Category Archives: Reviews

Rattlesnake: the enemy within

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Taking on the subject of domestic coercion, Rattlesnake says something new from an unexpected direction.

It’s been ages since I last saw them, but it’s about time I acknowledged the success of Open Clasp Theatre Company, one of the leading theatre companies writing stories by women about women. That scores no bonus points here though – my sole interest is whether their stories are any good, where there’s good reasons to think so. I never managed to catch the smash hit Key Change, but I did see The Space Between Us four years ago, and whilst some bits of the story didn’t make sense, the thing that really impressed me was the characterisation: four outsiders (three immigrants and one traveller) depicted incredibly convincingly based on painstaking work interviewing real women. Now, in a co-production with Live Theatre, they take on the subject of domestic abuse, but not domestic violence, as is portrayed so often, but coercive control.

The distinction between violence and control is important. It is only recently that society has started wising up to the psychological element of domestic abuse. It’s easy to say “Why don’t you just leave your partner?”, and yes, for anyone in a sound state of mind that’s an easy thing to say, but that’s precisely the tactic of the abusers: to use fear, humiliation or any other tactics to make the victim see staying as the less bad option. Even if staying means putting up with more violence. But here, there’s no violence, just the mind games, and that can also be devastating. The law started to catch up in 2015 when coercive control was made a crime. Continue reading

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Don’t Go Outside: the unknown enemy

Not the most original plot, but Don’t Go Outside consolidates Twenty Seven Productions’ status as Newcastle leaders in site-specific theatre.

Ever since Alphabetti Theatre set up in 2015, it’s provided a base for a lot of small groups in Newcastle. However, one notable exception to this rule is Twenty Seven Productions. Whilst most groups have been jostling for coveted slots in Alphabetti’s programme, Twenty Seven are making a name for themselves with site-specific pieces. They have been in the Victoria Tunnel and the Tyne Theatre, but their most successful play is surely Wytch at Newcastle Castle, the site of the 1650 witch trials that this play recreates. One year later and they are back, but this time, the castle is refuge in an apocalyptic nightmare.

Two men bring in an unconscious woman into the Great Hall. We know very little about them, and when she comes round, we don’t learn that much about her either. What we do know is that something very bad is going on outside, with shouting and helicopters and explosions being heard. Prior to the play, we catch snatches of radio broadcasts about some sort of virus leading to some sort of violence, and somehow this has escalated into an emergency and an evacuation of the city that all three missed. The castle is their latest refuge – St. James’s Park has already been blown up in the fighting. No-one can be trusted to be be let in. The good news is that one of the men, James, has taken the lead and seems to know what he’s doing to hold out and survive. The bad news is that that he turns out to be insane. Continue reading

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Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2017

Rotunda and Old Clubhouse

REVIEWS: Skip to And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet, Call Mr. Robeson, Bouncers, We Lost Elijah, The Empress and Me, Vincent River, Persuasion Transposed, Labels.

Ah well, better late than never. At least I can get this out before the registrations open for Buxton Fringe 2018. Apologies for everyone waiting for a review. Usual excuse applies over my ridiculously busy summer. I have learnt my lesson.

So, I’ll leap into reviews in a moment, but before that, a few thoughts on how the fringe went as a whole. This was the most unpredictable fringe for years, firstly due to the delayed but expected loss of Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room, and the second unexpected twisted: the arrival of the 110-seat Rotunda. In my preview of Buxton Fringe, I had a look at the changing face of the fringe, looking at who was going to which venues. The headline is that in spite of the loss of a major performing space, the fringe has grown, through a mixture of the arrival of the Rotunda, smaller non-managed venues being stretched to the limit, and the shrinkage at Underground Venues mitigated with some very tight programming. I won’t repeat the details, all that remains is a postscript of how the two major venues fared. Continue reading

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Around the World with Little Voice

SKIP TO: Around the World in 80 Days, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Apologies to everyone who’s been waiting on reviews – I have been directing a play which just went insane with its workload, and I’ve had little time for anything else. But I’ve finally got this out of the way, and I’ve manage to upgrade  sanity level up from “gibbering wreck” to “slightly less gibbering wreck”. So now’s as good a time as any to catch up, in a sort-of chronological order.

So, in early July, I caught two plays in the round as part of a round trip involving the Buxton Fringe launch, a visit to a sister and a photo stop in the Pennines. Both were high-profile shows and both are revivals, so there’s little need for me to give either constructive advice or encourage people to come along, but here’s my verdicts nonetheless.

Around the World in 80 Days

img_6331-1170x780Jules Verne’s famous circumnavigation-themed novel is a tough to to adapt faithfully. So detailed is the story that it’s next to impossible to capture the train-by-train-by-boat-by-train-by-elephant etc. epic in that level of detail. In fact, one of the biggest oddities is that some people consider the most accurate adaptation to be the 1980s children’s series Around the World with Willy Fogg. Even though all the characters are animals and they introduced extra characters such as the sneaky master of disguise wolf Transfer who tries and fails to sabotage the journey every episode, the 26-episode format meant the whole journey could be captured very faithfully. But this is theatre, where you have two and a bit hours, trains and boats on stage are not an option, and getting a lion to play Mr. Fogg is unworkable for several reasons. Continue reading

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Edinburgh Fringe 2017 – as it happens

REVIEWS: Skip to: Richard Carpenter is Close to You, La Vie Dans Une Marionette, The Friday Night Effect, Victim, Love+, Cockroached, Lists for the End of the World, Replay, Was it Good for You?, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Izzy’s Manifestoes, Penthouse, Just Don’t Do It, You, Me and Everything Else, Boris and Sergey, Goblin Market, One-Man Apocalypse Now, Mimi’s Suitcase, No Miracles Here, The City, BlackCatfishMusketeer

Thursday 31st August: And that’s all folks. It’s the end of my coverage for yet another fringe, and with it all coverage of festivals for 2017. Coverage of festival fringes will resume in April 2018 when I look ahead to Brighton Fringe, or if you can’t wait for that, the Vault Festival some time between February and March.

I’m not quite done on the Fringepig fallout, because there have still been developments since I last wrote about this, but I’m getting too  bored of this to sum this all up right at this moment. But I will. Oh yes.

So attention now turns back to local theatre, especially local grass-roots theatre, which makes it very good timing for the new Alphabetti Theatre to open its doors tomorrow. And my first recommendation there is Overdue which I first saw at a scratch night last year and looked very promising. It runs on the 5th-16th September. But for the majority of my readership who aren’t based in the north-east, goodbye see you at the next festival.

Wednesday 30th August: Before we go, there’s news on the ticket sales at the Edinburgh Fringe. The headline figure is an increase of 9% from 2016. As always, the most important number to compare this to is the growth in registrations, which was up 3.9%. Ticket sale growth higher than registration growth, the conventional wisdom suggests, will help drive further growth next year, as revenue per act increases, at least in theory. Richard Stamp of Fringeguru reports that this works out as an increase from 62.8 tickets per performance to 64.4 tickets per performance (subject to some caveats for how this was calculated.)

Of course, the mean average doesn’t tell the whole story. 64.4 is more than the capacity of most fringe spaces – this figure is only possible because of some huge spaces with hundreds of seats. So where are the extra sales going? That we don’t know. It is possible that it’s a top-heavy increase where the sole beneficiaries of the increases and the biggest acts in the biggest venues – if that was the case, the 9% increase would be useless to most acts thinking of coming. Or it could be a bottom-heavy increase. Without knowing more information about sales, we don’t know. Go on Edfringe. Give us some more numbers to crunch. You know you want to.

Whatever the details, however, it’s a considerably better year from Edinburgh Fringe than that last one. In 2016, it just about became a possibility that Brighton might catch up if the trends that year continues. This year, however, it now looks like Edinburgh’s place at the top of the pile is safe indefinitely.

Tuesday 29th August: Enough waiting. Let’s get to it. I have listed everything I’ve seen. It was a list with a high standard so I’ve had to get choosy, but here it is:

Pick of the Fringe:

BlackCatfishMusketeer
No Miracles Here
Mimi’s Suitcase
The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Izzy’s Manifestoes
Replay
Cockroached
The Friday Night Effect
Richard Carpenter is Close to You
(Call Mr. Robeson)

Honourable Mention:

One-Man Apocalypse Now
Goblin Market
Boris and Sergey
You, Me and Everything Else
Love+
Victim
La Vie Dans Une Marionette
The House
Police Cops in Space
The Wedding Reception
(Mars Actually)
(The Dark Room)
(Gratiano)
(The Empress and Me)

Plays marked in brackets are plays I’ve seen in the year before the Edinburgh Fringe, including Brighton and Buxton Fringes and the Vault Festival – this is because I don’t have time to see plays again, so this means plays I’ve seen before get a fair chance against those seen at Edinburgh for the first time.

Wow, I think this is the toughest list to pick winners ever. Keep up the good work.

Monday 28th August 10.30 p.m.: I’m so sorry. I forgot Police Cops in Space. How could I forget that?

Luckily, this is a quite straightforward one to write about. This is the natural follow-on from their smash hit of the last two years, Police Cops. For those of you yet to catch up with this, Police Cops was a parody of basically every 70s cop show ever made. It was a high-energy performance by a cast of three men with all over-acting and cheesy plot twists you’d expect of any cop show.

So the sequel is the natural choice of the other thing done to ridiculous death in the 1970s, science fiction shows. This is a fresh story rather than a sequel, but the plot structure is basically the same – a rookie Space Police Cop lives in hiding after his father was killed fighting an evil megalomaniac Cyborg on a quest to kill all the Police Cops in the galaxy. When his father’s partner is killed, he has to team up with a mismatched buddy who pilots him back to earth for the showdown. You get the idea.

The play is very more more of the same, and that’s the only thing it could have been. Having been so successful in the last two years, this is the format everyone has come to expect. And yet, there was something about this that didn’t feel quite right; it’s hard to put my finger on it, but I do feel this has become a victim of its own success and is mugging it to the audience for laughs. I was expecting to see a lot more satirising of the ridiculous science depicted in the 70s, but instead it felt like more attention was given to building on in-jokes from the last show.

That’s not a bit complaint – if you take this show for what it is, which is a fun performance lightly satirising naff TV shows from years gone by, you won’t be disappointed. And they’ve built up a big following very quickly so they have a bright future doing pretty much any parody they want. They just need to be careful they don’t end up as parodies of themselves.

Okay, pick of the fringe will have to wait until tomorrow. Sorry.

Monday 28th August 3.00 p.m.: Last day of the fringe, and also decision time for me. What goes into the Pick of the Fringe? With so many good shows to choose from, I may have to be choosy.

Before then, however, the sportmanship award, which totally isn’t something I’ve made up on the spot, okay, it is. But I think it’s good to recognise good fringe behaviour other than putting on a good play. So I’ll give this to Broadway Baby for the Barstar of the Day. Every day they’ve been posting on Twitter someone working the bar for, I presume, giving good service. That’s not to play down the hard work done by performers who take huge risks, but the rewards are great if everything goes to plan. For many other people at the fringe, however, there’s a lot of hard work with no chance of recognition at the end of it. Broadway Baby’s picks is probably only a fraction of the people out there working hard to make the fringe better for performers and audiences alike, and the list goes way beyond bar staff, but this is an important reminder that there’s more people who go into making a fringe than the people on stage. Thank you Broadway Baby.

On a similar note, I think The Space has gone in the right direction this year. I’ve previously criticised The Space for looking little more like soulless hotel conference rooms (unlike Sweet Venues who do a much better job of making themselves look more like fringe venues you’d want to hang out in). Of course, it’s only fair to acknowledge that The Space can only be as good as their host buildings allow. But there’s been a big improvement in their Niddry Street space. Previously one of their least welcoming venues, where there was little to do but hang around outside until the play starts, now they’ve put an outdoor bar there which is a much cheerier place to wait.

This, obviously, does not make the plays hosted by The Space any better. Fairly or unfairly, The Space does have a reputation of being the last choice for acts, meaning that The Space ends up getting a lot of acts who aren’t ready for Edinburgh. But who knows, maybe if they do a good job of giving themselves the feel other venues manage, maybe more acts will want to come there. Who knows? But it’s a step in the right direction no matter what.

There’s one other thing I was to report on, wearily. Following my coverage of Fringepig’s reviewer-review of Paul Whitelaw, he responded. You can find his response in my update to the original entry below (update to 26th August, 3.30 p.m.), which was a reasonable response, and in line with my policy of allowing the respondent the last word, I intended to say nothing more about it. But it’s escalated into a Twitter row between him and Fringepig itself, culminating in this particularly classy response:

Tweets: " I got it immediately, you cowardly arsewits. Some hard-earned advice: learn how to write before you criticise other writers" "Basically, just fuck off entirely you dismal shower of nasty, incompetent amateurs."

Casting aside the rights and wrongs of the original criticisms for a moment, this I’d say is a pretty ill-advised response. Fringepig doesn’t exactly have a good reputation for polite criticism itself, but nothing I have read comes across as nasty as that. But even if they are as rude, tough luck. We have different expectations. Fringepig might frequently be crass, but they never sought to be viewed as anything else. The Scotsman does, however, and if they want to keep their reputation as the ultimate arbiter of artistic merit (and there is some evidence their verdicts have way more impact that other reviewers), they can’t expect to get away with responses like this which comes across as “Do you know who I am?”

Come on Scotsman, you can do better than this.

Sunday 27th August: And finally we reach the last play to review, which is Ridiculusmus with Give Me Your Love. Just like many of their other plays, this covers mental illness, but whilst most plays seek to clearly spell out what it’s like in a way understandable to outsiders, Ridiculusmus looks at a far more confusing world as it might be seen by seen on the inside. It is arguably impossible to describe what it’s like to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to someone else; instead Ridiculusmus relies heavily on metaphors. In this, Zach spends the entire play in a box in a room that looks like a cell. In reality, neither the box nor a room of that kind are really there – reality, it would seem, is a man who won’t leave the bedroom of his house. A man who will admit he has PTSD but won’t admit he needs help, instead depending on a friend of dubious reliability to get him the pills he wants.

Ridiculusmus plays are hard to review because it’s never easy to tell if your interpretation is the intended interpretation or just of many. That caveat aside, I got the impression that the periods where Zach nearly gets out of the box, but not quite, is a parallel for a person with PTSD sometimes having better times than others getting free of the stress, but never completely escaping the metaphorical box. It’s never enitirely clear what brought this on. First Zach describes a gory end to a lad shot dead next to him, then he says that’s a lie an he was really never deployed, but perhaps that’s a lie too and Zach simply isn’t ready to talk about what really happened.

It’s fair to say that Ridiculusmus’s plays are very much an acquired taste, and the only way you can really know if their plays are for you is to see on and find out. But the unique format they pioneered with The Eradication of Schizophrenia is Western Lapland has been kept going, and if you liked that you won’t be disappointed with this.

So that’s it. With the exception of a few shows not reviewed due to conflict of interest, that’s everything covered. Tomorrow is the moment of truth, when I decide on a pick of the fringe. I honestly haven’t decided yet. Tomorrow will he interesting.

Saturday 26th August, 11.00 p.m.: Phew, nearly there. Penultimate review is another lucky dip – something I’d never heard of with no consideration other than being shown at the right place and time. This is Nikola and His Time Travelling Lux Concordia. One of the most individual titles in the fringe, and one of the most individual shows to. With a big nod to steampunk style, our hero Nikola travels through time with one of the one striking staging effects I’d seen at the fringe, with sound, lasers and lighting creating a great psychedelic experience.

Nikola has come from the future to give some reassurance about what to come. Things might look bad now, but Nikola promises that this is actually just the turning point, and the political turmoil in the world is exposing everything that’s wrong with the system so it can be fixed. So far, so good for the concept. So far, so good for the concept. But beyond that, I can’t say much more about the plot because the talk goes into mind-boggling complexity. The play is self-described as “psychedelic trip meets TED talk”, but TED talks about abstract philosophical concepts of today are hard enough to follow. This is abstract philosophical concepts of a ficticious and hypothetical future, which I’m sure would make sense when the timeline of this story and the surrounding ficticious science breakthroughs are fully known, but the chance of any audience member follow this in a 1-hour play seems slim.

The strongest part of this Gedi Production’s play was a moment from Nikola’s past, in the 1940s, researching a secret weapon to win the war against Germany, where he loses sight of humanity and puts lives of loyal men in danger in the name of progress. That is the plo thread I kept wanting to get back to, and that has the most to offer. On the whole, however, I get the impression that this is a play that wants to say a lot, but tries to cram too much into single play. So I would concentrate of what’s the most important thing to say and keep experimenting with what the audience picks up. This play is one of the most memorable ones it terms of staging a style – give this a memorable message to take home and that will serve this play the best.

Saturday 26th August 3.30 p.m.: In the last few days, fringepig reviewer-reviews have sprung back into life. Surprisingly, most of the reviewer-reviews have been positive this time round, with the worst ones only mildly critical. However, there is one high-profile exception to this, and that is Paul Whitelaw from The Scotsman, for writing one-star reviews of comedians described as little more than character assassinations. This started a bit of a dogpile, which suggests that he’s acquired a lot of notoriety amongst comedians. I wouldn’t normally join in this kind of dogpiling, because, much as I have problems with how some reviewers behave, most reviewers are little fish just like most performers are, and they don’t deserve to be kicked when they’re down. But with The Scotsman still happy to be seen as the ultimate arbiter of what’s good fringe, this needs to be talked about.

Have to say, the more I’ve become familiar with The Scotsman‘s reviews, the less convinced I’ve become that they deserve the status they have at the fringe. Frequently their verdict is completely out of line will all other reviews for a play. Sure everyone’s entitle to their own opinion and you review isn’t “wrong” just because you’re in the minority, but if you want your review to be considered more authoritative than the others you do at least need an argument explain what everyone else is getting wrong. They never do. Okay, it doesn’t help that they stick to short-form reviews to fit in a physical newspaper page, because it’s tough enough to explain what’s good or bad about a play in 75 words, but frankly that’s the least of the problems with short-form reviews.

A more serious gripe I’m developing with The Scotsman is their tendency to review shows that don’t stand a realistic chance of a good review. Normally I welcome review publications giving unknowns a chance, but when you have a strict marking scheme that would put most entry-level acts into 2*, and your reviews are too short to say anything useful to the acts concerned, who are you helping? But for Paul Whitelaw – and I have checked the offending reviews myself before repeating what Fringepig said – he is writing an awful lot of 1* reviews which are little more than hit pieces with no substance.

There is one more serious allegation that Fringepig is making: that the majority of this hit-pieces are directed at women. I’m holding off judgement on this one until I can analyse this further. As you know, discrimination is one thing that’s on my ban list, but short of blatant insults of someone’s gender – which I haven’t found – this is a bugger to prove. At the moment, a 4* review of Bec Hill is his strongest defence, but I intend to study this further. If I find evidence of bias, he goes on the ban list. If not, he’ll probably escape a ban. But getting off the hook for being equally shitty to male and female comedians is only a weak exoneration.

Anyway, let’s now change the subject and go from the villain of the hour to the lion of the hour. One group that can safely laugh in the face of Paul Whitelaw, and indeed anyone thinking of writing a bad review, is Bite-Size with their Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show. They have sold out virtually every breakfast show, sometimes even booked ahead days in advance. So I won’t spend too long on them as they don’t need much more publicity, but I have one last play to highlight which is Rebrand, by Aileen Quinn and James Quinn, a biting satire of PR management in politics. A marketing firm is taking on a contract from Boris Johnson to rebrand war to make it cool again. The solution? Make it more like the Olympic spirit, when it cool to get patriotic about your country. The funniest thing about the play was the complete absence of any morals or priciples, as the same firm is also running highly lucrative accounts for Jeremy Corbyn and Vladamir Putin, as well as once running the campaign to sell the Iraq war – the only concern is that the message from one campaign knock on another. I’d say thank goodness it’s only a story, but part of me can’t help worrying what this is based on.

The thing that’s proving a harder nut to crack the Bite-Size Best Bites Lunch Hour. All of the plays here are more of their greatest hits from the last decade: most I’ve seen several times before, but I’m glad that Match Point has made a re-appearance: an exaggerated showdown on Court 12 of Wimbledon where a washed-up pro on her way down the world rankings faces a cocky teenager from Belarus. The two hate each other; add in a horny ball-boy who’s in love with the Belarussian beauty and a disillusioned umpire who’s prepared to award the match to whichever one suits his self-interest better, and it’s a piece I’m so happy to see again. So this is easily the strongest set with the most going for it, and yet the audience figures seem tepid (usual caveat: I can only go on the numbers of the one I was at). One would have thought that with the breakfast shows selling out so throughly, the lunch hour would start taking the overspill, but the audience seems stubbornly wedded to the breakfast spot. Old habits die hard, it would seem.

Phew. I think it’s two to go, then I can decide on my Pick of the Fringe, which will include shows seen at Vault, Brighton and Buxton that went to Edinburgh. And I haven’t decided yet. This is exciting.

UPDATE: Paul Whitelaw picked up on this and made the following responses on Twitter.

I gave one-star reviews to shows I utterly disliked. That’s all there is to it. I love comedy. I hate seeing it done badly … Nevertheless, I think I just about managed to describe why I didn’t enjoy those acts. If I didn’t, then I apologise … I’ve done this for a living for 20 years. It’s all I have. I’m quite good at it. This mini campaign to discredit me is awful.

There were also further responses to Fringepig itself, where things suddenly esclated quite unexpectedly. In line with my long-standing policy on right to reply, I allow the respondent the right to have the last word, so that is where I leave it.

Friday 25th August: Since it’s Friday Night, this looks like a good time to say a bit more about The Friday Night Effect. As a reminder from earlier, if you are still in Edinburgh and planning to see this, stop reading now. This is best seen with no knowledge of what to expect. Everyone else, read on.

The latest play from Eve O’Connor and her theatre company Sunday’s Child Theatre, this follows a night out in Dublin for a Jamie, Sive and Collette. Some decisions will have to be made on the night, and the stakes her high, because, we are told, Collette could be dead by the end of it. Nights out in Dublin have a certain notoriety, and an early encounter in a nightclub where a scumbag bouncer uses a drug bust an an excuse to commit sexual assault under the guise of a search. But that is a red herring. The real danger is closer to home. All three women have ill-advised choices in men for various reasons, and all of these choices will come back to haunt them tonight, but there is no worse pick than Collette’s man, Brian. At first, he comes across as a bit of a cock, but that is just a front. The real Brian is far far worse.

To drop in a spoiler (well, I did warn you): you can’t win. Whatever choices you make, nothing can save Collette. That might seem bleak, but it’s a bleakness with some truth. Brian’s domination of Collette is so far down the line that the grim inevitability is the only thing that fits, with the outcome of one path as bad as the other. The choices are very cleverly delivered in the play. The first choice is a mundane decision to stay in or go out, then the stakes start getting higher. In the end, however, only the last choice matters – it might not save Collette, but it’s still a tough call. In fact, all six questions in the play are finely balanced, with all of them splitting the audience quite evenly each time a choice had to be made.

If there is one flaw in the play, I felt the character of Brian was a bit too one-dimensional. I’m not saying Eve O’Connor should have written in a nice side to him – he probably has no redeeming features at all – but we could have seen what appears to be a nice side, however fake, because that is presumably what Collette mistakenly fell for. If this means losing character development elsewhere, I would have scaled down Jamie and Sive’s men – whilst their existence is essential to the plot, I’m not convinced it was worth going into that level of detail. But what the play does best, it does excellently, with some difficult moral questions put in the way that only an interactive play of this can.

Thursday 24th August: Phew. Getting there. One belated review now, going all the way back to week one. Apologies for taking my time with this, but I’ve been prioritising straight theatre over comedy for most of my coverage. But have allowed myself a digression into character comedy last year with Jane Postlethwaite’s Made In Cumbria and liking what I saw, I was keen to see what she’d do in her follow-up, The House.

Short answer is that if you liked her last show you’ll like this one, which broadly follows the same format. This time, we are visiting a house on an island somewhere in the Lake District. All of the Cumbrian delights are round there – gardens, gift show, the historic Brownie Guide Burial ground – I did say her show had a surrealistic air. Again, she plays many different women, including a return of the falconer from last year (“This bird of prey is solitary – that makes two of us) who is now brushing a suspiciously high death rate of falcons. Upstairs is a woman with her podcast “Murder in the toy room”, only marginally less pointless that the average podcast. My favourite character, however, was the resident children’s author who hates children. She doesn’t even attempt to disguise it, scowling as she tells us that her publisher told her to say she delights in bring smiles to their faces. (“How many children do you have? … I’m sorry? … No, I’m just sorry.”)

I do have mixed feelings about the overall format though. On the one hand, Made In Cumbria with its deception of sleepy village life even when there’s mayhem, murder and nuclear meltdowns all around them, but I couldn’t pin a similar recognisable overall theme to this. On the other hand, The House is the more original piece – Made In Cumbria ended up a little derivative of Hot Fuzz or The League of Gentlemen, but this felt more its own thing. It’s a tough balance.

Nevertheless, it was a bit disappointing that this doesn’t seem to have got much attention from reviewers; having got this far, she deserved better than a visit from just one publication. She is carving out a style of character comedy that’s her own, and it’s something to keep looking out for. I can’t decide whether the next move should be to stay in Postlethwaite’s world of sinister-sweet Cumbria or move to to a new world, but I certainly intend to keep an eye on her yet.

Coming soon to Jane Postelthwaite coming. We hope.

UPDATE: Jane Postelthwaite says her next show will be set in the circus. That seems like a good bet, but I will be very disappointed if the clowns aren’t murderers. Everyone knows clowns go round murdering people, ever since they lost business to TV comedians (“I we can’t make them laugh, no-one will!”) Look forward to finding this out.

Wednesday 23rd August: Now for a new experience. I was invited to review The Wedding Reception. Billed as an “interactive dining” experience, I am obliged to tell you that I got a freebie of a three-course meal out of this. Interactive Theatre International are running this show along with Faulty Towers, their biggest long-running success. (I was in fact invited to either or both of these plays, but I chose The Wedding Reception because I was more interested in seeing an original play than a re-enactment of an existing comedy.)

I did wonder what they’d do with this. By far the biggest selling point of this show is the meal rather than the play; as such, there’s always the niggling worry that they don’t try to produce a decent play because they don’t have to – or, worse, throw characterisation and believability out of the window and just have a checklist of contrived jokes. Fortunately, they don’t go for the easy but lazy solution, and the characters are kept believable. With a cast of four playing eight parts between them, we have excitable Kate and mild-mannered Will who have just tied the knot at what they thought was a low-key ceremony, but Lynne’s boisterous parents have arranged a surprise reception from their side of the family. It’s a bit odd that no-one from Will’s side was invited (apart from his irresponsible best man), and odder still that Will is more concerned over his family turning up. But we’ll find out why when the unexpected guests turn up in due course.

The interactive element is managed well. Before we even began, we fictitious wedding guests found ourselves mixed up with guests from the two real weddings that were going on in the hotel at the time passing back and forth – they just added this to the comedy.  All the characters go to various tables during the food, and all of them are people you can easily relate to from real weddings. On our table, there were a couple of girls with the Taiwan season who basically got a crash course in English weddings. One unexpected bonus of the evening was that it got complete strangers on the table talking to each other, something few plays get to do.

It’s fair to say the event’s main selling point is the format rather than the actual play. If this play was done without the meal or interaction, it would do okay but it would be nothing special. And whilst the play does, thank goodness, avoid the sin of arbitrarily changing characters’ personalities to meet the requirements of the next gag, it did stretch plausibility when Kate dropped Will’s mobile phone in a glass of water, only for this incident to be forgotten 15 minutes later. But provided you take this play for what it is – a fun undemanding piece of theatre whilst you have a meal which makes the most of the interactive element – it does it’s job very well. These tickets don’t come cheap – the meal has to be paid for somehow – but it you want a meal out during your fringe but still want your fix of theatre, this could be the thing for you.

Tuesday 22nd August, 9.45 p.m.: Okay, back to reviews. Next up is Richard Carpenter’s Close To You, which I’d heard quite a lot of good things about in Buxton so wanted to see for myself. First thing to get out of the way is that this is not a tribute act as such. For one thing, Richard Carpenter reminds us at the start that you can get round copyright law by exaggerating a character, changing lyrics to songs and making a few tiny changes to the tune that you probably won’t notice anyway, then you can call it parody. Ever heard of the classic song Stormy Days and Thursdays? You have now.

But after an opening 10 minutes when Matthew Floyd Jones plays just about every known instrument (very well, as it happens, including his Yamalka piano), we get into the story, as Richard Carpenter goes from one degrading store opening to another, all using the memory of Karen in increasingly inappropriate ways, such as putting a fake handprint of Karen into the concrete of a new cinema. Meanwhile, Richard gets on the phone to his agent who’s not interested in him any more. Hope rise when a journalist going by the name of Sayton (not to be confused with the other guy whose name is pronounced the same but spelt differently) interviews him for an article he’s writing. Will this turn his fortunes around?

There is one avoidable issue with this play, and that’s the confused timeline. I found myself spending a lot of the play trying to work out whether Matthew is meant to be playing Richard Carpenter himself or just some washed-up tribute act pretending to be him. (It’s the former.) The changed lyrics, funny though they were, confused matters quite a bit – why would Richard Carpenter not be able to sing his own songs – but I accept that was unavoidable. But I think it was needless to throw in so many references to the modern day when the real Richard Carpenter is now 70. Pinning the setting to the 1980s after Karen’s death, I feel, would have avoided this confusion.

But apart from that, this play has a lot to go for it. As well as the musical talent on offer, the play is very funny with many serious message conveyed in the satire. The real Richard Carpenter was often thoughtlessly described as “the piano player from The Carpenters”. That features heavily in the story, as well has hypocritical beatification of deceased celebrities, the obsession society has with stars whilst ignoring the talents of the many who got them where they were, the depths the gutter press sinks to, and the hypocrisy of the people who try to make entertainment out of gutter press victims. So no, Richard Carpenter is Close to You is the last thing you’d call a tribute act – but it’s arguably a better tribute to Richard Carpenter than any tribute act could manage.

Tuesday 22nd August, 7.00 p.m.: Now a digression from reviewing with a brief controversy break. One of the things that has been getting attention from the fringe media are these Bechdel Test stickers. There’s coverage on FringeReview, along with a collection of other stories, but prior to the fringe it was being suggested you might see these stickers all over the place. As I understand it, it was a group Bechdel Theatre issuing these stickers rather than the performers of Bechdel-passing plays – I’m not sure whether they asked the performers concerned if they wanted this label. If they did, and the performers agreed, then I have no objections – performers have the right to promote themselves any way they like. However – and I say this is someone who supports what the Bechdel test is meant to achieve – I think it’s a bad idea. Here’s why.

For films, the Bechdel Test is generally quite good, provided you use some common sense. You can read my thoughts here on its strengths and weaknesses, but it does hit the nail on the head of what the problems is: that in films, Hollywood films in particular, there’s a tendency for women to only get roles of someone’s mother, sister, daughter or – most commonly – love interest. There is some evidence that it’s an issue in theatre too. I’ve always found my local theatres to be quite even-handed with male and female characters, but I get the impression that it’s a different matter in commercial theatre in London (the Arts Council can’t insist on diversity if it’s not funding you and has nothing to bargain with) and I can see the Bechdel Test making reasonable sense there too. However, fringe theatre is a different matter completely. I can see two big problems with this.

Firstly, this excludes lots of plays with good female roles. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for films with great female leads to fail the Bechdel test, but in fringe theatre, where casts are usually small and there’s fewer chances for any kind of female-female conversation, suddenly lots of plays Alison Bechdel would approve of fail, including over half the plays I’ve reviewed here with strong female leads. Daftest of all is that this blanket excludes all female solo plays. To be fair, Bechdel Theatre have attempted to mitigate this with “Bechdel-friendly solo shows”, but that still excludes masses of fantastic female solo shows out there. A minor limitation in film becomes a massive problem at the fringe.

The other issue is more serious, in that this focus on Edinburgh addresses a problem that isn’t there. I’ll happily change my mind if someone’s done some more comprehensive research, but I can tell you from the analysis of my own reviews – where I make no attempt to balance any demographics of artists and simply go for whatever takes my fancy – that male-led and female-led plays is a pretty even split. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, because actors generally have far more power over which parts they play in the fringe than in fully professional theatres where other people control the purse-strings. So if there’s nothing unusual about female-led plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, and given that the Bechdel Test makes no comment on the the quality of the play, it seems – someone please correct me if I’m missing something here – that the Bechdel Test reduces to a participation prize. Now, I can’t speak for any women here, but if it was me, I would find this condescending: the idea that, never mind if the play’s any good, the fact that I’m a woman taking part is an achievement in its own right.

What is most frustrating about this is that there are better ways of analysing the issue of female representation in theatre, developed by women, that have been forgotten. Sphinx Theatre came up with the Sphinx Test the same time Bechdel Theatre got started. Okay, the Sphinx Test has the disadvantage that it’s subjective and open to far more interpretation that Bechdel, but it does actually get to grips with the issue of whether the female characters are good ones, not simply whether two of them talk to each other on something other than men. But with Bechdel seeming to be treated with such reverence, nothing else seems to be getting a look-in.

But, hey, whatever. It’s really not my business to tell other performers how to promote their shows. What I can say, however, is that if someone did a similar test for actors on the autistic spectrum – and there definitely is under-representation if you include the entire spectrum – that is the last thing I’d want on my posters. I want consider myself judged on equal terms with my peers, and that’s not going to happen with stickers coming across as “Fuck, it’s amazing, the disableds can put on plays! Like, in proper theatre!” In fact, you can hold me to this. If someone promotes me as “autism representation”, I don’t want it. If I’m offered a slot in someone’s programme because of my condition, count me out. If I take up an offer and find out later it was only because someone wanted to make their diversity stats look better, I will quit. That’s just me though. Rest of you can please yourselves.

Okay, rant over. Let’s get back to reviews.

Monday 21st August: Phew. 32 plays in 8 days and that’s my lot done. But don’t go away, because I’ve still got more reviews to catch up on, such as La Vie Dans Une Marionette.

This is a charming little piece from the family section of the programme. As we enter, we are greeted by a woman who says we are all beautiful in an accent that is supposed to be French. Well, more like an absurdly fictitious French accent, but that’s okay, because the fact they’re really from New Zealand is a running joke throughout. In fact, the entire thing parodies the classic black and white movies of France – the only thing that was missing was “Fin” at the end. After she give her run-through of ‘ow to be a good audience or bad audience, we go into the story, where our silent hero gets a delivery of a life-size marionette. From what we can tell he’s a lonely man, left by his one true love when younger, and this puppet is his only friend to him.

I’ll get the problem out of the way: it’s tough to get what’s going on here. This wouldn’t normally be such an issue, but this show is aimed at children 7 or above, and I can see little chance of kids that young to follow this. Okay, silent plays aren’t the easiest things to explain, but in this play we establish that the man and his marionette are silent but the moon that comes up every night can talk. I would have given the moon a much stronger role as a narrator – she says “You are all beautiful” quite a lot, but it was a missed opportunity to make the play easier to understand.

However, it is a strange delight to explain to punters that this play the man and the puppet can’t speak but the moon can. The puppetry effect of pulling hidden strings was done very well, and the music used for the dance sequences was gorgeous. This is more experimental that I’d normally recommend for a family show, but given time I think we can see a lovely and accessible family-friendly show come from this. In the meantime, you can enjoy this for what it is.

Sunday 20th August, 10.15 p.m.: One more review before I call it a night, and that’s Victim from Bruised Sky productions. This play is a sort-of follow-on from a previous play Villain, about public vilification, but don’t worry if you haven’t seen that play, because this one is a good stand-alone play in its own right.

Louise Bereford plays Tracy, a prison officer wanting to do the right thing, but pressure at home from a sick father and useless husband are taking their toll. Louise Bereford also plays Siobhan, a long-time inmate happy to be on the inside after doing away with an abusive partner, now building a status for herself on the inside as the prison fixer, especially with smuggled mobile phones where she always stay one step ahead. But Siobahn isn’t the most notorious inmate – that is a new prisoner who stood by and allowed her baby to be ritualistically murdered by her partner.

Bereford does a slick job switching between down-to-earth Tracy and confident but intimidating Tracy. It does take a couple of scenes to establish she’s switching between the two, and there maybe an avoidable bit of confusion at the beginning (when Siobahn talks about a treat her late parter was planning for his new woman, followed immediately by Tracy talking about a treat from her husband), but that was only a small issue. Most of the time, it’s a well-written script from Martin Murphy of power games that Siobahn masters. But there are no unambiguously good or evil characters here: Tracy has integrity but also her weakness; Siobahn is ruthless but sometimes understands the personal demons of other inmates, even if she’s working a plan to her advantage.

It’s hard to know how this compares to Villain without having seen it – I gather that play did very well – but Victim is a good play that give a lot of insight into the murky world of prison fixing, explaining how even decent people can get sucked into these schemes. Whether or not you know the original, this is well worth a visit.

Sunday 20th August, 6.15 p.m.: Grr. Was supposed to do a review of another play on the train home, but Virgin Trains East Coast’s wi-fi provider has other ideas.

So in the short amount of time I have, I don’t have time to write a full review, but that’s okay, because I’m going to recommend The Friday Night Effect. I will say why later, but honestly, this is a play that is best seen cold, with no clues given by anyone else on what to expect.

Will try to get another review out later because I’ve still got a lot of catching up to do.

Sunday 20th August, 12 noon: Phew. That was a big day yesterday. A six-show day, including a late-night Boris and Sergey that finished at 2.30 a.m. I’m really too old to be staying out that late, but I have to do it occasionally to prove the point that I can do it if I want to.

Anyway, let’s get on with the snap reviews before the backlog gets any bigger. It’s back to Malaprop Theatre; I originally scheduled myself to review one of their plays, but after BlackCatfishMusketeer impressed me last week, they’ve earned themselves a bonus review. And so I saw LOVE+. The other play may have been a love story facilitated by technology, but the story was very much grounded in reality. This one, however, goes into a more fictitious future where a woman falls in love with a robot.

This is a cleverly-written script here, from someone who understand how computers think. The woman as a bot, who is both a housekeeper and companion. Unlike a human, bot never tires of work and also understands everything the woman wants. Not through empathy as a human would understand it, but more like the way social media does it. We never know much about the woman’s life outside this relationship, but we can guess that she finds human-human relationships too complicated. But the question this play raises is a strange paradox: is someone who has everything you ever wanted really what you want? No matter how well bot adjusts herself to the woman’s desires, there’s no getting round the fact that she’s doing that because that’s what she’s programmed to do. And bot’s biggest strength of knowing someone so well is also her biggest weakness – human being just don’t like being predicted this accurately.

There is only one thing about this play that I didn’t like, and that was the breaking of the fourth wall towards the end of the play. Breaking the fourth wall can be necessary if you need to make a point that can’t be told in the play, but this comes at the expense of disrupting the story you’re telling. In this case, I didn’t think this was necessary – the questions about whether a robot can feel love in the same way a robot can feel temperature was a good one, but this could easily have been worked into the script. They don’t need to break the fourth wall – the play is easily capable of saying everything it needs without.

Apart from that niggle, LOVE+ is a really interesting that complements their other play well to take todays love/technology mix to the next level. And I really liked the way Brefinni Holohan played Bot, with an understated but perfect mix of methodical robot movements and human-ish warmth. Summerhall’s best specialty, I’ve always thought, are plays that mix art and science, and Malaprop’s double-bill couldn’t have been a better choice. More like this please.

Saturday 19th August, 5.30 p.m.: Big moment. The second Ike Award of the fringe has been given. And it goes to pretty much the last play I’d expect to get this. I have given a fair few positive write-ups of some plays with little or nothing I found at fault, but they’ve stayed within tried and tested formats. That’s not enough for my equivalent to a five-star review. For this, there has to be little or nothing I have to fault and it needs to be something different. And the play I just saw that fits the bill is Cockroached.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

At first glance, this appears to be yet another zombie apocalypse story. I’ve nothing against zombie stories as such, just that this is surely the most done to death trope ever. But that’s not what this story is about. Instead, this is a tense tale of power and mind games. Taylor arrives back at his place, a fancy dress shop where he’s holding out against “those outside”. On a CB radio, a voice comes on asking for Max, and Taylor answers. On the radio is another survivor. She won’t give her name and she’s guarded over where she is. But who is she really? And who is Taylor really?

When the entire play involves one person talking to a CB radio, you’d be hard pressed to do without making the play look static. But Theatre63 rises to the challenge, and the combination of Ruby Etches’s directing and William Proudler’s superb script means there’s never a dull moment, and Taylor and his unseen contact drifting between distrustful co-operation and psychological warfare. On top of the, Proudler also manages to provide a perfect musical score for this apocalyptic world. Plenty of plays and films of this nature say it’s not about the zombies, it’s about the survivors, but trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this story.

For the sake of completeness, I am obliged to say that the version I saw is only shown on alternate performances; in the other performances, the two swap round so that Taylor is now a woman and the radio voice is a man. As far as I can tell, the story will work about the same the other way round. Theatre63 did draw attention to this being a non gender-specific production. I am of the opinion that it is rare you can do a straight gender-swap in a play without a loss of plausibility – normally, if you want to avoid gender imbalance or gender stereotypes, you need to think about this first before your ideas stick. Cockroached is an exception because it’s set in a world where all societal norms go out the window. But don’t see this because it’s non gender-specific. See this because it’s one of the best hidden gems in this fringe.

Saturday 19th August, 9.30 p.m.: And that, it turns out, was my only gap in all of yesterday. Currently 7 reviews in the backlog. Yeek.

Let’s get another one out the way then. I finally saw Lists for the End of the World, which has been under development in the north-east for some time and I finally took the opportunity to see it. This is a very unusual one to review because it pushes the definition of theatre to the limits, and with it pushes the rules of reviewing theatre to the limits too, but I will try. So, first thing to get out of the way is that the end of the world doesn’t actually feature anywhere in the play. Instead it’s just lists. Really, one hour of lists.

But for a concept that might seem dull, it works a lot better than you might think. FanShen theatre’s preparation for this play was literally asking people to fill in lists, from the light-hearted to the more poignant. At one point, we hear an alarmingly long list of “Places I’d hide a body”; someone, it seems, has been thinking about this too much. When it gets to lists such as “Things I’m afraid of”, we get things from people opening up and telling their thoughts they wouldn’t normally reveal.

The trouble is, for all this hard work researching people’s inner thoughts, I don’t understand the purpose of doing this as a play. There’s only so many ways you can read out a list. FanShen do put variety into this with a variety of staging and theatrical devices; some of these were appropriate, such as the dark quiet setting for “Things that keep me awake at night”, but some other devices, such as singing a list to Mambo Number Five, felt forced. I am normally the first person to bemoan unimaginative productions that don’t use opportunities for sound and lights, but here even I felt this was staging effects for the sake of it.

So here’s a suggestion I’m going throw in: do this as a book. A book just of these lists if you like, but there’s opportunities to put in fitting artwork if you so wish. The thing is, the point of lists is something you can go back and check again, and you don’t get this opportunity in a play. Once you hear something that you don’t take in, it’s gone. That’s a shame. These lists say a lot about people, and they deserve to be remembered. You can have that idea for free.

Right, where are we? Six reviews in the backlog, after three to be added by the end of today. Looks like another long day today.

Friday 18th August, 4.30 p.m.: Observant readers will notice there’s been quite a gap since my last update. This is because I’m currently in hardcore mode with five plays per day, and even this barely covers everything I need to see (both review requests and things I wanted to see anyway). I’ve got to the stage of the fringe where people say “So what are you seeing today?” and I answer “I don’t know”.

But reviews must go on, but the next one is easy because it’s Replay. Short answer: what everyone else said.

Long answer: Replay is the latest play to come under the banner of Dugout Theatre, but this time, artistically at least, it’s Dugout’s play in name only. Dugout have earned a great reputation of plays in all sorts of surrealistic settings, usually to music, from an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist in the Fens to four survivors of an apocalyptic flood on board a Swan pedalo, but this solo play written and performed by Nicola Wren has no songs and is very much down to earth. But don’t dismiss this as someone riding on Dugout’s coat-tails of success – she came into this fringe with a good reputation in her own right, and Replay was another excellent performance and play.

She plays a Police Constable very much married to her job, on a routine call on day with her well-meaning but overbearing colleague. It’s just a normal visit to support a woman whose husband killed himself the other day, and yet she feels sick and has to vomit in the street – the effect, she assumes, of the dodgy prawns she ate the night before and the old coffee in the house having limescale. Wrong. An indeterminate amount of time ago, her brother James killed himself. But that was such a long time she’s surely over it now. Then she gets birthday present in the post. An old present sent again, a happy birthday tape originally sent by James, is going to keep these memories at the surface.

“But why is the poster for the play a man with a cassette for his head?” I hear you ask. Well, no, you probably didn’t ask that. But you should. You see, this is a memory of the day when her child self went to visit the brother she adored, now at University in London. A ride on the simulator in the Trocadero and being bought an album (James, obviously) mean a lot when you’re ten. The only hint what what’s to come is her father quipping that James better not be having an off day. But clearly at some point it was never more than days.

There is no moment of revelation in the play, no plot twists, no breakthroughs, just a woman getting on with her life, with a tragedy from years ago still leaving its mark. And that is the whole point of this thoughtful and moving play. Dugout Theatre proper can take some share of the credit here her the writing and directing, but this is Nicola Wren’s moment of glory. If Dugout’s name has introduced her to a new audience that never knew her before, that can only be a good thing. Continue reading

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Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2017

People outside a cocktail bar: credit ReflectedSerendipity

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

All right, I know I’m nearly two months behind on this. No need to get so smug about it. I’m learning the hard way how much paperwork piles up when you go for a two-week holiday in May, and I’m still clearing the backlog now. But I can’t delay this forever, so let’s get a move on.

New to this roundup is the Ike Awards. I will be writing about this properly when I have a bit more time; if you want to know why I created these awards and who this Ike is, you can find that in my live coverage of the fringe (along with my instant reviews of the plays). For now, the short version is that an Ike Award can be considered equivalent to a five-star rating. It’s a bit like the Brighton Fringe Argus Angels, except they’ve good as stopped reviewing the fringe this year. So, Ike has replaced the Argus Angels. So there.

Couple dancing at the bandstandThe one thing you won’t be seeing in this roundup is a list of stories about the fringe as a whole like last time. Last year was a very significant year for the Brighton Fringe, mostly down to the appearance of Sweet Venues, a second supervenue to complement The Warren, and also a huge rise in registrations, partly but not entirely driven by the appearance of this new venue. This year, however, it’s been much more of a “no change” festival. There was another rise in registrations: not a huge one, but enough to suggest last year’s surge isn’t going to recede. Sweet and Warren largely stayed as they are. The only notable difference was the absence of Republic, a large Spiegeltent-style venue on the beach, which I can only suppose couldn’t compete against Spiegeltent proper. The most interesting news that surfaced during the fringe was pop-up venue “Shiny Town” being cancelled after being refused planning permission – at first, it seemed odd that a venue would commit to being in the fringe before they had the go-ahead, but apparently this ran into all sorts of red tape and I’ve drawn a blank over who was at fault. Continue reading

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Beyond not just the end of the road

Production shot of dance scene

In a region that rarely looks beyond Newcastle for culture, The November Club gave a shining example of what happens when you do with Beyond the End of the Road.

It’s my eternal bugbear: the mindset ingrained over much of the region’s cultural scene that the north east is Newcastle. For all the talk about cultural engagement, for years in Tees Valley and County Durham this amounted to importing all the talent from Tyne and Wear. Usually writers based in Newcastle telling stories based in Newcastle. On the rare occasions the plays were set in places beyond Tyneside, the depictions were generic north-east suburbs with only the basic nods to the local area – there was a time at the Gala where it was virtually guaranteed you’d have a reference to getting cut off by the tide at Holy Island. In recent years, things have started edging in the right direction, but still the most depressing thing is the numberpeople in the north-east who complain, quite rightly, about nationwide funding and attention favouring London at the expense of the rest of the country. It’s depressing because the same people seem fully aware that exactly the same thing is happening between Newcastle and the north-east – and don’t appear to have a problem with it.

But amongst the Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisations in the region, there is one group that won’t settle for bringing in everything from Newcastle, and that’s Northumberland-based The November Club. Beyond the End of the Road is set in rural Northumberland in a town known as “place”. Far from treating this village as another Tyneside suburb, this place is distinct from the distant city not only by the surrounding countryside but by its isolation. A bypassing is being built around the place (yes, this play on words is a common theme here), and in charge is a someone apparently part workman, part narrator and part oracle, seeming to everyone’s backstories. Coming to the place are two outsiders, one seeking refuge from an unhappy marriage with a sister she barely knows, another come to give his brother advice on how to run his farm, unsolicited but very badly needed. Continue reading

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