Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2020

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

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

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

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

What I learned about Brighton 2020

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

2020: the fragmented fringe

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

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

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On Tyneside Cinema (part 2)

I realise there’s been a lot of things going on to distract us, but it’s time I did the follow-up to the Tyneside Cinema scandal I promised once we had an outcome. Just when everybody seemed convinced the report into allegations of sexual harassment would be a whitewash, the report came out – and it was bad enough to prompt the chief executive and chair of the trustees to resign. An action plan has also been drawn up with the Board of Trustees have adopted. This hasn’t settled every dispute – I will outline those shortly – but, crucially, Save Tyneside Cinema have changed their stance from hostile and confrontational, to working with the cinema for the best outcome.

The outcome for Tyneside Cinema is in my view the right outcome, with some give or take on a few details. But … are we learning all the right lessons? The arts industry was supposed to put an end to sort of behaviour this four years ago when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the theatre and film industries drew up plans to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. And yet it has. It’s not just one bad apple either; around the same time there was a pretty bad scandal breaking about a Scottish ballet school. How is this still happening years after the entire performing arts industry vowed to put an end to it?

The answer I gave last time – the one I felt I could safely say at the time without danger of prejudicing the outcome – is that we got complacent. We collectively behaved like the job was done as Weinstein faded from the news. In particular we assumed that arts organisations forming better codes of conduct would do the job – an assumption that, in hindsight, now looks dreadfully naive. Now I can say a lot more about what this culture of complacency is and who should be doing better. And not everyone’s going to like this, because a lot of these people who are falling short have so far avoided any real scrutiny.

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Chris Neville-Smith’s 2020 Awards

Skip to: Best new writing, Most promising debut, Best adaptation, Most persuasive play, Funniest moment, Tearjerker moment, Best collaborative work, Most effective staging, Most memorable line, Best individual performance, Discretionary award, Best solo play, Best north-east production, Sporting behaviour award, Unsporting behaviour award, Best production

Hello, and welcome to the end-of year awards. First, the housekeeping.

As you might have gathered, this year hasn’t been a typical one for theatre coverage. I’ve only seen a fraction of the theatre I’d see in a normal year, and as a result, many of my categories only have one viable entry. As there’s only so much prestige you can have from winning a category against zero competition, I’ve decided that everyone who I saw this year will be rolled over to next year, when there will hopefully be some proper competition.

However, it would be a shame to not celebrate the theatre that did go ahead, so here are the scaled down awards. This time round, there are usually no runner-up spots, only winners, and I’ve left a few categories out where there wasn’t anything that stood out. But for those of you coming up in 2021, this is who’s currently top of the leader-board.

As this is a theatre blog and not a film or television blog, I have wherever possible stuck to the plays I saw in person rather than on a computer screen – however, there were a few times I’ve gone for something I saw online. So, let’s get started.

Best new writing

As always, the first award is from the strength of the script alone. Whilst there are some great performances attached to them, what I’m after here is something that any competent actors could pick up and make a great play out of it. As it happens, this was a very strongly-contested category, and many of the new writing plays I’ve listed in the later awards were good contenders here.

In the end, I went for Crossing the Line. I don’t normally consider plays I’ve seen in previous years, but the addition of the final chapter was what this play needed to make it complete. (I saw the first three parts two years ago, but I have pretty good idea of what the fourth chapter would have been had it been performed in person instead of online as was originally intended for Buxton Fringe.) It might not be obvious to someone who’s not that familiar with the difficult subject of child abuse – I only learnt about this myself in the process of bringing my own performance to Brighton and Buxton Fringes – but the thing writer Michael Sheath really had something to say about the mindset of many perpetrators: being sorry but really only sorry for being caught, and the idea that it doesn’t really count if it’s only viewed on a computer screen. Moralising is easy, but asking why is difficult – excellent job is trying to answer that question.

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The Snow Queen: the canary in the coal-mine

Kai's gran with puppet Gerda

Oh dear, theatre’s not having a great month, is it? So many theatres hedged their bets on re-opening in time for the lucrative Christmas season, only for this new form of Teenage Mutant Ninja Coronavirus to scupper many plans. Where productions have gone ahead, it largely came down to luck, and one of the theatres on the lucky list is the Stephen Joseph Theatre. In fact, they’ve been extraordinarily lucky: as well as being in North Yorkshire that has so far evaded tiers 3 and 4, the unscheduled shutdown in November conveniently fell in a gap between their two major performances. Even in the process of writing, they’ve had yet another narrow escape.

But if any theatre deserves a bit of good fortune in their favour, it’s the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I cannot think of any theatre that has worked harder to re-open its doors. Even back in April, they had plans on standby to get going as soon as possible whenever they were able to. That original plan (a touring Hull Truck production of Two) has since been kicked into the long grass, but instead they got going relatively quickly with a John Godber play, conveniently written by, rehearsed and performed by his family. From the government go-ahead to curtain up it was about two months, not quite as fast off the mark as the impressive/reckless three weeks achieved by The Warren Outdoors, but still way ahead of most theatres.

Paul Robinson described their situation as “the canary in the coalmine”; and it’s true to say that had the ticket sales not materialised – and there was no guarantee they would – it would have been a disaster. But the gamble came good. I cannot tell you if Sunny Side Up was any good because the entire run sold out weeks in advance, albeit with a much reduced capacity. But I was able to make it to The Snow Queen, their hastily-planned solo Christmas show, and I can now tell you how it works.

The first impression I had was formed way before making it to Scarborough. Even though the SJT would probably have sold out the run regardless, they really went out of their way to assure audiences they would be safe to attend, both with publicity and actual measures. Even if they were taking a gamble financially, they’d erred on the side of caution with the lurgi. They manage arrival times to avoid the normal stepping over other people already in seats. Also, similar to The Warren they made use of at-seat refreshments, keeping two of their six rows free to make this possible. One side-effect of this is that capacity is cut further – had they filled seats up to the legal limit I reckon they could have sold 50% more tickets. But no-one can say they’re being blase about safety.

The Snow Queen enchants puppet KaiBut anyway, what about the play? So, The Snow Queen is sort-of based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. It’s actually ten years since they last performed this story, last time directed by Robinson’s predecessor Chris Monks, but that was a faithful adaptation (back in the days when you could have people from more than one household on stage without fear of dropping dead). This adaptation, on the other hand, for both financial and plague-avoiding reasons, is a solo performance, with the story told by the Snow Queen’s arch-enemy, the Sorceress of Summer, played by Polly Lister. There is another challenge: normally a theatre would have two Christmas productions, one aimed as families, the other aimed at very young children. This year, when you’re lucky to have one production, it has to appeal to both groups. And this dilemma is solved quite cleverly by Nick Lane.

If this name sound familiar to you, Nick Lane has frequently been covered by me for three adaptations produced by Blackeyed Theatre. Two of them were quite faithful, but the one of note here is Jekyll and Hyde, where he introduced a completely new character and made it look like this was in the original story all along. He does something similar here. The Snow Queen is no longer a pawn of The Devil in an epic battle of good versus evil, but an embittered woman overshadowed by both her sister, aforementioned sorceress of summer, and the big guy in red. No-one likes winter, it’s all Christmas Christmas Christmas. She’s a very different character to the original, but if you didn’t know better you’d think this was how it was always written. What this does mean is that The Snow Queen can be hammed up to the level of panto villainess, plotting to put the nice children on Santa’s naughty list – seriously, we need fun theatre at the moment, children or no children – but without really dumbing down the tale.

Not everything new is disguised as the old. If you don’t know the story you’d probably twig the play has been transplanted to Scarborough (and the alternate world of “other-Scarborough”), Kai’s gran has been changed to a no-nonsense Yorkshire Nan, and there are various other obvious liberties taken such as the vacuous social-media savvy hashtag-obsessed wise women. One big change that’s not so obvious, however, are Gerda and Kai. In the book, Gerda is a heroic teenager on a quest to save her beloved. In this version, Gerda and Kai are just kids. Kai’s fateful gaze into the sky is now a dare he sets from himself to show he’s not a scaredy-cat, but the moments where Kai and later Gerda let their fear slip through their childish bravado is one of the most effective moments.

So, how do you do this as a solo play? Well, I counted eight characters Polly Lister played throughout the play, with some appearances of Gerda and Kai done with puppets. They went to town with the set, but by far the most praise went to her versatile performance. Some people have been amazed that you can do so much with one performer; me, not so much. Anyone who’s spent time at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes will know that actors do solo performances all the time, and switch characters using any or all of outfit, mannerisms or puppetry. As long as the actor, writer and director know what they’re doing – and I’ve seen enough of Polly Lister, Nick Lane and Paul Robinson to be sure this was the case here – they don’t disappoint. It’s just a pity that this solution, that seems a no-brainer to anyone who knows the capabilities of solo plays, isn’t considered more widely.

A few niggles. Good though the set was, I’m not sure the end-stage configuration justified the loss of one third of the seating available in the round (unless seating was already limited by getting people in and out the building, in which case ignore that). And this was maybe a little less accessible to young children as it could have been. I realise a single production that appeals to all ages is a challenge, but there were maybe a few bits where she could have spoken not quite so quickly for the benefit of the younger children. And in the final three-way showdown, it started to get a bit confusing when Lister kept switching between Gerda, Kai and the Snow Queen. Having used the puppets so effectively earlier in the play, maybe they could have made use of them here.

But on the whole, it’s a great job done under the most challenging of circumstances at a time when many theatres didn’t even try. With little enthusiasm for any more theatre in the winter months, and so many unknown variables up in the air, no-one knows what theatre will be up against in March onwards. But if it’s anything like now, there’s a lot other theatres could learn from the Stephen Joseph theatre, in terms of both practicality and artistic value. They’ve demonstrated how you can run a theatre in these circumstances and how you can achieve so much with so few on stage. The canary in the coalmine has flown outside chirping in triumph.

Note: In the two weeks prior to the performance I saw, I was staying at my mother’s in North Yorkshire. Long story how this came about – don’t worry, nobody I know has been anywhere near anyone with Coronavirus – but I assure you there is a very good reason why I temporarily needed to stay somewhere safer.

The Snow Queen runs until 31st December. Very limited tickets, returns only. Also available for online purchase via the SJT website.

Online theatre roundup

Skip to: Jane Eyre, Phantom / Cats, By Jeeves. So It Goes, Anno Domino, This House, Hairspray, Crossing the Line, Deep Blue Sea

Before we get to business, one announcement: Chris Neville-Smith’s 2020 awards is not cancelled. There hasn’t been a lot of theatre this year, but there has been enough for a meaningful contest. Since the competition is going to be thin on the ground next year and a best of 2020 won’t mean that much, this time next year I plan to do a set covering both 2020 and 2021, where a win be treated as a normal year. I have one review from this year pending – one thousand bonus points if you can guess what it is. (And before you attempt any Sherlock-style elimination of the impossible, my movements aren’t necessarily what you think.)

But before we wind up, it’s time for a catch-up of all the online theatre I saw. I am very much a live theatre person, with my interest in online theatre mainly limited to finding out about plays I couldn’t see in person. As such, my following only really went as far as July, after which I could switch back to live performances. I haven’t gone into the same depth as normal reviews either, so instead of my usual roundup of almost everything, I’m limiting coverage to the ones that I found notable in some way. So there are many online plays I saw which aren’t on this least and it doesn’t mean I hated it. But out of the ones I saw, here’s what got my interest …

Jane Eyre

I’ve previously reviewed and enjoyed Blackeyed Theatre’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, but this came hot on the heels of another much higher profile production. One of the earliest plays streamed by National Theatre At Home was their 2017 main-stage adaptation of the same story. The one thing you can indisputably say in favour of this version is that it is far more adventurous. Whilst Blackeyed and many other productions remain in the comfort zone and stay faithful to the original, Sally Cookson’s is billed as a “bold and dynamic production”, and in this case the boldness extents to an abstract set, original music, adventurous staging and choreography and much more.

nt_jane_eyre_tour_2017_ensemble._photo_by_brinkhoffmogenburg_12_0If there’s one weakness this play has, it’s what I call “concept overload”: the play’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. All of these concepts worked individually, but bundled together it got confusing. At the same time I was putting a scene to threadbare set, listening to music that jumped in and out of the period of the story, heard Jane Eyre talking to a chorus of five expressing her inner thoughts, listening to a lead vocalist who I think was representing the first Mrs. Rochester but I’m not certain, and many other abstract concepts thrown in. This, I suspect, ended up coming at the expense of characterisation. Jane and Mr. Rochester were captured quite well, but it seemed to me there was a tendency to portray all antagonists as cold and heartless. This is generally not the case: in Blackeyed’s production, you end up feeling sorry for Jane’s cruel aunt after she is betrayed by her own children, whilst St. John’s misguided infatuation with Jane is portrayed as naive rather than controlling – both of these touches I felt was lost here.

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Roundup: Vault Festival 2020

Skip to: Glitch, Skank, King Boris III

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

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

Glitch

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

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

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This Sia film (or: FFS, how many times do I have to say this?)

COMMENT: Yet again, a production about autism is being deservedly panned for crass decisions. And yet again, the dogpilers don’t deserve the moral high ground either.

You bastards. I’m sure you’ve specifically done this to annoy me. I’d barely finished my last piece on disability access and how much I hate grand gestures, especially from people who don’t listen. And now what happens now? A massive bonaza of grand gestures from people who don’t listen, all centred around a garish film trailer. Music is an upcoming film I’ve never heard of, from Sia, a musician-turned-director I’ve never heard of; and it would have quite happily have stayed this way were it not for a shitstorm over the depiction of an autistic character. As always, it is not right to criticise something on the internet without giving people the means to see what it is and makes up their own mind. So I am duty-bound to post this. I am very sorry to inflict this on you.

Sia says this film is about showing autism as a gift, and not a disability. Having watched this twice (I don’t think I can take it a third time. “A musical cinematic experience?” Fuck my life.) I get the impression that Music is a kind-of Blue Cross Week Rain Man. A lot of people on the autistic spectrum – tired of people who think we’re all incapable social misfits with mythical casino superpowers – are a bit narked off by this film. I don’t blame you. And with this has come a lot of people assisting us with our outrage. All in all, this looks like a re-run of All In A Row a year and a half ago, when everyone was expressing outrage over using a puppet on stage to depict an autistic child.

But just hang on a second – it’s all very well piping up every 18 months when someone does something as crass as this happens, but what about the rest of the time? During the furore over All In A Row and the furore over Music, I heard plenty of people proclaim the important of being inclusive to artists with autism; but between these two events, the effort I’ve seen go in roughly amounts to the square root of sod all. It would useful to identify and remove the everyday barriers that stand in the way of artists with autism (or any disability), but I’ve seen to next to no efforts to even ask what the barriers are. So forgive my scepticism to those of you who’ve suddenly rediscovered your dedication to the cause this month.

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Crongton Knights: nice but niche

Pilot Theatre’s latest adaptation of a young adult book is has a narrower appeal than their usual productions, but it deserves to finish the job with the audience this play is aimed at.

The final play on my pre-lurgi catch-up list is a Pilot Theatre production. Pilot Theatre have earned my respect over successive productions for many reasons, but the biggest stand-out is the staging. It varies from play to play, but whatever they do always impresses in a way they’ve never impressed before. The subject material varies as well; last year’s Noughts and Crosses was packaged as an ordinary story of forbidden love but was in fact set an alternate world where Jim Crow laws exist in reverse. Crongton Knights, it turns out, is almost the opposite, packaged as a story of adventure and friendship akin to The Magnificent Seven (with the friends here self-styled as “The Magnificent Six”), but with the setting being a gritty housing estate in South London.

Adapted from the second of Alex Wheatle’s young adult books, five young friends embark on a mission to confront the ex-boyfriend of one of the gang to demand the return of some compromising photos. In an unfortunate twist of timing, this is the day the London riots are destined to break out, but this doesn’t actually feature much in the story. This is because although they live in the notoriously rough South Crong, they must journey to Notre Dame estate,and a typical night there makes the London Riots look like a picnic in the park. Can they make it with nothing but friendship and loyalty on their side.

Crongton Knights is a heavily character-driven story. One of the strongest themes is Bushkid. You see, this is the origin story of the Magnificent Six. Whilst the rest of the gang come from families struggling on the breadline, she lives comfortably with wealthy parents – but what she want more than anything is to fit in with friends. One character I would liked to have known more about was Saira. She is a Syrian refugee whose father is still missing, and one suspects she’s witnessed far worse horrors than anything a sink estate can muster. It would have been interesting to see how she’d react in a situation she’s desensitised to, but that doesn’t really feature in this story. Maybe the next book.

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Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

COMMENT: The highly-publicised practice of giving grants and opportunities to artists with disabilities is good for a few but does little for the many. If you’re serious about helping, you’re going to have to do some hard and thankless work.

Apologies for the long essay here. As they say, I’ve written a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one.

It’s quite common for acts of hypocrisy or censorship to push me to boiling point, but this is the first time I’ve been prompted to speak out by good intentions. I might be imagining it, but I could swear that in the last few months most of the local theatres have gone into overdrive announcing all the ways they are supporting artists with disabilities. It is not clear whether this was something planning in its own right or it’s a side-effect to theatre’s reaction to the George Floyd murder (presumably by accompanying opportunities for black artists with opportunities with other minorities), but they’ve really gone to town advertising what they’re doing. It varies from theatre to theatre, but it’s a predominantly a mixture of partnerships with disability advocacy organisations and opportunities for artists with disabilities – either in conjunction with partner organisations or schemes in their own right.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead! (Skip to Summary)

So why should I have a problem with this? In principle I should be delighted that disabilities are being taken seriously, especially mental disabilities. We have been making progress on obvious areas such as wheelchair access for decades, but it’s really only in the last 10-20 years that society has started getting to grips with access for people who think differently. Disability discrimination is quite different from other forms of decision in one respect: whilst you generally need some pretty unpleasant views about someone’s race, sexuality or gender to discriminate on those grounds, disability discrimination can simply come down to thoughtlessness. Something as basic as failure to respect communication preferences can be huge problems for some people, an the fact this is finally being recognised is a good thing.

The problem is a lot of people are way ahead on being seen to be fighting disability discrimination than doing actual fighting. I’m afraid I’ve seen little evidence of any theatre making progress where it counts: identifying where the barriers are and removing them. The unfortunate truth is that the hard work needed for real change is an unglamorous job that requires a lot of trial and error, which offers few opportunities to advertise the good you’ve done. The one recurring problem I observe with the arts is that they will always pick a simple and easy solution over difficult and complex reforms. As a result, superficial changes take precedence over any real attempt to solve the root problems – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

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Brighton Fringe 2020 – at it happens

Sunday 1st November: At that brings to an end my coverage. Technically there are a few Brighton Fringe events still running, but they are mainly online performances, which is just as well all things considered.

To wind up, here’s the scores on the doors:

  • Outdoor theatre – both official Brighton Fringe events and unofficial affiliate The Warren Outdoors – has had an excellent season, with ticket sales looking very pleasing for most of the events I checked out. Admittedly the October events had a lot of luck on their side, avoiding most of the bad weather, but that won’t be such a problem in May.
  • Less clear what the state is for indoor theatre. Some performances I saw had tiny audiences, but I hear others sold out (albeit a sell-out on severely reduced capacity). I guess the big question will be how well dual live/streamed performances go, or whether there will still be a cause to take this up next May.
  • Larger-scale performances in Brighton have been less fortunate – Circus of Horrors was the big casualty, with permission to perform reduced with days’ notice. That’s going to be a big dampener on prospective large-scale acts.
  • Warren offshoot Electric Arcade joins Brighton’s line-up of year-round venues, but there’s serious worries over the future of The Rialto. You should be worried about this too – I believe the loss of the Rialto would have repercussions far beyond Brighton.
  • Brighton Fringe itself is now being run by The Pebble Trust in return for a bailout, but The Pebble Trust looks like it means business, with risk-sharing models being considered for Fringe 2021.

That’s all from me, and as it happens, all from theatre in general for a bit. Thanks for following this and goodbye.

Saturday 31st October: Ho Hum, Brighton Fringe has been insanely lucky with the wider course of events. Today’s news two weeks earlier would have been a disaster.

But what’s been has been, and amongst what’s already been output are three performances I’ve seen online: one online only, and two live plus online. One important caveat for all of these reviews: I’ve never entirely bought into digital theatre myself, and my concentration in my living room never really matches the undivided attention I give in an auditorium. All three of these plays were complex, so it is entirely possible that had I watched this live – as all three were meant to be done – I may have picked up some things I missed.

First up is Muse 90401. The Warren may have been a big player for Brighton Fringe in everything but name, but this is their sole contribution to official Brighton Fringe, as producer of Fadik Sevin Atasoy’s solo play. The credit this doubtless gets is that, out of all the things I saw at this year’s fringe, this has by far the most ambitious storyline, including Savage Beauty. This is set in a world where there’s a whole army of muses, with, as far as I can gather, at least 90400 other Muses in the same business. This particular one, however, have got the attention of the Muse authorities and is standing for Muse trial for her influence in Tolstoy, Shakespeare and da Vinci’s depictions of Anna Karenina, Cleopatra and the Mona Lisa respectively. Throughout the play, this Muse tells the story of those three women and how she influenced them for the better.

But, try as I might, I just cannot overcome the mind-boggling complexity of this setting. I gather that all Muses ha a Muse Map and use their Muse Magic, but the way they do their Muse stuff seems to arbitrarily vary, from whispering into the artist’s ear to going into a painting the alter a facial expression. In addition, there seems to be a confusingly ad-hoc system of Muse law, and I still can’t work out what she was supposed to have done to attract the wrath of the Muse judge – one would have thought three smash hits under her belt were a good thing, surely? There’s a hell of a lot to take in over 70 minutes, let alone conventional aspects such as characterisation.

Now, I should note that this is heavily based on Turkish folklore (indeed, this play has been performed in both Turkish and English), namely the storytelling form of “Meddah”. So it may well be that someone more used to this style may pick up what I didn’t, and if that’s the target audience, then by all means carry on what you’re doing. But for a wider audience, I cannot see any way round simplifying this somehow. Fadik Sevin Atasoy is clearly a formidable performer, and the most promising story thread I picked up was how none of the great artists she helped remember her. There may be some painful decision ahead on what to keep and explain, and what to leave out, but a more accessible version of this concept could go a lot further.

Next on my list is Make-Up from NoLogo Productions. Out of the three play, I’d say this is the safest, and therefore the most accessible. Much-loved drag queen Lady Christina has just left the stage and is now going back to being Chris. It begins with some frustrations over his career, how he seems to be a novelty for metrosexual men to prove their confidence in their sexuality, but it’s only ten minutes in where Chris notes the lack of a birthday card from his father, that we get to the real subject of the story. Chris’s working-class Irish father, seemingly the butt of too many Irish jokes, coped by deflecting on to other targets of jokes, such as the gays, Jews and Blacks – and when his son comes out, his father would rather save face and cut ties. Disowning his father is easy – the hard bit is keeping in touch with his mother.

It’s a well-written monologue that I suspect too many people will relate to, but the one thing I felt we didn’t hear enough about is, quite paradoxically, Lady Christina herself. The one thing we do hear about the link between the two is the story Chris made up for Lady Christina’s father: something fantastical, but more importantly, everything his real father was not. That was a bit of a missed opportunity, I felt – there could have been so much about how Chris built his later ego as a personal alternative to reality. Make-Up does its job as a tale as coping with family rejection – but be a bit bolder, and this could achieve more.

And finally, Unquiet Slumbers from Different Theatre, perhaps the biggest rising star of Brighton Fringe. Emily Bronte is dying, and in the final few days of her life she is visited by her greatest fictional creation, Cathy from Wuthering Heights. Condemned by her creator to forever wander her ghostly body on the moors, she wishes to discuss her author’s choices. Over Emily’s final week, there will be a lot of dissection of her literary worlds.

I will own up here: I don’t actually know any details of Wuthering Heights outside the Kate Bush song (I saw an Edinburgh Fringe play a few years back that I enjoyed, but it was far too concertinaed to squeeze into under an hour), and as such, I don’t think I picked up on some of the finer references. I therefore get the impression that this is in a similar position to Toby Belch is Unwell, where you really needed a detailed knowledge to Twelfth Night to follow what was going on. My guess is that anyone who knows Cathy Earnshaw well will get the most out of this play.

However, whilst Toby Belch very much belongs as a niche interest, I’m not sure that’s the right philosophy here. There’s plenty of real-life intrigue in the lives of the Bronte sisters, the most well-known being the initial decision to write under male pseudonyms, but Jane Austen openly wrote as a “lady novelist” thirty years earlier. And yet, in the three years that her book was published under the name of Ellis Bell, many critics were convinced the author must be male because of the depiction of cruelty. I’d love to know what Sam Chittenden’s take on this is, because she is very good at making the point in an understated way, but who knows, perhaps on this occasion it was a little too understated.

Friday 30th October: And to complete a roundup of who’s getting going, a quick look at who’s making moves in the north-east:

  • Newcastle Theatre Royal, as is now well-known, is going ahead with a big-scale pantomime thanks to a National Lottery grant. However the good news has already been soured by taking on front of house staff from an external agency instead of using their own staff. I will return to this another time.
  • Northern Stage, as I have already mentioned, has its first live performance at Christmas, with local favourites Kitchen Zoo doing a small-scale production (details coming Monday). They have also been doing various live performances in Byker, but so far only Byker locals have had the chance to see this live.
  • No word from Live Theatre yet, but they have been doing their entry-level writing event 10 Minutes To … for an online audience – normally a low-key affair, this has been very heavily publicised.
  • Alphabetti Theatre, having previously hinted there would be no re-opening until next year, have no just announced they are doing a Christmas production after all. This is probably the most innovative ideas, with 50-minute immersive performances to one household bubble of up to 5 staggered to start every 10 minutes.
  • The Gala Theatre is definitely not opening until next year as they’ve decided to do some refurbishment now whilst there’s not much trade. However, they are running an audio play Sunset on Tantobie, written by Alphabetti stalwart Gary Kitching and directed by Jake Murray from Durham Newcomers Elysium Theatre.
  • Not everybody is pushing forwards, however. In North and South Shields, the respective theatres of The Exchange and Customs House started reopening but then closed again.
  • The boldest theatre of all has to be Middlesbrough, who are adamantly going ahead with in indoor performance Dracula on Thursday next week. Middlesbrough pushed ahead with outdoor performances in the summer, so I’m not surprised they are taking the lead now.

Brighton peeps, don’t go away. I have been watching some online Brighton Fringe plays, and I have three reviews coming tomorrow.

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