Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2020

REVIEWS: Skip to: Unmythable, Privates, Shit-Faced Shakespeare, West End on Sea, Savage Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Toby Belch is Unwell, Geoff Mead’s tours, Daphna Baram

Late to the party as usual, and this is is already becoming a footnote in the ongoing saga, but Brighton Fringe 2020 still deserves its place in the records.

Brighton Fringe 2020 might have escaped the fate of Edinburgh Fringe 2020, but it still took a major clobbering. There was a time – whilst Coronavirus projections were more optimistic and many theatres were predicting a September reopening – when Brighton Fringe might have been in a position to take the Edinburgh refugees and take the limelight usually reserved from the big one. In the end, it was touch and go whether a postponed autumn fringe would happen at all, for more than one reason. But in the end, it went ahead, with a lot of caveats over what going ahead actually means.

But whilst I did of course see what I could see and say what I think, the bigger story here is what this means for the future of the fringes. There were some questions over how fringes would work under current climes, and other questions over what this meant specifically for Brighton. And in my various visits to Brighton, I learned a lot. As such, this is going to be different from my normal roundup. Usually I would go straight into reviews; this time, however, the focus is on the fringe as a whole.

What I learned about Brighton 2020

So, this year I visited Brighton not once but three times this year. One was a two-day binge during fringe proper, one was as I happened to be passing through Brighton on my annual holiday, and other one I’ll get on to in a moment.

2020: the fragmented fringe

Without major venues such as Spiegeltent and major events such as The Lady Boys on Bangkok, what has the centrepiece of the fringe? What was the iconic image. Talk to any layman and the answer you’ll probably get is the venue on the beach. The Warren – normally Brighton Fringe’s biggest venue by a long way – used their expertise in constructing pop-up venues to create a socially-distanced outdoor venue on the beach. It was a huge gamble, verging on reckless, with less than a month between the Government’s go-ahead on outdoor performance and the opening of the festival. As it turned out, it was a great success, with an excellent turnout and attracting even bigger names than The Warren does in a normal year. In fact, hastily-planned pop-up outdoor festivals have been the big success story in an otherwise dire year. It’s a pity more theatres with access to outdoor spaces didn’t strike whilst the iron was hot.

However, The Warren Outdoors was not actually part of Brighton Fringe. They didn’t wait for a decision on a postponed autumn fringe, and arguably couldn’t afford to wait – it’s hard to imagine this working nearly so well had it run September-October instead of August-September. However, alongside The Warren Outdoors came their new year-round venue Electric Arcade, but although this ran events into October this too stayed out of the official fringe listings. As far as I’m concerned, this all counts as Fringe on an unofficial basis, but the lack of affiliation meant that Brighton Fringe lost out of registration fee income it could have done with. And it’s a reminder – similar to the Big Four in Edinburgh – that the Fringe’s power is not absolute, and for better or worse, temporarily or permanently, big venues can break away if they want to. Beware.

2020: the outdoor fringe

20201003_153326Apart from Edinburgh Fringe, with its outright cancellation, not that much actually changed with the principles of a festival fringe. Buxton Fringe 2020 was described by many as an “online fringe” but no rule was ever made saying it had to be online – it’s just that for most acts this was the only practical way to take part (apart from Nathan Cassidy who was determined to perform to an audience regardless). In the same respect, Brighton Fringe 2020 can be considered the “outdoor” fringe even though there were no rules about this – it’s just that circumstances heavily favoured this medium. If you count The Warren Outdoors as unofficial Brighton Fringe, it was overwhelmingly an outdoor event, but even without this, the biggest and most successful events were the outdoor ones.

One notable venue here is Brighton Open Air Theatre. Originally an aspiration of fringe favourite Adrian Bunting, made into reality after his untimely death, until now this had just been an obscure venue out of the way. This year, it was suddenly catapulted into the limelight, starting off with a successful summer, and (thanks to some good luck with the weather on the days it was running) a successful fringe season in October, a month when it would normally have closed for the winter. It’s too early to say what this means for the long term, but with BOAT on the minds of many people who never went there before, this venue can be considered the big winner of Brighton Fringe 2020.

2020: the long fringe

Apart from the postponement, the other notable rule change was the flexibility on the dates. Although the dates of the fringe were officially the 1st-31st October, they allowed acts to register for September or November. As it turned out, there were quite a lot of takers for September, particularly outdoor events not wishing to take their chances with the following month’s weather. No takers for November in the end, apart from a few online events continuing to be available after October – quite fortunate, in the end.

This means that instead of the usual intense four weeks, Brighton Fringe ended up with a more relaxed pace over two months, or three if you count August with The Warren Outdoors. This will almost certainly be temporary, and Brighton Fringe 2021 shows every intention of reverting to four weeks, but who knows, maybe some people will decide they prefer a more spread out event.

2020: the fighters’ fringe

For all the positive noises, however, there’s no denying that the numbers were way down on a normal year. They managed around 80; a bit more if you count The Warren Outdoors towards the number. Depending on how you count the figures, there is a claim that Buxton Fringe is temporarily the UK’s largest fringe, although that relies on accepting the extensive online programme into their total.

What is does mean is that those performers left in the programme were the most hard core of the fringers, determined to go ahead come what may. Similarly, the audience was a core set of fringegoers who were determined to have their Brighton Fringe come what may. Based on my observations of audience sizes, the drop in supply and drop in demand roughly cancelled out and acts tended to get numbers comparable to a normal fringe. But there was no way of knowing this at the time. Anyone who pressed ahead in the face of all the uncertainty gets my respect and I will looks out for them more as things return to normal.

2020: the lucky fringe

Whilst a fringe only a fraction of the size it should have been might be a disappointment, it could easily have been lot worse. There were a lot of people calling for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in October, and subsequent events have pretty much proven them right. But whilst that would have been a good outcome for containing a pandemic, it would have been the worst possible disaster for Brighton Fringe – can you imagine how devastating it would have been to be forced to postpone, move heaven and earth to get a postponed fringe going, and then have that cancelled at the last moment?

Of course, one arts organisation gain is another’s loss – in this case, Brighton Fringe’s luck came at a great cost to many theatres counting on a pantomime season to make a comeback. I don’t expect Brighton Fringe to feel guilty for this – no-one in the arts is responsible for events and decisions outside their control – but it is a brutal reminder of how perilous the current landscape is.

2020: the obscure fringe

If there’s one thing I felt Brighton Fringe could have done better on, it was getting the message out. For all the obstacles thrown Buxton Fringe’s way, the Fringe Committee still did everything they could around town to show there was a fringe on. Even if all but one performance was online, you couldn’t miss the fact it was happening. In Brighton however, there was no sign around town it was happening unless you specifically went looking for the venues. It maybe didn’t matter too much – I suspect the leftover audience were the hard core who would have come no matter what – but it was a shame to not see that.

To be far, Buxton Fringe was in a position to give it all in July. Brighton Fringe, however, had other things on its mind. Something more far-reaching than a few banners on railings.

2020: the fragile fringe

There is one thing that has drawn little attention, but it’s the most important. Although an autumn fringe was announced the moment the spring fringe was cancelled, it was far from a done deal. We now know that, not only was it touch and go that an autumn fringe would actually go ahead. In fact, it was not even certain that any more Brighton Fringes would happen. The lockdown came at the worst possible moment for Brighton Fringe, after the programme had been printed but before any performances took place. Edinburgh Fringe got a bailout from the Scottish Government – and there’s no way any Scottish or UK Government would allow that to go bust on their watch – but no such help came for Brighton.

In the end, it was The Pebble Trust, Brighton Fringe’s main sponsor, who came to the rescue. That did not come cheap, and in return for the bailout, the Pebble Trust took control of the Board of Trustees, although Julian Caddy stays as Chief Executive. The good news the The Pebble Trust do seem quite serious about a rescue package. Rather than doing to minimum needed to prevent the fringe going to the wall, I’m seen them float a lot of idea for how Brighton Fringe can bounce back this year.

However, Brighton Fringe’s worries are far from over. My biggest concern at the moment is with venues, and especially The Rialto. They sat out the autumn fringe, I’ve not heard a peep from them about fringe 2021, and, most worryingly, they were amongst the unlucky few theatres who did not get anything from the Cultural Recovery Fund, with the news somewhat cruelly breaking during the fringe. I cannot stress how important The Rialto is, not just locally, but to grassroots theatre across the country that the Rialto feeds into via Brighton Fringe. The big danger is that amongst the celebrations of big festivals and venues being saved, the small ones will be forgotten. And this one absolutely must not be forgotten.

And now, the reviews

Okay, now you’re all feeling depressed, let’s get back to what this roundup was supposed to be for: reviews of things I’ve seen. To make it easy to navigate all things Brighton, I’m going to include my earlier reviews from The Warren Outdoors here, even though it officially isn’t Brighton Fringe. The reviews from Brighton Fringe proper are largely reprints of my reviews during live coverage, with a little bit of tidying up.

No separation into pick on the fringe and honourable mention this time – under the circumstances, I’m that these performances went ahead at all. But in terms of feedback, here’s what I thought.

Unmythable

Given the unique nature of this situation, most of the Warren Outdoors events are comedy, with music and magic shows next in line, but there is the occasional theatre production. This one is a potted telling of all the Greek myths. Jason welcomes you to the Argo – apparently, we the audience are all legendary heroes. Eventually we will be arriving in Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece. Before then, however, we get to know the other two members of the cast, “Beta” and “Gamma”, who feel somewhat inadequate in the presence of all these Greek legends. On the journey, they will take us on a whilstle-stop tour of all the legends so far.

Unmythable may have been picked as a fun piece for this outdoor season, but it is still quite an ambitious piece. As well as whizzing through as many legends as possible with the cast of three and the aforementioned sub-plot of Beta and Gamma, we have a light-hearted take on most of the tales balanced with some questions (as seems to always be the case with ancient stories involving one or more gods) with the common theme that women can’t be trusted.

However, I do feel something has been lost in the transition from a normal fringe stage to a social distance-friendly one. They clearly made good use of lighting effects in last year’s version, and I can see the interactive element of welcoming us as fellow heroes working better with a closer audience. For what it’s worth, if Out of Choas do stick with an outdoor version of this performance, I would focus on the comedy. Most of what they want to achieve can be done through humour – certainly I’ve seen stupid stereotypes on race and gender eviscerated far more quickly and effectively with satire than any more sombre analysis.

Where the piece was at its funniest, though, I enjoyed it a lot. They say you should allow background to emerge through dialogue and never count on someone spelling out the entire backstory on stage, but in the siege of Troy the exact opposite works, where one solider wooden horse has somehow failed to take in what he’s done in this wooden horse, forcing his colleague to spell out the entire history of the Trojan wars. And my favourite moment is the arrival of Medea, who is an obvious psychopath from the outset. I maintain that mass murder and infanticide is an overreaction to a matter of adultery, but having seen her calmly chop her trusting brother into tiny little bits as part of the escape, one must question how it didn’t cross Jason’s mind something like this was going to happen.

In the outdoor version, I myself would have ended with Jason taking Medea’s hand in marriage – what could possibly go wrong? But in festival thin on the theatre side, it was a good fun piece to start the day.

Privates: a sperm odyssey

Warren Brighton Beach-318
photo: JJ Waller

I trust we’re all acquainted with how babies are made, but have you ever wondered how all those sperm know how to swim to the egg? They attended boot-camp, of course. This, at least, is the premise from Bright Bouy productions. Three professors of the birds and bees are here to explain everything to Year 9, and by everything, I do of course mean squirming and evading whenever anyone asks anything slightly embarrassing. But who cares about boring old demonstrations on bananas? We want to see these plucky young gametes shouted at by the sperm sergeant describing them as maggots, although they’re larger than sperms so I’m not sure whether this an insult or a compliment. The privates must also answer all questions with “Sir! Yes Sir!” Unless it’s a rhetorical question, if they can ever keep up with which one is which.

The three professors do, of course, stress the importance of consent. Without a female present, they instead demonstrate the concept on a droid with a female voice, except that this particular droid is a cocky one who talks back and points out that programming someone or something to agree to something isn’t really consent, is it, and what’s the purpose of this exercise anyway? And then it’s back to the big push, which as you may have already guessed follows the format of every war film. Having completed boot camp, it’s now the scene of the maccacre, except that instead of a devastating ambush from the Vietcong it’s a devastating ambush from the white blood cells.

With lines such as “What do you want to be if you grow up”, expect an hour of suitably daft entertainment. There is of course the dilemma of how to end the journey, as you cannot possibly end a war film with three survivors turning on each other, but don’t worry, that has a suitably daft resolution too.

Shit-faced Shakespeare

Open Air Theatre on Brighton Beach UK
Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

And I finished my first visit to the Warren Outdoors with a headline act. A lot of the acts, I gather, were happy enough to be back on stage, but it’s the heavyweights that make the money needed to cover costs of this venue. Luckily, The Warren can could upon Shit-Faced Shakespeare. Their association goes back a few years and they’ve become one of their perennial acts – even so, it is a big coup for The Warren to be number 2 choice in the month they would normally have been at Edinburgh.

For those of you unfamiliar with proceedings, the rules are as follows: five classically-trains actors put on a Shakespeare play; one of those actors has got completely sozzled immediately before stage; and it’s up to the other four to help their inebriated colleague along. In practice, there’s a couple of more subtle rules and conventions to pick up. For a start, it’s now traditional for this (along with their musical counterpart Shit-faced Showtime) to open with a musical number with complex dance moves so we can work out in first minute who the drunk one is.

However, there is a problem with following the rules to the letter: some of these actors are too good at holding their drink, and don’t fluff enough lines and forget enough stage moves to keep the others busy correcting their mistakes. Which means we have to fall back on the key unwritten rule – as well as being drunk on stage, this is also you opportunity to misbehave. In this case, as we go through our favourite love quadrilateral-theme piece A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s Helena’s turn with the bottle. So when Demetrius and Lysander suddenly show romantic interest, instead of interpreting it as cruel joke just like the book says, she gets her two new suitors to engage her in favourite fetish of barking like a dog. I realise we’re supposed to believe this is all spontaneous but – sorry, you were too good and too funny for that; that dog impression was clearly rehearsed in advance.

Not the usual remit of this production but I must single out Puck, even sober Puck, for praise. Normally when I see the bits on stage without the drunk character I’m going, “Yeah, whatever, get on to the next drunk bit”, but this particular Puck also doubled up as a master of ceremonies, and that would have been equally fitting in a more conventional performance. I suppose it’s fair to say that a bit of luck comes into play – I don’t think even the actors know how funny the latest drunken antics are until they try them and see. But this was a good one and I’m glad I saw it.

West End On Sea

One of the many founding ideas to get The Warren Outdoors off the ground was making use of some of the many West End singers who’d otherwise have nowhere to perform whilst the West End theatres are closed. And so you can see musical performances to a West End standard on Brighton Beach instead. I could end the review right here. It does what it says on the tin, and it’s a no-brainer. As Nicky Haydn says in the interview, there are performers queuing up wanting to do something, and this is a unique opportunity to hear live performances from the top flight of musical theatre for a fraction of the cost.

Although this is in the theatre section, the show is sensibly a compilation of songs from assorted musicals, rather than trying to force a story into it. All the performers have a local connection, so in theory there’s nothing to stop someone doing something similar with West End performers in another area. All the performers are playing to their obvious strengths here, so there’s little to fault, but if there was something I’d pick out as the strongest area, it’s the songs that leave room to act. I realise we’re taking all of these musical numbers out of the stories that support them, and most of the songs performed in isolation are just songs; but in Suddenly Seymour, where we get to see Seymour and Audrey at their most poignant moment, that was something special.

Here’s the odd thing though: even with all of the social distancing measures in place, at West End On Sea you will find yourself to the performers than the majority of the audience in a typical West End theatre. This is why I place the most value on the songs where you really get to act and feel it, because this is something you lose a lot of performing at a distance. This, combined with the attention given to big star names and all the other bells and whistles, means that the individual skills of these performers get undervalued.

I need to be careful here, because the livelihoods of everyone who do the bells and whistles are under threat too. There was a time when I thought a permanent West End meltdown was a possibility – I now expect the West End to eventually get back to business as usual. But even if the worst comes to the worst and the lavish-scale West End shows never return, it won’t be the end of the world. West End On Sea shows what you can do with just a bare stage and a piano, but small theatres can and have put on whole musicals with minimal resources allowing performers to shine in a way you simply can’t appreciate at a distance. Hopefully this discussion is hypothetical – I think even the people behind West End on Sea would agree that the ideal situation is to make themselves redundant as soon as possible – but if things don’t chance as the year goes on, this could be taken a lot further. For once “long may it last” isn’t what we want of a show at an outdoor festival, but if circumstances dictate, it may still have a good innings to go.

Savage Beauty

The most obvious thing that strikes you about Savage Beauty is how much they’ve gone to town on this. Most of the Brighton Fringe productions that went ahead are either already low-budget low-resource productions, or have been scaled down to work with a a smaller audience. Not here – this is an immersive production with all the works. Thena invites us all to take place in an environmental protest, making it clear to as that the law we are about to break carried severe consequences. Inside (in real life a garden of someone’s house) there is soundscape mixing live music and recorded singing, projections on the wall of news covering the repercussions of the protest. The balcony and window of the house light up to show many indoor scenes, and there’s bonus circus stunts. And judging by the size of the audience – about as much as you could have before sightlines become impossible – it’s like there wasn’t a pandemic on.

Times change. When an original production was done in 2015 without the bells and whistles, it seemed quite far-fetched that a UK Prime Minister would press ahead with a madcap scheme, sack anyone with evidence it wasn’t such a good idea and respond to questions with a mixture of vague platitudes and accusations of not believing in the country. Today, not so much. Law and order has of course featured in political rhetoric since always, but what is the act of defiance that carries such severe penalties in the play? Planting a tree. That’s actually not so far-fetched as it sounds; there are many examples in history of governments clamping down with increasingly heavy-handed punishments on increasingly trivial acts of protest (the trivial protesters, of course, knowing perfectly well how damage the government in question inflicts on itself by doing this). What the Prime Minister hadn’t banked on was this tree-planter being his own niece.

The weak point of this play, however, was the character of the Prime Minister. I fear Actors of Dionysus have fallen into the trap of depicting the other side as a set of arguments they think the other side makes – but this is a play, and you need to look at his motives. Does he sincerely believe in what he’s saying, or is he a shallow self-serving opportunist? All of these scenes are taken from various Greek texts so I don’t know which characters form the basis of Prime Minister, his niece, or his sister with the unpatriotic climate data, but I’m sure if we went back to the original characters we could get some more. One promising plot hook is a game of “would you rather” played by future Prime Minister and sister as children – so what happened that drew them apart? Resolve this, and everything that happens in the later half of the story should flow more naturally.

This is a work in progress, which is why I think Actors of Dionysus were right to press on with such a resource-heavy production. Even if they hadn’t got much of an audience, they would still have achieved the more important objective of seeing how the play is working out. One small but irritating technical issue is the sightlines to the ground floor of the house, hindered to some extent by an inconveniently-positioned hedge (although cutting down a hedge for the environment would be somewhat hypocritical), but it’s something to thing about for next time. If they can upscale to a bigger garden that might solve the problem. But having got this far, I really hope they can finish the job and get this done in a finished form. So still some to do on characterisation, but get that right and it will be worth it.

Alice in Wonderland

Billed as a family-friendly ballet, Alice in Wonderland does what it says on the tin. I’m not a dance reviewer so I’ll leave it up to them if there’s any nit-picking to be have over correct or incorrect pointing of feet, but that’s not the point of this. This is clearly intended as an accessible introduction to music, stage and dance. Most of the music to tell Alice’s story are the best-known classical tunes. There is the obligatory stilts bit for when Alice eats the relevant cake and an equally obligatory appearance of an Alice-shaped doll when she drinks the relevant drink, but there’s also some pretty clever devices to represent harder thinks to stage, such as holes and how to fall down them. Like most ballet, it really only makes sense if you already know the story (although, to be fair, Alice in Wonderland isn’t supposed to make sense anyway), but it covers all the key moments nicely and it’s an ideal family event.

More notably, however, the turnout was excellent, and this is not the only one. Their reopening performance of Abigail’s Party sold out its entire run a couple of months back, and my previous attempt to check them out met the same fate. And, okay, a sold-out socially distance performance isn’t the same money-spinner as a normal sold-out performance, but the audience at this performance are still in numbers most fringe performers can only dream of. Admittedly they had a lot of luck on their side that day, squeezing two performances into the sunny dry interval in an otherwise rain-soaked weekend – and they won’t necessarily be so lucky every time this month – but every day they get like this works heavily in their favour.

I’m starting to think that BOAT could emerge as the big winner of Brighton Fringe 2020. Until now, they’ve been overshadowed by the activities of the bigger multi-space venues, but with most of them temporarily out of the picture this is the chance to show people who are choosing BOAT as an alternative to their normal pick what they can do. It’s a fair walk out of the city centre, but that can be offset by building up regular performers and regular audiences. Or BOAT may be happy to carry on doing what they’ve always done. Either way, I’m sure Adrian Bunting would be proud of them.

Toby Belch is Unwell

0_toby-belch-is-unwellThis play is very much a niche interest, but right up your street for some. In case you’re wondering, the title is indeed a play on Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which theatre literary buffs should recognise. Theatre literary buffs will also be aware that Sir Toby Belch is a minor character from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night noted for liking his drink, as ending up with equally minor character Maria. Now Maria has departed, and Toby Belch has progress from tipsy comic relief to full-blown alcoholic, and he reconstructs the story with each character represented by a different bottle of spirits. (Warning: don’t play the drinking game of matching a character’s drinks in real-time as you watch the play here. You will be a in drunken coma in the first ten minutes.)

Where this gets complicated is the dual theme. This is not only a lament to forgotten minor characters forgotten – it is also a lament to the forgotten minor actors who play them. The ones one realise they will never be Romeo or Hamlet or Macbeth. But the way this is done is that Toby Belch becomes the actor who plays him, and that, I have to say, is a pretty confusing concept if you don’t know your Shakespeare in detail. The concept of a washed-up actor whose best role is Toby Belch would seem like the more obvious one – and, to be honest, that’s what I thought this play was meant to be – my my Shakespeare buff colleagues assure me it’s definitely the other way round.

However, the same colleagues who tell me this is how the play works also assure me that if you know the character and know the story, it all fits together very cleverly. Regardless, you don’t need a detailed knowledge of Twelfth Night to appreciate Sidney Kean’s performance, which was phenomenal. And even if the wider concept isn’t clear to all, there were some moving moments, such as when Toby Belch, mistaken for a top Shakespearean actor by a group of Japenese tourists, performs a selection of the Bard’s most famous speeches to great applause. You will know better than me what your level of Shakepeare expertise is, but the assurances I have are that if you know your stuff, this won’t disappoint you.

And from outside theatre …

With events in short supply, I couldn’t see that many theatre pieces, so I had to turn to other sections of the programme. I would not normally have considered these, but I was quite glad for the change.

I go on very few tours so I have little to compare this to, but anyone can tell the difference between a Geoff Mead tours and your run-of-the-mill affair. There are some tours where you can tell the information, accurate and informative though it may be, is something taught to a pool of your guides by rote. Geoff Mead, on the other hand, obviously knows his stuff inside out. We haven’t even left the grounds of our meeting point and it feels like we’ve got a comprehensive history of St. Nicholas’s Church and how this tells embodies the wider history of Brighton. I suspect the tour could be twice as long if he didn’t decide what to leave out.

The tour probably works best if you already know, or at least recognise, the area. If you are a Brighton local, expect to hear lots of fascinating facts about places you thought you knew – if you are coming to Brighton for the fringe and have never been to the city before, the finer details might be lost on you. But it’s definitely worth considering if you’ve been to Brighton a few times and are beginning to get used to what’s where. Snippets I’d heard of get a mention, as to why former Warren home Wagner Hall is pronounced WAG-ner and not VARG-ner. Even the laundrette I randomly stopped at last month on my South Coast cycle trip has a cameo appearance.

A lot has been said about his encyclopaedic knowledge of Brighton’s history, which I can now vouch for, but what nobody told me is that Geoff Mead is also an absolutely top bloke. He has an interest in what brought everyone to his tour, answers any questions with more information that you could expect, and reputedly has the same enthusiasm on his tours no matter how big or small his crowd.

So I can heartily recommend this, and not just because it’s the only thing on offer during the daytime at the moment. Most Brighton Fringe regulars are still staying at home or watching online, but when things get back to normal, I would recommend this to regulars even if you don’t normally look at the Tours section of the programme. Many visitors’ knowledge of Brighton goes as far as Prince George and the Pavilion, but there’s so much to hear about.

And I close with a quick mention for Daphna Baram. I must admit I was a bit sceptical when this started, and I wondered if this was one of these dreaded person talking about themselves and their “thoughts” for an hour calling it comedy. But it turns out she has a surprisingly evil sense of humour. As an immigrant, she makes an excellent point that the UK Citizenship Test is basically a pub quiz, so that new citizens to this country are fully prepared to assimilate into society, as long as it’s a pub on quiz night. The darker humour I daren’t repeat here, so if that encourages you to find out what it is this is the show for you. I have been asked to take into account it’s a work in progress, but it looks pretty polished to me. Hopefully she will be back with whatever she needs to polish this year.

So: what next?

So, with the festivals of 2020 (or what’s left of them) wrapped up, what do we have for this year?

The mood from both Brighton and Buxton seems generally optimistic. Both have pushed their timescales back to some extent: both Brighton and Buxton are delaying their registration process (both directly and indirectly via venues), and Brighton is also going ahead three weeks later than usual – the expectation being that most performers will only know later than usual if they can take part Most venues have signalled they intend to take part. Neither fringe has particularly grandiose ambitions, and it’s expected to be a road to recovery rather than business as usual. However, the latest from the major venues is that most of the them are planning to go to ahead. Unless things go unexpectedly worse (and we’re now reasonably confident about keeping things under control in the summer months with or without help from a vaccine), we should have something a lot more like fringe than anything 2020 could manage.

Not so good news for Vault 2021: it’s off. And it was actually called on in the summer of last year. Although they correctly predicted it would be difficult (impossible/illegal, to be precise) to run the festival now, I was surprised they threw in the towel so easily. Brighton and Buxton both demonstrated that festivals running on much smaller scales are still worthwhile, and I’m sure they could have done something in the summer if they really wanted to. Ah well. Vault 2022 is it. Hope priority is given to the week eight acts who had the plug pulled on them.

The big question mark, however, is Edinburgh. Back in the summer, there were predictions of Edinburgh Fringe 2021 only being 40% the size of Edinburgh Fringe 2019; now, surely, the forecast must be lower still. (Of course, a lot of people thought 2019 was too big anyway, but that’s a debate we’re going to be hearing a lot more of in the coming months.) The last I heard, the plan is to go ahead in August no matter what, but the form is uncertain – an online-dominated festival like Buxton 2020 remains a possibility. Whatever the plans, registration has still not opened; normally, we would have viewing hundreds of early birds by now.

The vaccine might be bringing a close to theatre’s worst chapter in over a century, but what happens next is still anyone’s guess.

Roundup: Vault Festival 2020

Skip to: Glitch, Skank, King Boris III

I have one last thing to catch up on for theatre prior to The Event, and that is the Vault Festival. This is going to be a short roundup, because – in order to juggle things around a very congested winter calendar – I split my visit over the last two weekends. And as we all know, the last week did not go ahead. The weekend before was not unscathed either, with one notable casualty being the Sunday performances of 39 Degrees which I wanted to see.

As always, not everything I see gets a review, so we’re down to three. But out of these three, there was an exceptional standard, far in excess of a normal Vault itinerary. Let’s see what we’ve got.

Glitch

This is difficult one to review impartially. It resonated a lot with me personally, and had I been reviewing this for a different publication I would have asked for a second opinion from someone more detached. But sod it, it’s my blog, I can say what I want, and if I don’t say this, I’m not sure anyone else will.

Glitch is set in the world of speed-runs. I actually know what speed-runs are (don’t ask me why, you don’t need to know), but if you don’t, this will need a bit of explaining. Not to be confused with e-sports (don’t get her started on e-sports), this is a special kind of computer game competition where you have to get from beginning to end as quickly as possible, cheating allowed*. Reckon you could quickly defeat all nine bosses in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Loo-ser. There are defect in the code that enable you to zip from first dungeon to last. Eight minutes easy. Yes, really. There is even niche following, and it’s when a contest comes to Sutward that Kelly has a chance to take part.

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Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

REVIEWS: Skip to: The Red, Testament of Yootha, Great Grimm Tales, The Red Hourglass, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Will, or Eight lost years in Shakespeare’s Life, The Rebirth of Meadow Rain, Rich Bitch, Moby Dick, Princess Party, Myra, Showstopper, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, Stanley

Oh shit, it’s nearly 2020. I really ought to start my Edinburgh Fringe coverage in the same year. Seriously though, apologies for everyone waiting to see their name in lights in the roundup – I won’t repeat the circumstances that caused me to fall behind so much, but I’ve touched on it in the last two articles. But that’s hopefully behind me now. So let’s make a start on this.

Last year’s big theme of Edinburgh Fringe was the cost of taking part in this fringe. This year, the debate has moved on to the size. Size and cost have always been linked, but this time round the debate has widened to the effect on the city of Edinburgh as a whole. Does the fringe make the city unusable for the people who live there? Some people say breaking point is being reached. The most notable thing, however, is now what’s being said, but what’s not being said. Only a few year ago, announcements that the fringe was its biggest ever were shouted from the rooftops by the Festival Fringe Society – this year, they barely mentioned this.

One stat that is watched very closely is whether ticket sales growth is keeping up with growth of the fringe. The simplified theory has always been that if the fringe grows by x%, ticket sales must grow by x% to keep it sustainable, but is this too simplistic? This year the growth was very uneven over different venues. But there’s no easy way to control the numbers at an open festival, and we will just have to wait and see next year what becomes of this. Continue reading

Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2019

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Green Knight, Old Bones, Desert Bloom, An Audience with Yasmine Day, The Grandmothers Grimm, Author, Composer, Soldier of Sorts, We Apologise for the Inconvenience, Tangletree, Impostors, Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, 11 Reasons

Apologies for the lateness of the Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe roundups – I am currently in the thick of a house move that has taken up most of my time and energy. But these reviews aren’t going to write themselves and the backlog is getting bigger, so let’s get to it.

So Buxton has had its 40th anniversary fringe this year, and with it an extra three days were added to the festival – officially a one-off, but in practice it’s surely testing the water. As a result, Buxton ended up with its biggest fringe to date, with a record breaking 213 events, up from the PB of 183 in 2017. (The increase in performances was even more dramatic, at 750 up from previous record of 500, although this figure is artificially inflated by an unusually high number of fine art and site-specific performances – see my Buxton Fringe preview if you want more number-crunching.) So the next question was whether the fringe could sustain these extra three days – after all, this could decide whether the longer fringe becomes permanent.

Based on my observations, the answer appears to be “yes”. I am not aware of any official figures that would give us clues one way or the other (as Buxton has no central booking office there’s not really any way of keeping track of sales), but the mood amongst everyone I asked was that ticket sales were going well. I suppose on thing I didn’t get an answer to was what sales were like in the extra three days at the end of the fringe – if they tailed off that would dampen expectations. Whatever the truth, we will find out Buxton Fringe’s reaction by December, when registrations for 2020 open.

But that’s enough speculation for later. Let’s get on with the reviews.

Pick of the Fringe:

I managed to pack quite a lot in to Buxton this time round. But in the end, however, there were three obvious front-runners out of all I saw. Normally, as the biggest venue, Underground Venues dominates the listings, but this time another venue is a suprise winner, thanks to a joint colloboration from two groups that this venue chose to champion.

The three picks of the fringe are:

Green Knight

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Debbie Cannon’s writing and performance is sometimes billed as storytelling and sometimes billed as theatre, but Green Knight fits very comfortably into both. An impoverished woman is handing herself over to the convent, but before she does, she tells a story she knows about King Arthur. It is, of course, the tale of Sir Gawain, but in this story she is the woman who tempted Gawain into dishonour. But, as with many of the best retellings, something new is brought to this. None of the events of Gawain and the Green Knight are changed, but the nameless wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert takes on a very different role. In the original, her sole role is a temptress; in this, she’s still still a temptress – but not entirely by choice. She’s in love with this perfect chivalrous man who’s come into her life. Added to this, she only married to escape her own father, and her husband is, to be honest, a bit of a cock; so Gawain is, for all his restraint and honour, inadvertently leading her into temptation as much as she’s leading him.

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Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2019

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Wolf Tamer, Sary, I Am a Camera, Freak, Ross and Rachel, Be More Martyn, Here We Are Again, Bright Raven, Taboo

Another Brighton Fringe has come and gone. It’s been quite a busy one for me as, all of a sudden, I’ve been kept busy with review requests. It would appear that I’ve managed to end up on a list of press contacts somewhere. But that’s great – it’s a lot more worthwhile reviewing plays when I know the people involved want a review from me.

For fringe news as a whole, it’s been a bit of a slow news fringe. There was some steady growth this year, nothing as earth-shattering at 2016, but enough to keep moving. Within these steady-looking numbers, however, there’s been a lot of rearrangement: The Warren moved next to Spiegeltent and expanded its number of spaces, Sweet Venues ditched the Dukebox and re-focused its operations (including year-round operations) on The Werks, and Junkyard Dogs took on a new Fringe venue at the Brighthelm Centre with three spaces. One effect of this is that The Warren is now by far the biggest venue in Brighton. Could it become too big and too powerful? For an answer to this and other partient questions about all things fringe, you might like to read my interview with Richard Stamp. Continue reading

Roundup: Vault Festival 2019

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

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

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

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

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

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credit: byronv2, flickr

Okay, here we go. Let’s round up the big one. After a busy spring and summer with Brighton and Buxton Fringes, Edinburgh does become a bit of an endurance test, but I can think of few better ways of pushing your stamina to the limit. This year, I managed 27 shows over six days, with thoughts on most of them dotted over my live coverage with what I thought at the time. Now it’s time to get this into some sort of order.

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

Edinburgh Fringe as a whole was dominated with talk of “peak fringe”. The flatline in 2016 turned out to be a blip, and now the 2018 fringe is bigger than ever – and not everybody’s happy about that. Top of the list of complaints was the over-subscribed demand on venues and especially the accommodation rendering the fringe unaffordable for many, and indeed there was a event to discuss this very issue. A secondary issue was the way that fringe workers were treated, with some serious allegations made about the behaviour of some venues that – so far, apparently – the venues in question have not denied. (Index at all the these issues as and when they were raised in the article at the bottom of this article.)

At some point, I will write my thoughts on what I think should be done about employment rights at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve already said the reform I would make to bring down costs: stop obsessing over Edinburgh to the exclusion of all the other fringes. That is unlikely to be the solution favoured by the Festival Fringe Society – but they have to say something, having already backed the cause. At the moment, the ball is in their court. It will be very interesting when they finally say what they propose to do.

But enough of that. We’ve got a lot of reviews to get through, so let’s get started.

Pick of the Fringe:

As always, in recent Edinburgh Fringes – as I’ve got better at finding the good stuff – I’ve had to get pickier over what goes in this top tier. Things that might have made it into pick of the fringe in other festivals or previous years might not make it now. At some point, it looked like I might raise the bar even higher, after an exceptional start over my first 24 hours. But in the end, there were eight that I could pick out as a cut above the rest. Continue reading

Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2018

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Gated Community, Extremism, Crossing the Line, Old Bones, Antigone na h’Éireann, Maria Callas, The Ladder, Brain Rinse, Earthling, An Audience with Yasmine Day

After the unpredictable fringe of 2017, when two key performance spaces were lost to a building development but a new pop-up venue came along, 2018 looked a lot more like a “no change” fringe. Underground Venues was still in its new home of the new clubhouse, Rotunda returned to the Pavilion Gardens, and the Green Man Gallery and United Reformed Church also carried out quite much as before. And the numbers for the fringe, and each of the venues, also held generally steady.

However, the steady figures are a little deceptive, because there’s been quite a bit of change within these figures. The most notable change was the Rotunda: last year, the programme was dominated by seven shows produced by Grist to the Mill; this year, with application to the Rotunda open much earlier, they had a considerably more diverse programme. Also – and there must a been a few sighs of relief – the Rotunda avoided a repeat of the spate of cancellations that marred an otherwise successful inaugural year. Meanwhile, if my unscientific assessment of their programme is correct, Underground Venues had a wider range of entry-level acts this year, possibly as a result of some fringe-wide rebalancing between the two big venues. They also seemed to have fixed last year’s problem of the fringe club bar never being open, with a drinks for tickets promotion seeming to have worked well. (Also, the Arts Centre has now managed to get the bar opened rather than have people queuing on the street.)

On the whole, however, 2018 has broadly consolidated the changes of 2017, with the unexpected rise in 2017 now looking to be permanent rather than an outlying year. But Buxton may not be settling down just yet – the last I heard, Underground Venues is still seeking another space to compensate for the net loss of one last year, and that could potentially increase the numbers further. Meanwhile, there’s talk of the Green Man Gallery taking on paid staff – at the moment, capacity there is seemingly constrained by volunteer time rather than availability of rooms, but if you’re paying someone who effectively becomes a full-time venue manager in July and and anything is possible. Continue reading

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2018

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Bin and Gone, Metamorphosis, Apparatus, The Owl and the Pussycat, Antigone Alone, Tom and Bunny Save the World, Always, With a Love That’s True, Beasts, The Erebus Project, Larkin Descending, Wan In, Wan Oot, Brighton Queen of Slaughtering Places, One-Woman Alien

Last year, I had the dubious honour of not getting round to finishing my Brighton Fringe coverage until after the Edinburgh Fringe. That was a little embarrassing, and I don’t want to repeat that in a hurry.

So, Brighton Fringe 2018 has come and gone. Some years I write a lengthy introduction before getting on to reviews – in 2016, for example, the unprecedented growth that year transformed the face of the fringe. This fits into a wider growth of the fringe over the last decade, and I wrote a list of 10 ways the Brighton Fringe has changed for anyone who wants to read this further. This year, however has very much been a “no change” festival. The numbers are about the same as 2017, all the major venues are broadly carrying on doing what they’re doing, and the only notable different is that Sweet Venues ditched Sweet Waterfront and replaced it with Sweet Werks and Sweet @ The Welly. There are some early signs ticket sales may be up, but this is unconfirmed at the time of writing.

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Roundup: Vault Festival 2018

Main hall of the Vault Festival, before the crowds come in

REVIEWS: skip to Bump!, Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, You, The MMORPG show, Storytelling: London, Doktor James’s Bad Skemes, Elsa, The Great Gatsby

Apologies for putting this off – there were a couple of exceptional Ike-winning plays that jumped the queue, but let’s round up what I saw in the Vault festival. Unlike previous festivals, I won’t do any lengthy preamble, because there’s not much change from 2017. The Network Theatre and Waterloo East continue to be satellite venues, and the box office has still sorted out the organisational issues from 2016 (in fact, the venue as a whole runs pretty smoothly). Not quite the same number of Trump jokes this time (I guess last year exhausted the plentiful supply out there), and nothing dominating the buzz the way that immersive Gatsby did last year, but the one change I am so pleased to see is that finally the Vault Festival has installed wi-fi that actually works. Lord be praised.

Seriously, however, one notable change is that Vault 2018 ran for eight weeks, up from six. The good news from this is that they must be confident with the financial state of the Vault to expand like this (and my anecdotal observation is that numbers seemed to hold up fine over the longer period). It does mean, however, that we could reach the point where the Vault could become too powerful and turn into the gatekeepers of who can make it on the London fringe circuit. I don’t think we are at this point yet, and I have no reason to believe the managers of the Vault want to misuse their power, but keep asking questions. With great power comes great responsibility. Continue reading