The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2014

Skip to: Blink, Samantha Mann, Inheritance Blues, Chaplin, Roundelay

Now we go into the third year of the blog, and the plays I rated as outstanding step up a notch. I’m not sure whether I was seeing more plays or getting a better radar for the good ones, but there was quite a haul.

2014 also was noted for a different reason, but we’ll get on to this later.

Blink

Scene from Blink

It is rare for me to rate a play as outstanding, but it’s even rarer for a play to get me emotional. Nabokov’s play is one of those rarities. There’s so many plays and films of “will they or won’t they get together?” (spoiler: yes, duh) I’ve long since been desensitised to it, and yet Phil Porter’s story of Jonah and Sophie has you desperately wanting these two the happiness they need. Both outsiders on the fringe of the society, they way they come to know each other is far from ordinary,  something that would easily be misunderstood by an outsider, but the script always explains why they do what they do.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Blink, Nabokov

The thing that move the play from excellent to outstanding, however, way the ending. It might be the ending that no-one wanted, but it was the only ending that could have happened. A bog-standard love story would have ended with them getting together and living happily ever after – but real stories don’t end there. It’s a punch in the guts when the inevitable happens, but that’s the way things go sometimes.

Add to the this innovative set perfectly depicting the unreal, this could not have been a better start to the year.

Ms. Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit

Close-up of Charles Adrian as Samantha Mann

I’ve been aware for a long time that, far from being two distinct genres, theatre and comedy have a big overlap, but it was this show from the comedy sections of Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe that I rated as outstanding on the terms I rate theatre. On the surface, Samantha Mann is drag character comedy from Charles Adrian on a fuddled middle-aged spinster doing a poetry reading. If she ever gets round to the poetry. In fact, she spends half an hour whittering away before getting to this poem.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit, Charles Adrian

But it’s in the whittering where the real stories. At first glance you might think she’s giving away past acecdotes of ineptness, but it’s deeper than that. Slowly an unhappy story is pieced together of Samantha Mann’s lonesome life. The shy spinster she is now is the product of distant parents, a fun brother, and a tragedy that comes out of nowhere, very cleverly disguised underneath the laughter. The final poem “Who goes there” is accidentally the most moving poem of her set. There have been companion pieces produced for the world of Samantha Mann since, but the original will always be unbeatable.

Inheritance Blues

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Student theatre has a notoriety for many reasons: badly executed, unoriginal, or mistakenly thinking they’re being deep and profound – and, boy, I’ve had my fair share of those. So Dugout Theatre is a prime example of how it can go right. I first saw them do a excellent faithful-but-menacing version of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice back when they were still students, and then I thought nothing of it until everyone started raving about their smash hit Inheritance Blues. And that, it turned out, was extraordinary. I’m not sure whether anyone in this cast of six had professional training, but I don’t need to lower the bar: this was a superb play easily at the same standard as full professionals.

Ike-Inheritance

The story is simple enough: a three-piece band come to play at a funeral, and after the wake they are trapped by a storm with the thee sons, with the one who was closest to his father trying to rope his brothers into an ill-advised scheme to run his late father’s hotel. But what made this play stand out was the music slickly combined with the story. Starting with the “Hot Air Ballues” observing the first between the three brothers and later getting drawn into the story themselves, it really comes into its own, especially the surrealistic re-enactments of the outlandish stories the favourite son of the departed believe about his dad. And yet, for all the bells and whistles attached to a funny play, there is a lovely poignant bitter-sweet ending.

I’ve seen most of Dugout’s plays they brought to the Edinburgh Fringe and loved all of them, but nothing could ever top Inheritance Blues. The last play that featured the Dugout ensemble as we know it was the aptly-named Swansong in 2017 – since they they have acted as producers for other solo plays, still to good standard, but never a replacement for the ensemble we know from their greatest hits. But Dugout Theatre harm thoroughly earned its place amongst the greatest fringe ensembles.

Chaplin

Scene from Chaplin

There’s a lot of plays going round at the moment about Charlie Chaplin, but the one I saw and loved has an obscure origin. ACE productions is based in Finland, operates all over the world, and the Edinburgh Fringe production was a rare foray into the UK. This really could have done with being a full-length production, but in the 75 minutes given they did a perfectly potted history of Charlie Chaplin, warts and all. How he began, how real events worked into his films, the suspiciously high correlation between the leading female role and who he’s currently copping of with, all culminating into his disgrace and exile from Hollywood.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Chaplin, Ace Productions

It was the final chapter that was done the most memorably. Whilst some of his indiscretions come back to bite him, this play makes a lot of his naivety over the upcoming communist scare, with the iconic speech from The Great Dictator used against him in ways no-one could have foreseen. And closing footage was perfect too: Charlie Chaplin’s Honorary Award, his rehabilitation into Hollywood thankfully before he died. It’s a pity play was never heard of again, but what a one-hit wonder it was.

Roundelay

Scene from Roundelay (the Judge)

With so many successes under his belt, Alan Ayckbourn has set himself a huge task: how do you write something that doesn’t feel derivative of anything he’s written before? For me, this was achieved with Roundelay. At first glance this looks like a re-hash of Confusions – isn’t five one-act plays in two hours old hat now? – but there was one difference whose significance you must not underestimate: the five plays can be performed in any order. Indeed, the order is decided randomly for each performance. And, truly testament to Ayckbourn’s writing skills, the p[lays work in any order. One way round a play will plant a seed that forms crucial background knowledge in another play. The other way round, instead of a seed you get a revelation that changes what you thought you know about a story just gone.

Ike-Roundelay

It wasn’t perfect – perfection is not a requirement of an Ike Award. The Agent was, I thought, the weak link of the five, played for too many laughs at the expense of believability. But The Judge was wonderful, in my view better than any of the five famous plays from Confusions: an elderly man set up to meet a woman made up to look like his wife as she was when they first met. For some of Ayckbourn’s later plays, I’ve not shared the enthusiasm of the critics, but this one I think is a very underrated. Hope we have not seen the last of this.

But not …

2014 also had the dubious honour of being the year I saw a lot of terrible plays. I have a long-standing rule that I lay off low-key performances from low-key groups, but it’s bigger-budget performances from people who ought to know better are fair game. However, there was one play that scored the unholy trinity: no artistic merit, morally repellent, and a high-profile group that makes it open season. Looking for Paul achieves all three – I don’t know any other way a play can get me that angry.

As I’ve previously said, Paul McCarthy, the “artist” this play idolises, is someone I have a problem with. He’s a bit like Damien Hirst, inexplicably lauded by the fine arts world (and if you don’t like it it’s your fault for not being cultured), except that Damien Hirst  does at least draw the line at shitting coloured diarrhoea on paper. Damien Hirst also has the defence that no-one’s forcing you to look at his spot painting. Not so for Paul McCarthy, who is the darling of “public art”, especially ones involving giant turds of butt-plugs. This is the entire premise of this play, a woman who objects to a butt-plug gnome outside her window and ends up getting roped into a closing scene that is disgusting for the sake of it. It appears to be a two-fingered salute to anyone expressing incorrect opinions about what they do and don’t want built on their doorstep.

The play (if we can call is a play – an opening forty-five minutes of reading out an exchange of emails is a tenuous claim) plays on the notion that controversy is good because It Provokes Debate™, a catch-all term used to invalidate any arguments to the contrary. It couldn’t be a bigger love-letter to Paul McCarthy if all the actors gave him a blow job on stage, nor that have been any more disgusting to watch than the final fifteen minutes. I suppose it’s a bit much to focus all my ire on either this play or the artist it celebrates – it’s more that embodies everything I hate about the elitist culture of contemporary fine art. Nothing I have seen since gets anywhere near my feelings for this – but don’t worry, when it finally happens I’ll certainly let you know.

The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2013

JoSkip to: The Thrill of Love, Jordan

Continuing the backdated Ike awards, our next year is 2013. There were only two plays to make it to the list this year, but what a two it was.

The Thrill of Love

Scene from The Thrill of Love

Amanda Whittington’s play about Ruth Ellis is my favourite play of hers, but it was James Dacre’s directing that upgraded this from a good play to an outstanding one. I’ve seen three plays directed by Dacre, and the common theme he works into all of them is a sense of the unreal. It suited this play perfectly, as the world of Ruth Ellis was an unreal one on many ways: the bizarre world where so many women were expected to dive into the sleaze if they were to become famous; the hypocritical world that indulged these sleazy lives and condemned them in equal measure; and the tragic world of a woman who could not stop herself loving a man no good for her.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: The Thrill of Love, New Vic Theatre

No play can be outstanding without an outstanding script; this is a strongest script I know from Whittington’s already strong catalogue, and telling Ellis’s story through through the women who knew year worked very well, as did the sub-plot of friend Vickie Martin, who believed the club where she worked would be immortalised by her some – such cruel irony. There was also a strong all-round cast, but Faye Castelow as Ruth Ellis was superb, making very believable act of someone apparently describes by her executioner as the bravest person he ever hanged. I am now used to high standards from Amanda Whittingdon, James Dacre and the new Vic, but it was the combination of these three that topped it all.

Jordan

Publicity Image from Jordan

It was easy for The Thrill of Love to explore what would make a women kill her cruel lover, but much harder to explore what would drive a mother to kill her blameless child. But that is the subject of Jordan, a solo play on the tragic tale of Shirley Jones. It’s a play that lays bare a reality that many people won’t consider – it is possible for someone to be depressed to the point that not only do they feel there’s no future in a life for themselves, they also feel there’s in the lives of those closet to them. Even someone convinced any child-killer is a monster would be hard pressed to come out of this play without seeing Shirley Jones for a tragic victim.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Jordan, Stickleback Theatre

Moira Buffini originally wrote this play for herself*, but Stickleback Theatre couldn’t have followed in her footsteps better. Sian Weedon was a superb Shirley Jones, getting every aspect of her character down to a tee, from the rough and ready Shirley from Morecambe, to the broken woman after she does the terrible deed, to the fairytale story of Rumplestiltskin. The only pity was that, outside of the Edinburgh Fringe, where there is a niche for just about everything, this one seems to struggle to get an audience. And this play deserves a big audience. There’s few times I tell people to see a play for the good of society, but this is one of them: a valuable play that puts understanding and compassion ahead of knee-jerk judgementalism.

*: Technically this is co-written with Anna Reynolds, who shared a cell with Shirley Jones, but Buffini was the main creative force behind this.

The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2012

Skip to: The Girl with No Heart, Mess, A Government Inspector

This is something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I introduced the Ike Awards back in 2017. Since Brighton Fringe that year I’ve been using this as my equivalent for a five-star rating in a blog that otherwise doesn’t do star ratings. But there’s still five years of material before then, many of whom also deserved recognition. So, whilst there’s nothing else to keep up with, let’s do the long-overdue backdated awards.

We start with 2012, beginning with the reason Ike Awards are named after Ike …

The Girl with No Heart

Sihloutte of Samoora

Sparkle and Dark have had three highly successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the one that started it off wasn’t what anyone expected. They came into 2012 best known for The Clock Master, three linked fairy tales with a subtle dark undertone. It was billed as a children’s show but massively popular with adults as well as families (always a good sign). This doubtless would have been a big hit had they taken it to the Edinburgh Fringe, so it came as a big surprise when they instead took a brand new play, taking on the considerably darker subject of nuclear war.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: The Girl with No Heart, Sparkle and Dark

Both The Clock Master and The Girl With No Heart were produced to an excellent standard. Writer Louisa Ashton, director Shelley Knowles-Dixon and musician  Lawrence Illsley are an excellent team who between them put together an excellent mix of puppetry, music, choreography and Grimms-style storytelling. But the thing that pushes The Girl With No Heart to Ike Award level is the courage to take and extraordinary gamble: having a tried tested surefire hit ready and instead going for something untested they thought were better. It was a reckless gamble too, and I’m no ready to recommend anyone else tries this, but it paid off. Congratualtions Sparkle and Dark, you win.

Ike, by the way, is one of the characters from The Girl with No Heart. When I was trying to think of a name for the awards I eventually settles on an arbitrary name, like the Oscars of the Tonys. As the first place to meet this standard, Sparkle and Dark, have (with their permission) the honour of the award being named after their creation.

Mess

Caroline Horton in Mess, eating an apple with feathers flying around

There was one other name I recognised in the Edinburgh Fringe listings, and that was Caroline Horton. Like Sparkle and Dark, she’d come to my attention the previous year, this time with the You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, a lovely recreation of her French Grandmother’s story of being separated from her English fiance is World War Two. Unlike Sparkle and Dark, this has already had a successful run at Edinburgh, so moving on to something new was the only option. Her follow-up, Mess, had an even more personal connection than the last one – and it did not disappoint.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Mess, Caroline Horton

Mess is a semi-fictionalised story of Horton’s own battle with anorexia. For most of of, it’s the most puzzling of illnesses – what would make anyone do something so self-destructive? This does a lot to help understand why. The most memorable moment is where Josephine sees in hospital another woman, little more than a skeleton. One would think that would be a horrible warning of what to avoid – instead, it’s a target to beat. Another strong theme in the play is what effect anorexia has on the people around you, in this case Boris played by Hannah Boyd. And yet – the play as a whole is uplifting and often funny, help along by Seiriol Davies’ brilliant musical score. It was a very brave thing to take to the stage, but such a great thing to bring to everyone.

I’ve not written much about Caroline Horton lately – after Mess she moved in a new direction, and I don’t get her new work. I’m not knocking it – she has amassed a big following for her new work so she’s doing something right. But Mess remains one of my highlights of 2012, and for most of the year is was a very tight run between her and Sparkle and Dark for best production of the year.

A Government Inspector

Scene from A Government Inspector

And then, just when it looks like I’d have an agonising choice for best play of 2012, something came along and pipped them at the post. I’d been aware there was an up-and-coming pair of names at Northern Broadsides, with director Conrad Nelson and writer Deborah McAndrew almost functioning as a company within a company, and their innovative adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarachist. But it was their re-telling of The Government Inspector that shines at their all-time best.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: A Government Inspector, Northern Broadsides

The concept is a pretty obvious one to do: some things never change, and Gogol’s story of corruption in 19th-century Russia fits perfectly almost anywhere, this time an unspecified borough somewhere in Yorkshire or Lancashire. Council chairman Tony Belcher is big fish in a small pond, loving his position of tinpot tyrant. The rest of the council official are equally opportunistic and self-serving, so when a low-grade civil servant is mistaken for an inspector to root out corruption, they pamper him. Jonathan Sapper ought to be another villain, but he is such as idiot whose delusions of grandeur are inflated by corrupt official you can’t help like him. No Northern Broadsides production would be complete without their signature touches, and the on-stage brass brand and Yorkshire humour completed a perfect transplant to the region.

Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew hold the unique achievement of winning best production twice. They were the natural successors to Barrie Rutter when he stepped down as artistic director, so the foregone conclusion of taking over the rein was sharply contrasted with leaving Northern Broadsides completely after a year with Conrad Nelson as interim director. They are now working at a much more local level with their own Stoke-based Claybody Theatre, and I intend to catch up with this when I have the chance. In the meantime, congratulation once again for superb execution of a long-over idea.

The top 10 times I got it wrong

This might looks like another novelty lockdown piece, but it’s actually something I’ve been planning for over a year. It’s the eight anniversary of my theatre blog when I wrote this. On the third and sixth anniversaries I wrote about what I’ve learned, but for this milestone I thought I’d do something different. It’s sort of about what I learned, but only what I learned the hard way.

As any regulars will know, I made up my mind quite long ago that I don’t want to be an unconditional cheerleader for theatre, and definitely not a cheerleader for the people in charge of theatre. I want to be noisy and frequently off-message, supporting decisions when they’re right, speaking out when I think it’s a mistake. Nor do I go along with consensus just to fit in with what everyone else think of plays. I plan to keep it that way, because there have been times I’ve stuck my neck out and later been proven right, the most obvious case being Pantogate – I was asking questions long before their treatment of staff and actors came out in the open. But I don’t always make the right call. There several thing I’ve said that, looking back, I now thing I got wrong. In general, I’m embarrassed I wrote this now.

So, let’s get straight to business. The worst mistake I ever made is …

wait for it …

Continue reading

15 ways Coronavirus might change theatre for good

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As you might have noticed, my last article on Coronavirus didn’t age well. I won’t go over the embarrassing details just yet, but pretty much everything I could have got wrong I did get wrong. The latest I’ve heard is that consensus is most theatres are provisionally planning things to get back to normal in September, with a few having plans on standby for started sooner at short notice.

Do you think I’m making any more predictions after that fiasco? Of course not. So what I’m doing instead in, instead a single vision of the future, I’m going to give fifteen. I will stress straight off that none of these are predictions – indeed, most of them are mutually contradictory. But all of these are, in my opinion, plausible outcomes. There’s still a multitude of things that could happen in the short term, but this is my speculation for how things might turn out in the long term.

So, imagine it’s 2025. Coronavirus is long consigned to the history books, as is the great shutdown, but it’s legacy lives on. But what is that legacy? It might be any of these:

1: Edinburgh Fringe reinvents itself for the better

[This is the scenario a lot of commentators are hopeful for. I am sceptical about this one myself, but let’s see how it might work anyway.]

It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe has a record-breaking 4,452 acts. Any observer from the now-infamous 2019 fringe, where the 3,841 acts seemingly pushed the it to the limits, might call that a disaster waiting to happen. But the pessimists are confounded and the Fringe has sorted out its problems.

In hindsight, the problem was time. For all the Festival Fringe Society’s efforts, they could only achieve token victories single-handedly. What they really needed was the co-operation of the major venues, but the moment the fringe finished the venues had their hands full planning next year. Suddenly, the shock cancellation of the 2020 fringe gave all the venues time on their hands. With the PR disaster for Hogmanay 2019 still reverberating, Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon were all eager to show they’d learnt the lessons Underbelly hadn’t – Underbelly was forced to go with the flow. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government got on board, and an unprecedented level of co-operation arose. Continue reading

Will Coronavirus clobber the fringe season?

Update 29/03/20: As you are probably aware, pretty much every prediction I have made so far with a resolution one way or the other turned out to be wrong. I will write an update once we have a better idea what’s happening – in the meantime, here’s the original for you to laugh and point at.

It’s not often I do stand-alone news articles. Normally I wait until the end of the month and put it in odds and sods. However, this is a fast-moving situation and what was idle speculation a few days ago is already a serious possibility. So, it turns out that, unlike Sars, Swine Flue, Bird Flu and pretty much every other lurgi where the panic was way out of proportion, with Coronavirus there actually is something to worry about. There’s been lockdowns of various degrees going on all over Europe, and this morning the Scottish Government has announced what appears to be a ban on events with more than 500 people. It’s not clear exactly how that’s going to work, and one important detail is that the reason for the ban is to free up emergency services to deal with Coronavirus cases, rather than preventing the spread. Even as I write this, the English football leagues have announced a one-month delay of their matches. Continue reading

10 common mistakes in playwriting from people who should know better

I never guessed this when I first posted this in the first year of my blog, but 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting is by far the most read post on this blog. Since then I had advanced a lot further and learnt a lot more, but it’s interesting to discover that I haven’t changed my mind about any of these. It’s frequently linked as a resource by  schools, and Papatango even once named this one of their resources for their playwriting competition.

But … am I pointing the finger at the easy targets? I want to help, but there’s always the nagging doubt that the real audience of the post is people who are familiar with writing plays exchanging knowing laughs about people who aren’t. Well, if that’s you, it’s time to stop smirking. My biggest frustration in the last few years isn’t from the people who don’t know any better, but the people who should. I can understand why novices would keep making the same mistakes, but I’m increasingly noticing that there’s another set of repeat mistakes made by established artists. People who ought to have learned by now.

So here’s comes my less popular companion article: 10 common mistakes in playwriting  from people who should know better. Unlike beginners’ mistakes, not everything here will get your script binned in the reading room – on the contrary, some people think any or all the things listed here are a plus. If you want a commissions performed in front of a praiseful clique, ignore everything I say. But if your goal if for people to look back at your play years or decades later and say “wasn’t that good?” – and I hope this is what you’re aspiring to – you should take heed. I’m listing this in ascending order of controversy – I’m expecting the last one to piss quite a few people off – but all of these things are inspired by plays I’ve seen. I won’t say which ones*, because I don’t want to personalise this, but if you think it’s you, please consider this my hint to change tack.

[*: And no, I’m not going to tell you, so don’t ask.]

Without further ado, here we go.

1: Set piece overkill

This one is a giveaway of recent drama school graduates. I’m not knocking drama schools here: whilst there some damned good performances from people with no training, in my experience the biggest strength of professional training is versatility. (Good amateurs are great at playing variants of their real selves – with professional training you can do a lot more.) Another asset of drama schools is learning every trick in the book to put together a great performance. After seen enough plays, you learn to spot the “set pieces”. Things that wow regular theatregoers are known by more experienced viewers to be quite easy if you know how. Which is fine – you should be trying to impress the 95% of the audience who just want to enjoy this, not the 5% who know enough about the craft to judge your skills. Continue reading

Odds and sods: January 2020

Those of you with good memories will recall that my monthly odds and sods articles are supposed to come shortly after month has ended, not when we’re nearly at the end of the next one. My excuse is that there’s no let-up in my day job and 50-hor weeks are still the norm. As such, I was tempted to gave January a miss and catch up with everything in a February edition. However, there have been a couple of pretty major things that have happened over the winter that need attention, but I’ve decided it’s better late than nuver.

Stuff that happened in December and January

So what’s been happening in December and January to grab my attention. Let’s start with two pretty major news stories that could have a lot of repercussions, and then follow it up with two more things of interest.

Goodbye Great Yorkshire Fringe

https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/GreatYorkshireFringeLogo.jpgSo there was one big bit of news that almost passed me by, but after five years of the Great Yorkshire, founder Fringe Martin Witt has pulled the plug on this festival – and is blaming York City Council for this. As my regular readers will know, I’ve been quite critical of this fringe in recent years for its practice of curating who can take part, in contrast to all the major fringe that are open to all. However, in the end, the mood is it’s a dispute over city centre management that has brought about the end. There does seem to be a consensus that it came down lack of space to set up its pop-up venues, meaning it would have spread over more of the city instead of the cluster of venues in one place. That, I appreciate, must have been demoralising for the fringe organisers. Continue reading

Ask Me Anything: two plays in one

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/AMA-website.jpg

The Paper Birds pull off a huge challenge with a play that says two different things to two different audiences. But as a vehicle for change, there’s one more thing they could do.

If there’s one thing you cannot fault The Paper Birds for, it’s ambition. Anyone who saw Mobile can vouch for this. I gone on long enough about how brilliantly this was staged – a small site-specific piece in a caravan, with talking clock radios and microwaves, moving views out the windows, astral projections as so on – but I’ve not really talked about how difficult it is to pull something like this off. There’s a lot more to this than technical know-how: you need a vision, the ability to guess if an audience will buy into this vision, and – the hardest one seeing as there’s no knowing what an audience will make of it – the audacity to attempt this in the first place. But, that achievement under their belt, where do you from there? In terms of technical ambition, I don’t see how you could top Mobile. And when you’re scaling up to a bigger audience in a co-production with Live Theatre, an intimate performance in something caravan-sized isn’t an option either. And yet their follow-up, Ask Me Anything, is just as ambitious as Mobile, but in a different way.

Apart from their innovative staging, the other thing that The Paper Birds are noted for is their verbatim theatre. This time round, they did something similar, and based the entire show around asking teenagers to write in and ask them anything. Some of them asked for factual information (answered in a song at the beginning going into the joy of tax returns), some asked for some more personal questions, and some questions were tough to answer. Whether The Paper Birds realised it or not, they set themselves a real challenge, because this is, in effect, two different plays being told at the same time. To a regular theatre audience, this is an interesting measure of how teenage life has – or hasn’t – change since we were that age. But to teenagers themselves, it’s going to be a guide as to what to expect in the years ahead – a kind of theatrical version of the personal pages of Mizz or Just Seventeen. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2020

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Skip to: And She, Ask Me Anything, The Future is Mental, Badass Be Thy Name, Skank, 39 Degrees

I know I already have two unfinished articles on the go, but I’ve got to hury out this one because the Vault Festival has begun. And now that I know enough about who’s coming to pick some recommendations, I’d better get a move on before they’re gone.

First, a reminder of what the Vault Festival is about. It is, as some people acclaim, London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe? Well, yes and no. It is true that the work on offer in the Vault Festival is quite similar to what you see on the Fringe circuit – indeed, a lot of stuff goes to both – but unlike the Fringe, it’s a curated festival instead of an open festival. And, in all fairness, it’s couldn’t work as anything but an open festival, with applications outstripping capacity something like 6:1. It you’re after an environment where anyone can put on a play and you can choose what you want to see, it’s better to think of the whole of London throughout the year as the “London Fringe”. But if you’re after the festival atmosphere, the Vault Festival is the closest thing you’ll find in the winter months.

For anyone coming to the Vault for the first time, apart from understanding what kind of festival this is, there’s only two things you need to know. Firstly, it’s an evening-only festival on weekdays (not surprising as the bulk of the audience will be coming from work) running Wednesday-Sunday. Secondly, you think Edinburgh Fringe tickets are expensive? Welcome to London. Rest of it you’ll pick up as you go along. For Vault Festival veterans, the biggest change I’ve noticed this year is that they’ve moving away from classifying everything as theatre, comedy or lates and instead adapting a wider list of categories like the fringes to. There should be no more shoehorning of musicals and spoken word into theatre or comedy.

Big disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive list of what to see, just the ones that I know about. This caveat applies to all fringes but especially applies to the Vault Festival, where I’ve only heard of a small fraction of the acts that are on there. I’m also leaving out perennial comedy returners (Dark Room, Notflix and the MMORPG show) as they have more than enough publicity. Other than that, this is a single list. Some I wholeheartedly recommend seeing, others I don’t know much about but I consider notable. So this year it turns out I’ve quite a northern-heavy list.

(All events are in the Vaults itself unless otherwise noted.)

And She

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/2518f1_893db14ee33e48c2bbaf5e7e6d6714ee~mv2_d_3261_2163_s_2.jpg/v1/crop/x_0,y_266,w_3261,h_1891/fill/w_947,h_546,al_c,q_85,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/and%20she%20portrait%20full%20size%20(website).webpOne of the big news stories from the north-east is Northern Stage’s “takeover” of Vault. I reported on this back in December, and (depending on what the new artistic director of Northern Stage chooses to pursue) may replace the Edinburgh Fringe as their preferred presence. But right now I’m only interested in reporting which of these is worth seeing, and the easy pick from here is Bonnie and the Bonnettes. “Bonnie” is the stage name of Cameron Sharp, and their first play, Drag Me To Love, was his story of moonlighting in Doncaster when he was fourteen. The story was mostly told in a very funny way, and the ending was unexpectedly poignant.

However, they are bringing their follow-up play to the Vault: And She, a play about their mothers. I haven’t managed to see this yet so I don’t know how this compares to their debut, but Northern Stage clearly thought highly enough of this one to pick it over their successful first play. Whatever is in store, Bonnie and the Bonnettes is one of the most memorable acts in the north-east, with the ensemble of three all bringing individual characters to the fore. This is on the 8th & 9th February at 6.10 p.m.

Ask Me Anything

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/093-DSC_3341.jpgNorthern Stage isn’t the only Newcastle Theatre turning their attention south instead of north. Live Theatre’s co-production with The Paper Birds is also heading London’s way as part of its tour. The Paper Birds have toured many productions before, but by far the most memorable one was Mobile, a piece of verbatim theatre done inside a caravan with some amazing staging.

Ask Me Anything is just as ambitious, but in a different way. The group asked teenagers from all over the country to write in with questions they have about anything. This means the play has to cater to two very different audiences: teenagers wanting to prepare for the less predictable world of adulthood, and the rest of us who see how things have, or have not, changed for teenagers. It’s currently running at Live Theatre, and I haven’t seen it yet, but I saw the preview last summer that was promising. It’s at it s strongest, however, when they do their innovative staging, and not just making up stage plus auditorium to look like a teenager’s bedroom. See this on 7.15 p.m. on the 11th – 15th February.

The Future is Mental

Thttps://www.networktheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Future-is-Mental-620x402.jpghis one is on my list as something that is interesting and different. When the Vault Festival expanded out of the space under Waterloo station, one venue they took on was the Network Theatre, a nearby amateur theatre. As part of the bargain, they get a slot of their own in the festival. Far from the village hall production from Hot Fuzz, Network Theatre put up a good standard against the professionally-trained actors that dominate the festival. The one thing that does stand out is that their plays are relatively safe compared to what you usually see here. And I like that – in a festival where so many people are scrabbling to be the next best thing with something innovative and different from everyone else, it’s a refreshing change to have a group that stays conventional.

It’s not entirely in the comfort zone – Network Theatre still take on new writing of their own here, and this one is a collection of short-stories set in the near future, drawing, we are told, on Black Mirror, Margaret Attwood and Killing Eve. This shows on the 18th – 23rd February at 7.45 p.m. in the Network Theatre.

Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name

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The Pretend Men had an unexpected hit in 2015 with Police Cops, a parody of basically every 1970s TV cop show ever made. It’s almost like they sat down with a list of every cop show cliche ever used and worked it in into one hour, with a highly energetic show that earned them praise and sell-out Edinburgh Fringe runs. This was followed up with Police Cops in Space, a parody of basically every 1970s TV sci-fi show ever made, which is almost like they sat down with a list of every sci-fi show cliche ever etc. etc. But where do you go from there? There is a downside to the smash hit. Keep going with the same and eventually your audience tires of it. But do something too different and you lose the thing that built your following in the first place.

Well, they’ve gone for a mashup in what seems to be the format of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. But instead of our kick-ass martial arts hero teaming up with a cowboy or a knight, he’s apparently teaming up with a rave-loving dude from Madchester. I’m not suer the timeline quite matches up here, but to be fair, neither did the Jackie Chan films. I didn’t manage to see this at Edinburgh but the reaction was very positive. They’ve just finihsed a run at Soho Theatre, but you can catch them again on the 18th – 21st March at 9.15 p.m.

Skank

Nhttps://btg.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/images/50428/original/Skank_2.jpgow for another play I’ve not seen but I’ve heard a lot about. Skank is on my list because this is a showcase of what we may be seeing a lot more of in the future: the rapidly rising fringe theatre scene in Manchester. In the last few years, Manchester has become noted for both a year-round fringe theatre scene similar to London’s, and an open festival fringe similar to Edinburgh/Brighton/Buxton/etc. So get used to this – we can expect Manchester to have a lot more influence on fringe theatre inside and outside festival season in the future. (This particular play started off in Yorkshire, but it was in Manchester where this really got its name.)

Kate dream of being a successful writer but ends up spending all her energy to try to shag Sexy Gary. Skank is billed as a “Tesco value northern Fleabag”, although the trailers I’ve seen look like the altogether more excruciating humour of Peep Show. It also seems, like the famous play it compares itself to, there’s a lot more Kate’s character than this, and there’s an underlying theme of insecurity throughout this. It’s on the 14th & 15th March in The Horse and Stables at 7.00 p.m.

39 Degrees

https://redbellyblacktheatre.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/gopr0967_1564162607603_high.jpgMost of my Vault Festival recommendations come from elsewhere, but my last recommendation is on the strength of a group’s performance same time same place last year. I really liked RedBellyBlack’s Tacenda last year, a cleverly-crafted tale where the same day is played over four times, until the two women involved correctly choose the right battles to pick. The real strength in this, however, was their devised theatre making. I’m used to a high standard of devised theatre, this ensemble of three executed it perfectly.

So this year they are doing a play about the heatwave on July, when the temperature reached 39 degrees (except for me – I was in Florence that day and it was 42 degrees, you wimps). The Beano character embarking on his quest to destroy the country in a hilarious slapstick accident may or may not feature in this, but otherwise they’re not giving many clues away. On the 10th – 15th March at 7.30 p.m.

And there’s your list. I’m going to be around on the 14th-15th and 21st-22nd March. Looking forward to seeing how these do.