Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens

Wednesday 28th August: So here it is: my pick of the fringe and honourable mentions.

This time round, it was fairly easy to come up with a pick of the fringe, but the borderline between honourable mention and the rest. All the plays I’ve reviewed here had things about them I really liked, even if work needed to be done on the play as a whole. In a less competitive fringe, I would have been happy to rate any of these plays an an honourable mention. In the end, I had to decide based on the state of the play at the moment. Normally I allow the potential of the play to carry more weight, but with all plays having potential I’m using the state now as a tie-breaker.

There’s one title I’m excluding from this list, and that’s From Judy to Bette which I didn’t count as theatre in the end – that, as i said earlier, is more of a musical celebration. But amongst the others, here’s the moment of truth:

Pick of the fringe

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Great Grimm Tales
Green Knight*
The Rebirth of Meadow Rain
The Red
The Red Hourglass
Sary*
Testament of Yootha
Trainspotting Live*
Will, or Eight Lost years in Shakespeare’s Life

Honourable mention

An Audience with Yasmine Day*
Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
The Grandmothers Grimm*
Ladybones*
Moby Dick
Myra
Princess Party
Ritch Bitch
Showstopper
Stanley
Taboo*

Both categories are listed in alphabetical order, * indicates a production I saw this year prior to the Edinburgh Fringe that was performing in Edinburgh.

So that’s it, the end of my live coverage. Thank you for following this over the course of a month. The roundup will come in due course. Before then, a rest. We all need a rest.

Tuesday 27th August: I know I said I was going to choose pick of the fringe today, but it turns out I need to update yesterday’s info. Turns out you can’t assume a calculation is correct just because it’s in Chortle. The Stage is reporting an 8% increase, and All Edinburgh Theatre is reporting 6%. I’m minded to go with 6%, because this is roughly in line with my own calculation (note to self: yesterday’s “Chortle says 12% and I can’t be bothered to check if they’re right” wasn’t such a good idea after all),  and also that is a number that came from someone from the Festival Fringe Society itself.

The changes for Pleasance and Underbelly of +1% and -1% are still correct as far as I’m aware, but a new figure that’s emerged is a whopping 30% reported by Assembly. I wonder if the New Town is making a comeback, which may or may not be linked to the increased patronage from locals (if they choose to avoid the busiest areas) – even so, it’s difficult to see how that alone could account for a rise that dramatic. But with the Big Four offering similar kins of programmes, what else can explain such a difference in fortunes? That rise accounts for about three-quarters of the fringe-wide increase in sales (although you can expect a lot of ups and downs with other venues, so that’s a simplistic figure).

One possibility this rules out is the suspicion that the rise is is entirely down to more tickets sales for the biggest acts. Had that been the case, you would expect – since most of the biggest names are with the Big Four in the biggest spaces – the Big Four’s sales to be growing across the board. It’s still possible this could be happening in conjunction with other factors that are making these figures so confusing, but if big names are succeeding at the expense of the small names, it will be part of a complicated pattern rather than a simple one.

There is one other notable observation All Edinburgh Theatre has picked up on, which is that the Festival Fringe Society hasn’t actually made a big thing of this; their own story leads with the record number of Edinburgh locals, and you have to read to the final paragraph to see anything about sales. A similar thing happened with the unexpected growth, with prominence given to the number of international performers with the actual growth buried at the bottom of the press release. Previously the Edinburgh Fringe has shouted figures like this from the rooftops, so this year it’s conspicuous by its absence. It seems that whilst the Festival Fringe Society is not discouraging further growth on the fringe, it has stopped encouraging it. And that is interesting

And what does this all mean for the future of Edinburgh Fringe – do you think I’m going to stick my neck out with a prediction for this?

Monday 26th August: And we’ve finally reached the last day of Edinburgh Fringe. And that means we get the long-awaiting news of the sales figures. There’s been a lot of talk of poor sales figures leading to speculation that the growth bubble may finally have burst, but that’s what everyone said last year, and sales grew after all. Well, the same has happened again: sales up 12% (according to calculations by Chortle), substantially more than the target of 8% theoretically needed to sustain 8% growth. Obviously, this assumes the sales growth is evenly spread throughout the fringe; it’s no good if, as some people have anecdotally suggested, all the extra sales are going to big successful shows. But, if anything, the figures available suggest something much stranger is happening.

UPDATE: Chortle got its calculations wrong. Will do proper update later today.

Pleasance has reported a 1% rise in ticket sales, whilst Underbelly has reported a 1% fall. Had they kept up with across-the-board growth, you have expected something more like 4%. Gilded Balloon has reported growth, but these figures are skewed by the addition of Patter Hoose (also known as what was C Venues), as no-one seems to know how to strip out that effect. Regardless, Pleasance plus Underbelly between them account for about 30% of sales, and unless Assembly has performed wildly differently this suggests the Big Four are flatlining. So where is this 12% growth coming from? One clue might be that there has apparently been a lot of growth in tickets sold to locals. Do Edinburgh locals have favourite haunts away from the Big Four? Is that’s what’s pushing up the growth. Regardless, this leaves a lot of unanswered questions, with no obvious way of getting the answers.

One other effect of last-day Monday is that I really must get these last two reviews out of the way.

So my second last review is Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, and this is truly one of the strangest plays I’ve reviewed. This is performed by Lauren Meckel, but the original performance was from the writer, Jo Carol Pierce, as a record that’s part song and part spoken word. Born and raised in a heavily religious part of Texas, Jo Carol asks Jesus what are these boys for and what she’s supposed to do with them. The answer, Jesus apparently told her, was to enjoy as many as you can – 115 is a figure quoted at one point. It’s not clear how Jo got one message and everyone else got the usual message that impure thoughts are sinful and sex outside marriage is the devil’s work, seeing as Jesus never really expressed opinions on this one way or the other the last time he was around, but the rest of the Texas goes along with the more traditional ideas and she’s seen as an outcast. That doesn’t seem to bother her too much. What does bother her is that love and nymphomania doesn’t play together nicely, and one the few occasions she meets a boy that she sees as more than a fling, the inevitable infidelity dooms any chance of a future.

That’s not the strangest bit though. At the beginning, Pierce talks about how she committed suicide that morning, with a quite detailed decription of how many vehicles hit her on the road. As the real writer is still alive, I take it this was a metaphor for something. There’s also a bit where every goes after a UFO, but not in the sense of an earth-shattering moment that will change to world forever, but a casual pursuit because UFOs are apparently ten-a-penny over the Texas skies. I’d love to know what any of this was supposed to mean, but this is one of the few times I can question a performer on that and the performer could quite legitimately respond with “Your guess is as good as mine”.

Lauren Meckel puts on a fine stage performance as Jo Carol though, with mannerisms and outfit very well of the Texas Bad Girl, but only bad in the sense of what other people consider bad even though Jesus specifically told her it was okay. The original album is online and the style does justice to the voice of the real Jo Carol. The one thing that I wasn’t so sure about was transplanting the songs. The real Jo Carol has a low and husky voice, and I wasn’t sure this quite suited Lauren’s own voice. I wouldn’t be afraid to change the singing to a different style or key if it’s more in the comfort zone, even if it’s less authentic, but that’s only a minor issue. The most memorable part of Bad Girls Upset by the Truth is the monologue. Considering the original performance was only an audio track, a good job here converting this to a visual one. Very odd play, but job well done bringing this to the stage.

And the very last review isn’t quite as bizarre, but still one of the stranger stories: Stanley. And it’s the strangeness of this that makes is different from the others. Stanley lives alone in his flat, most of the time in his pyjamas, scared of the world around him and terrified by what he hears on the news. And say what you like about today’s horrendous news, but modern deluded sociopaths have lost the art of nearly blowing up the entire world. This story, however, takes place between the 1950s and 1970s when almost obliterating the planet was much more in fashion. And it’s one long period anxiety-driven seclusion over two decades. He has to go to great lengths to be secluded – it took an awful lot of not answers letter and phone calls for his sister to stop trying. To start with, he almost manages to attend a party thrown by a neighbour. By the end, even the unavoidable conversations at the corner shop are kept to a minimum. His only solace, it seems, is the uncomplicated life in this is new BBC radio series, The Archers.

There is one weakness to this kind of story, which is that the story is largely the same. The first scene very much establishes Stanley as a recluse terrified of the news, with no prospect of ever changing – after that, it’s really more of the same, only worse as his anxiety and agoraphobia grow unchecked. To be fair, this weakness is very much an unavoidable one, because it’s difficult to see where else this story could have gone. But perhaps this bleak unchanging narrative is the only way this story could be told. By the end, even his old friend The Archers can’t provide solace any more, where his dark thoughts take over his beloved Ambridge and turn it into a nuclear weapons test site.

I will declare that this was a tough watch for me personally – I something have periods of news-related anxiety myself, nothing on Stanley’s scale, but then, Stanley got how he was because his fears took over. Don’t expect anything cheery from this, or any more positive than a warning of what needs nipping in the bud, but do expect something very different from Conor Clarke McGrath, who shows a lot of promise from a fringe debut.

Nearly there. Now it’s time to choose my Pick of the Fringe. I genuinely haven’t decided yet. Just a reminder that if you were in the Edinburgh fringe programme but I saw you at Buxton or Brighton, you are eligible, but you won’t automatically get into Edinburgh Pick of the Fringe just because you were in the corresponding pick of another fringe. Tomorrow should be exciting then.

Sunday 25th August: Before polishing off the last two reviews, let’s take a look at how the plays I’ve covered have been faring against over reviews. This is going to have to be a rush job, so I’m going to use the List’s Top Rated Shows as my reference as it’s the fastest to use, even though it misses out some notable publications. When I get round to the roundup, I might find more items of note.

I’m not going to do a comprehensive roundup here. A single four-star review might be significant if Brighton, but the sheer number of reviews and review publications means you really need multiple reviews before it stands out. I’m also not paying much attention to established shows. Bite-Size and Showstopper both bagged a five-star review this fringe, but they were guaranteed excellent ticket sales anyway. It’s acts seeking to make a name for themselves where it matters.

Out of all the plays I’ve covered, the clear winner with the reviews is Caroline Horton’s All of Me, her own account of living with depression. It was covered by ten reviews and a five-star rating in four of them. I saw this and chose not to review it myself as this turned out to be a far more abstract play than I’m used to covering, but I’m aware this abstract style has a lot of appeal to others, and for they, it went down very well. It looks like the spectre of the original London run of Islands can finally be put to bed.

There were two (very different) plays on my recommendations I never got round to seeing: Mustard and Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name. Those have both done well with the reviews, with a mixture of four and five stars. Hopefully I’ll catch the latest Police Cops installment next time – as far Eva O’Connor, I fear it’s come and gone, but maybe I’ll find a chance another time.

The Red got quite a spread of reviews in the end, ranging from lukewarm three-stars to glowing five stars. Testament of Yootha went down well with three four-star reviews, only let down by two stars from The Scotsman, but The Scotsman wouldn’t recognise talent if it came unicycling towards them playing Chopin’s Minute Waltz with one hand and composing all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. One thing I ought to acknowledge is that East got two five-star reviews. I don’t think I will ever susbcribe to the play myself, but for those who do, it looks like they delivered.

One unexpected result is Numbers, that I covered in the first week, getting five stars, three stars and one star. I thought that play might split opinion, but I didn’t expect it to split opinion that much. But the result I’m thrilled by is The Rebirth of Meadow Rain getting three four-stars and a five-star. This is the one where I wasn’t certain how well it would go down elsewhere. Now that it’s a undisputed success, I really hope this can go far.

However, the one that interests me that most is something I haven’t got round to covering at all, and it’s Titania McGrath: Mxnifesto. I won’t give the blow-by-blow account of this, but the short version is that Titania McGrath is a creation of a comedian Andrew Doyle, and usually exists on Twitter as a self-righteous moral crusader. I gather the live show is done by a woman playing her – I didn’t have time to see it; if it ever comes to a less busy fringe I’d probably see it then to make up my own mind. But it’s notable because it cuts close to the bone of a lot of causes regarded as sacred cows in theatre. So would the fringe publications review this on whether it was any good or would it come down to a moral judgement, as rogue reviewers have done in the past.

Well,  I am pleased to say that the fringe review publications appear to have reviewed this fair and square. Three three-stars, a five, and a two, and even the two-star welcomes the fact that this is different from most of the views expressed at the fringe. For what it’s worth, I recommend Robert Peacock’s review because he has a track record of being fair when reviewing controversial acts. The consensus amongst the reviews seems to be that is anything is to be criticised, it’s the transition from spoof Twitter to an hour-long show.

However, the national press is a different matter. The most prominent one on the fringe radar is Brian Logan’s one-star for the Guardian. It is only fair to acknowledge that the review is neutral about the views expressed and instead is critical of transplanting this to a live show, but he has in the past acquired a notoriety for judging comedy on morals more than anything else. But even if it is the national is polarised into praise or derision almost entirely in line with whether the publication is right-leaning or left-leaning. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

So there’s your review round-up – a lot of good news to people who deserve it. But on the bellweather show that acted as a test on whether reviews are being fair, the surprise news is that the small-scale review sites have scored a lot more highly than their professional counterparts in the national press.

Saturday 24th August: And now, as promised, I turn my attention back to The Big Bite Size Breakfast Show. I’ve already talked about my overall impressions of the new space and how I quite like the idea of having all the furniture at the back as teasers for upcoming plays (see 12th August). One update on the earlier news: it has indeed sold out almost the entire run. A good point was made to me by someone in the audience, which is that the Bite-Size audience tends to be older than the average fringe audience, presumably due to the morning slot. What started off as a the only time-slot available seems to have ended up instrumental to their box office success.

The other thing I forgot to mention the first time round is the process of selecting the plays. A learned a couple of things this year: firstly, the process of selecting the plays is almost as labour-intensive as actually producing them; and secondly, it’s the whole ensemble who take part in this, not just Nick Brice. It looks like one side-effect of an ensemble coming back year after year is that they have a much bigger say in the direction of the company, and my understanding is that everyone has to be on board for a play to be chosen. Even plays written by Bite Size members don’t get a bye.

Anyway, let’s get on to my picks. As always, there’s little to say about the overall experience that hasn’t been said before. I’ve seen many other groups do compilations of ten-minute plays, and so far no-one comes near. Not everybody will like every ten-minuter, but that’s okay, because there’s always another one round the corner. But there’s four in particular that stand out the most:

  • Apocalypto, which is like I Am Legend, except it’s the most rubbish zombie apocalypse ever. This does not stop our protagonist revelling in the mortal struggle for survival, even though his two fellow survivors are more interested in checking out the stuff at Aldi, if they can make it past the slow, easily-avoidable zombies.
  • Stag Do, where a random employee gets invited to his boss’s stag party, only do discover he’s the only guest – a result, it turns out, of his best friend and best man who’s guilt-tripped him into a joyless party whilst his wife-to-be is enjoying her hen night.
  • Hitwomen of Highbury. A meeting of three spinsters, a bit like the women’s institute, only they spend their time going round murdering people. But trust me, the people they murder are horrid. Then the team stands to be broken up as their ringleader gets married to a frightful old bore. Only one thing for it.
  • One of Our Comedians is Missing. Not much representation from the surrealistic comedies this year, but this one flies the flag. It begins with a scientific breakthrough when comedians (British comedians, of course) are resurrected and giving the ability to fly, leading to the comedian wars where millions of people die laughing. It’s up to the British upper echelons of the army to sort it out, with stiff upper lip, of course. And it gets even more surrealistic after this.

Notably, I didn’t check who wrote what, but found out later that Bill Knowelden and Thomas Wilshire accounted for two of these four. They are at a bit of an advantage here, because they’ve seen dozens of these plays through to production and know the craft inside out, but still the results are pleasing. Also noticing that Claira Watson-Parr is joining Bill Knowelden in bagging most of the funny parts, with the tough-as-nails Galdiator in The Warriors (something that bears an uncanny resemblance to a 1990s ITV Saturday Night TV show being one of my highlights.

No risk-taking second show this time – probably a wise precaution with the need to get more tickets sold – but it puts them in a strong position for next year, if they go with that. All in all, Bite-Size have had an excellent fringe, with the move the the bigger venue show just how big their following is, and expect to his the ground running next year with whatever they go for.

Friday 23rd August: In the last few days of the fringe, the debate about the cost to performers – and, indirectly, the wider effect on the city – has flared up again. So far, however, few people are addressing the underlying cause, which is – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – too many people trying to perform in the same city at the same time, driven on by the arts industry and arts media who are wedded to the “Edinburgh or bust” mentality. I wrote about this last year with Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh. Have to say, I’m not impressed with the year that’s followed. The arts industry recognises that cost in a problem and they’re throwing money at it, pushing more groups into doing Edinburgh an exacerbating the supply and demand problem even more. Maybe they’ll twig next year.

Let’s back to reviews. Four to go. I’ll do Myra next – I’ve been taking my time with this because I wanted to give some thought to this somewhat controversial play. Lauren Varnfield first intended to perform this at Brighton in 2016, but pulled it quite late on after wanting to get the show right – after all, the Moors Murders is not a subject to treat on lightly. It finally got its premiere in Brighton two years later, where it was generally – but not universally – well-received. Now at Edinburgh Fringe, this division has continued, with the reviews collated by The List showing a four-, three- and two-star review at the time of writing. Well, having finally had the chance to see this and judge for myself, I can say that I liked it, but I can understand why some people have a problem with this.

The one thing I think everyone is in agreement on is Lauren Varnfield gives a stellar performance as Myra Hindley. No-one will ever know what truly went through her mind – why on earth would a woman abused by her partner collude with murder? – but this play gives a chillingly convincing depiction of what she might have been thinking. A teenager in total awe of a man she loves, and a man who realises she will do anything she say, her collusion in the first murder is little more than commands – picking up Marie Ruck, a neighbour of her mother, a young Myra just about suppresses the nerves in her voice to lure her to her death. The moment where Myra turns up the radio to drown out the screams was the most awful moment to watch. Then it gives her a strange sort of purpose, achievement even, and she grows more confident over the next four murders, being a full-blown accomplice.

Now for the controversial bit: should so much of the play have been given to Hindley’s pleas for release? My view is yes – it’s the only way the play can work. She’s playing Myra Hindley, so inevitably the claims she was under Ian Brady’s spell and now she’s a reformed woman are going to be told through Myra’s voice, however distorted. I do have some sympathy with the argument that we spend too much time talking about murderers and not enough time talking about the victims, but that’s a much wider debate than one play. What I think might have been wise, however, was to put more things on the information sheet given out at the start of the play. The sheet didn’t beat about the bush on what their crimes were, but I’d have also used this as an opportunity for balance. Whatever the aged Hindley proclaimed to the world, in this play or otherwise, I think a lot of the controversy could have been averted had the information sheet included some of the counter-arguments from those who didn’t believe she was reformed.

That wasn’t really an issue for me – as far as I’m concerned, depiction is not endorsement. The one thing that I felt was missing was something quite, quite, different, and that was the final murder – the one that got them caught. When I was researching this subject prior to the review, I learnt how badly Brady overplayed his hand, thinking he could recruit Myra’s brother-in-law as a new accomplice. I realise this would have added extra complications into an hour-long piece, but it seems like such a missed opportunity. What was like for Brady and Hindley as it became clear the game was up. Brady had been brutal to Hindley over matters as trivial as looking at another man – how would he have handled this. For a story so dependent on their relationship, I’d have loved to see what true colours Ian Brady showed in the dying days, even if Lauren Varnfield had to use her imagination to fill in the gaps.

But it’s a play I will recommend, but you must know what you are letting yourself in for. If you don’t like plays or films that give a murderer more of a voice then the victims, this won’t change your mind. If, however, you want to get an insight into why, then go.

Thursday 22nd August: Now that I’m back home, it’s back to daily updates. And I was planning to spend the time between now and the end of the fringe clearing the remaining reviews. But before then, I’ve come across this article in the Edinburgh Evening News: ‘It’s these pop-up reviewers who haunt festivals such as Edinburgh Fringe that have done much to devalue the review as an art form’. Oh dear, it’s bad. Seems The Scotsman really don’t like people like me treading on their turf.

I’d like to imagine this was written specifically in response to my original article about the Scotsman, and I’ve checked for any coded attacks on me personally, but I can’t find any. Which is a shame, because that would have fed my fragile ego no end. But still, as this is a blanket attack on an entire swathe of reviewers that I’m a part of, I have written a response:

Sorry Scotsman, but “pop-up” reviewers are legitimate competition

Thanks a lot to Liam Rudden for giving me extra work to do. Apologies to those of you still waiting for reviews – I will resume tomorrow.

Wednesday 21st August 9.15p.m.: And I’m home. Let’s get one more done before I pass out.

I’ve been thinking about catching this for some time, but I’ve finally seen Showstopper! After Notflix showed me how good an improvised musical can be, I was curious to see how they compared to other groups. Showstopper is one of the most prominent groups out there (doing both an adults’ and children’s show each day), and partly grabbed my interest because they have Susan Harrison, one half of the hilarious Two Star Reviewers podcast. The premise for this one is is that Cameron Mackintosh need a new musical in the West End, and he needs it in 70 minutes – coincidentally the time it takes for them to perform the show – so it’s up to us to suggest something new. (I must say, I don’t think this premise is very realistic – surely, given the crappy state of most musicals, the writers are knocking them off in ten minutes. But anyway …)

On this occasion – not that will ever be repeated – the suggested voted for by the audience is the setting of a werewolf conference. A peace between werewolves and humans has held for some time thanks to a pact to only disembowel sheep, but is a brought under threat by an upstart werewolf who’s a movie star. And he’s gone too far. To my delight, by suggestion of a scene in the underground catacombs was picked – come on, you can’t not have an underground catacomb in a werewolf movie last year – and this instantly brought to live by green light an ominous music. Can this upstart resist the urge to bite a virgin? What if the virgin is already a werewolf? Could that make her into a – double wolf? And so on.

But how does it rate against Notflix? Close call – this is a fixture that may have to go into extra time. What’s interesting, though, is in spite of the different formats (Showstopper takes various bits on input throughout the hours, whilst Notflix starts with a name of a movie to cheesify and off they go) the strategy that makes them work is remarkably similar – you need an ensemble who are musical, confident working with each other, and had lots of practice together, and you also need the courage to make plot-changing decisions on stage, on the fly. But I’ve also picked up one small but important detail: when someone inevitably makes a mistake, they make the mistake funny, so when one of the actors forgets whether he’s a werewolf or a vampire, this takes on a plot thread all of its own of this new species of werewolf-vampire, and possible paved the way for the double wolf bombshell. Even a moment where one member of cast came on stage to play a bullet only to be told we wasn’t needed was funny.

Showstopper has a rotating cast, but it just so happened that Susan Harrison was part of it, and she was an absolute superstar as lovestruck virgin / double wolf. The heavyweight title between them and Notflix will have to be decided another day, but one plus in Showstopper‘s favour is that they tour a lot. So if you can’t catch them this fringe, there will be plenty of opportunities closer to where you live. And since I’d love to see how the kids’ show compares, I may need to borrow my nephew and niece the next time they come my way.

Wednesday 21st August, 10.00 am: Back on the Azuma. Long story how this happened. Let’s get back to business.

The next review is US-based Permafrost Collective with Are You Alice: A New Wonderland Tale. This is in the Dance and Physical Theatre section of the programme rather than straight theatre, and for reasons I’ll go into shortly, this was the right place to put it. It’s a very abstract setting, but the premise seems to be that seven different Alices all go to sleep and share the same dream. What follows over the next hour is a potted retelling of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, with guest appearances from Alice Through the Looking Glass, including the exam to be Queen, the Jabberwocky and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Did you know that Tweedledum, Tweedledee and their Walrus and Carpenter story were originally through the looking glass before Walt Disney moved them to Wonderland? If not, you do now.)

To be honest, I couldn’t make much sense of the premise, other than being a re-enactment of the Alice scenes with the seven Alices taking turns as proper Alice. It didn’t matter too much to me though – the one thing that Lewis Carroll’s books are not supposed to do is make sense. I was more interested in the staging and choreography of this, which was good. I really liked the music written for this, and some of the scenes were impressive, with the Cheshire Cat being represented by just a mouth being a particularly inspired idea, and the seven-Alice Jabberwocky also being quite striking. There are some signs that the play has been planned round the individual actors’ strengths, with the strongest singers getting the most singing and the strongest dancers getting the most dancing – I approve, that’s one of the best ways to make an ensemble shine with what you have.

And yet, I feel I’ve missed something here. According the the press release the play “questions identity, womanhood and self-acceptance in world which constantly redraws the lines and rewrites the rules”. I’ll accept that Wonderland does indeed constantly redraw the lines and rewrites the rules, but I couldn’t work out what this had to do with questioning identity, womanhood and self-acceptance. However, this goes back to what I said about its category in the programme. Dance and Physical Theatre has its own set of conventions, just like theatre has a set of conventions that might not be obvious to someone used to films and television. If people who know this genre better get what this is about, fair enough.

Ultimately, this comes down to what Permafrost Collective want to achieve. If this is aimed at a Dance & Physical Theatre audience and you’re confident they’ll understand the conventions, you can safely ignore what I’m saying. If it’s trying to get a message out to a wider audience, you’ve got to think about whether someone who’s never seen this before will pick up the some things as someone who knows the production inside out – that’s never easy. But I’m just happy to appreciate Are You Alice for what I saw: an absurdist adaption of an absurdist book with some excellent music and choreography. If that’s good enough for Permafrost, it’s good enough for me too.

Wednesday 21st August, 6.30 a.m: Yes, that’s right. Six fucking thirty in the fucking morning. I have to be in London for nine and it was easier for me to get the train from Edinburgh than go home and catch it there. And to add insult to injury, the flashy new Azuma service I was getting all excited about didn’t turn up. You bastards, LNER, you bastards.

Sunrise view.Still, it’s not all bad. You get to see views like this. I’m going to have my breakfast, then let’s get these remaining reviews done.

Tuesday 20th August 9.45 p.m.: And so, I’m calling it a day. Eight days and 29 shows later and I need to get a good night’s sleep before my 5.40 train tomorrow. That’s 5.40 in the morning. Bugger. That’s why I’ve had an extended stay in Edinburgh – it was actually easier to stay here rather than make my way to Newcastle station tomorrow. I think I have six outstanding reviews, so I might be able to clear come on the train tomorrow. Oh Jesus. Five. Forty. What was I thinking?

Before rounding up the remaining reviews though, it’s time to turn attention to the end of the fringe. The event on the last day that always gets talked about is the ticket sales – or, more precisely, the growth on the previous year’s figures. It’s big simplification, but the general target is that sales growth should equal or surpass the growth in registrations, in order to sustain the same income to the increased number of groups. Speculation has started, including from Lyn Gardner, and the mood so far is that sales aren’t going great. Although not part of the fringe, the early sales for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo are apparently down, which isn’t a good precedent. There is also an argument that the general precarious state of the economy might make some people think twice about such an expensive festival. Thanks Bojo.

However, I would still urge you to treat this speculation with caution – not because I don’t trust the judgement of the people making these predictions, but because the rumour mill said the same thing last year and got it wrong, with strong growth of 5% reported instead. This time round, 5% won’t be good enough as the target to keep up with registrations is 8.3%. But Edinburgh Fringe figures have surprised me before, so maybe they can surprise me again.

There is, however, an argument that this festival-wide figure is a red herring. To go back to my caveat, sales keeping up with registrations is a big simplification – maybe simplified to the point where it loses all meaning. Lyn Gardner suspects – and others agree – that it’s the big-budget shows with PR machines that are doing well and the small-scale shows getting the disappointing sales. And, annoyingly, the fringe-wide figures don’t tell us much about that. Even the the most stunning growth figures are useless to the groups who need it the most if it’s all going to the big fish. The worst case scenario is that good figures conceal a financial climate pricing out the groups the fringe was meant for.

One thing that might help is the Cost of Edinburgh project, which is consulting on survey questions at the moment in order to conduct a study during next year’s fringe. That means that the earliest these findings can be put to any use is Edinburgh Fringe 2021. But unfortunately, I don’t see any way around that. It looks like we’re going to running blind for at least another year before we can have any idea where the problem are, let alone how to solve them.

All the same, Sunday’s figures will be very interesting. Continue reading

Brighton Fringe 2019 – as it happens

REVIEWS: Skip to: Taboo, How disabled are you?, Ross and Rachel, Freak, Shit Scripts, I Am a Camera, Sary, Wolf Tamer

Wednesday 5th June: And the answer is … 3,841. That is in “Whoah” territory. This is up 293 from 2018’s figure of 3,548. That works out at an 8.3% increase, slightly under yesterday’s indication of 9.5% but still a dramatic increase. Two years ago it looked like Brighton might catch up with Edinburgh. Little chance of this now.

Of course, the harder to answer question is whether a rise of 293 is good or bad. This will depend a lot on what these extra 293 acts consists of. The ideal scenario is that the Festival Fringe Society’s hard work to make the fringe has paid off and more people are able to go. But it could also be that these efforts have got nowhere and the extra 293 are people who are made of money.

There is one oddity in all of this: the Festival Fringe Society have been strangely quiet about this record-breaking fringe. Normally this kind of news is shouted from the rooftops. And this looks like a conscious choice too – Edinburgh Fringe’s own press release gives the number of participating countries as its headline figure, with the size of the fringe little more than a footnote. Make of that what you will.

But we are going to have to leave it there because that is the end of this coverage. I haven’t quite finished with the Brighton Fringe because I will be getting some numbers from Brighton later, and of course I have to put all the reviews into a roundup, but that can all come later. Thank you all for sticking with me over the month, and join me in August when we do the same for Edinburgh.

Tuesday 4th June: I was going to fill the gap before tomorrow with some news that broke about a former Edinburgh Fringe performer that broke during May, but I’ve decided to hold this off for later. This is big news, and it deserves something better than a chaotic mention in an article about another festival.

So instead, a look ahead until tomorrow. The fringe numbers are Edinburgh are a closely-guarded secret and I don’t have any advance information – but we can try to speculate from the registrations so far. There have been several rounds of early bird going out, and on the eve of the final number, there are 3477 listings on the website. One important clarification about this number is that, unlike the paper programme, any shows that are on at two different venues appear twice. Consequently, there will be a bit of double-counting, and you can’t directly compare this to registrations. But you can compare this to the eve-of-programme figure last year, which was 3179.

At face value, this amounts to 9.5%, which one could expect to mean an increase of around this level when the final number comes out tomorrow, if – and this is the big if – the 3477 vs 3179 figure is a valid life-for-like comparison. We know from Buxton that early figures can make things look more sensational than they really are – at one point Buxton’s figures this year were a 73% ahead of the figures the same time a year before ending up with a less dramatic 21%. Part of the reason for the inflation of the early figures was the discounted early bird fee encouraging earlier registering; therefore, we must consider the possibility that this figure is also artificially inflated by earlier registration. Or the 9.5% really could be the shape of things to come. Even with seasoned journalists used to Edinburgh’s figures defying all predictions of peak fringe, a rise of this scale after all the hoo-ha about the cost of the fringe would be a big turn of events.

The other figure that will be of note is Brighton Fringe ticket sales. Unlike Edinburgh, where sales figures always come at the end of the fringe, Brighton is sporadic about whether it gives the figures quickly, or slowly, or not at all – and they have been known to be slow to announce figures that I’d have expected them to shout from the rooftops. However, Julian Caddy kindly offered to supply me with various fringe figures once things have calmed down a bit, so when I have the numbers, I will have comprehensive numbers.

So now we wait for tomorrow. Exciting, isn’t it?

Monday 3rd June: So, here it is, my pick of the fringe.

First of all, this is a theatre blog so my pick of the fringe and honourable mentions are intended for theatre. I have previously included comedy when there’s been enough crossover with theatre to judge is as a comedy theatre piece, but this time everything in the way of comedy has been more like stand-up or sketches. One other omission from this list is How Disabled Are You? – not because it’s any better or worse than the other plays, but because this was too different to the conventional theatre to draw a meaningful comparison.

Out of the eleven left, there were three duds (none of which I chose to review in the end). So out of the remaining eight, here is the list:

Pick of the Fringe

Wolf Tamer
Sary
I Am A Camera
Freak
Ross and Rachel

Special pick of the fringe:

Here We Are Again

Honourable Mention:

Bright Raven
Taboo

As you may notice, this is a bit top-heavy on pick of the fringe, but there has been a good standard of theatre amongst what i saw this year.

All of these will be collated when I get round to doing the roundup, although don’t hold your breath. I have been known to not complete this until after the Edinburgh Fringe – I’ll try to avoid anything that embarrassing this time, but that will depend what’s going on with my life.

Not quite done, yet. We have Edinburgh Fringe’s numbers to cover before we’re done. But it’s almost done now.

Sunday 2nd June: Before going into the awards, a quick digression to some breaking news concerning Edinburgh. There’s been yet another review publication trying to establish itself as a pay-for-review publication. It’s called The Mumble, and the early indication is that it’s trying to use the same arguments that edfringereviews.com tried two years ago. That’s the mild version of events. I’ve also heard allegations they’re specifically targetting groups who don’t know any better. And I’ve heard worse allegations still. However, I’m going to hang fire on repeating the most serious allegations until I’ve had a chance to investigate this better and The Mumble has had a fair chance to respond.

In the meantime – and the reason I’ve brought this up now – I want to say something for any fringe newbies reading this: have nothing to do with any publication that wants payment for a review. Even if you have no ethical qualms over this practice, paid for reviews are worthless. Anybody who’s anybody in the theatre business knows which publications only said nice things about a play because the theatre company paid them to do that. Even the general public are probably going to smell a rat sooner rather than later. Yes, if you’re a new company it’s a struggle to get any kind of review at all, and yes, it sucks if you get no reviews, but trust me, a paid-for review is worse than useless. So steer clear.

Right, back to the awards. Some interesting ones here. Last year there was not name I recognised in the awards, but this time there’s too. Quintessence got the FringeReview Award for Outstanding Theatre – this was not a big surprise because this was already one of the top reviewed plays on FringeGuru and Emily Carding already has an excellent reputation in Brighton. So a little more significant is the New Writing South Award, which went to Sam Chittenden with Clean. As I reported yesterday, she’s already been getting good reviews for all three of her plays – with this added, she looks set to be one of the most looked out-for names next year.

Audience choice of venue wasn’t what I expected – but this might be significant too. It’s gone to Nether Regions, which isn’t a normal venue as such – instead, it’s a pop-up location for one theatre company doing two site-specific/immersive pieces. It’s not even clear if this venue will exist next year. But it does mean that the theatre company behind it is doing something right. That company is 2headedpigeon, who apparently are Brighton regulars. So it looks like it’s worth checking out what they do next year, either in Nether Regions again or another site-specific space. This review is worth a read for some idea of what they do with the space – another group to watch out for next year.

But you want to hear what my pick of the fringe is, don’t you? Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have a decision.

Saturday 1st June: So, here’s the schedule of the remainder of the fringe coverage. Tomorrow (I think) is the fringe awards. After that, I will announce my pick of the fringe. But I’m going to keep the coverage going until Wednesday for one last announcement of indirect relevance to Brighton but major relevance for anyone following festival fringes: Edinburgh Fringe announces its programme- and with that, the number of registrations. There has been a lot of talk over whether Edinburgh has reached its limit, but so far, all predictions of that fringe finally hitting its ceiling have been wrong. Will the prominent discussion of the cost of Edinburgh make things different this time?

Before then, let’s get back to something I’ve not been looking at for ages, and that’s reviews. I’ve given my verdict, but what do other people think. I won’t look again at plays I’ve already checked for reviews (if you want to know my previous findings and can’t wait for the roundup, you know how to use Ctrl-F), and I don’t pay much attention to reviews where they don’t matter (such as shows with long-standing fanbases who will succeed whatever the reviewer think). Eliminating all of that, there’s one thing that’s stands out, and that’s Sam Chittenden’s plays.

She directed Sary and Clean for Different Theatre, and Ross and Rachel for Pretty Villain. Getting a reliable pattern over Brighton is difficult – you’ll rarely have more than two reviews to go on for a single play – but overall the reviews have been pretty good. With one exception, the reviews across the plays have been four or five stars (or, in the case of FringeReview’s ratings system, ratings that imply four or five). In the interests on completeness, I do need to mention there was a two-star review on Ross and Rachel from Broadway Baby, which appears to be mainly about the use of a single actor for both halves of a couple. However, given the level of success the same script had at Edinburgh Fringe for its original run, my guess is this is an outlier – still a valid view, but an outlying one. What is does mean is that Sam Chittenden has probably secured her place as one of Brighton’s best-known names for future fringes.

How Disabled Are You? also seems to be doing well in the reviews, although the caveat that applies to all political theatre is that it’s difficult to tell whether the good review is approval of the play or the cause the play is promoting. The most interesting read is from Disability Arts – this covers both the play and the issue, so it’s only a sort-of review, but it’s a thoughtful examination of both that is worth the time. This could a front-runner in the awards tomorrow, so this is the one to watch out for.

Next update will be after the awards are announced.

Friday 31st May: There’s only one thing at Brighton left to look out for during the fringe, and that’s the awards. The significance can vary from year to year – often it comes down to chance whether I’ve heard about the winners. One thing that may be of interest is the winner of best venue. Junkyard Dogs expanded to a three-space venue after winning the award two years running. Will this award this year be a forerunner of the next emerging venue? Or will Junkyard Dogs make it a hat trick.

But it’s time to turn my attention back to the north-east. I need to have a look at what’s coming up, and over this weekend I hope to get the next season’s recommendations written up. But the thing that is on now is A Thousand Splendid Suns at Northern Stage. This story is one of two very famous novels by Khaled Hosseini (set in Afghanistan, much of it under the rule of the Taleban. I don’t know this story but I do know The Kite Runner, which is excellent, so I’m confident the same astute observations will work here. Northern Stage’s new writing is about as hit-and-miss and you’d expect any new writing theatre to be, but Northern Stage has an excellent track record with adaptations on the main stage, whether producing along, or co-producing as it is i with Birmingham Rep this time. This runs until the 15th June

The other thing coming up soon, however, has just been to Brighton, and it’s #BeMoreMartyn. The tribute to Martin Hett comes to Live Theatre from Thursday to Saturday next week. I have a rule that tours that take in Brighton are still eligible for the Brighton Fringe roundup if I catch it elsewhere on the tour, so maybe this will be joining the roundup.

Speaking of which, I’d better start deciding on my own pick of the fringe. No decision yet – expect a lot of deliberating tomorrow. Continue reading

Edinburgh Fringe 2018 – as it happens

This page will be added to over the course of the Edinburgh Fringe. Keep returning here for more updates, at least once per day.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Eight, Narcissist in the Mirror, Sexy Sweaty Party Party, House of Edgar, My Brother’s Drug, Por Favor, Maz and Bricks, All Out of Time, Hunch, BiteSize, Kin, Year Without Summer, Build a Rocket, Notflix, Match, The Fetch Wilson, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, This Is Just Who I Am, Proxy, Neverwant, Vivian’s Music, 1969

Screenshot_2018-09-02 FIN GIF - Fin - Discover Share GIFsSunday 2nd September: And that bring us to the end of the Edinburgh Fringe live coverage. It’s not quite the end of all things Edinburgh, because there’s still the fallout of a few events at the end of the fringe to be reckoned with, such as the allegations over behaviour of venues and the stats for growth, but this will rumble on way beyond August.

Thank you to everyone who stuck with this through the month. In the end all the reviews will go into a roundup, but before then I have a backlog to clear going back to July. Thanks to everyone who invited me to review their shows, and to everyone who made the effort to make this fringe what it is. If I couldn’t see you, my apologies, there’s only a limit to what I can see. If you’re determined to see me, ask again, because I value polite persistence.

I will now join you in a month-long hibernation. Thank you and goodnight.

Saturday 1st September: And this is it. I have made my decision on what to put in Pick of the Fringe. For those of you who have been following this regularly, a reminder that I am a lot more choosy at Edinburgh than I am at Brighton or Buxton. Previously, shows that made it to pick of the fringe at one of these festivals have only made it to honourable mention. If you are not on the list, that does not mean I hated your show – merely that it’s a fiercely contested list and not everyone can be a winner.

As before, shows marked in (brackets) are shows I saw in the past year prior to Edinburgh. In general, I don’t have time to see plays I’ve seen earlier in the year, but in order to give them a fair chance they are eligible to be in the list if they performed at Edinburgh. Only shows I particularly liked get this treatment – if I was less enthusiastic, it’s only fair to wipe the slate clean, and start again.

So, here we go …

Pick of the Fringe:

Vivian’s Music, 1969
The Fetch Wilson
Proxy
Build a Rocket
Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Maz and Bricks
House of Edgar
Eight
(Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho)

Honourable mention:

Hunch
Neverwant
Por Favor
My Brother’s Drug
(Antigone na h’Eireann)
(One-Woman Alien)
(Elsa)
(Doktor James’s Bad Skemes)

Full details will come in the roundup (whenever I get round to it). You can stop the drum roll now. Continue reading

Brighton Fringe 2018 – as it happens

This page is updated during the course of the Brighton Fringe. Come back for more updates as they arrive.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Always, With a Love That’s True, Brighton Queen of Slaughtering Places, Tom and Bunny Save the World, Susan Harrison is a Bit Weepy, Wan In, Wan Oot, Apparatus, Larkin Descending, Beasts, The Owl and the Pussycat

Sunday 3rd June: And the Brighton Fringe awards have been announced. I don’t have much to report here, because most of the award recipients are either shows I haven’t heard of, or genres I don’t cover. But one award that was notable was audience choice of best venue. Junkyard Dogs wins again, for a second year in a row.

I haven’t been to Junkyard dogs yet, because they cover mainly comedy and little theatre, but the owners of this space have a good reputation of showing love and commitment to the arts. In a festival increasingly dominated by supervenues, Junkyard Dogs may still have a capacity to throw a spanner in the works. A good reputation means that high-profile acts may pick this over a more conventional choice. But we’ll have to wait another year at least before we see if anything comes of this.

So that’s it. The end of Brighton Fringe live coverage for another year. It’s not quite the end of all things Brighton, because we still have the ticket sales figures to come out, whenever that may be. Edinburgh figures will also be interesting to see whether the Edinburgh/Brighton gap increases or decreases. I may also have an interesting bit of analysis if I have the time, but you’ll have to wait and see.

So thank you all for everyone who followed this over the last month, and of course thanks to everyone who supported my show. Roundup coming sooner rather than later, I hope. See you all in August when we start all over again in Edinburgh.

Saturday 2nd June: And here we are. It’s the moment of truth. Who is my pick of the fringe?

Last year’s Brighton Fringe went from one extreme to the other. Two plays were outstanding and got my Ike Awards, but I also saw one play that was awful. This year, the range hasn’t been quite so extreme. Nothing quite made it as an Ike-winner this time, but neither did anything make me leave cursing the fact I’d wasted an our of my life. Even so, there were various plays that didn’t make it on to this list. All had good points, and nothing was irredeemably awful, that bad points outweighed the good more often than normal.

But enough of a preamble, here we go. The full list, for the first time including plays at Sweet, is:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DdptDx6V0AAt90U.jpgPick of the fringe

Bin and Gone*
Metamorphisis*
Apparatus
The Owl and the Pussycat
Antigone Alone*
Always, With a Love That’s True

Honourable Mention

Beasts
The Erebus Project*
Larkin Descending
Wan In, Wan Oot*
Brighton Queen of Slaughtering Places
One-Woman Alien*

* indicates shows at Sweet which were subject to embargo (with rules bent for Wan In Wan Oot, as that deserved a bigger audience). Bear North and Susan Harrison is a Bit Weepy will also get a mention in the roundup, but I left these two off the list as I didn’t count these as theatre.

I’ll be writing about the Sweet shows in the roundup when I have the time (I’ll try to get them finishes before the Edinburgh Fringe this time). Well done to everyone in the list.

Now all we have left to do is look at who gets the Brighton Fringe awards. Coming up tomorrow.

Friday 1st June: I was going to have a final look at reviews, but it’s been quiet. Whaddya Know, We’re In Love got a good review from FringeReview; other than that, not much else to report. I had been keeping my eyes peeled for reviews of Doktor James, but nothing there yet. But that probably doesn’t matter – I have reports of two sell-outs at the moment, and the verdict of children trumps anything that boring old grown-ups say.

I don’t know if this is any different from previous years, but review coverage seems to have been a bit random this time round. Some shows from groups with superb reputations have had little no review coverage. And some plays, performed by groups that are starting from scratch in Brighton, and didn’t – as far as I noticed – have anything particularly eye-catching compared to other groups, got quite a lot of coverage. Obviously there’s a lot of luck involved in who gets reviewed by individuals reviewers/publications, but I’d have thought that with several major publications in play this would even out a bit. But no, still pretty random. Not really anything to conclude, just an observation.

Tell you what, since you’ve been following it this long, I’ll give you my pick of the fringe a day early. Tomorrow, okay? Isn’t that exciting?

Thursday 31st May: Now let’s look ahead to Edinburgh, the big one. Coming up on Wednesday next week, there will be news on registrations. With Brighton growth stalling for now, will Edinburgh get to extend its commanding lead?

But before then, there is a row over unpaid work. Not actors, this time, but techies – and, if I my say so, I’m surprised this issue hasn’t reared its head before. Zoo Venues advertised for technicians who would get travel, accommodation, and a subsistence allowance, but no actual pay. Zoo is far from the only venue that advertises this, but BECTU and Equity decided this was one advert too many and vowed to “exploitative” and “completely unacceptable” unpaid work.

I’m at a loss over what to think of this issue. For performers, most people agree that you should be able to do a show off your own back if you want, BECTU included. I would be the first to protest if it was any other way. Unpaid work off my own back at fringes (not Edinburgh but still the same principle) was how I got myself taken seriously enough to get paid opportunities. Yes, self-funding two Buxton Fringes and one Brighton Fringe was far from cheap, but with all opportunities to be noticed closer to home shut off to me, that’s what I had to do. The other reason to take part is that people love doing this. I love doing this too, but making a name for myself was my primary reason. Other people might simply do it to have fun. Either way, you can guess the reaction I would give if someone told me I shouldn’t have been allowed to do this in the name of protecting myself from exploitation. So far, the principle that artists should be allowed to get their work out however they choose has held up very well.

But venue staff is a lot less clear-cut. If we stick with the example of theatre technicians – and in the case of Edinburgh Fringe, these positions are reputedly long hours – the benefits are not the same. What do they have to gain from unpaid work? You cannot build a reputation as a techie the same way you can build a reputation as a performer. Now, in theory you could use your experience at the Edinburgh Fringe to boost your chances for job applications that home, but that’s not too different from the existing practice of unpaid interns, which is rife with stories of exploitation. The other reason applies though, that plenty of people would love to spend a month doing a fringe festival, especially if someone else is paying your expenses. But is that a good enough reason? Does this come at the expense of people who need the paid work?

I suppose that one factor to consider is the cash flow. In smaller venues (especially at smaller fringes), it’s vital that volunteers happily put their time in for free, otherwise they can’t run. In a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, where paying front of house and techies is peanuts compared to the cash flow, that practice would be scandalous. I’m honestly not sure where Edinburgh Fringe venues fall on this scale. Insistence of paying all venue staff could end up at considerable expense on the performers. Or it might be the landlords of the venues who end up taking the hit. Who knows?

But this is only one half of the question. It’s all very well discussing what’s fair. It’s another matter deciding how to do it. What we have to be aware of is that there isn’t that much the Festival Fringe Society can do beyond research the issue. It would be very controversial for them to start refusing to admit groups or venues based on who pays who how much (not to mention open to a huge amount of abuse), but even if we were okay with that, it wouldn’t take much for the supervenues to break away and start their own festival if they were told how to operate. As for the idea that the Festival Fringe Society could somehow force private landlords to charge less for accommodation, dream on. So what other options are there? Naming and shaming? Enforcement of existing laws? Lobbying for law changes? Nothing quick and easy, that’s for sure.

I am glad that Equity and BECTU are bringing this issue up, because a discussion is long overdue. But it’s not going to be an easy one. How to achieve what we want is going to be just as hard as deciding it. Prepare for a long debate.

Wednesday 30th May: We’re approaching the end now. Two final recommended shows coming up, and that’s for Brighton Fringe 2018. Both are on Friday and Saturday. Isobel Rogers returns with Elsa for another two performances, both 9.15 p.m. at Komedia. I’ve written about her before, but this is a unique mix of storytelling and music which is wroth seeing as something different.

Or if this sounds a bit too high-brow for you and you’d rather have some toilet humour, Imaginary Porno Charades is also on at Sweet Werks at 10.00 p.m. Long-standing Brighton Fringe favourite Jo-Jo Bellini is being guest host for these two 90-minute game shows, proving once and for all that women are just as good as the men for immature toilet humour. If you can’t wait, I wasted my time producing this the other day, and whilst I can’t guarantee The Big Gang Bang Theory or Brighton Cock will feature, that’s the sort of imaginary porno you can expect.

Four days to go, time to wind up. Any burning issues you want me to cover before we’re done?

Tuesday 29th May: Word coming back from Sunday’s FringeReview discussion on reviewers now. As I suspected, the most provocative thing about “Should we ban reviewers?” was the title. The only suggestion that Paul Levy seriously floated was the option of refusing a review request if they’ve treated you unfairly in the past. There isn’t a recording of the debate itself, but we do have a recording of a discussion afterwards between various Fringereview bods, which gives an flavour of the debate.

Based on this and other feedback from my spies, there wasn’t much division. I’m told that it was pretty much universally accepted, by performers and reviewers alike, that you are completely within your rights to refuse a review request from any publication you want. To be honest, at a festival fringe, that would be pretty uncontentious. With plays competing with each other for reviews, any sensible reviewers would just use their time giving another show publicity instead. The only thing that might cause a stink is if so many performers refuse to give press tickets to a publication they don’t have anyone to cover – but if it came to this, it would probably be game over for that publication, and any complaints over being refused access would probably be answered with examples of the sort of reviews that caused them to get blacklisted in the first place.

Richard Stamp says:

“At many festivals (including Brighton and Edinburgh), accredited reviewers can get press tickets without any further hurdles. That’s why accreditation at Edinburgh is such a big deal. Some venues opt out of this and run their own systems. In Brighton the Warren and Sweet opt out, in Edinburgh the Big Four, Traverse, and some other perceived “prestigious” venues opt out. Regardless of venue a show could always choose to have no press allocation at all (it could still let reviewers in through company comps). But the thing to understand is, hurdles to issuing tickets are also hurdles to getting a review. In Edinburgh particularly, I know which requests will go through quickly and easily, and which ones I’m going to have to chase. I’m as short on time as everybody else is, so if it’s a 50/50 choice between two shows, which one am I going to go for? So in an environment where most shows do in fact want all the reviews they can get, there’s an argument for having a lightweight process that serves the greater good of the greater number.”

(As an aside, I got the impression from the discussion that not all venues give performers a choice over accepting review requests. Both managed venues I’ve worked with gave me the choice over this: Underground Venues as and when requests came in; and Sweet Venues working to a default of accepting requests and not telling you, but giving the option to pick and choose if you wish. Do some venues not do this? I’d be nervous over that.)

The thing that might be more controversial would be to refuse review requests from specific reviewers. I don’t believe this was suggested, but I wish it had because it I’d love to see how this would go. It is rare that a review publication gets so notorious that no performer will touch them – not if they want to still be in business next year, that is. Individual reviewers, however, do. But it’s a lot harder to say no to them. Unless the review request gives the name of the reviewer, the only way to refuse a bad reviewer is to say no to the whole publication. In that respect, I can see why performer would want the right of refusal for an individual reviewer. But could that be open to abuse? Refusing a specific reviewer for writing a hit piece is one thing, refusing a specific reviewer for simply not liking what you did before is another matter. But how do you tell one from the other? I’m honestly at a loss over whether this should be legit.

This discussion, of course, only applies to fringe-scale productions. For large theatres, where reviewers are competing for press tickets, it’s a very different argument. Are we any closer to getting an answer to this debate? Maybe, maybe not. But I do think we’re a bit closer to working out which “cruel” reviewers Paul Levy was talking about. FringeReview, like a number of review publications, sees itself as a peer reviewer, with all their reviewers being experienced fringe performers themselves. But in the post-debate discussion, he talked about people who claim to be experiences fringe performers, who on closer discussions have done barely anything – and yet see themselves about knowing everything about theatre, which makes it okay to tear down everyone else. Now we’re getting somewhere. Next question: who? We know you know. Go on Paul, you can tell us. Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on.

Monday 28th May: Another Brighton Fringe break now, for an update on nymphgate. For anyone who missed this fiasco back in early February, this is a stupid stunt carried out by Manchester Art Gallery when they removed Hylas and the Nymphs from their walls – officially, it was to “start a debate”, but it was bleeding obvious which side they were on. Unfortunately for them, instead of getting the public validation they sought, they were met with universal condemnation. Turns out they’d underestimated this painting’s popularity, because the response almost unanimously rejected every one of their arguments.

I wrote about this at the time because it had become a censorship issue. Whilst taking a painting down for a week wasn’t censorship in itself, I had a suspicion the real motive was to test the water for more widespread culture policing. If that was their motive, they’re not going to be trying this again in a hurry, so I should really have let it go. But the thing that riled me was Manchester Art Gallery’s inability to acknowledge a single criticism, let alone admit they lost the argument. When the painting was re-hung amidst fanfare over this wonderful debate we were having, they said they’d follow this up with a chaired panel debate, inviting speakers with a wide range of opinions, more details shortly. Then nothing was said for weeks. They they released a series of articles branding the entire backlash as online vitriol. I even started thinking they were planning to can the debate quietly and hope no-one noticed.

But wait. The debate they promised has finally taken place. They have kept their promise. Well, some of it. One would have thought if they were keen on this debate, they’d have held it sooner when the issue was still fresh in people’s minds. The title of the debate is “Who decides what goes on display?” (um, you do, you’ve made that pretty clear), and they were going to “present their thoughts on the inherited problems that exist in gallery collections and displays and discuss who might get to to decide how gallery exhibitions might be made differently,” yet again starting the debate with a loaded question. The “wide range of opinions” was quietly replaced with the director of the gallery and the curator who was behind the removal. No opposition. Still, it could have been worse. Before pulling out at short notice, Ellen Mara De Wachter was going to join them on the panel – at the height of the controversy she wrote a god-awful article rebranding this kind of cultural authoritarism as “curatorial activism”.

However, after three months of ignoring me, someone from Manchester Art Gallery replied to me saying that strong critical opinions were aired during the discussion, the debate was frank, forthright and honest, and a video of the event will be posted as soon as they can. Very well, I will give this a chance. It will take a lot to regain my trust after so much stonewalling and dismissal of dissent, but who knows. So here’s the deal: I am going to create a list of questions I and others want answers to. Obviously the panel can only answer questions asked of them, but they will get more respect from me if they go out of the way to address these criticisms, less respect if they try to evade them. That’s it, all I can do now is wait for the video. What I say next is in their hands. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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://i2.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. Continue reading

Edinburgh Fringe 2016 – as it happened

REVIEWS: Skip to: Bite-Size Lunch HourStack, Waves, Swansong, The Jungle Book, Le Bossu, Cosmic Fear, The Trunk, Sacre Blue, The Steampunk Tempest, ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, Made in Cumbria, Boris & Sergey, Ruby and the Vinyl, Boris: World King, BEASTS, Police Cops, Adventures of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl, The Life and Crimes and Reverend Raccoon, Communicate, The Unknown Soldier, Bite-Size Breakfast, E15, Northanger Abbey, Unnatural Selection, Notflix, Unveiled, The Club, Overshadowed

This was my coverage of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe as it happened, featuring snap reviews with my instant impressions of shows. For the more measured reviews written at a more leisurely pace, see my Roundup.  Here, however, you can see what I was thinking at the time. Continue reading