Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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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The Red Lion and East is East

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

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

The Red Lion

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

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

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Brighton Fringe 2017 – as it happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here they are:

Pick of the Fringe

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

Honourable Mention:

The Ruby in the Smoke
Blink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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