Online theatre roundup 2

Skip to: Dirty Laundry, In Plain Sight, Nonsense and Sensibility, and Jesus Christ Superstar

Ho hum, my last online theatre roundup was supposed to be my only article about online theatre. I was intending to get back to proper theatre by now. But with the lurgi refusing to make an exist without being as big of a pain in the arse as possible on its exit, I’m still on this.

A small list this time, and I’ve already caught up with most of the things I wanted to catch up on, but I have four things for you before we get back to normal service.

Dirty Laundry

This one, I confess, should have been reviewed last time round, but I forgot. Better late than never, I hope.

Two years ago, Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew pulled one of theatre’s bigger surprises.* They had risen through the ranks of Northern Broadsides to produce their own plays in their own style to huge acclaim, and when long-standing Artistic Director Barrie Rutter left, Conrad Nelson became his interim replacement. I assumed he had the permanent post in the bag, but not only did he step down, he and his wife decided it was time for a change and left the company completely. Instead, they decided to put all their energy into what started off as their side-project: Claybody Theatre. Unlike the Broadsiders, this was a very local company producing plays of interest to Stoke-on-Trent. As a result, they have very much dropped out of the national spotlight. But not my spotlight, because I happen to have a sister who lives there.

*: At least surprising by pre-2020 standards of surprise.

With one of their first Claybody plays, Dirty Laundry, now made available as an audio play, I took the chance to see what they were up to. And if you’re a fan of their Broadsides work, the first thing than strikes you is what a different direction they’re going in; the second thing that may strike you is how much more specialist the appeal is. The target audience here is Stokies through and through, and more specifically, Stokies who know about the Six Towns’ long history with pottery. I’ve only recently learnt about it myself – and it’s fair to say that if you know nothing about Stoke or Pottery this story may not grab your attention – but I have learnt enough to appreciate how well McAndrew has done her homework here.

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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.

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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

Brighton pier

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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