Chris Neville-Smith’s 2021 awards

It’s the end of the year, and once more I’m not letting a diminished line-up get in the way of celebrating the best theatre that stood out for me this year. Some people are asking why you should bother with end-of-year best-of lists when it’s an achievement to have put on anything this year at all. That’s a fair enough point, and I have a lot of respect for anyone who’s managed to overcoming all the obstacles to put on any kind play – but there’s always things in any year that stood out and deserve the acclaim for that. When an outstanding play deserves to have praises shouted out from the rooftops, you do nobody any favours by handing out a participation prize instead.

In change to a previously announced arrangement (where I intended to roll over the few plays from 2020 into the 2021 awards), I’ve decided to stick with just 2021 this year. I may do some awards for a combined 2020-2021 later, but for now the same rules apply as last year. With a reduced field of competition, I’m only committing to naming winners – a second place will only be mentioned if it was a close call. This time round, I have something for most of my usual categories, but I’m leaving the odd one out when nothing fits. Disappointment of the Year remains suspended until further notice.

For the second year running, I’m including online theatre. There is a lot of ambiguity here over what can be considered online theatre and what’s just an online video. To keep it manageable, I’m currently counting content that is either a filmed version of an actual stage play, or produced by a group who normally to theatre. No decision over whether to include online in future years as yet – I’ll decide when the time comes.

Introductions completed, let’s begin how we always begin.

Best New Writing

Ofow-production-shot1ne of my highest acclamations, this if for a play whose strength lies in the script. It should be possible for another group to start afresh with the script and still produce something great. This year, there was one thing that stood out. It stands out for reasons other than the script too: I loved the way this was done as a video with the three actors in their own homes. But the clincher for Fow is a tri-lingual play. You can watching this story as an English speaker or a Welsh speaker or a sign language speaker and only pick up part of the story – but the titbits of information you get from your own language, together with visual clues from the other two stories, allows you to fill in the gaps. Alun Saunders’ regular writing (at least the bits I could understand) is also great and put together rounded characters: in English, you get the cynical and apathetic Josh who turns out to be that way for a reason. Writing that is this unconventional is a big gamble: it’s hard to pull off and ruins a play if it doesn’t work out. It’s always difficult in this situation to tell whether the writer knew what he was doing all along, or is was a risk to him too and he had know idea how it would work out. But through boldness or recklessness, Deaf and Fabulous and Taking Flight thoroughly earned the first award.

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Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

Very depleted What's On board

Skip to: Zumba Gold, Sinatra: Raw, Under Milk Wood, Shook, Northanger Abbey, Skank, Mustard, Fow, The Little Glass Slipper, Mimi’s Suitcase, Myra’s Story, The Event, Madhouse, Patricia Gets Ready, Fear of Roses, Brave Face, On Your Bike

And a final catchup of reviews before we go into the Christmas & New Year period, it’s the Edinburgh Fringe. Most of what you saw here was already in my live coverage, so all that remains here is to put this is some sort of order for posterity.

Credit where it is due. The Edinburgh Fringe held its nerve and salvaged a festival of sorts long after almost everybody had written it off for a second year running. Whilst festivals in England such as Brighton and Buxton were bouncing back, in Scotland there was a ridiculous rule that theatre – and only theatre – had to have a two-metre distance. The reason why this rule didn’t apply to pubs in spite of pubs being a far greater danger was never explained, leading some people to suspect live events were being targetted on purpose as some sort of “bleeding stump” tactic. But at the last moment a bailout from the Scottish Government and, to a lesser extent, a relaxation of the rules (lesser extent because the big venues had factored in two metres by this point), allowed something to go ahead.

Inevitably, a last-minute fringe could only be a fraction of the size of a normal year. By registrations, it was 20% of a normal year, but many of those were online (more on this later), and those that were in person rarely ran the full festival. As a result, the number of performances of offer each day were tiny compared to before times when you’d have a choice things available in walking distance in the next ten minutes. The audience numbers also plummeted, with those present generally being the hard-core regulars who were determined to be there no matter what.

But – and this is the big but – audience numbers did not fall as much as performance numbers. As a result, the numbers per performance were generally excellent. In 2019, selling a third of your tickets was considered reasonably good – my own observation, backed up by available stats, however, suggested that three quarters full was more the norm here, from the biggest names to the humblest beginners. I suspect a lot of punters who’d decided against taking a play to Edinburgh this year are now wishing they hadn’t. I’m one of those people. The only down-side is that there were times when finding a ticket for anything was a nightmare.

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School of Rock: Jack Black to the max

Everybody rocking

Now for something different from what I normally cover: a touring West End musical from Andrew Lloyd-Webber. This might seem out of kilter with what he’s done before. For the composer of the high drama of Phantom of the Opera and the experimental Cats (that’s the original stage version), a feel-good musical based on a popular film isn’t what I’d expect. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Dewey Finn is a slacker who has been sacked from his job for laziness and kicked out of his band for being an attention-seeker. His ex-rocker housemate and his ex-rocker girlfriends now have steady careers. When he is mistaken for his housemate and gets a supply teaching job in a prestigious private school he decides to recruit the kids into a new band. Will he succeed at form a band of rockers with bangin’ choons? Will Dewey discover for the first time in his life the joys of being looked up to as a role model? Will the parents of these kids who insist on a joyless life of geometry and history of antique furniture be blown away by the most awesomest Battle of the Bands performance and reconnect with the children in a new way? Apologies for giving away the entire plot with these rhetorical questions, but, be fair, it’s an easily guessable plot.

So, why did Lloyd-Webber pick a format so maligned? There is no shortage of films made into West end musicals, most of which are promptly forgotten. The biggest problem I think these shows have is that they specifically worked as films. Especially modern films which increasingly rely on CGI effects to wow cinema audiences. Nine times out of ten, even the best-resourced West End theatre can only produce a worse version of what already exists on screen. The difference here, I think, is an opportunity to do something better. It’s an open secret that most band performances in films are a heavily edited mix of actors pretending to play and session musicians providing a the real. Not nearly as impressive as the real thing. And, as Andrew Lloyd-Webber says at the start of the performance: yes, the kids on stage are really playing the instruments you see.

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Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2021

Buxton Crescent

Skip to: Naughty Boy, Jekyll and Hyde, For I Have Sinned, Mike Raffone’s Great Green Gameshow Giveaway, The Virtuous Burglar

Phew. A lot of catching up to do when you have four fringes in three months, but I’m finally on to Buxton Fringe. In 2020, Buxton Fringe raised a few eyebrows by opting to stick with a July fringe, even if it all had to be done online. However, in line with pretty much everywhere else, the mood by July 2021 was that online was all very well as a stop-gap, but nothing beats the real thing.

Buxton’s fortunes broadly followed the same as Brighton. In theory, Buxton Fringe was down for the first full month of no social distancing, but the venues worked against social distancing anyway – quite wisely, as it turned out. Like Brighton, it wasn’t back to full strength just yet: the Rotunda opted to give 2021 a miss, and the Arts Centre was out of action as Buxton Festival needed the space as part of its own socially distanced plans. This plus reduced participation from groups dented the numbers, but not too badly, with the Fringe managing about 60% of its normal size.

There was just one subtle difference I picked up on the effects on Buxton compared to Brighton. Audience numbers were also down, but roughly down by the same amount as registrations, and the two cancelled out to give audience numbers that were roughly the same, similar to Brighton. But within those figures, there’s a skew with age. Anecdotally, I was hearing that a lot of older Buxton Fringe regulars were choosing to play it safe and give it a miss; if that was the case, it would seem that the younger regulars were more eager to get back to fringing.

Anyway, hopefully those details won’t matter by Fringe 2022. In spite of Omnicrom putting the willies up us this winter, I still think Brighton and Buxton will be in a good position to be back to near-normal by next July. Let’s see what caught my eye this year that might be around next year.

Pick of the fringe:

Firstly, let’s address the same question as Brighton Fringe: am I lowering the bar this year? It is true that my choosiness for Pick of the Fringe varies based on what I have to choose from, but in the end the standard was about the same as years before, even though there were fewer acts to choose from. Two plays made it to the top flight.

Naughty Boy

There are many thing a fringe is ideal for, but responding to current events is rarely one of them. Most plays need a lead-in of least six months if you’re lucky, and by the time you’ve got it in front of an audience the news has long since ceased to be in people’s minds. There’s really only one way to make a fringe event “timely”, and that’s if the topic you’re talking about crops up anyway, and that bit of luck counted in Eddy Brimson’s favour. It was only the month before that football hooligans made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Joe, however, is not your average football hooligan. For some reason, he is in a psychiatric hospital even though he appears perfectly sane. He is also a lot smarter than your average football hooligan, whose silver tongue gets him out of all sorts of scrapes. These two events are connected, but it’s only towards the end what we’ll see how.

The main thrust of the play, however, is an exploration of why people end up this way. Being articulate, Joe has little problem portraying the alienation of people like him in societies than have been written off. This, plus his cynical observations of the society around him, is the easy bit. The hard bit is explaining why you’d consider the solution joining a group of your mates to clout a bunch of strangers who simply support a different team – and he portrays quite a convincing reason. Why take your anger out on another bunch of downtrodden down-and-outs? The reason, the play suggests, is a mutual understanding. Clouting any of the random strangers Joe cynically observes has consequences when the Police get involved, but a rival gang of hooligans are in the same boat as you. Until it escalates.

The backstory of how Joe got where he was is handled well too. The full-journey from innocent childhood to violent embittered adults is not shown in its entirety, but one moment that sticks out is when two wannabe hooligans get set upon by his gang of veteran hooligans – to which Joe observes “Now you have the same anger we do.” The only weak point I’d pick out is the account of the inevitable fight at the end where things tip over to boiling point, which get quite complicated and was narrated through so quickly I lost track of who was fighting who and who suffered what injuries. Other than that, a good all-rounder making a good start to my relaunched fringe viewing.

Jekyll and Hyde: a one woman-show

Now for the big name. I was interested in this one for two reasons. Firstly, this play got going in Brighton Fringe last year and earned overwhelming critical acclaim. Heather Rose-Andrews is rising to be of the most respected names on the Brighton Fringe circuit, but how would she fare away from home turf. The other thing I was interested in is how a gender-swapped Jekyll and Hyde would work. This has been tried a lot with classic stories, and not always successfully. Blackeyed Theatre is currently touring a superb retelling of Jekyll and Hyde which adds in a prominent female character made to look like she was part of the original all along. But this one changes the gender of Dr. Jekyll himself. How much difference does this make to the story?

Well, the answer is the opposite of what I expected: not that much difference at all. To some extent, this is a perfectly plausible treatment of the story – whilst women were certainly treated very differently to men in Victorian society, with Dr. Jekyll already operating outside of society’s conventions it needn’t spell much change. Instead, what’s notable is how much stays the same. Nothing stops a Ms. Hyde being as violent and destructive as a Mr. Hyde. Even the bit from the original where Hyde savages a prostitute – surely there can be no act of violence more misogynistic than that one? – is swapped very convincingly. And Rose-Andrews’ transformation scene from Jekyll in pain to a swaggering Hyde is an astounding moment of theatre.

According to my Buxton radar, this didn’t enjoy the same universal level of praise that this did in Brighton. Gauging reaction from Buxton is harder because there isn’t a range of reviews to go on, but I gather opinion was more divided, and I suspect the weak point was accessibility. Heather Rose-Andrews knows her horror and classic literature inside out, but I suspect she’s assumed a lot of background knowledge of her audience and left some with a lot of catching up to do. It was only quite late in to the play that I realised the tapes she was playing were Jekyll’s instructions recorded for Hyde. One theme of the play is hypocrisy, and as fans of the original will know, Dr. Jekyll overstepped the line long before his alter ego came along – but I fear amongst the confusion of working out what was happening when, I missed whatever the moral of that was supposed to be.

The praise for her performance, however, was unanimous, and deservedly so. In other Sweet Productions play I saw this year, There’s a Ghost in my House, I was convinced that Emily Carding had best individual performance in the bag, but it looks like we have a contest on our hands after all. It is difficult to know if this script could be made more accessible without making it into a different play; it may well be that this will be enjoyed the best by those who know the literature the best. What it does show is that Heather Rose-Andrews, already a fine actor in other people’s plays, is at her strongest when she writes for herself. A lot to look forward to here I think.

Honourable mention:

As there were fewer plays to choose from, I saw more comedy than usual. I’ve left this out as I don’t really know where to start with sketch and stand-up. Again, my bar for honourable mention is about the same as before, and three plays (or two plays plus a character comedy) made it to the list:

For I have Sinned

In Qweerdog Theatre’s play, a man meets a priest in a confession box. As per the protocol he is asked to disclose how long it has been since his last confession, and the answer is decades. What is less clear is what he’s actually making a confession over. He spent a long time as a recluse in Tibet, so we can safely assume he has something more on his conscience that an impure thought whilst watching an Ann Summers advert. Instead, the priest goes for small-talk as a way to delve into the truth. Eventually, the story comes out of a younger boy who thought the world of this man when they were both teenagers. We can already guess this did not end well.

What I really liked about the opening half of the writing is the pace at which the truth comes out. Whenever you think you’ve got to the bottom of his cross to bear, something else comes out, then something else, then something else. But the last piece of the jigsaw to fall into place is the priest’s part in this. An early clue is the man making a quip about seeing if “you’re the right priest for me”, and a more blatant clue is the priest offering full absolution in order to end the confession. I’ll refrain from giving all the details, but there is a reason why it’s this particular priest.

And then comes the frustrating bit: after the first half of the play reveals the back story so well, very little unexpected happens in the second. I fear this script played all its best cards by the half-way point, and the rest of the play is mostly admonishment for the priests past that he continues to deny. Something extra, I feel, is needed to keep up the interest. For what it’s worth, I would have explored the priest’s own intersection between his faith and his morals. Is his lifetime of servitude to the Catholic Church his method of atonement for a past wrong he can never forgive himself for? Or is he one of these completely amoral characters who think it’s okay to hurt and betray whoever you like because you can repent and be absolved later?

Not bad for a Buxton fringe debut though. The strength of the exposition is that is keeps the audience interested, and keeps them guessing. Keep this up in the rest of the play and you’ll have something special.

Mike Raffone’s Great Green Gameshow Giveaway

This is under comedy rather than theatre, but it’s character comedy that has an overlap. Mike Raffone has been carving himself a niche with interactive comedy in the last few years. There are high stakes in interactive comedy – in a conventional play an audience can be unresponsive and still find the story hilarious or moving, but when a performance depends on audience interaction, it dies on its arse if you can’t get them going. I’ve only seen his performances on busy days, but apparently he’s achieved the same on quiet days. Anyway, the thing he’s started this year is a spoof game show.

The game shows it parodies, are the 1970s ones. Apart from the outfits, there are two things that distinguish the game shows of this era. Firstly, all 1970s game shows are required to have a female assistant, who in turn is required to do nothing but announce the scores and pretend to find the sleazy-looking middle-age male host attractive. And certainly not play the flute that Charlotti worked so hard on over lockdown. Secondly, the long-standing in-joke is that all the prizes were worthless, with limit on prizes being £500 and a Skoda or something like that.

Mike Raffone and Charlotti are actually a great double act, and if I didn’t know better I’d have sworn they must have must have performed for years together. The games are far sillier than the games from the game shows (I think they would even give Banzai a run for its money), and the prizes are even more worthless – indeed, one highlight was, when there was a dispute over who won a round, he pointed to an example prize of a slightly broken USB cable to show how little this matters. And the final round, in case you haven’t guessed, is like the conveyor belt from the generation game, but with far cheaper prizes, slightly broken USB cable included. This is such a ideal thing for Raffone it’s a wonder no-one thought of it before, but now that we’ve seen it I hope it this will be back.

The Virtuous Burglar

And finally, one from Buxton regulars Sudden Impulse. They advertise themselves an an amateur company but their standard is so good it’s hard to tell them apart from the pros. I caught one of their two productions this time, and it’s a Dario Fo farce. The description of “farce” is often over-used for plays that were never meant to work as farces, and indeed Dario Fo himself has a strong political strand in most of his farces, but this one is the full-blown farce. A burglar is busy burgling a wealthy house when his wife rings him (this is pre-mobile phones so she is ringing the phone on the house she’s burgling tonight) asking for a present to steal for her. Then the owner of the house returns with a woman who’s not his wife. I don’t need to explain the rest of the plot but basically everybody mistakes everybody’s identity, everybody’s having an affair with everyone, and there’s lots of doors (and inside of clocks) to hide in. The only thing that’s missing is the trousers falling down as the vicar walks in.

Some people say amateur companies shouldn’t do farces. The reason, they argue, is that farces only work if they’re done quickly. Run a farce at a speed the actors are comfortable with and the jokes fall flat, but run it at the required speed beyond the actors’ ability and the production falls apart completely. Sudden Impulse has shown that’s far from the truth. They zip through the lines at the warp speed it was written for, and the movement is choreographed well. In a farce, you only really notice the acting and directing if it goes pear-shaped, so getting through without incident is a bigger achievement that most people realise.

The was, however, one annoying artistic decision, and that was hamming up the characters. No matter how ridiculous the situations are that everybody finds themselves in, farce works best when the characters are believable. It’s never quite as funny if the characters do contrived things to set up the jokes, and better if that’s what they would plausibly have done anyway – but it’s hard to achieve the latter if you present all the characters and caricatures of themselves. And that’s a shame, because straight acting is something Sudden Impulse does well. I say have the courage to apply straight acting to the giddiest farce – you may be pleased with the result.

Postscript: Keith Savage

Keith Savage under an umbrella

As I have already mentioned, circumstances have forced me to write late roundups of the fringes. Since Buxton Fringe happened, there is one notable bit of news, and it’s a sad one. Keith Savage, who was Chair in Buxton Fringe from 2014 to 2019, died unexpectedly this month, and it would be write to close this roundup without a fitting tribute.

Many people have given there own tributes of how supportive Keith Savage was at previous fringes, and my experience was no exception. As both a performer and a theatre blogger he was constantly encouraging what I was doing. This matter a lot. There’s no shortage of arts leaders who fall over themselves to encourage the biggest and best names to their theatres and there festivals, but sadly too few who welcome the people starting off. I cannot begin to describe how much of a difference it makes from my experience back home when you can put so much in without even an acknowledgement of what you’ve done.

Buxton Fringe prides itself on being the friendly fringe, and I even know of performers who’ve decided top give Buxton a go based on my description of what it’s like. I am confident that the Fringe committee will carry on giving the welcome to future performers staring off, but there’s sure no better embodiment of it than Keith Savage, who carried on supporting the fringe and everyone taking part after stepping down.

He has a lot to be proud of. He will be missed.

Relaunch at the SJT: Girl Next Door and Home, I’m Darling

Skip to: Girl Next Door; Home, I’m Darling

Time for another catchup from my jam-packed summer, as this time it’s over to the Stephen Joseph Theatre. They stood out from the crowd amongst regional theatres, because whilst the festival fringes and West End dived into summer 2021 raring to go, most theatres regional theatres played it safe and waited until the autumn. It should have come as no surprise that the Stephen Joseph Theatre hit the ground running – they make an admirable job of running in 2020 when most theatres wrote it off as a doomed venture.

But whilst there’s been a lot of good will amongst audiences and reviewers, that doesn’t guarantee a good review from me. I’ve already covered their co-production with Live Theatre The Offing (which I bumped forwards as it was still running and deserved some publicity), but now let’s wind back and see how their earlier two productions did.

Girl Next Door

One of the most memorable rallying cries I heard from the start of the pandemic was one that put things in perspective. I’ve lost the original quote but it went something like: “In the 1940s, the British put everything on the line for their future. In 2020, the British need to sit on their arses for a few weeks. Come on chaps, we can do this.” I don’t know if Alan Ayckbourn ever saw this, but it’s as good an inspiration as any for laying the two worlds side by side – literally.

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Back to the main stage: The Offing and Road

Skip to: The Offing, Road

We’ve already had the tentative relaunches of the big two in the north east back in September-October, but now it’s really back to business. It’s not the first time since 2020 we’ve had a play on a main stage – Live has done several by now – but it is the first time we’ve have something on a multi-week run and full budget.

Both theatres went for something that seemed like a safe bet. Northern Stage took a classic play that catapulted a household name playwright to stardom that promised to resonate with the north east; whilst Live Theatre partnered with another theatre to adapt a recent book that took the publishing world by storm. Surely nothing can go wrong?

Well, let’s see how safe these safe bets really were.

The Offing

Although The Offing is a co-production between Live Theatre and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, artistically this very much the product of the latter (with the former sharing the run largely due to the association of Paul Robinson and Graeme Thomson dating back to Theatre 503 days). The early reaction from the SJT half of the run suggested we were in for a good one, and it does not disappoint.

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The outdoor era: Moby Dick and Coppelia

Skip to: Moby Dick, Coppelia

So now that I finally have the time to do this, I intend to do a big catch-up on my reviews. Now, the festival fringe and the West End may have hit the ground running in the spring and summer, but most regional theatres played it safe and waited for the autumn. However, there was a bit of theatre activity in the regions, and a lot of it was focused on outdoor performances. Although there was never a point in 2021 where outdoor theatre was permitted but indoor wasn’t, those performances in 2020 that went ahead outdoors did quite well and for some the idea stuck.

A lot of the outdoor performances happened at the Festival Fringes, particularly Brighton – those I am covering in their respective roundups. But apart from that, there were two performances that particularly caught my eye.

Moby Dick

Outdoor staging of Moby DickThe John Godber Company has been one of the most determined companies to perform on in any way they can, although it’s fair to say they were at a bit of an advantage here. With the Godber family themselves taking on so many roles over the years, it was an easy matter to put on a family event with Sunny Side Up. I would like to have told you about that, but the performances were very popular and sold out quickly. However, not all John Godber performances are family affairs, at to get back into the swing of things this year, they put on one of their largest productions to date at Hull Marina.

The first thing I will say is how much I love the venue. Stage @ The Dock came about from a regeneration of the Marina and presumably came about in part from Hull as 2017 City of Culture. Obviously it’s at the mercy of the weather, but on a balmy evening it’s a great place to see an outdoor-set play. With the John Godber Company having helped bring this space into the spotlight, I hope it’s not forgotten about now that indoor theatre has got going again.

For once, a John Godber Company play features writing from someone other than a Godber, for this is a collaboration with Nick Lane, who is writing most of Blackeyed Theatre’s current plays as well as many of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Christmas plays. The challenge of most adaptations is choosing what to keep in and what to leave out: with the exception of the shortest of short stories, it’s near-impossible to stick to original plot point by point and hope to be done in two hours – and certainly not Herman Mellville’s epic of a book. The best focus I think you can put on a stage version of Moby Dick is the suicidally dangerous obsession of Captain Ahab – and that’s precisely what is done here.

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Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2021

There’s a Ghost in my House, Between Two Waves, About the Garden, The Tragedy of Dorian Gray, Watson: the Final Problem; The Spirit of Woodstock; The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007; The Doll Who Came To Tea; Polly: A Drag Rebellion; Crime Scene Improvisation; Clean: The Musical; Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name; The Importance of Being … Earnest?; The Sensemaker

Right. Better get a move on with these. I have had the excuse of having my hands full with four fringes in three months, but it’s now October. So let’s begin with Brighton. And, boy, what a festival they had.

The year began on tenterhooks when it became unclear whether live performances would be allowed in May at all. Brighton Fringe opted to postpone itself by three weeks, so that the fringe would take place over mostly June instead of May. In the end, that turned out to be a very good call. With the go-ahead for live performances turning out to be only 11 days before the start of the fringe, to festival turned into a big celebration of the arts getting going again. I don’t have definitive figures for how this compares to a normal year, but by all account the level of business was excellent, for both the acts taking part and the social aspect of the Warren and Spiegeltent’s bars.

The only dampener on this success is that it could have been even more earth-shattering. In spite of some very last-minute organisation, Brighton Fringe managed to be about 50% of its normal size, give or take a bit depending on whether you count online. But it was during June when serious questions were being raised over whether its Edinburgh counterpart would go ahead at all, owing to some absurd restrictions in Scotland specifically applied to the performing arts. With a very late go-ahead, and Edinburgh’s programme announced towards the end of Brighton Fringe, the jaw-dropping news was that it was less than a third the size of Brighton’s. In the end, Edinburgh pipped Brighton into the lead at the last moment – the Big Four venues programmed themselves very late on – but the fact that a half-size Brighton Fringe was two weeks away from taking the title as Britain’s largest fringe is staggering.

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Back to business: Pod and Shine

Skip to: Pod, Shine

Okay, here we go. Now that an extremely busy fringe season is out of the way, it’s time to catch up on all the other plays I’ve seen since we got going. I am planning to do most of these in the order I saw them, which I’m afraid will mean several plays are going to get reviews several months later. However, I am bumping this first article up the list due to a sort-of review request. It came to my attention that I was supposed to be invited to one of these plays, but the invitation never reached me. The details are far too boring to go into, but I thought I’d get this one out when things are still fresh.

So … Unlike the Festival Fringes, which have been running to a sort-of-normal since June, most theatres outside of London have opted for a September relaunch. And with that, a lot of eyes have been on the relaunch plays. Live Theatre and Alphabetti have both run plays for three weeks. At the moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm to praise everything simply for getting on stage. But, folks, I don’t hand out high praise as a participation prize. You still have to earn it. So, how did these do?

Pod

Pod isn’t actually Alphabetti’s reopening play – they have been bolder than most of their north-east counterparts and have been phasing in performances since April – but such was the fanfare around this one it may as well be their relaunch play. Coracle Theatre has been one of Alphabetti’s closest collaborators; indeed, they opened Alphabetti in its current venue the first time round. So whilst this play is a catch-up from a heavily postponed 2020 programme, it was good choice for a relaunch.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Friday 3rd September:

Hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Before you go, one small but crucial stat. I don’t know how The Stage managed to get hold of this when no-one else seems to have the numbers, but it looks like there are fringe-wide figures for ticket sales after all. And, crucially, they separate in-person and online.

So, it’s 381,192 tickets for 528 in-person productions, compared to 3,012,490 in 3,841 productions in 2019. This means the fringe is 12.6% the size of 2019 if we’re going on ticket sales, or 13.7% in terms of number of in-person registrations. We were expecting both figures to be hammered, so there’s little surprise there. The important figure, however, is sales per production. That’s 722 per production in 2021, slightly down from 784 per production in 2019.

But but but but but but but but – almost all productions in 2021 didn’t run the full festival, which in 2019 most did. A lot of them ran for half the festival. We don’t appear to have the number of performances, but I think we can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that sales per performance were a lot higher. This might be offset by a lot of the venues being big ones (30 sales per performance in a 35-seater is much better news than 30 in a 350-seater), but with every performances I saw being way over half occupancy, I’ll still wager those numbers are good.

Online sales, for what it’s worth, are 14,500 for 414 shows on the Fringe Player platform, averaging 35 per production. Obviously there’s no equivalent numbers to compare this to from 2019. Not all shows were on the fringe player platform, other platforms may skew the figures, but if we assume this was representative, this suggests that online is a much cheaper option, but gets much less reach. If you’re serious about getting an audience, it seems in-person remains the way to go.

There’s a lot of nuance around these figures that I’ve already discussed, but I think we can safely stick with the earlier conclusion that these are as excellent as a fringe under these circumstances could be.

And with that, I really am signing off. Thanks to everyone who over the month. Join me next May when we do it all over again, starting with Brighton.

Thursday 2nd September:

And that’s it, folks. This brings us to the end of coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe that nearly never was. We aren’t quite finished with fringes, because Greater Manchester Fringe is running in September instead of July this year (tied in, I understand, to the reopening plans of most of their venues). This had 60-ish registrations, so their recovery is comparable to that of Brighton or Buxton, as far as this city-wide fringe can be compared to the big three.

The summary of Edinburgh 2021 is as follows:

  • Edinburgh Fringe has gone ahead at a fraction of its normal size, mainly due to some very late decisions from the Scottish government on what would and wouldn’t be allowed. Supporters say this late decision was a necessary move by an administration taking the threat of the virus seriously, whilst other people say it was an act of hypocrisy by a bunch of clueless cretins with ridiculous double-standards such as more relaxed rules for pubs even though they knew perfectly well the risk of transmission is far greater, and if you think they’re any more supportive of performing arts than the other bunch of clueless cretins over the border you’ve got another thing coming. As you can see, I’m sitting on the fence here.
  • As a result, the feel of this Edinburgh Fringe is very different from a normal year. Within the core area of George Square and Bristo Square, is does feel a bit more like a festival. Outside of a core hub, it doesn’t feel like there’s a fringe on – even on the Royal Mile.
  • The fact that the Fringe only went ahead as a fraction of its normal size hasn’t stopped the nimbys coming out in force. Most notorious this month has been the Cockburn Association, who so obviously are against the fringe for the reason that they don’t like it therefore no-one else should. Their objections are textbook nimbyism, where they raise issues they would never have given two hoots were they not trying to make the fringe bad. The most outlandish claim was that the Fringe was putting Edinburgh’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under threat. UNESCO eventually said that wasn’t true, but the fact this rubbish was repeated often enough to prompt them to intervene is shocking.
  • The good news is that, for the few acts that did go ahead amidst all the uncertainty, ticket sales have been excellent. Audience numbers have been massacred, but with the number of acts massacred even more, the sales per performance have improved. A lot of acts who shied away from taking part must be wishing they had now. Myself included.
  • One notable absence this year has been second-tier venues. Nothing from C Venues, Greenside or Sweet, and the only presence of Zoo being a four-way collaboration with a temporary joint venue. This means that The Space has risen in prominence this year, taking a lot of acts that otherwise would have gone to the second tier. Big question now over what The Space does next. (See 24th August for possibilities.)
  • Online theatre has also managed a reasonable presence, in spite of early scepticism over registration fees being off-putting. In fact, so far the online medium has persisted longer than most people expected, as in-person shows are returning across the board. I wasn’t seriously expecting this to become a permanent feature of fringes, but having surprised us this far, maybe it can surprise us further.
  • The web-only booking system has proven troublesome are all sorts of logistical reasons, and the lack of a paper programme has compounded this. Although the paper programmes are one of the Festival |Fringe Society’s most expensive operations, it looks like fringe land is not yet ready to go fully paperless just yet. (That said, paperless ticketing seems to have worked – that is something that I expect to remain in place.)
  • Shona McCarthy has stated for the first time on the record that Edinburgh Fringe is no longer judging its success by size. It’s been quietly backing away from bigger is better for a few years, but this is the first time it’s been made official.

All in all, the Edinburgh Fringe is in a strong position to begin a proper recovery next year. But do not underestimate the mountain they have to claim. It’s one thing for Brighton and Buxton to build on half-size fringes, but Edinburgh is more like tenth-size. There are aspirations to rebuild in a sustainable way without it being clear how that will be achieved, but perhaps the easiest way to do it is if demand never returns to the levels it was in the 2010s.

Edinburgh Fringe’s mission this year was to survive, and they have succeeded. The job of rebuilding the fringe, however, has only just started.

Wednesday 1st September:

We now have the stats of ticket sales – or some of them, anyway. Edinburgh Fringe has chosen not to release sales figures like it usually does. The reason given by Shona McCarthy is that she wishes to “stop defining success by scale”. A cynical interpretation is that Edinburgh Fringe is really holding back the figures because they’re not good, but I think this is unlikely because 1) all the anecdotal evidence was that the figures were as good as could be for a fringe this size; and 2) under Shona McCarthy the Festival Fringe Society has been quietly stepping away from “bigger is better” for a few years now. However, it does make it harder to assess how this have gone based on proper stats.

Some of the individual venues have nonetheless released their own figures, which Chortle has summed up, but I’ve not managed to work out out anything beyond what I knew already. The two big sticking points are: most of the stats do not separate sales for online and in-person; and the prevalence of large high-capacity venues (even after social distancing) against lots of small spaces in 2019. Between them, it makes a like-for-like comparison difficult. As such, I don’t think we can on anything better than percentage occupancy, where we still only have the 78% reported by The Space. I still think the Big Four’s performance was similar based on my observations, but if anyone can draw some better conclusions from number-crunching, I’d be happy to hear it.

It might be helpful, however, to stick to first principles and consider why these stats matter. For a fringe to grow – and whatever the FFS society may say, they’re desperate to grow past their 2021 size – ticket sales per act need to be high enough to make people think it’s worthwhile the following year. I think there can be little doubt that sales around the three-quarters mark will do the job. The other questions is whether the venues think it’s worthwhile to expand. Again, three-quarters occupancy should be encouraging, but the venues get to see all the data and there might be something out of view that’s more off-putting. Regardless, the big unknown factor is public funding. It’s one thing putting together a stop-gap fringe to prevent a total collapse, but another thing to support a fringe at anything near its normal size. Will they get the backing they need to expand? If not, how far dare they go without?

Those questions, folks, are unlikely to be answered until next year.

One other bit of breaking news: after all the hints that Brighton Fringe might decide to stick with its enforced three-week postponement for good – they’ve decided to stick with May after all. Bit surprised, seeing as everyone who’d expressed an opinion on this seems to back the change, but I was a little sceptical about this – I’m not convinced blazing hot weather at the seaside is good for ticket sales. No reason given as yet, but I expect I’ll find out the thinking in due course.

What that means for Edinburgh is that they keep their status as only viable fringe for student productions. May clashes with most students’ exams, but June is better, and with even a large student cast sharing expenses getting prohibitively expensive, that might have might Brighton a tempting alternative. Whether that would have been good or bad for Edinburgh Fringe is another question, but now that’s a hypothetical debate. What is does mean is that I can go back to covering fringe season over four months – four fringes in three months got somewhat back-breaking.

Tuesday 31st August:

So it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Who has made my pick of the fringe? Here it goes. With all categories ordered in the sequence I saw them:

Pick of the Fringe:

Zumba 2021shook_capGold
Sintara Raw
Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed
Shook
Northanger Abbey
Skank (based on Vault 2020)

Online Pick of the Fringe:

Mustard
Fow
The Little Glass Slipper performed by the Queen of France and her friends
Mimi’s Suitcase

Honourable mention:

Myra’s Story
The Event
Madhouse
Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man who used to hit her)
Fear of Roses
Brave Face
On Your Bike

Observant readers will notice that everything in-person I have reviewed here gets honourable mention or higher. This is intentional: anyone who have braved the odds to come to the Edinburgh Fringe this year has my eternal respect. It wasn’t automatic though: there was one pretty major performance I saw that I didn’t review because I thought it fell way short of expectations – everyone on this list gets the honour of doing better than this unspecified major performance. (I also didn’t review a music event, a tour, and a magic show but only because they were too far removed from theatre for me to make a meaningful assessment.)

Don’t go away just yet though. I have been tipped off of a piece of news coming tomorrow that could be significant for Edinburgh.

Monday 30th August:

And that’s it, the last day. Time to wind up coverage. We’re possibly waiting for news on fringe-wide ticket sales (we currently only have word from The Space) and we may also get some news from Brighton Fringe this week that might affect Edinburgh – in a good way, in my opinion.

But before then, let’s complete the online theatre reviews with a second and last batch:

Till Love Do Us Part: There are two halves to this play. The first half starts with a new couple saying goodnight on the start of a very successful first date. By the next scene, they’ve already moved in together, and for the next half-hour it’s practically a checklist of a relationship progressing like a dream: engagement, marriage, deciding to have kids together. Sadly, the conception ends in a miscarriage (the worst kind: the one where a scan predicts a doomed foetus will continue to grow but miscarry at a later time), but surely Jen and Simon’s love can survive this, right? Wrong.

The second half is what the play is really about. Nature is cruel and nature has decided a second conception isn’t going to be anywhere near as easy as the first. Jen’s desire to become a mother becomes an obsession. News of friends having their children without any effort only depresses her. Jen and Simon now only have sex for the purposes on conception. Until, finally, this puts a bigger strain on their lives than the original miscarriage.

It’s an informative play, but I wouldn’t have given half of it over the exposition. Whilst the time-frame over the length of the relationship is a temptingly tidy one, by the time we reached to meat of the story I was getting needlessly bored. Off-hand I’d have given a maximum of 10 minutes to bring us up to speed on life before. That I think would have given a tighter play; there may be further opportunities to explore to ups and downs in this fateful period. What this does achieve, however, is drawing attention to an issue that seems to attract little attention. It does that well, so credit for that.

Cash Point Meet: An Irish play that takes a look at the world of Sex Work it titled after one particular strand. A “Cash Point Meet” actually is a thing (look it up if you don’t believe me) involving men who, for some reason, find it a real turn on to be humiliated by a pair of women who take his money off him at a cash point. When Emma and Sinead are unexpectedly offered the chance to do this via a weird request on Tinder, it proves too tempting: all the money you get from sex work without actually having to do the sex bit. However, it turns out it’s not as easy as one imagines to separate this unexpectedly lucrative line of work from the rest of their lives. Like it or not, they are in it with all the other sex workers when it comes to their own safety.

The most obvious weakness of the play is a slow-moving plot. I would have cut the first 20 minutes completely – the exposition of two close friends on the breadline with no boyfriends could easily have been covered in the rest of the play. The play also digresses into issues such as mental health and Dublin’s notorious housing market that drag the pace down further. Nevertheless, once the play gets into the nuances of the complex situation around the sex work trade things get interesting. At the forefront, commentary on controversial the sex work laws on Ireland, with writer Niamh Murphy arguing the case that making paying for sex illegal for the punter only making life more dangerous for the sex workers. With one friend wanting out and the other friend wanting to campaign for her fellow workers, that’s where I think the real story lies.

The Little Glass Slipper as Performed by the Queen of France and Her Friends: And now, another unexpected gem. This was one of the stranger concepts: Marie Antionette, famous for being wife of Louis XVI and saying “let them eat cake” (which she probably never actually said), is putting on a play for the cream of Parisian aristocracy. She has cast herself into the most glamorous role of Cinderella, or, seeing as this is France, Cendrillon.At first glance, Marie comes across as the world first hipster. The kind who think it’s cool to spend an obscene amount of wealth of looking poor because looking poor is trendy. The kind you’d want to punch if you met them.

But tonight is the night the Bastille is being stormed, and as news reaches the Queen and friends must decide whether to flee to safety or stick with their sovereign, we see what she’s really like: in this play, she is defined by her naivety. She has no idea why this event is a big deal to France, and doesn’t seem to have any idea of the danger she’s in. She does, however, sense that so many people hate her, when all she does is to be liked by everyone. She is woefully out of touch – but it’s hard to see what chance she had to know any better.

It is not without its flaws. The role of Prince Charming is hastily taken up by a revolutionary intend on killing her are claiming the price on her head. He ends up pitying her – but the explanation for why he agrees to help the show go on is vague at best. But I am still hopeful that this can come to Edinburgh fringe for real. Some changes will have to be made – it is hard to see how the play as it stands could be performed on the smaller stages at the fringe – but this has a lot going for it. This is a beautiful portrayal with equal measures of comedy and tragedy – I hope the Miles Sisters can make the journey from America.

Sunday 29th August – Shook:

Before we go into the last in-person review, one bit of breaking news. We have our first report of ticket sales from The Space. They are reporting 64,000 ticket sales, down from 120,000 in 2019, but with the programme merely at 65 shown down from 445, that’s a lot more to go round. Seat occupancy is reported as 78%, which is in line with my observations across the fringe. I can see many would-be acts wishing they’d taken the plunge.

So let’s close with on the The Space’s most high-profile shows: Shook. Big coup for New Celts Productions to get performing rights for this, because this is a very recent winner of a major playwriting competition (Papatango). Samuel Bailey’s play is set in a prison where three young offenders are either fathers now or due to become fathers soon. Cain and Ryan begin the play with masculine bravado. As anyone who’s a man or has hung around with men knows, at least 60% of masculine bravado is bullshit, but in a prison that figure is more like 90%. Jonjo is a third quieter inmate, who looks like he needs help more than he needs prison, but when you hear what he was pushed into doing you see why he’s in prison. Can Grace give them one last chance to appreciate life as fathers.

Most drama set in prison are harrowing, either through the brutality of the inmates or the brutality of the people who locked them up, so it is refreshing to see a play that offers hope for a change. Cain, a traveller who spends time in and out of the nick makes a good point: the politicians who pledge to be tough on criminals like him hate him for who he is rather than what he’s done. Grace succeeds in getting Jonjo out of his shell where everyone else failed. Even Ryan – who comes across at the beginning as a bully at best and a misogynistic bully at worst – calms down for a while. Against the odds, Grace bring hope for almost everybody. Almost.

But how does this production fare? A lot to live up to with the fully professional premiere not that long ago. However, this young company does an excellent job of it, with the London setting successfully transplanted to Scotland. The only real limitations was the fringe environment such as the small stage, but they handle this. One thing that particularly impressed me is how much was achieved when actors aren’t speaking. In one moment where Grace is listening to Cain’s bullshit, Ryan – still in his masculine bravado phase – is sprawled out trying to dominate the room, whilst Jojno is cradling the doll of a baby even though he doesn’t need to.

The only shortcoming is one perhaps unavoidable to fringe conditions. It is normal for full-length plays to be shortened to fit in the programme – and most of them time, if you don’t know better, you can succeed in making it look like this is how it was written all along. This time, however, it would appear that something major about Ryan’s backstory was cut. When he snaps, there’s very little to tell us why, other than an unclear grudge against the person he lashed out at. But with the only thing I have to fault out of their hands, everything else is positive. The best was to get performing rights to a play written so recently is to persaude the writer you know what you’re doing. I hope Samuel Bailey and Papatango were proud out this.

Saturday 28th August – On Your Bike:

Now for a rare foray into musicals. I was drawn to this one by a very promising preview at The Space’s press launch. On Your Bike is a musical about one of the most recent additions to life: the takeaway delivery cyclist. The good news is that delivering takeaways by bicycle is much more environmentally friendly than driving everywhere by car. The bad news is that this often goes hand-in-hand with another not-so-welcome recent arrival: the casualisation of labour, where zero-hour contracts and/or so-called self-employed status are used as workarounds to evade employment protections that apply to everyone else.

The showcase song, however, has nothing to do with cycling or takeaways. “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” as a song on a first date where everything is going right. Can this promising standard apply to the rest of the songs. Yes they do. Writing songs for musicals is tricky – if either the words or the music doesn’t work out, it falls flat. The music in these songs, however, is consistently good and consistently catchy. The lyrics are also impressive. Even people who have no trouble letting the words flow in regular prose can struggle when setting it to music, but the words are crafted exceedingly well here. In the opening we learn Gemma is doing this because she’s had 77 consecutive rejection letters using every platitude know to man (increasing to 78 by the time the song finishes), and her living arrangements is even more precarious than her job than her job. Aidan is a little more secure with his arrangement, fitting his art around these irregular hours, but that too is going to come under pressure.

The story, however, isn’t quite as strong as the music. The brilliantly catchy “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” loses its edge a little when you notice the two people getting together don’t really seem to have anything in common. No soon has Aidan started his whirlwind romance with a social media marketing-obsessed middle manager, she’s already badgering him to quit his art aspirations and join her in faceless middle management, which makes we wonder what they saw in each other in the first place. The play starts off making some intelligent comment about the culture around casual labour, where maximum flexibility to stakeholders is pushed at the expense of any real security or dignity, but too many of the resolutions are contrived. Yes, there are are ethical questions around animal welfare and takeaways, but a takeaway manger have a change of heart and converting to a vegan falafel restaurant after reading one leaflet from an animal rights group? Come on.

Despite these limitations, this is a good start from a student ensemble for what I think is the most difficult form of writing. Songwriting gets a lot more complicated when you are supporting a story, story-telling gets a lot more complicated when you’re mixing in music and lyrics. The ensemble of four give a strong performance, and the musical standard remains high from start to finish. Four year ago the same society came up with Six, and we know how that’s going. Good job from their successors in keeping the flag flying.

Friday 27th August:

A break from the reviews now to look at the end-of-fringe news. By now, I think everyone is confident that the Edinburgh Fringe has done enough to put itself on a firm footing to recover. Now they have launched a Save the Fringe campaign aiming to raise £7.5 million. As anyone’s who’s manage to successfully book a ticket through the fringe website how, the donations page has been asking for support for 2022 which they are now eyeing up as their relaunch year, coinciding with their 75th anniversary. This campaign, however, is a long-term one one aiming to raise money over 3-5 years, according to The Stage. At present, we don’t have details of what the Edinburgh Fringe plans to do with this £7.5m that it couldn’t do without, but we do have a list of seven principles they aspire to.

However, I think there is another factor that needs to be considered. When I previously wrote about 7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe when the situation looked the bleakest, I considered scenarios from “phoenix from the ashes” to “meltdown”. The danger of the meltdown scenario is now receding, but instead we should now consider a scenario at the opposite extreme: the Fringe recovers too well, and all the problems of a large fringe that came to a head in 2019 come back. It might even go beyond 2019 and hit breaking point. Edinburgh Fringe stopped cheerleading year-on-year growth a few years back, but with the festival open to all, they can’t stop the same people doing it all over again.

So does these seven principles address this? Debatable. The most relevant principle is number 2, which says: “Break down barriers to participation in the Fringe”. Money isn’t the only barrier, but it’s by the far the biggest one, and there’s no escaping the fact that the bigger the fringe gets, the more it costs to do it. However, whilst no-one would object to the principles, the devil is in the detail, or rather the lack of it: there is so far no information on exactly how the Edinburgh Fringe intends to break down barriers.

This ties into the wider issue of the great reset. Every man and his dog is currently taking about this year being the great fringe reset. Everybody agrees that the fringe is too expensive and needs to be kinder, and most people agree that the fringe got too big, but few people are proposing a solution, and amongst those who have, there’s next to no consensus. The only thing everybody can seem to agree on is that other people who are responsible for making the fringe too big. If 2019 mustn’t be repeated, who shouldn’t go? Never themselves, that’s for sure.

My current feeling is that whilst the aspiration to make the fringe a better place might be there, the drive isn’t. Few people are coming up with ideas, fewer still are prepared to compromise for the greater good. If the fringe does reform, it’s more likely to be market forces. It does look a lot of freelancers who have left the arts won’t be coming back, and with all fringes so dependent on freelancing, that could reduce uptake a lot. This is also the year that alternative festivals rose in prominence, and potentially will start taking people who would otherwise have gone for Edinburgh or bust. Edinburgh’s problem has been supply and demand – it looks like the cut in demand may be permanent.

There is will time for the Festival Fringe society, venues, arts industry and public bodies to get their heads together and make a plan, but at the moment there seems little will to even attempt to do this. If a recovered Edinburgh Fringe has fewer barriers and is more sustainable, it may not to because of the efforts to reform, but in spite of the lack of effort. If you want to to prove me wrong -well, that’s in your hands.

Thursday 26th August – Brave Face:

It truly pains me to say this, but although Brave Face is a story with huge potential and so much to say, it fails the “What’s going on?” test. The message that writer/performer Everleigh Brenner gives at the end of the play is that there are many women who have suffered sexual violence who put on a brave face, and few if any of the people there would disagree with that. But the play sets out to say more than that. Her character em becomes, in her words “a woman the world fears” are resort of some extreme measure. Clearly a powerful statement is being made here, but I’m completely lost as to what statement was being made.

Based on what I can piece together (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the play but I don’t know how else to summarise this): Em was raped seven years ago, and wants revenge. But with proven rapists hard to identify, Em has widened her net to exact her vengeance on adulterers, philanderers, misogynists and lecherous wankers in general. After she sees her fuck-buddy cop off with another woman, something prompts her to take action, although it’s not clear whether the trigger was that incident or a video shown after of what appears to be an attack – is this a flashback to an earlier event or something that’s just happened? Either way, she starts blackmailing the other men she’s been having affairs with and attacking some of her pick-ups with anaesthetic she took from her dental job. Her number one target, however, is a touring DJ, although it’s not clear whether his crime is being her rapist or simply liking photos of hot women on Instagram. She meets him, intending to lure him to bed for an unclear ulterior motive. And she succeeds, but not before he behaves like a gentleman and she discovers she has feelings for him (and if he is indeed her rapist that confuses me further). But in bed he doesn’t understand stop and she retaliates in the most extreme way possible.

I think I can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, I have missed something vital that’s supposed to explain what’s happening and why. I don’t have many rules for playwriting, but one of the ones I swear by is that the more out of the ordinary a character behaves, the harder you have to work to show what made him or her do this. I’m not interested in her multi-partnered sex life – there is no normal way to respond to rape – but the revenge she dishes out is as far removed from normal as can be. I’m pretty sure Brenner has a very good idea for why Em is doing this, but I don’t, and when I discussed this with another member of the audience, she floated another theory. It was a good one that never crossed my mind, I admit, but when a play is intended to sent a message loud and clear, the last thing you want is multiple interpretations of what the play was actually about.

The thing is, apart from that, I think this play has all the ingredients of a great one. Even without fully understanding Em’s motivations, Brenner gives a articulate, confident and often emotive performance. I was also particularly impressed by the technical achievement. This kind of multimedia approach usually falls foul of one of two things: either not really adding to the story, or getting out of their depth. Neither applies here This is a story heavily interlaced with the online world, where real life blends with everything from diary organisers to social media containing all sorts of casual bigotry and nastiness. And performer and tech blend seamlessly.

So here’s what I would do next. This play is currently 40 minutes along, but fringe productions typically run 60. 20 minutes should be more than enough to flesh out any unclear plot points, but more importantly, go into the depth that’s needed to explain why she’s done what she’s done. Brenner understands Em better than anyone else,so there’s little else I can suggest on who to do it, other than the obvious principle of “show, don’t tell”. And that’s it. That, I reckon, is all that’s needed to get this play to have its full reach and live to its full potential. And this has bags of potential. Don’t sell it short.

Wednesday 25th August – Fear of Roses:

This play is described as a pulp thriller, but at first glance it looks more of a play about character relationships and office politics. Nicollette works as PA for Tabby aka Tabitha, expected to be imminently promoted with Tabitha expected to be promoted along with her. Tabby is a rising star, and in a victory for gender equality proves that women are just as good as men at going to strip joints on managers’ nights out and discussing it inappropriately at work the next day. That aside, the opening is actually quite interesting. At first, it looks like the two are old friends, but as time goes on hints are dropped that Tabby is actually quite self-obsessed. In particular, Nicollette has been forced to take on a night shift to make ends meet, and Tabby is wilfully oblivious to the circumstances of her supposed old friend.

However, the balance of power is about to shift noticeably. It turns out Tabby’s career path to date has not been entirely above board, and this has attracted the attention of Keely who’s come to visit. It is never specified exactly what skeletons are in Tabby’s cupboard, but it is enough to make her agree to a sum of half a million in 48 hours. And the only way she can get that amount of money in that short a length of a time is to rob her own bank overnight. If only there was a soft target in security – wait a mo …

The plot continues at a satisfying pace as more secrets are revealed and more things turn out to not be what they seem, but this play does suffer a little from a few plot points that don’t quite stack up. Nothing is serious and it doesn’t get to the point where the entire premise ceases to make sense, but there still a few questions that bugged me afterwards. In particular, why was blackmailing Keeley so unrelenting on a 48-hour deadline once it was clear Tabby couldn’t deliver the goods in time? Surely it’s better to get the money late than not at all. There is a twist at the end which I won’t spoil. but if you’re going to do that you need to make sure the story continues to stack up in light of what’s been revealed.

In spite of this, however, it’s a decent comedy-thriller that covers bases of social comment and character relations. This show has been overshadowed somewhat by their other production, Press, which seems to be going down very well, but as long as you can resist the temptation to nit-pick too hard you shouldn’t be disappointed with this.

Tuesday 24th August, 9.45 p.m. – Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man that use to hit her)

I must apologise that I cannot cover this next play with my normal impartiality. If I was part of a reviewing publication I would ask someone else to do this, but as sole reviewer of chrisontheatre I don’t have this option. The thing that attracted me to this play was the subject of long-term trauma – in the case of Patricia, the aftermath of a violent relationship. She has long rehearsed the words she intend to she if she ever sees the bastard again – but when the bastard shows up out of the blue, she instead resorts to small talk, and when he suggests going out to dinner for the evening, she forgets how to say no.

Why would anyone agree to do that? If you’re hoping there’s somehow some sort of of remorse on the part of her ex, forget it. There’s barely any time between falling head over heels with the bad-boy man of her dreams, and the violence that follows. This is based on playwright Martha Watson Allpress’s own personal experience, but it falls into a depressingly predictable pattern: from the outset exact ideas about how a woman should behave down to choice of drinks; resorting to the fist at the first sign of disagreement; and ludicrous amounts of paranoia and jealousy over matters as trivial as dancing with a gay best friend. That’s not to say the play doesn’t bring new insights – it is recounted here how the tension in anticipation of being hit becomes almost as bad as the violence itself. At one point, a gut-wrenching phone call is played as Patricia finally tells her mother what’s been going on all this time, begging her not to cry.

However, there was one thing in this that didn’t ring true – to me. This is where I need to tread carefully. There’s few things I hate more than reviewers or whoever using someone else’s traumatic experience and making it all about themselves, so I will say this on a need-to-know basis only. My interest was long-term trauma is a personal one. You don’t need to know what – if you want to know I’ve talked about it extensively elsewhere – but before you ask: not an abusive relationship; not anything nearly as bad as Patricia’s story. Even so, it took me eight years before I was comfortable going into all the details of what happened to me. One year after the event, I was still making excuses for my gaslighters.

So here’s what doesn’t ring true for me. Patricia narrates a very convincing and harrowing account of two years’ abuse in a composed and articulate manner. But if I was in no such state to recount my experience one year after the event, I just can’t believe it would be any easier for someone who’s been though much much worse. The Patricia speaking to us is a fully recovered strong Patricia who now sees the scumbag for every despicable thing he is – but the Patricia talking to her ex, or even anybody else when going into her story, is a very different Patricia. The first Patricia struck me as someone who would have no trouble telling her ex to go fuck himself.

The message at the end, however, is an important one: there is no typical battered partner. If it was me, I would consider doing most of Patricia’s story in third person – there is enough artistic license to do this. The other option would be to write this in the mind of post-trauma Patricia; that would be a much harder thing to do if she’s reluctant to go into the worst of what happened, even though she must. But similar things have been done, and they’re very effective when done right.

Reality trumps character assessment, of course – if anyone is ready to talk about every detail of a violent relationship within a year of the event, please say so. I would love to proven wrong here. I guess, in the end, I was looking for something I can personally can relate to: that you can get on with your life and be resilient, but still shut down when made to recount a traumatic memory – the two are not exclusive. If that wasn’t the point of this personal story, fair enough. What I hope we can agree on is the fallacy of the phrase “But it was a long time ago.”

Tuesday 24th August, 5.00 p.m.:

We are currently in what’s going to be a very Space-heavy section of reviews, so now’s a good time to look at this venue. The Space has had an interesting year, and is now at a crossroads.

Historically, the Space has differed from other venues is that it runs entirely on first-come-first-served. In practice, this gives almost everybody a place to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe even if no other venue will have you. One easy criticism to make is that this makes The Space home for all the acts that aren’t good enough to be taken by anyone else, but that’s not entirely fair. Whilst it’s true to say The Space has more than its fair share of godawful plays, no venue is immune from this and The Space has also hosted some very successful plays. I am strongly of the view that it is better to allow an untested artist to try and fail than to prevent an untested artist from trying and succeeding, and The Space performs this important job.

This year, however, it’s been a bit difference. With the near-total absence of second-tier venues, The Space have taken on a lot of acts that would otherwise have gone to Zoo, Sweet or Greenside. But the other development is that The Space has pushed an online platform more strongly than any Edinburgh Venue. They ran an online programme last August when most venues shut down completely, and carried on running this after Edinburgh time finished. The third season was done for Brighton Fringe, which Space had never had any association with before. They are still running an online programme this time, which is less newsworthy as most venues are running some sort of online platform, but they have been one of the key drivers with this rise of online fringe.

So, what happens next? I honestly don’t know, but let’s sketch out four scenarios, any of which might exist in combinations:

  • Back to before: We still don’t know the long-term future of “online fringe”. Certain a lot of online fans acquired over 2020 have said how good it is to be back to the real thing. Should interest fade, the Space could return to its original role of entry-level tier.
  • Online platform persists: One of the arguments in favour of keeping an online fringe platform is that it gives artists the chance to get things out there in an environment where people take a punt on unknowns, but without the expense associated with coming to Edinburgh. It might run parallel with the fringes, it might also be moves to its own festival (maybe winter) as some people have suggested. Either way, I think it’s a safe bet that if there’s an online fringe of any standing, The Space will want to be part of it.
  • Moving up the league: If The Space have taken acts who would normally go elsewhere, it may hang on to them. If they are really lucky, the good reputation of these more experienced acts will up the reputation as the place where the good stuff is, which in turn attract other notable acts. The snag? That might spell the end of The Space as an open-access venue. I’ve seen this happen to other venues that forgot their ideal to provide a space to perform the moment everybody wanted to go there.
  • Less focus on Edinburgh: Is Edinburgh Fringe the right fringe for entry-level acts anyway? You can certainly get started a lot more cheaply at fringes other than Edinburgh. Who knows, now that The Space has been part of Brighton Fringe’s online programme, they might decide it also suits them to be part of their in-person programme. Sweet has shown the running at two fringes can work, so might The Space go for three?

As always, we’ll see.

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