Edinburgh Fringe 2022 – as it happens

Thursday 1st September

And that’s it. This is the end of my Edinburgh Fringe coverage, and the end of a fringe marathon that has involved reviewing, performing, venue management, and back to reviewing again. All this will be summarised in the fringe roundups in due course, but in the meantime, here is a recap of what went down at Edinburgh Fringe 2022.

  • By far the most pressing issue facing Edinburgh Fringe is accommodation costs. This has been raised time and time again and is clearly a barrier for lots of would-be performers. Unfortunately – and in spite of the Festival Fringe’s efforts to secure some affordable accommodation – there isn’t that much anyone in the fringe can do to stop this. And worse, the early signs are that the overcharging landlords show every sign of wanting to do the same next year. Unless the City Council intervenes, it’s hard to see how or when this will end.
  • In line with the earlier fringes, audience figures are recovering, but not as fast as participation. Sales were down 27% on 2019 against registrations down 17%, which works out as a fall of 11% sales per registration. That’s not too bad, considering some of the panic at the start of the fringe, but it’s probably going to be a dampener on further growth.
  • There has been a lot of in-fighting this year. The Festival Fringe Society has come in for a lot of criticism; the support for national media and lack of an app have been particularly controversial. (Other matters such as the virtual half-price ticket hut and lack of paper programme availability are I think over-rated.) To some extent they’ve been caught in the middle of a struggle between the big acts and venues seeking to restore their prestige, and the smaller venues and acts who are struggling to even get one review.In my opinion, the fundamental mistake made by the Festival Fringe Society was trying to do both and ending up pleasing no-one. They probably need to decide which of the two they want to prioritse.
  • There was also an ugly incident halfway though the fringe when a shock comedian had his second of two performances pulled following complaints over his material. There’s a lot of claims and counter-claims going on here, but I’m firmly of the opinion that The Pleasance handled this badly. Most specifically, if – as they claimed – his material was not acceptable for this venue, why did they programme him in the first place? I may summarise all of this another time, but either they’ve crossed the line into censorship, of they’ve made Jerry Sadowitz into a martyr. Or both.
  • Despite all this, the fringe itself as run smoothly and it’s been just as much fun as any fringe from before times. That, I think, gives the festival fringe society a breather. Just like the Olympics in 2012, the complaints didn’t carry nearly such weight once everyone started having a good time.
  • From a local perspective, Durham Fringe has had an excellent August, with plenty of acts that went to Durham Fringe going on to make a name for themselves in Edinburgh. One particularly notable milestone is that one act, Experiment Human, got a major award, which can only help to put Durham Fringe on the map. (Okay, I teched for this at Durham so I’m biased, but honestly, this is great news for us.)
  • The Space also had a good fringe. It operates on a first-come-first-served basis, but in before times had a notoriety for being the place for acts not good enough to get into any other venue. Perhaps thanks to their push to get going in 2021 when many other venues were keeping their heads down, they’ve taken on a lot of good acts this year, and The Space has a new air of respectability it didn’t have before.
  • There’s been a few other niggles I’ve picked up during this fringe. It didn’t help that Fringe Central was out fo the way in a shopping centre (even though it saved a lot of money). Signage within venues has been getting confusing, and it would really help everybody if press tickets could be streamlined better. But there are minor issues comapred to the big ones.

On the whole I think the Festival Fringe Society can breathe a sigh of relief. The worst is probably behind them and they can focus on what went wrong in 2022 and put it right for 2023. The only thing they might need to brace for is a smaller fringe in 2023 – and that will be a problem is anything less than a return to 2019 levels is considered a failure. But do we really want that? The sooner we realise size isn’t everything, the better.

Thank you to everyone who’s been following me through this. I am now going on holiday for a week, and then it’s back to coverage of north-east theatre. Local followers, stay tuned. Fringe fans, I’ll see you back in May.

Wednesday 31st August:

And here it is. The moment of truth. Who has made it to Pick of the Fringe?

First, a reminder of the rules. Anyone who I saw performed this year who is listed with Edinburgh Fringe is eligible for this award (except those plays I worked with as venue host as there’s a conflict of interest). If I saw something at another fringe, I don’t normally see it in Edinburgh again as I don’t have time, so this is my way of giving those plays I saw in the run-up to Edinburgh a fair chance against those I saw in Edinburgh itself. Plays I’ve seen before are eligible – this is one of my ways of keeping the standard high. Where I felt a performance wasn’t enough like theatre to make a meaningful comparison (including Finlay and Joe, Jess Robinson, and How I Learned What I Learned), I left it out of the list, and they will be handled separately.

Plays in (round brackets) I saw at Brighton, Buxton and Durham Fringes; plays in [square brackets] I’ve seen in previous years. The remaining plays I saw for the first time in Edinburgh 2022. They are:

Pick of the Fringe:

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe
(The Ballad of Mulan)
The Bush
Ghislaine/Gabler
[Green Knight]
Gulliver
[Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show]
The Land of Lost Content
Make-Up
(No One)
[Mustard]
Second Summer of Love
[Skank]
(Vermin)
Sugar
Svengali

Honourable Mention:

Antigone, the musical
Beg for Me
Famous Puppet Death Scenes
Fabulett 1933
Ghost Therapy
(The Glummer Twins)
(Head Girl)
The In-Laws
Morecambe
(Nyctophilia)
(Room)
(Sex, Lies and Improvisation)
Salamander
Take It Away Cheryl
Utter Mess!

After two years of being relaxed, I’ve raised the bar. At least five plays in Honourable Mention would have gone up a tier if the standard we a little bit lower. Well done to everyone. You can all now relax.

Tuesday 30th August:

So that’s the end of Edinburgh Fringe. There’s just a few things to wind up before we close this, and the first one is the news that always comes at the end of the fringe: how did the ticket sales do? Normally, we would be looking at a few percent here and there. If registrations grew by 4%, 6% in sales would show this is sustainable, 2% would suggest otherwise. However, there were alarm bells ringing at the start of the fringe over pre-sales being down by 30%. It is not clear whether that meant 30% behind overall sales in 2019, or 30% of sales per show. The former would have been a problem, but the latter would have been a disaster had it been reflected in all sales.

Well, Edinburgh Fringe has reported 2,201,175 ticket sales for 2022, compared to (and I think this is the like-for-like figure) 3,012,490 in 2019. That means sales are at 73% of 2019 level. As previously reported registrations are 82% of 2019 levels, if you compare those registered in time for the printed programme. That means tickets per registration work out at about 88%. If we take into account a small shift towards shorter runs in theatre, the number edges up a bit more. Regardless, I think 88% isn’t too bad, considering how much panic there was before.

Usual caveat applies: this is an average. The average alone doesn’t tell us much about variances within those numbers. Some people sold out their entire runs in advance of the fringe. Some people have sadly reported getting audiences of zero in the last few days. Anecdotally the mood seems to be that ticket sales started off okay but tailed off in weeks 2 and 3, hence the unplanned push for 2 for 1 tickets by the big venues. The venues under the edfest.com umbrella are reporting a 25% fall though, so there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the big venues and small ones.

Why is there a fall? Difficult to tell. There are two obvious drivers but it’s impossible to tell which one is at play. The first one is ongoing Coronavirus worries from some people still wary about crowds (which certainly seems to have been a problem at Buxton); the second one is worries about costs of living and people tighten their belts. Similar worries over finances and economies in 2008-2009 made no dent in sales figures, but perhaps there’s more worries this time. Does it matter which one is the cause? Yes it does – because that decides when this problem is going away. I’m getting increasingly confident the worst of Covid is well behind us, whilst cost of living problems are probably going to haunt us into summer 2023 at least. However, there is one other thing to consider about Covid which cost of living may exacerbate: we now have people who, for one reason or another, have stayed away for three years. That might become permanent, and even in Covid and war in Ukraine were magicked away tomorrow, these people have got out of the habit and are never coming back.

So, what does this mean for Edinburgh Fringe 2023? I can’t see 2022 levels being sustained myself. As well as the discouraging precedent set by the ticket sales, there’s the various disappointments over fringe 2022 which will be dampening expectations for next year. What’s more, I suspect 2022’s numbers were artificially inflated by people who had postponed fringe plans over the last two years – that won’t apply next year. I guess a lot will depend on what happens with accommodation. I have hearing unconfirmed reports that landlords renting for next year’s fringe are being just as extortionate, and, if anything, are ramping up prices even more. I don’t see how the Festival Fringe Society can offset this single-handedly, and the only thing I can see making a difference is if Edinburgh City Council pull their finger out and intervene. And they’re going to have to do this in the next few months if they don’t want people writing off Fringe 2023 as unaffordable.

On the plus side, we have a battle royale between the media heavyweights. Robert Peacock predicts a big fall, Brian Ferguson predicts an all-time high. Whatever happens, I do hope we can drop the collective mentality that anything less than regaining all lost ground from 2019 is a failure. Edinburgh Fringe would be a great festival even if it was half its current size – and if it has to share the limelight with other festivals, that’s not a bad thing. And if it puts a stop to greedy landlord, it might even be better.

Monday 29th August, 8.00 p.m. – How I Learned What I Learned:

The memoirs of August Wilson

We are at the last review. First, a note about why I picked this one for review. I normally have a policy of not giving anybody preferential treatment because they’re part of an underrepresented group. I certainly don’t choose to review a play just because it’s advertised as female-led, nor do I review the female-led plays I choose to see more favourably. There is a very good reason for this: they don’t need preferential treatment: I monitor my picks of the fringe every year and there’s always been an even split between the two. As such, I am firmly of the position that it’s better to be absolutely clear that no-one gets a leg-up. I don’t want anybody saying “She’s only got a good review because she’s a woman”. Everybody on Pick of the Fringe has earned their place.

However, racial diversity is another matter. As I’ve already mentioned (scroll to 24th August), I do think there’s is a problem with lack of participation from artists who aren’t white. One of these days, I might look more into why this is and what can be done; in the meantime I’m happy to let the people affect have their say. Equally, however, I worry – based on my own observations as a neurodivergent artist (scroll to 24th August again) – that theatre has a pretty poor respect of agency. For at least some minorities, the voices theatres choose to platform suspiciously resemble the views that the leaderships assumes the respective minorities hold, whilst ignoring all criticism from those who dissent. This was a review request and I probably would have picked it anyway, but there was one thing that particular stood out here: there’s no question of agency here. There’s no doubt that August Wilson’s autobiographical play of his life – written when he was one of America’s most respected literary playwrights – is his voice and no-one else’s. For the record, I had no idea what was going to be in this play was, nor what his politics are. I was entirely doing this on the basis on hearing what he has to say.

The circumstances surrounding How I learned What I Learned are unusual. It was supposed to be performed by Wilson himself, but by the time he wrote it he was too ill to do it, and so he opened it up to other actors to perform, in this version by Lester Purry of Saints and Poet’s Theater. Racism does feature in this 90-minutes monologue quite prominently (indeed it start with the dark joke that for over 100 years after his family came to America, there was never any trouble finding a job), but not as much as you might think. A lot of time, it’s simply life going on. Wilson recounts a whole host of eccentrics and friends and lovers he knew, including this first love in the nativity play and a shocking murder that taught him the lesson that you can say the wrong thing, but it’s worse for you to say the wrong things at the wrong time. This is a fully rounded portrait of life in a black neighbourhood in 1960s Pittsburgh.

And yet where racism does feature, that’s not what you might expect either. One rather telling phrase Wilson recounts is hearing the phrase “When you go to jail …” Not if. When. I can think of three possible interpretation of that phrase, but none of them were good. However, he talks very little about the big things such as who the cops arrest and who refuses to hire who, and instead talks about the little things. One thing you learn from Wilson’s story of his life as a young man is that he always stood his ground, even when the stakes seems low. He quits his job mowing lawns rather than help his boss appease the racist woman who won’t have a black man doing the job. Why not just mow another lawn like the boss suggests? He finishes off the play with the time when the bank cashier spend a suspiciously long time doing security checks on him, but that’s not what he objects to – it’s the lie that they didn’t have an envelope to put the money in. Why the focus on something so petty? The reason, Wilson argues, is precisely BECAUSE it’s petty. It’s not much, but it’s still a small-minded power-trip, and is completely deliberate. Tolerate that, and it won’t end there.

And the verdict? This is a difficult one – I make a point of reviewing on how well crafted the story is rather than approval of any message within the play. I personal think the key message of standing up to pettiness is a good one and it is well argued – indeed, this is a pattern I’ve been noticing lately over all forms of prejudice of low-level but completely deliberate acts to get one over someone, both now and historically, and yes, it’s a problem that I think a lot of people underestimate. But it’s an unhealthy practice to write favourable review based on how much it validates the reviewer’s views. So, I would never tell anybody that it your duty to agree with what a play says. But if another performance of this play comes along, I would encourage you to hear what August Wilson had to say. When people talk about racism the discussion is usually on the big issue. This is a compelling case for standing up to the little things.

Monday 29th August, 6.30 p.m. – Famous Puppet Death Scenes:

Funny. And pretentious. But ironically pretentious.

I nearly ran out of time, but I couldn’t let a second fringe go by without seeing for myself exactly what this weirdly-titled performance is about. Had I known that writer and master puppeteer Louisa Ashton of Sparkle and Dark was one of the three puppeteers in this, I would have cleared my diary in the first week. I’d previously mused this would either be funny or pretentious. Well, I wasn’t quite right – it’s not either/or, the performance is funny AND pretentious. But it’s ironically pretentious rather than unironically pretentious, and that’s a defining feature of this show.

puppet

Famous Puppet Death Scenes works by sustaining a number of in-jokes. Yes, we know this is a comedy really, but it’s presented as something deathly serious. The action takes place in an around a puppet marquee which is both colourful yet strangely macabre. And then we a treated to the most heartbreaking, sombre and respectful re-enactments of famous death scenes reacted by puppets. Or maybe it’s death scenes of puppets so famous they’re being re-enacted by more puppets. In reality, however, these stories are all completely fictitious, created for the purposes of showing the unfortunate puppets about to meet their makers (and I don’t mean the people who built them). One story that seems to have an awful lot of death scenes is “This Feverish Heart” by Nordo Frot, where copies of the same stout figure are continually splatted by a giant fist that comes out of nowhere, just because. There’s also the element of the surprise on when the unfortunate puppet is going to die, not to mention the unexpected on who dies and exactly when, and then there’s the recurring methods of death that become increasingly commonplace as the performance goes on. Finally, there’s the instructions for the audience, but instead of “Laugh”, “Laugh Hysterically” and “Applause” like they do for bad sitcoms, you’re more likely to be asked to say “Oh”, or clap – but do it somberly and respectfully.

One of my favourite death scenes was at the beginning was the children’s puppet show with two doors Ja and Nein, where selection of the wrong door (okay, either door) results in death full of blood, guts and bones from the monster that lies behind. The Old Trouts are a very versatile puppetry company, and use about every technique going. Frequently the puppet theatre raises and outside curtain and the puppeteers appear for some larger-scale puppeticide. For an operation involving three macabre-looking puppeteers, it is one of the most complex and sophisticated puppetry operations I’m seen pulled off at a fringe.

If there’s one weakness I’d pin on this performance, it gets predictable. It helps a lot to vary how the puppetry is being done, and switch between the surprise deaths and the obvious deaths (e.g. the star of The Ferverish Heart, who is probably getting sick of this by now), it inevitably hinges on variations of the same joke. Perhaps one area that might have been made to work better is managing the audience participation – or maybe I just came on a quiet day. But it doesn’t really matter because The Old Trouts have pulled off what everybody on the Fringe wants to do – a wild and bizarre original concept that is unique to them and audiences pick up and loves. A gamble like this could easily have backfired, so well done for pulling this off.

Monday 29th August, 5.00 p.m. – Salamander:

When polite society started to reach out to sex workers

Salamander seems to have enjoyed a very successful week-long run at the fringe, partly through to its local connections, and partly from the sudden pertinence of the subject following Edinburgh Council’s decision to ban strip clubs, which Pretty Knickers heavily used to market this play. My own interest in this play was helped along by an online play I saw last year called Cash Point Meet. They play had its flaws, but it did make a convincing case that clamping down on sex work – however good the intentions might be – end up doing more harm than good. I remember the time when Edinburgh made itself one of the most liberal cities, with so-called “licensed sauna”, and if you’re enough of a fringe old-timer you will remember the days when you walked past the building off Merchant Street with “SAUNA” written in grubby orange lettering, which was so obviously not where you go for a sauna.

This is set in the 1980s. Polite society is starting to realise that you can’t wash your hands of the sex industry, and the murder of a prostitute has prompted the Police to create a prostitute liaison officer. Much of the play was written around speaking to real people involved in the events. Four of the sex characters are working prostitutes: an assorted bunch of characters who have got into the business for various reasons. It soon becomes clear that, as far as they’re concerned, the closest thing they’ve got to the Police is each other. They each other which clients to steer clear of and look out for each other the best they can. Which means that Police Officer Pat’s job is to win over their trust. It’s far from an easy task, with a long history of looking the other way to contend with – and just when she’s making progress, other less tolerant people in authority do the something to set the whole thing back to square one.

The surprise character with the strongest story arc, however, is Joan. She appears at the first meaning as a representative for the Church and the Women’s Institute. “This is a terrible idea”, I’m already thinking. “The last we need is somebody trying to sell the virtues of less sex and more God.” But wait – Joan is not like that at all. We find out from her prayers that, far from a cringe-worthy evangelical mission, she genuinely wants to make life better for some of the most shunned woman in society, bit like Jesus did. However, she’s going it alone – the support from the church people who agreed to this is at best lukewarm, and most of her friends are horrified that she’s have anything to do with such people. That’s only half of it though. Some of the worst finger-waggers in public are regular clients in practice, and when someone close to Joan turns out to be one of them, things get nasty for everyone. Becky Niven’s performance as Joan is excellent and adds another dimension to the story.

One thing the play doesn’t say much about is the question over whether banning sex licences really does any favours – and with the current reasons appearing to be a new idealism of disapproving of women degrading themselves rather than the old-school puritanism of wanting nothing to do with those sort of people, that would have been very interesting. However, when a play script is so heavily based on speaking to real sex workers and listening to what they have to say, I am wary about trying to steer the message to support a point the play writers want to make. And, to be fair, this issue has cropped up very recently, and probably too late to work into any play. Regardless, this a good play that takes on an issue that some people have strong opinions on one way or the other, and handles it without sensation and just says it how it is. Sorry I’ve reviewed this too late to help with audience numbers, but it looks like it was already doing well from what I saw, and it’s earned.

Monday 29th August, 3.30 p.m. – Sleepover!

Could do with better characterisation

Cambridge University Musical Theatre got my attention last year with a showcase for one of the catchiest tunes out there – this time my interest was grabbed by the concept. 17-year-old Jenny is organising a Sleepover for her three besties, before they all go their separate ways. It’s taken ages for Jenny to get her mother to agree to something like this. However, there is a hidden agenda to this. What Jenny really wants out of this is a talk about everything she wants to know about sex but is afraid to ask. And in order to get round asking, she’s created a board game called “Sleepover” which involves answering questions on cards, all of which are obviously the aforementioned things about sex she wants to know. (Spoiler: her friends see through this ruse straight away.)

I really liked the idea of this, but where I felt this musical fell short was characterisation. That’s not unique to this show; On Your Bike produced by the same society last year was also let down a little by moments where key plot-driving decisions weren’t that believable. Okay, we are discussing musicals here, and it’s fair to remember that nobody spontaneously breaks out into song, but the songs are always more effective if you can believe the characters singing this means it and feels it. Here it feels more like the songs and issues were chosen first and the characters fitted around this. Any of these three 17-year-olds could be crushingly shy, confident and brash or anything else, but it has to be consistent. I find it difficult to believe that someone shy enough to create that board game wouldn’t be rumbled in the first five seconds – I also find it difficult that by the next song Jenny’s already shed her inhibitions to partake in “Get your titties out”.

The production values are good, and songs are managed well, and the set of a sleepover does a lot to add the the story. I would focus on the ending. At least two of the teenagers have uncomfortable secrets they’ve been holding back on, and those are the strongest opportunities for creating rounded believable characters. The big question, as always, is: why now? What has happened to persuade these characters to open up when they do? You might have a perfectly good answer in your head, but we need to know this, and conveying the information without spelling it out the challenge that needs to be addressed in the middle. And if that means you sometimes can’t include a song you wanted to include, or can’t talk about an issue you wanted to bring up, so be it.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what CUMTS wants Sleepover to be. It’s down in the comedy section rather than theatre or musical theatre; and the primary purposes of comedy is fun, which this achieves. But I think Jenny, Nina, Anita and Ruth deserve more than this, and I hope we can get to truly know them one day.

Monday 29th August, 2.00 p.m. – Antigone, the musical:

More cheese please

The first thing I will say about Hard Luck musicals is that I respect for doing the musical the hard but more rewarding way. Most fringe musicals understandably economise by sequencing and recording the backing music in advance. For those that choose to play the music live, they generally struggle – it is rare to see a live band in a fringe musical that gets all the tuning and balance right. Hard Luck musical, however, has a live nine-piece orchestra on stage playing to a pretty impressive standard, and – apart from some early tech problems with the stage mics – a good standard from the singing to.

For the first two third of this play, Antigone the musical does what it says on the tin. It tells the story of the fateful events that led to the heroine’s imprisonment by King Creon quite accurately, and also accessibly. Some musicals don’t bother with the motivations of the main characters, but there’s never once any doubt over what is motivating either Antigone to risk her life of Creon to insist on a death sentence over a matter as petty as giving someone a burial. And they could easily have stuck with this approach and gone right up to fateful moment when Creon has a change of heart too late.

And the comes the twist: apology for the spoiler, but in this version, Antigone doesn’t die. Haemon and Ismene incite a last-minute uprising and come to the rescue in the nick of time. That certainly is a different take on what we’re used to, but in terms of cheesiness it’s right up there with the version of The Titanic where the ship dodges the iceberg. That jars a bit with the down-to-earth faithful staging done to this point. I feel this could do with making a decision one way or the other: either a faithful adaptation or a cheesy adaptation, but I’m pretty sure the intention was the latter.

To be fair, a cheesy retelling probably needs some good movement direction to work to its full effect, with the orchestra taking up so much space, there wasn’t really much room in the space that was left. That’s not a problem unique to this musical – it’s always a bugger for any production with a cast of more than five to find a place which both gives you the space we need on stage and is affordable. If this is has a life beyond Edinburgh Fringe – and looks like it’s gone down well enough to achieve this – I hope this gets further performance on a stage that does this justice. And cheese away for all it’s worth.

Sunday 28th August:

Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice

I’ve been out of the loop today as I’ve been in Amsterdam on a family thing. Coming back home now, still plan to get the remaining four reviews out of the way tomorrow. Just a reminder that if you aren’t happy with what I wrote in a review, the complaint procedure is here. Please be aware that if you write subtweets containing personal attacks thinking I won’t find them: they crop up on my timeline anyway. And please be aware that personal attacks based on me sometimes not sitting still (and whatever stupid judgement you draw from that) is technically speaking attacking someone for a disability. You know who you are.

Anyway, changing the subject, with me being out and about too much to concentrate on reviews today, I instead wrote my thoughts on the choice Edinburgh Fringe has to make. I have arrived at the view that the Festival Fringe Society’s #1 mistake this year was to bend over backwards trying to please everybody. They can either optimise the fringe to be the best possible opportunity for entry-level acts, or they can optimise the fringe to give maximum exposure to the best highly-regarded acts – but they cannot do both. I consider what either of these choices might look like – and a third possibility if the fringe and venues can’t agree on a way forwards.

Saturday 27th August:

What went down at the AGM

There’s going to be a hiatus in coverage this weekend. Sorry. Big family gathering coming and that’s going to take up most of my time. I count four outstanding reviews to complete, and I intend to spend Monday getting them all out.

Meanwhile … we have news on how sales are doing. According to the Scotsman, at the AGM at was reported that 1.5 million tickets had been sold, compared to 1.8 million at the some point in 2009. That would be about 83% of 2019 levels, and with registrations also at around 83% of 2019 levels, that’s okay. The only thing to watch out for is what happens in the last week. Anecdotally, it seems that sales starting off good but tailed off at the fringe went on. The final figures may be a bit more disappointing yet. (One small puzzle is that it was reported that the final sales in 2019 were 3 million, but to add an extra 1.2 million in the final week seems like a stretch, unless there’s a time lag between selling tickets and reporting it. Anyway, we’ll have a better answer in a week’s time.)

The other bit of news is that Shona McCarthy get a vote on confidence in the board.It’s harder to know what to make of that. It does mean that she’s not being booted any time soon – and with the bumpy fringe of 2022 almost done and dusted there’s reasons to believe the worst is over, with expectations of fringe 2023 and reality hopefully converging. However, the fact that a confidence vote was even discussed may be a problem. After all, Theresa May and Boris Johnson won confidence votes and we know what happened a few months later. All in all Shona McCarthy has won the battle, but the jury’s out on winning the war.

As far me – I am writing up my thoughts on what Edinburgh Fringe should do now. The mistake it made this year was trying to please everybody and ending up pleasing nobody. But who do you try to please? I will discuss this soon.

Friday 26th August – Jess Robinson, Legacy:

A look at character/impression comedy

Now for another occasional foray into a short-of character comedy. It is 2032 and the world is about to end. The last of the earth’s population has been evacuated on to rockets, except for super genius 20-year-old Jess Robinson, who was definitely born in 2012 and couldn’t possibly be lying about her age, or indeed her ability/reliability to be entrusted with anything important. She is taking a message from the supreme commander Olivia Coleman (yes, the Olivia Coleman, because she’s a national treasure who always gets the best parts). Anyway, the last task that needs completing is uploading a memory stick containing all of the world’s arts and culture. Apologies for the spoiler, but Jess does indeed fail to live up to her reputation of ultra-reliable agent and spilling wine on her laptop and everything is deleted. What a lucky coincidence! Jess is good at impressions! She can fill the gap that way. Some more refined connoisseurs might say we’re taking an awful of a implausible plot points to set this up but IT’S COMEDY DAMN IT WE’LL BE CONTRIVED IF WE WANT TO.

The problem with entrusting this task to Jess Robinson is that, well, she’s not actually that well read on culture. When she should have been watching high-brow nature documentaries she was gorging out on trash TV. And so, for example, when tasked with reconstructing clever nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough, she does the David Attenborough voiceover for Love Island. That’s the same thing, isn’t it? Surely no-one will notice. In a sign of the times, we in a future where Liz Truss bombed as PM and Theresa May is back in charge. Yes, we’re already at the point where people are going “She was all right, really, I suppose,” God help us. Anyway, you get the idea. Other highlights including moments of the voice of her mother giving advice for anything but the moment in hand, and speed-impressions that Jess Robinson breaks into when stressed.

I can’t give a verdict on all of these impressions because I don’t keep up with popular culture and don’t recognise all of them (he says pretentiously), but those I saw were nailed pretty well. I’d say that Jess Robinson’s strength is impressions first and character comedy second, but that fine because this is the kind of comedy where the lead character’s decisions aren’t supposed to make sense or have any deep motivation. Nevertheless, some of the funniest comedy I’ve seen worked from believable characters behaving in a plausible way in the most ridiculous of situations, so perhaps there’s room to explore than in a future show. The production values are top-notch though. As well as the energetic performance and the impressions, she’s go a great singing voice and a slick backdrop in sync with her performance. This show is meant to fun and nothing more, and so should be judged on those terms, but if you’re after a fun night to round off a day of fringing, I can recommend this.

Thursday 25th August – Waterloo:

Not that explosive

This one grabbed my interest with the promise of a “dangerous” performance and an “explosive” interrogation of the intimate relationship between a high-ranking right-leaning military official and a bleeding-heart lefty greenie. This play has been on the fringe circuit in Australia and picked up a lot of accolades, and in Edinburgh has similarly been scooping praise from various reviews. What I hadn’t realised is that the performer Bron Batten was one half of this relationship. Which is fine – after all, a lot of ace solo plays are indeed based on the performer’s own real life experience. However, in this case the concept is complicated by the need to keep the identity of the other half confidential. Unfortunately, the solution to handle this problem is one I just don’t subscribe to.

The story is that Bron met the unnamed military officer is Paris, and set up an on-off relationship for the next five years, in spite of being politically ideological opposites. The thing, that’s not exactly what I’d call “explosive”. Couples who disagree with each other on political issues aren’t that unusual. There were a couple of events that might have had explosive results, such as stumbling across a documentary outlining what he’d done and how many people he’d killed, or even the fact he had a wife and family he’d failed the mention. However, the relationship carries on regardless. I estimate about on third of of the play was taken up by telling this story. The other two thirds were taken up by general thoughts on military action abroad and footage of a visit to a paintball session which is supposed to be R&D for this play, but doesn’t appear to have any function other than a self-referential inclusion in the performance. Oh, and at various points Bron stabs balloons whilst blindfolded, throws ping-pong balls in liquid air, and puts herself inside a balloon; I suppose any of this could be literally dangerous if Summerhall skipped their health and safety assessment, but I don’t understand how this piece is meant to be metaphorically dangerous. I just kept thinking: what does any of this have to do with the story?

To be fair, Bron Batten was constrained by what she could tell on stage. I do have my doubts over whether plays in this format really are a raw and uncensored as they’re meant to be – intimate relationships are messy and complicated. I would expect anyone out of a recent relationship to hold back on at least some details – certainly when you’re broadcasting details in public to a room of strangers – and even if you’re prepared to go no-hold-barred, warts and all, it can’t help when you’ve got to hold back on information that gives away the identity of the other person. Learning the darker side of the man you love would be a great twist in a normal play, but here it’s all redacted. With a lot of good reviews to this play, it’s clear there’s an audience for this format who like this play for what it is; as such, I don’t see any benefit to changing this now. But if you were to ask me how to do this story, I would have said forget about the true story completely. Keep the bits of the real story where they suit you, but where you can’t talk about what really happened, use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Give us the dangerous explosive relationship we’ve been built up for, and if it means taking liberties with the real story, so be it. This is, after all, a play.

Wednesday 24th August:

Why Edinburgh Fringe is more neurodiverse-friendly than regional theatre

As is customary, I take a break from review after I can back from a visit, so I don’t review someone on the day my brain recharges. Instead, I’m going to draw attention to an issue that may otherwise be talked about by the wrong people.

The age-old debate has flared up again on whether Edinburgh Fringe is diverse enough. The big ongoing debate is racial diversity. I might give my thoughts on that another day, but I’m quite happy to let the people involved speak for themselves for now. One thing that’s new this time is whether Edinburgh Fringe is neurodiverse enough. I swear I’ve seen a lot more shows about neurodiversity this time. Nevertheless, Simon Jay who founded neurodiverse review has questioned whether venues are accessible enough or making sufficient reasonable adjustments.

For it’s worth, whilst there probably is room for improvement, I think Edinburgh Fringe (and the fringe circuit in general) is ten times better for neurodiverse inclusion than regional theatres. And the reason why is agency – or rather, the lack of respect for agency elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong – it is great to see plays cropping in regional theatres taking on the issue of neurodiversity, and whilst I maintain anyone should be allowed to write about anyone and anything, it is good that this is being led by neurodiverse artists. The problem is that the power of who to programme and who to support remains with the leadership of theatres, mostly people who are neurotypical. I should stress at this point I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the voices of neurodivergent artists on stage, and I have no reason to believe is slavishly parroting opinions that someone in charge told them to say. But the fact remains that other people get to decide who gets a voice and stage and whose voices stay sidelined. And with programmers almost always knowing what hopeful artists intend to say should they get their break, it’s far too easy to curate your neurodiverse programme to validate whatever views you think neruodiverse people hold – or, worse, what views you think neurodiverse people should be holding.

Ultimately, regional theatres have a lot of power here that they need to use responsibly. Have they done enough to for me to trust them with this power? Not really. The subjects promoted by my local regional theatres are, I have to say, unimaginitive – mostly what a tough time we’re having, lists of words that we’re supposed to be offended by (and we’re not, they’ll tell us why we should be) and how Rain Man is apparently the most burning issue for us. There’s a lot of mutual back-patting between regional theatres and disability advocacy groups, but I know from bitter experience that organisations can use this to preach one thing and practice exactly the opposite. Most telling, there is absolutely zero engagement with critics. On the rare occasions a regional theatre has engaged with my concerns, it has been to tell me that they are doing me a favour. Sometime they add that they have neurodivergent staff, but the problem with that is they are only a subset of neurodivergent creatives who are probably fine working with you, but may or may not reflect what the rest of us think. Don’t get me wrong, there is no simple solution to this, but the first step is surely to ask us “How can we make you feel included?” So far, not one single person from Live Theatre or Northern Stage or Alphabetti Theatre has asked this. And worse, they don’t seem to think this is a problem.

The open design of Edinburgh Fringe, on the other hand, largely eliminates this problem. I don’t know what barriers stand in the way of neurodiverse artists, but for those who do take part, they are free to say whether they like. True, there is still curation by venues to consider, but the bar is much lower. In general, if you reasonably know what you’re doing and you have a reasonable track record in getting an audience, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting into a reasonable reputable venue. You might have some venues prioritising plays about neurodiversity to meet a quota, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be in a position to cherry-pick views to validate their own worldview. Compare this to many regional theatres where it’s an open secret what worldview they want on stage and there’s no contest. Sure, they have some great development schemes for a small number of hand-picked artists, but we don’t know what strings are attached. At Edinburgh Fringe, for all its faults, you know where you are.

By the way, I don’t think this problem over agency and disrespect for it is unique to neurodiversity. I’m not convinced theatre is better for anyone else, and off-message minorities are just as liable to be sidelined for not womaning correctly or not minoritying correctly. And what if you don’t want to write about being part of this minority? I hear plenty of complaints from ethnic minority artists who feel they’re being sidelined for just wanting to produce the same material as everyone else. I suspect the effect varies on whether or not mainstream theatre opinion is in line with mainstream opinion of the respective minorities. Off-hand, Jews and working-class people spring to mind, with the representation of these voices suspiciously lacking in issues I know for a fact a lot of them consider important. The solutions aren’t going to be quick or easy, but it’s really up to theatres to want to change – we can’t do that for you. In the meantime, if you want to know why I don’t bother engaging with my local theatres that much and engage with the fringe circuit instead – well, there’s one of my answers.

Tuesday 23rd August, 10.30 p.m. – Second Summer of Love:

A rose-tinted story of a rave-filled youth cleverly unravels

There is always one play in the Edinburgh Fringe programme that I would have put in my recommendations had I not missed it. Pants on Fire impressed me at Vault Festival 2019 with Ovid’s Metamorphosis, with Roman legends transplanted to the music hall World War 2 era. This is a quite different production, and instead of a wildly innovate musical extravaganza, it’s a relatively conventional solo play. How does this square up?

Writer/director Emmy Happisburgh plays Louise, now a respectable wife to a respected headmaster – but in her youth in the early 1990s she was part of the “Second Summer of Love”. This was when there was the craze for the illegal rave, and rather than do the sensible thing and just create a legal version with the music but without the drug, they passed absurd laws banning music with repetitive beats (which the rave DJs took as a challenge to create non-repetitive drum beats). Honestly, if they were that bothered about it, John Major, Norman Lamont and Michael Heseltine should have embraced it and performed their own set, instantly rendering the whole rave scene so toe-curling no self-respecting teenager would have anything to do with it.

Anyway, I digress. Louise was a raver, and misses her hedonistic rave days, drug-taking included. The one vice she allows herself today is to go to “ravercise”, which is like Zumba but with rave music, glow sticks, and middle-aged housewives wondering about what to cook their kids for tea. Not at all the same as the real rave, as Louise fondly remember the trip to her first rave. Amongst the many things we learn from the 20-minute sequence covering this is that she previous went to an all-girls’ school. One suspects going to a rave is the first bit of excitement she’s had in her life – and no, her stunning singing voice doesn’t come anywhere near. In fact, the whole progression of Louise’s life is portrayed convincingly, with her life choices after her rave days leading back to boredom explained well.

The clever thing about the story, however, is how Louise’s story unravels. Her ultra-romanticised version of the story glosses over all the bad bits. To be fair to Louise, she doesn’t know how her rave sweetheart has become even more of a disappointment than she is (a policy wonk for the Conservative Party, I believe), but other things she’s chosen to ignore. The friends who suffered last damage from the drug taking. When you think about it, the most telling part is how she airbrushed out the damage it did to her own life. She tells herself the high point was taking a super-powered pills that kept her awake for 72 hours, mental or what? But one side-effect of that was the end of her aspirations to be a singer. An exciting life that could have lasted far longer than five years of raving. It is going to take others to tell her exactly what her rave days cost her.

I’m not convinced this is that well suited to a solo play. Although Happisburgh does a good job of switching between characters, there’s only so long you can do both sides of a conversation before it gets strained, never mind a four-way conversation that dominates most of the rave sequences. I’m aware that a solo play costs a lot less than a bigger play for all sorts of obvious reasons, but the economisation comes at a price, and I think this performance would be stronger with the performance done as a four-hander. There again, a four-hander is well within Pants On Fire’s capabilities. I did enjoy this as a solo play and it has a lot to say, but I’d love to see how this would turn out as a scaled up production. Pants On Fire, consider this a hint.

Update: there are indeed aspirations to upscale this play – in fact, she’s eyeing up a seven-hander. See this comment.

Tuesday 23rd August, 9.30 p.m.:

The writeup of remaining reviews

At that’s it. I’m on the train back for the last time. I make it 24 plays on press tickets, with 2 near misses involving frantic trips to press offices, but 0 failures to see plays I promised I would. Including the events I brought tickets for, I make it 33, or 34 if you count the press launch.

I managed to process most of the review requests I received before or early on in the fringe. (For those who missed out, it’s no reflection on you – the reason almost always come down to scheduling.) As has been increasingly been the case, I’ve been getting a hell of a lot of review requests in weeks 2 and 3, by which time I’ve already planned most of my viewing. This year, I’m aware that a lot of groups hoping to get a review at Edinburgh have got none. I’m embarrassed that I’ve not been able to help more people, but there’s only a finite amount of plays I can view in seven days. At some point, we need a discussion on what we do about this. I will posting my thoughts on this another day.

I will be catching up with the rest of the reviews over the rest of this week. I am aware that some of these will only arrive after the performances are finished; others are likely to arrive too late to make a difference to audience numbers. Again, I’m sorry about that, but don’t obsess over this too much. In my opinion, the effect of reviews on audience numbers is over-estimated. If your audience numbers soar after a four- or five-star review, it’s more likely it’s equally impressed audience members doing word-of-mouth publicity for you that any reviewer winning people over. Reviews, on the other hand, keep their value after the fringe finishes. This is what you have to show what you did and whether people thought it was any good, and trust me, that influence carries over into future fringes easily.

Thank you for bearing with me. I’ll get to you as soon as I can.

Update: Should add, for the plays I’ve seen before and paid to see again, I’m putting these to the bottom of the pile – you’re doing well enough without further help from me. So I probably won’t get round to adding anything in this live coverage. However, they will still be eligible for Pick of the Fringe, and when I get on to the roundup I’ll aim to give my thoughts there.

Tuesday 23rd August, 4.30 p.m. – Beg for Me:

An insight on the route to radicalisation

Sorry for the slow reviews. Quickly learning that internet provision in venues is terrible. Even in venues that claim to have openly accessiblw wi-fi (Pleasance excepted), the service is so terrible it’s unusable. Worse, no-one seems to consider this a problem. Look, if it really is impossible to provide reliable internet to the general public, could you at least allow accredited press access to your staff networks. It’s your acts that are losing out when we can’t do our jobs.

So this is why Beg For Me is late, but here we are. This one grabbed my interest because it’s about a man radicalised enough to take part in the infamous January 6th insurrection. We don’t have his name, but his Twitter handle is @R3alAm3rican99. A visitor comes to his cell, which he presumes to be Police. But as far as @R3alAm3rican99 is concerned, he’s done nothing wrong. The storming of the House and Senate was a peaceful protest, and the only attempts made to kill anybody were provoked by the Police, who are all in league with the secret cabal of the liberal elite hell-bent on sending Mexican immigrants to rape your white daughters.

One frequent mistake made with depictions of the other side is to set up your enemies as straw men to take down, and normally that’s what I’d been questioning here. After all, Trump fans might claim anyone who disagrees with them are NCP cuck snowflakes scared of mean words, but Hillary fans are equally swift to paint their critics as alt-right Nazis who watch Jim Davidson on repeat. However, in the aftermath on the US election I was following the social media activity of people who insisted the election was rigged for my amusement research, and, honestly, this level of batshittery is perfectly normal. In fact, there’s even higher levels of batshit craziness (e.g. anything claims by Qanon supporters) that we don’t even go into. What this play is really about is how he got to this point in the first place. I remember the shock in I Am A Camera (the stage play that led to Cabaret) where Fraulien Schnieder is still a kidly caring landlady, but she believes all the things the nice men in suits say about the Jews. This man never used to spout the racist and misogynistic bile he now spouts, and however much he may decry the old version of him as a mindless sheeple, it’s clear he was once just an ordinary guy.

The message this play seems to be giving is that it didn’t happen overnight. He didn’t open a reddit thread and suddenly sign up as a full-blown Trump-worshipping Nazi. In fact, he was already disappearing down that rabbit hole long before he read any of this. Prior to that, he was subjecting his girlfriend to degrading sexual acts, and blaming her for being the digusting whore who’d degrade herself exactly the way he meant to. However, there is a missing link in the back story here. He went into that relationship as a shy man asking for permission to kiss her – but there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for how he got from that point to a shitty controlling partner. And okay, there’s only so much you can explain in an hour, but I did feel too much of the play was taken up by the visitor admonishing the accused for the way he treats women. Look, this is the Edinburgh Fringe, not Parler. I’ve 100% confident no-one saw this play and thought “You know, @R3alAm3rican99” has a point. I’m pretty sure we can take it for granted that everyone thought “What a fucking nutjob.”

To be fair, there is a good reason why the mysterious visitor is so insistent on giving our man a dressing down, which ties into the journey from normal guy to alt-right fanatic. I won’t spoil the play by saying what the reason is, but it’s a good one. Rhys Anderson’s portrayal as the radicalised fanatic is excellent. The one thing I would seek to add to this is more about the beginning of the journey. What I think this play underestimates is what a lot of people underestimate – how perfectly understandable and legitimate grievances are ruthlessly exploited by extremists and twisted with half-truths and distortion. Rosa Maria Alexander is 80% of the way there – I hope we can completely this with the final and most uncomfortable 20%.

Tuesday 23rd August,12.30 a.m. – The Land of Lost Content:

An outstanding and very moving play. Bring hankies

Okay, that’s another congested day’s viewing done. Normally I would leave the reviews until tomorrow. But this one can’t wait. It’s happened for the second time this fringe. But the last time this happened it came from a front runner who I already expected to do well. It’s a different thing when it comes out of nowhere.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

Henry and Judd are sitting at the bar table in the pub, the Flat Earth in, of the rural village they grew up in. They have been best friends since childhood, but there used to be more of them. This is not some idyllic sleepy town from a Hovis advert, however, but a deprived town with a lot of people struggling and – more relevantly – a lot of boredom. Their teenage years were spent mostly drinking and getting stoned because there wasn’t anything else to do. And, in a way, they are the lucky ones. Other teenagers the same age as them go through worse things.

The Land of Lost Content is written by Henry Madd, playing Henry, and his heavily based on his own memories of his teenage years in this town. A lot of memories involve the 292 bus which somehow seems to serve everywhere you could possible want to go; other memories are more dangerous actt of recklessness. To some extent, this is a similar format to Sandcastles, set as a memory play, with the story told in a non-linear format going back and forth in time from the Year 7 disco where Judd joined the class as the insecure new kid taken under Henry’s wing, to years as the class clown sneaking in booze to school proms, to definitive moments in their twenties that made Henry and Judd what they are today. They also make heavy use to soundscapes, used to wonderful effect here.

But there is one crucial thing that Henry Madd does much better here. Rather than just memories of teenage parties and holidays after exams, Henry and Judd and their other friends have all been through so much together. And it’s when you stick to each other through thick and thin that you can truly understand how much their friendship means to them. Even when there’s bullying from bigger boys, you can quickly see they’re in the same situation of boredom and low life prospects, merely being slightly ahead in the pecking order. Not all of the time though. There are some bad people in the town, and Henry’s closest two female friends come off particularly from the dregs in society. The saddest part of the story is that Henry can see the lives of his friends falling apart around him – but whilst his friends are there for him to pull him back from the darkest moments, try as he might, he doesn’t know how to do the same when they need him.

Writing so closely about your own life experiences is always a risky game; a play can only ever be a simplification of real life, and all sorts of things can go wrong when distilling it into an hour. You might steer clear of uncomfortable details that stop the on-stage story making sense, and even events that happened in real life can come across as not ringing true. Not here – I never doubted at any point the believability of these characters and the vulnerability that stopped them doing more when things mattered the most. You must see this – but bring the hankies.

Monday 22nd August, 7.00 p.m.:

Why the lack of availability of fringe programmes is a good thing

Excuse the sporadic coverage, got yet another press ticket in a moment, so don’t have time for a quite exciting review. But in the shorter gap I have, here’s an odd observation a few of us have: Edinburgh Fringe programmes seem to be harder to obtain this year. I ordered my programme in advance and plan almost everything prior to a visit so it doesn’t affect me much, but anecdotally other people have had trouble picking up a programme, which used to be ten-a-penny at all major venues. For what it’s worth, I don’t remember seeing Fringe brochures at any venues myself – however, there are plenty at the Fringe Box Office (also Fringe Central, if anyone can make the detour).

However, I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing. I’m not in such a panic over paper wastage as Brighton is (who have already decided they’re not going back to a full programme for all next year), and I think one programme per punter is bearable. However, programmes that are both free and easy to obtain are, I think, easily wasted. People may continually abandon brochures and pick up new ones. People who re only sort-of interested might pick up a brochure and throw it away without buying a single ticket. I’m not against making a programme slightly harder to obtain if it means we have to print less.

One thing I would seriously consider for future years is making category-specific brochures the main type of brochure distributed by the fringe. It is silly that someone who only looks at the theatre section gets a brochure with all the comedy listings in, and vice versa. If we need a full brochure, I would consider charging a token amount. Not necessarily the full printing cost, but enough to make people think twice about taking one if they’re not serious about going to anything, and maybe take a bit more care before losing it.

Happy to hear other people’s verdicts, but if the lack of availability of brochures is an economisation by the back door, I’m fine with it. In fact, be open that you’re doing it. Like the half-price virtual ticket hut, this is an economisation I like.

Monday 22nd August, 11.30 a.m.:

A call to streamline the press ticketing system

Rush hour is about to start, with me watching four plays in seven hours. This is proving a challenge. I have long since accustomed myself to getting from venue to venue and pacing myself, but the thing that’s proved an absolute bugger this year is all the administration around press tickets. It’s a bugger to deal with half a dozen different press offices at the same time, and whilst I have so far never missed a play due to a bit of missed paperwork, I’ve had some near misses. What’s more, I’m starting to think this is more complicated than it needs to be.

First of all, an overview of how the press system works. Until 2019, I was working entirely on informal arrangements dealing with individual shows asking me to review them. It was fine when it was just a few, but it got harder as the requests piled up. Last year, I got upgraded to full reviewer status by Edinburgh Fringe – I don’t know whether that was merging two tiers into one, Edfringe needing all the reviewers they could get in 2021, or just the year I earned a promotion, but this meant I had access to the full press ticket system. This is much easier – select the show your want, website will tell you whether or not there are press tickets*, and if so, bing! It’s yours.

 

 

*: Actually, the website is still confusing if you’re not used to it, but it’s still easier than darting around a dozen press offices.

 

 

However, most venues don’t use this system. The only venues I’ve managed to get press tickets from are Space and Greenside. There is a caveat that although press tickets are given to accredited media, no questions asked, you are expected to actually review the plays. If you are caught breaking this rule, they can revoke your accreditation and any tickets you haven’t yet used. So far, I’ve not known any complaints of abuse of the system. That, however, is not enough reassurance for the Big Four and other venues who won’t issue press tickets without the company’s consent. For the record, this is how I operate anyway – I never take a press ticket if I wasn’t expressly invited – but it’s understandable that some venues are more cautious. A free ticket with a face value of £15 must be tempting for the freeloaders out there, especially the big name comedians.**

 

 

**: (For the record 2: I could have claimed a free ticket via a publicist to a big-name comedian I wanted to see, but as I don’t know how to review stand-up comedy and I knew I’d be taken what would otherwise be a paid seat, I couldn’t justify it to myself.)

 

 

The thing is, the red61 system that Edinburgh Fringe uses can do exactly this. Brighton (where I’m also accredited) has a very similar setup, with one exception: the tickets have to be manually approved. Surely Edinburgh Fringe’s system can be configured to support both routes – no questions asked for venues who trust the current system, approval needed for venues such as the Big Four that want to be more vigilant. The different is that reviewers only have to deal with one outlet. It also makes it a lot easier to keep track of what you’ve booked.

I need to be careful about “Won’t someone think of the reviewers?” As I’ve said, the Festival Fringe Society exists for the benefit of the performers, not us. However, when the odd review falls through because of errant paperwork, it’s no big dead to the reviewer – but it’s the act who loses out. That could have been the only review this play was going to get. Usual note of caution applies: apply technological solutions with caution, make sure it’s properly tested. But get it right and it will benefit everybody.

Monday 22nd August, 10.00 a.m. – Colossal:

A play with a message that desperately needs subtext

With comedy the dominant category at Edinburgh Fringe but theatre coming a strong second, Edinburgh is a good place for established comedians to branch out into theatre. This is what Patrick McPherson is doing, with Colossal being his second performance in the theatre category. At face value, this is a story about dating. Dan is excited to be going on a new date, and in the hour he has to get ready, he talks about his last long-term relationship. At first, the excitement of a new relationship, first accidental meeting, nail-biting wait for reply to first text, first kiss, first meeting with parents. And then it goes to the arguments and the infidelity that led to it falling apart. However (apology, spoiler alert, but impossible to review without this), this is not all that it seems. Dan’s version of the story is his own version. Reality, he later admits, wasn’t quite the same.

This is the fourth play at this fringe I’ve seen on a subject ranging from sexual predators to unhealthy relationships. What this one is desperately missing, however, is subtext. Not all plays about unhealthy relationships need so much subtext, but when the central premise is an unreliable narrator, it’s vital. How do we know Dan started off head-over-heels in love and over-optimistically judged the situation? Because Dan tells us at the end of the play. How do we know Dan was glossing over his faults in the failing relationship? The same. Worst, of all, the play is supposed to give a message at the end about looking at your learned behaviour – but there are no examples anywhere in the story of what the learned behaviour is or how Dan came to learn it. Just a direct quote from his ex telling him to address his learned behaviour, whatever it was. “Show, don’t tell” has never been more important here.

To be fair, subtext is difficult to write, especially if you’ve come from comedy where subtext has little importance (certain kinds of character comedy excepted). It is not clear whether subtext wasn’t written into the script or whether it was so subtle it wasn’t picked up, but either way, the only thing I picked up that sort-of indicated something wasn’t right has a flickering light. I suppose the argument where the two accuse each other of gaslighting might have been meant as a sign of an unhealthy relationship, but with no context to the arguments it was impossible to tell whether they were simply words in anger or something more – and if the latter, no indication of who was gaslighting who. Personally, the best opportunity I see for subtext is a passing reference at the beginning of Dan giving a favourable spin on his previous relationship. That could easily set alarm bells ringing when the same things happen again – but once more, the only reason we know Dan glossed over his last relationship is because he told us directly.

I am probably in the minority here – it’s got a string of good reviews from its run and the show I was in was close to sold out. The main reason this is getting praise for its production values, and those were excellent. McPherson is perfectly choreographed to an intricate lighting and sound scape, and had the plot been stronger I might have been shouting praises from the roof tops. There’s one other possible reason for its popularity though: popularity with people who already agree that with the message about learned behaviour, and don’t care if nothing is done to expand on it, only that their view is stated back to them. I hope I am wrong about that, because in the long run, playing to the gallery is a mistake. So much discourse is dominated by soundbites without substance, and plays give the opportunity to expand on this and show how things such as learned behaviour can work out. It’s a shame that a play with so much going for it missed this opportunity.

Sunday 21st August, 11.00 p.m.:

How are ticket sales doing?

Now here’s a big question we’ve not yet discussed much: how are ticket sales comparing to 2019.

First the baseline. The number of registrations at Edinburgh Fringe is just over 80% of the 2019 peak. I have previously observed that there’s a lot of shows not running the full fringe this time. Having checked this further (and thanks to Richard Stamp for doing the number crunching), this effect looks less dramatic than it looks. The short runs seem to be mostly affecting theatre – certainly most of my comedy picks are still running the full length. (This should not be too surprising when you remember most comedy shows are one person, which lessens the impact of expensive accommodation.) There does seem to be a reduction in full-length theatre runs, but not a big one – I perhaps underestimated how many were doing short runs back in 2019. On the whole, I’m not expecting this to have much effect on number of performances, which I’m currently expecting to be around 75-80% of 2019. The big question, of course: will sales also be around 75%-80%?

There was an early panic around the start of the fringe when it was reported pre-sales were down a lot. It now looks like alarm over an imminent meltdown was overstated. Instead, this seems to be fitting into the pattern seen at Brighton that people are buying tickets later. Does that really make up the shortfall in pre-sales though? What really matters is the total number of sales, by they in advance or on the door. Here we don’t seem to have any data (or at least nothing I know about which anyone’s pick up on) and instead have to rely on anecdote.

For what it’s worth, my own observations are that attendance in the shows I visited looks about the same as a normal year. Treat my estimates with extreme caution, as this varies enormously between individual shows, and it’s hard to recall what an average attendance looks like. (Also bear in mind that an an audience member, you’re more likely to be in a well-attended show than a poorly-attended one, although I’m currently guessing the effect is the same in 2019 and 2022 and cancels out.) Other reviewers I’ve spoken to are having similar observations, give or take a little in the details. From performers I’ve heard from who’ve been in the game long enough, they seem to think it’s been quieter, but not enough to be a cause for alarm.

wp-1661120468469So it looks like we’re going to have to wait another week and a bit to get an answer to this one. The only prediction I’m going to make is that when the figures do come, there won’t be anything jaw-dropping. In the meantime, here is a picture of the Sold Out board at the Pleasance Courtyard a few hours ago. If you know what a typical Sold Out board on the Sunday of Weekend 3 looks like in a typical year, let me know.

Sunday 21st August, 8.00 p.m. – The Bush:

A nice story about protest from an unlikely group of dissidents

I’ve been off-grid again a while, because I’ve just seen two consecutive plays at Summerhall. On the plus side, I have heard some exciting news, as Summerhall has added itself to the list of venues that could be as close as five years away from having wi-fi that actually fucking works. In a separate development, Summerhall are extremely pleased with their collaboration with mobile phone networks to make sure there’s absolutely no backup mobile internet available. But now that I’m back somewhere I can connect, let’s start coverage of visit 3 with something that wasn’t here with my last two visits.

How do you make a story about a protest movement into a play? In the case of The Bush, it’s about a local protest to save a piece of rural land with local sentimental attachment in 1970s. The trouble with these sorts of stories is that real life doesn’t lend itself that well to scripted drama. I am a great believer in writing events that keep the viewers’ attention: one event leads to another and another, this things happens every now and then to change the course of the story. Real campaigns, however, tend to consist of a set of little events largely unrelated to each other adding up to an outcome one way or the other. The other problem particular to this one is that the decisive moment that saved Kelly’s Bush was a coincidence never alluded to before (because nobody knew). In fiction that would be decried as a contrived way of ending the story. But this is what really happened. What do you do?

The way Alice Mary Cooper makes this work is making the story just about the people in the protest movement as the campaign. Of course, stories about liberated/hedonistic campaign movements behind worthy causes are done to death, but this works by being exactly the opposite of what you’d expect: a prim and proper collection of suburban housewives, as middle-class as you can be. Being the 1970s, the men have jobs and the women stay at home, but the men barely feature in the story, always referred to in the party where the movement is founded as somebody’s husband. Regardless of campaigning activity underway, it always seems to be running parallel with a drive to provide the most sublime cooking, with assorted kitchen disasters turned around with initiative and years of culinary experience. Somehow they find time to save Kelly’s Bush whilst juggling school commitments. When they form an alliance with a construction union, and one of them mildly flirts with a housewife who’s never been flirted with for ten years, she turns beetroot. What might have been a dry play that was difficult to follow is made into a story with warm humour.

Alice Mary Cooper’s preferred format is third-person storytelling. Whilst I personally would have preferred her previous work, Waves, to have been done in first person, it makes more sense here when the story is about a protest movement rather than a political character. The obvious question whenever a play is done in this format: why do it on stage at all? Why not just do it as a podcast? The answer is that Alice Mary Cooper is very good at making her storytelling visual, sometimes using naturalistic props, and sometimes repurposing them into new uses, pulling every trick in the book to keep the play visually engaging. The only downside I can see with the solo format is that I completely lost track on which housewife was this. It doesn’t matter too much as the focus of the play is on the cause rather than the individuals, but maybe there were some characters arcs I was supposed to pick up that I lost.

This play has been touring for six weeks in outdoor spaces similar to Kelly’s Bush, which I reckon would have suited it well. And I optimistic expectations for this one and Alice Mary Cooper delivered about an unlikely bunch of dissidents. Remaining runs is at Summerhall, Tuesday to Sunday, 3.00 p.m.

Sunday 21st August, 11.45 p.m. – The Glummer Twins:

Another recommendation from Buxton

Here we go. The last Edinburgh Fringe visit, and my last of all 2022 fringe visits. The last metaphorical mile of a metaphorical marathon than began in May. And just like a real marathon, the last mile is going to be the most gruelling. I intend to relax the pace in my final visit, and I will be concentrating more on plays I want to see than reviewing duty. And where there is a gap in my schedule, I will not go out of my way to fill it.

Before I get stuck in to visit 3 (or visit 7 if we’re counting all four fringes this year), it’s time for one more review from Buxton Fringe for a show about to start in Edinburgh. The Glummer Twins might be in the spoken word section of the programme, but they actually straddle four categories quite smoothly: as well as their beat poetry what puts them in the spoken word section, they crossover with music for the tunes than accompany some of the performances, comedy for the warm humour than comes throughout their poems, and theatre for the characters they adopt for their double act.

The Glummer Twins bill themselves as “the beat poets for the Saga generation”. It is often assumed that the fringe is a young person’s game, so it is refreshing to see a pair of older performers become such fringe favourites at Buxton. Crucially, however, they don’t appeal to one age range at the expense of another. This set of poems is set through the decades of their lives, starting with nostalgia of decades gone by and the later part featuring their signature hit “He’s just turned sixty, he’s taking it badly,” but at every point the performance remains accessible to everyone. The nostalgia is broad topics than younger whippersnappers have heard of; the dodgy nightclub they reminiscence about may be specific in Rotherham in the 1970s, but there are plenty of clubs in other towns and other decades this could relate to.

Ray and David, too, are perfect as a double-act, they banter they share with each other might be scripted between them, but it’s perfect for their stage personas and shares a similar style to Morecambe and Wise. They do give the game away – mentioning different birthdays during the aforementioned poem about turning sixty – that they’re not actually twins. But whilst they’re not literal twins they are certainly showbusiness twins. I’m a theatre reviewer so trust the verdict of comedy and poetry reviewer ahead of mine, but I loved it. I can confirm they are Buxton favourites for a reason. Runs 2 p.m. tomorrow until Sunday at The Space, Surgeon’s Hall.

Saturday 20th August, 8.30 p.m.:

What’s starting in week 3

We’re approaching week 3, which means time for another changeover. However, on this occasion I must apologise for lack of planning. I was supposed to give you advance notice of acts about to finish, but I forgot that most week 2 finishers finish today, not tomorrow. So if you were hoping to catch No One, Head Girl or 1972: The Future of Sex, I’m afraid you’re already too late, the last day was today.

What I can to is tell you about what’s coming up. There’s less of a changeover compared to week 2, but there’s a couple of new things starting to draw to your attention:

Call Mr. Robeson: The fascinating and frequently counter-intuitive story of Paul Robeson, one of the few black singers in mid-20th century America who could take on segregation and win – instead, the fight of his life came with the communist scare. Starts tomorrow (Sunday), 10.10 a.m., the Space at Surgeon’s Hall.

The Glummer Twins: They’ve down in the spoken word section as beat poets, but they straddle comedy, music and theatre. This double act is a favourite at Buxton Fringe, with a warm humour with echoes of Morecambe and Wise. Starts Monday, 2.00 p.m., the Space at Surgeon’s Hall.

That’s all from today. See you in person tomorrow.

Saturday 20th August, 6.00 p.m.:

How many groups have been lost permanently?

Now let’s turn attention to something that may feel missing from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It used to be a fixture on the mornings for many people to see Bite Size Plays. I saw the first production in 2006 and saw this go from strength to strength, but not this year. We do, however, have the founder, Nick Brice, giving a speech on the Bite Size Story (his day job is business so he’s well suited to this). The Edinburgh Fringe edition of this takes place today. Now, Bite Size fans, don’t panic. It doesn’t mean Bite Size is gone for good from Edinburgh – in fact, I believe one of the purposes of these talks is to raise money for an intended return next year. It does, however, remind us of a legacy of Coronavirus we haven’t considered that much. There’s been a lot of panic over respected venues closing; that seems to have been largely averted. However, how many respected groups have left the arts and aren’t coming back?

I have no data to track what’s happening; nevertheless, I can see reasons why this could be a problem. Although some of the more determined groups sought out every opportunity to perform in 2020 and 2021, most groups have been on a eighteen-month break. Can you simply pick up where you left off? Not necessarily. For a start, there’s all the financial considerations – I had a day job to keep me going so I don’t have much first-hand experience of this; other people on the sharp end can tell me better what the impact is. However, I suspect there’s also a psychological element to this – fringe theatre is almost always a highly stressful experience where the adrenalin keeps you going, but I wonder how many people with an enforced 18 months of doing little decided they couldn’t face the stress again. Similarly, if you were forced to get a job with a more reliable income, how many people want to go back to an unreliable one?

But I also suspect the effect is magnified with ensembles who form so many successful returning acts at Edinburgh. Bite Size plays may have started off as one man’s project and passion, but by the second half of the 2010s it was a team effort with the same actors coming back year after year. Maybe some of the Bite Size crew are gone for good, maybe they’re all raring to go next year, but if the worst comes to the worst, Nick Brice built one team, he can build another. Other groups are in a weaker position though. I don’t want to pick pick out examples of other acts because I don’t know their individual circumstances, but off-hand I can think of a couple of acts not here this year who were tight-knit teams. Lose one member of the team and it’s the end of the act as we know it. Could this be the worst cultural legacy of Covid?

I will float a counter-argument though. It’s been three years since the last Edinburgh Fringe of any proper size. Even without a pandemic, three years is a long time. Perhaps the losses we’ve seen amongst fringe perennial acts since 2019 are no worse than natural wastage over three normal years. Someone with a lot more resources will need to research this if we are to ever get a clear answer – but it’s possible the lasting cultural damage isn’t the closure of venues, but loss of hundreds of talented individuals and groups who just aren’t in the arts any more.

Saturday 20th August, 12.00 p.m.:

Jekyll & Hyde gets extended

Late to the party, but one small bit of news is that Jekyll and Hyde, A One-Woman Show, has had its run extended. Was supposed to finish last week, now finishing this week. So there’s performances at 8.15 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, Zoo Playground (same as last time). This might be connected to a nomination for an Infallible Award for this play. I’ve not really kept up with which award is which, but apparently this one is good.

I’ll be back later with an update on what’s finishing this weekend and what’s starting next week.

Friday 19th August:

Why no reviews from Paines Plough or Roundabout?

Today I am making preparations for my third and final trip to Edinburgh Fringe. To manage expectations, I’m not going to be jam-packing this one with reviews as much as before – I like to make the end of the fringe more fun and less of an endurance test. There are more things in my schedule that I’ve seen before and want to see again, and where I have gaps in my schedule, I won’t be going out of my way to fill them.

However, this is a good time an answer a question I’ve been asked by an eagle-eyed follower who’s noticed I’ve never covered anything from Paines Plough Roundabout or the Traverse, the two venues with the strongest reputations for new writing. The short answer is that there is nothing personal against this two venues, it’s just the way things have worked out. However, in the interests of transparency, it’s fair to expand on this and give some insight into how I choose to review.

The first point to make may seem quite counter-intuitive, but strangely enough, the reputation of the venues actually counts for very little in Edinburgh. I’ve long maintained that what I cover on this blog should be considered a cross-section of what’s on offer at Edinburgh Fringe rather than seeking out the best of the fringe. From a more idealistic standpoint, I am I big supporter of an open festival where anyone can take part, and in the spirit of this I have a system where anyone can get a good review from me. If you have a vote a confidence from Paines Plough or the Traverse, congratulations – but you are going into the fringe with a head start on everyone else. Over here, I want the minnows and the newbies to have a fair chance against the most favoured acts of the cultural great and good. This is why I might be reviewing an unknown act at The Space one moment, and a well-known act at The Big Four the next. A lot of review publications have this ethos on the fringe circuit, by the way; in contrast, on the regional theatre scene it is next to impossible to be reviewed if you aren’t in the programme of a notable producing theatre.

The main factor, however, is what I get invited to review. About 80% of what I’ve booked to see this year has been on press tickets, which almost entirely come from individual acts contacting me themselves. I don’t keep track of which venue they’re performing in, but so far, I don’t think I’ve ever had a request from an act performing at either Traverse or Roundabout. Which is fine – I like to focus by reviewing efforts where it is most wanted and appreciated, and acts at those venues already have a lot of acclaim on their side. To a lesser extent, the same could be said of acts at The Big Four, but I still get enough requests from there to keep me busy. The only real influence that venues have on my decision on who to review is balance. I try to have an even spread of venues over my coverage, and I especially try to balance up Big Four venues (who primarily take on better-known acts with higher budgets) with cheaper venues such as Space, Greenside and Zoo (who are better homes for less well known acts). A review request from Traverse or Roundabout would probably be snapped up as that would be an opportunity to get a different kind of venue into the mix.

There’s also a few other odds and sods that might indirectly disadvantage the new writing venues. Whilst I’m not that bothered about the reputation of venues, the reputation of individual acts does make a difference – especially acts whom I previously saw for myself. And in my case, the most likely place I saw an Edinburgh Fringe acts prior to Edinburgh is Brighton Fringe. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be much crossover between Traverse/Roundabout and the rest of the fringe circuit; in contrast, there’s a lot of names at the Big Four and Summerhall that I recognise from other fringes. I often use the half-price hut and nearby/now as my means of taking a punt on something random, but I don’t remember seeing either of these venues use the half-price hut, and they’re a bit out of the way to come on as a nearby/now pick.

I almost booked for the Traverse on Sunday, as there was something listed by a publicist that was on at a good time which grabbed by interest, but that one sold out. Ah well, close but no cigar. I hope the overall message from this is that no venue’s being snubbed, and the door is always open to review requests, same as everyone else. I’m almost booked up now, but maybe next year.

Thursday 18th August – Svengali:

Ambiguous in a good way

Good news, folks. You enjoyed reading my last two depressing reviews on sexual predators so much, I’ve got another one for you. This one is a little different from the other two though. All three of these plays have been good – but this time I’m not sure I’m picking up the message I was supposed to pick.

The start of this play wrong-footed me for a while. The play is openly advertised as a reimagining of a classic character for the #MeToo era, but without knowing anything about the source material I just saw Chloe-Ann Tylor on stage in a suit – something, I assumed, to fit into a victim preparing to give a testimony to court. To her, tennis is everything. She considers the soft-porn quality of tennis appealing. For a moment, I wonder if this is another victim-blaming narrative being set up, and it’s only a few minutes the penny drops: Tylor isn’t playing the victim, Tylor is playing the perpetrator. But unlike Sugar, where the villain of the piece is a ruthless manipulator exploiting a vulnerable teenager for sex, this is not so simple. This perpetrator – who idolising the Svengali for the source book – is a lot more interested in control. Sex, it seems, is simply the icing on the cake. And, unfortunately, our Svengali-superfan is doing pretty well in the job as a coach. With chosen young player Trilby storming the major tournaments, nothing is questioned. Controlling behaviour that would set alarm bells ringing anywhere else is accepted as a normal part of the relationship between mentor and protege.

One thing the stood out for me is that unlike Ghislaine/Gabler and Sugar, nothing this coach does is anywhere near breaking any law I know of – but it is still the most morally repugnant thing imaginable. I wasn’t entirely wrong when I thought a victim-blaming narrative was being built up. Trilby might be destined for phenomenal stardom on the tennis courts, but if that’s got anything to do with being the chosen protege, the reason’s a distant third at best. It’s pretty obvious Svengali is more interested in how pretty she is … but more still, how vulnerable she is. She was previously in an unhealthy relationship a more assertive woman might have bailed on sooner – and one suspects the thinking here is that if she can stumble into one unhealthy relationship, she can stumble into another. (I do think one problem that is being underestimated is opportunist predators choosing their targets based on who has the lowest self-esteem – if that was the intention to flag this here, it did the job.)

Now for the bit where I think I may have interpreted it different to writer Eve Nicol’s intentions. After establishing Tylor is playing the perpetrator, for the next 20 minutes or so I assumed she was playing a woman married to another woman with an eye on other women. In fact, I think there were only a few words said by her character that unambiguously make him a man. Some reviewers call this a portrayal of male power, but I see this as taking gender out of it. Why does it matter? The controlling and coercive behaviour was equally plausible whether it was from a domineering man or a domineering woman. It is also equally appalling either way. If anything, what this play does is show just how much it comes down to who has the power, and what you have to do to get that power in the first place. Incidentally, whether or not the ambiguity was intentional, I liked it. Some reviewers have criticised the end of the play for indeterminably switching to Trilby narrating, and yes, it took me a couple of minutes to think “Wait, are we hearing Trilby’s story now … yes we are.” And I liked that experience, although I appreciate it might not work so well if this is your 12th play and your brain is running on empty.

When I looked up the original, a final thing occurred to me. In the original book, Trilby isn’t a tennis superstar, she’s a singer superstar – but the one discipline other than sports that is notorious for controlling relationships is the arts. Mentors can have a huge amount of power over proteges, and controlling behaviour that would set every red flag flying elsewhere are all to often accepted in the arts as artistic temperament. In this sports-based retelling, Svengali’s power over Trilby wanes as she become more and more popular with the crowds and he can no longer isolate her – and in the arts, Harvey Weinstein suffered a similar fate when his power waned. Did I pick up the message this play was supposed to? I don’t know. But it looks like this play gives you a lot to think about however you perceive it.

Wednesday 17th August:

Some more thoughts about Sadowitz

Right, time for an update on the Sadowitz affair, which is not going away any time soon. The more I read about this, the more I’m convinced that The Pleasance has handles this badly, and are still digging themselves into a deeper hole over this. It’s even leading to a rare bit of infighting with the Big Four. And whilst it’s a long way from being called censorship, it does raise some important questions about artistic freedom that the leadership of The Pleasance need to address.

Firstly, Jerry Sadowitz himself. In the interests of balance, I should report that he has written his own response. Read it for yourself if you want to make up your mind, but the defence of the objectionable content is “there’s a lot of silly exaggerated irony and nonsense, real fake and exaggerated bile”. I have to say, I’ve never really subscribed to the often-used defence of “he didn’t really mean it”. I personally don’t understand why we’re not focusing on shoving his nob at one particularly person, which is potentially a sex offence that no amount of humourous context excuses, but since no-one else is talking about that I’m debating this on everyone else’s terms. The reason I’m focusing on The Pleasance is that their actions have more consequences here. Unless you wish to argue that people who watch his skits proceed to go around committing hate crimes (which even the most ardent Sadowitz-haters are stopping short of claiming so far), his offensive routine has no bearing beyond the room it was in. The Pleasance’s response might.

The issue isn’t so much The Pleasance not consider this sort of humour welcome. As I had before, Jerry Sadowitz is a liability and I don’t blame any venue for wishing to have nothing to do with him. If you’re concerned about venues engaging in moral vetting, this is nothing compared to other venues – it’s very much an open secret, for example, that the programming in the main producing theatre back him is very much in line with the moral codes of the leaderships. What’s different is that The Pleasance cancelled a show they’d already booked. What’s more, they refused to say exactly which material was the problem. I get nervous when this happens – even if I’ve got a pretty good guess what it was. This sets the precedent that the venue is the sole arbiter of what is and isn’t permissible on stage and has the right to punish you retrospectively. What’s more, if they don’t even have to explain what is was you did wrong, you have no hope of defending yourself. How can stop yourself crossing the line if it’s a secret where the line is? Can we really be sure it’s going to end here? The hashtag hordes don’t always stop at grossly offensive material – sometimes they demand punishment for minor moral transgressions, or views they don’t agree with, or even opinions expressed by the artist several years ago that weren’t even in the performance. Does The Pleasance cancel acts in mid-run because it’s the right thing, or the easy thing? Do they bow to petty moral outrage and ignore worse material depending on who buys more tickets? Or has the bigger social media following?

Most importantly, The Pleasance needs a better explanation of why they booked Jerry Sadowtz in the first place if they consider him so objectionable. This didn’t totally come out of the blue, he’s been notorious for this sort of thing. The Pleasance’s explanation (as reported by The Stage) is: “We don’t vet the full content of acts in advance and while Jerry Sadowitz is a controversial comedian, we could not have known the specifics of his performance. The Pleasance has staged his work numerous times over the years, but as soon as we received complaints from those in the building which caused us great concern, we knew we could not allow the final performance to go ahead.” That is implying that they knew he would be shocking, but not as much as he was. However, having refused to give the specifics, I’m not sure I’m prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. If you knew what to expect, you should either admit the mistake’s on you and apologise, or stick to your guns in the face of complaints. If you didn’t know what to expect, you’re going to need a better explanation before I believe you.

The most charitable explanation I can think of is that the staff were about to mutiny and they forced The Pleasance’s hand. If the staff did that, it would be understandable. (There’s also complaints of abuse being directed by staff, but it’s unclear whether that was from Sadowtiz himself or from fans after the event was cancelled – even so, Sadowitz has made no attempt to tell fans not to behave like that.) That, I accept, would put The Pleasance in a difficult position. I don’t envy anyone in the position of damned if you do, damned if you don’t – but they should have seen this coming. They could have made it clear that marshalling controversial acts is part of you job from the outset. Or they could have brought in outside workers for these performances. Or they could have not programmed him in the first place.

So, I’m sorry Pleasance, but you are going to have to give a better explanation for what you’ve already given us. What exactly were you expecting when you programmed him? What did he do that went outside your expectations? If you were wrong to programme him in the first place, just say so – if not, what changed? It is in your interests to answer this to everyone’s satisfaction, because a lot of big-name comedians aren’t going to want to work with a venue who comes across as behaving like judge, jury and executioner. You’re better than this Pleasance. Please give us the answers we deserve.

Tuesday 16th August – Sugar:

Not so sugary

There are two things notable about Sugar. Whilst the fringe circuit has mostly moved on from the online programme pioneered over the last two years, some of the biggest successes have been remembered and brought back in person – it seems The Space’s efforts to be part of the temporary online programme have paid off in this regard. The other thing is that this is a prime example of why I think the current system of content warnings doesn’t work. Sugar contains subject material that I’m pretty sure some people really don’t want to relive, but it would not be possible to spell it out without giving away how this play goes. I am going to spell it out here because it’s not possible to review this without giving the theme, and on that note, please consider this your spoiler warning. If you have already decided you want to see this (and you’re comfortable with having anything thrown at you), stop reading now. (And for the way I think we should handle content warnings without acting as spoilers, come this way, for a solution with the unlikely inspiration of the joke website Does the Dog Die?)

The tagline of Sugar is “One Girl. Five Ages. Many Morally Ambiguous Life Choices.” Between the ages of 6 and 18, Mae (written and performed by Mabel Thomas) tells the stories of her madcap adventures in a sort-of hybrid of Just William and Derry Girls. Whether it’s her scheming at six years old to get the coveted raffle prize of a day with the headmaster in a fast food place, her foray into entrepreneurship at ten or her underhand tactic to boost her grade point average at 16, the story is kept light-hearted with warmth and humour. Until we reach 18½. The cheapest higher education she can find is impossible to afford. And her latest get-rich-quick scheme is to get a sugar daddy. I already have a bad feeling about this.

In a different play, I might question what the point was of the first five of these six chapters. Story-wise, they have little to do with what happens at the end. But that’s not really the point here. We are not building up a story, we are building up a character. Why is Mae embarking on something which is so obviously dangerous and she’s so obviously out of her depth? Because for the last twelve years of her life, she has built up a lot of misplaced confidence. It’s true that she’s got her way most of the time, but it’s a lot more down to luck than her ability to talk her way out of any trouble. But it’s not so much an overestimation of her own abilities, but an underestimation of what a big bad world it is out there. Until now, she’s lived in a relatively innocent and sheltered world where the stakes are low. In the world of sugar daddies and sugar babies she’s stepping into, there are people more ruthless, more amoral and more exploitative than anything Mae can imagine. Whatever petty lying and cheating she’s done up to now, she doesn’t deserve this.

There is one piece of subtext about this play I liked, and I’m not sure how much is deliberate and how much is accidental. There is the obvious question of how there is any justice in some awful people have incomprehensibly vast amounts of wealth. But the more subtle question is the attitude to people without the money. The only reason Mae is doing this is to get enough money to pay for a community college. As the girl from the poorest family at school, the safe and morally accepted route means no money, no higher education, and perhaps a lifetime of soul-crushing minimum wage jobs. Over here, there would be at least some protests over this situation, but in the leafier parts of Wisconsin, it’s just accepted as completely normal. Neither Mae nor anyone else questions this – it’s just the way it is, that’s that.

So yes, I must advise you that, contrary to what the title might imply, this play is a lot less sugary than the title and first two thirds may lead you to believe. This play has a lot to say, and it’s not just trap many plays fall into that Good Things and Good and Bad Things or Bad, but other less comfortable subjects about the dangers of naivety from a sheltered youth, and how some of the worst people out there can get away with some of the worst things. Recommended, but brace yourself for the final uncomfortable chapter.

Monday 15th August:

What’s starting in week 2

We’re now into week 2. Today and tomorrow a lot of full-run shows will be taking a day off. Don’t worry, fringe bingers – that’s more than enough on offer to make up a full day. You just might need to plan a bit more carefully if there’s someone specific you want to see.

As well as that, we have some new things starting this week. Unless otherwise noted, they run until the end of the fringe/ We have:

  • No-One from Akimbo Theatre. A physical theatre-heavy piece loosely inspired on The Invisible Man, but what it captures from the original it does well. This actually started yesterday, and has a short run until Saturday. 5.45 p.m, Zoo Playground.
  • The Bush, Alice Mary Cooper’s new play which I’m looking forward to, about the original fight for a green belt in Australia. Starts tomorrow, 3.00 p.m., Summerhall.
  • The Grandmothers Grimm, a play about the origins of stories before they ended up in the Grimms stories. To be fair, the originals were even more fucked up than the Grimms versions, but was the change entirely a good thing? Starts tomorrow, Greenside Riddle’s Court, 4.25 p.m.
  • How to Live a Jellicle Life: See the weird CGI version of everyone’s favourite felines brought to life by Linus Karp. Starts today, Greenside Ridde’s Court, 5.15 p.m.

And also, since I think I won’t get round to mentioning this separately in time, we also have a two shows running since week 1 that close in a few days. There is:

  • Head Girl. One of the plays from Durham Fringe, an energetic two hander about a schoolgirl desperately wanting to be Head Girl without really understanding why. Finishes Saturday, runs this week Space on the Mile, 10.55 a.m.
  • 1972: The Future of Sex: Another Durham-originated production. Bold move to take on such a difficult play perfected by The Wardrobe Ensemble, but I’m hearing good things from those who’ve seen it. The Space on North Bridge, finishes Saturday 1.20 p.m.

Have fun everyone. I’m next joining you on Sunday.

Sunday 14th August, 11.00 p.m. – Utter Mess!:

A clowning show for a change

And last up in my weekend catchup is another different things: a clowning productions. One of the reasons I picked this is that Stonecrabs is one of the most determined theatre companies to ask me for reviews, and with one of their productions somewhere I can see it I wanted to check this out. Stonecrabs is quite a large theatre company that do productions over sort of different genres, and this clowning piece is a joint production with Busu Theatre, a Japanese company primary specialising in folklore.

A pair a clowns: an older Japanese man and a younger European woman, start off getting the audience to do a warm-up. Any preconceptions this might be a jolly hour of custard pies and cars with wheels that might fall off are dispelled at the end of scene one, when the exciting message they’ve looked forward to seeing says “You’ve been drafted!” Yip-ee-yiy-ay! They are clowns after all. Then comes the “interval”, where the clowning stops and the older clown is informed that the board has decided to lay him off.

I do need to give a major caveat to this review: I am not that familiar with either clowning or Japanese folklore, so there may well be something I didn’t pick up that other people would. From the point of view of someone used to more conventional theatre though, it did feel a bit like this had “concept overload”. There were a lot of abstract concepts thrown in with subjects chopping and changing. The main theme, I picked up, was the two clowns being locked up the Musuem of Lost Things, and they cannot leave until they find what they have lost – not a physical object, but what they have lost in themselves. But I didn’t get what the younger clown constantly taking selfies for Instagram was about. Now, to be fair, I read about the meaning of this in the press release later, and it made more sense. But you can’t count on everybody going back to the press release when they’re stuck.

There are some strong points to the performance. The pair of clowns are both strong performers, and they certainly know their stuff with the loop pedal. I really liked the scene of the laid off clown seeing the annoying psychiatrist who keeps switching to the messenger from the boardroom telling him he’s lost in touch and other messages to talk him down. I guess that, ultimately, this is Stonecrabs’ call. If their target audience is people more used to clowning and/or Japanese folklore, and they’re confident they will pick this up, fair enough, carry on as you are. If, however, this is supposed to be accessible to everybody no matter how little they know of this format, that’s a much bigger challenge, and I don’t have any bright ideas here as this is way outside my field. But good luck either way. Runs until next Saturday at Greenside Infirmary Street if you want see for yourself.

Sunday 14th August, 12.00 p.m.:

The reduction in flyering

Now for a subject I’ve been meaning to get around to. There’s been a lot of talk about a “sustainable” fringe, and one thing that is in the firing line is flyers. I have to say, I’m a bit sceptical about the focus on visible aspects of an event – being seen to make a difference is not the same as actually making a difference. A pub that proudly flaunts is paper straws could still be wasting masses of plastic packaging in the back room, and no-one cares because it’s out of view. Nevertheless, there’s an awful lot of flyers handed round at Edinburgh and it’s worth questioning if this is really necessary. One company who’s made a big thing of this is Box Tale Soup.

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The first thing I will say – and I’m sure Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers will agree with me here – is that what works for one group may not work for another. Box Tale Soup don’t need to flyer – they could probably have a got a tramp to sit on the Royal Mile holding up a piece of cardboard saying “BOX TALE SOUP HAVE A NEW PLAY” and still filled the house. However, what I think a lot of people are forgetting is that this form of publicity has little to do with a piece of paper and a lot to do with direct engagement between performers and prospective audience. The chance of somebody going to a show based on a flyer alone is low, but if you chat to someone about the play who later comes to see it, 80% of the work was done with the chat – the flyer is simply a reminder of the chat, with a note of where to go and when to see it. In theory, the QR code does the same job as the flyer – but I’m sure the small number of flyers handed out this way are negligible compared to all the other resources being burned up.

The practice that I think does need clamping down on is what I call “flyer-spamming”. The logic here is that the chance of getting someone to your show simply by handing out a flyer on the street as they walk past is low – maybe 1% or thereabouts. But if you hand out thousands of flyers, some of them will have success, and you can hand out a lot more flyers if you don’t bother to chat. Or – and this is the big problem – you can pay someone to hand out flyers for you. That way, you can scale up for flyering as much as you like, dishing masses of paper, and it might be low return per flyer but still (in theory) gets you an audience. I hate it myself – there’s few things more soulless than someone flyering who doesn’t care about the play and whose only connection is being paid to hand it out. And no, reciting a pitch by rote doesn’t make it any less soulless. Even if you don’t think this is a big deal environmentally, it places a big extra financial overhead on performing groups, as those who don’t want to hire extra flyerers feel obliged to keep up with those who do. Based on my observations so far, this seems to have been cut down on a lot, and it is a change for the better, maybe environmentally, definitely financially.

There’s other kinds kinds of flyering between these two – there’s piles of flyers in venues, and there’s flyering by venue staff. For reasons I don’t have space to go into, I’m okay with both of those. What I think is important is that we separate out the different kinds of flyering practices going on at the Edinburgh Fringe. The occasional flyer given out by people who are involved in the shows who care about them are not the same as paying for thousands of flyers to be handed out indiscriminately. I personally what we’re seeing at Edinburgh Fringe this year is about the right balance – but don’t obsess over this too much. There are less visible impacts on the environment that might need more attention. It would be a mistake to fall into the trap of performative environmentalism.

Sunday 14th August, 10.30 a.m. – Finlay and Joe, Perpetual Hype Machine:

A fun family-friendly hour of sketches

Okay, that’s enough shitstorm analysis for now. I must get back to reviews. I caught up with visit 1 yesterday, now it’s time for visit 2. I’m going to start with something I don’t normally review: sketch comedy. It’s not quite in my no-go area of stand-up but quite far removed from my normal area of theatre. However, it was what happened to fit into my schedule, and I like to occasionally explore outside my comfort zone, so here we go.

As it happens, this duo might be a sketch group, but they do overlap in theatre a lot. Their on-stage personas are a couple of losers who hear phrases such as “Oh, you’re still at the bar, good for you! I’ve just been promoted.” and “Still at you’re mum’s? That’s nice. I brought a house.” and ” Are you still single? So am I. However, I’m more attractive than you.” However, all that is about to change. They have a new machine that automates sketches. Just spin the wheel and away you go.

Finlay and Joe are a family-friendly sketch group, and it was only about half-way through I realised I was enjoying myself without hearing a rude work or anything risque once. (In fact, I’ve actually dragged down the done myself with the rude/Anglo-Saxon word at the start of this update.) It is fair to say that whilst the sketches are family-friendly, the humour is more likely to be picked up by grown-ups than children. Nevertheless, is was good fun, such as what happens when the engagement ring is the One Ring from The Lord of Rings, and how confusing it is to explain sentient engines to Mick Lynch as he visits the Island of Sodor. In the strongest sketches, the fun part is the moment you realise where this is going.

However, Finlay and Joe have taken a leaf of out Beasts‘ book, and the sketches eventually become part of a story – by creating a super-intelligent AI contraption, it becomes sentient and hell-bent on taking over the world. This, I think, could have been built up a little better – there was an argument over who gets the straight character and funny character in the sketches, but surely this need to be mixed in with increasingly sinister hints building up to the “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t let you do that” moment.

Fortunately, everything is resolved in the end, culminating in a super-sketch that encompasses at the other sketches. This includes giving a ten-pound note to someone earlier in the show and assuming you’ll get it back later, which I can only describe as brave. As I said, I’m not the best person to rate fringe sketch shows as I don’t have that many to compare it to, but this looks like a good start for a duo who are relative newbies to the comedy circuit on the fringe. Looking forward to seeing where they go next.

Saturday 13th August, 9.15 p.m.:

The war of words between Edfringe and venues calms down?

I’ll crack on with reviews tomorrow, once I’ve got my recovery day out of the way.

On the day of the unexpected shitstorm, it’s worth taking a look at what isn’t shitstorming. After the war of words amongst various venues over the Festival Fringe Society, it’s calmed down in week one and everybody’s just been getting on with things. In some respect, the Edinburgh Fringe has the precedent of the London Olympics counting in its favour; for all the sniping ahead of the games – and there were a lot of thing to argue over – they were swiftly forgotten when the games began. I don’t expect all the issue to go away here, but it might provide some breathing space to re-engage in constructive discussions for next year.

The thing might still be a problem is ticket sales. Should ticket sales across the fringe be particularly bad, expect there to be hell to pay for the Festival Fringe Society, whether or not this is actually the case. One observation that is being repeated all over the fringe (not just this one but also Brighton) is that there a a lot fewer presales and a lot more being bought on the day. As for overall sales, this is harder to gauge. My informal observations from the shows I’ve been in is that they’re about the same as pre-2020, but it varies enormously from show to show. Other observations I’ve heard so far have been similar, give or take a few details.

There are, however, reports of some shows struggling. At this stage, it’s unclear whether this is any better or worse than a normal year. I guess we’ll have to wait for sales figures at the end of the year to get an objective measurement. I would expect a modest shrinkage – the observations from Brighton and Buxton have been that audiences aren’t recovering as fast as participants. But if Edinburgh Fringe is hoping for an acceptable level of ticket sales, I’m cautiously optimistic it’s been achieved.

Saturday 13th August, 5.00 p.m.:

The Jerry Sadowitz business starts kicking off

Brace yourselves. New shitstorm approaching, and not one I was anticipating. The issue of censorship is back.

Amongst the hundreds of comedians lined up for the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s one called Jerry Sandowitz. He was due to perform last night and again tonight. An hour ago, he tweeted this:

But whilst I was writing up my thoughts on this, this came up. Scottish Sun, I’m afraid, but the article seems to keep to factual account of claims. This is probably an over-simplified accounts, but two things stand out. If these claims are true:

  • He used some, shall I say, “interesting” words to describe Rishi Sunak related to his ethnicity.
  • He exposed himself to a woman in the front row.

On point 1, I am reserving judgement. What he is alleged to have said is appalling, but freedom of speech means defending the right of other people to say things you loathe. Much as I hate it, the alternative is to give other people the power unilaterally censor you because they said you were offensive – and if you don’t think other people can’t find ways to twist your words if they want you silenced, you are very naive. Never underestimate the power of self-appointed people who get to decide what offence is. However, no-one is obliged to offer you a platform, and even in an open-access festival such as Edinburgh I would defend a venue’s right to steer clear of anyone who’s going to be a liability. What is less impressive is a venue cancelling a show in response to protests when you knew perfectly well what you were getting in the first place. That’s not standing by your principles, that’s flip-flopping depending on which crowd you want to appease this week.

This one pushes my patience to the limit. If The Pleasance knew exactly what he was going to say, my dispute would be with The Pleasance – you could take issue with The Pleasance for accepting that in the first place or attack the Pleasance for flip-flopping, but either way the fault would be with them. However, my reading of his publicity is that he has a reputation for being offensive and he might do anything – that’s a weak defence. Maybe the Pleasance should have been clearer over what they would and wouldn’t accept, but if it was me and I heard “I could do anything” I would probably assumed it wouldn’t include something like that. However, there may be details over who said what to whom when, and if this was the only issue I would have waited to see what comes out.

However, point 2 renders point 1 moot. I don’t care how many content warnings you give about what content to expect, waving your dick in from of someone is not acceptable. That’s not a matter of offence versus free speech – that’s verging on being a sex offence. Unless there was an express warning he was going to do that sort of thing, he should count himself lucky the Police weren’t involved. I would have done exactly the same thing if something like that happened in the venue I was responsible for.

So I reluctantly accept The Pleasance had no option but to boot him – but I’m not convinced about their reason. Apparently, they said “opinions such as those displayed on stage by Sadowitz are not acceptable and The Pleasance are not prepared to be associated with such material”. Hang on a second, what exactly is the issue here? Brandishing his dick at someone without her consent, or expressing opinions the management don’t agree with? Surely the first one is the bigger problem here? I accept The Pleasance had to get a statement out quickly, but they’re going to have to be more specific over what this is about. Sure, they did what they had to do, but does this mean they can retrospectively punish anyone they programmed for opinions – even when they knew what to expect when they booked you? I hope not – but it’s up to Pleasance to explain things better.

Saturday 13th August, 3.00 p.m. – Sandcastles:

Popular with audiences, but I don’t get it

I was keen for an opportunity to see Brite Theater as they were behind Emily Carding’s hugely popular Richard III. I never got to see this myself, and I wish I had because 1) I’ve heard a lot of good thigns about it from people who I know and trust, and 2) it features stickers saying “dead” applied to certain unlucky members of the audience. This one features a different writer and different actors, but, it would appear, shares the same high production values as previous plays. Like Ghislaine/Gabler, I think it’s fair to treat this one as a marmite play, with a concept that people will like or won’t. Unfortunately, on this occasion I’m on the other side.

Hannah tells Beth she’s moving to New York. Even though they are lifelong friends – even since the moment they met in the sandcastle park as children – Hannah never told Beth she was thinking of leaving. Throughout their friendship, Hannah has always been the risk-taker and Beth has been the cautious one arm-twisted into wild scheme, and even though Hannah frequently oversteps the line by stealing Beth’s boyfriends and other things, they stay friends. Hannah is finding her feet in New York, keeping little contact with Beth, but dies in a terrorist attack … That’s it. Normally I would hold something back, and in many plays I could not possible write about (or remember), but that’s the entire plot. When the first six minutes consists entirely of Hannah and Beth arguing over this unplanned decision and nothing else, the play swiftly fails the “Get on with it” test. The rest of the play unfolds at a similar slow pace.

That’s a pity, because everything else about the play is done to a high standard. At every point you feel like these two on stage really are the best of friends through thick and thin. The script too is naturalistic and serves the pair well. I was particularly impressed with the music for this – there has been an upturn across the fringes for supporting plays with fitting music to set the mood, and this was one of the best. But sadly none of this can distract me from the painfully slow pace of the story. Much as I have to say this, when the truck attack finally gets talked about – the moment when I ought to be hoping against hope the inevitable never comes – I was wait itching for something, anything, to move the plot along.

I know other people like this. If you want an in-depth intimate portrait of a friendship, and long digressions into memories that need not have any bearing to the story are a plus for you, this could be your think. Indeed, this play as attracted glowing reviews elsewhere for precisely this reason. But me? I don’t get it. Sorry.

Saturday 13th August, 10.30 a.m.:

Finishing in week 1

I meant to do this last night, but my stamina ran out halfway on this train.

Anyway, as we approach the end of week 1, some plays are coming to an end. Here’s a roundup of picks finishing soon:

  • Green Knight, a retelling of the story of Sir Gawain as told by Lady Bertilak. Saw it again yesterday, better than I remembered. Finishes Sunday, 5.00 p.m. Scottish Storytelling Centre.
  • Nychtophilia, a play set (mostly) in the dark with some cleverly executed writing and staging to go with it. Last performance today, 10.10 p.m., Greenside Infirmary Street.
  • Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show: Helps if you’re familiar with the original book, but the gender-flip used in this story has a different impact to what you might expect. Last performance today, 8.15 p.m., Zoo Playground.
  • Ghost Therapy: A fun play about a therapy session for ghosts, written to a surprisingly good standard for an 18-year-old writer. Two last performances today, 11.50 a.m. and 7.20 p.m., Zoo Playground.
  • The In-Laws: Mime piece with a down-to-earth storyline that gets very surrealistic very quickly. Half-hour of finely-constructed stagecraft. Last performances today, 11.05 p.m. and again at 11.40 p.m.
  • Take It Away, Cheryl: Play set in a kissing booth, except that Cheryl’s lucrative business actually doesn’t involve kissing, instead being a sort-of agony aunt for men. But can Cheryl ever put herself first? Last performance today, 5.30 p.m., Greenside Infirmary Street.
  • Late Night Dirty Scrabble, which is Scrabble with rude words. And if you don’t have a rude work, made one up. Or come up with a rude meaning for a normal word. Last performances today and tomorrow, 10.30 p.m., Gilded Balloon Teviot.

Join me later when we catch up with some more reviews.

Friday 12th August, 9.30 p.m. – Make-Up:

The rework pays off

I realise I’m still on reviews from visit 1 when I’ve just hopped on the train home from visit 2, but I will be posting multiple updates over this weekend and catch up.

For this next review, I must declare a conflict of interest. As you should have picked up by now, if I think a play has room for improvement, I will suggest how – and until now, that’s been the end of that. No Logo productions, however, have been keen to stressed to me that that have specifically acted on my feedback from this play what originally saw online for Brighton Fringe 2020. Under these circumstances, it is very tempting to say that the revised version is great and congratulate myself for giving such good feedback, but that temptation must be resisted at all costs. I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you believe me, but it is my honest opinion that this has changed the play for the better.

So, to recap from just under two years ago, Lady Christina, drag artists extraordinaire, is leaving the stage. In the dressing room, glamorous Christina undergoes the transition back to plain old humdrum Chris. Chris expresses some mild snark over these newcomers to the drag scene who think it’s a quick ticket to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. However, the day has arrived when Chris discovers he looks like his estranged father. The one who threw him out for being gay. The weak point with the original is that plays about a gay man and his relationship to a homophobic father are ten a penny. What stood to be interesting was the fantasy world of Christina, with her imagined father who was everything his real dad is not – but that was only an aside. It would be a lot more interesting, I thought, if we heard more about Chris’s alter ego. Clearly Lady Christina means more to Chris than a drag act – but what is it about her that’s so important?

Well, I can sort-of take credit for the idea (not full credit, I gather other people said similar things), but I can’t claim credit for the solution. Andy Moesley now works Lady Christina’s backstory (as imaged by Chris) throughout the play. At some points, Lady Christina’s life is completely different from reality, sometimes different from Chris’s family, other times different from Chris. At other times, however, Chris lifts his own life into Christina’s – every comeback he could have made against the bullies at school, how she won over the cool kids. I won’t tell you the best touch into how Christina came into being, though. That’s too close to the end, too much of a spoiler, but it does a lot to explain why Chris can never leave Christina behind.

I just have one small issue. There’s a slightly confusing lighting cue at the beginning of the play. The rectangle implies that Lady Christina is in the door of her dressing room, but if I have understood the text correctly, she’s still on stage addressing her fans. If that’s the case, I’d have though a spotlight would make more sense. Other than that, good job done. I will give a health warning here and advise that it doesn’t always pay to act on feedback given by a reviewer, not even me – if the reviewer doesn’t share your vision it will only make it worse. On this occasion, however, I’m very happy with the way it’s gone, so thanks a lot to No Logo for persuading me to give this another chance.

Friday 12th August, 3.30 p.m.:

The new virtual half-price ticket hut

I have now tried out the new-look Half Price Ticket “Hut”. I was going to tell you about it earlier, but earlier the internet went for no reason at all. But I can tell you about it now. The Edinburgh Fringe has got stick for a lot of things, but for once, this is a decision I support. In spite of everybody saying the Fringe has to change, there’s been a lot of calls to keep things the same, and this one I think doesn’t make sense to stay the same.

The Half Price Ticket Hut is an unusual part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Most things need to be made quick and easy, but the Half Price Ticket Hut needs, by design, to be just the right level of inconvenient. Make it as easy as buying a normal ticket, and everyone’s going to buy the half-price tickets instead and your box office income halves for the day. Make it too difficult and nobody uses it. What you ideally want is a method of sale that people looking for a bargain will use, but people who would see your play anyway won’t. Until 2019, that meant a jaunt to the bespoke Half Price Ticket Hut on Princes Street.

The Festival Fringe Society says the prefabs used for the physical hut are at their end of life and they can’t afford to replace it. Maybe that’s true, maybe the real reason is cutting down on the cost of staffing two different ticket offices. But the more important point, I think, is that ticket buying has changed. E-tickets, rolled out for an emergency, have become permanent, and I’m willing to bet that most people aren’t switching back from online tickets. With half-price listings (if I recall correctly) already available online, I’m not sure it’s worth going out of your way to show the listing on a noticeboard too.

So I tried this out myself and it all went smoothly. The only hiccup is that I couldn’t remember how to spell the show I’d chosen to see, and with no mobile reception in the ticket office it was impossible to look it up. Maybe the fringe Box Office staff need access to the same list on the website to cover this situation – and if people ask what’s on sale at half price, we can live with that. There is one other caveat: I got my ticket first thing in the morning as the box office open. I know that historicially the central Fringe box office was notorious for long queue times. This may well have changed with the rise of online sales, but if it hasn’t, this might push the half-price system from “right amount of inconvenience” to “unworkable”. Let me know what your observations are.

Finally, just a reminder that you shouldn’t write off plays just because they’re on sale at half price. You’d be forgiven for assuming that if they’re reduced, they’re having trouble selling tickets, and therefore the play can’t be that good. However, my long experience is that plays on half-price tickets are just as likely to be good or bad as regular tickets. Indeed, the promising-looking play I brought a ticket for did not disappoint.

But on the whole, I don’t see merging two box offices into one as a big deal, especially when in-person sales are not nearly as important as they used to be. So move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

Friday 12th August, 8.00 a.m. – Ghislaine/Gabler:

An insight into the mind of a predator who blames anyone but herself

On my way back for a day visit. Later today I will be doing my first “lucky dip” chosen by what’s in the half-price ticket (virtual) hut. Before then, let’s use the time to catch up with reviews from last week.

Now for one of the wildcards I’d listed in my picks and one of the riskiest. Once of the big news stories at the start of the year was the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, now proven is Jeffrey Epstein’s number one accomplice. But whilst it’s easy to guess what made Epstein do what she did, there is the puzzle over Ghislaine. Why did she do it? She certainly had far from a normal childhood – a controlling father and children competing to be his favourite, (something that she finally succeeded in doing) – but how do get from that to chief conspirator for a systemic abuser?

Obvious caveat before we proceed: this is a play, not a documentary. The only person who might know what is going through Ghislaine Maxwell’s head is Ghislaine Maxwell – this is only speculation of what she might be thinking. Nevertheless, Kristin Winters’ depiction is one that has been observed in countless abusers and sex offenders: they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. They may deny doing what they’re accused of, but even then they don’t really think the thing they were accused of doing is that bad. At this point I should give a content warning for the play. I know I’ve been getting heavy on content warnings lately – I try to avoid them when it’s obvious from the title, but this one is pretty full-on with the victim-blaming. Sometimes Winters switches to playing the victims – little about the abuse itself but a heavy focus on the exploitation of their naivety. Back as Ghislaine, she insists she was doing all these teenage girls a favour when she did all the things she denies doing but obviously did.

How does Hedda Gabler fit into this? It’s only a small part of the performance, and you could probably have run the rest of the play without this bit. Nevertheless, on the occasions this parallel is used, the gamble works. In this depiction, Ghislaine admires Hedda Gabler – but for all the wrong reasons. Hedda shows her true colours as the play goes on over how much of a controlling individual she is and that she can’t help herself, perhaps a rationalisation of her like-minded father. The one exception she insists on is that the Maxwells don’t give in. They don’t commit suicide, so it must have been murdered – but Ghislaine only reveals the level of delusion she shares with her fictional role model.

I think it’s fair to say this is going to be a Marmite play. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with the way this subject material is portrayed, essential though it is to the concept. The parallel to Hedda Gabler is a wild idea which I suspect is going to split opinion. If this isn’t the sort of thing you want to see, I don’t blame you. But see it if you can. Many plays are fast to condemn the worst things that happen in the word, but few try to understand.

Thursday 11th August – Death of a Disco Dancer:

Technical excellence, but would benefit from better characterisation

That’s enough ranting, let’s get back to reviews. Next up, a play that concludes on Saturday.

In Death of a Disco Dancer, four friends, newly-graduated from university, get together for one last party. This final party, it quickly emerges, involves, dancing, playing loud music, drinking a lot and taking all manner of drugs. It’s a wonder they don’t attract any noise complaints for the neighbours, but perhaps they have good taste with their bangin’ choons no-one minds. The drinking and drug-taking is taking its toll though. At least one of this cozy foursome never has the death of his father far away on his minds, and there’s only so far anyone can keep this up.

The first thing I will say about this is how good the sound and lighting plot it. In fact, this applies to lots of fringe shows now, from entry-level to the highest budget. The technological capabilities to have sound and lighting plots this sophisticated have existed for at least ten years now, but expertise has been slow to catch up. I have frequently cursed when I see simple technical problems that could have easily been averted with a little technical know-how. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve seen companies get a lot more ambitious, with people who know what they’re doing, know what can and can’t be achieved, and produce impressive results with what they have. Ultraviolet Theatre have produced one of the best technical plots I’ve seen, covering music, sounds, gorgeous lighting, and – the important thing that’s easy to forget – a production that knows how to work with this.

However, the exquisite staging conceals some weaknesses with the plot. I get that these four friends are presumably close through their shared love of hedonism and debauchery, but apart from that I never really understood why they behaved as they did. In particular, why one of them suddenly turn on the others half-way through and rail against the shallowness of their parties? Okay, he’s got a steady job so maybe he’s seeing things differently, but why change tune so suddenly when he’s been just as drink and drunk-addled as the others up to this point? The root problem, I suspect, is that the characterisation isn’t coming across the way it should do. This company may have very good reasons why each of the four behaves like they do, when they do – but if the audience doesn’t pick this up, it counts for nothing and just confuses people.

The even more root issue? Devised theatre is hard. Individual character arcs created by individual cast members sometimes get confusing and/or contradictory when combined into the same play. It is this sort of situations where it helps to have a dramaturg, but that is a minefield in its own right, for sometimes a good dramaturg has to ditch the favourite story arc created by one of the actors for the play to make sense. All I can suggest is to try to disregard everything you know about the play and its characters and try to imagine what an audience who knows nothing about this story will pick up – and I realise this is easier said than done. But if, as I suspect, there is more to this story than is coming across, there is a lot of potential still to be unlocked. And with the technical plot that is top of its game, there’s a lot to be made of this.

Wednesday 10th August:

Yet another drama school overrun by gropers?

But now, it’s time for a pause from Edinburgh Fringe coverage. This live coverage isn’t just for the fringe, it’s also for any other big news relevant to the theatre I cover. I apologise to those of you who regularly read my blog who will notice me flogging a dead horse and saying the same things over and over again. But my peak readership comes at Edinburgh Fringe so I can’t let this pass.

The big theatre news a few weeks back was the sudden closure of the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts – so sudden that students turned up one day to find the building was locked. At the moment, the majority of complaints in the arts concerning sexual harassment or racism seem to involve drama schools, but this one seemed to be down to crap financial management (albeit something the law looks on very dimly if they were trading whilst insolvent*). Now, according to The Stage, there were allegations of sexual and harassment at this one too, with the management at the time yet again allegedly to not take this seriously. I must stress these are currently only allegations, and the former principal implicated in overseeing this denies wrongdoing. In my experience, these allegations get proven true a lot more than they’re proven false, but I’m not really interested in the merits of the allegations over one particular venue. I’m far more concerned at the sheer number of times these allegations are coming up – and the sheer number of times the rests of the arts industry shrugs their shoulders and does bugger all about it.

* Footnote: I should add that this is the one thing where it now look like management are off the hook. By reporting their financial difficulties to the Office for Students five months before closure, they probably have enough of a defence to say that their financial activities were in line with what the OFS said was okay. Whether the OFS’s guidance was reasonable is another debate, but unless somebody knows something I don’t, it gets them off the most serious charge of concealing the true state of the finances.

These sorts of complaints don’t always involve drama schools, but a hell of a lot of them do. I don’t believe this is a coincidence. There is an old saying that the greatest power an actor has is to say no, and whilst that’s a massive over-simplification, it’s very relevant here. Even when directors and producers with a track record of abuse are never held to account, the actors who used to work with them before won’t work with them again, and – with the exception of the most powerful individuals – word gets round to future actors who think twice before signing. Drama school students do not have that luxury. If you discover what your teachers are really like, you’re stuck with them for months or years. They have the power to mark you down, maybe end your career before it’s started. Furthermore, whilst more experienced actors probably have some idea of what is and isn’t acceptable, it’s far too easy to pass off predatory or bigoted actions to drama students as normal behaviour. The only sort-of comforting news from ALRA is that there’s a distinct possibility that tolerating this sort of behaviour may have let to eventual financial meltdown. If morals isn’t enough to make you stand up to abusers, perhaps the prospect of closure will.

Why are theatres up and down the country not up in arms about this? The moral high ground taken by theatres in the wake of Weinstein gets hollower and hollower every time a scandal such as this goes unacknowledged by them. In retrospect, the stance increasingly looks like the cowardly one used by so many people. Yes, groping and bigotry is a Bad Thing™, but it is done by the Bad People™ who are Over There™, and Nothing To Do With Us™. Sorry, but this isn’t good enough. You fail the victims when you cosy up to organisations when the going’s good and fall silent when the truth comes out. You fail the victims when they fear speaking out will get the kicked out the arts and you say nothing to indicate the opposite. You fail the victims when you go along with the discredited status quo that arts organisations can be trusted to police themselves and needn’t be held to account. And no, commissioning plays to say why the Bad Thing™ is bad is not an acceptable substitute for taking responsibility, and does not in itself put you amongst the Good People™.

I apologise for interrupting Edinburgh Fringe’s coverage with a rant like this, but if you are somebody with the power do to do something about this, I’m begging you to do so. Major theatres would do so much good telling drama students whose side they’re on. Make it clear that no working relationship, however valuable, is worth turning blind eye to things. Give an assurance that you will never refuse to hire an actor for speaking out against another organisation. That’s the easy bit – whether people trust you to practice what you preach is the hard bit, but at least try. Everyone else – if you know people with the power to change things for the better, please talk to them. I can’t do this as a one-man crusade. It’s going to be a lot easier if I’m one of many saying the same thing.

Okay, rant over. Back to news, review, spicy bantz and memes tomorrow.

Tuesday 9th August – An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe:

The companion play to Vermin does not disappoint

Triptych Theatre impressed we the Brighton Fringe with Vermin. That was one of two plays; the other one I couldn’t catch owning to timings, but I was keen to see the other one. One of the first things I noticed as the play begin was that most people in the audience – possibly everyone but me – was seeing this as a comedy, as socially awkward Stuart takes to the stage. In spite of the title, he is possibly the least prepared person for any audience. Nor does it help that the techie seems to miss most of the cues.

I wasn’t laughing though. Not because of the delivery, but because of what I just knew was coming. For a start, with this being the same writer as the dark-as-hell Vermin with its graphic descriptions of animal cruelty (not to mention playing the nutjob-in-chief himself), I knew something bad was coming. Even if I hadn’t know that, though, I probably would have guessed. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that not only is Stuart unsuited the stage and doesn’t really want to do it, there’s no way he should be forced to do this. Instead, it’s his pushy mother making him do this. For another thing, Stuart has a rare medical condition with his blood, but to be honest, that’s not his real problem. Stuart is very naive and trusting. I know from bitter experience what this leads to.

Benny Ainsworth’s writing of both plays shows just how good he is at characterisation. If Vermin writes a believable character guilty of some of the worst things, Stuart is written as the archetypal innocent. He assumes that the correct way to answer a question about density of water is to ask if it’s solid or liquid, not understanding the science teacher is an arrogant egotists who hates anyone putting a foot out of place. Stuart’s mother is a nuanced character, and whilst I can’t quite let her off the hook for keeping her child under her thumb, she still cares for her son and wants what she believes is best for him. Even when things happen that would be dismissed as far-fetched, Ainsworth finds a way to make it plausible.

There is just one thing about the story which doesn’t quite work. Much of the story surrounds his first love Daisy, who understands him the way the rest of the school doesn’t. Trying my hardest to not to do a spoiler, Stuart and Daisy both separately get mixed up in something worse that overbearing parents or arrogant teachers. I can easily see why Stuart would have fallen for it, but I found it hard to believe that level-headed Daisy would have fallen for it too. I can’t see any easy way of making this plot point more believable, but it was a shame to have this weak point amongst such good characterisation.

That’s the only criticism I have amongst two excellent plays though. This is truly is an achievement. I’ve seen groups come out of nowhere with one excellent play, but two excellent pays on the first attempt is very impressive. I highly recommend catching both – this one at 10.55 a.m at Zoo Playground, with Vermin at 1.00 p.m. at Gilded Balloon Teviot. But know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Monday 8th August:

The two fundamental mistakes made by the Festival Fringe Society

First of all, another housekeeping announcement. My next visit to Edinburgh is a day visit on Friday 12th. This is going to be mostly mopping up things that didn’t fit in last week, but there may be opportunities for new reviews. Will draw up a plan tomorrow. Before I write any more reviews though, it’s time for the hot take I promised. Here’s what I think are the two fundamental mistakes the Festival Fringe society made this year. One is uncontentious; the other one might lose me a few friends.

The first mistake I believe was made this year was over management of expectations. I doubt many people will argue over this now. Even the Festival Fringe Society themselves must realise this. With the exception of the silly decision over media support, all of the controversial things attributable to the Festival Fringe Society were down to money. Why is Fringe Central out of the way in a shopping centre? They were giving the space away for free. Why is there no physical half-price ticket hut? The old one is falling to bits, can’t afford to build a new one. Why is there no app? Lack of money (plus a miscalculation on how high the priority was for many people). Most of the bailout money, the festival fringe society said, went into keeping the society afloat (and I don’t believe for a moment they could tell porkies about that without their funders going over the accounts and finding out). It was simply not possible for Edinburgh Fringe 2022 to run on the same level of central fringe services as Edinburgh Fringe 2019.

The problem is, they should have said that months ago. True, no promises have actually been broken – the Festival Fringe Society never said there would be an app, for example. But the fact remains everybody assumed that everything that was part of the fringe in before times would still be there, and many people registered on that assumption. There wouldn’t have been nearly so many arguments if the Festival Fringe Society has been clear from the outset not to expect something in 2022 just because it was around in 2019. One side effect might have been some acts deciding it wasn’t worth taking part after all. Well, good. There’s far too much demand on accommodation playing into the hands of greedy landlords, let’s take the pressure off a bit and get costs down to something saner. The downside? Fewer registrations means less cash flow to keep the Festival Fringe Society afloat. They may have to downsize, maybe even make redundancies. I sympathise – but everyone’s job is in a lot more trouble now. Yes, I’m saying this with the benefit of hindsight, but still, wrong call.

The second mistake might be more controversial. In my opinion, the biggest error of judgement made by the Festival Fringe Society was to bend over backwards for the Big Four. The 2021 fringe happened because of the Festival Fringe Society making a last-ditch bit for financial support, but the lion’s share of the support went to the Big Four. And, okay, that was an emergency, they had to do something quickly, but that excuse doesn’t hold into 2022. Many of the unpopular decisions were optimised to the benefit the Big Four and the acts performing there. As I’ve already said, subsidising national newspaper journalists (who are notorious for never leaving to swankiest venues) suits high-profile acts in high-profile places, but is of little help to the cheap venues. The cuts to Fringe Central and the app disproportionately hit the acts in the smaller venues – the Big Four have their own marketing and performer support and needn’t worry as much. I find it difficult to believe the Big Four didn’t have a hand steering things in their favour.

Which might have been okay if the Festival Fringe Society and Big Four stood shoulder to shoulder to defend their position. Instead, the Big Four have been mostly joining in with the dogpiling. With one honourable exception (The Pleasance on their press launch), the Big Four seemingly want you to believe all the unpopular decisions adversely affect acts mostly at other venues was entirely the Festival Fringe Society’s doing and not in the slightest bit to do with them. Sorry, but I’m not buying this, I don’t believe you can duck all responsibility for this. And after the Festival Fringe Society moving heaven and earth to get the Big Four running in 2021 (and barely anyone else), this comes across as sounding like a bunch of ungrateful tossers.

The complaints from the smaller venues and the acts that perform there are valid. They have perfectly legitimate reasons to be angry. But it seems to me like there’s no pleasing three quarters of the Big Four. It might already be too late for the Festival Fringe Society to change its priorities, but you should be extremely suspicious of venues who should be sharing responsibility leaping on a convenient scapegoat.

Rant over. Let the flame war begin.

Sunday 7th August, 10.45 p.m. – Take It Away, Cheryl:

Kissing booth or agony aunt?

This final review is later than I planned because it’s taken me time to get home. I knew evening buses in Durham were shite, but I’ve just found out the service level on Sunday is even shiter. Anyway, here we are. Time for one last review before bed.

In this play, Cheryl welcome you to her kissing booth. If you are the audience member who’s sitting on a dime, you can place it into the coin slot to activate the booth. But before you get too excited, Cheryl’s kissing booth does not actually offer kisses any more. She inherited the business from her family and now her service is to listen to the problems of men. And she’s pretty good at this. And – just like some men who hire prostitutes discover they’d rather sit and talk rather than have sex – this service is proving very popular.

Actually, this is only half the story. There is another plot thread not advertised anywhere that feeds into this not that far into the play, but I think it is possible to to review this without giving the game away. What I think I can safely say is that, even with the new unexpected theme coming in, the central theme holds, which is that Cheryl spends so much time listening to any trying to solve other people’s problems, she doesn’t take enough time for herself. The one thing she is desperate to do today is lay flowers on the grave of the love of her life who shot himself – one might suspect the reason she’s so invested in solving other people’s problems is to compensate for the man she couldn’t save.

There is one thing I would change about this. For the second time in as many days, I’m going to suggest that a solo play would work better as a two-hander. It’s not crying out for this quite as strongly as Morecambe, but a lot of this story sounds like a visit from someone not like the others. One problem with being an agony aunt in a booth advertised as a kissing booth is that some of these losers mistake listening for feelings, which she normally knows how to deal with. Unfortunately, this particular man is a bit of a nutcase. The problem is that is lengthy conversations she has with a voice makes the play go static. My hunch is that we need to see him on stage to really see him for the unstable man he is. After he departs (people who’ve seen it don’t spoil it), I’m sure the plot at the end could be tweaked to give him a role one way or another.

I’ve refrained from giving away the unexpected direction in the plot and I won’t tell you now, except to say that this may increasingly take over the plot as we reach the climax, but it does not lose sight of the central theme: can Cheryl ever choose herself for a change? Worth a visit, and runs until Saturday 13th at Greenside Infirmary Street, 5.20 p.m.

Sunday 7th August, 6.15 p.m.:

Has signage in venues got worse?

I am on the train home. For those of you familiar with my coverage, you will know that it slows down when I’m away from Edinburgh and I have a day job to do. For this reason, I will be prioritising the plays on short runs next. I want those that finish on the 13th to have a reasonable amount of runs remaining if they wish to make use of my reviews.

Before then, I want to make a brief observations. It’s not a big deal compared to all the other things causing outrage, but no-one else seems to be picking up on this.

For some reason, signage within venues seems to have got particularly bad this year. There was a time where you could turn up to a venue, see what is on today on a board, see which space your chosen show is in, and from there know exactly where to go and which queue to join. This year, most of the venues I’ve seen is missing at least one of those things. I’ve seen listings for evening shows with no idea where listings for afternoon shows are, listings across all of Pleasance when I want to know which venue to go to, and in Underbelly Cowgate not be able to see signs to any of these spaces. Yes, I’m reputed to have a good memory for fringe plays, but my skills to not extend to knowing off by heart the name and location of dozens on individual spaces within major venues. (I’m aware the e-tickets now say which individual space you’re going to, but e-tickets are clumsy to dig out and certainly don’t help you with finding the space you’re after.)

I apologise for getting on my software tester high horse again, but this is something that I think could benefit from usability testing. I’m aware this isn’t software but the principle is the same: just as the Edinburgh Fringe website is designed by people who assume everybody knows how to navigate the website, signs in fringe venues seem to be designed by people who already know their way round the venue and assume everyone else will pick it up just like that.

In this case, testing would entail getting some volunteers who know little about the venue to be sent in with a ticket for a show. Don’t prompt them, don’t guide them, just leave them to their own devices and see if the information you have laid out is enough to get them there. One principle of software usability testing that applies here: if your volunteers are making mildly snarky comments, that is you warning that things aren’t working as well as you hoped. Learn from your mistakes and try again.

Anyway, that’s me passed Morpeth. I am in a rehearsal for another play this evening (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment); I’ll try to get another review in before bed.

Sunday 7th August, 5.45 p.m. – Fabulett 1933:

A solo musical about the Nazi crackdown on gay-friendly clubs in Berlin

Welcome back. That was another three plays seen in quick succession. Scores on the doors: 4 review written so far, 6 pending. Let’s get moving.

So next up is Fabulett 1933, set on the closing night of the Fabulett Nightclub, Berlin. Between the two World Wars, Berlin enjoyed a spell as the hedonistic capital of Europe. Needless to say, the new government in Berlin is not at all keen on This Sort Of Thing and has ordered the closure of all dens that “promote immorality”. For Fabulett’s, there’s no wriggle room, for the emcee Felix is dressed in an outfit that makes The Rocky Horror Show look like Andy Pandy. Which, I must stress, is perfectly fine if you like that sort of thing, but try telling that to the Nazis.

Fabulett 1933 is performed as a one-person musical, somewhat fitting for the host Michael Trauffer) presiding over the defiant closure at 10 p.m. Felix’s own story is of a youth demobbed after the Germany’s defeat; faced with the choice of returning to his authoritarian father or more tolerant Berlin, he opts for the latter. When he loses his more understanding mother – his relationship with her one of the most touching bits of the play – Fabulett’s becomes his only life. As well as the brief period of hedonism in Berlin, the other thing portrayed knowledgeably was the rise of convention defying science from people such as Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the first researchers of transgenderism. We know his work is going to suffer a similar fate to Fabulett’s.

Where I think this play could have said more is on the rise of the Nazis. In this production, the Nazis are portrayed as something that people should have seen coming and suddenly they were there. I wonder if that’s all the story though. One thing that I Am a Camera portrayed so well (something that wasn’t in either the stage or film versions of the musical) was that the Nazis didn’t gain a foothold with Jew-hatred just because of what some demagogues on podiums were says – it was when ordinary people going about their lives started saying the same thing. Did a similar thing happen for gay people? Did people who used to ignore them suddenly see them as the root of all immorality? Because that’s too good a chapter of the story to miss if it was.

One small thing I’d say on a technical note is I’d dispense with the headset mic. I’ve seen those little buggers in action often enough to know they’re notoriously unreliable. When your songs are prone to being disrupted this much, they easiest solution is to just not bother and rebalance the piano to work with acoustic vocals – and in a small space like this one it shouldn’t be too hard. On the whole, however, this was an enjoyable and informative performance. Runs to the 13th at The Space Triplex at 8.55 p.m., and then runs for the est the Fringe at Surgeon’s Hall.

Sunday 7th August, 10.15 p.m.:

Press launch at The Space

Now that I have my seven-show day out of the way, I can turn my attention back to The Space’s press launch on Friday, which I was invited to. For those who don’t know how this works, in Edinburgh all the major venues have their own press launches, with most of them having excerpts from shows in their programme.

Space fringe launchI only starting getting invited to their launch in 2021 (I have previously been invited to launches but not been there on the right day), so I don’t have any pre-Covid launches to compare this too, but this looks pretty good. This needs to be treated with some caution – it is in the interest of all the venues to pick their absolute best acts to showcase and don’t say much about the rest of the programme – but what I saw seemed impressive. Out of all of these, UK Underdog interested me the most: a story which seems to combine every form of racism with the gladiatorial culture of a rough secondary school. I must try to catch this.

I’ve been wondering for the last couple of years which way The Space will go. Prior to 2020, The Space did have some notoriety. Unlike most venues, that curate to some extent, The Space works on a first come first served basis. The good news is that The Space performs a vital function on keeping the fringe open. The bad news is that there’s a lot of terrible plays that end up at The Space because no-one else will take them.

The standard I saw at The Space last year, however, was pretty decent. Part of the reason, I presume, was that last year, we had the Big Four, The Space, and very little in between, and so The Space took many acts that otherwise would have gone to places such as Greenside and Zoo. This year, Greenside and Zoo are back. However, other mid-tier venues such as Sweet and Bedlam haven’t come back for 2022. C Venues is around, but only on a small scale, having not escaped the spotlight over working conditions.

What I’ve seen so far at The Space seems fairly decent too. Treat my observations with caution, because I am only working on a small sample, but The Space might be emerging as a winner of post-Covid fringe.

Sunday 7th August, 12.15 a.m. – Gulliver:

Box Tale Soup’s best play yet

Sorry about the gap in coverage – it was full-on seeing four more shows back to back, of of which was Dirty Scrabble where I was in Dicktionary Corner assuming the character of a sleazy version of Richard Osman. Oh well, that’s my reputation as a serious theatre maker in tatters.

But I am not going go to bed until we get this exciting announcement out of the way. Here we are. We’ve only had to wait until my second day for this is happen, but for Box Tale Soup it’s been a longer wait. But it’s about time they got my highest accolade, equivalent to five stars,

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

I expected Jonanthan Swift’s famous story to be ideal for Box Tale Soup to take on – after all, you have to take on the challenge of tiny people in Lilliput and gigantic people in Brobdingnag somehow, and puppetry is the logical way to do it. However, Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers have had years of practice and several previous productions to hone their craft, and it pays off handsomely.

adriftWhat you see on stage is a playbook of everything crafted to perfection. The obvious choice of the tiny people of Lilliput is puppets, and as any accomplished puppeteer knows, it is possible to keep the focus on a puppet but still make the puppeteer part for the action. All of the cast of three operate puppets at some point, and it always pays to apply the facial expression of the puppet you’re operating. However, Box Tale Soup are very versatile and masterfully switch between Lilliputians played by puppets and the actors playing the Lilliputians themselves. When the land of giants comes, the obvious choice is to make Gulliver the puppet himself, but not always. When a human-size Gulliver views is first giant – well, I won’t spoil that for you, but let’s just say the set of the doomed ship used at the beginning of the play has all shorts of uses through the hour.

No amount of clever puppetry, though, compensates for a misunderstood story. Here, again, Clarke and Christophers deliver handsomely. In all four of the strange lands visited (for this adaptation does include the lesser-told chapters of the flying island and the land where horses are masters), the politics are reflections of human society, commentating on just about every acts of vanity, cruelty, vindictiveness, prejudice and arrogance known to man. The Lulliputians, for instance, are at war with their neighbours over a stupid dispute on the correct way to open an egg. (We, of course, know the correct thing to fight centuries of war over is who got the details correct in a story of a magic baby and a stable.) It’s not just the shortcomings of these other lands that is brought to bear – Gulliver find the vales of the continent he came from challenged just as much. The common theme brought throughout this is all civilisations thinks they’re better than the others. Even the Houyhnhnms – the horse beings seemingly the most enlightened of all the beings he encountered – always look down on Gulliver is inferior to them.

It’s a challenge to bring four separate stories together in an hour, but the script chooses what matters perfectly. Everything about this production is flawless, from the choreography to the sound, to the pace to the puppetry, and if I was to wax lyrical about every inventive acts I would never finish this review. I am used to Box Tale soup producing high-quality shows in their unique style, but this time they have excelled themselves. I thoroughly recommend this to everyone, and you can catch them at 10.50 a.m. at Underbelly Cowgate from now to the end of the fringe.

And with this exciting news broken, it’s now time for bed.

Saturday 6th August, 5.00 p.m. – The In-Laws:

Top-notch mime comedy

Now we go over to something from the Comedy section. Like a lot of my favourites, though, The In-Laws straddles multiple categories, and could just have been under physical theatre or theatre.

Tim Ogborne plays a may who starts off his day in the office. He starts with multiple failed attempts to log into his computer. A lesser performer would have taken as easier route and said “Come on, take the bloody password,” but his this performance Ogborne keeps in perfect synchronisation to a soundtrack, reacting both to fruitless and fruitless attempt to type a login, and the look of frustration syncs every time we hear the inevitable login failed sounds. The good news is that he finally makes it in, but the bad news is that his girlfriend phones him up to remind him that tonight she’s introducing him to her parents.

In performer Tim Ogborne’s own words “This one-man show breathes new life into the form of mime, blending tightly rehearsed choreography with a meticulously created soundscape.” I wouldn’t normally quote a blurb verbatim, but I couldn’t have done it better myself. It’s becoming increasingly common to craft action round soundscape, but it’s obvious from the outset he does this much better than most of his peers. The battle with the login prompt is just the beginning, with the rest of the action from the day in the office to an awkward meeting with the overbearing parents to the death-defying chase and showdown with future father-in-law.

The only flaw I have to pick out is the transition I’ve just mentioned. One moment we’ve got a relatable awkward meet-the-parents moment, the next moment future father-in-law is trying to kill him, reason unclear. As far as I can tell, our hero went to the bathroom and discovered a secret passage and saw something he wasn’t supposed to see, but I fear there is an important detail there I didn’t pick up. But it doesn’t matter too much. This story isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously, and it’s a lot of fun to watch with a lot of skill needed to put this together. At 30 minutes this is on the short side for fringe performances, but it’s the ideal length for this. This runs until the 13th at Greenside Infirmary at 11.05 p.m. with extra performances at 11.40 on Friday and Saturday. Recommended as you’ll see nothing like this.

Saturday 6th August, 3.00 p.m.:

Why subsidising the national press is a mistake

Right now meet the media is going on. I’m not at this, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t be much use there (with almost all my reviews decided on press releases in advance), but I didn’t miss the drama about Broadway Baby pulling out in advance. This is in protest over the Festival Fringe society’s decision to provide accommodation to high-profile publications (namely The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Evening Standard, I-newspaper, Beyond the Joke, The Stage, The Observer and The Sunday Times), but not the smaller publications. Cue outrage from the bespoke ones who do nothing but review fringe. Whilst Broadway Baby is the only one to make a gesture this noisy, other publications have backed up the reason they’re protesting.

I think the decision to support the larger media publications is a mistake, but for nuanced reasons.

First of all, apologies if this annoys any colleagues, but Edinburgh Fringe owes the media nothing. Yes, The Wee Review and Broadway Baby and many other publications do the fringe a favour by working for free and at their own expense, but the same can be said of most performance, many of whom invest a lot more for even less reward. There is one reason and one reason only that the Festival Fringe Society should consider any form of help to the media, and that’s if it benefits the acts who are registered with them.

The smaller publications and the bigger newspapers perform different functions. For the smaller publications such as Broadway Baby, this gives countless smaller groups the chance to get a review that they wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting from the big players. Reviews are not the be an and end all, but the difference between zero reviews and one reviews for many acts is a significant one. It may be your only chance at constructive feedback for the future. It may be your only way of being taken seriously back home. If you start the fringe in a strong position, however, that’s when newspapers such as The Times and Guardian come into play. That might get you into the big time. So there is a case to support all of these.

At this moment in time, however, this is the wrong priority. Subsidy for the big publications is a great deal of help, but only for the small number of acts in a position to get their attention. At this moment in time, I think we should be prioritising what helps the most acts. In other words, it is comes to a choice between The Guardian or Broadway Baby, pick Broadway Baby. If you want to support the big acts, that seems like something the Big Four should consider – they, after all, have a lot more at stake supporting the top-flight acts.

The other reason I think this is a mistake at this particular moment, however, is more obscure. I have been saying for several years now that it would be better for the Edinburgh Fringe to lose its status of “holy grail”. Focusing on the big publications at the expense of the small ones does the opposite. We do not want to be entrenching the idea that Edinburgh Fringe is the place to be discovered (a place, yes, but not the only place). If anything, we should be encouraging The Times, The Guardian et all to be spending less to in Edinburgh Fringe and more time in small festivals such as Brighton Fringe. So many problems at Edinburgh could be avoided if other fringes shared the load, but as it standing the national media is doing everything to entrench the unhealthy status quo.

Finally, just a small issue, but why the fuck is the Daily Mail on this list. I can see a case for any of the others, but the Daily Mail, particularly Quentin Letts, is quite open in its contempt for theatre makers. Quentin Letts can come along and spout his attention-seeking drivel because he has free speech, but why encourage this?

So a black mark for the festival fringe society – but are they really the only ones at fault? I will be addressing this later.

Saturday 6th August, 9.30 a.m. – Morecambe:

A solo show crying out to be a two-hander

Phew. The problem with jam-packed schedules is that there isn’t much time to write up these reviews. One written, three pending, so let’s use the quiet morning to get another out of the way.

Morecambe is about the comedian and not the town, although we do learn that Eric Bartholomew did adopt his home town as his stage name. Out of the two of Morecambe and Wise, the former is probably the better of the two to make a solo play about, mainly because of the build-up to the premature final curtain. Like many beloved entertainers, he literally worked himself to death, with the sensible option to call it day overruled by the pleasure of giving millions what they want. The story most of us know is the rise and rise and rise with their famous television shows. As with most success stories, however, what you seldom hear is what happened before then. The story from the beginning covers the numerous failures before the big time including, somehow counter-intuitively, their first TV appearance. (Note: never trust a TV executive who insists on writing the gags for you.)

Judging by the age of the audience, I think I can safely say this play has a particular appeal to the Morecambe and Wise generation. A lot of the play includes the most famous jokes of Eric and Ernie, both on stage to their audiences and within the story. My knowledge of their routines is largely limited to the Andre Previn skit, but it looks like this was a sufficiently faithful reproduction to earn the approval of the fans. Speaking of Andre Previn, the appearance of the stars is a good marker of the peak of their fame – as the play observes, appearing on their show was the sig the nation consider you a good egg.

We didn’t always get Eric Morecambe as a person though. His brushes with mortality were done well, especially the applause following his first stage appearance after his first heart attack. However, we didn’t always pick up how he felt in his earlier career. Saying “I got depression” after the first TV flop is all very well, but writing this into what he says would be stronger. What I think is missing, however, is Ernie Wise. He is represented by a puppet throughout the play, but with his partnership with Ernest Wiseman making up at least 80% of the story, it get a bit clumsy for Ernie to say all of his lines. But, more to the point, Ernie isn’t just his co-star, he’s also his closest friend who supports him throughout the ups and downs. I could see the camaraderie between the two being very movie if done right – also, on a practical note, this adds a lot of flexibility to allow two-sided conversations (Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy and Brain Mitchell’s Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks are good examples of how to do this.)

So there lies the paradox. Morecambe won’t disappoint the faithful, and for a small group is Soham it’s impressive. But this one-hander is, I think, crying out to be made into a two-hander. A decent play could be a fantastic one. Does Viva Arts have a suitable Ernie Wise look-a-like amongst their number. If so, I say go for it.

Friday 5th August, 6.00 p.m. – Ghost Therapy:

An impressive debut from an 18-year-old

Here we go. It’s time for the first review and it’s a decent start. Ghost Therapy is advertised as written by an 18-year-old writer and that was a quite impressive standard. You are invited so drop in on a series of encounters with a variety of ghostly characters. From looking at the title, you might be think that you’re having a therapy session using ghosts – but you’d be wrong. The therapy session is FOR ghosts, and we find this out in the first minutes when an unusually white clad Dr. Soul apologises for the dodgy lights – her technician only died last week.

Much of the play works as a series of character comedy skits of various ghosts. The fictional universe seems to encompass all fictional ghosts. One client desperately wants to be liked by the family who lives in her house, and has been taking inspiration from Caspar the Friendly Ghost. In fact, she’s Caspar’s number on fan and has the T-shirt to prove it – sadly, she is also even more annoying than Caspar ever was. The Ghost of Christmas Past is also a client – he’s having trouble with his wife because he just can’t help bringing up the past. The grim reaper also has a stroppy goth daughter who has no real interest in following her father’s footsteps, instead doing a funny routine of helping herself to all the ghost cookies she obviously has no room to eat.

There is some room for improvement. Dr. Soul herself has her own issues – her fear of chickens and her controlling relationship with her aforementioned recently-deceased assistant. However, these don’t really get developed until the end of the story. The pace seems to fall a little flat between the visit of clients, so perhaps this could be used as an opportunity to build up her controlling behaviour and/or chikenophobia. However, Trenetta Jones is excellent as Dr. Soul and really makes the character her own.

What is interesting about this is that this went into the Edinburgh Fringe too late to make it into the paper programme. That can be the kiss of death for getting an audience. Writer Jaz Skringle, however, seems to have got a decent audience anyway with some good social media marketing. An enjoyable 40 minutes, and whilst there are some things that could be better that is an excellent standard for a fringe debut.

Friday 5th August, 3.00 p.m.:

My full list of picks

 

So, a pleasing start to my Edfringe viewing, but I clean forgot – it’s day 1 and I haven’t listed my picks. Most of these are now written up on myWhat’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2022 page, and I will be writing up the rest shortly. In the meantime, here’s the full list. Bold are running in weeks 0-1; italics are coming later:

Safe choice:

The Ballad of Mulan
Call Mr. Robeson
Green Knight
Gulliver
Mustard
No-One
Nyctophilia
Skank
Watson: the Final Problem

Bold choice:

The Bush
Jekyll & Hyde: A One-Woman Show
Make-Up
Trainspotting Live
Vermin

You Might Like:

Charlotte Johnson: My Dad and Other Lies
The Glummer Twins: The Beat Goes On
The Grandmothers Grimm
Head Girl
The Importance of Being … Earnest?

Room – A Room of one’s own
Shelton on Sinatra

Wildcard:

Famous Puppet Death Scenes
52 Souls
Ghislaine/Gabler
1972: The Future of Sex

From the Comedy:

Aidan Goatley: Tenacious
Alasdair Beckett-King: Nevermore
Biscuit Barrel
Crime Scene Improvisation
Eleanor Morton has peaked
How to Live a Jellicle Life
John Robertson: The Dark Room
Michael Spicer: The Room Next Door
Nathan Cassidy: Observational
Late Night Dirty Scrabble with Rob Rouse
Notflix: Binge
Rosie Holt: The Woman’s Hour
Shit-Faced Showtime
Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me

And one from the online programme:

The Little Glass Slipper performed by the Queen of France and her friends

So quite a lot to still write up. But bear with my, I have three more plays and a press launch coming up shortly.

Friday 5th August, 10.00 a.m.:

About the app

A lot to do today. Four press tickets plus a play I’m seeing again. Whilst I have a calm moment, however, let’s talk about the app. Boy, this is a shitstorm.

So, in before times, one way of getting around was to use the Edfringe app with its “Nearby and now” feature. If you are looking for something to do next, the app will show you what’s coming up in what venue, and how far away it is. Experienced fringegoers, as far as I can tell, tend to make less use of this, as they have a pretty good idea of who they want to see, and where they are and how to get there, but if you’re a beginner is a handy tool. This, I suspect, was the first part of the problem, with the people in charge and the people with influence underestimating how much use this tool gets.

However, the factor I overlooked – and I suspect many other people overlooked too – is how valuable this is seen by some performers. I don’t know if there is data to back this up, but there is a perception that a lot of smaller acts get their business from people just turning up having seen on the app they’re on in five minutes. This is especially pronounced if you’re a Free Fringe show registered with the Edinburgh Fringe – there’s a high chance you registered specifically to be on the app. It’s not clear what benefit the rest of their services to for a small act. Whatever the reason, this has provoked a lot of anger.

Edinburgh Fringe says that although there wasn’t the money to develop an app, there is a “nearby now” feature on the website that does the same thing. That would have been good solution, delivering the benefit without the expense of a separate app platform. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t work. On my laptop it says there’s no matches; on my mobile I can’t even find the option. The one thing I will say in the festival fringe society’s defence is that they’ve made the same mistake almost everyone makes: they got someone to make the website and assumed it would just work. Take it from me: web developers are not to be trusted when you hand them the money and they say it’s all going to work fine. They either run the website in a demo environment without the complication of running in the real world, or they watch things go wrong and just assume it won’t happen in live. Get some people to test in properly, people who understand what’s liable to go wrong and find the problems before it goes to give, people who understand that what’s intuitive to a web designer isn’t always intuitive in the real world. This is not the first time we’ve had problems with the Edfringe website, but the festival fringe society really needs to wise up to this and get some proper testers in. Guys, I’ll volunteer for this.

The other point is that the Festival Fringe society never said there would be an app – it was something everyone assumed would be there. I take Edinburgh Fringe’s point that they’re struggling for cash and most of the bailout money has gone into clearing expenses after the disaster of 2020. However, this is a prime example of where management of expectations would have gone a long way. I will talk more about that later. This is also possible related to the hot take I have coming. But if you want to know what they hot take is, you’re going to have to wait.

Friday 5th August, 12.00 a.m.:

A regrettable announcement

And I leave you with the breaking news. I regret to inform you that tonight I was a guest of Dirty Scrabble. Here I am trying to make a name for myself as a writer and performer of serious theatre, and my first appearance on an Edinburgh Fringe stage is on the back of my immature toilet humour.

Anyway, night night. The serious business starts tomorrow.

Thursday 4th August, 9.30 p.m.:

Good evening.

Assembly Hall

 

Thursday 4th August, 8.00 p.m. – Nyctophilia:

From Buxton, a play set in the dark

All right, that’s enough promotion of my own venue, it’s back to impartial honest theatre journalism. I just need to change out of my venue manager trousers into my theatre blogger trousers. Would you mind turning round a moment? And no peeping … Right, where were we?

Yes, I have a review for you already. No, I haven’t seen anything at Edinburgh yet, but I have yet to publish my reviews of Buxton Fringe where, as some of you are aware, I was there for quite a long time. Since a couple were on their way to Buxton, I should cover them now. Nyctophilia is in my list of safe choices which is a giveaway that I liked it. Now I can go into a bit more detail.

The unique selling point of this play was performing the entire play in the dark. The challenge for all plays with a wild idea is what you make out of it? Can you achieve a good execution of an eye-catching idea, or does it simply come across as novelty that fizzles out after five minute. More specifically, there’s a challenge here of what the point of this is? Why go through all of the trouble of a pitch black stage? Why not just do radio play?

Haywire Theatre’s answer is to use the darkness to support the story. This is a series of shorts, all of which are set in the darkness on the same hillside, with individual stories separated by decades or centuries. One moment it’s a couple out on a hillside looking for either a lost mobile phone or a first kiss; a woman says goodbye to her fiance signing up to fight in the trenches; later a medieval mother giving birth seeks the help of a stranger in a life-or-death situation. Sometimes the stories are naturalistic, sometimes they are tinged with the supernatural.

Now for the surprise observation. Although the performance was billed as being in pitch black, they still act out the scenes on stage, and I could just about make out what was happening. I gather there were some nerves over whether this was spoiling the play – should they reinforce the darkness with blindfolds? Actually, I thought it was quite effective as it was – just enough visibility to give an idea of what’s happening, but only just, with the partial ambiguity doing its job. There are moments in the play when there’s a brief moment of light, be it a found phone or the sunrise at the end. Apparently that was put in at the last moment to break up the continuous dark, but I though this was one of the best touches. Potentially more could be made of this – I could see a shock moment when something is lit up that you weren’t expecting to see.

If there’s one thing I would ask, I wish the play would make up its mind whether or not these stories are supposed to be interlinked. I’m personally leaning towards yes – the introduction of a faerie spirit sets the scene rather well for all these tales having some sort of link to the faerie folk who inhabit this spot. Other than that, I can recommend this – a good concept executed well. The Buxton dates have come and gone, but the Edinburgh dates have just begun. On tomorrow and Saturday, then Tuesday to Saturday next week, all at Greenside Infirmary street, at the fitting time of 10.10 p.m.

Thursday 4th August, 6.00 p.m.:

Durham Fringe, and what’s coming from there

All right you lot. Here I come. Sitting in Durham station, boarding the next train shortly.

Before I do that, a break from my theatre reviewer capacity to switch to my venue manager capacity. Last week it was Durham Fringe, and the timing is no coincidence – it was specifically scehduled to be the week before week zero of Edinburgh, in the hope that groups going to Edinburgh might use Durham as a final stop in preparation for the big one. That seems to be working, because a good number of the plays on at Durham are indeed on their way to Edinburgh.

Obviously, I can’t give my usual commentary of pros and cons of a festival I am actively working to make a success. What I think I can say, without falling foul of conflict of interest rules, is that the mood surrounding Durham Fringe has been very upbeat. Clearly a good job’s been done making the fringe visible in the city centre, and anecdotally they managed to get a fair amount of audience coming to shows off the street. I even hear a pair of people sitting behind me in the pub discussing that they’d just found about it, and what they should see. I realise this is doubling up as a sales pitch, but I’m genuinely hopeful for the outlook next year. [I may even have put in the groundwork for something very exciting in 2023, but I’m keeping quiet about this until and if it happens.]

Anyway, there are six acts I was looking after in the City Theatre who have come to Edinburgh. I’m leaving them out of recommendations and reviews as I have a different responsibility towards these acts. But I will give a quick mention of what I had the pleasure to preview:

Experiment Human: The clear winner for the weirdest and craziest show, sisters Rosa and Maya from Hooky Productions have kidnapped a mystery celebrity to study what is it like to be human. Laughing Horse Dragonfly, 5.45 p.m., Laughing Horse Dragonfly, thought fringe except Monday.

Battle Cry: Then it’s stright to the other end of the scale, with a superb performance from Steven Cowley as a veteran who’s seen one too many bad things on the battlefield to cope with a return to civvie life. The Merlin, 8.45, 11th-17th, 20th-28th. (This one is with PBH Free Fringe but not Edinburgh Fringe itself.)

Cottage: A promising script from a student production set in the days when homosexuality in public toilets carried severe consequences – I also really liked the performance of a character who appears and the end, which I won’t mention as that’s a spoiler. 22nd-27th August, 10.10 p.m. Greenside Infirmary Street.

Delivery: Another student play, not so much about the pizza delivery business but the loneliness of the various people who get these takeaways. 5th-13th August (not Sun), Greenside Nicholson Square, 11.40 a.m.

The Single Lady: Four-hander musical about Elizabeth I and her doomed relationship to the probably loverat the Earl of Leicester, somewhat in the style of Hamilton. Really liked the musical score to this. 5th-13th August, The Space on North Bridge, 2.05 p.m.

Sascha LO and friends: And the City Theatre closed with this comedian. She is on with new support acts at Just the Tonic at the Mash House throughout the fringe (not 15th).

Plug over. Back to impartial commentary now.

Wednesday 3rd August:

A summary of the things we’re arguing over

Although Edinburgh fringe doesn’t officially start until Friday, performances start in earnest today, with many full-length runs looking on today and tomorrow as preview days.

Anyway, I am arriving tomorrow, so before things get too frantic, now is a good time to summarise what everybody’s arguing over. There have been broadly five different things I’ve heard talk about. Two of them are unfair, as they are things that are not really within the Fringe’s control.

Accommodation costs: It does seem that some landlord who buy up properties specifically to charge through the nose in August are chasing their losses by charging through the this year. Anecdotally I have heard a lot of complaints from people who have chosen not to go, or shortened runs, or commuted from other Scottish cities. Unfortunately, the latter option is being compounded by …

Rail strikes: There are a couple of rail strikes being scheduled in week two on the fringe. Might stop people going to the fringe, also might make it difficult for those commuting into Edinburgh from outside. Have to say, though, I really don’t see why this is being raised with the Festival Fringe society. It’s not like their influence extends to Grant Shapps or Mick Lynch.

One issue was raised earlier but has since gone quiet:

Working conditions: At the start of the year, there were concerns that C Venues – pilloried in 2018-2019 for alleged poor conditions for volunteers – were up to their bad old tricks. The Festival Fringe Society responded with an action plan that stated, amongst other things, than anyone breaking the law would be kicked out. I am sceptical this is going to be enough, but so far this has been enough to keep complaints quiet.

The final two, though, were areas inside the Festival Fringe Society[‘s control and where, in my opinion, they made the wrong call.

Fringe app: There is no fringe app this year – and, to be fair, they never said there would be an app this year. Nevertheless, this has upset a lot of people, particularly smaller acts who count on the “nearby now” feature to get business. Apparently there is a “nearby now” feature that can be used on the website instead – I will check this out in due course.

Media presence: There were complaints over Edinburgh Fringe not doing enough to get a media presence. However, when they said who they were brining, that caused even more upset: support heavily focused on national newspapers, with little support for fringe-specific publications – hence the protest from Broadway Baby yesterday.

Personally, I think the Festival Fringe Society has made two fundamental mistakes. One is a failure to manage expectations – had they been clearer over what they could and can’t deliver this year sooner, I think there would have been fewer arguments. The other mistake … well, that’s a bit more of a hot take. Don’t go away, I will be expanding on both of these later.

However, Underbelly made a good point at their launch event today. Do we want the next three and a half weeks to be about the organisation of the festival, or the multitude of the acts who have come to perform. They suggest the latter. And I intend to keep my focus on that too.

Tuesday 2nd August:

Broadway Baby pulls out of Meet the Media

And what do you know? The shit has hit the fan already. One of the many rows taking place at the moment is over support for Edinburgh Fringe media. The short version is that the small fringe-specific publications are upset that support has been given to the bigger publications, and now Broadway Baby has pulled out of Meet the Media in protest. But I’m going to have to come back to this later.

Right now, I need to give some housekeeping information about how reviews work. There is a long-standing rule that I review plays I see at fringes whether or not I was on a press ticket, but I give priority to review requests. This time, it looks like I am going to be going almost entirely on press tickets. My first visit to Edinburgh will be the 5th – 7th August (that’s this Friday to Sunday), so if you’re only running in week 1 the the fringe and you want a review off me, you’d better get a move on. Contact me if that’s what you want to do. I will probably start scheduling reviews tonight.

Now, to cover an oft-discussed question: what should you put in a press release. For me, to be honest, it makes very little difference. I’m not the only person who does this, but my first port of call for deciding what I want to see is to scan through all thousand theatre entries in the fringe programme. All I really pick up from a press release is the fact that I’m being offered a press ticket. Next, at both Edinburgh and Brighton I usually discard stand-up comedy, dance and and classic theatre – I don’t where to start reviewing those. After that, what I see broadly comes down to scheduling – quite simply, who is on at the right time. And that comes down to luck more than anything. I might have a better look at press releases if it comes down to one or the other at a particular time, but it’s rare to come down to that sort of tie-breaker.

Where I do look at press releases, I tend to be interested in whether I have something useful to offer. I’m happy to review a new play that turns out to be below average if I am in a position to say something constructive. However, quite often I see press releases for plays with huge amounts of pre-existing public acclaim on things I know I’m unlikely to enjoy – a frequent offender at the moment is plays whose number one selling point is to spoon-feed their target audience’s pre-existing opinions back to them. They know what audience they want, they may even get praise from reviewers amongst their target audience – what do I have to offer?

What counts in your favour is I think you want a review off me, as opposed to just a review. I get it, for many people an Edinburgh Fringe run comes to nothing if you get no reviews, so it’s a scattergun tactic asking every reviewer and his dog. And I’m happy to be part of this. But it’s even better when people specifically value what I have to say. I notice some people put something in their press release to show you’ve read my blog – that’s fine, my fragile ego is easy to message. However, the people who stick in my mind the most are the people who are determined to get me to review them, who ask at previous festivals, and if I can’t make it then, ask again at the next one.

Anyway, hope that helps. If all goes to plan, first press ticket requests will be going out tonight.

Monday 1st August:

Welcome to a wild ride
No app

Welcome to my coverage of Edinburgh Fringe 2022. Edinburgh Fringe does not officially begin until Friday, but this is known as week zero. Plenty of acts have already travelled to Edinburgh, and from Wednesday we will have a good number of preview performances going on. So the build-up begins now.

This time last year, Edinburgh Fringe was in survival mode. There were even worries that the Scottish Government’s strange decision to single out performing arts for prohibitive Covid restrictions might push this fringe into terminal decline. In the end, however, the tiny fringe cobbled together at the last moment was a big success. Buoyed with confident with show after show close to selling out, 2022 was envisaged as the relaunch. And with Edinburgh Fringe 2022 around 80% the size of 2019, it’s the big welcome back party, right?

Perhaps not. If 2021 was the big party, 2022 is the big hangover. The journey back to business as usual has been far from smooth. Expect to hear a lot in the new few weeks over the absence of the Edinburgh Fringe app, but that’s really a symptom of some much deeper problems. Don’t expect any easy solutions to come in the next few weeks, because there aren’t any. You can, however, expect a lot of recriminations and blame games. I will be going over some of the higher-profile controversies later, and considering them individually on their merits, but expect things to get very very messy.

Hold on tight folks. This is going to be a wild ride.

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2022

Skip to: The Ballad of Mulan, Call Mr. Robeson, Green Knight, Gulliver, Mustard, No One, Nyctophilia, Skank, Watson: the Final Problem, The Bush, Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show, Make-Up, Trainspotting, Vermin, Charlotte Johnson, Faulty Towers, The Glummer Twins, The Grandmothers Grimm, Head Girl, The Importance of Being … Earnest?, Room, Sex, Lies and Improvisation, Shelton on Sinatra, Famous Puppet Death Scenes, 52 Souls, 1972: The Future of Sex, Ghislaine/Gabler, comedy listings, The Little Glass Slipper

So, welcome to Edinburgh Fringe 2022. Last year, when all the fringes launched comebacks against the odds, it was the big celebration. Now comes the big hangover.

Edinburgh Fringe is not the only fringe with post-2021 blues. Brighton Fringe has had its own problems – in fact, Brighton Fringe’s woes were a lot more obvious: the disappearance (possibly permanent disappearance) of its biggest venue. To an Edinburgh Fringe visitor, Fringe 2022 is probably going to look very much like a typical fringe of the 2010s. Under the hood however, there’s a lot of trouble brewing.

As this piece is primarily a list of recommendations for punters, I shall hold off giving the full story just now. Most the problems are going to be noticed by performers a lot more than the public, but for now I’ll focus on the big one: the cost of accommodation. There have been a lot of stories of ridiculously-priced digs, and it appears to be down to a lot of landlords who bought up properties specifically to make money from renting in August, who are now trying to chase their losses from two years with next to no income by whacking up prices this year.

This might have a knock-on effect for punters, as performers stay away from rip-off digs and instead take up accommodation normally used by visitors. However, the most prominent effect – I think – is the rise of short runs. I’m going to avoid committing to this one too much because a few years ago everyone was convinced this was happened until someone did the number-crunching at this was debunked. But, I swear, I’ve seen way more shows only running part of the festival than before. On top of that, I’ve anecdotally heard lots of performers say they’re doing short runs because the full fringe isn’t affordable. Lots of consequences of this if it’s true, but what it means for you right now is to not assume that the show you’re thinking of seeing will still be running next week. A lot of them won’t.

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Odds and sods: June 2022

Yes, I know, it’s closer to August than June now – for those of you who follow my projects, you’ll know what kept me busy. But there’s some bits of news that have happened since the end of Brighton Fringe that need some attention. Three of these things are probably some sort of good news, in either the sort term or the long term; however, the other one is a very sorry development of a once-respectable organisation who’ve committed the thing I hate more than anything else: hypocrisy.

Stuff that happened in June

But let’s leave that till last. Most of the news from last month and this month is about the Edinburgh Fringe; I will be leaving that for my Edinburgh Fringe coverage itself. But apart from that, this happened:

Quentin Letts strikes again

Apologies. I hear you all going “Oh no, not this one again.” Bear with me, there is a reason why I’m picking this one up.

As pretty much everyone has worked out by now, Quentin Letts is a theatre reviewer who makes a name for himself but being controversial and offensive for the sake of it. Until now, he’s been mostly active at the Daily Mail where he panders to an audience who like diatribes about the wokies who’ve taken over theatre, and the easy solution was to just not invite the Daily Mail to press nights – seriously, what are you missing? Unfortunately, for some reason he is now also reviewing for The Sunday Times. Anyway, the furore broke out all over again with the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Legally Blonde, where the part of Elle Woods was played by a black woman.

Against my better judgement, I read the review (content warning: Quentin Letts). Now, if you think the story doesn’t work if the lead is played by someone who’s clearly not a natural blonde, I will defend you right to say so (although the obvious solution, as always: if you don’t like it, don’t watch it). This review, however, was just nasty, with far more thinly-veiled personal insults than anything about the show itself. That is different from what I’ve seen before. His infamous reviews of Salome and The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich, attention-seeking drivel though they were, has a method: he chose his words have a bare minimum of objectionable content needed to cause widespread outrage. This one, I have to say, was bile from start to finish.

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We Are The Best (and more from June)

Skip to: We are the Best, Charlotte Johnson, Criminally Untrue

I’ve been meaning to lessen my gaps between watching plays and writing reviews, and this has been one of my longer gaps. Apologies – anyone who saw me tearing my hair out at Buxton will understand way.

Anyway, in June I saw a play and two comedy acts worth reviews, and I was quite pleased with all of them. Let’s dive in.

We Are The Best!

It is Sweden in the early 1980s. According to popular mythology, this was the period in history when enjoying any pop group other than ABBA gets up hung drawn and quartered (with punishment today commuted to death by lethal injection). In actual fact, however, Sweden’s music scene was pretty much like ours, with diverse tastes from Scandi-disco to punk. Another thing that isn’t that different to us is the depiction of teenage life in the graphic novel Never Goodnight, later made into a film. It is this relatable theme that Live Theatre’s new artistic director is banking on. Almost everybody who comes to Live remembers their secondary school days, but where Live Theatre was pushing hard was to a teenage audience, who are going through this now.

It is the dress rehearsal of the Year 8 school concert, and impossibly rebellious friends Klara and Bobo are doing their hard-hitting (and, admittedly, slightly cringy) presentation about the plight of the planet. When they get dropped by the somewhat disdainful teachers, they resolve to take matters into their own hands. With a punk scene emerging all over, they see this as the best way of changing the world, with the first song Sports are Shit chosen after a netball practice where they are busy chatting to each other on the netball court rather than playing. Before you set your sights too high, though, this isn’t the start of a meteoric rise to fame alongside the Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, and Talking Heads (and later: the inevitable dignity-crushing downfall when they appear in an insurance advert). Rather, they are one of the many punk bands of the time who could only sort-of play instruments – yes, the title was being sort-of ironic – but didn’t care what anyone thinks.

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What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2022

The muppets set up outside someone's house

Skip to: The Ballad of Mulan, The Formidable Lizzie Boone, The Little Prince, Under Milk Wood, Portents, Jekyll and Hyde: a one-woman show, [BLANK], War of the Worlds, Report: an enquiry into the enquiries, Adventures in Sound and Light, Nychtophilia

If 2021 was the big party for festival fringes getting back on the road, 2022 is the big hangover. Just when Brighton Fringe looked like it was set to get back to full size, its biggest venue imploded with a knock-on effect for the whole fringe. Edinburgh Fringe is making progress back to normal, but is currently facing headaches over working conditions and accommodation expenses. Which means the prize for first fringe back to full size goes to Buxton. With 169 entries going into the programme, and a typical size of 170-180 for most of the last decade, it is generally regarded as back to normal and back to business.

However, when you look a bit closer at the numbers, there are some notable shifts within these figures. The most prominent change – which might not be obvious now but certainly will be noticed in weeks 1 and 2 – is that the Rotunda is only going to be present for the second half of the fringe. Not because the Rotunda is struggling; on the contrary, they’re having an excellent 2022, taking on a second dome, emerging as the big winners of Brighton Fringe, and earning fixtures at other festivals. Unfortunately, this has not entirely worked in Buxton’s favour, because one of those festivals in Wells Theatre Festival, which clashes with the first half of Buxton Fringe. The other change – more subtle but just as important – is that there is hardly any availability of the Arts Centre Studio this year. I don’t know the story here, but it’s most likely the Buxton Festival wants it – and, let’s face it, a 352-seater event from Buxton Festival is always going to win over the 91-seater studio configuration used by Buxton Fringe.

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My proposal for how to do content warnings

Don’t worry! One billion dead humans but the dog survived.

COMMENT: Good content warning systems empower audiences to make informed choices. Bad content warning systems don’t respect this. And the best system I’ve seen comes from a very unlikely source.

So, outside of theatre blogging, my exciting news is that I have my first professional writing commission. This, however, has left me with a bit of a dilemma. In some theatres, this script would come with a pretty massive content warning. Okay, I have previously been flippant with content warnings (such as links to Mail Online having “content warning: Daily Mail sidebar”), but I’m really not kidding this time.* The problem is that it would not be possible to tell you what this content warning is without spoiling the story – it’s up there with “Snape kills Dumbledore”. Equally, however, I’m aware that there will be some people who really really really really don’t want to hear about the relevant subject material. The term “trigger warning” is I think massively overused and applied to every trivial/incidental mention of something unpalatable, but I really really really mean it here.

* For anyone who saw Waiting for Gandalf: this is worse.

So far, I have handled this delicate matter by respecting the policies of the theatre company and/or venue. My reasoning is as follows: at venues that don’t give content warnings, the people who go know what to expect, but you can’t reasonably foist something unexpected on an audience at a venue that routinely warns you what’s coming. The problem I’ve found with some content warning-heavy venues is that they are so dogmatic they will quite happily give away a plot twist – even one on which the whole play depends – in the name of showing how responsible they are. You might as well stand outside the queue for the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, shouting that the play may be distressing to those suffering trauma for unexpected news of parentage.

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Red Ellen and Sorry You’re Not a Winner

Skip to: Red Ellen, Sorry You’re Not a Winner

Northern Stage had a big week in April. With their flagship production Red Ellen compressed dues to ongoing Covid woes, their press night was in the final (and only) full week of performance. At the same time, however, there was a notable play from Paines Plough running in stage 2. With Road splitting critical opinion but being a box office disappointment, they needed this week to be a good week. Let’s see how the two did.

Red Ellen

Chain-smoking party conference table

This main stage play, co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, has been heavily postponed. It was originally meant to be done in 2020, but when that thing hit the play was put to the back of the queue, mainly because it was a large-scale play that would be vulnerable to further unexpected events. In retrospect, that was a wise decision to make. They didn’t quite emerge unscathed, as we saw from the positive cases meaning a late start to the play, but that was small fry compared to the various disasters we saw in the second half of 2021. It’s hard to compare audience turnout to Road when on a compressed timescale, but the performance I went to looked pretty good. It’s a shame so much is still hinging on when you schedule a play as opposed to what the play is, but on this vital decision: good call.

Red Ellen begins with Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones) at the Labour Party conference. A lot of things are different in the early 1930s. For one thing, everybody smokes and it’s rude not to accept the cigarette you’re offered (but don’t worry, you can always smoke the special cigarettes the doctors in the ads say clears your throat). In fact, the montage Wils Wilson creates of everybody lighting up without a second’s thought is a great opening. Another thing that different about the 1930s is that it passes unremarked that she’s the only woman of any standing there. Some things, however, are familiar. In her speech, she makes an impassioned plea to wake up to a regime in Europe re-arming itself and persecuting anyone not to their liking, whilst people in her own country and own party are deluding themselves into thinking the maniac in charge doesn’t really mean it. Yet again, a play accidentally draws parallels to a current event that was unheard of at the time of writing.

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April 2022 fringe roundup

Skip to: The Hunger, Opolis

This was supposed to be a longer article, but owing to a series of cancellations and sell-outs I’ve only managed to catch two fringe-scale plays. But it’s a pleasing two, which coincidentally share the same theme of dystopia.

The Hunger

Most dystopias are of a dystopian future. Black bright Theatre, however, entertains an alternate dystopian past. In these alternate 1980s Deborah and Megan are holed up in their farm deep in the Yorkshire Dales. The world has become a dangerous place since the disease took hold, spread through those who ate the flesh of infected pigs. Those who survived must evade the infected, who have been transformed into flesh-crazed monsters who can infect you. They must also, we presume, evade the vegans, who will never let you hear the last of this.

The Zombie Apocalypse is a trope that’s frequently dunked on. It’s the trope that’s been so over-used by films that it’s practically considered a genre in its own right. Every time a new zombie flick comes out people take the piss out of it with “OMG, this is the most brilliant idea for a film. You’ve got a world where this people become ZOMBIES, and they can turn other people into MORE ZOMBIES. But wait, here comes the best bit. There are survivors who group together, but the real danger is – wait for it – when they FIGHT AMONGST THEMSELVES!” Even when plays or films don’t play to trope stereotypes, it’s difficult to produce anything that’s original and not predictable. Madeline Farnhill’s primary challenge, therefore, is to somehow create something different in some way. How do you do that? Maybe play on the last corny real-life catchphrase? Learn to live with the virus?

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Brighton Fringe 2022 – at it happens

Thursday 9th June:

And we leave you with the news that Edinburgh Fringe has announced its numbers for this year: it’s 3,131 registrations.

That would put this at 82% the size of the 2019 peak of 3,841 registrations and be more comparable to 2014’s size of 3,193. But but but but but but but but but but but but … as we have been hearing from several anecdotal sources, a lot of people appear to be opting for runs over part of the fringe. Treat anecdotes with caution though: we have heard this before and it turned out to be wrong. What we really need is the number of performances. I don’t easily have a number available for 2019, but in 2014 it was 49,497. As soon as I have a number for you, I will let you know.

The news coming out on the same day, however, is the publication of a strategy for reform. There’s no sign of wavering on open access (quite rightly), but there’s a lot of interesting initiative to address the criticisms. We are winding up Brighton Fringe coverage here so I will go into details another day, but the notable one: they seem to be pulling their finger out on venues with poor employment practices. It surely cannot have escaped their attention that Brighton Fringe took action against their worst offender (albeit with help from the local council, apparently).

But that’s for another post. Thank you for everyone who’s been following this, and especially thank you to everyone who invited me for review and putting an an exceptional standard. Whatever challenges continue at Brighton, let’s hope that this is something that sticks.

Goodbye, and thanks for following me over the month.

Wednesday 8th June:

So that’s a wrap from Brighton Fringe. A recap on how it went:

  • Sadly, the news that dominated Brighton Fringe was the implosion of The Warren. It was impossible to get away from this. I have never heard so much anger expressed over one venue. I am not done writing about The Warren; now that I have reviews out of the way I intend to embark on some more extensive fact-checking. In the meantime, I think I can say the situation is sufficiently serious to throw into doubt a return for The Warren next year, or even ever.
  • In fact, pretty much everything notable about Brighton Fringe 2022 is related directly or indirectly to The Warren’s woes. The most obvious one is that without the biggest venue, there was no chance of recovering to the size of 2016-2019. As far whether Brighton Fringe can recover without The Warren, or whether it should do – well, that’s a debate that will be rumbling on for some time yet.
  • The most notable effect is that after years or moving towards a cluster of venues in central Brighton, we have suddenly reverted to a fringe spread all over the city. This is partly down to the disappearance of The Warren, but also down to relocations of Sweet Venues and Junkyard Dogs to Hove and Kemptown respectively (for unrelated reasons, the timing being a pure coincidence). Sweet and Junkyard are both hedging their bets on building up hyper-local followings in their respective neighbourhoods and seem quite optimistic about how it’s going so far. The down-side is that you can no longer count on hopping from one venue to another in 20 minutes.
  • There are mixed reports on how ticket sales went. It certainly wasn’t a repeat of 2021 when punters came back in greater numbers than anyone was expecting. The one consistent observation is that Friday-Sunday is doing much better business than Monday-Wednesday. Overall, ticket sales appear to be comparable with 2015 levels, which for a fringe of roughly 2015 size looks sustainable.
  • The fringe programme too has gravitated back to a weekend-centric format, with little or no performances on offer before 6 p.m. on weekdays. The cause of this isn’t particularly dramatic, however – it’s a lot more to do with how the venues taking part this year happened to be programming their events anyway. The only notable change is that venues are pulling back from Monday performances, with many of them opting for a rest day (and subsequent audience numbers suggesting this was a good call).
  • There has been various concerns raised about Brighton Fringe 2022 not being that visible. Perhaps Brighton Fringe was over-reliant on the big pop-ups from Warren and Spiegeltent to give the message the fringe is on – and without The Warren, fewer people got the message. Perhaps Brighton needs to take lessons from Buxton, who doesn’t leave it to the venues and goes to town to show it’s fringe time.
  • The Daily Diary that was supposed to replace the traditional paper programme has had a mixed response. Not everyone is subscribing to the idea that you can look up what’s on at a certain time then move to the internet to see what it is (although it’s definitely an improvement on trying to work out what’s on when using the website). With Edinburgh and Buxton reverting to paper programmes the future of this initiative looks in doubt – if they are the stick with it, at the very least they need better integration of booklet to website via QR code.
  • The big winner of Brighton Fringe 2022 has to be The Rotunda. Originally intending to come to Brighton with the pop-up dome they already had for three weeks, they huge amount of demand from performers caused them to scale up to two pop-up domes over four weeks, bringing forward their plans for a second space. And their programme has been just as prominent as the more long-standing counterparts such as Sweet, Spiegeltent and Rialto. If The Warren really is gone for good, the vacated spot in Victoria Gardens must be tempting – although they are understandably steering clear of trying to be too much like The Warren.
  • And finally, the good news: it really does look like the standard of this year’s Brighton Fringe has been exceptional. Yes, there has been a lot of good will ever since the pandemic, but even taking this into account there seems to have been an unusually high standard. I’ve seen far more glowing reviews than usual, and where I have seen these plays myself, I can vouch these reviews were earned. And for why there’s been such a high standard – that’s anyone’s guess. Brighton Fringe might be struggling with quantity, but it’s certainly succeeding on quality.

Tuesday 7th June:

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Who is pick of the fringe?

Couple of disclaimers before I do this. Firstly, an obvious reminder that this is not a list of the top plays at the Brighton Fringe – I can only base it on what I saw. I do not actively seek out the plays I believe to be the best, with reasons for choosing plays ranging from review requests to simply what was on at the right time, right place. It’s best to think of this as a cross-section of plays out there that I rate. Secondly, and this uniquely applies to this fringe: I’m going to have to be VERY choosy. The standard of what I’ve seen at this Brighton Fringe has been truly exceptional, and were I not to raise the bar the list would be ridiculously long. So some of the plays in the honourable mention list would have made it to pick of the fringe in an earlier year.

So here we are. Don’t get too excited about being top of a list, it’s sorted merely by the order I saw them. We have:

Pick of the fringe:

0.0031% Plastic and chicken bones (Ike Award)
The Formidable Lizzie Boone
Vermin
The Huns
Moral Panic
Underdogs
The Time Machine (Ike Award)
No One
The Ballad of Mulan

Honourable mention:

The Unforgettable Anna May Wong
Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me
Mala Sororibus
Sex, Lies and Improvisation
Labyrinth
The Last
A Pole Tragedy
Fragile

Special Honourable Mention:

Room (for inventing a new genre)

And, as you may have noticed, I’ve given a second one of these.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

0.0031% Plastic and chicken bones was borderline, so I decided to wait and deliberate on this, but in the end, it earns it for the same reason as a time machine: everything delivered well apart from one thing that was superb, in this case the delivery of the story that slowly reveals a future that’s not utopian as it looks.

All of these review will be collated into my Brighton Fringe roundup in due course (I’m actually going to try to do it this month rather than my usual embarrassing delay until November). Thanks again to everyone for showing me what you can do. This is not a stock platitude: this genuinely was an exceptional fringe.

Monday 6th June:

Looking ahead to Durham Fringe and good news from the Vault Festival

That’s the end of both Brighton Fringe and my reviews, but we’re not quite done with the coverage yet. We are staying with this until Thursday for the final tally of Edinburgh Fringe, which will have a lot of bearing on Edinburgh and Brighton’s relationship to each other. In the meantime, let’s take another look at what’s still to come. We’ve already looked at Buxton and Greater Manchester Fringes, what else is coming up.

Durham Fringe is certainly one to watch. As I am running a venue in that one you won’t find me doing my usual coverage of hot takes galore – I have a different responsibility to promote this festival. We don’t quite have a final announcement of the programme, but I understand we’re looking at 60-70 registrations, around double last year. What I’m not sure about is how many of these acts are indeed calling at Durham Fringe on the way to Edinburgh Fringe. That was, after all, the reason for doing this the week before Edinburgh begins. There again, last year when there was hardly any Edinburgh Fringe go to, Durham Fringe ran perfectly well with almost entirely non-touring local acts. I’ll get back to you when Edinburgh Fringe coverage starts when I know how that went.

Looking further ahead, today’s breaking news from the Vault Festival is that they have announced a date for opening of applications, on roughly a normal timescale. That is probably a cause for relief. As I reported back in January when Vault 2022 was cancelled at the last moment, this was dangerous from a financial perspective, having done almost all of the outlay for no income – and the precedent from Brighton is that without a bailout, it might not be possible to put on a festival the following year. However, somehow they have defied that precedent. Maybe they have robust cancellation insurance, maybe a low-key appeal for donations did the job, or maybe their Vault Festival has deeper pockets that we know about, but it looks okay. I hope they’re not doing anything stupid with their accounts like The Warren appears to have done in Brighton.

And finally, changing the subject, I got a vote for the Offies. Underdogs won, and Vermin and No One were amongst the finalists, all of which were obviously strong contenders. But who is in my pick of the fringe? I announce this tomorrow.

Sunday 5th June – The Time Machine:

An excellent play to round off reviews

And now, on the last day of the fringe, it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. And it’s been a wait for five years. Brighton Fringe almost got one of these in 2019 with Be More Martyn, but I saw that after Brighton Fringe and not during it so it may not quite count. This time, however, I have seen it in the right location in the right month. For the first time since Between You and Me in 2017, here it is:

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

To earn my equivalent of five stars, you don’t need full marks across every category, but you can get this through a good across-the-board performance in all other areas – and one aspected of the play that is brilliantly original and brilliantly executed. And for The Keeper’s Daughter, the thing that earns my highest accolade is, quite fittingly, the time machine. Steampunk fans will be please to know that the machine on stage is everything you expect from the style of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and more, and whilst it doesn’t literally travel through time, it comes a close second. The machine provides all of the sound and lighting throughout the performance, operated by Mark Finbow who plays our intrepid inventor at the same time.

But the technical wizardry doesn’t come straight away. We first of all see our Dickensian Doctor Who busy recharging his contraption. Having previously neglected to check where and when he is, he discovers to his unpleasant surprise it’s 2022, and he’d rather be on his way if you don’t mind. But with another 55 minutes before he’s ready to go, he chooses to tell a story of an afternoon trip he once took eight hundred thousand years into the future to work up an appetite for the delicious lamb dinner he was due to have with his gentlemen friends that evening.

This story is a little simplified from the original H G Wells story, but is still very faithful: the intrepid traveller discovering that in the future, humankind have split into two species, with one peaceful and benign, the other malevolent and exploitative. In fact, the only notable change to the story is the reframing of the story-in-a-story format, originally told at the aforementioned dinner party, now told to the strangers met in a century the real author never got to see. But it’s when the time travelling starts that the performance really comes into its own. There is a lot of technical wizardry required to set up the light and music and sound and smoke (I caught a glimpse of the laptop that controls all of this but I’ll overlook that), but that’s only half the task. The hard bit is integrating this with the action being performed on stage. As anyone who has tried leaving and technical sequence running on stage knows, there are no room for mistakes here. Go out of sync once and the whole thing falls apart. This is executed flawlessly, combining spoken word, physical theatre and puppetry for our hero’s futuristic companion Weena all playing great parts in this performance.

As for how we wind this up – well, I don’t normally give away what happens in the final third of the play, but this end of this one is too good to ignore. Like Plastic and Chicken Bones, where there’s a traveller who’s seen the future, there a chance to tell something to people in the past. And this time, pardon the paraphrasing, it’s simply that’s it’s hard for one person to change the future, but maybe all of us can. And that’s a perfect round-off to a near-perfect production. Sadly the last performance was today, and there’s no other performances announced, but surely after the overwhelming acclaim this play is getting there will be more. What’s more, since it brings along its own tech, it doesn’t even need to be done in a theatre. Keep an eye out; this could be coming to a place near you, and it may be nearer than you think.

Saturday 4th June – Labyrinth:

In the style of the Greek tragedies

I’ve been slow to review this one because, to be honest, I’m not sure what to do with it. To explain the issue here, this is a play where you really need to know in advance what the play is about. That might seem like a stupid question – surely anyone who decides to see any play reads the publicity blurb first? If you are a reviewer or a hardcore fringer, however, it doesn’t always work like that. When you have half a dozen shows to schedule, any background reading that fed into choose what to watch can be forgotten. All I can be sure of knowing about a play I’m reviewing is the title, time and place.

“Today I killed a man” are Marta Carvalho’s fist words as she enters the stage, before embarking on an hour-long monologue in the style of a Greek Tragedy. She killed him, she says, without remorse, without pity. Already I’m thinking of which figure from Greek mythology she is representing. The obvious murderess that springs to mind is Medea, who was noted for her guilt-free killing spree. Then, I got a bit lost as to what the story was meant to be. It was only when I re-read the press release later that I realised this was supposed to be something different: a woman driven to kill a man she was in a toxic relationship with. (This contrasts with Medea; whilst Jason wasn’t exactly a model husband, she was an obvious psychopath long before he came along.) I fear I have missed something important from not knowing this important bit of background info.

Normally, I am quite harsh about plays I don’t follow. It is my long-standing position that it is the responsibility of the performers to make sure their plays are accessible to their intended audiences – and I especially have no time for people who blame their audiences for not thinking about the play deeply enough. But is it really fair to mark a play down in this situation? Most people who saw this play would have known the basics of what the play is supposed to be about; it is really only a subset of reviewers and the most hardcore of fringegoers who go into a play completely cold. That said, I do think it pays to not assume background knowledge for a play if you can avoid it. Prose in the style of a Greek tragedy isn’t the most accessible of language, but perhaps more emphasis on the abusive relationship at the start of the monologue (which is currently packed with the triumphalism) might have helped anyone on an early wrong track.

The presentation of the monologue was good though. Marta Carvalho’s delivery and conviction did the job, and the way it was staged was also fitting for the setting. Had scheduling not made this impossible, I would have watched this again to see if I picked up more the second time round. I don’t think there’s much more I can say about this. Ultimately, it comes down to what this play is meant to achieve. If it’s aimed at fans of classic literature who are familiar with the style of Greek tragedies, maybe there isn’t much more that needs to be done – after all, we rarely expect Shakespeare to be more accessible because you don’t know the plot to Romeo and Juliet. If it is supposed to be accessible to someone watching this cold – well, that’s where the hard work begins. Your call. Good luck either way.

Friday 3rd June:

Coming up in the final weekend

11-27-2021-181433-1791We’re into the final weekend. My big recommendation for this is The Time Machine. Review for this one is coming, but the short version I can give to you is that the Time Machine you see on stage is not just the chief prop/set – it also controls all the technical wizardry you see on stage, all coming from the machine itself.It is also a impressive showcase of one actor also operating all the tech himself. Two final performances coming tomorrow and Sunday at 4.30 p.m., the Rotunda.

And I was going to highlight the return of The Event but the last weekend’s performances have been cancelled. Ah well. See The Time Machine instead, same venue.

Thursday 2nd June:

News from Buxton and Greater Manchester fringe

Two reviews to go. Please bear with me. But cycling over the hills on Lincolnshire (yes, believe it or not, it does have hills if you know where to look for them) knocks the stuffing out of me. Until then, let’s have a look at the upcoming fringes and see where we are. Much focus is on who, if any, can get back to pre-Covid numbers. Brighton might have achieved it were it not for The Warren’s implosion, but how are other fringes doing.

Buxton Fringe seems to be nearly there. They are reporting 169 registrations in time for their programme deadline. Unlike Brighton, Buxton’s numbers have held steadily over the last decade, increasing slightly in 2017 when Underground Venues moved to the higher-capacity Old Clubhouse and The Rotunda started in Buxton. (There was also another increase in 2019, but that 40th anniversary fringe ran for an extra three days and isn’t quite a reliable comparison.) One small but annoying setback is that The Rotunda is only going to be around for part of Buxton Fringe this time – Wells Festival, running during the early part of Buxton Fringe, has proved too lucrative to ignore.

In the long term, the addition of a new smaller Rotunda space is an opportunity for Buxton Fringe. One thing Buxton’s never really recovered from is the loss of Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room, two excellent spaces for entry-level acts. The “squeak” dome we’ve seen at Brighton could do that job well. There’s a small question of where this could do – you probably could find space in the Pavilion Gardens but it might require some lateral thinking. But that’s jumping ahead. In spite of the absence of The Rotunda for half a Fringe, Buxton is probably the first to be able to say it’s back to normal.

Greater Manchester Fringe, however, is a bit more mysterious. In 2019, there was the prospect that this fringe might overtake Buxton, although with this fringe coverage an entire City Region the numbers weren’t directly comparable. At the time of writing, however, I count 61 registrations for Greater Manchester Fringe 2022. Unlike Buxton, there doesn’t appear to be any deadline here, and with most of GM Fringe taking place in year-round venues, I wonder if many acts are waiting until the last moment to register, and only when they’re certain. Or it might be that no-one can live up to former fringe boss Zena Barrie.

I’ll wait and see what happens this month before making any firm judgements. Tentatively, however, it looks like Buxton Fringe’s place and 3rd biggest fringe in the UK is safe.

Also, woo woo way the Queen woo yay. More fringe update tomorrow.

Wednesday 1st June – The Ballad of Mulan:

Review of Michelle Yim’s latest play

Another one of Michelle Yim’s plays now, that conveniently fit into a gap in the schedule. Her last two plays were about little-remembered East Asian women from the first half of the last century. Most people, however, have heard of Hua Mulan, if only through the Disney film. Michaelle Yim is determined to give an undisneyfied version of the legand.

Out of the three plays of hers I’ve seen, this one I think is the strongest by a convincing margin. This shouldn’t be too surprising: biopics of real historical are difficult to keep interesting without sacrificing accuracy, but the legend of Mulan has endured for a millennium and a half. Most historians now think it’s more likely she was the product of a storyteller’s imagination rather than a real character, but if that’s the same, it’s a storyteller who did the job well. The tale of a woman who took her father’s place in the army and rose to the rank of general over ten years certain stood the test of time.

Ross Ericson’s script, however, doesn’t so much follow the styles of Chinese Mythology. If anything, it’s got a lot more in common with the tales of World War One. There is no blow-by-blow account of Mulan’s rise through the ranks in her meteoric career; merely the events leading up to her first battle. On the one hand, we hear of how Mulan’s tomboy ways as a child would make her exactly the sort of woman who’s fall in the the man signing up for war. But the stronger part of the story is signing up to the army. There are plenty of fresh-faced conscripts excited to see something of the world and naive to the horrors that lie ahead; there’s also veterans from earlier campaigns, less eager to go through this again but kept going by the camaraderie of old friends from wars gone by.

Perhaps the winning formula here is Ross Ericson playing to his all-time number one strength. The Unknown Soldier was deservedly praised for its depiction of The Great War, encompassing both the catastrophe of war and the enduring human spirit. If the plan was to apply the same touches to another war, it’s worked well here. Mission accomplished here, because this is indeed her version Disney couldn’t do even they wanted to – however they approach things, they can never fully escape their expectations of being twee. Good choice of story from Grist to the Mill, and good job done.

Tuesday 31st May – Fragile:

Review of Fragile

For my north-east followers, one bit of important news for today (if you somehow missed this): we will find out this evening if County Durham has been named City of Culture 2025. That will be a big deal if they pull it off. More about this when we know either way.

Now, on to the next reviews. This one did very well at Brighton Fringe last year and it’s back for an encore. Agustina Dieguez Buccella has had a moment of triumph. She has single-handedly made it to the end of a trail. How’s that for everyone who said she couldn’t do this? Admittedly, the guy at the tourist information who she said was talking him down did make some fair points. For example, the trail is closed in the summer for a reason. Never mind, what does “closed” mean anyway? You can’t just fence off a long-distance path in the mountains – that just means there’s no organised tours. And who is this geezer at the tourist information office to say it’s not safe for a woman to do this on her own? That’s how she’s done everything before.

And that’s the point of this play. This isn’t an high-octave daredevil adventure on woman versus nature – it’s the parallels with the rest of her life. In the next scene, things aren’t going so well. She lets on that even in less dangerous globe-trotting adventures flitting from city to city, she always does that alone. And not just travelling alone – the people she meets along the way never become more than acquaintances. That, she admits, is the barrier she put up. And that’s the barrier she puts up in the rest of her life too. The advantage of being a strong independent woman is that no-one gets close enough to you to be able to hurt you. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way, and the more we learn of this, the more it seems Agustina latest solo adventure is her doubling down on doing things the way she always has.

This story is open based very heavily on personal experience. This is an approach I’ve seen done a lot and frequently backfires; all too often it’s twenty-somethings whose life experience hasn’t stretched beyond house-sharing and drama school romances – and still mistake it as something as unique and profound to share with he world. Buccella’s piece, however, succeed by doing the opposite. Rather than trying to be different and special, her experience of shuttering off emotions is something relatable and, from what I can gather, resonating with a lot of people.

The only thing that I thought slightly missed the mark was not making the most of the parallels between her way of doing a mountain adventure and her life in general. After such a promising build-up the mountain journey fades from prominence as the focus grows more and more on life decision in general. The reason I think this was sold short is that in Buccella’s real story, she was rescued from the mountain. That, to me, seemed like a perfect thing to leave in the story: as well as the added tension of how this story is going to end, this could have provided the perfect parallel ending on getting help on the mountain, and getting help in general. However, the play stands up without this because the story of her life is strong enough to carry it alone. One more performance of this on Thursday at 8.15, Laughing Horse at the Walrus. Worth catching, as this may be your last chance.

Monday 30th May:

Coming up in week 4

And we’re into the fourth and final week, so for the penultimate time, a look at what’s coming up. And it’s a short list this time. The main new starter is Aidan Goatley, whose wholesome stand-up coemdy I caught last year. His new show Tenacious started tonight and runs until Friday at Sweet @ The Poets at various times.

For the shows I’ve seen already, we’ve got a final performance of Vermin tonight at 9.30, which is any moment now, but better late than never, maybe. Fragile makes its last appearance this fringe on Thursday at 8.15 p.m. I have a review for this one coming, but in the meantime it’s worth a watch. Both of those are Laughing horse at The Walrus. And from Thursday to Sunday we have the absurdly self-referential The Event at The Rotunda, 6.15 p.m.

This isn’t a bit list, and that’s not entirely a coincidence. After years of week 4 being just another week of Brighton Fringe, this time theatre that isn’t family theatre seems to be winding down in the last week. Certainly The Rialto has chosen to sit out a final week this time round. And, to be fair, this was the original plan when a fourth week was added: something in half term to make use of daytimes available for family shows – instead, family shows tended to stick to weekends and regular theatre filled up the rest of the week. Now, this might be changing.

We don’t really have any post-Covid data to compare this to. We can’t do a direct comparison with 2021 because due to the postponement, half term was in the first week rather than the last (with the first week being a big relaunch). Will this be one of the last changes of 2022? We’ll have to wait at least a year for an answer, but I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Sunday 29th May, 9.30 p.m. – Underdogs:

Review of The Foundry Group’s new play

Sorry for allowing things to go quiet. I had planned to do some more reviewing on the train, but for some reason the trains going north out of London were absolutely chocka. Just time time for one more then.

This is on of the Rialto’s headerliners. The Foundry Group has been one of the biggest names of the fringe circuit ever since their hit Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks. Now Joseph Nixon and Brian Mitchell are collaborating with a difference strange true story. Instead of a public obsession with two men pretending to fight each over every Saturday afternoon in the 1970s, it’s the equally strange obsession over a man who tried – and ultimately succeeded – in taking the (unofficial) world record for longest time being buried alive, seeking to retake the title in memory of his mother, who once held the world record in the 1970s.

That’s not really what the play is about, though. It will surprise no-one to learn that you can’t make a hour-long story of someone shouting “Come on, you can do it! You’re half-way, just lie there for another 72 days!” The theme is in the title, “Underdogs”. Geoff Smith is a slacker with no career, a string of broken relationships and children with two different mothers. Six months underground doesn’t feel that much of a loss when there’s not much else to do. But the more prevalent theme is the everybody being treated as underdogs. This stunt was of course an attention-grabber for the media at the time, but there is always a disdainful theme of the London media types behaving not only like they’re better than that loser with nothing better to do, but that they’re also better than all the other losers in Mansfield with nothing to do. Particular scorn is reserved for the “And Finally …” section of ITV news. And then, inevitably, comes the scummier side of the tabloid press – the moment anyone grabs a bit of flashpan fame, the press rake around their lives looking for anything to make them look bad. It doesn’t matter that it’s 20% truth and 80% conjecture and insinuation – who’s going to fight them in court?

The power dynamics in the team come into play to. The pub landlord who eggs Smith on has at least one eye on the future business prospects of his pub. His wife, on the other hand, wants nothing to with the scheme, but ends up as arguably Geoff’s only proper friend, without a stake in the game herself. I think this play could do with some tightening; 75 minutes is not too different a running time for a fringe, but I felt there were a number of digressions that knocked the momentum out of the story, albeit a story that is by its very nature not supposed to be fast-moving. The reason I said this is that Big Daddy versus Giant Haystack – which does share a lot of virtues with this play – had some similar issues in the early versions. However, this were all ironed out into a great finished product for Edinburgh. So some work to be done, but a good job so far on a concept many would write off as impossible to dramatise.

Sunday 29th May, 12.30 p.m. – No One:

Review of a physical theatre retelling of The Invisible Man

Well, time has beaten us to it again. That’s my second visit to Brighton wrapped up. 20 plays in 7 days spilt into two chunks. I have six outstanding reviews and let”s start with No One.

This is described a “remix” of The Invisible Man rather than an adaptation. Unlike Northern Stage, whose adaptation sought to encompass a wide part for the original story in a modern context, Akimbo Theatre concentrates on on key element of the story*: the relationship between Griffin and Marvel. In the original, Griffin is a scientist and Marvel is a homeless man who is easily manipulated into Griffin’s ally. In this version, far from homeless, Marvel is a successful university student – however, he is still socially introverted and still an easy target. The play begins as Marvel is being interrogated by the Police. A woman called Mia is missing, Marvel is in the frame, and it soon becomes clear that he’s covering for someone.

* : Actually, there is another theme that features. The discussion about whether Griffin can see with his eyes closed is a nod to a real earnest academic discussion on whether the Invisible Man was scientifically possible, believe it or not.

Akimbo Theatre are a physical dance troupe and that plays heavily into the production. An early scene replays CCTV footage where Marvel decks an entire pub in a pub fight. Another scene is where Marvel levitates a five-pound note into Mia’s hand. Both scenes are, of course, not what they seem, and when re-run later feature with Griffin in view The key relationship, however, is that Griffin is behind Marvel’s sudden career as a magician making all sorts of things levitate. Whatever anger Griffin had in Blackpool and whatever he did back there, he’s happy to make this his new project. However, Griffin can’t help getting into quite brutal fights on Marvel’s behalf, and thanks to the mask of social media and telephone, starts an online relationship with Mia who believes him to be Marvel. No chance of a love triangle – let’s just say Mia isn’t Marvel’s type – but we still know this is going to get messy.

I have to say, this blows the socks off Northern Stage’s production. To be fair to Northern Stage, we aren’t quite comparing the same thing there: one was a training exercise for new conventional actors; this is an physical theatre-heavy piece for an ensemble who executes it flawlessly. But ever where we compare like-for-like with the writing, Akimbo does it better. Northern Stage tried to take on a lot of issues and ended up confusing everyone, but Akimbo’s focus on one party of the story and fleshing it out works very well. I’ll give a score draw for the staging though, with both productions producing striking visual effects in their own ways.

That said, there was one bit of Akimbo’s plot that didn’t quite work. Having conveyed the tensions between Marvel and Griffin so well up to the concluding scene, it suddenly got confusing. There’s just been a row that’s broken Mia’s relationship and turned Griffin and Marvel on each other, but now they’re back at home and there’s a party and someone’s come to get Griffin and Mia’s still there? And when the inevitable fight breaks out, everybody seems to take a long time to react to someone being hurt. Something, I fear, has been lifted from the H G Wells story that doesn’t make sense in this new setting. Apart from the slightly muddled last ten minutes, however, this is an brilliantly-executed concept of physical theatre. There is one final performance to 6.00 p.m. today at the Rotunda, so catch it if you can.

Saturday 28th May, 7.45 p.m.:

News of grants to Edinburgh Fringe venues

Just one play to go now, but wow, the standard of what I’ve seen this fringe has been exceptional. It’s possible this has been influenced by the high number of press requests, but there’s also been a high standard of the tickets I bought myself, almost of all of which were chosen as gap-fillers in the schedule and nothing else. And damn, I’ve got a pick of the fringe coming up. I’m going to have to get VERY picky.

When we head into the last week, I will turn attention a bit more to the other fringes coming up. There are notable developments from Buxton, Durham and Edinburgh. In the meantime, I have one bit of news (and it’s fringe a proper Edinburgh Fringe press release – yes, for some reason they trust me to handle that information responsibly). There has been an announcement of funding for the Edinburgh Fringe, which you can read here. Officially it’s for fringe “producers”, but in practice this means venues.

I get the impressions this is part of a wider Scottish Government initiative that straddles post-Covid recovery and generic arts support, although they have co-ordinated things to announce all fringe-related ones together. What’s interesting, though, isn’t the amount being funded but who it’s going to and what they’re promising to deliver. It seems to me that there’s been a lot of discussions with individual venues, and you can read the details here. The end result is the different venues have made different promises on what to deliver.

A common promise amongst lots of venue is promises to give better pay to staff. With working conditions currently one of two big hot potatoes, this is probably welcome news for the Edinburgh Fringe – if the money being granted is enough to make a significant difference in a festival of this size. Big if there. But amongst the individual grants, there’s one thing that leaps out in the details for Zoo. In the Fringe’s words, their programming in 2022 “is aimed at better reflecting the lives of under-represented or minority audiences”. Inclusivity varies from minority to minority, but one thing that never seems to change is that the fringe is a white person thing. I’m sure most people welcome anyone of any skin colour, but perceptions that theatre isn’t for people like you are very hard to shift. Can Zoo succeed where others have failed? How do they intend to do it? I will keep an eye on this.

One other thing that’s notable is who is and isn’t on the list. Last time there were complaints that there wasn’t much support beyond the Big Four, but the defence there was that there was a national emergency and things had to be thrown together at the last moment. This time it includes most venues, but the two notable exceptions are Sweet and C Venues. Sweet Venues isn’t really news – they’ve decided to drop Edinburgh Fringe indefinitely as they feel the current costs make it impossible to support artists the way they’d want to. But C Venues, as far as I can tell, are still a thing in Edinburgh. If they’re left off a list where everyone else is on, either C Venues is having second thoughts, or they’re still off everyone’s Christmas card lists.

Still a lot up in their air. Stay tunes as we see how this turns out.

Saturday 28th May, 12.30 p.m. – A Pole Tragedy:

Review of a flagship show of the Dutch Season.

This review needs a caveat. This is part of the Dutch Season, which I’ve heard a lot about in previous years but never got round to checking out. Virtually all of reviewing is done against a set of expectations that we’ve come to expect on the UK fringe circuit – it never ceases to frustrate me when someone not used to a fringe decries a solo play because that’s not the way things are done to Stuffyton-On-The-Wold. I don’t know what conventions and expectations have grown around Dutch Theatre, and the best I can do is review against what I’m used to.

So, I’ve already had a play with burlesque in it, now one with pole dancing in it. In The Formidable Lizzie Boone, this was incidental to a wider story – you could in theory have cut that completely and the rest of the plot would still hold up. However, in A Pole Tragedy, this is integral to the entire performance. You could in principle not do the pole dancing and still have the story, but it would be a completely different performance. Anyway, Sofie Kramer tells us her father loved his little girl but also loves his country and wants to win. He also has something about shooting deer whether or he’s allowed to.

She then moves on to the lead-up to the siege of Troy. Now, granted, the Greek myths do have a rather weird attitude to women (albeit no worse than any of the other religions around at the time): frequently that women can’t be trusted, it’s perfectly fine to make a hot woman a prize in a war between the Greeks and Trojans, and sacrificing your daughter to ensure a victory is also okey-dokes*. Say what you like about modern society, but even the most deranged misogynists today think murdering your own child to help your cuckolded mate get even with the bloke she told him not to worry about is a bit of an over-reaction. Anyway, Sofie’s character for some reason has the hots for Achilles. It’s fine to to have your own private fantasies, but for some reason Sofie is pretty detailed about exactly what he wants to do with him.

* Actually, you do get your comeuppance over that one in the end, but that’s a different Greek story.

This is leading up to a problem. And – I repeat – this is my perspective as someone used to UK fringe theatre, but the problem is: metaphor overkill. There’s quite a lot of references to her 17=year-old self being “ready for the slaughter”. Is this a parallel with the unfortunate Iphigenia on the sacrificial altar, her gun-crazed dad shooting deer, or the Achilles-look-a-like soldier she fancies ready to deflower her? We can go into the details, but this builds up to the key question: what has any of this got to do with pole dancing? There’s plenty of interesting themes in the promo material: pole dancing can anything from titillation for men in strip clubs to a dance done on whatever terms a women chooses; there is indeed an uncomfortable overlap between violence and eroticism. But how does this relate to deer shooting and child sacrifices and weird attitudes to women in Greek legends? I got lost in all the metaphors long before making any connection to the pole dancing.

The production values are pretty good. Sofie Kramer certainly knows her stuff with the pole dancing. However, one less obvious thing she did was the sound design. When she strikes the pole, the sound is looped and reverberated in all sorts of ways. And one particularly awesome effect was warping the repeated strikes of the pole into something that sounds like the marching of soldiers.

I guess this ultimately comes to what is meant to be achieved here. As I’ve said before, I you want your play to make a point, it has to be accessible. I’ve seen a lot of artists fall down by assuming tons of background knowledge on the issue and presenting it in an abstract way that nobody who hasn’t already been won over will understand. That defeats the object. However, perhaps the object is to normalise a completely different style of theatre to an audience not used to it. Perhaps an audience more used to this will pick up the intend theme sooner. Perhaps performances like this will make people pick up other plays like this in the future. At I can’t say much more than that. Your call.

Saturday 28th May, 10.30 a.m. – The Last:

Review of an adaptation of The Last Man

Right, now that I’ve been able to get a sensible night’s sleep, let’s resume reviewing before the backlog gets too big.

We begin with The Last, Different Theatre’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Her most famous book, Frankenstein, is of course considered one of the greatest genre-defining works of fiction, but The Last Man has a strong claim to that too. This is set in a future world where humanity is almost entirely wiped out by plague. Unlike Frankenstein, however, this book bombed when first released. And yet over a century later it went on to provide the inspiration for countless cult favourites set in plague-apocalyptpic worlds. The book may only be an obscure footnote, but the legacy is almost as big as her famous.

The original book is almost 500 pages. As we all know, when a book is that length you can’t hope to get more than a fraction on stage in an hour. Sam Chittenden manages a good abridgement of the story, keeping the structure of the original and not feeling anything’s been missed out. Performed in a mostly storytelling format from Mary Shelley (played by Amy Kidd), it has some parallels to today’s events, presumably highlighted deliberately: beginning with news of a diseases but it’s far away and people there die anyway, until things come closer, and then comes to Britain until it’s no longer background news, and finally life goes on hold. Only this time, the plague hasn’t even got started.

What makes this play different from a straight storytelling adaptation is the parallels with real life. If you’re wondering why Mary Shelley had to go for such a downbeat story, it’s probably because she’d lost almost her of her family to disease. The promising opening is a tearful Mary Shelley hugging the coat of her dead husband Percy. Annoyingly, however, this strongest thread of the adaptation is over before it’s really begun. Mary says that she shall base characters on the people closest to her who she lost, including Percy and Lord Byron – but we never what these fictional characters have in common with their true-life counterparts, which I was looking forward to.

I try to avoid saying how other people’s plays should be written, because it’s easy for that to turn into turning their play into your play. However, I will break this rule here because I can easily see this format working as – rather than Mary saying she’ll write a book, announcing the characters are diving straight in to the story – deliver this as if she’s confiding with someone as a story she has in her head. The delivery could drift between her reminiscing about the lives of those closest to her and how this is playing out in the story. The parallel with the ending is clear though: Mary Shelley was not the last man on earth, but it felt like she was. This was on for two nights, so hopefully there are plans to bring this back another time with more development. It’s a good call to make the story of The Last Man the story of Mary Shelley – so let’s me the most of it.

Friday 27th May, 6.00 p.m.:

A comeback for The Lantern?

And we’re off. No reviews just yet – as is customary, I like to mull plays over for a minimum of a few hours before I put thoughts in writing.

In the meantime, however, it’s worth a quick comment about Lantern @ ACT. ACT is the Academy of Creative Training, one of many drama schools based in Brighton. As per many drama schools, this one has its own studio theatre, and this one doubles up as a small year-round theatre. I’ve now been there twice, and it’s a pretty decent space with some pretty decent technical capabilities.

Until this year, it’s not registered on my radar at all – but there again, it had no reason to before now. Prior to 2020, Brighton Fringe was getting more like Edinburgh with the programme gravitating to big multi-space venues. But with the biggest mutli-space venue out of action this year, suddenly the small venues such as this one have taken the overspill and become notable.

Now that we must contemplate the possibility that the Warren-shaped hole could be here for the long term, we also need to contemplate the possibility that the small venues that hurriedly took the overspill will carry on doing on. In which case, The Lantern is in quite a strong position to become a major player if it wants to. Its scale is similar to The Rialto, and as we know the Rialto has been the long-standing exception to the rule: a successful single-space venue in the fringe where multi-space became the norm. The Lantern didn’t quite have a big enough fringe programme to join the new “big five” (Sweet, Rialto, Spiegeltent, Laughing Horse and Rotunda), but it wasn’t far off. If small venues spread over the sity stays the norm, we could be learning a lot more about The Lantern from next year.

Friday 27th May, 2.00 p.m.:

Government denies plans to scrap Arts Council England

I’m here. Took a small detour to check out Crossrail, which I can confirm is real and not just faked images you see on TV organised by the Illuminati. There again, I could be in the payroll of the Illuminati to tell you that, so think carefully. First play in half an hour. Before then, it’s time for a small break from Brighton – it’s hot take time.

So a few days ago there was a bit of panic that the Government was poised to axe Arts Council England and replace it with another body full of yes-men that would give funding to more yes-men. That wasn’t an unreasonable thing to worry about. This government has a track record of crying foul and demanding reform every time an independent or arms-length body criticises or otherwise refuses to agree with them. And with the review conducted by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries being Culture Secretary – both amongst the worst offenders for meddling where the Government shouldn’t – I wouldn’t put it past them.

However, there is a counter-argument to this. Many are claiming the Government wants to destroy the arts because the arts criticises them, as some claim they are doing with the BBC and Channel 4. The difference is that BBC and Channel 4 have a lot of public reach. I hate to break this to, but subsidised theatre doesn’t exactly have the government quaking in its boots. It’s a niche pusuit I and many others love, but it’s still pretty niche. And, let’s face it, the majority of people seeing it aren’t planning to vote Conservative anyway. Commercial Theatre has a much bigger reach, but it not nearly so political – and in any case, you can’t punish a West End production with a cut to subsidy if they weren’t subsidised in the first place. Is it really worth picking a fight over this?

Whatever the reason, the Government has swiftly denied there’s any talk of scrapping Arts Council England. Of course, this is a Boris Johnson Government denial, which is different from a normal denial, but one would think you wouldn’t say this if you were softening public opinion for something this controversial. There is also the concern over cutting funding in general – however, the government’s had more than enough chances to sit on its hands and let subsidised theatre wither and die if that’s what it was after.

Do I believe the government would do something as reprehensible as to control the arts if it thought it worthwhile? Yes. Were they testing the water to see if they could get away with it? Maybe. Will they still try pulling a stunt like this after specifically saying they won’t do this? Probably not. Should we be vigilant just in case? Of course.

But I’m more relaxed than I was last week. It’s a bit a dampener that the reason for this might well be because the Government thinks we’re not important enough to be worth fighting. But, for better or worse, that’s where we are.

Friday 27th May, 8.30 a.m:

A lot of five-star and four-star reviews are coming

One thing that’s worth mentioning it this point is that I’m seeing a lot of five-star and four-star reviews flying off the shelves this Brighton Fringe. Normally, I would treat this with caution – we are still in the recovery phase of the worst crisis to hit the fringes in their entire history, and there’s a lot of good will for those picking themselves up and getting back in the game. There again, I don’t remember this translating into star-rating inflation last year. It’s only an unscientific sample, but out of the small number taking part, I reckon I saw two-star reviews with roughly the same frequency as a normal year. If there was lack of evidence of lowering the bar last year, it seems unlikely they’d suddenly start doing that this year.

More to the point, however, some of these heavily-praised plays are ones I’ve seen for myself, and I can attest that they were good enough to be earning this good reviews. And this is reflected by my own experience. You may have noticed I’ve been a lot more praiseful of the plays I’ve seen that I am in a typical year. Admittedly my own sample is affected by a lot more review requests this year, but I’m not sure this would affect the results.

I’d need to do some better analysis to confirm this, but it does seem that there’s been a high quality of Brighton Fringe plays this year. Given all the woes to hit Brighton this year on other fronts, that would be welcome news if true, and welcome news for fringe theatre in general too. There can be little doubt that there’s been a hit and a lot of groups are leaving and not coming back, but perhaps the survivors are the good ones.

Friday 27th May, 7.00 a.m.:

Coming in up in weekend 4

Yes, that’s right, 7.00 a.m. Hope you appreciate the dedication. But I’ve got a ludicrously intense 48 hours ahead of me. I’ve had a lot of review requests, but for some reason the lion’s share have fallen over these two days. It’s taken a very tight operation to schedule all of this, but I’ve managed it. For future reference, it is advisable to send press releases before the fringe begins, and failing that, certainly not a few days before. By then, I have probably already scheduled what I’m doing that day and may even already have the press tickets.

Vermin returns tomorrow and runs until Monday, running various times. I saw this my first time round and it’s really good. To repeat a content warning (I have a policy of not giving content warnings when common sense would tell you what to expect but this is one of the time it doesn’t): there are graphic descriptions of animal cruelty which you will need a strong stomach for, but it’s worth it for the power-struggle between a seriously messed up couple. Also returning tomorrow and Sunday is The Huns, a funyn but sadly too relatable play set on the world’s most passive-aggressive (shortly to become aggressive-aggressive) conference call.

Three new plays on my recommendations list begin this week. Testament of Yootha starts a Sweet @ the Poets tomorrow and Sunday at Sweet at the Poet’s at 2.45 p.m. This is a solo biopic of Yootha Joyce, but goes into wider strange and somewhat shallow world of how women are treated when they’re not valued for looks. The first of two performances of Fragile is tomorrow at 3.15 at Laughing Horse at the Walrus. Don’t know much about this other than it involving a woman finding herself on a long walk, but it was at Brighton Fringe last year and everyone raved about it. And just starting (actually yesterday but I miss it) it The Event, possibly the world record holder for the most meta and self-referential play. Rotunda 7.45 until Sunday.

And finally, still running is the second and last performance of The Last, Sam Chittenden’s play that crosses over Mary Shelley’s fictional story The Last Man with the real-life tragedies that inspired the stories. And Underdogs, the apparently true story of a man who want for the world record of being buried alive, runs until tomorrow at the Rialto Theatre, 8.00 p.m.

Phew!

Thursday 26th May – Moral Panic:

Review of Moral Panic

Before we get on to the last review in my backlog, an interesting observation about use of venues. One obvious side-effect for The Warren 2022’s demise is that there’s an awful lot of plays taking place in spaces that don’t have the sound and lighting capability we’re used to. Or more precisely, we’re used to in Edinburgh. Anyone used to Buxton Fringe will know it’s not that unusual to perform without. As we saw with Vermin, some plays work perfectly well on the strength of just the words. Moral Panic, however, is a good example of the other solution. This took place in the basement on Conclave, an art gallery, and even though it was just a normal room, a pretty decent makeshift set of lights were rigged up which did almost as good a job as the real thing. Many groups often abandon their fringe plans if they can’t get a space in a “proper” venue, but Blue Dog Theatre did a good job of demonstrating what you can do with DIY if you’re determined to make it work.

Anyway, enough of the space, on to the play. It’s the 1980s, and there’s a panic over the “video nasty”. Owing to the proliferation of the videotape, films that previously had to be vetted through the cinema have gone straight to the corruptible public. To be fair to censor Charles, there’s is some pretty nasty stuff out there, but being the the 1980s, the panic is all over blasphemy involving demons and crucifixes. One moment you’re watching The Exorcist at home and the next moment you’re drawing pentagrams and having orgies in goat entrails. “Ah”, I hear you cry. “But why don’t the censors who see this stuff go round murdering people?” Duh, moral fortitude. Do keep up. And so we watch a perfect opinion as stuffy pencil-moustached Charles (Jack W Cooper) watches Lesbian Nuns Demonic Orgy 6 or something like that, furiously scribbling on his clipboard as he does so.

Charles’s no-nonsense old-school attitude extends to his home life too. He expects his food on the table when he comes home from his loyal Susan because she likes doing that sort of thing, probably. She also probably likes his advice on what jewellery shouldn’t be worn outside the house. It wouldn’t be fair to write him off as on out-and-out sexist though. When the first woman is appointed to the board of censors, I’m sure he’d have been perfectly fine with an equally stiff elderly spinster muttering “It’s filth!” whenever someone says a rude word, such as “bottom” or “knickers”. Unfortunately, the new appointment is young Veronica. Provocatively dressed, distressingly European in her attitudes, doesn’t seem to have a problem with anything Charles demands cutting, and goodness knows what debauchery she partakes in over in Italy. Worse, she’s been appointed by the retiring Chief Censor – a position Charles was sure he had in the bag. What is going on here?

I’ve just talked about the importance of characterisation; here, however, writer/director Stuart Warwick gets it. It would have been easy to have made Charles into a right-wing caricature, but the secret to this is that – however silly his old-fashioned views on censorship are – you always understand what he wants and how genuinely is is horrified by the heathen liberalism of Veronica. And the references to the video at the time are of real films that caused panic. The only thing where I felt something was missing was the twist at the end. I will refrain from giving it away, suffice to say that there’s somebody who proves dangerous to underestimate. Does the dirty deed make sense? Yes – it was a pretty devious move which all made sense if you’d thought to through. What I didn’t quite register, however, is why that person would do something so extreme. I think we need something extra to show why this was the logical course of action for our unexpected malcontent. That’s only a small issue though. If you remember the Mary Whitehouse era, this will get you nostalgic – if you didn’t: it’s a different kind of stupid compared to today’s censorshiup, but you’ll pick it up soon enough. This has now finished its run in Brighton, but hopefully this will be returning to more fringes very soon.

Wednesday 25th May – Mala Sororibus:

Review of Mala Sororibus

Couple dancing on the bandstandAnd it’s that time already. I’m returning for two days in Brighton and I’ve got masses of review requests to process. Looks like I have a very tight operation coming up on Saturday and Sunday. It looks like I’ll be unable to meet some review requests simply due to impossible scheduling. If that’s you, sorry, sometimes this comes down to luck. Best thing to do if contact me again if you go to future fringes – I normally end up prioritising those who are determined for me to review them. In the meantime, please enjoy this wholesome picture of the bandstand in Brighton. I see something like this every year and I never tire of it.

Time for today’s review: Mala Sororibus from Troubador Theatre, and a heavy crossover with New Venture Theatre. Three middle-aged women are out walking in the countryside. They bicker over the most trivial things, but stop when their niece Beth arrives. It was only recently that Beth’s mother died, and with the two of them keen on survival in the outdoors, it’s considered a fitting way to commemorate the departed. It soon becomes clear, however, that Beth and her three aunties have not been seeing each other until very recently. A bit strange, you might thing, but there’s an early explanation that might explain this: Beth is actually quite annoying. She might not even realise this, but her mildly scolding tone when giving Barbara, Judith and Glynnis rules for survival is enough to make anyone find another engagement. But that’s only the start of it. The three sisters don’t seem to have had that happy a time at home. Beth has seemingly inherited a lot of money. Someone is not being straight with someone, and out in the middle of nowhere it’s asking for trouble.

For this sort of play, the biggest challenge by far is characterisation. The one rule you can never escape from is that everything a character does must be plausible – and the more out of the ordinary a character behaves (and the ending is as far from ordinary behaviour as can be), the harder you have to work to explain why. But when all is not as it seems, this principle has to work on several layers. Each characters’ behaviour has to be plausible to the audience at face value – you can drop the odd hint that something’s not quite right, but in the harsh world of fringe theatre implausible actions are put down as bad writing. Each characters’ behaviour has to be plausible to the other characters – when your characters know each other, you have to consider what would be accepted as normal and what would make them smell a rat. Finally, it all has to make sense at the end – the audience should be able to retrace the characters’ steps and not think “wait, why didn’t she just do that instead?” One similar consideration is when characters reveal secrets? Always be asking yourself: What made her open up now? Why did she never open up before? Yes, it’s a plot requirement that the audience need to know, but still you have to make the moment believable.

What I would say is resist the temptation to stick to the plot you have in your head when a plot point isn’t quite working. There’s nothing more frustrating than have a plot requirement that isn’t possible to write without somebody doing something out of character, or failing to react to something obviously wrong, or failing to register danger. You might have an explanation in your head but the audience don’t, and if it’s not possible to get that across, it’s sometimes better to abandon that plot point completely and find another way to make the story work. The framework for a farcical comedy masking a thriller is there. Pleasantries mask greed and resentment; the questioned is left in the balance as to who will outwit who, who will get their way in the end, how far they are prepared to go to get it. The icing on the cake would surely be showing why it’s the only way it could have gone

Tuesday 24th May – Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me:

Jay Bennet’s second show as the delusional diva

And a happy Crossrail Day to those who celebrate. Now, I’ve sure the question you’re all dying to ask me is will I use the opportunity whilst travelling through London on Friday. But that would be a spoiler. Anyway, let’s get through these remaining reviews in the order I saw them.

Today’s review is Yasime Day: Songs in the key of me. This will be a quick review as I am theatre blogger, and this one, whilst it does have some crossover with theatre, is moving sharply back in the comedy direction. Yasime Day is a comedy character of Jay Bennet, an 80s diva whose opinion of herself vastly outstrips her ability to be a pop diva. She would like to glide on a moving stage, but owing to budgetary constraints and limitations of the capabilities of this space, she has to make do with a beer trolley. She is also accompanied by her pianist (also her nephew and lodger). If this sounds crummy, it’s your fault for not understanding the art deeply enough.

Yasmine Day’s previous show was painfully pretentious renditions of 80s hits. This time, however, she’s treating us to renditions of original music, which goes a long way to explain why she never made it into the charts. A light-hearted song about to teenagers getting it on gets the chorus “We are kissin’ cousins” (spoiler: cousins may be more related than advertised). And with street harassment increasingly a topic for discussion, Yasmine thinks outside the box, and in response to the time builder invited her to suck his big fat cock (or something like than), Yasmine sang “I still got it.” Actually those songs are quite catchy. There is a rule with comedy music it’s almost always funnier if the songs are musical in their own right, and that’s certainly the case here.

However, I must say I do miss the tragi-comedy of the previous show. Jay Bennet tells me that Yasmine’s lifelong feud with Cheryl Baker and the way she blames everyone else for her failures is still canonical and feeds into the character now, and I can’t expect every new show to go through this all over again. But one of the most poignant memories of An Audience with Yasmine Day was the moments when her vulnerability slipped through. But although I may miss that, it feeds well into the diva who’s scaled even more heights of delusion than her last outing. Recommended as a lot of fun.

Monday 23rd May:

Coming up in week 3 …

Bloody hell, packing as much as you can into 96 hours catches up on you, but the fact is we’re only just past the half-way point. Let’s once again take a look at what’s coming up.

On of the Rialto’s flagship productions comes up this week. Underdogs is billed as co-written by the writer of The Shark is Broken, a popular documentary about the making of Jaws, but it’s play Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon that gets my attention: Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks, an funny but insightful look the the trend that began in the 1970s of watch two overweight men having an obviously staged fight. This play is about an equally strange story of a man seeking the world record for longest time spent in a coffin (alive). This starts tomorrow and runs until Saturday, all performances at 8.00 p.m.

Also new this week is The Last from Sam Chittenden. She had an interesting style of writing about authors, teetering between the stories of their real lives and the fictional worlds they created. This is based on The Last Man by Mary Shelley, which supposedly set (ominously) in a 21st century world ravaged by plague, but it considered by many to really be about the death of her husband and three of her children. This is on Thursday and Friday and Friends Meeting House at 7.00 p.m.

If you liked the sound of Vermin, that’s not coming back until Satuday, but between now and Wednesday you can see their other play, An Audience With Stuart Bagcliffe until Wednesday at 7, Laughing Horse at the Walrus again. The Huns do their last two performances on Tuesday and Wednesday 7.30 at the Rotunda. And speaking of the Rotunda, there’s a change to see Ross Ericson doing War of the Worlds on Wednesday at 7.45 p.m.

So plenty to keep you busy until I return. Join me tomorrow when I start clearing these last few reviews.

Sunday 22nd May, 11.30p.m.:

The visibility of Brighton Fringe

Back in Durham. One final thing before beddy-byes. One thing I’ve heard from several people about the Brighton Fringe is that it doesn’t feel like there’s a fringe on. Some people even think this is damaging ticket sales. That latter one is difficult to prove, but it’s nonetheless something that needs thinking about.

What I do know is that there was a marked difference between Brighton and Buxton fringes in 2020. At Buxton Fringe, the only in-person events were the visual arts exhibitions (plus one very determined comedian who wanted to do a live performance no matter what). The Buxton Fringe Committee, however, still decorated the town the same as a normal fringe. Even though the majority of people viewing Buxton Fringe online wouldn’t have seen that. Contrast that with Brighton Fringe 2020, and outside the venues there was no sign of a fringe. If you weren’t following events you would probably had no idea it was on.

There’s no point arguing over how 2020 fringes were done – they were difficult circumstances and anything at all was an achievement. However, I think what this tells us is that, unlike Buxton, Brighton Fringe has been happy to let the venues be the visible presence, particularly the Warren and Spiegeltent. Suddenly we don’t have The Warren, and although Spiegeltent has still been in his usual spot, I guess it’s not enough to cover a Warren-shaped hole.

I think the lesson from 2022 is that Brighton Fringe needs to be more proactive in marketing itself. They would do well to take some inspiration from Buxton here. Obviously the same solution won’t work – Brighton is a much bigger place that Buxton to be noticed in – but in Durham I’ve seen similar-sized festivals get decent visibility in a similar-sized city. A long way to go to work out the details; all I know is that we can no longer rely on pop-up venues to do the job for us.

Sunday 22nd May, 6.00 p.m. – Sex, Lies and Improvisation:

Review of a different king of improv

This is a bit of an unusual one to review. You rarely hear the term “improv” outside of “improv comedy”. In theory, this should be no exception. It’s literally called “Sex, Lies and Improvisation” and it’s in the comedy section of the programme. But where did the assumption come from you can’t have one without the other? We have scripted comedies, so why not an improvised drama?

Sex, Lies and Improvisation started off its life as Between Us, which has been on my Edinburgh Fring radar for some time. The rebrand, I understand, was mostly for marketing purposes, but it also gave the premise for the seed to the improvisation: a lie told to your partner. Originally, they asked for people to shout out suggestions, but they weren’t always forthcoming – and, seriously, do you think I’m going to own up to that? So instead they asked people to own up through the more anonymous medium of a website. With lies numbered from 2 to 69 available tonight, I was incredibly dismayed that the whole audience wasn’t crying out for 69 – come on, the play has the word “sex” in the title folk – and we ended up with “I tell my partner I vote Labour, but I don’t really.”

And so Rachel Thorn and Alex Keen begin their story and notch this lie up a few levels. Not only does Rachel openly vote Labour, she’s a Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner superfan. Alex Keen, on the other hand, is a closet Tory (albeit a Tory with sense, which I’m told still exist somewhere), but he’s gone along with canvassing for Labour. That gets some laughs, as does the mention that Alex’s father as really right-wing. From this point onwards, however, the laughs peter out, and it goes on to two more serious subjects. In spite of efforts to win him over, Alex’s father is an steadfast lech and bully. Rachel, on the other hand, has no room of difference of opinion in her world and wants ideological purity.

It’s a pretty decent story for something knocked off the cuff – to be honest, it’s better than some conventional scripted plays. There is a school of thought that playwriting should be based on rounded characters and how they respond to each other, and to some extent it’s an exercise in seeing how it can work if you leave characters to their own devices. There’s not much point in analysing the story I saw too much – the only bit I thought got a bit repetitive was them hesitating in wondering how to answer a difficult question from their partner. I realise a two-hander is improv in hard mode when there’s no opportunity to knock up the next scene in the wings, but anything that avoid umming overkill would be a plus.

This is a very different form of improv to Murder She Didn’t Write or Notflix or Crime Scene Improvisation. Those work as out-and-out comedies very well, but I think it would be a mistake for Sex, Lies and Improvisation to trying outdo them on playing it for laughs. Like Room, it’s difficult to rate this as there’s not really anything like this to compare it to. But it’s different, it’s worth seeing for being different, and it makes it mark for showing this concept can work.

Sunday 22nd May, 3.45 p.m.:

Where did the weekday daytime shows go?

That’s visit one concluded. 13 plays over four days. I now have five pending reviews to clear before Friday. I will get through them as fast as I can.

Now, one mystery we’d forgotten about i all this excitement over The Venue Who Must Not Be Named is the return to a weekend-centric festival with hardly anything before 6.00 p.m. on weekdays. I have done the analysis and it’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds. The Rialto have advised me they never opened on weekday daytimes in the first place. I’m not sure what Laughing Horse and Spiegeltent used to do before 2020, but as venues dominated by comedy and cabaret I can’t see them have done much before 6 on weekdays. (Theatre can be viable during the day, but comedy and cabaret rarely so – I’m not counting family shows which is a whole different category.) Based on memory, most of the weekday daytime programme came from Sweet and the Warren, and we all know what happened with The Warren. Sweet had started running a decent afternoon programme in the late 2010s and is the only like-for-like change here. However, with the new venue hedging its bets on patronage from locals, you probably don’t want to rely on times when everyone’s working just yet.

However, whilst the shift away from weekday daytime might be down to most venues simply carry on as they were, it seems unlikely we will be going back any time soon. As I think I have mentioned, the observations from practically all of the venues is that weekends are selling a lot better than weekdays, especially start of the week. Those who chose not to bother with Mondays aren’t regretting their decision. Historically, weekday daytime programming happens when you run out of evening – but at the moment weekdays aren’t looking that good a bet at all. So whilst it’s not impossible we will return to pre-2020 schedules eventually, I’m not expecting weekday daytime fringe to be coming back to Brighton any time soon.


Sunday 22nd May, 9.30 p.m. – The Huns:

The most passive-aggressive conference call

That’s better. Time for another review. This one is The Huns, and comes from a Canadian company One Four One Collective. I’m not sure why it has the name; I vaguely remember seeing a video on their social media feed explaining the title, which I might check at some point. Please be assured there’s no Vikings or World War One soldiers called Fritz in this, just the equally brutal world of the conference call.

Three people assemble in a conference room to discuss a burglary last night. The obvious question why a break-in would require the attention of several offices around the world, HR, and the CEO of the company himself. However, that is going to have to wait. Before we can get on to this subject, we have to put up with faulty presentation equipment, nobody understanding how to do a conference call, people chipping in with irrelevant questions, and a particularly useless Vice-CEO (coincidentally married to the CEO) who won’t mute her phone to cut out wind because she’s can’t hear anyone telling her to mute.

According to the press release, this starts off as a civilised and professional meeting. Sorry, you don’t fool me that easily. Speaking as someone who’s been these sorts of calls, this is starts off as a passive-aggressive and superficially-professional-but-obviously-a-complete-shambles-underneath meeting. Amongst the chaotic set-up of the call and the endless stalling over what actually happened last night, one thing soon becomes clear: not only is the building they’ve moved in to a shambles from top to bottom (which faulty lifts, rubbish piling up everywhere and burglar alarms that go off every five minutes), everyone is manoeuvring themselves to say this wasn’t their fault. Clearly the routine issues in the Estates department have suddenly become a lot more important than anyone’s letting on. I won’t give away what the bombshell is, but it be honest, it’s no surprise when it comes.

There is a serious side to this. As someone who works in tech and has been on those sort of conference calls*, I’m afraid to say there’s not much hyperbole here. This is considered normal behaviour. Due to the nature of tech projects, they gravitate to lots of long hours being worked at the last moment. That is far from inevitable, there are plenty of ways of ensuring it doesn’t come to that, but that requires effort. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who double down on defending this culture. It’s exciting, it’s team-bonding. Anyone who complains about being forced to cancel their life outside of work is decried as insufficiently committed. Most alarmingly, a lot of people who call themselves left-wing think some leisure facilities in the workplace are an acceptable recompense for treating your workers like the property of the company. Of course, the problem with packing all work into the last moment is that one small setback is liable to kill the whole project. And no-one ever learns the right lessons. It’s all blame games, as we see here.

* Arse covering footnote, the worst conference calls I witnessed pre-date my current job and most of my tech work, but I have it on good authority the same exists in tech.

I do need to be careful about making this review into an endorsement of the opinions rather than the play. What really matters is how the characters respond to this, and yes, it is a very believable depiction of smiles and professionalism thinly hiding a survival game trying to pin the blame on anyone but themselves. If there was a weakness, the moral to the ending, much as I agree with it, was a little overdone. The human cost of crunch culture heavily dominates the last quarter of the play, but the lengthy monologues used to spell out a lot of things already implied by the rest of the play drags the pace down to something that was otherwise fast moving. But even if the message is spelt out a little too dogmatically by the end, the message a good one and made well. This is on at the Rotunda with another performance at 3.00 p.m. today, and two more at 7.30 p.m. next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Saturday 21st May, 8.30 p.m.:

More info about The Warren

And it’s finally happened. I’m starting to flag. This is something I’d forgotten about. Throughout all of 2020 and 2021, there was only a finite number of fringe shows on offer and not possible to pack four in a day. In addition, long walks to and from outlying venues have gone from an occasional activity to a regular thing. Never mind, two to go in this stint.

I will drop one bit on news before signing off today. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been asking around about The Warren, which is increasingly looking worse than what we know publicly. So far, I’ve refrained from repeating much of what I’ve heard because I want to make absolutely sure I’ve got facts straight and verified before I publish anything that could be damaging. I do not want to ignore this and once I have reviews out of the way I intend to do some proper fact checking.

However, there is one thing I think I can safely say now. I have spoken to numerous people, from performing to venue managers to fringe organisers, and there’s one thing that’s consistent. It is my understanding that The Warren didn’t jump, it was pushed. I’m pretty sure Brighton Fringe put their foot down; some are also saying that Brighton Council put their foot down too. How The Warren responded to this is a bit more supposition, but that would certainly explain why the Electric Arcade is running this “The EA in May” programme. One would have thought that if it was Otherplace’s decision to pull The Warren, they would have either kept Electric Arcade in Brighton Fringe with their blessing, or pulled the Electric Arcade too. Certainly not run a May programme over Brighton Fringe’s dates sort-of branded to look like the same thing.

There’s a lot of other stuff I need to verify first, but it is looking like The Warren is going to come out of this a lot worse than it went in.

Saturday 21st May, 6.00 p.m.:

A look at Junkyard Dogs

This is my busy day with my most packed schedule. Up to now I’ve kept up with reviews quite quickly – after today there’s likely to be a backlog. I will catch up as soon as I can (if nothing else, I don’t want to be back next Friday with reviews from the weekend still to do). As per previous practice, reviews seen on press tickets generally get priority over those weren’t. I will also take into account whether I can get a review out whilst the play is still running.

Now, whilst I have a gap, it’s time to look at another new venue. Now, those of you with long memories might remember that in 2019 I took a lot of interest in Junkyard Dogs, twice winners of best venue, now upscaling to a three=space venue. Suddenly it all went quiet. Junkyard Dogs’ year-round venue closed, and there was only a small presence at a pub for 2020. Then along came The Event and this became a small detail in the grand scheme of things.

But last night, I went back to Junkyard Dogs at its new home in the Round Georges. I’d assumed that, like all of these other downsizing moves happening, the closure of Junkyard Dogs’ permanent event was down to rule one of fringe theatres: Landlords Are Cocks (TM). But apparently not – this was actually the decision of the Junkyard Dogs teams themselves. Whilst they were running a venue successfully, it was too much hard work to keep running as a business seven days a week. Whilst running within a pub in Hannover means you work on the lucrative weekends and take off the start of the new week.

Their 2022 programme is basically the 2020 programme rolled over two years. Had the 2020 fringe happened as intended, Junkyard Dogs would probably have been relegated to a footnote. However, with a heavily reconfigured 2022 fringe and Sweet Venues now heavily courting a local audience in Hove, Junkyard Dogs at the Round Georges isn’t that unusual courting an audience the other end of the city. A lot will depend on whether this reconfiguration sticks. Once again, all bets are off.

Saturday 21st May, 11.00 a.m – 0.0031% Plastic and chicken bones:

A play with echoes of Brave New World

This is going to be a tough one to review, simply because it’s going to be hard to say anything about it without giving away some sort of spoiler. If you want a spoiler-free version, I believe there were already two five-star reviews out when I saw this on Thursday, and I can tell you those ratings were given for a good reason. If you are already planning to see this I advise you to stop reading this, because the greatest thing about Malcolm Galea’s writing is the way the information about a dystopian future is revealed.

“Dryskoll” wakes up in an unfamiliar surrounding in an unfamiliar body. It soon becomes clear that body-hopping is something that Dryskoll does all the time – in fact, in the future under the direction of the benevolent omnipresent AI system “Zimmy” everybody does this. Humans don’t really have their own bodies any more – rather they all an “ideologue”: a mind that can be transferred from body to body. The first use was evading death – since then, it has now been used for travel and even a fashion statement. However, Dryskoll is one of a few permitted to go a step further than most of Earth’s three billion subjects, and is sent through time. Only there’s a 0.031% chance of a glitch and ended up in the wrong time, place and person, and Dryskoll has been unlucky.

One early sign of things to come is Dryskoll commenting it’s a bit cold, to which Zimmy calmly responds that in 2022 this temperature was normal. The current quest of humanity is to undo the damage of the war that would have destroyed humanity but for Zimmy’s intervention, and when repairing damage is too difficult, to go back in time and try to stop it happening in the first place, such as nuclear disasters. However, if you’re really really perceptive, you might spot there’s a bit of this plan that doesn’t quite add up. Is Zimmy really such a benevolent dictator as she claims to be? And if you don’t spot the catch (and you’ll need to be a genius to spot this early), someone’s going to point this out, which throw everything into question. Some excellent parallels to Brave New World here, but with the catches harder to spot.

That’s as far as I can go without giving too much away. What I can say with spoiling any more is that it’s a very clever concept which is brilliantly revealed to the audience one bit at a time. If there’s one small thing I would suggest for improvement, it would be a clearer relationship between narrator and audience. I like solo plays to be more specific than one actor telling a story in first person. Who are the audience? Why is the actor talking to them? Normally I don’t discuss this as it’s just my own personal preference, but on this occasion there’s a very good reason to establish to audience as people from the present who’ve stumbled across this strangest of stranger. I can’t say why, but the reason will become clear at the end.

There are two performances left of this at Sweet at the Poet’s, tonight and tomorrow at 6.00 p.m. I know it’s a trek, but trust me, it’s worth it for this one.

Friday 20th May, 11.00 p.m.:

Why did Brighton Fringe revert to May

One last things before I close tonight. Although we’ve been kept distracted by that change to Brighton Fringe, one other change that we thought might happen was keeping the June Brighton Fringe of 2021 permanent. There was quite a bit of support for this, but in the end it reverted to May. What happened there.

Well, I have made some enquiries. I was not mistaken about support for a June fringe, but what I hadn’t clocked was that the support was predominantly coming from performers. Venues, on the other hand, were more supportive of reverting to May, mostly for logistical reasons. The other factor was how much opposition there was to the two options. Most of the people who expressed a preference for June were apparently happy to stick with May should the decision go that way. However, there were more people who expressed support for May who said they wouldn’t do June.

The possibility of doing June in the future hasn’t been ruled out, but as long as the fringe season feeds into Edinburgh a move to June would squeeze from fringe season into three months instead of four. So whilst the option might be open for future years. I don’t think they’ll move from May – at least, not without another major intervening event.

Friday 20th May, 6.00 p.m. – Vermin:

Review of Vermin

Before you can see this play, you first of all have to find it. This is my first visit to a Brighton Laughing Horse venue, and boy, it was hard work finding this one. The Walrus is an absolutely massive pub, with two different spaces, and no indication anywhere of where to find these rooms, or which space was which. This surprised me a little, because I’ve found Laughing Horse to be the best-organised of the Free Fringe venues in Edinburgh. Although, to be fair, the very nature of their operation means they run on a skeleton staff and I guess it depends a lot on how enthusiastic the host venue is. At the moment, I am in Caroline of Brunswick, which is clearly a comedy venue in its own right. But anyway, I found it eventually.

As expected, Laughing Horse is a similar deal to Edinburgh: expect no special lighting or sound, just make use of what the room already has. As it turns out, Tryptich Theatre’s play is ideally suited to this. The entire story is Rachel and Billy telling their story. The are the world’s most in-love love-dovey couple, and the excitedly tell as about the fateful moment they met on a delayed train. Although there’s already something a bit off about this. Most people react with either sympathy of “for fuck’s sake” when there’s a jumper on the line – Rachel and Billy, on the other had, and mawkishly gawping over whether he lives or dies.

There is a content warning I really need to give about this play: there’s A LOT of graphic references to animal cruelty in this. (This is why I think the current category tickbox system used by Brighton Fringe doesn’t work – the content warnings supplied gave up no idea what was coming. More thoughts here.) Billy’s ghoulish obsession with death didn’t come out of nowhere – he was a pathological animal-killer as a child, starting with bugs and creepy crawlies, but being forced to end when it became clear what he was killing and how he was doing it. He quips at one point about “everybody” getting the urge to push someone on to the tracks at a crowded tube station once in a while – it increasingly looks like the only thing that stops him are the consequences.

Benny Ainsworth and Sally Parfett are a great double-act of this messed up couple. When a rat infestation blights their new home, it becomes clear that Billy doesn’t see this as pest control – he enjoys the killing way too much. For a long time, Rachel has been egging him on – even the worst of the animal cruelty stories is a hoot to her. But when she comes face to to face with the rats, she unexpectedly becomes a sort-of rat-whisperer. That is a rather strange change of heart, but there is a reason for this. And once the reason is clear, we know this is not going to end well. And there’s only one context I could see the two of them telling this story together now.

Again, be aware you need a strong stomach for this one. In a way, this does the opposite of Lizzie Boone. The last play was someone who was a victim of circumstance and did stupid things because the hand life dealt her. Rachel and Billy, however, have so much going for them, and yet there is a twisted inevitability about how these two are doomed to be the architects of their own misfortune. Recommended if you have the stomach for this. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Friday 20th May, 3.30 p.m.:

A look at Sweet at the Poets

Now to take a look at another new venues, and it’s the most significant change. In 2022, it’s goodbye Sweet Werks, hello Sweet at the Poet’s. I was caught up the the events that led to the move from Werks Central. I won’t comment on that as what I know is off the record, but for my wider thoughts on unplanned moves of small venues (features some less diplomatic language from me), you can read an article from a couple of months back on The Laurels.

As I previously said, I miss The Dukebox. Back when the pub was called the Iron Duke, it was a great little year-round venue where a theatre doubled up as a community of performers. Sweet did a good job of trying to do something similar with the Cafe in a building of creative offices, but it wasn’t really the same. Anyway, the move was taken as an opportunity to reset and make new plans. Having seen the Poets Ale and Smokehouse myself, it looks like it does this job well. There’s a couple of bonuses: the upstairs room they’re using as the venue has bigger stage space and capacity than the Dukebox, and with downstairs spilt into two bars, you have a handy separate spaces for theatre goers are regular pub goers. There is one major issue to be aware of, though: it’s in Hove. Not the Dukebox Hove which was just west of the peace statue, but a good distance away.

wp-1653060262528I won’t tell a lie. If I’d made this decision with all of the other venues expected to stay as they were in 2019, I’d have been nervous about this gamble. In 2019, the major venues were getting increasingly centralised, and a lot more like Edinburgh where you can pop from one venue to another in 15 minutes. This venue? Not a chance. It’s taking me a good half hour to get too and from it, and indeed I had to abandon a plan so see a play there today and there simply wasn’t enough time to get the next play where I already had a ticket. As it happens, this is suddenly less of an issue. Through a combination on unplanned events, most of the major venues have scattered to the four winds and the Poets is no longer as much of an outlier as it might have been.

However, as far as Sweet are concerns, they sees as many opportunities in this as there are challenges. Specifically, a move away from central Brighton is an opportunity to connect with a new community. One thing that is worth remembering (something that is frequently overlooked by people used to Edinburgh) is that most of the venues in Brighton are now year-round operations. Being a stone’s throw from other fringe venues is only an advantage one month every year; build up a link with a local community and it’s an advantage for the other eleven.

So far, Sweet is quite quite optimistic with how things are going. They do indeed seem to have attracted some Hovians as regulars, and sales so far at the fringe seem comparable to venues elsewhere: stronger sales weekends than weekdays; overall ticket sales fine but having to work harder to get the numbers. What does it mean for the fringe overall? To be honest, I’ve no idea. Thanks to the sudden dispersal of venues over Brighton, all bets are off. Come back in a year’s time before I attempt to answer that one.

Friday 20th May, 12.30 p.m. – The Formidable Lizzie Boone:

Review of The Formidable Lizzie Boone

As I mentioned last night, the standard of the plays I saw yesterday was exceptional. So expect high praise for the ones coming up. Any criticisms I make here can be considered the equivalent tips from how to get from four stars to five.

To start with, The Formidable Lizzie Boone. This is a bit of an unusual one in term of expectations. Depending on which publicity you read about the play, you can expect either a play about therapy or a play about burlesque. I was wondering how the two would combine. In fact, the play is very much about the former. Lizzie is coming to therapy because she thinks she may be a psychopath. This is her fourth therapist; we can only assume the other three failed to open up. A psychopath is not a fair description at all, but she has done a lot of things in her life that she’s ashamed of. She is also ashamed of a lot of things she has no reason to be ashamed of. So messed up are things that she is now running and hiding from the few good things happening in her life for once.

Selina Helliwell’s story of a this screwed up life is very convincing. Lizzie is not a bad person. Neither is there a single defining moment that causes her life to fall apart. Rather, it is a slippery slope. Small acts of thoughtlessness and petty cruelty from childhood snowball into bigger ones. Playground politics equates having red hair to being a slag. Unfortunately, Lizzie lives down to expectations in the naive belief she’ll fit in, and that only makes things worse. A lot worse. However, just as the catalogue of mistreatment is believable, Lizzie’s reaction to the world is always understandable. She has lost close friends when they found about about some of the worst things she’s done in her life – but in the context of what led her to do that, it’s more understandable.

Strangely enough, the thing which I could have offered more was the burlesque. Not more burlesque, but more impact in the story. The main function of this in the story is how her most worst partner of all reacts to it. There’s no surprises she ends up in such a toxic relationship – her life experiences to date have led her to believe this is normal behaviour – and the reaction of her partner to doing a burlesque strip show is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. But rather than just a plot point in the story of Lizzie’s latest bad relationship, this could easily have been a whole plot thread in its own right. Until now, Lizzie’s sex life has been almost entirely ne’er-do-wells using her as a sex object – here Lizzie gets to be the one in control. I realise we’re in a one-hour time limit here, and there’s no straightforward way of doing this, but there’s a lot you could do with what in effect is Lizzie’s therapy to regain some sort of self-esteem.

But remember, we are discussing how to get from four stars to five here. It’s ultimately part of a story of a woman pushed to the brink and finding herself again on her own terms, and as a whole it does an excellent job of this. Ultimately it’s a story about how good people can end up doing bad things and let bad things be done to them – and how to move on from this. There are two more performances of this at the Rotunda, one at 6.15 today and then a final one at 3.15 tomorrow. There a plenty of burlesque shows at Brighton Fringe, but see this for its story of finding yourself.

Friday 20th May, 10.30 a.m.:

My verdict of the Daily Diary

Now that I’ve had a better chance to use a Daily Diary, I can give a better verdict. I’m hearing mixed reactions to this change of format, but I wanted to see this for myself.

The first thing to say is that this is a big improvement on what was on offer the year before. It’s okay to use the website to find out details of shows, but in terms of planning an actual itinerary is was a massive faff. It really does help to see all the shows listed in order of time for the day you’re trying to plan for. Once you get used to this, you can check the venue and go to the map at the back. Essentially, this Daily Diary keeps the bits of the Brighton Programme that is used the most, and that does make sense.

From an accessibility point of view, one change is that by having Daily Diary and nothing else, it is possible to print the text at a reasonable font size, rather than the tiny typeface in the old programme needed to keep the size to something sane. However, this is offset by some pretty poor decisions on colour contrast. Teal text against a light grey background is easy enough to read in a well-lit room, but with low-light the in thing in most venues it’s a pain. One other small but irritating absence is the lack of any online version of the Daily Diary. For those of us unable to pop in person to pick up a paper copy, the online verson on issuu was a really handy resource. Please put that back.

What I think is most over-rated, however, is the integration with the website. Quite a bit thing was made of scanning QR codes to get the details on your phone. However, there is only one QR code per day, which takes to to basically with the website listing with the filter for that day selected. As we learned from last year, this is not easy to use. The daftest bit: it still lists online events running the whole fringe. Apologies for pointing out the obvious, but if you were looking for online you wouldn’t be using the Daily Diary in the first place. In addition, the page mixes up all categories in a random order and doesn’t show the times. I have to say, whether I’m looking for details of a specific show or the online version of a certain day, I find it much less of a faff to just load up the website and search manually.

Here’s my suggestions for how to improve this:

  • Please don’t use low-contrast foreground on background. It creates a lot of problems for no benefit.
  • Use the spare space in the listings for the grid code on the map. At the moment you have to look up the venue on the venue list and only then look up the map.
  • Improve design for the website used in conjunction with QR codes. You can easily start by removing the online entries, and sorting events by category and time to match the order on paper.
  • Further improvements could be one QR code per day/category combo (rather than just one per day), and showing times on the listings rather than clicking through to each entry.

It’s a start. If you use the experience of this year wisely you could come up with something a lot more useful. But at the moment, consider this very much a work in progress.

Thursday 19th May, 11.15 p.m.:

Anger festering over The Warren but an excellent standard of plays

Excuse the late update, but this evening I saw three plays back to back, with lengthy walks between the three venues. Just a quick update that this is quickly turning into a tale of two fringes.

Firstly: I’ve been keeping this to myself for the last 24 hours pending further information, but I’m now in a position to say that I’ve been hearing a lot of anger over The Warren. At this stage, I’m going to refrain from repeating details of what I’ve been hearing until and if I can get these claims verified, but what I can say is that if the worst of the complaints are true, it’s a lot more serious than the February statement from Brighton Fringe makes it out to be. I still want The Warren to sort things out and settle with the numerous artists with grievances – however, I will at this stage say that we must start contemplating the possibility that The Warren will not be around next year either. Things could get a lot worse before it gets better.

However, the good news is that based on the shows I’ve seen of Brighton Fringe so far, the standard has been exceptional. I have three reviews of excellent performances coming up for you, as soon as I have the time. What’s more, I’m seeing a lot of excellent reviews coming out elsewhere as well. One might think these are reviewers being kind after a difficult couple of years, but that was certainly not the case last year when I saw a liberal number of two stars floating about. No scientific analysis yet, but it may well be that the difficult circumstances surrounding Brighton Fringe are being offset but the high standard being viewed on stage.

Thursday 19th May, 5.30 p.m – The Unforgettable Anna May Wong:

Review of Anna May Wong

Whilst I’m waiting for Fringe to get going today, let’s get the other pending review out of the way. This is The Unforgettable Anna May Wong, one of Michelle Yim’s plays about historical women of East Asian ethnicity. I will declare straight up this is advertised as a work in progress. Not because the performance needs to be polished – indeed I saw now problems there, with Michelle Yim treating us to show tunes with a hitherto unknown musical performance. Rather, she is learning new things about the life of the real Anna May Wong and constantly working this into the story.

The ongoing question of monologues: who is the performer addressing? I have seen solo biopics that have unironically ending with “and then I died”. This one doesn’t beat about the bush and Anna May Wong welcomes herself to the Brighton Fringe audience as says she’s dead. She then briefly goes over the last relatively uneventful two decades of her life before going back to how she got into her heyday is a Hollywood star. Inevitably, being an east Aisan woman in early 20th century Hollywood cannot be ignored. It was possible to have a successful career, but there were quite specific idea of what actors of certain races should play. Anna May Wong had a successful career as a sex symbol (much to the disapproval of her more conservative Chinese descent peers – there is whole separate strand of film industry politics in play there), but it was a struggle to be anything different. One thing I’ve been learning about race relations in 20th century America is that is as well as the big things (such as segregations and the so-called “literary tests”), there was other things that were just fucking petty. In this case, it was the bizarre rule than you weren’t allowed to have a white man kissing an Asian woman in a film – something she made it her mission to defy.

One view I’m arriving at for biopics, however, is that it’s better to allow imagination to fill in the gaps that shy away when in doubt. It’s relatively easy to piece together what people did in their lives, but much harder to know for certain how they felt. To repeat what I’ve said before: this is a play, not a documentary. We may never know what made Anna May Wong tick, but I can see a lot of potential with her quest to win acceptance of her family. The strongest thread I see is her quest she give her sister the same success she has on the silver screen, only for it to backfire. But we only heard about this late in the play, when this narrative could have built up through the hour.

I am aware that earlier today I railed against plays that talk over historical figures to attribute opinions they may or may not have held – I liked Room specifically because there’s no doubt that’s what Virginia Woolf believed. This play quite rightly give Anna May Wong the same treatment here. However, I think you can take more artistic license on someone’s hopes and aspriations. I look forward to seeing what else there is to learn about this fascinating life – but don’t be afraid to let fiction step in whre we don’t have the facts.

Thursday 19th May, 1.00 p.m.:

A look at the Rotunda

Time now for a first report on venues. The biggest change to venues is of course the disappearance of The Warren. (More on this another time, but brace yourselves.) The other notable changes is Sweet relocating its primary venue to The Poet’s in Hove, the rise of Laughing Horse and the arrival of The Rotunda. Only the Rialto and Spiegeltent have stayed as they are. Anyway, the first venue I’ve checked out is The Rotunda. It turns out I was fed duff information earlier. “Bubble” and “Squeak” are not the existing tent split into two spaces, but two rotundas. If you’re not sure which one is which, remember that squeak is the noise a mouse makes, and mice are small, and this is the smaller space.

Why two domes instead of one? It turns out they’ve been very popular for a new venue. That’s unusual – I don’t remember many pop-up spaces being oversubscribed in Englandtheir first year – but The Rotunda already has already built a reputation outside of Brighton. Buxton, of course, a few other festivals around the country, and whilst their use as a space at Edinburgh Fringe wasn’t really their programme, that must have counted in their favour. The result was that one space was hopelessly over-subscribed, so they took on a second smaller dome specifically for Brighton to keep up with demand. That, incidentally, was all before The Warren’s woes, and they were pretty much full before Warren refugees started looking for new homes.

The result of this is that, unlike Buxton which was the tent and not much else, in Brighton it’s looking more like a full venue in its own right, with the outside hoardings advertising all the events like we’re used to with Warren and Spiegeltent. However, Ross and Michelle are not trying to imitate these venues – many people criticised these two venues for being drinking spots first and arts venues second, and they don’t want to go the same way. There is currently no bar at the Rotunda, and as I understand it that’s a possibility for the future, but a low priority. There’s various complications with licensing, keeping the neighbours happy in this residential area, and staying on good terms with the nearby pub. I do hope they can find the right balance though – as I said earlier, the best venues are ones that are communities as well as performance spots.

The down-side? Apparently the wind’s been a bigger problem that everyone expected. When the Rotunda set up in Buxton, everyone made jokes about the tent blowing away. That turned out to never be a problem. But, for some reason, Regency Square is acting as a bit of a wind tunnel. It’s all be fine now, but it was hard work securing all of this.

Anyway, so far, so good. And depending on how events go elsewhere, The Rotunda has arrived when Brighton needs it most.

Thursday 19th May, 10.30 a.m. – Room:

Review of Room

Enough commentary, let’s get started with the reviews. It’s Room, which is going to be an unusual one to review. Heather Alexander has adapted A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. What she didn’t mention is that this text is not – as is the case with every other adaptation since time memorial – a novel, or a short story, or any kind of story at all, save for a recollection of a visit to an unspecified Oxbridge college. This is an essay. In the same same that George Orwell’s essays are so highly regarded they form part of his literary canon, A Room of One’s Own does too.

There is a good reason for this. A Room of One’s Own was pretty on point for its day. Originally delivered as a lecture delivered twice to the only two women’s colleges that existed at Cambridge University, it began with an observation that women’s colleges in Oxbridge, step in the right direction though they may be, were still a second-rate service compared to the men’s world. The focus, however, is the position of women in literature, as characters in story but more notably as the authors, or rather lack of them. She was one of the first to observe the era from Austen to the Brontës, women normally wrote anonymously. It wasn’t so much that society disapproved (indeed the only bit of her identity that Austen disclosed on her first book was that she was a lady novelist), but the expected repercussions, real or perceived, from those who’d have no wife/daughter/sister of theirs taking up writing.

However, this is a review. We are not here to discuss the arguments of Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction essay, we are here to discuss the theatrical performance of it. To be honest, we’re at a bit of a blank page here. I guess the first question is to ask what a stage adaptation offers that the text doesn’t. Why not just read the essay? The obvious thing: perform it as Virginia Woolf, with the passion and conviction the real Virginia Woolf would have had – that is without a doubt Heather Alexander’s strong point the give this play its mark. The play is mostly delivered as Woolf giving the lecture, but it’s not an exact reproduction, but, it’s face it, standing still at a lectern for an hour would get a bit boring. Instead, the performance is done more as solo play, with the same liberties taken on moving through time and location as we’re used to in standard solo plays, which works here.

It is normal to rate plays against others of the same genre and format. Here, it’s closer to say Heather Alexander has invented a new genre and format. It’s probably fair to say that you’re best off going into this play understanding what this is an adaptation of, but I managed to work out what was going on so I wouldn’t worry about that too much.

What I will say is this: there’s a trend amongst some in theatre that annoys me. For all the talk about giving a voice to writers, usually women, some try to use this to attribute their own views to a respected historical figure who’d probably never heard of these issues. I remember one adaption attempting to give Mary Shelley a voice on what she’d have thought about Brexit and Trump. To be honest, the end result was incomprehensible, but even if there had been a clear message – so what? That’s not Mary Shelley’s voice, that a writer and director talking over a woman who can’t answer back. This is the right way to do this, and I recommend this play as something different which respects the voice of an influential figure the right way.

Wednesday 18th May, 10.30 p.m.:

Weekdays versus mid-week

So that’s the end of Day 1. Been chatting to people at two venues and there’s quite a lot of food for thought. For now, I’ll stick with a simple one on business.

It does look like there’s a sharp contrast in business between the beginning of the week and the end of the week. Monday-Wednesday has so far been quiet, but Friday-Sunday has been quite good. (Thursday also seems to pick up business, but we only have one Thursday to go on so far.) In fact, at least one venue is disputing the description from Paul Levy of FringeReview of a quiet opening weekend. That does seem to be different to pre-2020. Weekends have always been busier than weekdays, but there does seem to be a more marked difference than before.

Still getting to grips with how Fringe 2022 difference from Fringe 2019. Seems the dust has not settled just yet.

And that’s all for today. Join me tomorrow when I get on to business and write my first review.

Wednesday 18th May, 5.30 p.m.:

My first look at the daily diary

20220518_152234I’m here. My first press ticket is in 45 minutes so this will have to be quick, but I’ve pick up my Daily Diary. I’m currently playing around with QR codes and I will report back to you on that later.

However, there is something I’ve noticed from the Daily Diary that wasn’t clear from the website. There was a time when Brighton Fringe was a weekend-centric festival. Everything happened after 6 on a weekday and all day weekends because, we presume, a lot of the potential audience are locals who work during the day. In the 2010s as the fringe noticeable expanded, the start times started drifting earlier, and afternoon slots were perfectly feasible.

Suddenly, we’re back to 6 p.m. starts on weekdays. And it’s not clear why. It’s difficult to do a venue-by-venue comparison from 2019 because most of the venues are very different from 2019 in one way or another. The one thing I’d rule out as a cause is The Warren pulling out at the last moment, because almost all of the programming would have been done before the other venues knew this was going to happen. Other than that, I’m puzzled. I will try to see how individual venues have handled timings, but there’s no way I’m going to try speculating.

Wednesday 18th May, 2.30 p.m.:

Daily Diary: the story so far

One thing I intend to check out sooner rather than later is this Brighton Fringe “Daily Diary”.

Last year, none of the main fringes did conventional programmes. Brighton and Edinburgh were out of the question, giving how last-minute the programme was. Buxton Fringe, I believe, was uhmming and ahhing about this but eventually decided there was took much risk of late changes to make it worthwhile. Anyway, having worked out the hard way how to run a fringe without a programme, the question arose of whether this should be made permanent. After all, paper programmes came into being before you could look up shows online. And – especially in the case of Edinburgh – the printing costs of the programme were swiftly become the most expensive bit of the fringe.

The argument against? Relying on the website alone turned out to be a bigger faff than anyone expected. Information which we’d got used to scanning down the page in a paper programme required a hell of a lot of clicks to locate the same information online. From the perspective of my day job, Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes should have done some usability testing. A mistake made by countless organisations is to design a website assuming – on paper – that people will use it exactly the way they expected. That mistake is forgivable – what is less forgivable is the web designers angrily doubling down on the design when it becomes when it’s not living up to reality. But that’s a moot point now. No-one is sticking to web-only in 2022. The surprise is which one of the three didn’t stick to the status quo.

There was never any doubt that Buxton would revert to a paper programme – it’s not a big or costly programme, and apparently a lot of regulars are adamant that’s their preferred medium. Edinburgh, however, has reverted to the paper programme too, even though theirs costs way more. This might have something to do with wanting the full works for their 75th anniversary – I suspect they also want the message that the fringe is back to business after a cancelled 2020 and a severely depleted 2021. Whether they’ll still want to stick with in in 2023 remains to be seen.

It is Brighton, not Edinburgh, who has broken ranks. They has a “Daily Diary” which lists when shows are performing by time. It’s fair to say this is the most used part of the paper programme – it’s no big deal to look up details of a show online, but if you want a quick decision on what to see today, there’s no substitute for a list of what’s on today sorted by time. (In fact, this applies even more to Edinburgh, which is why I think scrapped their daily guide in the late 2000s was a mistake.) Apparently there’s a QR code next to each entry to allow you to look things up online.

That’s the theory, anyway. Will this work in practice? I hope to have an answer in the next few days.

Wednesday 18th May, 11.45 a.m.:

A rule change for who I review

And a warm hello from somewhere on the Selby Diversion line between York and Doncaster. I am running to schedule and expect to be around some time 4 p.m. I could have arrived earlier, but contrary to what Andy Burnham seems to think, most of us don’t wilfully travel at the most expensive time of the day so we can screech about how expensive it was.

Now, before we get stuck in I have a housekeeping announcement about reviews. For the last few years, I’ve had a rule in place for Edinburgh that I generally don’t consider for review: stand-up comedy, dance and – more recently added to the list – classic theatre (which roughly means anything earlier than Wilde/Shaw). It’s not that I dislike these – on the contrary, I’ve loved some of these event – but more that I don’t go to enough of these things and/or understand them well enough to do a proper job of reviewing. Outside of Edinburgh, I’ve been more relaxed with the rules, but at the Edinburgh Fringe, where my schedule is jam-packed, every show I see for review means another show not seen and not getting a review. I wish I could review everything I was asked to but I can’t, so I use the time I have to review the things where I think I can deliver the most benefit.

Well, the time has finally come for Brighton. Until last year, only a minority of plays were seen on press tickets, and I was comfortably able to accommodate pretty much everything, just so long as it was running on the right days. This time, however, I have had loads of requests and had to be a lot more organised. I’m not sure exactly what it is since 2019 that changed things, but I suspect it has something to do with me being one of the few people who carried on reviewing in what was left of the 2020 fringe. Once again, I am hugely grateful to everyone who has shown interest, because it motivates me a lot to know what I have to say is valued. It’s just a shame I have to respond to this by saying “no” more often.

Okay, we are past Doncaster. Will drop in again when I’m approaching Brighton.

Tuesday 17th May:

The future of Arts Council England and content warnings

Almost time. This time tomorrow I will be joining you.

Before then, there have been some jitters over yesterday’s announcement by the government to review “arm’s length” bodies, specifically Arts Council England. This has led to a panic that the government’s about to pull funding on the arts. I don’t think that’s likely – if the government wanted to kill off the arts, it had more than enough chances in the last two years. All they had to do was sit on their hands as finances went down the pan.

No, what they are considering doing is even worse. The review consider whether the functions of the body are appropriately taken by the body under review. And we know from experience that this particular government doesn’t independent public bodies making decisions that don’t go its way. I could easily see them replacing Arts Council England with another body that’s the same except that it’s run by yes-men, who then allocate the lion’s share of the funding to more yes-men. And, unfortunately, I fear that the theatre world has already handed to them several excuses they’re looking for. I am racking my brains for the best why to respond to this – I was say more when I have some ideas.

Now that you’re all feeling depressed, let’s change the subject. In 2019 Brighton Fringe introduced content warnings on its web listing. There were impossible to not view if you wanted to know when a play was on, and sometimes the content warning gave away what they play was about. This time, they have move more to Edinburgh’s system of less specific content warnings in categories (so it might have “triggering content” without saying exactly that content is). I have separate reservations with this.

I have my own dilemma. I have an online play coming with with an absolutely massive content warning attached to it, but it would not be possible to tell you what it is without giving away the whole plot in advance. Well, I think I’ve got the answer on how we should handle content warnings, and the source of my inspiration is an unlikely one: a website called “Does the Dog Die?” Yes, I’m serious. Curious as to what I’m on about. Come to this blog post.

Monday 16th May:

What’s coming up in week 2

Welcome to week 2. In two day’s time, I will be joining you. Until then, once more, let’s see what’s coming up.

Out of all the plays I’ve seen before, the headliner has to be Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show. This went down very well in the last two years and is back for another encore. Heather-Rose Andrew is the perfect female Jekyll/Hyde and indeed the play was written specifically for her. It might not be quite what you think though. A lot of these gender-swap stories try to stand out by focusing on what makes a female character different; here, it stands out by how much is the same, including the bits of the original that you wouldn’t expect to be workable the other way round. You need to concentrate on this, but it’s worth it alone for the transformation. Starts today and runs until Sunday.7.30 p.m. at Sweet at the Poet’s.

Whilst we’re on the subject of Sweet at the Poet’s, in case you haven’t already noted so, be aware this is in Hove. Not the definition of Hove we’ve got used to for Brighton Fringe which meant slightly west of the Brighton Town Centre (west of the angel peace statue, to be precise) – this is Hove Hove, near the station of that name. There’s an interesting wider pattern of decentralisation of the fringe that I will explore another time, but for now, do not make the mistake of assuming you can be easily pop from central Brighton in the venue in 10 minutes.

Later in the week, we’ve got a couple of notable plays at the Rotunda. Michelle Yim’s other play, The Unforgettable Anna May Wong starts on Wednesday. I previously saw The Empress and Me and the notable thing about these biopic plays is that you can’t try predicting them in advance. Real life is complicated, and a life story always has something in it that’s counter-intuitive. The Wednesday performance is at 7.45 p.m., and there’s two more on Saturday and Sunday at 6.15 p.m. Meanwhile, The Formidable Lizzie Boone from Selena Helliwell runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7.45, 6.15 and 3.15 respectively. It’s a play about with burlesque in but apparently not a burlesque show as such. In intrigued, but everyone was raving about this at Greater Manchester Fringe which looks promising.

And finally, on Thursday and Friday, you can see Alasdair Beckett-King’s work-in-progress comedy Nevermore. Probably easiest to just link you to the video to see his humour (usually parody, pedanticism, or a delightful hybrid of both) so enjoy watching ever Scandi-noir thriller ever, as crimes are solved by detective Bjårn Hjuredessönssönssönssönssön, or something like that.

Right, 1.45. See you in 50 hours.

Sunday 15th May:

Accommodation problems at Edinburgh

I will at some point be looking ahead to fringes other than the big two. I don’t have much unexpected to say about Buxton Fringe, but I may shortly have something interesting to say about Durham Fringe. On this occasion, there is something I know that I’m not telling you yet, but I should be able to reveal soon.

However, before I get into the thick of Brighton, I’m going to take a second look at a headache facing Edinburgh. There has already been a row over workers’ rights and alleged exploitation of volunteers; I’ve already given my thoughts on the latest situation back in April (short answer: there is no short answer – there’s a lot of complicated issues to unpick). However, there’s possibly a bigger problem emerging, and that is accommodation. I’ve long said that the cost of festivals is heavily influenced by supply and demand, and it doesn’t pay to try to disregard this. Unfortunately, this is exactly what a lot of landlords are doing and I think this is going to end in tears.

One problem with Edinburgh Fringe is there simply isn’t enough city to accommodate all the acts who want to take part. The Festival Fringe Society has pledged to find more affordable accommodation, but in the meantime some landlords have taking it on themselves to acquire properties for the sole purpose of letting out over August, with anyone else who wants to live there having to make do with an 11-month let. Needless to say, that does not go down well with locals. However, business of course crashed through the floor in 2020 and 2021. We are now hearing reports of such landlords chasing their losses and ramping up fees in 2022. And, so far, many acts have responded by saying “fuck this” and not taking part.

For what it’s worth, the worst thing that the Festival Fringe Society could do would be to appease this. I hope the advice given to acts is to either find reasonably-priced accommodation (which at least some of the venues are trying to do), or just not take part. The best defence I can offer for these landlords? A lot of people who buy property have this as their only reliable source of income and may well be facing hardship after two years of no business through no fault of their own. I almost sympathise, but there’s no getting round the fact that the people they’re trying to get money from are also facing hardship after two years of no business through no fault of their own. The last thing we want is Edinburgh accommodation operating as a cartel where they name their price and everyone else has no option but to cough up.

I am sceptical the Festival Fringe Society can deliver the affordable accommodation it wants to, but they might. If they don’t, this might be the thing that causes the endless growth bubble to finally burst. I can easily see this being the thing that finally prompts artist and the arts industry and the arts press to realise that Edinburgh Fringe is not the be all and end all and you don’t have to let landlords name their price. This could get really ugly. I could easily see landlords digging their heels in, and let properties go empty rather than give in to groups offering less than the asking price. It might cause Edinburgh Fringe’s size to crash for a few years. There might even be a property market crash in Edinburgh for a few years. If I was on Edinburgh City Council I would be worried about this.

If we absolutely must have a landlord bailout to avoid something this drastic, it had better come with a lot of conditions on rent controls in future years. But, to be honest, if it does come to the catastrophic scenario I’ve hypothesised, I won’t complain too much.The Edinburgh Fringe will adapt and survive. And if the landlords go bankrupt, I’m afraid that’s a price I’m prepared for them to pay.

Saturday 14th May:

The strange reappearance of The Warren

Small but strange observation: the Electric Arcade is running events after all – just not as part of Brighton Fringe. What is going on here?

The context: Electric Arcade is supposed to be The Warren’s year-round venue. Just like the Rialto runs year-round and Sweet runs at least one of its venues year-round (currently The Poets), this was supposed to be The Warren’s way of sticking around outside of a big pop-up venue in May. It was also going to serve as a couple of spaces at Brighton Fringe. So far, this hasn’t happened – in 2020 the Warren ran independently of Brighton Fringe with The Warren Outdoors, and in 2021 those two small spaces were probably a bad idea. 2022 might have been Electric Arcades debut but we know what happened there. Except it is running after all.

Now, it is only fair to remind everyone that Brighton Fringe is not the government of Brighton culture. The may be able to set rules of codes of conduct for venues, but they most certainly do not (and absolutely should not) have the power to ban venues from operating without their say-so. Even so, wasn’t The Warren supposed to be taking time out to get its finances in order? Also, the Electric Arcade’s programme is called “EA in May” which I don’t believe is a coincidence. On the other hand, a year-round venue doesn’t stop costing you money if you halt operations and you might need income. I’m also wondering if this was doing used as a refuge from homeless Warren acts who, let’s be fair, didn’t get much chance to find new homes when Brighton Fringe didn’t budge from their deadline.

I guess what I’m really interested in is what’s been going on. For the record, I do sometimes have inside information given to me in confidence on what the goss is with venues, but in the case of The Warren, I assure you I am just as much in the dark on this is you are. There is nothing I know that I’m not telling you. In particular, whose decision was it really to pull the plug on Warren 2022? Otherplace Productions or Brighton Fringe? The latter would set an important (and potentially very messy) precedent for the Edinburgh Fringe where the issue of worker rights is way more controversial. I’ll see what I can find out that’s a) verifiable, and b) doesn’t betray confidentiality. But, boy, we may not have heard the last of this.

Friday 13th May:

Weekend 2 and a look at online fringe

We’re approaching weekend 2, so it’s time for another look at what’s coming up. Nothing new from the theatre section this week, but we do have a couple of new comedy entries on my radar. Biscuit Barrel come to the Rialto theatre for their hyperactive sketch show. I hosted this troupe at Durham Fringe and it was one of the highlights in the closing phases of the festival. 9.45 tonight and tomorrow, and I’m hoping this will include the Mickey Mouse Smoothie. We also have the return of Privates who I last saw doing a war movie but with sperms. This is the more family-friendly Great Ideas by Geniuses at the Spiegeltent/ Saturday and Sunday at 4.00 in the Spiegeltent.

We also have the return of 80s pop diva Yasmine Day’s stunning comeback / embarrassing failure (delete as applicable) with Songs in the Key of Me (9.00 p.m. Junkyard Dogs tonight) and a final performance from Crime Scene Improvisation (5.30p.m. Sunday, Laughing Horse @ The Walrus). Apologies for the content warning on CSI, by the way: “we cannot predict the input of live audience members.” I think that might have been me.

As well an Eleanor Conway’s ongoing Talk Dirty to Me, we also have Blue Devil’s The Tragedy of Dorian Gray online. If you didn’t catch it last year I recommend catching up on this, as it’s a clever retelling of the Oscar Wilde story, told in the way he way well liked to have told it but couldn’t. However, as whole, the online section of the programme is pretty small compared to last year. Online theatre at festival fringes has persisted a lot longer than many of us predicted, forming a substantial part of the programmes for Edinburgh and Brighton. However, I sensed the writing was on the wall at both these fringes when the overwhelming mood was that it was good to be back to the real thing. Neither did the sales figures help, especially at Edinburgh. Sales for the few in-person shows were excellent (albeit inflated persisted by an audience being shared amongst a small number of shows), but online was typically only attracting 30 or so views.

I’m not ruling out the complete disappearance of online shows though. Living Record, who formed a large part of Brighton Fringe’s online programme, might not be taking part this year but still had its own festival in January and February. There’s still a lot of things online theatre can potentially do that in-person can’t. We saw that – evening with the controversially high registration fees – online provided a much cheaper option than in-person for Brighton and Edinburgh. Small fringes such as Buxton are also cheap, but perhaps online is a different entry-level option. There also the back catalogue of old fringe shows – much as I loved some of them, no-one can tour the country indefinitely, whilst a recorded play has longevity. Finally, there’s the option for online theatre to do things in-person can’t. Pedantically you can argue that’s not really theatre. But it’s a performing art and there’s no reason why theatre makers should be confined to just theatre.

My forecast is that online theatre’s role in festival fringes will decline further. Most fringegoers have firmly made online their plan B. It will eventually be just the occasional production that the big venues use to complement in-person programmes with something different that can’t be done on live stages. (I suspect Summerhall will be keen on this.) However, I can see online having a future separately from the fringes with its own online communities. Exactly what this will look like is up in the air and it will take a lot of trial and error, but don’t close this chapter just yet.

Thursday 12th May:

A look towards Sweet @ the Poets and The Rotunda

We haven’t yet talked about the elephant in the room. That is, of course, the shitshow that led to the disappearance of The Warren. If you haven’t done so already, you can read it in the opening of my preview. I intend to check this further: primarily what happened to all the acts supposed to perform there, and also – if my spies are really on the ball – what went wrong in the first place.

But that can come later. Right now, I want to focus on some positives with new venues. One thing we don’t consider much is whether a venue is more than a performance space. The primary job of any venue is somewhere to perform and see performances, but do people stick around before and after performances? Is there a sense of community? The big socialising areas provided by Spiegeltent (and, until this year, The Warren) are a great way to show Brighton Fringe is here, but that’s not quite the same thing. You do have performers and punters mingling, but this is diluted by the multitude of people who come for drinking and partying.

6e8551_bda6acd84f8c4d5d91669fa374a98908mv2For this reason, I’m actually quite excited by Sweet Brighton’s new home. Sweet have actually got back to me about their move to the Poets, and whilst the circumstances for moving may have been out of their hands, they’re quite upbeat about the result. My own reason for feeling positive? I miss the Dukebox. That venue with the Iron Duke was a nice little hub that had exactly the kind of community built up I was talking about. Sweet did their best with Werks Central (and the coffee bar normally used for creative businesses was a very handy thing to have there), but it was never quite the same. I have yet to see what Sweet @ The Poets is like, but it looks set up ideally to work how the Dukebox did, both in its immediate role as a performance space and its wider place as part of a fringe community.

I’m also interested to see how the Rotunda takes to Brighton. I now have confirmation that “Bubble” and “Squeak” does indeed mean the Rotunda has been spilt into two spaces. The Rotunda never really tried being anything other than performance space at Buxton Fringe, but to be fair there wasn’t really much of a point to that – The Old Clubhouse was a stone’s throw away, already functioning as a hub for the entire fringe. However, Regency Square is a location the Rotunda has all to itself. I will be interested to see how they respond to think. Stick with what works or aim for something more?

Anyway, that’s the theory, how does this work in practice? I will be seeing this for myself next week.

Wednesday 11th May:

Latest news on Edinburgh’s size

It’s not just Brighton Fringe I am commentating on – I will also be looking ahead to the other fringes, plus anything else important that happens during this time. The big news, of course, is what’s going on with Edinburgh. Last year the prospects for Edinburgh Fringe looked alarming and bleak, thanks to a highly questionable decision by the Scottish Government to set absurdly prohibitive social distancing rules for theatres but not pubs. They backed down to a sane compromise very late in the day, by which time it was too late for many acts to make plans. However, against the odds (and, to be fair, with some financial support from the Scottish government), Edinburgh Fringe pulled together at the last moment and managed a token presence.

And so Edinburgh Fringe 2022 is on course to return to some sort of normality. Unlike Brighton Fringe, however, there’s little appetite to go completely back to how things were before. There’s an all-round consensus that 3,800 acts was too many – few people say a limit should be enforced, but nobody’s encouraging a repeat of 2019. However, for the time being this looks like a moot point. When the first batch of tickets went on sale in March, there were only 300 shows. Then it went up to 800 in April and last week went up to 2,000. There is one final batch coming up on June 7th, and whilst it is not impossible to get another 1,800, this seems unlikely, as all the major venues have done most of their programming and are now filling in gaps.

The current mood is that we’re heading for a 2022 fringe size comparable to the mid-2000s. If that is the case, one would think that would relieve considerable pressure on the city of Edinburgh. In the case of accommodation, it might not be so simple – I will come back to that another day as it’s an issue in its own right. From an audience point of view, however, it might feel similar to before. The Birghton Fringe of 2017-2019 was visibly a much larger event than a few years before when it was half the size. But even though my first Edinburgh Fringe in 2006 was only about half the size of the 2019 peak – that didn’t feel much different. I guess if it’s fringe fringe and more fringe as far as the eye can see, the overall size doesn’t make much difference as to the (perceived) experience.

However, there is one footnote to this that might be worth considering. In years gone by, it was normal for acts to run the entire festival, and deemed all but compulsory if you wanted to be noticed. Acts that ran for a shorter time were either beginners who were more interested in dipping their toe in Edinburgh than being noticed, and highly established acts who don’t need noticing any further. This time, however, I’d say only about half of the acts are running the full fringe. Please treat my observation with caution, because I have not done any proper analysis to confirm this is the case – indeed, the media notoriously formed this consensus in a previous fringe that turned out to be completely wrong. But if this is correct, this will matter. Do you really need to run the full length of the fringe? If we discover the two-week runs perform as well as the four-week runs (with half the accommodation expense), that will turn things on its head.

Tuesday 10th May:

Early news of ticket sales

And we have our first bit of news from Brighton. And it’s not great. This has come via Paul Levy of FringeReview, who in turn is basing this off anecdotal accounts from the venues, but if he is right, the opening weekend on Brighton Fringe has been, in his words, “quiet” as far as ticket sales are concerned. There are plenty of signs of activity in the venues, but the most visible parts are drinking, eating, and socialising. This is apparently not translating into selling tickets. We haven’t yet heard anything from Brighton Fringe itself, but there is a tendency of fringes in general to shout from the rooftops when sales are going well and keep quiet the rest of the time.

Does this matter? Few people go into a fringe expecting to make a profit. I advise anyone who’s new to Fringe to budget with a projected income of zero. It’s never that bad, but if gives you a worse-case baseline that your finances should be able to withstand. Of course, it’s nicer to perform to a big audience than a small one, but as I like to remind everyone, I got my first professional break off the back of a Brighton Fringe performance to an audience of three. However, a lot of more experienced acts know what sort of ticket income they can rely of on what’s worthwhile. Disappointing news of ticket sales one year raises questions over whether projects are worthwhile the next. Perhaps you can run a fringe entirely on beginners with zero expectations of sales, but without more experienced groups being part of the community it would be a different experience.

A little more concerning is what happens with venues. No-one’s under threat of going bust. Nevertheless, ticket sales one year is an indication on whether it’s worth upsizing or downsizing next year. Whilst there’s no rules against doing a fringe play in a community hall you hired yourself, the combined capacity of the managed venues does have a lot of influence of how big a fringe is (with many acts preferring to give up if there’s no slots at managed venues going, if Buxton’s experience is anything to go by). The counter-argument is that actually ticket sales don’t matter that much, because in the ancillary income such as bar sales which really count. That, however, carries its own concerns. There’s already worries that the big venues at Edinburgh and Brighton are becoming drinking establishments first and performing arts venues second. The last thing we want is programming based on who draws in the most drinkers.

As far as I can tell, we’re not at any sort of crisis point. Another time, I will have a think about why this has happened. I confident we will get to the end of this fringe with everyone having a good time (or a stress-induced panic-fest, which many of us consider the same thing). But it might have implications for next year’s fringe. But what implications? And will they be a good thing or a bad thing? At the moment, it’s anyone’s guess.

Monday 9th May:

Coming up in week one

It’s the start of week one, and with that time for our first look at what’s on mid-week.

Long-standing fringe stalwarts Pretty Villain have started their run of The God of Carnage. This is written by Yasmina Resa, best known for Art. This time, instead of an argument over a stupid painting we have a confrontation between parents over one child attacking another, but it looks like once again the showdown will say more about the people arguing over the issue than the issue itself. The first performance was yesterday afternoon, but there’s another three from Tuesday to Saturday at 8.00 p.m. at the Rialto Theatre.

Meanwhile, over at the Rotunda we have most of the performances of The Ballad of Mulan, promised to be an undisneyfied version of the Chinese legend. If you’re wondering why Ross Ericson and Michelle Yim have so many shows on this year, it’s because they’ve brought along their own venue. There will be a lot of other opportunities to see numerous plays of theirs at the Rotunda, but we can get started with this one, running Tuesday to Thursday at 7.45 p.m. I will be keeping a keen eye on the Rotunda because this could be a game-changer for the fringe circuit, but this can keep you busy for now.

There is one other fringe listing that’s notable. You don’t need to rush here, and the reason you don’t is the reason it’s notable. Eleanor Conway’s show Talk Dirty to Me is running the entire fringe. That’s unprecedented. It’s was normal for Edinburgh Fringe shows to run the entire festival, but the only show I’ve seen do this before is The Lady Boys of Bangkok. That, however, is practically a venue/festival in its own right. The conventional wisdom has always been that – whilst the ever-changing visiting audience at Edinburgh can sustain an audience for a month – Brighton’s audience is local and after a week everyone who is thinking of seeing it will have gone. Is Eleanor Conway about to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Whatever the outcome, she’s earned a plug. Eleanor Conway’s routine is heavily themed about sex positivity and why it’s okay to be over 40 and childless if that’s what you want. I really don’t understand why so many people have exact views on what other people should be doing with life decisions such as this one, but for some reason they are are obsessed with it. This runs at Laughing Horse at the Walrus, either 9.15 p.m. or 9.30 p.m. depending on the dates, and on some days she does a matinee too. Bold move, so good luck.

Incidentally, the conventional wisdom about running a full festival at Edinburgh has been thrown into question this year, but that is a topic for another day.

Sunday 8th May:

Looking ahead to ticket sales and housekeeping

One of the earliest things to look out for is how the ticket sales for the opening weekend went. This is especially important in years where the size of a festival fringe has radically grown or shrunk. We might know how the size of the fringe as changed, but how has the size of the audience changed? Does it sustain the new size.

No info on the bigger picture yet, but one interesting tidbit I picked up is that one show (Reach for the Lasers) sold out its opening night. Sell-outs aren’t that unusual if the name already has a big following or if word-of-mouth publicity boosts sales during the run – but it’s unusual to do this in advance of the run. Anyone who gets a sell-out is doing something right, but it’s an early sign that there’s plenty of audience to go round. If and when I have any more reliable figures, I will come back to this.

And now, one housekeeping notice. I have received A LOT of review requests for this fringe. I will do by best to accommodate these, but this is likely to come down largely to luck. I will be at Brighton in person on the 15th-19th May and again on the 27th-28th (plus, at a push, the earlier half of the 20th). In the meantime, I have sent acknowledgements to everyone who sent a review request prior to the start of the fringe. (Sorry I can’t reply personally to everyone, but this is the only way I can keep up.) If you have not received an acknowledgement, please get in touch now, because this probably means I never got your request.

And, yet again, I really appreciate this. I have never actively pursued press requests, but back home it can sometimes feel like the in crowd considers you to not be a “proper” reviewer. And yes, I know I haven’t exactly made many friends by saying what I think instead of saying everything’s awesome, but it can get dispiriting sometimes. It’s these gestures that make me feel valued. So please don’t feel you’re wasting my time – I just wish I could do more in return.

Saturday 7th May:

My recommendations for Brighton Fringe 2022

As for the rest of the fringe, I have my light of highlights completed. You can come over to What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2022 to see what I rate, or look at the quick list here. (No particular ranking: apologies to anyone getting excited over being listed first.)

Safe choice:

Testament of Yootha
Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed
God of Carnage
The Tragedy of Dorian Gray [Online]

Bold choice:

The Ballad of Mulan
Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me
Jekyll and Hyde: A one-woman show
The Last
Underdogs

You might like …

Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore
The Event
Lionhouse Cabaret

Wildcards:

Fragile
The Formidable Lizzie Boone

From the comedy:

Crime Scene Improvisation
Biscuit Barrel: No time to digestive
Privates: Great Ideas by Geniuses
Alasdair Beckett-King: Nevermore
Aidan Goatley: Tenacious

Also of note:

Elanor Conway: Talk Dirty to Me (more about this shortly)

But remember: this is a preview, not a shortlist. At every fringe, some of the best things I’ve seen are plays I’ve never seen before by groups I’ve never heard of. Who will be rated a pick of the fringe that I don’t yet know about?

Stay with me for the next month to find out.

Friday 6th May:

Coming up in weekend 1 …

Before my arrival on the 15th May, I will be monitoring Brighton Fringe from afar. In particular, I am interested to hear how Brighton Fringe fares without its centrepiece venue. Before that, however, let’s take a look at what’s coming up in the first weekend.

My highlight starting tonight is your first of three Fridays to see Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me. I saw Jay Bennet’s creation of this deluded power-ballad diva-wannabe at her launch in Buxton Fringe 2018, but behind the comedy of her ridiculous grandiose ideas is a somewhat tragic tale of a washed-up singer – and as this has developed, we’ve been getting a darker story where Yasmine is her own worst enemy, unable to let go of lifelong grudges. 9.00 p.m. at Junkyard Dogs at the Round Georges.

Starting tomorrow is Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore, probably the all-time most successful play from Jonathan Brown. If you are a regular Brighton visitor it is worth catching up on some point and the strange history of the town – a lot of what makes Brighton unique today can be traced back to the era of George VI – and this play is a good way of learning about it. Runs this Saturday and Sunday at Brighton Fishing museum, and don’t worry, that’s not in sticks, but right next to the pier.

And on Sunday we have the first of two performances from Crime Scene Improvisation. I’ve been learning a lot about improv comedy over the last year and been impressed by the high standard, but thing I’ve noticed about this group is, when they make a mistake, not only do they make it funny, they also make it part of the rest of the show. Sadly I don’t have time to explain why Molly-Molly-Shoe-Shoe was such a funny joke last year. This is at Laughing Horse @ The Walrus at 4 p.m. Be advised through, this is a much smaller venue than The Warren where they performed last year, so you might want to book this early to be on the safe side.

However, the bad news is that Wired Theatre are not performing this weekend, or any weekend, due to a member of cast withdrawing from the production. This is indeed a shame, considering how determined they are the put on something every year. Anyway, for those of you already at Brighton, enjoy yourselves and keep me informed.

Thursday 5th May:

Welcome!

It’s the eve of Brighton Fringe 2022, and welcome to my live coverage. I won’t be coming to Brighton until the 18th May, but until then I will be keeping track of how England’s largest fringe is unfolding from afar.

Spiegeltent being contructed

After a 2020 fringe that struggled on against all odds, and an impressive 2021 fringe that looked set to catapult Brighton Fringe back to full strength, the 2022 fringe was all set to be back to full strength. There was even a moment when it was possible it might overtake Edinburgh. However, just when it looked like everything was going Brighton’s way, there was a big setback. As a result, we have a third consecutive fringe that is going to look very different from what we were used to.

You can read all about what went wrong in my Brighton Fringe preview. But you can also read about all the acts I am looking forward to. For now, let’s put this setback to the side and get busy with all the acts and venues that are here.

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2022

Skip to: Testament of Yootha, Under Milk Wood: Semi-skimmed, God of Carnage, The Ballad of Mulan, Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me, Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show, The Last, Underdogs, Betsy: Wisdom of the Brighton Whore, The Event, Lionhouse Cabaret, Fragile, The Formidable Lizzie Boone

And we’re back. For the first time in three years, a fringe I can cover without a crisis dominating the story. I can go back to my usual focus of looking through the programme and telling you what I can recommend. However, we’re not quite back to normal. There is one indirectly related event which has shaken up Brighton Fringe a bit.

The big change:

A lot of changes were made for Brighton Fringe 2021. Towards the end of the fringe, there was a discussion on whether any changes should be made permanent. The hot tip was that the delay to three weeks leading to a festival mostly in June would be made permanent. That was considered, but in the end they decided to revert to May. In fact, the only thing which has partly stuck is doing away with the paper programme. This year, Brighton Fringe is instead doing a printed daily guide, with details on the website only. Last year it was a faff to work out what was available today – maybe this will work better. However, it does put them at odds with Buxton and Edinburgh who are reverting to full programme.

The biggest trailblazer over the last two years was undoubtedly The Warren. When most of the theatre world shut up shop for eighteen months, they got going faster than anyone with “The Warren Outdoors” in the summer of 2020. This was a big success, and they used this as the basis for their socially distanced fringe in 2021, as well as repeat of a summer season, now called “Warren on the Beach”. With the ticket sales across all of Brighton Fringe 2021 surpassing all expectations handsomely, it seem that The Warren’s boldness was thoroughly vindicated. I was even wondering if Warren on the Beach would become permanent.

But, unknown to me, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Even though the fringe was on the surface a roaring success, complaints were emerging of staff and acts not getting paid. It does seem strange that this should happen when the income looked so good, so I wondered if they’d somehow allowed expenses to spiral out of control. It now seems more likely it was just shonky financial management. Then the story went quiet again and I assumed they’d settled this quietly. But days before the programme was announced, the bombshell was announced: The Warren would not be taking part this year whilst it sorted its finances out. Worse, it seemed the acts programme into the Warren found out the same time as the rest of us.

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