year.

So now it’s time to sign off. Roundup soon, I hope. Thank you to everyone who stuck with me through this and everyone who put on plays for me. Time to get ready for Buxton now. Then the big one. Cheerio.

Tuesday 6th June: We now have a list of winners of Brighton Fringe awards, whcih I can’t actually say that much about because all the awards went to plays I haven’t seen, so I can’t really comment. However, I do at least avoid seeing a play I hated on that list. There are some small mercies.

However, there is one award that’s notable specifically because I’ve never heard of it. Best venue went to Junkyard Dogs, a venue I’d never heard of, but nonetheless had a decent line-up this year, mostly comedians. Along with Lam Comedy getting best venue last year, it does suggest that, for comedy at least, the small venues are putting up decent competition against the big ones. This is a notable contrast to the Edinburgh fringe, where everybody who’s anybody in comedy goes to one of the big four supervenues.

The only other comment I have is that there is one award whose position in this cermony I’d say is questionable. The Brighton Argus has always awarded a Argus Archangel for their top show of the fringe (with the next tier of awards being the Argus Angels), which has been all well and good so far. This year, the winner was Urinetown – no complaints about who’s won, I’ve never seen this musical but I’ve only ever heard good things about it – but how many Brighton Fringe plays did the Argus review? Two. Okay, it’s possible they reviewed more fringe shows that only went in their print edition, in which case I’ll take that back, but online at least, their reviews are vastly dominated by the Festival. Sure, local papers are generally having a tough time at the moment and perhaps fringe reviews aren’t as economical as they used to be, but two? I do hope they can do more next year, but if not, I’d ask series questions about their place in the awards ceremony.

But you don’t want to know about those silly awards, do you? You want to know what’s going to be my pick of the fringe. Well, I have decided, but before I do this, this is been an unusual year because a lot of what I saw wasn’t really theatre. Some was factual, some was entertainment, so was fun, but I decided in the end that they were too different to meaningfully compare to more conventional plays. I will still write about these in the roundup, but in their own section. Those pieces are Blooming, Shit-Faced Showtime, Decide-a-Quest, Catching the Ghost and Docktor James’s Akademy of Evil.

(Also missing are two plays which were too abysmal to review. As always, bribes accepted.)

So here they are:

Pick of the Fringe

Gratiano
And Then Love Walked In
I Am Beast
Between You and Me
BADD

Honourable Mention:

The Ruby in the Smoke
Blink

A reminder that these entries are listed in chronological order, so don’t read anything into what’s top or bottom. So congratulations to all those on the list. Final verdicts will be coming in the roundup, whenever that may be. Hopefully not too long.

Monday 5th June: So that’s it. End of Brighton Fringe 2017. I was hoping take a look at who got what awards, but annoyingly that doesn’t seem to have gone online. The ones I heard about on Twitter went to thing I don’t know much about. I’m keeping an eye out for a proper list, but so far appeals for information are proving fruitless.

One final thing to review, and that’s Doktor James’s Akademy of Evil. You are invited to be taught by the wicked Doktor James himself on how to be evil. You’ll got to see what a minion really looks like, practice your manical laugh, and we’d have time for plenty of other things if Doktor James’s twin brother and arch-nemisis James-Man didn’t keep calling him on Skype (because James-Man’s special powers are flying and making Skype calls without the other party’s permission). Oh, and as he lives in his mum’s basement, he keeps getting interrupted by his mum.

This is, in principle, a kids’ show – it’s mostly undemanding fun heavily reliant on audience participation, usually kids getting to embarrass their parents. That said, I’m told they also have a “night school” show which late in the evening when you get an adult audience, but otherwise exactly the same show for people with equally childish senses of humour. It’s not all silliness, however, and in between the fun and games there is a backstory where Doktor James is constantly humilaited – villainous societies never take him seriously and won’t let him join, whilst James-Man is actually a bit of a cock and uses his unsolicited calls to belittle his brother. Mum make no secret of which one’s the favourite either.

It’s a lot more comedy than theatre so you can’t really judge this as a play, but I did feel that more could have been made of the story. It would have been good if James-Man could have been somehow taken down a peg or two. Who knows, maybe they can do this in a sequel. But for its target audiences, either kinds or people who’ve drunk at least four pints (depending on show), there’s few things that’ll do the job better.

Sunday 4th June: Going on round about now is the Brighton Fringe awards ceremony. They seem to do these awards quite late, so I’ll probably report on these tomorrow. Before then, two final shows to catch up on, niether of which are unambiguously theatre. Let’s get another one done: Catching the Ghost.

This a play showing at Komedia. (Yes, a play at Komedia – this year they have been substantially branching beyond comedy into theatre, but anyway …) This play is produced by Extant. Often, it makes no difference who’s producing a play, but it does matter here, because Extant is a theatre company of visually impaired artists, and this play is about writer Chris Campion’s experience of near-total blindness. As is often the case with effects of disabilities, it’s complicated. For example, what many of us call a “white stick” can be called a “guide cane”, to feel your way forward, but that’s not the kind he uses. His is a “symbol cane” which serve no function except to warn other people not to bump into you. That is one of many thing you will learn in what’s mostly a very frank talk. Original music too, but mostly a talk.

There is one pattern I’m seeing with plays about health disability, and that is that the writers try to be clever over the way they tell their tales. I don’t know whether they have these ideas of their own accord, or whether their backers and/or producers encourage this, but so far my experience has not been great. Too often I find myself wanting do know more about anxiety, or waiting for an assessment, or anything else, but end up so confused over what I saw I can’t work out what they were supposed to be telling me. Frustratingly, this happens here, with this play finishing with a confusing ending where Campion meets another near-blind man  who I think was supposed to represent his other self, but whatever that point was supposed to be, I lost it.

And that’s a pity, because prior to that, he got his point across very well. There were a couple of acted scene, such as a his experiences on the dance floor, either getting fetishied by someone who thinks who get to touch her face, or losing track of who you’re dancing with and end up with the wrong person. But mostly, he was at his strongest just saying what happened with blunt honesty: how long it took for him to realise he was losing his sight, the depression that set in once he knew and his subsequent recovery, and before that, he experience at a rough school where even the teachers earned popularity with the cool kids by belittling him.

So my advice for Campion would be to not try to hard putting something different or clever into the performance. He doesn’t need to – he’s got a good enough and powerful enough tale just telling it as it is.

And we’re nearly there. Just one last ting to review, a fun one, then I can decide on my pick of the fringe.

Saturday 3rd June: There’s not just things coming up in the last weekend of Brighton, of course – there’s all sorts of things coming up over the country. Back in the north-east, I have written up my latest What’s Worth Watching for the region, including some festival fringe hits.

I’d better catch up with reviews now, so let’s turn to BADD or Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons. I will say first-off that this covers a subject very close to my heart and a long-standing issue raised in this blog, and that is censorship. As such, I am not in a position to give a fully impartial review here. For something hopefully more impartial, there are plenty of other reviews you can read, most or all of which are positive. And since I’m not in the best position to review impartially, I am going to allow my personal perspective to colour this a lot more. Either read on or don’t. I’m not bothered either way.

Oh, you’re still here? Right, good. So, I (along with I’d say at least half the audience) have played Dungeons and Dragons before, so as Pam (Carrie Marx) convened a meeting of the society, she gave us a description about how this so-called game works, I recognised a lot of real references to the game. Well, some references. Because whilst a few facts were correct, such as player characters having scores of Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma (duh, everyone knows that!), it was pretty obvious that this was written by someone who’s only checked a few rudimentary details, and has no idea how the game works, let alone played it. That’s not a criticism of Hermatic Arts’ research – on the contrary, it’s a compliment. Groups like BADD really were that clueless, and as one of the few who got the free gift at the end of a real comic of the time warning parents of the evils of D&D, even I was surprised how ill-informed people like this could be and still be taken seriously.

So here’s all the points I picked up for how to be a good moral authoritarian hell-bent on censoring things you don’t like, all of which came up in the play at one point or other.

(Warning: sarcasm ahead – and anyone who fails to notice this should see a professional comedian immediately.)

  1. First and foremost, pick a good target for your scare campaign. Your best target is something which lots of people know exist but few people know anything about. It’s hard to whip up hysteria over something no-one has ever heard of, but neither do you want people to have pre-existing knowledge that competes with the truth you are going to tell them.
  2. Ideally, pick on something popular enough to have its own subculture. Subcultures can be portrayed as different and weird, but don’t carry the baggage of hating entire races and religions – a practice that never recovered in popularity after world war 2. Remember, there are a lot of naturally hateful people out there looking for a group it’s socially acceptable to pour their bile into, and you need to sign them up to your cause before someone else bags them.
  3. Don’t tell people you want something banned because you disapprove of it – which, let’s face it, is almost certainly your real motive. Unfair as it may be, no matter how many time you DEMAND people they BAN the thing YOU DON’T LIKE, they remain indifferent to your disgust even though they KNOW you think THEY SHOULDN’T LIKE the thing YOU DON’T LIKE. It’s as if these people have the temerity to think they can decide for themselves what they do and don’t approve of.
  4. Instead, come up with an argument as to why your is chosen target for censorship harmful. Don’t worry about these claims needing any credibility. Provided you have stuck to my earlier tip and picked on something few people understand, your claims will go unchallenged and unscrutinised.
  5. Whenever you read out or play excerpts of the thing you want banned, beforehand give dire warnings about the distressing content your audience is about to hear. Even the most bland inoffensive material can sound terrible if you give the audience the right preconception in advance.
  6. People might get suspicious if your entire argument is baseless speculation. So enhance your case by cherry-picking some real events to suit your agenda. Whatever activity you want banning probably has thousands, if not millions, of people who participate. You must be able to find a few who have committed suicide, engaged in acts of violence, or done something equally alarmist, then you can easily pass those off as representative of everybody who does this. And don’t for a moment entertain this ridiculous notion that the people who did this might possibly be the sort of people who would have done this regardless.
  7. Don’t feel the need to do any real research. Whilst it might be obvious to the people who actually play or watch the thing you want banned that you haven’t the faintest clue of what you’re talking about, the wider public will be none the wiser. All you need to do is put up some vague pretence of looking like you’re well-informed, and no-one will question you.
  8. Obviously, the previous tip – indeed the whole censorship campaign – falls flat if someone from the other side gets to counter your hysteria with calm reasoned responses. So make sure they don’t get the chance to have their say. This is best achieved by convincing the media that they’re all such a bunch of wicked degenerates that even talking to them will allow them to spread their sinful message.
  9. Appoint yourself an expert in your field. Don’t be shy, that’s a perfectly valid way of doing things. Okay, strictly speaking it takes a lot work to check whether a self-proclaimed expert actually has any expertise, but most journalists and politicians don’t want to hurt their brains slogging through that. As long as you have shut out your opponents from public debate, your own word ought to be sufficient.
  10. Once you are recognised as an expert, don’t feel any guilt in using your expertise to make some money. Come on, what is worse, lining your own pockets, or the disgusting cess-pit that you’ve portrayed the other side as? You can’t put a price on being a good person, can you?
  11. Make sure you portray everyone who does thing you hate as a cult, before someone slanderously suggests you’re the cult. A cult is group that pledges unquestioning acceptance of the doctrines of a supposedly enlightened few and goes to extreme lengths to prevent its members from being exposed to different ideas. Which is them. Of course. Not you.
  12. Finally, do give some thought about what to do with the lost souls you draw away from their cult. Don’t feel any remorse in making them outcasts from the entire human race – they probably deserve it – but it’s more productive if you can shame them enough for the vile behaviour that you can rope them into your own cult, I mean more enlightened mindset.

Okay, I’ve digressed away the a review into a rant, so let’s get back to the play. It wouldn’t be fair to ignore this, because this play is as good as all other other reviewers suggest. Carrie Marx does a hilarious portrayal of Pam, an over-zealous self-righteous Christian woman. She’s clearly not got a great grip on the world outside her religious bubble, and her attempt to go undercover with a poster of “Dungeon Mistress seeks Role Players” went the way one would expect. Over the course of the meeting, she invites members of the audience to role-play various stories of parents freeing their children from the RPG of evil, but her stories are so deluded it’s deliciously painful to watch.

Pam is not a single-purpose straw-man though – she’s a character in her own right, with hints that she has nothing else in life to give her a purpose except this moral crusade where she’s convinced herself she’s putting the world to rights. Even the local church isn’t really supporting her, with her two-hour meeting cut to one because apparently a youth sports team is more important to God’s work.

Although there’s additional in-jokes D&D players will pick up, there’s no need to do this and there’s fun enough for everyone. But without wishing to spoil anyone’s thumb to much, remember, however much we might be laughing at BADD now, they are still with us in spirit. The political ideologies change, the targets change, the rhetoric changes, but the tactic of demonising the unknown has stayed the same.

Friday 2nd June: And now, one last time, a list of what’s coming up in the next few days of the fringe, which is also the last few days of the fringe. Still running and BADD and Blink, both at Sweet Waterfront, at 8.00 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. respectively. Blink I’ve just reviewed below, and although it was a big challenge to live up the production values of the original, I recommend it for the wonderful script. BADD, or Bothered about Dungeons and Dragon, I saw and liked, and a review is coming, but in the meantime there’s plenty of other good reviews I’m happy to endorse.

Tonight only it’s the dreaded all-nighter Imaginary Porno Charades. Which, as you may have deduced from the title, is a game of charades. Where to titles are of imaginary pornos. This has very much a cult following, so expect a lot of in-jokes, but it’s also a lot of fun, albeit fun of the not too sophisticated kind. This runs into 10 a.m. the following morning, so it’s also recommended if you want to drink away into the early hours or simply if you fancy and endurance test. But whatever anyone says, I wasn’t ona  panel last year. It was just someone who looks like me. Who happened to be in Brighton at the same time. And claimed to be doing the same show I was doing.

On Saturday and Sunday, the Notflix crew perform. It’s an improvised version of a film that’s already cheesy and contrived, made even cheesier and more contrived. Oh, and it’s a musical, because everything is better as a musical. To give you an idea of what to expect, I got the version of the Titanic where it doesn’t sink – the dastardly captain’s plan is foiled by the plucky sailor who sails her through the iceberg-infested waters. Most impressive is the way they sing songs on the fly. I’d assume the were improvising words to stock melodies, but they really do make that up too. It’s on at 7.15 Saturday, 5.15 Sunday at Komedia studio.

And finally – and this time it really is finally – on Sunday, there is the one and only performance of The Wind in the Willows. This comes from Boxtale soup, who are best know for their version of Northanger Abbey. Performed by two actors and variety of puppets, it was a charming and gentle telling of the story that should translate well to this classic. Although it’s a family show, their style means that it should appeal across the board. 4 p.m. at the Warren.

So that’s it. Really into the home strait now.

Thursday 1st June: Now it’s back to daily updates. Unfortunately, I can no longer get away with blogging during working hours as everything that happened whilst I was away at Brighton has to be done when I get back.

I’m bumping Blink up the review queue as they’re still running. I’ve already seen and reviewed the original from Nabokov, which was one of my favourite plays ever. It’s the love story of Jonah and Sophie, two lonely people who meet under the strangest of circumstances – some might say the most shameful. Alas, in Phil Porter’s tale, the force of shame stands in the way of what should be a beautiful thing.

Taking on a play so soon after a wildly successful original run is a bit of a double-edged sword. The good news is that I have no hesitation in recommending this on the strength of the script. The bad news is that Nabokov left Peppered Wit with a very high bar to clear. One thing that Nabokov fans will notice missing from this version is the two indoor desks in an outdoor scene, which provided a fitting sense of the unreal. It would have been difficult for a touring group of this size to replicate this – and I’d rather they didn’t do it than do it badly – but it’s still something I missed.

However, Peppered Wit weren’t idle and put a good amount of creativity into their own set of the London skyline including the plot-significant London Eye. The new thing in this version was the screen, which had a lot of scope for original touches, but frustratingly there were missed opportunities here. It started off promisingly with the sketch of Sophie’s two flats, and it could have been good to continue in this style, but instead this was mish-mashed with words and video and lost a sense of consistency. Most annoyingly, some of the videos were barely visible against the theatre lights. Theatre practitioners take note: never underestimate the difficulty of getting in-scene projection right.

But the important thing is the acting, and that was done well. With the entire play’s believability hinging on the personalities of Sophie’s and Jonah and the sheltered live that made them how they are, and that came through very well, and with the exception of a couple of awkward scene transitions (such as setting up the hospital bed before the accident that leads to this scene), it flowed well. It’s worth seeing for a decent production of a terrific play, and this runs for the rest of the week at 5.30 at Sweet Waterfront.

Wednesday 31st May, 10.00 p.m.: And this time it really is home time. I still have a few reviews to go, but I will leave that until tomorrow when by brain as recharged. As usual, I am wondering how the long-standing diversionary route of Thameslink can possibly be so slow.

I’m going to turn my attention back to Sparkle and Dark for a moment, and not the reviews this time. Instead, it’s the long-standing issue with The Warren of noise bleed. I didn’t mention this in the review as it was too much of a digression, but I did sometimes struggle to hear what was being said, and I was on the front row. The traffic noise isn’t quite as bad as studios 1, 2 and 3, but the fans in the main studio were unbelievably noisy. This wasn’t an issue for me, because I knew the play well enough to fill in any gaps, but it might have been a frustration for someone else, all the more frustrating if you can’t hear lines in a five-star play.

To be fair to The Warren, they are aware this is an issue and I am told they even went so far as to offer them mikes. They chose not to take this up, which I think was probably a wise decision: miking up isn’t a striaghtforward thing to set up if your play has never done this before, and it was also pointed out that flimsy wired and hurried costume changes don’t really go together. But it does go to show that, short of finding another space somewhere else, there’s no easy answer in sight for the noise bleed problem.

Wednesday 31st May, 3.15 p.m.: Next up in the reviews is The Ruby in the Smoke, an adaptation of the Phillip Pullman book. And not a pre-existing adaptation from Samuel French but a new one from small theatre company Escapade – with the support of the author himself. This has already done extraordinarily well for a company of this size, getting numerous glowing reviews at Edinburgh last year, putting them in the enviable position where Brighton is a lap of honour. So the story here is that sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart loses her father after he father’s ship sinks sailing back from India, and she is sent off to live with her unpleasant aunt. She, however, turns out to be the least of Sally’s problems, because she soon learns that her father and many others were in possession of a mysterious ruby, one that people will kill to own, and like it or not, she is now part of this game.

The big challenge with adapting prose is that it’s a nightmare to get it into a performable length on stage or screen. This book isn’t a long one, around 200 pages, but Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only slightly longer, and whilst it was possible to make a film without any major cuts, it was a long one. I remember seeing a 90-minute TV adaptation a few years ago of the next book in the Sally Lockhart series, and that was a struggle to follow. Credit where it is due, Madeline Perham pulls a lot of tricks to tell the story from a cast of six over 80 minutes, with some intricate doubling of parts, with a very fitting sound and music plot. If you know the story, you will probably be pleased with this adaptation that does it justice.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know the story and I found myself playing catch-up much of the time. On several occasions, I found myself realising that an actor had been playing two different characters and then I had to unpick who was who when. To be fair, Escapde theatre did make an effort to distinguish doubled characters, but it’s a tough job to keep up when the story is so complex, and I’m a grown-up. For a play advertised as suitable for 7+, it would be a even taller order. This is no fault of the company who I feel did all they could – it just feels that six actors over 80 minutes is too tough.

So here’s my advice. Escapade theatre wanted to show this play to the world at the fringe and get critical acclaim. Regardless of Brighton reviews, they’ve already got more than enough from Edinburgh, So mission accomplished. Congratulations. Now I would look to making this into a full-length play outside the fringe where cast can be bigger. Within the constraints of the fringe, they’ve done the best job they can, but they could do this story the most justice – and indeed do themselves the most justice – outside the fringe where they can be bigger and better.

Right, time for obligatory ice cream. Bear with me.

Wednesday 31st May, 12.00 noon: Turns out I spoke too soon when I said there were no reviews of interest apart from Blooming. I Am Beast has just scooped five stars from Broadway Baby. They also got 3 1/2 from The Reviews Hub, but it’seems the 5 that’s the big deal. This rating eluded them all through 2015, so this is long overdue.

By the way, in a change from earlier advertised plans, I’m still in Brighton. After four days of crappy weather, I couldn’t face missing the first decent day and I rebooked to the last train home. Hope to do some more reviews, but it may have to be done on the beach.

Tuesday 30th May, 11.00 p.m.: I’m flagging now so I’ve not going to do any more reviews today. At this rate, I might get everything done and dusted by Thursday.

Before then, I’ve had a catch-up on how shows that I’ve seen and recommended have fared with the reviews. I’m not going to list every single review here, because most of them are of only minor consequence. The short version is that lots of plays have got individual reviews between 3* and 4*, but all of them have good reviews from previous fringes, or a good following with the audiences, or both. One more review stands to make little difference. Anyway, all of these will be collated for the roundup if you really want to know (and can’t be bothered to look for it yourself).

The notable one is Blooming. It’s had two reviews so far, and it’s pretty good. 5* from The Reviews Hub and “Must See” from Fringereview. I’ve never understood whether “Must See” is better or worse than their “Outstanding” rating, but I’m assuming it’s one of the best ones. It’s not quite the same as last year when every man and his dog gave a 5* review, but they can be very pleased with that outcome. Now we can wait and see if Between You and Me enjoys the same success.

One a different subject, one thing that is still eluding my searches is news on overall ticket sales across the fringe. The worst-case scenario here is that the sales have been insufficiently impressive to be worth publicising at the half-way point unlike last year. Or it might simply be that when you’re looking at growth to sustain a 7% increase rather than a 20% increase there’s two many margins of error for a mid-fringe figure to be meaningful. But we won’t be waiting much longer because the end of the fringe is now a few days away, with the final figures surely due shortly after.

da9-ivmxsaaq6heTuesday 30th May, 6.00 p.m.: Right, now that the last review has got you depressed, here’s a picture of a kitten to cheer you up. If you ever do need a kitten for this purpose, Emergency Kittens is always a good source. I think I shall also have a look at two of the cheerier productions I saw. Neither of them really count as theatre – I’d put them in the comedy section regardless of what they listed it under – so my opinion as a theatre blogger counts for less here, but I’ll give it a go.

So firstly let’s take a look a Decide-a-Quest. IN case you haven’t already guessed, this is a home to the classic series Choose Your Own Adventure, which I please to discover you young whippersnappers actually remember. Although it’s fair to say this isn’t exactly aimed at the same age range as the children’s books. In this version, you team up with a trusty companion in search of the Yeti, and since there’s two of you, and you’re both curious, you shall name your team “Bi Curious”.

There’s quite a lot of shows based on 80s and 90s nostalgia at the moment. Off hand I can think of Knightmare LiveThe Dark Room and The Adventure Machine, another close cousin (albeit a more family-friendly one). Of course, it wouldn’t be proper CYOA if you didn’t keep your thumb in the previous page just in case you die. There’s quite a few liberties taken of course, and when you reach that annoying page where all three options lead to death, they take matters into their own hands. Don’t expect the most accurate depiction of the series, but do expect a lot of fun and silliness.

And next I finally saw Shit-Faced Showtime, from the same team behind Shit-Faced Shakespeare. So here we have a cast of six singing their version of The Wizard of Oz – although the absence of songs such as Follow the Yellow Brick Road makes me suspect that some of the copyright holders don’t want to be part of this. Boo. Spoilsports. The difference from other versions is that one member of the cast is required to consume ridiculous amounts of alcohol before coming on stage. In addition, two members of the audience have the power to force him or her to drink an extra pint, whilst a third audience member is on bucket duty. Just in case.

With a show of this nature, this is a weakness that comes with being a long-running one, which is that it’s liable to lose its spontaneity. The selected inebriated actress in this one could obviously hold her drink and instead used her drunken state as an excuse to misbehave on stage, adding in her own lines and swapping the props around. This was still fun to watch, but it does raise into question how much of this is planned in advance. Or maybe it’s because she’s northern and that’s just entry-level drunkeness. Maybe we need to introduce a new rule that Geordies are required to drink twice as much to put them on a level playing-field with the southern softies. Anyway, good option for a fun end to an evening. Just don’t expect a Tony-winning performance, unless they introduce a new category for best plastered singer.

Oh wow, seven reviews already, and just two in the backlog. And two that were too abysmal to write about. As always, info always available with a suitable bribe.

Tuesday 30th May, 11.00 p.m.: Enough digressions. I must get on with these reviews. So, this looks like a good time to write about the two plays Mankind had on offer.

The high-profile one is Blooming, written and performed by Patrick Sandford who swept the board with Groomed last year. That play covered his account of abuse as child, but mostly the awful effects it has afterwards. This one, however, looks at the positive side, which is that whatever happens to you, there are always ways of coming back from the edge and being happy again. It’s a bit more of a double act this time, with Loren O’Dair providing songs and music from three of the seven instruments she plays.

One thing to be aware of with this play is the heavy use of analogies and metaphors. The only criticism I heard of Groomed in the sea of praise was the parallel story of the Japanese soldiers hiding on an island after the war finished, where some people didn’t really see the connection. There’s a lot more metaphors like this in Blooming, such as the stories of Theseus and Icarus. I think Sandford is right to include these because it’s a personal story, and if this is the way he sees it, it should go in regardless of who else sees the parallels, but it’s inevitable that some people will hear those bits and not get it.

On the whole, though, it’s a cheery story – well, as cheery as a story can be consider what it follows – about getting your life back together. It’s not a case of never looking back – the thoughts of what happened are never far away – but it’s about learning to live with it. Sandford said he wanted this play to be about recovering from any kind of trauma and not just what happened to him, and this it achieves. But to join in with the use of metaphors, sunshine is best appreciated after rain, and Blooming is best appreicated after seeing Groomed.

But the unexpected gem of the two from Mankind is Between You And Me. This is “forum theatre”, which shows a short play and then invites the audience to discuss what happened and rework scene to be done different. I am a theatre blogger and not a community campaigner so I’m going to stick to reviewing the play bit of this – but what a play that was. But be warned – this is far more distressing than Groomed. When the time came that Patrick Sandford wanted to tell people what happened, he had people who listened. In this fictitious story, a man breaking down because his abuser returning to the country for a family funeral cannot turn to his sister or his best friend because they keep dismissing the idea before he’s even had a chance to raise it. His wife might have understood, but she’s being pulled away by her own friend who’d rather jump to conclusions that he must be having an affair. Or gay. Or whatever bullshit she’s read in her magazines this week.

There is one other important difference here. In this story, the abuser is 16-year girl doing this to her younger stepbrother. There are enough barriers for abuse victims to come forward as it is, but female-on-male abuse has the extra barrier that too many people thinking that it can’t be rape because everyone knows men want to all the time, don’t they? And that’s not even the worst one. That is when the victim is treated as the abuser. This happens repeatedly in the play, but the worst one is the memory where the mother blames the 9-year-old boy. All of this is disturbingly believable.

These plays are now finished at Brighton, but they should both be back later after more development. In the meantime, the thing that Mankind would like you to do the most in sign The Mankind Pledge, simply asking people to recognise that not all victims are female, and not all perpetrators are male. It may or may not stop this happening, but it could do a lot to help victims come forwards and get the help they need.

Okay, this got a bit depressing. I’ll review something cheerier next, okay?

Monday 29th May, 10.30 p.m.: Before I get back to reviews, small update on the ill-fated Shiny Town. According to my sources, the reason Shiny Town left planning permission so late was because it took the Council that long to tell them they had to apply for planning permission in the first place. If that’s true, that shifts the blame a lot more on Brighton and Hove Council. One would think that, at the very least, they should have given a straight yes or no to whether planning permission was needed straight away.

Shiny Town might have dodged a bullet though. I heard some doubts about the business model though – I’ve been hearing it was going to be an expensive venue to run with an unreliable source of income. Only third-hand information, but if that’s right, the worst-case scenario could have been a lot worse than a late cancellation.

And I think I will conclude my coverage for today. Having gone to bed at 2 a.m. two nights running, I am flagging pretty quickly.

Monday 29th May, 4.45 p.m.: Since I last wrote, the one digression from reviews I promised has turned into two digressions, thanks to some breaking news from this morning. You may remember back from Brighton 2015 I reviewed a lovely play called My Friend Lester. It’s almost a recital of Billie Holliday and Lester Young’s greatest hits, but the few spoken passages between the songs, between “Pres” and “Lady Day” as they called each other, tells the story a platonic friendship between two people trapped in a string of miserable marriages, both self destructive in their own ways.

Anyway, you can read more about the play in my review from back then. The news is – hip hip hooray! – it’s coming back. I’ve just had news on a performance on the 11th June at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London. I’m told this is an extended version, and it’s now more of a play with songs. Whilst it will be good to see more of these scenes, I’m hoping they don’t go too far down that route, because one of the strengths of this play was telling so much story in so little time. One big challenge Maria and Bjorn will face is that there’s already been a majorly successful West End show of Billie Holliday quite recently, and they can’t hope to compete on the West End terms of massive budgets. Their best change is to offer something different, and the small-scale format they used – whilst there is easily rooms to expand of this – is, I think, their best way of offering something different. But I do hope this one succeeds.

Moving on now, the other thing that came to my attention is reviews of And Love Walked In. I neglected to mention yesterday that during my chats with the director and cast, they’d commented that they hadn’t had the attention of any other reviewers. Well, it turned out that at least one reviewer was interested, and that was Richard Stamp, who contacted the Brighton Fringe box office to get a press ticket, and never heard back.

This, I think, is a problem, because it stands to put smaller productions at a disadvantage. Major venues have their own press contacts, but what if you’re an entry-level production in a minor venue? It’s hard enough getting the attention of the reviewers if you’re not with a big name such as Sweet or The Warren, so the last thing you need is the press contacts at Brighton Fringe itself not passing on requests from reviewers. This isn’t much of a problem for Wired as such, as they don’t need good reviews to sell out, but that could be a big problem for other groups. Few things are more unfair at a festival fringe than putting on a great show that no-one gets go know about.

It’s fair to say that Wired don’t exactly make themselves easy to contact (after all, the only way I could find out if I could get in was to turn up at the door and hope for the best), but that doesn’t get Brighton Fringe off the hook. If you’re going to have a press service that handles review requests, you have to do the job properly. If they don’t have the resources to do this and they want to tell performers that the onus is on them to put their own contact details online, fair enough, but it’s not fair to say you provide a service that performers may count on – especially one that gives groups in minor venues a fair chance against those in major ones – and then not deliver on it. Now, I don’t know whether this is a one-off slip-up or something that goes on more often, and I hope it’s the first, but Brighton Fringe, please sort this out.

Rain, rain and more rainMonday 29th May, 1.00 p.m.: I was hoping to knock off another review first thing this morning, but I overslept as a result of being stuck in The Warren’s bar until 2 in the morning. Not drinking – this picture should give you an idea of what was keeping me indoors.

I am going to jump out of chronological order now and look at I Am Beast next. Short version is that I reviewed this back in 2015, and although this is been majorly reworked for 2017, everything that matters is the same, so my comments (glowingly positive) stand.

Longer version: even though the things that matter are the same, there have been a lot of changes for this year’s tour. It’s 20 minutes longer, but it’s not just 20 minutes’ extra material: lots of scenes are added, removed, reordered or changed. Most of these changes were the result of more research on the effects of grief, and one way this comes through in the play is the lighter moments of more positive thoughts, before the Beast comes back and the darkness returns. The big change, however, is the addition of a new character Sam (aka Captain Lighting in Blaze’s world), who wants to ask Ellie out. I was a bit wary about this simply because added-in love interests are the most over-used trope in theatre ever. It would have been a huge disservice to the story if it now ended with Sam being the guiding light for Ellie. But that isn’t the point of Sam’s role in the story. It’s not about him making things better for Ellie, it’s about the effect Ellie’s grief has on him along with everyone else around her.

Sparkle and Dark think this version is the best version. I personally thought the old version was already great, but – with the exception of a couple of lines from the old version I missed – I found the new version just as good. As for reviews of old show versus new show, we will find out shortly. Anyway, there’s one last performance today at 4, which is not only the final one at the fringe but also the final one the tour. So if you want to see it, hurry up.

Anyway, whilst I’m on the subject of Sparkle and Dark, I have an announcement related to them. As some of you might know, for some time I’ve wanted to have something like a five-star review. However, for a number of reasons, I’ve opted not to apply star ratings to reviews in general, and I felt it wouldn’t make sense to have 5* but not any 1*-4*. So then I thought of doing what Brighton Argus does and have an “Argus Angel” award to anything at 5* standard – not limit to the number of awards, no special time to award them, but they must be far and few in between. But I couldn’t for the life of me think of a name for the award. I have been advised that the name must be something that should be taken seriously, as this may start appearing on posters.

Then it occurred to me that all of the most presitgious awards are someone’s name, such as the Oscars or the Tonys (and, in the case of Broadway Baby, the Bobby). In order to prevent any favouritism, I thought I’d name it after a character in the first play in the history of this blog to qualify for this award. That play is The Girl With No Heart back from July 2012, and the name of a character that rolls off the best is Ike. I didn’t want to do this without the approval of Louisa, Shelley and Lawrence, but I have now discussed this with them, so I can now announce that my award from outstanding theatre, equivalent to a five-star review, is called the Ike Award.

I will be be backdating the Ike Awards all the way back to the start of this blog, and I hope to get that done next month. After that, I intend to issue Ike Awards the same time as the review. I’m afraid my budget doesn’t extend to a lavish ceremony in the London Palladium, but I hope to get you excited all the same.

I’ve some more reviews coming shortly, but before that, I’ve another digression coming up.

Sunday 28th May, 11.45 p.m.: Sorry about the gap. I’ve had a pretty busy day seeing stuff and talking to people, so I’ve not had much time to write things. But now I can hurriedly type this up from the bar in the Warren which – hold the front page – now has wifi that actually works.

So I’m moving on now to And Then Love Walked In. First disclaimer to give you is that if you’re considering seeing this play, you’re already too late. I had to pull a lot of strings to see this without a ticket bought well in advance. Most people probably won’t be so lucky. So I’m afraid this instant review isn’t going to be much use in that regard. Second disclaimer is that they bent over backwards to let me in, so I am in a situation I try to avoid where I’m reviewing a play where I feel I owe them something.

That caveat said, I know what to expect from Wired Theatre’s kind of site-specific theatre and they did not disappoint. This play begins with a psychatrist introducing us to his house before a patient walks in. Suddenly, they engage in a private conversation just like we’re not there, which we’re not, because as regulars to Wired will know, almost all their plays involve jumping about in time. Once again, they produce a script where a story going over years jumps back and forth as we slowly piece the fragments together. What we get is a marriage once the rocks due to he alcoholism and violent temper; repaired after he gives up drinking; and falls apart together after their only daughter goes to live in Sweden with her boyfriend. The wife gets involved with the Polish neighbour, whilst husband gets involved with one of his clients. It is not clear who cheated first, but he couldn’t have helped his caused by telling his wife he only started seeing her after she stopped being a client and therefore had no professional interest (true, but that’s not really the point). Wired has in the past sometimes got too complicated and made the story difficult to follow, but in recent years they’ve got better at this. One small criticism is that I’m not sure a Wired newbie would realise pushing a door handle up in time signifies a change in time, but on the whole the plot threads stay under control and you don’t have trouble following this.

The only real criticism I have is that this play feels like a jack of all trades but a master of none. Although the play does have a distinctive feature in that our psychiatrist’s sanity is the one that crumbles and reality starts to mix into his own dreams and illusions, it didn’t manage anything as moving as a wife coming to terms with her husband’s secret life in Dancing in the Dark, or exploring politics of times gone by to the depth of Come Unto These Yellow Sands or All Found and Up for Action. But it’s a nice addition to their series that lives up to their expectations, and the only real pity is that so few people could see this play. In the meantime, the lesson for next year is book early, and I don’t mean days in advance but weeks.

So, two plays reviews, backlog of four already. Will try to catch up tomorrow.

Sunday 28th May, 10.30 a.m.: Still reeling over how bad that play was from yesterday, especially now that I’ve discovered it’s got a 4* review from a previous fringe run. I think that’s this year’s “How the hell did that get four stars?” award sewn up.

But that’s enough of that. I must get on with reviews. So first up is Gratiano. This has previously earned mixed reviews from its Edinburgh run last year, and it’s not too surprising when you see how ambitious a concept this was. It’s a retelling of The Merchant of Venice, but transplanted to Mussolini’s Italy. Not only that, but the story is extended way beyond the pound of flesh-based courtroom showdown between Shylock, Bassanio. In this version, none of the characters are particularly savoury, and now Gratiano has is being held by police on suspicion of murdering his old friend Bassanio. So different is this to other retellings, it’s really just a matter of preference whether or not you buy into this concept, especially if you’re a Shakespeare purist.

But if you do, and I’m one of the people who did, this is done very cleverly. Shylock is still the vindictive character he was in the original, but with Jews not particularly well liked in Fascist Italy, he’s now more sinned against than sinning. Certainly Gratiano’s mob is poised to beat him to death the moment he tries to take the pound of flesh, no matter what the law decrees. And the heroes of Shakespeare’s tales, as well as all getting behind Il Duce’s ideas, also exploit and betray each other at the drop of a hat. It is a very clever reworking of the relationships of these characters, all done as a solo performance; the only plot thread that I felt needed more explaining was an affair between Gratiano and Shylock’s daughter.

The Unknown Soldier will remain Ross Ericson’s smash hit here – the concept behind that play was a master stroke of inspiration that will be very difficult to top. But it’s just as bold and original a concept. The only way of knowing for certain if you’ll like this is to just go ahead a see it, but the portrayal of what would have happened in Venice a little later in history adds a chilling twist to a well-known tale.

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Educating Rita and September in the Rain

Two productions of classic plays caught my eye this month. One was a headline production at the Gala Theatre, continuing its transition back to a producing theatre. The other was a smaller-scale production down in Yorkshire. Both are excellent scripts where there is little the producing company can do other than be faithful to it, so let’s get straight on with how they did.

Educating Rita

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Starting at the Gala, this is their second in-house production since they restarted this last year with The Fighting Bradfords (or the third if you count their small-scale immersive piece No Turning Back). Last year it was new writing, this year it’s the revival of a classic. Not everyone who came to see last year’s friends will be interested in a revival; but there again, not everyone who watches a tried and tested play wants the lottery of a new work. As the only major theatre in Durham, I think it’s fair enough to have different plays appealing to different audiences. “Rita” (not really her name, but that becomes relevant later) signs on with the Open University wanting to learn more about literature. Shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. The barrier is partly snobbery – even supportive tutor Frank sometimes lets his casual prejudices slip in – and partly her own fear of this snobbery, but it’s mostly the inverse snobbery of friends, family, and husband who all expect her to stop learning and have a baby like everyone else. Continue reading

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Leaving and Queens of the North

Northern Stage have just completed their Queens of the North season, with the headline act being two plays with prominent female leads. As well as this, there were other plays and events that are, to use Northern Stage’s words “Stories by women, about women, about humankind through the eyes of women”. However, out of all of the events I saw, by far the strongest one was neither Dr. Frankenstein nor Hedda Gabbler, but a lower-key production over in Stage 2. So let’s begin with this.

Leaving

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Paddy Campbell’s new play, it must be said, had a pretty tenuous link to the Queens of the North season it was officially part of. A play that explores young people leaving foster care through their own words, both male and female, the only vague claim this has to be about humankind through the eyes of women is that the artistic director of the performing company Curious Monkey happens to be female. This play would surely have been programme with or without a Queens of the North season to put it in – it would have been crazy not to, given the following both Curious Monkey and Paddy Campbell already had.

But, hey, whatever, that’s just marketing. What I’m really interested is the play. I knew little of Curious Monkey’s previous work, but this was playing to Paddy Campell’s greatest strength on writing very fairly and knowledgeably about the social care system. The only question was whether a verbatim play could live up to his previous more conventional scripted plays. Well, what do you know? It has; in fact, it’s surpassed those expectations handsomely. Continue reading

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Roundup: Vault Festival 2017

The main bar at the Vaults

REVIEWS: Skip to: Scenes from an Urban Gothic, This is not Culturally Significant, Circle Line, Claustrophilia, Mars Actually, Blood and Bone, Ventoux, Three unrelated short plays

So Vault 2017 is on. This time last year, doubts were being raised as to whether there would be a Vault 2017 at all owing to financial worries. I was always a little sceptical of this worry, because realistically this space can’t be used for anything else, but whatever the worries, this year, it’s as busy as ever, with no sign to a casual observer that there was ever any trouble. So I found the time to get myself down to London and dip my toe for four days.

To repeat the same thing I said last year (and will probably repeat every year), the Vault Festival should not, as some in the arts press suggest, be considered London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe. The whole point of the Edinburgh Fringe is that anyone can take part. The Vault Festival, on the other hand, is a curated festival. I don’t like this blurring between the two kinds of festivals, because this encourages the practice of claiming your festival as a fringe then curating it (e.g. York, Ludlow), depriving entry-level performers of opportunities to get started that is so desperately lacking right now.

This is not in any way the fault of Vault – they never claimed to be a fringe themselves, it was other people who labelled them that way. It would help, however, if they were open about how they curate the festival so the difference is known and understood. I heard that a lot of acts this year was chosen based on a theme of “space”, but that could mean anything, and I always think it’s better to be open about this.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get on with covering the festival. Continue reading

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The Empty Nesters’ Show

The goodbye scene in The Empty Nesters Club

Unlike many Godber plays, The Empty Nesters’ Club is very much a niche play. But if you’re in the niche of empty nesters, you won’t be disappointed.

Since leaving Hull Truck, John Godber has, if anything, got busier. Once I made an effort to catch all his plays; now there’s so many productions coming out thick and fast I often leave it until the second tour to know if it’s worth watching. The latest show on its second tour is The Empty Nesters’ Club, a play about what happens to Vicky and Phil when their only child Millie (played by Godber’s real daughter Martha) goes to university.

Presented as a meeting of the Empty Nesters’ Club, a support group created by Vicky, she tells the story of her own daughter. The story begins with the life of typical parents of a sixth-former, working hard as a taxi service for their daughter, givng her a freedom but secretly staying awake in bed until she comes home. Being unable to resist telling everyone she’s got an offer from Oxford. (She goes to UCL instead, but that story thread will become relevant later.) All busy until the drive home from her new home – and suddenly they don’t know what to do with themselves.

This play has a similar appeal to Shafted!, which toured this time last year. Telling the story of a colliery couple after the defeat of the miners’ strike, clearly this was very popular with people who’d been there; not because it particularly took sides, but because people related to the story of what happened in the following three decades. A similar appeal is at play here: the audience was almost entirely people old enough to have been through Phil and Vicky’s experience. Continue reading

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Cyrano de Bergerac: Broadsiders know best

Cyrano and Roxane

Cyrano, very faithful to the original story yet made into their own, Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson once again gift Northern Broadsides with a flawless adaptation of a classic play.

Is there no stopping Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson? Although producing their plays under the banner of Northern Broadsides, the husband-and-wife team of writer and director are practically a company within their own right. Not that I think Northern Broadsides is complaining. McAndrew and Nelson have already gifted them hits such as Accidental Death of an AnarchistA Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture (as well as a good collaboration with Northern Broadsides proper with An August Bank Holiday Lark). Barrie Rutter is very lucky to have got them on board.

One thing is missing from this adaptation that is common to previous McAndrews adaptation which some fans of hers may miss. Up to now, she has transplanted classic tales to modern day settings very successfully – tales of petty despotism and political opportunism are just as fitting today as they were a century ago. This time, however, she’s opted to keep the play its original setting of Paris in 1640 at the time leading up to the siege of Arras. Our nasally-enhanced hero Cyrano is still commander to cadet Christian, and he still has the unenviable task from his beautiful and beloved cousin Roxane to do the match-making between her and the new boy in town. Continue reading

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