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.

2020: the outdoor fringe

20201003_153326Apart from Edinburgh Fringe, with its outright cancellation, not that much actually changed with the principles of a festival fringe. Buxton Fringe 2020 was described by many as an “online fringe” but no rule was ever made saying it had to be online – it’s just that for most acts this was the only practical way to take part (apart from Nathan Cassidy who was determined to perform to an audience regardless). In the same respect, Brighton Fringe 2020 can be considered the “outdoor” fringe even though there were no rules about this – it’s just that circumstances heavily favoured this medium. If you count The Warren Outdoors as unofficial Brighton Fringe, it was overwhelmingly an outdoor event, but even without this, the biggest and most successful events were the outdoor ones.

One notable venue here is Brighton Open Air Theatre. Originally an aspiration of fringe favourite Adrian Bunting, made into reality after his untimely death, until now this had just been an obscure venue out of the way. This year, it was suddenly catapulted into the limelight, starting off with a successful summer, and (thanks to some good luck with the weather on the days it was running) a successful fringe season in October, a month when it would normally have closed for the winter. It’s too early to say what this means for the long term, but with BOAT on the minds of many people who never went there before, this venue can be considered the big winner of Brighton Fringe 2020.

2020: the long fringe

Apart from the postponement, the other notable rule change was the flexibility on the dates. Although the dates of the fringe were officially the 1st-31st October, they allowed acts to register for September or November. As it turned out, there were quite a lot of takers for September, particularly outdoor events not wishing to take their chances with the following month’s weather. No takers for November in the end, apart from a few online events continuing to be available after October – quite fortunate, in the end.

This means that instead of the usual intense four weeks, Brighton Fringe ended up with a more relaxed pace over two months, or three if you count August with The Warren Outdoors. This will almost certainly be temporary, and Brighton Fringe 2021 shows every intention of reverting to four weeks, but who knows, maybe some people will decide they prefer a more spread out event.

2020: the fighters’ fringe

For all the positive noises, however, there’s no denying that the numbers were way down on a normal year. They managed around 80; a bit more if you count The Warren Outdoors towards the number. Depending on how you count the figures, there is a claim that Buxton Fringe is temporarily the UK’s largest fringe, although that relies on accepting the extensive online programme into their total.

What is does mean is that those performers left in the programme were the most hard core of the fringers, determined to go ahead come what may. Similarly, the audience was a core set of fringegoers who were determined to have their Brighton Fringe come what may. Based on my observations of audience sizes, the drop in supply and drop in demand roughly cancelled out and acts tended to get numbers comparable to a normal fringe. But there was no way of knowing this at the time. Anyone who pressed ahead in the face of all the uncertainty gets my respect and I will looks out for them more as things return to normal.

2020: the lucky fringe

Whilst a fringe only a fraction of the size it should have been might be a disappointment, it could easily have been lot worse. There were a lot of people calling for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in October, and subsequent events have pretty much proven them right. But whilst that would have been a good outcome for containing a pandemic, it would have been the worst possible disaster for Brighton Fringe – can you imagine how devastating it would have been to be forced to postpone, move heaven and earth to get a postponed fringe going, and then have that cancelled at the last moment?

Of course, one arts organisation gain is another’s loss – in this case, Brighton Fringe’s luck came at a great cost to many theatres counting on a pantomime season to make a comeback. I don’t expect Brighton Fringe to feel guilty for this – no-one in the arts is responsible for events and decisions outside their control – but it is a brutal reminder of how perilous the current landscape is.

2020: the obscure fringe

If there’s one thing I felt Brighton Fringe could have done better on, it was getting the message out. For all the obstacles thrown Buxton Fringe’s way, the Fringe Committee still did everything they could around town to show there was a fringe on. Even if all but one performance was online, you couldn’t miss the fact it was happening. In Brighton however, there was no sign around town it was happening unless you specifically went looking for the venues. It maybe didn’t matter too much – I suspect the leftover audience were the hard core who would have come no matter what – but it was a shame to not see that.

To be far, Buxton Fringe was in a position to give it all in July. Brighton Fringe, however, had other things on its mind. Something more far-reaching than a few banners on railings.

2020: the fragile fringe

There is one thing that has drawn little attention, but it’s the most important. Although an autumn fringe was announced the moment the spring fringe was cancelled, it was far from a done deal. We now know that, not only was it touch and go that an autumn fringe would actually go ahead. In fact, it was not even certain that any more Brighton Fringes would happen. The lockdown came at the worst possible moment for Brighton Fringe, after the programme had been printed but before any performances took place. Edinburgh Fringe got a bailout from the Scottish Government – and there’s no way any Scottish or UK Government would allow that to go bust on their watch – but no such help came for Brighton.

In the end, it was The Pebble Trust, Brighton Fringe’s main sponsor, who came to the rescue. That did not come cheap, and in return for the bailout, the Pebble Trust took control of the Board of Trustees, although Julian Caddy stays as Chief Executive. The good news the The Pebble Trust do seem quite serious about a rescue package. Rather than doing to minimum needed to prevent the fringe going to the wall, I’m seen them float a lot of idea for how Brighton Fringe can bounce back this year.

However, Brighton Fringe’s worries are far from over. My biggest concern at the moment is with venues, and especially The Rialto. They sat out the autumn fringe, I’ve not heard a peep from them about fringe 2021, and, most worryingly, they were amongst the unlucky few theatres who did not get anything from the Cultural Recovery Fund, with the news somewhat cruelly breaking during the fringe. I cannot stress how important The Rialto is, not just locally, but to grassroots theatre across the country that the Rialto feeds into via Brighton Fringe. The big danger is that amongst the celebrations of big festivals and venues being saved, the small ones will be forgotten. And this one absolutely must not be forgotten.

And now, the reviews

Okay, now you’re all feeling depressed, let’s get back to what this roundup was supposed to be for: reviews of things I’ve seen. To make it easy to navigate all things Brighton, I’m going to include my earlier reviews from The Warren Outdoors here, even though it officially isn’t Brighton Fringe. The reviews from Brighton Fringe proper are largely reprints of my reviews during live coverage, with a little bit of tidying up.

No separation into pick on the fringe and honourable mention this time – under the circumstances, I’m that these performances went ahead at all. But in terms of feedback, here’s what I thought.

Unmythable

Given the unique nature of this situation, most of the Warren Outdoors events are comedy, with music and magic shows next in line, but there is the occasional theatre production. This one is a potted telling of all the Greek myths. Jason welcomes you to the Argo – apparently, we the audience are all legendary heroes. Eventually we will be arriving in Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece. Before then, however, we get to know the other two members of the cast, “Beta” and “Gamma”, who feel somewhat inadequate in the presence of all these Greek legends. On the journey, they will take us on a whilstle-stop tour of all the legends so far.

Unmythable may have been picked as a fun piece for this outdoor season, but it is still quite an ambitious piece. As well as whizzing through as many legends as possible with the cast of three and the aforementioned sub-plot of Beta and Gamma, we have a light-hearted take on most of the tales balanced with some questions (as seems to always be the case with ancient stories involving one or more gods) with the common theme that women can’t be trusted.

However, I do feel something has been lost in the transition from a normal fringe stage to a social distance-friendly one. They clearly made good use of lighting effects in last year’s version, and I can see the interactive element of welcoming us as fellow heroes working better with a closer audience. For what it’s worth, if Out of Choas do stick with an outdoor version of this performance, I would focus on the comedy. Most of what they want to achieve can be done through humour – certainly I’ve seen stupid stereotypes on race and gender eviscerated far more quickly and effectively with satire than any more sombre analysis.

Where the piece was at its funniest, though, I enjoyed it a lot. They say you should allow background to emerge through dialogue and never count on someone spelling out the entire backstory on stage, but in the siege of Troy the exact opposite works, where one solider wooden horse has somehow failed to take in what he’s done in this wooden horse, forcing his colleague to spell out the entire history of the Trojan wars. And my favourite moment is the arrival of Medea, who is an obvious psychopath from the outset. I maintain that mass murder and infanticide is an overreaction to a matter of adultery, but having seen her calmly chop her trusting brother into tiny little bits as part of the escape, one must question how it didn’t cross Jason’s mind something like this was going to happen.

In the outdoor version, I myself would have ended with Jason taking Medea’s hand in marriage – what could possibly go wrong? But in festival thin on the theatre side, it was a good fun piece to start the day.

Privates: a sperm odyssey

Warren Brighton Beach-318
photo: JJ Waller

I trust we’re all acquainted with how babies are made, but have you ever wondered how all those sperm know how to swim to the egg? They attended boot-camp, of course. This, at least, is the premise from Bright Bouy productions. Three professors of the birds and bees are here to explain everything to Year 9, and by everything, I do of course mean squirming and evading whenever anyone asks anything slightly embarrassing. But who cares about boring old demonstrations on bananas? We want to see these plucky young gametes shouted at by the sperm sergeant describing them as maggots, although they’re larger than sperms so I’m not sure whether this an insult or a compliment. The privates must also answer all questions with “Sir! Yes Sir!” Unless it’s a rhetorical question, if they can ever keep up with which one is which.

The three professors do, of course, stress the importance of consent. Without a female present, they instead demonstrate the concept on a droid with a female voice, except that this particular droid is a cocky one who talks back and points out that programming someone or something to agree to something isn’t really consent, is it, and what’s the purpose of this exercise anyway? And then it’s back to the big push, which as you may have already guessed follows the format of every war film. Having completed boot camp, it’s now the scene of the maccacre, except that instead of a devastating ambush from the Vietcong it’s a devastating ambush from the white blood cells.

With lines such as “What do you want to be if you grow up”, expect an hour of suitably daft entertainment. There is of course the dilemma of how to end the journey, as you cannot possibly end a war film with three survivors turning on each other, but don’t worry, that has a suitably daft resolution too.

Shit-faced Shakespeare

Open Air Theatre on Brighton Beach UK
Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

And I finished my first visit to the Warren Outdoors with a headline act. A lot of the acts, I gather, were happy enough to be back on stage, but it’s the heavyweights that make the money needed to cover costs of this venue. Luckily, The Warren can could upon Shit-Faced Shakespeare. Their association goes back a few years and they’ve become one of their perennial acts – even so, it is a big coup for The Warren to be number 2 choice in the month they would normally have been at Edinburgh.

For those of you unfamiliar with proceedings, the rules are as follows: five classically-trains actors put on a Shakespeare play; one of those actors has got completely sozzled immediately before stage; and it’s up to the other four to help their inebriated colleague along. In practice, there’s a couple of more subtle rules and conventions to pick up. For a start, it’s now traditional for this (along with their musical counterpart Shit-faced Showtime) to open with a musical number with complex dance moves so we can work out in first minute who the drunk one is.

However, there is a problem with following the rules to the letter: some of these actors are too good at holding their drink, and don’t fluff enough lines and forget enough stage moves to keep the others busy correcting their mistakes. Which means we have to fall back on the key unwritten rule – as well as being drunk on stage, this is also you opportunity to misbehave. In this case, as we go through our favourite love quadrilateral-theme piece A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s Helena’s turn with the bottle. So when Demetrius and Lysander suddenly show romantic interest, instead of interpreting it as cruel joke just like the book says, she gets her two new suitors to engage her in favourite fetish of barking like a dog. I realise we’re supposed to believe this is all spontaneous but – sorry, you were too good and too funny for that; that dog impression was clearly rehearsed in advance.

Not the usual remit of this production but I must single out Puck, even sober Puck, for praise. Normally when I see the bits on stage without the drunk character I’m going, “Yeah, whatever, get on to the next drunk bit”, but this particular Puck also doubled up as a master of ceremonies, and that would have been equally fitting in a more conventional performance. I suppose it’s fair to say that a bit of luck comes into play – I don’t think even the actors know how funny the latest drunken antics are until they try them and see. But this was a good one and I’m glad I saw it.

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 things don’t chance as the year goes on, this could be taken a lot further. For once “long may it last” isn’t what we want of a show at an outdoor festival, but if circumstances dictate, it may still have a good innings to go.

Savage Beauty

The most obvious thing that strikes you about Savage Beauty is how much they’ve gone to town on this. Most of the Brighton Fringe productions that went ahead are either already low-budget low-resource productions, or have been scaled down to work with a a smaller audience. Not here – this is an immersive production with all the works. Thena invites us all to take place in an environmental protest, making it clear to as that the law we are about to break carried severe consequences. Inside (in real life a garden of someone’s house) there is soundscape mixing live music and recorded singing, projections on the wall of news covering the repercussions of the protest. The balcony and window of the house light up to show many indoor scenes, and there’s bonus circus stunts. And judging by the size of the audience – about as much as you could have before sightlines become impossible – it’s like there wasn’t a pandemic on.

Times change. When an original production was done in 2015 without the bells and whistles, it seemed quite far-fetched that a UK Prime Minister would press ahead with a madcap scheme, sack anyone with evidence it wasn’t such a good idea and respond to questions with a mixture of vague platitudes and accusations of not believing in the country. Today, not so much. Law and order has of course featured in political rhetoric since always, but what is the act of defiance that carries such severe penalties in the play? Planting a tree. That’s actually not so far-fetched as it sounds; there are many examples in history of governments clamping down with increasingly heavy-handed punishments on increasingly trivial acts of protest (the trivial protesters, of course, knowing perfectly well how damage the government in question inflicts on itself by doing this). What the Prime Minister hadn’t banked on was this tree-planter being his own niece.

The weak point of this play, however, was the character of the Prime Minister. I fear Actors of Dionysus have fallen into the trap of depicting the other side as a set of arguments they think the other side makes – but this is a play, and you need to look at his motives. Does he sincerely believe in what he’s saying, or is he a shallow self-serving opportunist? All of these scenes are taken from various Greek texts so I don’t know which characters form the basis of Prime Minister, his niece, or his sister with the unpatriotic climate data, but I’m sure if we went back to the original characters we could get some more. One promising plot hook is a game of “would you rather” played by future Prime Minister and sister as children – so what happened that drew them apart? Resolve this, and everything that happens in the later half of the story should flow more naturally.

This is a work in progress, which is why I think Actors of Dionysus were right to press on with such a resource-heavy production. Even if they hadn’t got much of an audience, they would still have achieved the more important objective of seeing how the play is working out. One small but irritating technical issue is the sightlines to the ground floor of the house, hindered to some extent by an inconveniently-positioned hedge (although cutting down a hedge for the environment would be somewhat hypocritical), but it’s something to thing about for next time. If they can upscale to a bigger garden that might solve the problem. But having got this far, I really hope they can finish the job and get this done in a finished form. So still some to do on characterisation, but get that right and it will be worth it.

Alice in Wonderland

Billed as a family-friendly ballet, Alice in Wonderland does what it says on the tin. I’m not a dance reviewer so I’ll leave it up to them if there’s any nit-picking to be have over correct or incorrect pointing of feet, but that’s not the point of this. This is clearly intended as an accessible introduction to music, stage and dance. Most of the music to tell Alice’s story are the best-known classical tunes. There is the obligatory stilts bit for when Alice eats the relevant cake and an equally obligatory appearance of an Alice-shaped doll when she drinks the relevant drink, but there’s also some pretty clever devices to represent harder thinks to stage, such as holes and how to fall down them. Like most ballet, it really only makes sense if you already know the story (although, to be fair, Alice in Wonderland isn’t supposed to make sense anyway), but it covers all the key moments nicely and it’s an ideal family event.

More notably, however, the turnout was excellent, and this is not the only one. Their reopening performance of Abigail’s Party sold out its entire run a couple of months back, and my previous attempt to check them out met the same fate. And, okay, a sold-out socially distance performance isn’t the same money-spinner as a normal sold-out performance, but the audience at this performance are still in numbers most fringe performers can only dream of. Admittedly they had a lot of luck on their side that day, squeezing two performances into the sunny dry interval in an otherwise rain-soaked weekend – and they won’t necessarily be so lucky every time this month – but every day they get like this works heavily in their favour.

I’m starting to think that BOAT could emerge as the big winner of Brighton Fringe 2020. Until now, they’ve been overshadowed by the activities of the bigger multi-space venues, but with most of them temporarily out of the picture this is the chance to show people who are choosing BOAT as an alternative to their normal pick what they can do. It’s a fair walk out of the city centre, but that can be offset by building up regular performers and regular audiences. Or BOAT may be happy to carry on doing what they’ve always done. Either way, I’m sure Adrian Bunting would be proud of them.

Toby Belch is Unwell

0_toby-belch-is-unwellThis play is very much a niche interest, but right up your street for some. In case you’re wondering, the title is indeed a play on Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which theatre literary buffs should recognise. Theatre literary buffs will also be aware that Sir Toby Belch is a minor character from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night noted for liking his drink, as ending up with equally minor character Maria. Now Maria has departed, and Toby Belch has progress from tipsy comic relief to full-blown alcoholic, and he reconstructs the story with each character represented by a different bottle of spirits. (Warning: don’t play the drinking game of matching a character’s drinks in real-time as you watch the play here. You will be a in drunken coma in the first ten minutes.)

Where this gets complicated is the dual theme. This is not only a lament to forgotten minor characters forgotten – it is also a lament to the forgotten minor actors who play them. The ones one realise they will never be Romeo or Hamlet or Macbeth. But the way this is done is that Toby Belch becomes the actor who plays him, and that, I have to say, is a pretty confusing concept if you don’t know your Shakespeare in detail. The concept of a washed-up actor whose best role is Toby Belch would seem like the more obvious one – and, to be honest, that’s what I thought this play was meant to be – my my Shakespeare buff colleagues assure me it’s definitely the other way round.

However, the same colleagues who tell me this is how the play works also assure me that if you know the character and know the story, it all fits together very cleverly. Regardless, you don’t need a detailed knowledge of Twelfth Night to appreciate Sidney Kean’s performance, which was phenomenal. And even if the wider concept isn’t clear to all, there were some moving moments, such as when Toby Belch, mistaken for a top Shakespearean actor by a group of Japenese tourists, performs a selection of the Bard’s most famous speeches to great applause. You will know better than me what your level of Shakepeare expertise is, but the assurances I have are that if you know your stuff, this won’t disappoint you.

And from outside theatre …

With events in short supply, I couldn’t see that many theatre pieces, so I had to turn to other sections of the programme. I would not normally have considered these, but I was quite glad for the change.

I go on very few tours so I have little to compare this to, but anyone can tell the difference between a Geoff Mead tours and your run-of-the-mill affair. There are some tours where you can tell the information, accurate and informative though it may be, is something taught to a pool of your guides by rote. Geoff Mead, on the other hand, obviously knows his stuff inside out. We haven’t even left the grounds of our meeting point and it feels like we’ve got a comprehensive history of St. Nicholas’s Church and how this tells embodies the wider history of Brighton. I suspect the tour could be twice as long if he didn’t decide what to leave out.

The tour probably works best if you already know, or at least recognise, the area. If you are a Brighton local, expect to hear lots of fascinating facts about places you thought you knew – if you are coming to Brighton for the fringe and have never been to the city before, the finer details might be lost on you. But it’s definitely worth considering if you’ve been to Brighton a few times and are beginning to get used to what’s where. Snippets I’d heard of get a mention, as to why former Warren home Wagner Hall is pronounced WAG-ner and not VARG-ner. Even the laundrette I randomly stopped at last month on my South Coast cycle trip has a cameo appearance.

A lot has been said about his encyclopaedic knowledge of Brighton’s history, which I can now vouch for, but what nobody told me is that Geoff Mead is also an absolutely top bloke. He has an interest in what brought everyone to his tour, answers any questions with more information that you could expect, and reputedly has the same enthusiasm on his tours no matter how big or small his crowd.

So I can heartily recommend this, and not just because it’s the only thing on offer during the daytime at the moment. Most Brighton Fringe regulars are still staying at home or watching online, but when things get back to normal, I would recommend this to regulars even if you don’t normally look at the Tours section of the programme. Many visitors’ knowledge of Brighton goes as far as Prince George and the Pavilion, but there’s so much to hear about.

And I close with a quick mention for Daphna Baram. I must admit I was a bit sceptical when this started, and I wondered if this was one of these dreaded person talking about themselves and their “thoughts” for an hour calling it comedy. But it turns out she has a surprisingly evil sense of humour. As an immigrant, she makes an excellent point that the UK Citizenship Test is basically a pub quiz, so that new citizens to this country are fully prepared to assimilate into society, as long as it’s a pub on quiz night. The darker humour I daren’t repeat here, so if that encourages you to find out what it is this is the show for you. I have been asked to take into account it’s a work in progress, but it looks pretty polished to me. Hopefully she will be back with whatever she needs to polish this year.

So: what next?

So, with the festivals of 2020 (or what’s left of them) wrapped up, what do we have for this year?

The mood from both Brighton and Buxton seems generally optimistic. Both have pushed their timescales back to some extent: both Brighton and Buxton are delaying their registration process (both directly and indirectly via venues), and Brighton is also going ahead three weeks later than usual – the expectation being that most performers will only know later than usual if they can take part Most venues have signalled they intend to take part. Neither fringe has particularly grandiose ambitions, and it’s expected to be a road to recovery rather than business as usual. However, the latest from the major venues is that most of the them are planning to go to ahead. Unless things go unexpectedly worse (and we’re now reasonably confident about keeping things under control in the summer months with or without help from a vaccine), we should have something a lot more like fringe than anything 2020 could manage.

Not so good news for Vault 2021: it’s off. And it was actually called on in the summer of last year. Although they correctly predicted it would be difficult (impossible/illegal, to be precise) to run the festival now, I was surprised they threw in the towel so easily. Brighton and Buxton both demonstrated that festivals running on much smaller scales are still worthwhile, and I’m sure they could have done something in the summer if they really wanted to. Ah well. Vault 2022 is it. Hope priority is given to the week eight acts who had the plug pulled on them.

The big question mark, however, is Edinburgh. Back in the summer, there were predictions of Edinburgh Fringe 2021 only being 40% the size of Edinburgh Fringe 2019; now, surely, the forecast must be lower still. (Of course, a lot of people thought 2019 was too big anyway, but that’s a debate we’re going to be hearing a lot more of in the coming months.) The last I heard, the plan is to go ahead in August no matter what, but the form is uncertain – an online-dominated festival like Buxton 2020 remains a possibility. Whatever the plans, registration has still not opened; normally, we would have viewing hundreds of early birds by now.

The vaccine might be bringing a close to theatre’s worst chapter in over a century, but what happens next is still anyone’s guess.

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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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2020

Skip to: The Spirit of Woodstock, Geoffrey Mead’s Tours, Savage Beauty, Anytime the Wind Can Change, Make-Up, Jekyll & Hyde, Unquiet Slumbers, (The Trial of Harvey Matusow)

Normally, the problem with these Fringe preview articles in wondering how to open them without it sounding the same as all the ones from previous years. Not this time. Brighton Fringe has taken a major hit with Coronavirus, postponed five months and only a fraction of its normal size. But with Edinburgh Fringe cancelled outright and Buxton mostly taking place online, the fact that a physical Brighton Fringe has managed to go ahead in any form is a big achievement.

It’s fair to say that, this year, Brighton Fringe is playing for pride. Had Coronavirus come under control a month or two sooner and stayed under control, you might have had a huge autumn fringe absorbing many of the would-be Edinburgh acts. But instead, social distancing is still is place and nerves over the lurgi are still fraught, so it’s a much diminished programme with only the most determined and most bloody-minded pressing ahead. But we we at chrisontheatre HQ admire determination and bloody-mindedness, and anyone who is in the programme, no matter how financially reckless that may be, has our respect.

To complicate matters further, it’s this time round it’s open to debate what should and shouldn’t count as part of Brighton Fringe. For a start, although the Fringe officially runs on the 1st-31st October, you are allowed to register shows running in one month either side, and some September-bound shows have indeed taken this up, meaning the Fringe has sort-of started already. The other complication is that Brighton Fringe’s most prominent venue, The Warren, has already gone ahead with an outdoor season. That almost certainly could not have waited until the official fringe; apart from the obvious disadvantage of mixing large venues open to the elements with October, The Warren Outdoors was also heavily dependent on giving Edinburgh-bound acts an alternative for August. They had to strike while the iron was hot. But even if that was officially separate from the Fringe, with such a strong associate you can consider it the fringe coming early (or late) in everything but name.

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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.

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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.

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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