Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2021

There’s a Ghost in my House, Between Two Waves, About the Garden, The Tragedy of Dorian Gray, Watson: the Final Problem

Right. Better get a move on with these. I have had the excuse of having my hands full with four fringes in three months, but it’s now October. So let’s begin with Brighton. And, boy, what a festival they had.

They year began on tenterhooks when it became unclear whether live performances would be allowed in May at all. Brighton Fringe opted to postpone itself by three weeks, so that the fringe would take place over mostly June instead of May. In the end, that turned out to be a very good call. With the go-ahead for live performances turning out to be only 11 days before the start of the fringe, to festival turned into a big celebration of the arts getting going again. I don’t have definitive figures for how this compares to a normal year, but by all account the level of business was excellent, for both the acts taking part and the social aspect of the Warren and Spiegeltent’s bars.

The only dampener on this success is that it could have been even more earth-shattering. In spite of some very last-minute organisation, Brighton Fringe managed to be about 50% of its normal size, give or take a bit depending on whether you count online. But it was during June when serious questions were being raised over whether its Edinburgh counterpart would go ahead at all, owing to some absurd restrictions in Scotland specifically applied to the performing arts. With a very late go-ahead, and Edinburgh’s programme announced towards the end of Brighton Fringe, the jaw-dropping news was that it was less than a third the size of Brighton’s. In the end, Edinburgh pipped Brighton into the lead at the last moment – the Big Four venues programmed themselves very late on – but the fact that a half-size Brighton Fringe was two weeks away from taking the title as Britain’s largest fringe is staggering.

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Brighton Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Saturday 3rd July:

And that’s all from me, folk. Extended Brighton Fringe continues until the 11th July, but we’ve seen enough to know how this is going – and every indication is that the 2021 Brighton Fringe, intended as a relaunch after the tiny and postponed 2020 fringe, has gone like a dream.

To summarise what we’ve learned:

  • Patronage of Brighton Fringe has been excellent. Targets of ticket sales for the entire fringe were surpassed in the first week. My own observations is that the big venues were as busy as they’ve always been, and where venues operated at reduced capacity they were mostly sell-outs or close to that. The only times that ticket sales looked weak was during the day when the weather was hot, but that’s the same in normal fringes.
  • The pop-up venues have adapted well to social distancing, perhaps helped along by last year’s Warren Outdoors showing how this could be done. I have a more mixed reaction to indoor venues: some handled this well, but others I felt were more sloppy. It would only have taken one outbreak linked to a venue for the naysayers to say “I told you so” and reinstate extra restrictions on theatres – luckily, that didn’t happen.
  • Crucially, The Railto is back in business. This venue didn’t reopen for the October Fringe and when it didn’t get Cultural Recovery Fund money, there were a lot of worries they might close for good. Thankfully, they have weather the storm, thanks in part to support from a crowdfunder. Had they closed, I believe it would have done a lot of cultural damge, not just to Brighton but the whole country.
  • The reviewers have also come back in force for Brighton Fringe 2021, and they stayed the course. This might not seem like a big deal to those who prefer word of mouth, but a good review is valuable for those who want their play to have a life beyond the fringe.
  • The mood around the changes to Brighton Fringe 2021 varies. There has been a surprisingly high amount of support for making the temporary move to June permanent – turns out most poeple like this, so this will probably happen. However, the online-only programme, whilst necessary, has not been popular. Whilst there are ways to do this better, the consensus seems to be that Brighton is not ready to dispence with the brochure just yet.
  • Although in-person performances have been the focus, the online programme is persisting longer than anyone imagined, with four online platforms taking part this year. One option being considered is moving this to a seperate festival, possibly during the winter when in-person fringing is less appealing.
  • This fringe has been very comedy-heavy – if anything, it’s dominated the fringe even more than it dominated Edinburgh. It’s not too surpising it happened during this fringe when 1) a lot of peple would appreciate some comedy, and 2) comedy is generally easier to get going at short notice. We don’t yet know whether this is a long-term change, and if so, whether it shold be a cause for concern.
  • And finally, Brighton Fringe’s good fortune is a sharp contrast to Edinburgh’s misfortunes. Based on initial lists of shows, Edinburgh Fringe 2021 could be smaller than Brighton. The Scottish Government has given some support late in the day, but a lot of people still blame them for unfairly singling out live perfomance with more stringent rules for no good reason. But that’s a story for another day.

So now I sign off, but don’t go away. Buxton Fringe starts next week. I’d better get a move on with my recommendations.

Friday 2nd July:

[Sorry for the backdated post – I’ve been without internet for most of the last 24 hours.]

And now, here’s the remainder of the online reviews:

The Importance of Being … Earnest?: Technically this was not part of Brighton Fringe’s online season – it was supposed to be live-streamed at one point, but that didn’t work out. But with me unable to make it to the live performance at The Warren, and having already agreed to review it online, I instead reviewed a recording from an old pre-lockdown performance. The first thing I will say about this is: don’t watch this online, watch it live, because this is a very heavily interactive show where you really need to be in the audience to experience this. But, that said, I’d rate this as the strongest of the six online pieces I saw.

The premise starts off quite simply: Algernon and Lane are doing the opening for Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, when the door opens and in walks Earnest aka Jack – except that he’s not turned up to the play. How can the show go on? The answer, of course, is to get a random member of the audience to step in. Say It Again Sorry also play fast and loose with the original script, so Lady Bracknell now asks Earnest/Jack/audience member to rate on a scale of 1-10 his ability to give Gwendolynn a good seeing-to, and there’s also a swasbuckling swordfight added in (just because). But why settle for one stand-in when you can have more stand-ins for alcoholic Gwendolynn, and Lady Bracknell who refuses to work with amateurs, half a dozen hastily-added butlers, and – eventually – the entire remaining audience as wedding guests (just because). You get the idea. But this madcap play works tightly and deals with unpredictable audience interact well to make it a lot of fun. But if you see it, see it in person.

A red square: This one is, without a doubt, the most different of all the online entries I’ve seen – and possibly the entire fringe. Everything else has a video or audio of some sort of performance. This, however, is an animation that is not only created in Powerpoint but viewed in Powerpoint. The lead character is a red square who falls in love with another red (slightly more maroon) square, and they adopt a baby red square together. But after maroon square drowns in a beach accident, Red Square must bring up his child alone. (I’m not sure if red squares have genders, but Liam Neeson eventually plays Red Square in the film adaptation, I’m guessing it’s a he.) But when child square drifts away in a helium balloon floating incident, Daddy Red Square must get his child back. And in the course of the investigation, Red Square find a portal to the computer desktop his world was made in.

With this being so far out from what I normally review, there’s little I can compare this to. One thing I will say fro the perspective of someone who does a day job in IT is that I wouldn’t have sent out powerpoint files to viewers. Although it is fitting poetically to view a Powerpoint-based play in Powerpoint, and it allowed for some customisations not possible elsewhere (such as Julian Caddy appearing in this Brighton Fringe edition), it was I think more throuble than it was worth. I found it a faff to get it to work, and 220MB files do not play nicely with a lot of computers. Whilst less adventurous, I would have used the video format like the trailer did, which I found quite effective, and more versatile for sound. Other than that, the play is highly surrealistic, sometimes as naturalistic as a red square family can be, at other times highly absurd – I just wondered if sometimes I miss something because of an in-joke. But I can recommend this for being as a different as a fringe entry can be.

Head or Tails: The last one is a return to filming of a conventional stage play, this one through the Living Record platform. This time, however, the filming is a lot more “talking heads” style which suits a monologue of this format. Steph (Skye Hallem), who died aged 25, has been given 40 minutes to return to the land of the living to tell us about what it’s like in the afterlife. In this gentle-paced speech over five parts, she tells us how much more relaxed and contented things are in eternity, in a bit to encourage those on us on earth to take heed and make the most of our time on this side.

What the play had an irritating habit of, however, was bringing up some of the big subjects but never resolving them. We hear that God is aware of all the questions of why such an all-powerful entity would allow Donald Trump and Coronavirus and millennia of wars, and we hear that God has low points and accepts there were screw-ups – but Steph changes the subject before going further. Another promising lead is when Steph starts to broach the subject of her own death, but switches to general life advice before resolving this. It is only in the last fifth of the play where things start to get really interesting and emotive. In earth, people eventually forget the departed, but the memories Steph has of the living stay with her forever. That, I think, is where the real story lies.

Thursday 1st July:

Sorry, remainder of online reviews will have to wait until tomorrow. Having a bit a of a crisis here.

What I will report is that the first Edinburgh fringe tickets have gone on sale. I said less that Sunday that anything under 350 entries (the equivalent number when Brighton opened sales) would be a jaw-dropper. Well, it’s 180. Almost half. Jaws have officially dropped.

There is some mitigating news though. The only major venues to have put tickets on sale straight away are Space and Summerhall. We are still expecting more entries from the Big Four, C Venues, Zoo Venues, and the two Free Fringe venues. Edinburgh will need to quadruple its numbers if it’s to move ahead of Brighton, but I still think that’s achievable. But the fact that Brighton is even in the running for UK’s largest fringe this year is absolutely gob-smacking.

Wednesday 30th June:

Before I sign off, I did a late catch-up with online theatre I was asked to review. I’m maybe not the best judge of online work, because I focus in a theatre in a way I never really to in front of a computer screen. As such, I’ll keep the feedback concise – as always, anyone who wants further feedback is welcome to ask.

What did strike me about this overall, however, was the sheer variety of how “online” is being done. Out of everything I’ve seen so far, each one took a different approach to the medium. Here’s a review of three; I’ll do the other three tomorrow.

The Old House: Out of all the online pieces I saw, this was the closest to an in-person performance. Originally meant for Brighton Fringe 2020, it was performed as a conventional play for streaming, first for the Actor’s Centre on Demand season and now for Brighton Fringe. A solo play written and performed by Kate Maravan, she plays both daughter and mother. Daughter is driving her mother to “The Old House”, one-time a holiday home they used to go to – but when she has to explain repeatedly where they’re going, along with every other aspect of the journey. The mother has Dementia, and this journey is an attempt to bring some memories she can relate to. The daughter also has some difficult memories of her own to deal with.

Maravan has based this on her experiences with her own mother, and she knows her stuff. Much has been made of her playing both characters, and she plays them both well and seamless switches between the two. However, tin doing this, I feel this has missed out on something important – this is the sort of play where it’s not just about delivering your lines; it’s also about how you react to other character’s lines. The moment when she realises here mother no longer knows her daughter’s name or age is heartbreaking – but we don’t get to see the impact at the vital moment. I may be in the minority here, as lots of people seem to like this solo format, but if Kate Maravan would consider a two-hander, I’d be happy.

And Helen: Whilst most online performances have gone for some sort of streamed video, the Coily Dart Theatre Company has gone for an audio production. There is a case for doing this. Simply filming a stage performance can feel like a substitute for the real thing, but doing something more like a screenplay puts you in competition with people who do better. However, audio plays are relatively easy to do to a comparable production standard as Radio 4. This is a musical in the style about Gilbert and Sullivan about a name few remember. D’Oyly Carte is known for the opera company who brought G&S to the world, but amongst the historians, Helen Black holds an important part of history. Originally a secretary to Richard D’Oyly Carte and eventually his wife, she’s a prime example that – for all the stupid barriers put in the way of women in the 19th century – you could still achieve great things by making yourself indispensable.

I do think, however, Coily Dart underestimated how difficult the task is they set themselves. Writing play about Helen would have been easy enough, but writing anything in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan – as they are doing here – is a huge challenge. The songs are done well and suit the style, both in terms of music and lyrics, but to really pull it off, the dialogue needs to match the style too. Someone, you’d have to find a way to tell Helen’s story with late Victorian prose without sacrificing clarity, and surely you have to take up the opportunity to lampoon civil service bureaucracy. I really like the concept of this, but there’s work to be done to give Helen the tribute she deserves.

Devil’s food cake: This one took an approach I’ve not any group do before. It’s one of the online plays done on Zoom or something similar, but rather than just read out the lines, or reframe the play as a chat over Zoom/Skype/etc, Putney Theatre Company tries to make a conventional play out of it. With a cast of five, with three living in one house, they pull a few tricks to make two or more different locations look like the same place. Conversations between mother and daughter take place through doors (in real life two different houses), and 18th birthday bunting in put over two scenes to make it look like a family of four sitting round a table. Some techniques worked less well though: having a parent and a psychologist sitting sideways in two different rooms to make it look like they’re talking to each other is a bit much to believe. I would have just done that as a normal Zoom call – I think we have a valid enough reason why the doctor wouldn’t want people turning up in person at the moment.

I won’t dwell on that too much though – this approach, innovative though it is, will at some point become redundant. What we hope last longer is the play. Presumably written originally as a conventional stage play, it’s about a teenager who’s teetering into anorexia, and the effect is has not just on her but her family. It was nearly ten years ago that I saw the excellent Mess, but already things have changed – now there’s a whole load of websites telling you why it’s good to anorexic, and how to hide it from people who want to help you. However, I do feel this play falls foul of the common mistake of writing lines to be read. There’s a of details – and correct – technical information in the play, but in real life people don’t normally talk that way. One good scene is when Dad stumbles across said pro-anorexia sites when trying to find the opposite, thanks to irresponsible algorithms on social media – but you don’t need to the other daughter to spell out how this works. My advice would be not to underestimate your audience – they are better at picking things up than you think. Concentrate instead on developing the characters, and that will convey the message with a lot more power.

That’s me halfway. Hope to complete this tomorrow.

Tuesday 29th June:

Should probably sound one other note of caution about Edinburgh Fringe. Not wishing to stoke up too much panic, but the Coronavirus case rates in Edinburgh are pretty horrendous at the moment, and, worse, they seem to be doubling every week with no sign of a let-up. At the moment, the Scottish Government’s position seems to be that there’s nothing to worry about as vaccination will get things under control. I am used to this kind of complacency from Boris Johnson, but I’m surprised to get this attitude from Nicola Sturgeon, whose careful-careful approach earned her a lot of respect. I hope I’m wrong, but I worry that these two have suddenly gone into a contest of boasting over whose vaccination programme is the most awesomest.

The counter-argument is that’s it’s only cases that are skyrocketing and it’s we’re okay as long as hospitalisation and deaths numbers stay low, but that feels like a risky assumption to me. I still think the health risk is bearable, but the problem with a complacent approach is that complacency is easily replaced with panic. The knee-jerk reaction to ban travel to Scotland from Manchester – even though Edinburgh has a way higher infection rate – suggests that politics is taking still taking precedence over pragmatism, and it would be really easy to issue euqally knee-jerk reactions against the Edinburgh Fringe to be seen to be doing something. Suffice to say if I was running a venue, I would really not be comfortable with committing to Edinburgh right now.

Changing the subject, I’ve started going through the online theatre review requests. I’ve seen most of them, got a couple to go, and hope to write up a few thoughts on each of them over the next couple of days. What I can say in general though is that I see what people mean about online being difficult to operate. The combination of ticketing and viewing over multiple different platforms does seem to be getting confusing. Can’t think of an obvious solution to this, and there’s 101 little issue to sort out rather than a few big ones, but it’s something to think about should online become a permanent addition.

Monday 28th June:

So as we go into extra time, let’s take a look at what’s coming up one last time. All of these are at The Warren.

My hot pick of extended fringe has to be Skank. This is one of the big success stories of the Greater Manchester Fringe, and one of the finest examples that you can come out of nowhere with a play everyone loves on the fringe circuit. Skank is a sort-of female Peep Show, but there is a twist to this. Mark and Jeremy will never change, but something happens in this to change things for Kate. 6.30 this Thursday and Friday.

We also have a return of The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007 (Wednesday next week, 10.00 p.m.) and Crime Scene Improvisation (Closing Sat/Sun next week, 4.15 p.m.) And running pretty much continuously at 9.30 p.m. from now on is Shit-Faced Shakespeare, who pretty much carried The Warren Outdoors as a viable venture last summer.

And, of course, Warren on the Beach is coming soon. Still no announcement of the line-up, but surely can’t be long.

Sunday 27th June:

And so we’re at the end of “core” fringe. I’m going to close this shortly; I’m not expecting anything particularly sensational to happen in the extended two weeks. However, I’m going to keep running a little longer to see what size Edinburgh Fringe we’re looking at. Tickets are now going on sale July 1st.

Three big caveats to mention here. Firstly, registrations numbers alone don’t tell everything. Prior to 2020, there was little doubt that Edinburgh Fringe was much bigger than Brighton Fringe, which in turn was much bigger than all the other fringes, no matter what measurement you use. If the numbers are close, however, it might make a difference. The other thing to be ware is that the numbers will increase after July 1st; Brighton Fringe’s numbers almost doubled between opening of ticket sales and opening of the fringe. Also, there’s in-person and online to consider – some people would argue that online doesn’t count.

I’m not going to try to unpick these factors until we have some info. But the baseline in 3,841 entries in 2019. Here’s what the numbers on Thursday might mean.

Over 1,500: Cause for celebration, under the circumstances. 1,500 is a 60% reduction, which was the forecast last summer, before the outlook got much much worse. If they surpass this figure, we’re looking at an impressive turnaround.

1,000 – 1,500: Edinburgh Fringe remains the undisputed king of the fringe circuit. Brighton gets close to 1,000 in a normal year, so if it clears this hurdle they will have a convincing lead.

650 – 1,000: Edinburgh Fringe remains in the lead, but with Brighton Fringe snapping at its heels, even if there’s no push to expand. They’ll have to count on regaining lost ground in 2022.

350-650: Edinburgh’s title is in trouble. They are below Brighton 2021’s eventual numbers – they will have to count on late registrations in the last month if they want to gain ground.

Under 350: A jaw-dropper. Below Brighton at the start of their ticket sales, would need a surge in last-minute registrations to get ahead. Edinburgh may still be ahead in terms of ticket sales or performances, but the fact it is behind on any measure would be a bombshell. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s game over for Edinburgh, but it will throw things wide open.

So yes, Thursday’s a big news day.

Saturday 26th June:

So, we’ve had a very different Brighton Fringe – but must all these changes be temporary? it’s entirely possible that Brighton Fringe might decide it likes some of the changes made out of necessity and stick with it.

For this exercise, I am ignoring the possibility of Covid restrictions continuing into 2022 and instead looking at changes that may persist without. The possibilities I can think of are:

Brighton fringe in June – likely: I honestly wasn’t expecting this to stick – whilst attendance in this June fringe was a success, I did notice that hot afternoons and England matches did have an adverse effect on those shows on at the wrong time. But at the Future of Brighton Fringe online meeting that I dropped into, apparently the vast majority of people who have an opinion on this decided they liked it. The main reason is that most people think May is too crowded, with Brighton Festival and The Great Escape on at the same time; it was also noted that June is a better time for student participation. There was a consensus that May half term should remain part of the fringe, but as the first week rather than the last one.

Warren on the beach – too early to say: We’ll have to wait and see how a second summer does before making any predictions here. But the one-off pop-up venue has already become a two-off. I suspect a lot of this will depend on the national trend for summer alternatives to the Edinburgh Fringe. If big names decide they prefer Assembly Garden and Underbelly Festival to the Edinburgh Fringe, my guess is The Warren outdoors will have the same fortunes.

Extended fringe – too early to say: Whilst there was a lot of enthusiasm for a June fringe, there was little mention of carrying on six-week runs at Warren and Spiegeltent. However, if Warren on the Beach becomes permanent, it might make sense to carry on running the pop-up venues until then. Which would raise the question: how would the other venues feel about that? But I’ll wait for an answer to the previous question before speculating too much.

Web-only programme – unlikely (in the short term): Whilst everyone agrees the decision to dispense with the paper programme was a necessary one, it’s not been a welcome one. There have been multiple complaints over the website not being as easy to use as the Daily Guide in the programme. That could be addressed, but the other issue is some people simply not being used to online brochures at all. It’s not a “no, never”, but the strong consensus is that Brighton Fringe is not ready to run without the paper programme, in spite of the expense.

Big pop-up outdoor venues – probably not: I have no inside knowledge over this one, but I can’t see the McElderry and the Oil Shed continuing any more than they need to. If it was me, I’d want to get back the multitide of smaller spaces and lighting capability as soon as possible. Warren on the Beach will probably remain outdoors though, should it go ahead. The performances against the sunset is something special.

Online programme – maybe: Strictly speaking, online theatre has never been disallowed – it’s just that Brighton (along with most other fringes) made it easier to integrate online streaming, either directly through the website, or through third parties. However, online theatre has persisted longer than most people expected, with three platforms (SpaceUK, Living Record and Sweetstream) emerging to host online work. One possibilty that’s been floated is a separate online festival (probably in winter) when there can be an online focus. This will probably depend on the overall future of online – that is still up in the air – but if it prevails, Brighton will probably be part of it.

Relocated Fringe City – maybe: I admit I’m the only person I kno who’s pondered this, but I think Jubillee Street might be a better location than New Road just to the south. There was a time when it made sense to put Fringe City on the busiest street to get attention, but if you’re flyering it’s a pain to waork out who is and isn’t there for the fringe. A self-contained hub might make more sense now.

Snapping at Edinburgh’s heels – no: Depending on how much damage has been done to Edinburgh Fringe 2021 through dithering, Brighton might come close to being the UK’s largest fringe, or even overtake. However, this has barely registered with Brighton. There was a big – and successful – push to expand Brighton up to 2016, but there’s zero interest in pushing further. As far as they’re concerned, Brighton Fringe may expand further if more people want to take part, but don’t expect any more proactive pushes.

Or I might get this catastrophically wrong again. You have my permission to take copies of this and laugh and point it the opposite of my predictions comes true.

Friday 25th June:

So as we approach the end of “core” fringe, time for a second look at review coverage. When I last looks at review coverage, at the start, I noticed that initial coverage was good, but the question remained over whether Broadway Baby, Fringe Review and Reviews Hub would stay the course. Review publications have tailed off in mid-fringe before, might that happen this time. Well, the answer appears to be no. I haven’t done much number crunching here, but reviews appear to have come out at an even pace throughout the fringe.

One other caveat I didn’t mention but nonetheless needs considering is how generous the reviews are. It became an open secret last year, when live theatre productions were far and few between, that reviewers were being a lot more supportive than usual – some people even did the analysis and noted that hardly any one- or two-star ratings were given. Well, there’s no obvious sign of this happening here. I don’t remember seeing any one-stars, but I’ve seen a fair number of twos. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no leniency – it might just not be so blatant this time – but it does mean you can take the good reviews more seriously than a participation prize.

I haven’t monitored other reviews that music precisely because of the uncertainty over reliability. However, there is one thing that stands out: Jekyll and Hyde: A one-woman show is doing exceptionally well. A five-star from Broadway Baby, and an “Outstanding” from FringeReview (whose ratings are confusing, but Outstanding is still considered an equivalent to five stars). I will hopefully get to see for myself in Buxton shortly, but this could be a front runner for best reviewed new play.

Thursday 24th June – Police Cops: badass be thy name:

Before I come into this review, a regrettable entry in the chrisontheatre corrections corner. When I had previously covered the lastest in the Police Cops trilogy, it was incorrectly suggested that our hero, a 90s raver from Madchester, teams up with a samurai to slay vampires. It has now come to my attention that the vampire slayer is not a samaurai but a vampire-slaying priests. That was an unacceptable oversight as everyone knows priests in horror movies make a living out of this sort of thing. The person responsible for this shoddy journalism has been sacked.

Anyway, on with business. Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name continues the Pretend Men’s format of trying to condense as many cliches as possible into a single hour, this time going for as many tropes involving vampires and unlikely mentor/apprentice pairings – only this time, the hero the opposite of the trope, our aforementioned raver. Stuck in his monotonous dead-end job, he suddenly sees vampires, and a mysterious vampire slaying priest (not samurai) slaying them. How come he see them when no-one else can? Will this tie in with the unexplained disappearance of his father? Will the priest have a surname of “Badass” in order create an incredibly corny double-meaning of the title of this play?

It is fair to note this trio’s performance was a little rusty, but if anyone can be forgiven for a slightly rusty performance, it’s them. This was easily the complex high-energy devised performance out of everything I saw, and I’m sure they’ll be back at Edinburgh Fringe Pleasance Dome standard in no time. It was also a little unlucky that they had an outdoor venue, because this did have a few scenes which were designed with a dark lighting plot in mind. Luckily, both of this disadvantages can be spun into advantages. As Police Cops fans will know, their longest running joke is their use of crummy props to recreate whatever effects a big-budget movie would do with expensive CGI. Early visual gags such as insides of coats forming vending machines and ping-pong balls for drug-induced eyeballs bring the house down, so when someone forgets to stand in the right place or a hidden figure meant to take us by surprise shows up in broad daylight, qupis and swift recoveries at to the humour.

There is only one worry I have about this, and it follows on from the same observation with Police Cops in Space. The Pretend Men are excellent at getting laughs, but sometimes I wonder if they pursue laughs for the sake of it. Yes, I know it’s a comedy, and a silly comedy designed for laugh-a-minute, but even these stories benefit from consistent characters. Even if the character is a movie cliche. Perhaps I’ve been overdosed on arses – this is Brighton after all – but I have the Devil pulling a moony in mind as an example; that, I feel, undermined an opportunity for a conclusion to the funnier threads about how Lucifer was only evil because the other angels picked on him and pulled to lady angels he fancied. Sometimes it’s better to sacrifice one laugh and get something better elsewhere.

But, hey, who am I to care? No-one’s marking this on character development, they’re marking this on fun, and this is exactly what it delivers. The socially distanced version of The Warren might not be the best venue for this show, but I’m sure they’ll be back indoors in no time and make the best of this again.

Wednesday 23rd June:

One quick note from Brighton. I dropped on the virtual “Future of Brighton Fringe” meeting on Tuesday. Will look at this in more detail when I’m less busy, but in the meantime: one notable detail:

As we all know by now, Brighton Fringe moved back three weeks on the bet (a correct bet, as it turned out) that you would be allowed to perform by the end of May. Until now, I’d assumed this would be temporary and would change back for next year. A June fringe out of necessity was one thing, but hot afternoons and football between them seemed to be denting audiences in some performances.

But wait … it turns out the overwhelming consensus is that most people like the new dates. There is a mood that the late May bank holiday should stay in the fringe dates, but they’d be happy for the rest to stay as it is.

Expect an 80%+ chance of this happening. And expect an even busier summer for those of us who do both Brighton and Edinburgh.

Tuesday 22nd June:

Finally, we have a decision from the Scottish Government – and it’s not too bad. I might be only saying this because my expectations were already at rock bottom, but if we ignore for a moment the questions over how much sooner this decision could have been taken and just look at the announcement in isolation, it’s broadly good news.

So, “Freedom Day” in Scotland is now down as August 9th, down, so the Scottish Government claims, to the success of their vaccine programme. I have some issues with that claim, but this is a theatre blog and not a politics blog so let’s move on. That would allow most of the Edinburgh Fringe to go ahead without restrictions. Before then, however, the stupid rule over 2 metres for performing arts gets changed to 1 metre on July 19th. That is important. There is no guarantee that the August 9th date will stick (and certainly not in Edinburgh where the figures are currently quite concerning). A two week slippage that causes Edinburgh to have to stick with one metre is manageable – after all, Brighton and Buxton are managing with a slippage at this very moment. But an unexpected change from 0m to 2m would be a disaster. I would not have been happy going ahead without this buffer.

However, accompanying this is finally some news of meaningful financial support. I previously said that support for the festival fringe society is not enough – you also need support for the venues. Well, they have gone for support of some outdoor events, in conjunction with the Big Four and a few of the more artsy ones such as Summerhall. Of course, something organised at this short notice doesn’t apply to all venues, so expect grumbles from those who haven’t been supported. The bigger frustration, however is why this took so long. With outdoor events the one thing that was never in doubt, this support could have be arranged two months ago, and done more fairly. Suffice to say that whilst the venues see this as a positive move, they aren’t exactly queuing up to thank Nicola Sturgeon with tears in their eyes.

Too little too late? Probably not are far as “too little” goes – the changes in rules and the support should make a meaningful difference. But as for “too late”? Maybe. Is six weeks really enough time to turn things round? We will find out shortly.

Monday 21st June:

I’m on a sound job for the next three days, so coverage is going to be minimal, but there’s a couple more recommendations I plain forgot about.

Firstly, I forgot Rebel Boob for Speak Up act Out. This was inspired by the artistic director’s own battle with breast cancer, but it looks at the journey to recovery and restarting a life put on hold rather than the fight against cancer itself. Their last Brighton Fringe work, Between You and Me, was very perceptive, so lots of promise here. Brighton Girls’ School, Thursday and Saturday, 7.30.

However, the play I completely missed and would have gone straight to Safe Choice had I seen it is You, a two-hander play about adoption, that tells the story from all perspectives: the birth parents, the adaptive parents, and the child himself. Acclaimed for being moving, it started tonight. After that, it runs tomorrow, Wednesday and Sunday at 7.30 at The Warren.

So apologies for lateness there. Tomorrow, however, is the big day. Exactly what sort of Edinburgh Fringe 2021 are we going to see?

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2021

Groups sitting outside the Pavillion
Credit: Dumphasizer

Skip to: Badass Be Thy Name, About the Garden, Skank, The Tragedy of Dorian Grey, Jekyll & Hyde: A one-woman show, Rebel Boob, Clean, Spirit of Woodstock, The Ugly Ducking, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, Dapha Baram, Notflix, Geoff Mead’s tours

Well then. Who’d have guessed it?

This time last year, I idly speculated 2020 might work in Brighton Fringe’s favour. With Edinburgh Fringe cancelled and Brighton only postponed, an autumn fringe that picked up Edinburgh refugees might have done well. In the end, Coronavirus was just too stubbornly persistent for any fringe to be considered a winner – in fact, we now know the financial situation at Brighton was so dire it was a miracle an October Fringe went ahead at all. As it was, it about a tenth of the normal size, with attention rapidly shifting towards a proper relaunch in 2021 for both Brighton and Edinburgh. Then along came the accursed Kent variant, and Brighton announced a delay of three weeks. Would that be enough?

But in the last couple of months, there has been a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. In the end, Brighton has managed a fringe about half the size of 2019. There are some caveats to this number which I’ll cover shortly, but the news that nobody predicted comes north of the border. The Scottish government is insisting on two-metre social distancing, which as it stands will extend into August, much to the protest of Scottish theatres. It is difficult for a conventional theatre to work that way, but for a fringe theatre it’s next to impossible. As a result, so far all of the major venues have held off announcing anything. At the time of writing, news is emerging for the first fringe registrations, making use of some of Edinburgh’s biggest buildings and outdoor spaces, but that’s tiny compared to what the Big Four normally do.

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Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2020

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

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

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

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

What I learned about Brighton 2020

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

2020: the fragmented fringe

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

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

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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