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

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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: 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

Noughts and Crosses: the other Jim Crow

the-cast-of-noughts-and-crosses-photo-by-robert-day-esc_2474-1030x485

Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel is an intricate yet accessible depiction of a racially divided world that might have been.

I don’t normally start a review with a spoiler warning, but if you’ve already decided to see this play and you don’t know about the Noughts and Crosses series, I advise you to stop reading now. Pilot Theatre advertised this play as tale of forbidden love in a world of racial tension, but they deliberately omitted one important bit of information about what sort of world this is. The revelation comes in the opening scene – it won’t spoil the scene, let alone the rest of the play, if you know what it is, but it’s better if you don’t.

However, a review of Noughts and Crosses that doesn’t tell you what the Noughts and Crosses are is like a review of The Matrix that doesn’t tell you what the Matrix is. I would not be possible to talk about the many merits of both the story and the adaptation without telling you what Pilot Theatre isn’t telling you; so, in the style of the news just before match of the day, if you want to find out in the play, look away now. Continue reading

Roundup: Vault Festival 2019

REVIEWS: Skip to: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, April, Ladybones, Celebrate, Tacenda, Counting Sheep

Before this gets too late, let’s wind up all things Vault from my week in London. This time I’ll go straight into the reviews – sometimes there’s some news about the festival as a whole that needs reporting, but this time the Vault festival has pretty much carried on as before. The most notable news, if you count this as news, is that the Vault Festival has stuck with its extension from six weeks to eight weeks, so any doubts over whether the longer festival is viable have pretty much been put to bed now.

Once more, I saw a total of eight plays, plus one music event that was basically a companion performance one of those productions. For anyone who’s counting – yes, two of the plays I saw were duds. I’m currently working to a principle that I don’t write reviews if I can neither say something nice nor say something helpful. In this case, I saw one play that was inexcusably pretentious and incomprehensible, and another play which was a decent idea but the characters sadly lacked any kind of believability – that’s the harder one to watch, because you know there probably was an idea behind this that failed to come across. As always, anyone who knows I saw their play is welcome to contact me for private feedback, whether or not I wrote a public review.

Artists’ personal connections to real story played a large part in what I saw this time. But before that, we shall begin with something that has happened at both Edinburgh and Brighton, but this is the first time it has happened beneath the arches of Waterloo:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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This play requires a bit of acclimatisation. It’s billed as a retelling of the famous collection of legends of the Roman gods and heroes, but the last thing you’d expect is to enter a stage set up as a music hall from the Second World War. Then three Andrews Sisters look-a-likes (and sing-a-likes) begin singing the story of creation. If you’re already on the ball, you might work out that in this play, they are playing the Chorus. If not, you should at some point work out the rules of this production: the stories that are narrated are the same as the original, but the story performed on stage may be transplanted to a 1940s equivalent. For example, Cupid is still described as a winged angel with his bow and arrow, but on stage Cupis is a Just William-type schoolboy up to mischief with his love-charged schoolboy catapult. If this sounds confusing, bear with me, I promise. Once you’re used to how the story is being told, it’s superb. Continue reading

Shy Manifesto and Bacon Knees

Skip to: The Shy Manifesto, Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, Bonnie and the Bonnettes

A lot of stories have been jumping the queue in this blog, but now it’s time to get back to the reviews. Two plays have been on recently about outsiders – one story about someone different through choice, and another about two people different through no choice of their own. Let’s get to it.

The Shy Manifesto

The Shy ManifestoMeet Callum. He’s going to tell you all about the virtues of being shy. When I decided to see this play, I assumed the message was going to be that not all men sing rugby songs, go body building and shout “wahey” at copies of Nuts magazine and that’s okay. Callum (Theo Ancient), however, goes further than that. If “it’s fine to be shy” is the message of the moderates, Callum belongs to the militant extremist wing. That’s not much of an exaggeration either – his only friends on social media are fellow radical shy activists from across the world, passionately reinforcing each other’s beliefs, and any lapses into extroversion are punished harshly by the group. Continue reading