Interview with Nicky Haydn on The Warren Outdoors

Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

Skip to review of West End On Sea.

Last month, I was invited to the launch of what is possibly the most ambitious venture in live performance since lockdown. The Warren, normally Brighton Fringe’s biggest venue, went ahead and created its own outdoor pop-up venue with socially distanced seating. I was impressed by what I saw, and, more importantly, it’s been getting the audiences it needed – something that was far from certain at launch.

But there was something that puzzled me – how was it possible to put together something of this complexity with less than a month’s notice that outdoor theatre performances were permitted? To answer this, and other questions on The Warren in general, I took advantage of a train/cycle holiday along the south coast to catch up with Nicky Haydn, artistic director of Otherplace, to hear more about this extraordinary story.

I literally don’t know when we decided to do this … It all began with a “what if?” What if we were able to create something outdoors? We had no idea if it could become a reality.

I’m sitting in The Warren Outdoors before performances begin, and I have with me Nicky Haydn, artistic director of The Warren, to tell me how this all came about. But we’re going to be talking about more than The Warren Outdoors, we’re going to be talking about the venue in general.

So before the crazy events of 2020, let’s start at the beginning. I’ve been going to Brighton Fringe since 2009 when it was Upstairs at the Three and Ten – I believe things go back a bit further. How did Otherplace go from management of the upstairs room of a pub to the biggest venue on the fringe now?

Well, it did start before that. In 2005 I inherited the role to Manage the theatre above the Marlborough pub. I’d been a volunteering there, and I was also working as a performer, and the person in charge asked if I wanted to take over the reins of running it, and I said “yeah”. 2006 was our first Brighton Fringe and we had 19 events – in fact, some of the performers from then are still performing with us, maybe not at this venue, but at The Warren. We have the likes of long-nosed puppet, they did Shoe Baby in 2006; Kate Smurthwaite, she did a show in 2006 with us; The Maydays, who often perform with us.

Many companies have been with us long-time, and in 2008 we had our first fringe at Upstairs at Three and Ten. We converted a room above a pub into a little 46-seat theatre. And then – what happened? – there were some shows that I really wanted to bring to Brighton, and our stage, which you must recall it’s not the largest of stages …

Yes, it is indeed tiny.

… it just couldn’t fit the shows! And I mean, we had some incredible names play on that stage. Sarah Millcan played there, Romesh used to play there all the time, Seann Walsh, all these people early on in their careers, honing their crafts. But there’s theatre shows that wouldn’t fit. So we took a look at Wagner Hall which is behind Churchill Square, and we created The Warren for 2012. The stage was large enough to accommodate some of the larger theatre shows, but also accomodate a larger audience capacity, because as we were growing, demand for tickets was also growing. So we spent three years there, and it just snowballed, really, quite quickly, and here we are in 2020.

Then we went to the pop-up venue …

… St. Peter’s Church, and we had a brief one-year season at The Basement as well – which isn’t a venue any more, I don’t think. And then, in 2019, we are able to put The Warren on the site at Victoria Gardens, because there was works going on up at St. Peter’s. And of course in 2020 we were all set to go back to Victoria Gardens, and open and introduce our new venue Electric Arcade down on the beach front – and six weeks before we were due to launch the pandemic happened.

Well, we’ll be getting on to the pandemic in a moment, but before we get on to that, a bit more background. One of the headlining acts that you’ve got here is Shit-Faced Shakespeare. How did your association with them start?

In 2012 I went to see them in Edinburgh, on the recommendation of somebody else, and they said “I know you love Shakespeare, but you’re really going to love this show because it’s nuts.” So I went to see them and invited them down at Wagner Hall in 2013, and we booked them for five dates, and in fact they brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it absolutely went down a storm. I think we invited them back for an extra show at the end of the fringe, because we also put together a programme for Meadowlands festival that year, so they came and did that, and that was that, they’ve never stopped. We’ve been friends ever since.

We’ve been working with them seven years, and as we’ve grown, they’ve grown, so it’s a nice partnership.

Okay, so now we come to 2020, and as you were alluding to just now, the timing was not kind for Brighton Fringe, with everything stopped six weeks before. How was The Warren affected by this?

So, timing – it couldn’t have been worse, to be fair. This year, we had 280 visiting companies booked in to perform across our eight theatre spaces within our two venues – and we just had to press pause, because that seemed the sensible reasonable thing to do.

And … what was it like? Pretty dire; not easy but when you’re faced with a global pandemic, you just do what you have to do. We couldn’t be emotional about it; we just had to put the brakes on, and at that time, we had no idea what the future would hold. So we just said: let’s pause, and wait, and see.

If you were to look at this operational model outside of a life where Covid exists, you’d go “That’s completely bananas, that can’t work.” Normally, when I’ve produced stuff in the past, twelve weeks lead-in is your minimum.

So when did the idea to run an outdoor venue start?

I literally don’t know when we decided to do this. It feels in this crazy mad dream that it’s real and we keep going.

What happened was we talked about: “what if?” And it all began with a “what if?” What if we were able to create something outdoors? We had no idea if it could become a reality. Josh drew an idea, which is what we have here, where we are sitting. And the idea came out of a desire to rescue events in Brighton as well. So we spoke to lots of other venues and producers in Brighton and said “If we made something happen, would you join us?”, because everybody’s lost their income.

So Komedia said “Yeah”, and we put the proposal in; it was a space for venues and artists to show their work, but also for audiences to come in a safe way and feel like they could come out and enjoy live performance again. That’s basically what’s fuelled the whole thing, a desire to have work to share with each other; because, as great and creative as digital platforms are, there is nothing that can beat sitting in an auditorium with an audience.

And then obviously we didn’t know we’d get the go-ahead, we didn’t know anything.

That’s interesting, because from what you’re saying, it sounds like most of this was planned before you knew if outdoor theatre would be allowed at all.

Yes, it was that. To a degree, it was planned. We spoke to some of the key players who I knew wanted to play if we got the go-ahead. We put together a pencilled programme, and it was pencilled firstly because we didn’t know if the government would allow it, and secondly if Brighton and Hove City Council would give us the green light. But we just carried on, hoping that it would be allowed to go ahead. And from the moment of getting the green light from Brighton and Hove City Council to the moment we opened our doors: it was two weeks.

That little? I thought you had three weeks.

Two weeks. It was Monday or Tuesday we got the green light, we announced it on Wednesday, and it went on sale on Friday, so we were on sale for ten days before we launched, that was it.

If you were to look at this operational model outside of a life where Covid exists, you’d go “That’s completely bananas, that can’t work.” Normally, when I’ve produced stuff in the past, twelve weeks lead-in is your minimum. I think – from Josh drawing to the opening day – it was six weeks.

For Shit-Faced Shakespeare, the company had to come together … two weeks before they came. They lived together in Brighton in a bubble, and there was a standby cast in London should any of them not be able to continue.

There are two ways of looking at venues like this. One is that it’s a no-brainer to do it because there’s a lot of money invested and you want to recoup it; the other is that, even with all this considered, it’s a big gamble. From what you’re saying, it sounds like you saw it as a huge gamble, but you were determined to press ahead anyway?

Yeah, an enormous gamble, because not only are you putting on work in a global pandemic and asking artists to adapt what they do, to perform in an outdoor capacity subject to the elements; you’re also asking people to take a risk in an audience, and trust that we’re going to create an environment where it’s as safe as possible, and that the work isn’t going to be compromised. And actually, we’ve managed to achieve all of that. Audiences feel safe, artists are having a lovely time, and braving all the weather – the heat wave we had at the beginning, the wind, the rain – we’re here, we’re alive, we’re doing it!

Yes, massive gamble, but totally worth it. What are we going to do? Are we just going to sit at home, twiddle our thumbs, and wait for what?

One of the announcements just before it began was Jimmy Carr. You’ve programmed other big-name comedians since. You talked about reaching out to some acts to see if this was viable, but how did you draw the big names in?

Quite simply, most performers, during their last six months, haven’t had anywhere to do their work. So these artists – not only these comedians, but also these singers from these West End shows – haven’t been able to work in the way they’d normally been working. So people like Jimmy Carr were really open to it, because his tour couldn’t continue and this was an opportunity to perform. He came in our first weekend, and he’s coming back to close our season – he’s got two shows back-to-back on the last night. So he was really up for it – everybody’s been up for it.

If you’re a solo comic, you’re not having to “bubble”. For Shit-Faced Shakespeare, the company had to come together and create a bubble two weeks before they came. They lived together in Brighton in a bubble, and there was a standby cast in London should any of them not be able to continue. For a solo comic, it’s a bit different, it’s a no-brainer for a lot of them.

Sara Pascoe’s here next week, and she played with us in the early days of her career at Upstairs at the Three and Ten. And Luisa Omielan played with us last year, so we’re excited she’s coming back on the 18th. Russell Kane was here a couple of weeks ago, that was really short notice – he was supposed to be abroad but I think his travel got cancelled, so he was suddenly able to come and do something. And Seann Walsh, who’s been a friend of the venue forever, he came on Saturday night to to sold-out crowds, and it was amazing!

And at the other end of the scale, how did the grass-roots acts get programmed?

I’ve directed outdoor shows before, and I know the sort of work that works on a big outdoor stage. There’s one entrance and exit, there’s no anything, it’s just that! So you have to have work that is robust, and it doesn’t depend on big sets, big flats, and it needs to fill a big stage, and it’s a big auditorium. We need performers who can reach out and communicate with that sized audience.

The sound is really brilliantly directional to speakers on each table. So unlike a big gig – if you were in a park, for example, you’d have a big stack of sound system – this is sent to each person’s table, so you can create an intimate environment with you six people around the speaker and watch the stage. So it works really well.

So I just called them. All of the fringey acts, local acts, I phoned them and said “We’re doing something crazy, do you want to join us?” So Bright Buoys, who you saw, they were one of the first phone-calls I made, and said “This is nuts, we don’t know if we can do this, if we can do you want to come with us?” Of course, they won the Otherplace Award last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, and they’re so positive, and they weren’t able to be in Edinburgh, so they said “We’ll spend three weeks by the sea, that’ll be nice!”

We were talking just before the interview about the cast for Unmythable. That was interesting.

The person who was go and see Shit-Faced Shakespeare also said go and see Unmythable. So I went to see it, it blew my mind, I loved it, and I’ve been trying to get that show subsequently for years, but the timings never worked out. Literally, it’s been a courtship, that finally worked out in 2019. Paul, who was the artistic director of the company, who was originally in the show, had re-cast it over the years and it was now an all-female cast. And when I phoned him – again one of the early phone calls for The Warren Outdoors – I said “If you’re available and the cast’s available I’d love you to bring Unmythable; because of the nature of the piece, I think it would be fantastic in the space along the beach”, and he said “Yeah, I’ll see what I can do.”

One of the ladies in the show in May couldn’t do it because she was on another job, and so Paul said “I’ll play Jason”. It was an all-male cast, and then it was an all-female cast, and now it’s a mixed cast where he got to perform his original role as Jason.

It played in the early bit of the season, then came back on the 17th, and it was amazing, and it performed in a very windy, tempestuous evening, to a really busy crowd who loved it.

Now, one footnote to all of this is: next door to us we have Electric Arcade, which I believe has plans way beyond Warren Outdoors. Tell me all about this.

Well, it’s planned on paper and in my head at the moment, with lots of conversations and plates spinning. We will continue into October, there will be live performance, within government guidelines, of course. The Cabaret stage in there will be able to house work, and there’s performers I’m talking to. I’m sorry I can’t do some big announcement of who and what and when and how, but watch this space because there will be live performance, and potentially some screenings, and potentially showing some screening in The Gaiety, one of the smaller studio spaces.

Let’s look ahead to next year. There was a point when it was assumed that next year would be back to normal; now people aren’t so sure. And the shock announcement from Edinburgh is that they’re working to the assumption they’ll be 40% the size of 2019. What are your expectations at The Warren?

I think the Edinburgh thing is really interesting, because that’s based a lot on the international artists maybe not being able to come, but also a lot of international tourists, as Edinburgh’s long been a destination for international travel. I don’t know how sensible it is if we in Brighton  compare to Edinburgh, because we operate different models anyway. Edinburgh performers come for long runs; in Brighton the fabric of the fringe is completely different.

We are planning Brighton 2021 Fringe now. We’re just starting conversations now with all the relevant parties who are involved in the creation of The Warren, in terms of the site itself and the venues; and Josh is starting to draw what the venues might look like. And there will be all manner of drawings, because the sands are always shifting.

The Warren 2021 will go ahead, in a way we can and a way that makes the most sense to do. We’ve got a lot of companies that want to come, and audiences want to watch stuff! We’ll see, but we are planning it, it is happening.

Predicting the future is difficult, but let’s assume that by 2022 or wherever, we are back to where we were before. There’s two kinds of performers at Brighton: those who’ve already had a successful run at Edinburgh and take on Brighton as part of a tour; and you’ve got people who’ve not done Edinburgh and are maybe eyeing it up getting started in Brighton. What composition of the two do you have at The Warren?

It’s interesting, because in the very early days, back in 2006-2007, the shows we were having were very much on their way up to Edinburgh.

If we were to take all the companies, there would be a similar portion of those on their way back and those on their way up. And then there is a portion of people who are not going to Edinburgh but might be doing some of the other fringes, such as Barnstaple or Buxton. And some companies come with last year’s Edinburgh show and this year’s upcoming Edinburgh show. There other shows that haven’t ever contemplated Edinburgh but just on a national tour that we managed to pick up. And some local companies who make work. It’s very very even, I’d say.

One big disparity between the venues is typical run length. Sweet actively encourages performers to run for seven days, The Rialto is typically five, The Warren when I last checked is three to four. Could you see yourselves going up?

The way it works when I’m programming is that it all depends on the show. It would be so much easier if there was a magic formula, but shows and companies don’t work in that way, so it’s a case-by-case. The average is between three and five actually, it’s gradually crept up, but if I think a show should run only two days, and I think that will make the most financial and artistic sense to them, I will say “I don’t want to give you and more than two, because I think you should just do two.” And other shows do long runs – obviously Shit-Faced was due to do a very long run in The Hat, because they are a show that can sustain it now.

What’s nice about Brighton, and all the venues in Brighton, is that it’s always somebody’s opening night and always somebody’s last night. The energy that companies bring on their first night is so brilliant that you get swept along in a wave of enthasiasm. And the companies being able to perform against each other. When you’ve got six venues, as there was at The Warren in 2019, it was amazing for new companies to rub shoulders, in the dressing room or the bar. We don’t have VIP areas where the performers disappear like some places in Edinburgh. It doesn’t matter who you are; you’re sitting at the table drinking your cup of tea or your pint, and you’re sitting next to that fledgling performer or that famous face off the telly.

That’s what’s really nice about Brighton Fringe, it’s such a mix. People have got short runs, long runs, some people come at the beginning and come back at the end, and working relationships are forged and friendships formed for life at Brighton Fringe.

So The Warren is becoming the “supervenue” of Brighton Fringe. Do you plan to follow the Edinburgh supervenues and carry on growing to meet demand, or will there be a point when you say you’re big enough?

“Supervenues” is a really funny term, because everything we’ve done has been organic. I grew up here, I went to school here, and when I was a kid I went and saw Brighton Festival shows in converted rooms at the Old Ship Hotel above the old Nightingale, and the Theatre Royal when they used to put Festival shows on. And so the desire has always been to provide a platform for artists that want to put work on. And that’s always been what we do, And it feels like it’s snowballed, but it’s grown organically and slowly.

So Covid has drawn a line in the sand and now we have to rethink. Artists are rethinking the work that they make, and the relevance of the work that they make, and what they want to say to an audience. I can’t answer that question because I honestly don’t know.

So finally: who should apply to The Warren next year?

Anyone. Everyone. If you’ve got a show, if you’re a new performer, or you’re a seasoned pro who hasn’t played with us before, or if you’ve played with us, I’ve got the memory of an elephant. Even if you’ve played with us back in 2009, I will remember you!

So if you haven’t got on stage in a little while and you want to get back on stage, drop us an email. Still we have companies that come back after seven years saying “Remember me?” So it’s lovely, and we continue to build that community. Everyone apply, we’ll be there.

Nicky Haydn, thank you very much

And a bonus review …

And whilst I was passing through Brighton, I took the opportunity to catch one more event at The Warren Outdoors.

West End On Sea

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, however, however, you can enjoy this show for what it is: a celebration of some of the greatest musical numbers that makes to most of the current extraordinary situation. It probably helps if you recognise the songs and their context within their musicals they were written for, but you can enjoy it no matter what. Would normally say “long may it last”, but that isn’t the point of this show, so instead, it’s worth catching while it lasts, however long it may be.

Roundup: The Warren Outdoors

The top of The Warren against a sunset

Reviews: Skip to: Unmythable, Privates, Shit-Faced Shakespeare

It now looks like we’re in for a slow return for conventional indoor theatre. It’s not clear what’s pushing this more: a government dragging its feet over matters as trivial as actors projecting their voices, or theatres themselves deciding it’s not worthwhile for the foreseeable future. But bucking the trend are the outdoor theatres. Even though their go-ahead wasn’t that much ahead of their indoor counterparts, there are some venues determined to go ahead with whatever they can. And the one of greatest interest ot the fringe circuit is The Warren. Normally a pop-up venue that forms the centrepiece of Brighton Fringe, this has hastily reinvented itself as an outdoor venue on the beach. I was invited to the media launch day, as as a weekend visit to Brighton is probably the closest I’m going to get to a summer holiday this year, I decided to take it up.

I’ve already written the basics in my preview for both this festival and a similar outdoor festival in London, but to reiterate the main point, there are two approaches that outdoor events are using. Some are sticking to the traditional method of one ticket per person and making sure the audience are spread out. The Warren, however, has gone down the route of group ticketing. Their auditorium consists of fifty picnic tables, and one ticket equals one table seating up to six people. If you can manage six people from no more than two households, it works out considerably cheaper than six tickets at a normal fringe performance. The obvious drawback? It works out rather expensive if you’re not in a large group. To mitigate this, The Warren have now introduced “standby” tickets for up to two people that can be bought up to one hour before a performance if available (and it’s a safe bet they will be) – this keeps the price sane if there’s two of you, but I wish they’d do something similar for solo punters.

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

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2019

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

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

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

Brighton Fringe 2019 – as it happens

REVIEWS: Skip to: Taboo, How disabled are you?, Ross and Rachel, Freak, Shit Scripts, I Am a Camera, Sary, Wolf Tamer

Wednesday 5th June: And the answer is … 3,841. That is in “Whoah” territory. This is up 293 from 2018’s figure of 3,548. That works out at an 8.3% increase, slightly under yesterday’s indication of 9.5% but still a dramatic increase. Two years ago it looked like Brighton might catch up with Edinburgh. Little chance of this now.

Of course, the harder to answer question is whether a rise of 293 is good or bad. This will depend a lot on what these extra 293 acts consists of. The ideal scenario is that the Festival Fringe Society’s hard work to make the fringe has paid off and more people are able to go. But it could also be that these efforts have got nowhere and the extra 293 are people who are made of money.

There is one oddity in all of this: the Festival Fringe Society have been strangely quiet about this record-breaking fringe. Normally this kind of news is shouted from the rooftops. And this looks like a conscious choice too – Edinburgh Fringe’s own press release gives the number of participating countries as its headline figure, with the size of the fringe little more than a footnote. Make of that what you will.

But we are going to have to leave it there because that is the end of this coverage. I haven’t quite finished with the Brighton Fringe because I will be getting some numbers from Brighton later, and of course I have to put all the reviews into a roundup, but that can all come later. Thank you all for sticking with me over the month, and join me in August when we do the same for Edinburgh.

Tuesday 4th June: I was going to fill the gap before tomorrow with some news that broke about a former Edinburgh Fringe performer that broke during May, but I’ve decided to hold this off for later. This is big news, and it deserves something better than a chaotic mention in an article about another festival.

So instead, a look ahead until tomorrow. The fringe numbers are Edinburgh are a closely-guarded secret and I don’t have any advance information – but we can try to speculate from the registrations so far. There have been several rounds of early bird going out, and on the eve of the final number, there are 3477 listings on the website. One important clarification about this number is that, unlike the paper programme, any shows that are on at two different venues appear twice. Consequently, there will be a bit of double-counting, and you can’t directly compare this to registrations. But you can compare this to the eve-of-programme figure last year, which was 3179.

At face value, this amounts to 9.5%, which one could expect to mean an increase of around this level when the final number comes out tomorrow, if – and this is the big if – the 3477 vs 3179 figure is a valid life-for-like comparison. We know from Buxton that early figures can make things look more sensational than they really are – at one point Buxton’s figures this year were a 73% ahead of the figures the same time a year before ending up with a less dramatic 21%. Part of the reason for the inflation of the early figures was the discounted early bird fee encouraging earlier registering; therefore, we must consider the possibility that this figure is also artificially inflated by earlier registration. Or the 9.5% really could be the shape of things to come. Even with seasoned journalists used to Edinburgh’s figures defying all predictions of peak fringe, a rise of this scale after all the hoo-ha about the cost of the fringe would be a big turn of events.

The other figure that will be of note is Brighton Fringe ticket sales. Unlike Edinburgh, where sales figures always come at the end of the fringe, Brighton is sporadic about whether it gives the figures quickly, or slowly, or not at all – and they have been known to be slow to announce figures that I’d have expected them to shout from the rooftops. However, Julian Caddy kindly offered to supply me with various fringe figures once things have calmed down a bit, so when I have the numbers, I will have comprehensive numbers.

So now we wait for tomorrow. Exciting, isn’t it?

Monday 3rd June: So, here it is, my pick of the fringe.

First of all, this is a theatre blog so my pick of the fringe and honourable mentions are intended for theatre. I have previously included comedy when there’s been enough crossover with theatre to judge is as a comedy theatre piece, but this time everything in the way of comedy has been more like stand-up or sketches. One other omission from this list is How Disabled Are You? – not because it’s any better or worse than the other plays, but because this was too different to the conventional theatre to draw a meaningful comparison.

Out of the eleven left, there were three duds (none of which I chose to review in the end). So out of the remaining eight, here is the list:

Pick of the Fringe

Wolf Tamer
Sary
I Am A Camera
Freak
Ross and Rachel

Special pick of the fringe:

Here We Are Again

Honourable Mention:

Bright Raven
Taboo

As you may notice, this is a bit top-heavy on pick of the fringe, but there has been a good standard of theatre amongst what i saw this year.

All of these will be collated when I get round to doing the roundup, although don’t hold your breath. I have been known to not complete this until after the Edinburgh Fringe – I’ll try to avoid anything that embarrassing this time, but that will depend what’s going on with my life.

Not quite done, yet. We have Edinburgh Fringe’s numbers to cover before we’re done. But it’s almost done now.

Sunday 2nd June: Before going into the awards, a quick digression to some breaking news concerning Edinburgh. There’s been yet another review publication trying to establish itself as a pay-for-review publication. It’s called The Mumble, and the early indication is that it’s trying to use the same arguments that edfringereviews.com tried two years ago. That’s the mild version of events. I’ve also heard allegations they’re specifically targetting groups who don’t know any better. And I’ve heard worse allegations still. However, I’m going to hang fire on repeating the most serious allegations until I’ve had a chance to investigate this better and The Mumble has had a fair chance to respond.

In the meantime – and the reason I’ve brought this up now – I want to say something for any fringe newbies reading this: have nothing to do with any publication that wants payment for a review. Even if you have no ethical qualms over this practice, paid for reviews are worthless. Anybody who’s anybody in the theatre business knows which publications only said nice things about a play because the theatre company paid them to do that. Even the general public are probably going to smell a rat sooner rather than later. Yes, if you’re a new company it’s a struggle to get any kind of review at all, and yes, it sucks if you get no reviews, but trust me, a paid-for review is worse than useless. So steer clear.

Right, back to the awards. Some interesting ones here. Last year there was not name I recognised in the awards, but this time there’s too. Quintessence got the FringeReview Award for Outstanding Theatre – this was not a big surprise because this was already one of the top reviewed plays on FringeGuru and Emily Carding already has an excellent reputation in Brighton. So a little more significant is the New Writing South Award, which went to Sam Chittenden with Clean. As I reported yesterday, she’s already been getting good reviews for all three of her plays – with this added, she looks set to be one of the most looked out-for names next year.

Audience choice of venue wasn’t what I expected – but this might be significant too. It’s gone to Nether Regions, which isn’t a normal venue as such – instead, it’s a pop-up location for one theatre company doing two site-specific/immersive pieces. It’s not even clear if this venue will exist next year. But it does mean that the theatre company behind it is doing something right. That company is 2headedpigeon, who apparently are Brighton regulars. So it looks like it’s worth checking out what they do next year, either in Nether Regions again or another site-specific space. This review is worth a read for some idea of what they do with the space – another group to watch out for next year.

But you want to hear what my pick of the fringe is, don’t you? Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have a decision.

Saturday 1st June: So, here’s the schedule of the remainder of the fringe coverage. Tomorrow (I think) is the fringe awards. After that, I will announce my pick of the fringe. But I’m going to keep the coverage going until Wednesday for one last announcement of indirect relevance to Brighton but major relevance for anyone following festival fringes: Edinburgh Fringe announces its programme- and with that, the number of registrations. There has been a lot of talk over whether Edinburgh has reached its limit, but so far, all predictions of that fringe finally hitting its ceiling have been wrong. Will the prominent discussion of the cost of Edinburgh make things different this time?

Before then, let’s get back to something I’ve not been looking at for ages, and that’s reviews. I’ve given my verdict, but what do other people think. I won’t look again at plays I’ve already checked for reviews (if you want to know my previous findings and can’t wait for the roundup, you know how to use Ctrl-F), and I don’t pay much attention to reviews where they don’t matter (such as shows with long-standing fanbases who will succeed whatever the reviewer think). Eliminating all of that, there’s one thing that’s stands out, and that’s Sam Chittenden’s plays.

She directed Sary and Clean for Different Theatre, and Ross and Rachel for Pretty Villain. Getting a reliable pattern over Brighton is difficult – you’ll rarely have more than two reviews to go on for a single play – but overall the reviews have been pretty good. With one exception, the reviews across the plays have been four or five stars (or, in the case of FringeReview’s ratings system, ratings that imply four or five). In the interests on completeness, I do need to mention there was a two-star review on Ross and Rachel from Broadway Baby, which appears to be mainly about the use of a single actor for both halves of a couple. However, given the level of success the same script had at Edinburgh Fringe for its original run, my guess is this is an outlier – still a valid view, but an outlying one. What is does mean is that Sam Chittenden has probably secured her place as one of Brighton’s best-known names for future fringes.

How Disabled Are You? also seems to be doing well in the reviews, although the caveat that applies to all political theatre is that it’s difficult to tell whether the good review is approval of the play or the cause the play is promoting. The most interesting read is from Disability Arts – this covers both the play and the issue, so it’s only a sort-of review, but it’s a thoughtful examination of both that is worth the time. This could a front-runner in the awards tomorrow, so this is the one to watch out for.

Next update will be after the awards are announced.

Friday 31st May: There’s only one thing at Brighton left to look out for during the fringe, and that’s the awards. The significance can vary from year to year – often it comes down to chance whether I’ve heard about the winners. One thing that may be of interest is the winner of best venue. Junkyard Dogs expanded to a three-space venue after winning the award two years running. Will this award this year be a forerunner of the next emerging venue? Or will Junkyard Dogs make it a hat trick.

But it’s time to turn my attention back to the north-east. I need to have a look at what’s coming up, and over this weekend I hope to get the next season’s recommendations written up. But the thing that is on now is A Thousand Splendid Suns at Northern Stage. This story is one of two very famous novels by Khaled Hosseini (set in Afghanistan, much of it under the rule of the Taleban. I don’t know this story but I do know The Kite Runner, which is excellent, so I’m confident the same astute observations will work here. Northern Stage’s new writing is about as hit-and-miss and you’d expect any new writing theatre to be, but Northern Stage has an excellent track record with adaptations on the main stage, whether producing along, or co-producing as it is i with Birmingham Rep this time. This runs until the 15th June

The other thing coming up soon, however, has just been to Brighton, and it’s #BeMoreMartyn. The tribute to Martin Hett comes to Live Theatre from Thursday to Saturday next week. I have a rule that tours that take in Brighton are still eligible for the Brighton Fringe roundup if I catch it elsewhere on the tour, so maybe this will be joining the roundup.

Speaking of which, I’d better start deciding on my own pick of the fringe. No decision yet – expect a lot of deliberating tomorrow. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2019

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Credit: Heather Buckley

Damn it. Fringe season has come around again and I still haven’t finished feeling knackered from the last fringe season. But time waits for no man or theatre blogger and I’d better get a move on with my coverage. So let’s start at the beginning. The first fringe coming up is Brighton, and my first bit of coverage is my list of what’s worth seeing.

A reminder of how this works firstly. There are round about a thousand different listings in the Brighton Fringe programme. Even if I ignore everything outside of the theatre section of the programme, I cannot possibly be familiar with more than a fraction of what’s on offer. I could of course analyse the reviews to get a sense of what’s the best that Brighton Fringe has to offer, but I want to offer something different. Shows with lots of good reviews already have publicity – I prefer to focus on things I’ve seen for myself, whether or not they’ve had praise elsewhere. So once again a reminder: this should be treated as a cross-section of what’s worth seeing at the Brighton Fringe rather than a comprehensive list. Continue reading

12 questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking of doing the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe has barely been put to bed, but already people are thinking about what to do on the fringe circuit next year. And amongst these will be a lot of people who have never done this before. If you’re new to this, there are a lot of guides out there that will cover the practicalities of doing the fringe – I’ve indulged a little in this myself, but there are other more comprehensive guides out there. But this isn’t about how to do a fringe show. This is about a question I don’t think gets asked enough: should you do the fringe at all?

Performing on the fringe circuit is a great experience: it can bring you opportunities you can’t get anywhere else, and best of all, there’s no gatekeepers telling us who is and isn’t allowed to be given a chance. But even so – and I say this as one of the strongest advocates of open fringes – that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone. Far too often, the opportunities are over-sold, and the risks are downplayed. Even if you’re lucky enough to have no worries about money, a fringe venture that backfires is a huge setback, far worse than a local venture that flops.

The biggest danger of the Fringe, though, is how much people want to do it. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone to say that there’s nothing like the buzz of being part of it. It’s dangerous, because when you want to do something this badly, it’s very easy to make an optimistic assumption here and overlook a problem there, until you’re convinced it’s a good idea long after alarm bells should be ringing. So, in my effort to avert disasters in the making, I am putting together a list of questions you should ask yourself first. These should always precede a decision to take part at all. Only then should you proceed with deciding how to actually do it. Continue reading

Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh

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COMMENT: It’s right that arts organisations and arts media speak out on the huge costs are risks borne on artists at the Edinburgh Fringe – but they helped create this problem, and they need to undo it.

There can few success stories bigger than the Edinburgh Fringe. In their founding year of 1947, they were massively the underdogs against the brand new Edinburgh International Festival – after all, who’d want to see eight acts nobody invited and weren’t good enough to be in a proper festival? But people liked the idea of a festival where anyone can take part, and in a stunning turnaround of Davids and Goliaths, by the 1960s the fringe has already overtaken the international festival for comedy. Not even Beyond the Fringe could turn things round. (Although they should have chosen a different name as everyone thought they were part of the fringe. Fools.) Not long after, the prestige of the Fringe had overtaken the international festival in every discipline. The Edinburgh Fringe became the place to be discovered. They inspired fringes all over the world, some embracing Edinburgh’s spirit of openness, others sadly not. But the Edinburgh Fringe dominates not only Edinburgh festivals but arts festivals worldwide. It’s viewed as a rite of passage for performers, and a successful run at Edinburgh is the arts world equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

But, as well as a great success story, there can be few bigger examples of being a victim of your own success than the Edinburgh Fringe. Now the fringe is at the phenomenal size of 3,500 – and this comes at a price. Edinburgh isn’t a huge city, and there’s only a finite number of places that can be used as performance spaces, and only a finite amount of accommodation. In line with the basic laws of supply and demand, the price has rocketed. The increased competition has also normalised the month-long run – any less than that any you don’t have a realistic chance to stand out from the crowd. This, combined with all your other expenses, places a huge financial liability on performers – and with ticket sales far from guaranteed, it’s a huge risk. A bad run elsewhere could leave you a debt that takes months to clear. A bad run in Edinburgh could cost you your home. I cannot imagine the founding acts of the Fringe saw that coming. Continue reading

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2018

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

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

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

Continue reading

10 ways the Brighton Fringe has changed

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Remember this?

One of the early hits on my blog were my guides I wrote for the Brighton, Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes.  Brighton was the original inspiration – as someone who’d previously been used to Edinburgh, Brighton was a very different environment to get used to. I was supposed to do updated versions every year, but, true to form, I was too disorganised to keep that up and the latest version of “How to make the most of the Brighton Fringe” was written in 2014.

I was thinking of doing an update, but it then occurred to me the more interesting thing is the record of what it used to be like. A lot has changed since then. Looking through the things I listed back then, it’s remarkable how much is different now. So, for a new angle, and because Buzzfeed has decreed that articles are now only permitted if they’re done in lists, here’s my observations on everything that’s changed.

1: It’s bigger

In 2007, there were 323 shows. (For comparison, that’s slightly under twice the present-day size of Buxton Fringe, a tiny fringe by today’s standards.) Now, it’s more like 1,000. Not that you need stats to tell you this – it’s an obvious difference to anyone who remembers back that far. But stats are immune from selective memory, and that confirms just what the extent of the change is.

I could end the list here. Pretty much everything else is a consequence of this unprecedented expansion. Some changes were easy to predict, some not so easy. But almost everything that is different about Brighton Fringe now can be traced back to this growth.

2: It opens with a firework display

The opening ceremony is a recent addition, coming to Brighton Fringe in 2016. In priciple, this makes little difference to the fringe itself – the plays, comedy and so on won’t be any better or worse because of some fireworks. But it was a huge statement of status that Brighton Fringe can now afford to do this, and a landmark to its expansion. Continue reading