I know, I’ve got into the habit of not properly writing up the fringes until the autumn, but this time I’ve had the excuses of several major projects keeping me busy. But it’s about time to do the retrospective. Almost everything you read here has already been in my Brighton Fringe live coverage, but collated together into something more orderly. I may also have some new thoughts, but many of the reviews will be reprints of what I wrote the first time round.
Oh boy, what a bumpy ride this has been across the fringe circuit. There were plenty of arguments going on at Edinburgh Fringe, but nothing was quite so sensational as the biggest venue in Brighton pulling out at short notice. There is a lot more being said about The Warren off the record than on the record, and I’ll have to be limited over what I say about that for now, but I can talk about the effect this has had on the rest of the fringe. It’s a lot.
Most of this roundup will be collating all the reviews into one place, but we begin with the overview:
What went down at Brighton Fringe
The first thing I will say is that, for all of the shitshows going on this year, the standard of the play I saw at Brighton Fringe was exceptional. Yes, the more good acts you get to know, the more likely to are to have a good fringe, but I don’t think that explains it here. Most of what I saw was based on review requests, mostly acts I’d never seen before, but even where I bought my own tickets, the two best ones where artists I’d never heard of before. And other people have been giving similar verdicts to me.
But we’ll get back to that later. Apart from that, here were the other, mainly more eye-catching, changes:
Decentralisation of venues:
In the years leading up to 2022, The Warren had been by far the dominant venue. It was getting close to the point where The Warren’s influence over Brighton Fringe was as big as the Big Four in Edinburgh. But if any one of The Pleasance or Assembly or Gilded Balloon or Underbelly ceased trading tomorrow, the other three would easily cover the gap. With the implosion of The Warren, however, would there be anything left that could be considered a fringe?
And we leave you with the news that Edinburgh Fringe has announced its numbers for this year: it’s 3,131 registrations.
That would put this at 82% the size of the 2019 peak of 3,841 registrations and be more comparable to 2014’s size of 3,193. But but but but but but but but but but but but … as we have been hearing from several anecdotal sources, a lot of people appear to be opting for runs over part of the fringe. Treat anecdotes with caution though: we have heard this before and it turned out to be wrong. What we really need is the number of performances. I don’t easily have a number available for 2019, but in 2014 it was 49,497. As soon as I have a number for you, I will let you know.
The news coming out on the same day, however, is the publication of a strategy for reform. There’s no sign of wavering on open access (quite rightly), but there’s a lot of interesting initiative to address the criticisms. We are winding up Brighton Fringe coverage here so I will go into details another day, but the notable one: they seem to be pulling their finger out on venues with poor employment practices. It surely cannot have escaped their attention that Brighton Fringe took action against their worst offender (albeit with help from the local council, apparently).
But that’s for another post. Thank you for everyone who’s been following this, and especially thank you to everyone who invited me for review and putting an an exceptional standard. Whatever challenges continue at Brighton, let’s hope that this is something that sticks.
Goodbye, and thanks for following me over the month.
Wednesday 8th June:
So that’s a wrap from Brighton Fringe. A recap on how it went:
Sadly, the news that dominated Brighton Fringe was the implosion of The Warren. It was impossible to get away from this. I have never heard so much anger expressed over one venue. I am not done writing about The Warren; now that I have reviews out of the way I intend to embark on some more extensive fact-checking. In the meantime, I think I can say the situation is sufficiently serious to throw into doubt a return for The Warren next year, or even ever.
In fact, pretty much everything notable about Brighton Fringe 2022 is related directly or indirectly to The Warren’s woes. The most obvious one is that without the biggest venue, there was no chance of recovering to the size of 2016-2019. As far whether Brighton Fringe can recover without The Warren, or whether it should do – well, that’s a debate that will be rumbling on for some time yet.
The most notable effect is that after years or moving towards a cluster of venues in central Brighton, we have suddenly reverted to a fringe spread all over the city. This is partly down to the disappearance of The Warren, but also down to relocations of Sweet Venues and Junkyard Dogs to Hove and Kemptown respectively (for unrelated reasons, the timing being a pure coincidence). Sweet and Junkyard are both hedging their bets on building up hyper-local followings in their respective neighbourhoods and seem quite optimistic about how it’s going so far. The down-side is that you can no longer count on hopping from one venue to another in 20 minutes.
There are mixed reports on how ticket sales went. It certainly wasn’t a repeat of 2021 when punters came back in greater numbers than anyone was expecting. The one consistent observation is that Friday-Sunday is doing much better business than Monday-Wednesday. Overall, ticket sales appear to be comparable with 2015 levels, which for a fringe of roughly 2015 size looks sustainable.
The fringe programme too has gravitated back to a weekend-centric format, with little or no performances on offer before 6 p.m. on weekdays. The cause of this isn’t particularly dramatic, however – it’s a lot more to do with how the venues taking part this year happened to be programming their events anyway. The only notable change is that venues are pulling back from Monday performances, with many of them opting for a rest day (and subsequent audience numbers suggesting this was a good call).
There has been various concerns raised about Brighton Fringe 2022 not being that visible. Perhaps Brighton Fringe was over-reliant on the big pop-ups from Warren and Spiegeltent to give the message the fringe is on – and without The Warren, fewer people got the message. Perhaps Brighton needs to take lessons from Buxton, who doesn’t leave it to the venues and goes to town to show it’s fringe time.
The Daily Diary that was supposed to replace the traditional paper programme has had a mixed response. Not everyone is subscribing to the idea that you can look up what’s on at a certain time then move to the internet to see what it is (although it’s definitely an improvement on trying to work out what’s on when using the website). With Edinburgh and Buxton reverting to paper programmes the future of this initiative looks in doubt – if they are the stick with it, at the very least they need better integration of booklet to website via QR code.
The big winner of Brighton Fringe 2022 has to be The Rotunda. Originally intending to come to Brighton with the pop-up dome they already had for three weeks, they huge amount of demand from performers caused them to scale up to two pop-up domes over four weeks, bringing forward their plans for a second space. And their programme has been just as prominent as the more long-standing counterparts such as Sweet, Spiegeltent and Rialto. If The Warren really is gone for good, the vacated spot in Victoria Gardens must be tempting – although they are understandably steering clear of trying to be too much like The Warren.
And finally, the good news: it really does look like the standard of this year’s Brighton Fringe has been exceptional. Yes, there has been a lot of good will ever since the pandemic, but even taking this into account there seems to have been an unusually high standard. I’ve seen far more glowing reviews than usual, and where I have seen these plays myself, I can vouch these reviews were earned. And for why there’s been such a high standard – that’s anyone’s guess. Brighton Fringe might be struggling with quantity, but it’s certainly succeeding on quality.
Tuesday 7th June:
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Who is pick of the fringe?
Couple of disclaimers before I do this. Firstly, an obvious reminder that this is not a list of the top plays at the Brighton Fringe – I can only base it on what I saw. I do not actively seek out the plays I believe to be the best, with reasons for choosing plays ranging from review requests to simply what was on at the right time, right place. It’s best to think of this as a cross-section of plays out there that I rate. Secondly, and this uniquely applies to this fringe: I’m going to have to be VERY choosy. The standard of what I’ve seen at this Brighton Fringe has been truly exceptional, and were I not to raise the bar the list would be ridiculously long. So some of the plays in the honourable mention list would have made it to pick of the fringe in an earlier year.
So here we are. Don’t get too excited about being top of a list, it’s sorted merely by the order I saw them. We have:
Pick of the fringe:
0.0031% Plastic and chicken bones (Ike Award) The Formidable Lizzie Boone Vermin The Huns Moral Panic Underdogs The Time Machine (Ike Award) No One The Ballad of Mulan
The Unforgettable Anna May Wong Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me Mala Sororibus Sex, Lies and Improvisation Labyrinth The Last A Pole Tragedy Fragile
Special Honourable Mention:
Room (for inventing a new genre)
And, as you may have noticed, I’ve given a second one of these.
0.0031% Plastic and chicken bones was borderline, so I decided to wait and deliberate on this, but in the end, it earns it for the same reason as a time machine: everything delivered well apart from one thing that was superb, in this case the delivery of the story that slowly reveals a future that’s not utopian as it looks.
All of these review will be collated into my Brighton Fringe roundup in due course (I’m actually going to try to do it this month rather than my usual embarrassing delay until November). Thanks again to everyone for showing me what you can do. This is not a stock platitude: this genuinely was an exceptional fringe.
Monday 6th June:
Looking ahead to Durham Fringe and good news from the Vault Festival
That’s the end of both Brighton Fringe and my reviews, but we’re not quite done with the coverage yet. We are staying with this until Thursday for the final tally of Edinburgh Fringe, which will have a lot of bearing on Edinburgh and Brighton’s relationship to each other. In the meantime, let’s take another look at what’s still to come. We’ve already looked at Buxton and Greater Manchester Fringes, what else is coming up.
Durham Fringe is certainly one to watch. As I am running a venue in that one you won’t find me doing my usual coverage of hot takes galore – I have a different responsibility to promote this festival. We don’t quite have a final announcement of the programme, but I understand we’re looking at 60-70 registrations, around double last year. What I’m not sure about is how many of these acts are indeed calling at Durham Fringe on the way to Edinburgh Fringe. That was, after all, the reason for doing this the week before Edinburgh begins. There again, last year when there was hardly any Edinburgh Fringe go to, Durham Fringe ran perfectly well with almost entirely non-touring local acts. I’ll get back to you when Edinburgh Fringe coverage starts when I know how that went.
Looking further ahead, today’s breaking news from the Vault Festival is that they have announced a date for opening of applications, on roughly a normal timescale. That is probably a cause for relief. As I reported back in January when Vault 2022 was cancelled at the last moment, this was dangerous from a financial perspective, having done almost all of the outlay for no income – and the precedent from Brighton is that without a bailout, it might not be possible to put on a festival the following year. However, somehow they have defied that precedent. Maybe they have robust cancellation insurance, maybe a low-key appeal for donations did the job, or maybe their Vault Festival has deeper pockets that we know about, but it looks okay. I hope they’re not doing anything stupid with their accounts like The Warren appears to have done in Brighton.
And finally, changing the subject, I got a vote for the Offies. Underdogs won, and Vermin and No One were amongst the finalists, all of which were obviously strong contenders. But who is in my pick of the fringe? I announce this tomorrow.
Sunday 5th June – The Time Machine:
An excellent play to round off reviews
And now, on the last day of the fringe, it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. And it’s been a wait for five years. Brighton Fringe almost got one of these in 2019 with Be More Martyn, but I saw that after Brighton Fringe and not during it so it may not quite count. This time, however, I have seen it in the right location in the right month. For the first time since Between You and Me in 2017, here it is:
To earn my equivalent of five stars, you don’t need full marks across every category, but you can get this through a good across-the-board performance in all other areas – and one aspected of the play that is brilliantly original and brilliantly executed. And for The Keeper’s Daughter, the thing that earns my highest accolade is, quite fittingly, the time machine. Steampunk fans will be please to know that the machine on stage is everything you expect from the style of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and more, and whilst it doesn’t literally travel through time, it comes a close second. The machine provides all of the sound and lighting throughout the performance, operated by Mark Finbow who plays our intrepid inventor at the same time.
But the technical wizardry doesn’t come straight away. We first of all see our Dickensian Doctor Who busy recharging his contraption. Having previously neglected to check where and when he is, he discovers to his unpleasant surprise it’s 2022, and he’d rather be on his way if you don’t mind. But with another 55 minutes before he’s ready to go, he chooses to tell a story of an afternoon trip he once took eight hundred thousand years into the future to work up an appetite for the delicious lamb dinner he was due to have with his gentlemen friends that evening.
This story is a little simplified from the original H G Wells story, but is still very faithful: the intrepid traveller discovering that in the future, humankind have split into two species, with one peaceful and benign, the other malevolent and exploitative. In fact, the only notable change to the story is the reframing of the story-in-a-story format, originally told at the aforementioned dinner party, now told to the strangers met in a century the real author never got to see. But it’s when the time travelling starts that the performance really comes into its own. There is a lot of technical wizardry required to set up the light and music and sound and smoke (I caught a glimpse of the laptop that controls all of this but I’ll overlook that), but that’s only half the task. The hard bit is integrating this with the action being performed on stage. As anyone who has tried leaving and technical sequence running on stage knows, there are no room for mistakes here. Go out of sync once and the whole thing falls apart. This is executed flawlessly, combining spoken word, physical theatre and puppetry for our hero’s futuristic companion Weena all playing great parts in this performance.
As for how we wind this up – well, I don’t normally give away what happens in the final third of the play, but this end of this one is too good to ignore. Like Plastic and Chicken Bones, where there’s a traveller who’s seen the future, there a chance to tell something to people in the past. And this time, pardon the paraphrasing, it’s simply that’s it’s hard for one person to change the future, but maybe all of us can. And that’s a perfect round-off to a near-perfect production. Sadly the last performance was today, and there’s no other performances announced, but surely after the overwhelming acclaim this play is getting there will be more. What’s more, since it brings along its own tech, it doesn’t even need to be done in a theatre. Keep an eye out; this could be coming to a place near you, and it may be nearer than you think.
Saturday 4th June – Labyrinth:
In the style of the Greek tragedies
I’ve been slow to review this one because, to be honest, I’m not sure what to do with it. To explain the issue here, this is a play where you really need to know in advance what the play is about. That might seem like a stupid question – surely anyone who decides to see any play reads the publicity blurb first? If you are a reviewer or a hardcore fringer, however, it doesn’t always work like that. When you have half a dozen shows to schedule, any background reading that fed into choose what to watch can be forgotten. All I can be sure of knowing about a play I’m reviewing is the title, time and place.
“Today I killed a man” are Marta Carvalho’s fist words as she enters the stage, before embarking on an hour-long monologue in the style of a Greek Tragedy. She killed him, she says, without remorse, without pity. Already I’m thinking of which figure from Greek mythology she is representing. The obvious murderess that springs to mind is Medea, who was noted for her guilt-free killing spree. Then, I got a bit lost as to what the story was meant to be. It was only when I re-read the press release later that I realised this was supposed to be something different: a woman driven to kill a man she was in a toxic relationship with. (This contrasts with Medea; whilst Jason wasn’t exactly a model husband, she was an obvious psychopath long before he came along.) I fear I have missed something important from not knowing this important bit of background info.
Normally, I am quite harsh about plays I don’t follow. It is my long-standing position that it is the responsibility of the performers to make sure their plays are accessible to their intended audiences – and I especially have no time for people who blame their audiences for not thinking about the play deeply enough. But is it really fair to mark a play down in this situation? Most people who saw this play would have known the basics of what the play is supposed to be about; it is really only a subset of reviewers and the most hardcore of fringegoers who go into a play completely cold. That said, I do think it pays to not assume background knowledge for a play if you can avoid it. Prose in the style of a Greek tragedy isn’t the most accessible of language, but perhaps more emphasis on the abusive relationship at the start of the monologue (which is currently packed with the triumphalism) might have helped anyone on an early wrong track.
The presentation of the monologue was good though. Marta Carvalho’s delivery and conviction did the job, and the way it was staged was also fitting for the setting. Had scheduling not made this impossible, I would have watched this again to see if I picked up more the second time round. I don’t think there’s much more I can say about this. Ultimately, it comes down to what this play is meant to achieve. If it’s aimed at fans of classic literature who are familiar with the style of Greek tragedies, maybe there isn’t much more that needs to be done – after all, we rarely expect Shakespeare to be more accessible because you don’t know the plot to Romeo and Juliet. If it is supposed to be accessible to someone watching this cold – well, that’s where the hard work begins. Your call. Good luck either way.
Friday 3rd June:
Coming up in the final weekend
We’re into the final weekend. My big recommendation for this is The Time Machine. Review for this one is coming, but the short version I can give to you is that the Time Machine you see on stage is not just the chief prop/set – it also controls all the technical wizardry you see on stage, all coming from the machine itself.It is also a impressive showcase of one actor also operating all the tech himself. Two final performances coming tomorrow and Sunday at 4.30 p.m., the Rotunda.
And I was going to highlight the return of The Event but the last weekend’s performances have been cancelled. Ah well. See The Time Machine instead, same venue.
Thursday 2nd June:
News from Buxton and Greater Manchester fringe
Two reviews to go. Please bear with me. But cycling over the hills on Lincolnshire (yes, believe it or not, it does have hills if you know where to look for them) knocks the stuffing out of me. Until then, let’s have a look at the upcoming fringes and see where we are. Much focus is on who, if any, can get back to pre-Covid numbers. Brighton might have achieved it were it not for The Warren’s implosion, but how are other fringes doing.
Buxton Fringe seems to be nearly there. They are reporting 169 registrations in time for their programme deadline. Unlike Brighton, Buxton’s numbers have held steadily over the last decade, increasing slightly in 2017 when Underground Venues moved to the higher-capacity Old Clubhouse and The Rotunda started in Buxton. (There was also another increase in 2019, but that 40th anniversary fringe ran for an extra three days and isn’t quite a reliable comparison.) One small but annoying setback is that The Rotunda is only going to be around for part of Buxton Fringe this time – Wells Festival, running during the early part of Buxton Fringe, has proved too lucrative to ignore.
In the long term, the addition of a new smaller Rotunda space is an opportunity for Buxton Fringe. One thing Buxton’s never really recovered from is the loss of Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room, two excellent spaces for entry-level acts. The “squeak” dome we’ve seen at Brighton could do that job well. There’s a small question of where this could do – you probably could find space in the Pavilion Gardens but it might require some lateral thinking. But that’s jumping ahead. In spite of the absence of The Rotunda for half a Fringe, Buxton is probably the first to be able to say it’s back to normal.
Greater Manchester Fringe, however, is a bit more mysterious. In 2019, there was the prospect that this fringe might overtake Buxton, although with this fringe coverage an entire City Region the numbers weren’t directly comparable. At the time of writing, however, I count 61 registrations for Greater Manchester Fringe 2022. Unlike Buxton, there doesn’t appear to be any deadline here, and with most of GM Fringe taking place in year-round venues, I wonder if many acts are waiting until the last moment to register, and only when they’re certain. Or it might be that no-one can live up to former fringe boss Zena Barrie.
I’ll wait and see what happens this month before making any firm judgements. Tentatively, however, it looks like Buxton Fringe’s place and 3rd biggest fringe in the UK is safe.
Also, woo woo way the Queen woo yay. More fringe update tomorrow.
Wednesday 1st June – The Ballad of Mulan:
Review of Michelle Yim’s latest play
Another one of Michelle Yim’s plays now, that conveniently fit into a gap in the schedule. Her last two plays were about little-remembered East Asian women from the first half of the last century. Most people, however, have heard of Hua Mulan, if only through the Disney film. Michaelle Yim is determined to give an undisneyfied version of the legand.
Out of the three plays of hers I’ve seen, this one I think is the strongest by a convincing margin. This shouldn’t be too surprising: biopics of real historical are difficult to keep interesting without sacrificing accuracy, but the legend of Mulan has endured for a millennium and a half. Most historians now think it’s more likely she was the product of a storyteller’s imagination rather than a real character, but if that’s the same, it’s a storyteller who did the job well. The tale of a woman who took her father’s place in the army and rose to the rank of general over ten years certain stood the test of time.
Ross Ericson’s script, however, doesn’t so much follow the styles of Chinese Mythology. If anything, it’s got a lot more in common with the tales of World War One. There is no blow-by-blow account of Mulan’s rise through the ranks in her meteoric career; merely the events leading up to her first battle. On the one hand, we hear of how Mulan’s tomboy ways as a child would make her exactly the sort of woman who’s fall in the the man signing up for war. But the stronger part of the story is signing up to the army. There are plenty of fresh-faced conscripts excited to see something of the world and naive to the horrors that lie ahead; there’s also veterans from earlier campaigns, less eager to go through this again but kept going by the camaraderie of old friends from wars gone by.
Perhaps the winning formula here is Ross Ericson playing to his all-time number one strength. The Unknown Soldier was deservedly praised for its depiction of The Great War, encompassing both the catastrophe of war and the enduring human spirit. If the plan was to apply the same touches to another war, it’s worked well here. Mission accomplished here, because this is indeed her version Disney couldn’t do even they wanted to – however they approach things, they can never fully escape their expectations of being twee. Good choice of story from Grist to the Mill, and good job done.
Tuesday 31st May – Fragile:
Review of Fragile
For my north-east followers, one bit of important news for today (if you somehow missed this): we will find out this evening if County Durham has been named City of Culture 2025. That will be a big deal if they pull it off. More about this when we know either way.
Now, on to the next reviews. This one did very well at Brighton Fringe last year and it’s back for an encore. Agustina Dieguez Buccella has had a moment of triumph. She has single-handedly made it to the end of a trail. How’s that for everyone who said she couldn’t do this? Admittedly, the guy at the tourist information who she said was talking him down did make some fair points. For example, the trail is closed in the summer for a reason. Never mind, what does “closed” mean anyway? You can’t just fence off a long-distance path in the mountains – that just means there’s no organised tours. And who is this geezer at the tourist information office to say it’s not safe for a woman to do this on her own? That’s how she’s done everything before.
And that’s the point of this play. This isn’t an high-octave daredevil adventure on woman versus nature – it’s the parallels with the rest of her life. In the next scene, things aren’t going so well. She lets on that even in less dangerous globe-trotting adventures flitting from city to city, she always does that alone. And not just travelling alone – the people she meets along the way never become more than acquaintances. That, she admits, is the barrier she put up. And that’s the barrier she puts up in the rest of her life too. The advantage of being a strong independent woman is that no-one gets close enough to you to be able to hurt you. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way, and the more we learn of this, the more it seems Agustina latest solo adventure is her doubling down on doing things the way she always has.
This story is open based very heavily on personal experience. This is an approach I’ve seen done a lot and frequently backfires; all too often it’s twenty-somethings whose life experience hasn’t stretched beyond house-sharing and drama school romances – and still mistake it as something as unique and profound to share with he world. Buccella’s piece, however, succeed by doing the opposite. Rather than trying to be different and special, her experience of shuttering off emotions is something relatable and, from what I can gather, resonating with a lot of people.
The only thing that I thought slightly missed the mark was not making the most of the parallels between her way of doing a mountain adventure and her life in general. After such a promising build-up the mountain journey fades from prominence as the focus grows more and more on life decision in general. The reason I think this was sold short is that in Buccella’s real story, she was rescued from the mountain. That, to me, seemed like a perfect thing to leave in the story: as well as the added tension of how this story is going to end, this could have provided the perfect parallel ending on getting help on the mountain, and getting help in general. However, the play stands up without this because the story of her life is strong enough to carry it alone. One more performance of this on Thursday at 8.15, Laughing Horse at the Walrus. Worth catching, as this may be your last chance.
Monday 30th May:
Coming up in week 4
And we’re into the fourth and final week, so for the penultimate time, a look at what’s coming up. And it’s a short list this time. The main new starter is Aidan Goatley, whose wholesome stand-up coemdy I caught last year. His new show Tenacious started tonight and runs until Friday at Sweet @ The Poets at various times.
For the shows I’ve seen already, we’ve got a final performance of Vermin tonight at 9.30, which is any moment now, but better late than never, maybe. Fragile makes its last appearance this fringe on Thursday at 8.15 p.m. I have a review for this one coming, but in the meantime it’s worth a watch. Both of those are Laughing horse at The Walrus. And from Thursday to Sunday we have the absurdly self-referential The Event at The Rotunda, 6.15 p.m.
This isn’t a bit list, and that’s not entirely a coincidence. After years of week 4 being just another week of Brighton Fringe, this time theatre that isn’t family theatre seems to be winding down in the last week. Certainly The Rialto has chosen to sit out a final week this time round. And, to be fair, this was the original plan when a fourth week was added: something in half term to make use of daytimes available for family shows – instead, family shows tended to stick to weekends and regular theatre filled up the rest of the week. Now, this might be changing.
We don’t really have any post-Covid data to compare this to. We can’t do a direct comparison with 2021 because due to the postponement, half term was in the first week rather than the last (with the first week being a big relaunch). Will this be one of the last changes of 2022? We’ll have to wait at least a year for an answer, but I’ll be keeping an eye on this.
Sunday 29th May, 9.30 p.m. – Underdogs:
Review of The Foundry Group’s new play
Sorry for allowing things to go quiet. I had planned to do some more reviewing on the train, but for some reason the trains going north out of London were absolutely chocka. Just time time for one more then.
This is on of the Rialto’s headerliners. The Foundry Group has been one of the biggest names of the fringe circuit ever since their hit Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks. Now Joseph Nixon and Brian Mitchell are collaborating with a difference strange true story. Instead of a public obsession with two men pretending to fight each over every Saturday afternoon in the 1970s, it’s the equally strange obsession over a man who tried – and ultimately succeeded – in taking the (unofficial) world record for longest time being buried alive, seeking to retake the title in memory of his mother, who once held the world record in the 1970s.
That’s not really what the play is about, though. It will surprise no-one to learn that you can’t make a hour-long story of someone shouting “Come on, you can do it! You’re half-way, just lie there for another 72 days!” The theme is in the title, “Underdogs”. Geoff Smith is a slacker with no career, a string of broken relationships and children with two different mothers. Six months underground doesn’t feel that much of a loss when there’s not much else to do. But the more prevalent theme is the everybody being treated as underdogs. This stunt was of course an attention-grabber for the media at the time, but there is always a disdainful theme of the London media types behaving not only like they’re better than that loser with nothing better to do, but that they’re also better than all the other losers in Mansfield with nothing to do. Particular scorn is reserved for the “And Finally …” section of ITV news. And then, inevitably, comes the scummier side of the tabloid press – the moment anyone grabs a bit of flashpan fame, the press rake around their lives looking for anything to make them look bad. It doesn’t matter that it’s 20% truth and 80% conjecture and insinuation – who’s going to fight them in court?
The power dynamics in the team come into play to. The pub landlord who eggs Smith on has at least one eye on the future business prospects of his pub. His wife, on the other hand, wants nothing to with the scheme, but ends up as arguably Geoff’s only proper friend, without a stake in the game herself. I think this play could do with some tightening; 75 minutes is not too different a running time for a fringe, but I felt there were a number of digressions that knocked the momentum out of the story, albeit a story that is by its very nature not supposed to be fast-moving. The reason I said this is that Big Daddy versus Giant Haystack – which does share a lot of virtues with this play – had some similar issues in the early versions. However, this were all ironed out into a great finished product for Edinburgh. So some work to be done, but a good job so far on a concept many would write off as impossible to dramatise.
Sunday 29th May, 12.30 p.m. – No One:
Review of a physical theatre retelling of The Invisible Man
Well, time has beaten us to it again. That’s my second visit to Brighton wrapped up. 20 plays in 7 days spilt into two chunks. I have six outstanding reviews and let”s start with No One.
This is described a “remix” of The Invisible Man rather than an adaptation. Unlike Northern Stage, whose adaptation sought to encompass a wide part for the original story in a modern context, Akimbo Theatre concentrates on on key element of the story*: the relationship between Griffin and Marvel. In the original, Griffin is a scientist and Marvel is a homeless man who is easily manipulated into Griffin’s ally. In this version, far from homeless, Marvel is a successful university student – however, he is still socially introverted and still an easy target. The play begins as Marvel is being interrogated by the Police. A woman called Mia is missing, Marvel is in the frame, and it soon becomes clear that he’s covering for someone.
* : Actually, there is another theme that features. The discussion about whether Griffin can see with his eyes closed is a nod to a real earnest academic discussion on whether the Invisible Man was scientifically possible, believe it or not.
Akimbo Theatre are a physical dance troupe and that plays heavily into the production. An early scene replays CCTV footage where Marvel decks an entire pub in a pub fight. Another scene is where Marvel levitates a five-pound note into Mia’s hand. Both scenes are, of course, not what they seem, and when re-run later feature with Griffin in view The key relationship, however, is that Griffin is behind Marvel’s sudden career as a magician making all sorts of things levitate. Whatever anger Griffin had in Blackpool and whatever he did back there, he’s happy to make this his new project. However, Griffin can’t help getting into quite brutal fights on Marvel’s behalf, and thanks to the mask of social media and telephone, starts an online relationship with Mia who believes him to be Marvel. No chance of a love triangle – let’s just say Mia isn’t Marvel’s type – but we still know this is going to get messy.
I have to say, this blows the socks off Northern Stage’s production. To be fair to Northern Stage, we aren’t quite comparing the same thing there: one was a training exercise for new conventional actors; this is an physical theatre-heavy piece for an ensemble who executes it flawlessly. But ever where we compare like-for-like with the writing, Akimbo does it better. Northern Stage tried to take on a lot of issues and ended up confusing everyone, but Akimbo’s focus on one party of the story and fleshing it out works very well. I’ll give a score draw for the staging though, with both productions producing striking visual effects in their own ways.
That said, there was one bit of Akimbo’s plot that didn’t quite work. Having conveyed the tensions between Marvel and Griffin so well up to the concluding scene, it suddenly got confusing. There’s just been a row that’s broken Mia’s relationship and turned Griffin and Marvel on each other, but now they’re back at home and there’s a party and someone’s come to get Griffin and Mia’s still there? And when the inevitable fight breaks out, everybody seems to take a long time to react to someone being hurt. Something, I fear, has been lifted from the H G Wells story that doesn’t make sense in this new setting. Apart from the slightly muddled last ten minutes, however, this is an brilliantly-executed concept of physical theatre. There is one final performance to 6.00 p.m. today at the Rotunda, so catch it if you can.
Saturday 28th May, 7.45 p.m.:
News of grants to Edinburgh Fringe venues
Just one play to go now, but wow, the standard of what I’ve seen this fringe has been exceptional. It’s possible this has been influenced by the high number of press requests, but there’s also been a high standard of the tickets I bought myself, almost of all of which were chosen as gap-fillers in the schedule and nothing else. And damn, I’ve got a pick of the fringe coming up. I’m going to have to get VERY picky.
When we head into the last week, I will turn attention a bit more to the other fringes coming up. There are notable developments from Buxton, Durham and Edinburgh. In the meantime, I have one bit of news (and it’s fringe a proper Edinburgh Fringe press release – yes, for some reason they trust me to handle that information responsibly). There has been an announcement of funding for the Edinburgh Fringe, which you can read here. Officially it’s for fringe “producers”, but in practice this means venues.
I get the impressions this is part of a wider Scottish Government initiative that straddles post-Covid recovery and generic arts support, although they have co-ordinated things to announce all fringe-related ones together. What’s interesting, though, isn’t the amount being funded but who it’s going to and what they’re promising to deliver. It seems to me that there’s been a lot of discussions with individual venues, and you can read the details here. The end result is the different venues have made different promises on what to deliver.
A common promise amongst lots of venue is promises to give better pay to staff. With working conditions currently one of two big hot potatoes, this is probably welcome news for the Edinburgh Fringe – if the money being granted is enough to make a significant difference in a festival of this size. Big if there. But amongst the individual grants, there’s one thing that leaps out in the details for Zoo. In the Fringe’s words, their programming in 2022 “is aimed at better reflecting the lives of under-represented or minority audiences”. Inclusivity varies from minority to minority, but one thing that never seems to change is that the fringe is a white person thing. I’m sure most people welcome anyone of any skin colour, but perceptions that theatre isn’t for people like you are very hard to shift. Can Zoo succeed where others have failed? How do they intend to do it? I will keep an eye on this.
One other thing that’s notable is who is and isn’t on the list. Last time there were complaints that there wasn’t much support beyond the Big Four, but the defence there was that there was a national emergency and things had to be thrown together at the last moment. This time it includes most venues, but the two notable exceptions are Sweet and C Venues. Sweet Venues isn’t really news – they’ve decided to drop Edinburgh Fringe indefinitely as they feel the current costs make it impossible to support artists the way they’d want to. But C Venues, as far as I can tell, are still a thing in Edinburgh. If they’re left off a list where everyone else is on, either C Venues is having second thoughts, or they’re still off everyone’s Christmas card lists.
Still a lot up in their air. Stay tunes as we see how this turns out.
Saturday 28th May, 12.30 p.m. – A Pole Tragedy:
Review of a flagship show of the Dutch Season.
This review needs a caveat. This is part of the Dutch Season, which I’ve heard a lot about in previous years but never got round to checking out. Virtually all of reviewing is done against a set of expectations that we’ve come to expect on the UK fringe circuit – it never ceases to frustrate me when someone not used to a fringe decries a solo play because that’s not the way things are done to Stuffyton-On-The-Wold. I don’t know what conventions and expectations have grown around Dutch Theatre, and the best I can do is review against what I’m used to.
So, I’ve already had a play with burlesque in it, now one with pole dancing in it. In The Formidable Lizzie Boone, this was incidental to a wider story – you could in theory have cut that completely and the rest of the plot would still hold up. However, in A Pole Tragedy, this is integral to the entire performance. You could in principle not do the pole dancing and still have the story, but it would be a completely different performance. Anyway, Sofie Kramer tells us her father loved his little girl but also loves his country and wants to win. He also has something about shooting deer whether or he’s allowed to.
She then moves on to the lead-up to the siege of Troy. Now, granted, the Greek myths do have a rather weird attitude to women (albeit no worse than any of the other religions around at the time): frequently that women can’t be trusted, it’s perfectly fine to make a hot woman a prize in a war between the Greeks and Trojans, and sacrificing your daughter to ensure a victory is also okey-dokes*. Say what you like about modern society, but even the most deranged misogynists today think murdering your own child to help your cuckolded mate get even with the bloke she told him not to worry about is a bit of an over-reaction. Anyway, Sofie’s character for some reason has the hots for Achilles. It’s fine to to have your own private fantasies, but for some reason Sofie is pretty detailed about exactly what he wants to do with him.
* Actually, you do get your comeuppance over that one in the end, but that’s a different Greek story.
This is leading up to a problem. And – I repeat – this is my perspective as someone used to UK fringe theatre, but the problem is: metaphor overkill. There’s quite a lot of references to her 17=year-old self being “ready for the slaughter”. Is this a parallel with the unfortunate Iphigenia on the sacrificial altar, her gun-crazed dad shooting deer, or the Achilles-look-a-like soldier she fancies ready to deflower her? We can go into the details, but this builds up to the key question: what has any of this got to do with pole dancing? There’s plenty of interesting themes in the promo material: pole dancing can anything from titillation for men in strip clubs to a dance done on whatever terms a women chooses; there is indeed an uncomfortable overlap between violence and eroticism. But how does this relate to deer shooting and child sacrifices and weird attitudes to women in Greek legends? I got lost in all the metaphors long before making any connection to the pole dancing.
The production values are pretty good. Sofie Kramer certainly knows her stuff with the pole dancing. However, one less obvious thing she did was the sound design. When she strikes the pole, the sound is looped and reverberated in all sorts of ways. And one particularly awesome effect was warping the repeated strikes of the pole into something that sounds like the marching of soldiers.
I guess this ultimately comes to what is meant to be achieved here. As I’ve said before, I you want your play to make a point, it has to be accessible. I’ve seen a lot of artists fall down by assuming tons of background knowledge on the issue and presenting it in an abstract way that nobody who hasn’t already been won over will understand. That defeats the object. However, perhaps the object is to normalise a completely different style of theatre to an audience not used to it. Perhaps an audience more used to this will pick up the intend theme sooner. Perhaps performances like this will make people pick up other plays like this in the future. At I can’t say much more than that. Your call.
Saturday 28th May, 10.30 a.m. – The Last:
Review of an adaptation of The Last Man
Right, now that I’ve been able to get a sensible night’s sleep, let’s resume reviewing before the backlog gets too big.
We begin with The Last, Different Theatre’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Her most famous book, Frankenstein, is of course considered one of the greatest genre-defining works of fiction, but The Last Man has a strong claim to that too. This is set in a future world where humanity is almost entirely wiped out by plague. Unlike Frankenstein, however, this book bombed when first released. And yet over a century later it went on to provide the inspiration for countless cult favourites set in plague-apocalyptpic worlds. The book may only be an obscure footnote, but the legacy is almost as big as her famous.
The original book is almost 500 pages. As we all know, when a book is that length you can’t hope to get more than a fraction on stage in an hour. Sam Chittenden manages a good abridgement of the story, keeping the structure of the original and not feeling anything’s been missed out. Performed in a mostly storytelling format from Mary Shelley (played by Amy Kidd), it has some parallels to today’s events, presumably highlighted deliberately: beginning with news of a diseases but it’s far away and people there die anyway, until things come closer, and then comes to Britain until it’s no longer background news, and finally life goes on hold. Only this time, the plague hasn’t even got started.
What makes this play different from a straight storytelling adaptation is the parallels with real life. If you’re wondering why Mary Shelley had to go for such a downbeat story, it’s probably because she’d lost almost her of her family to disease. The promising opening is a tearful Mary Shelley hugging the coat of her dead husband Percy. Annoyingly, however, this strongest thread of the adaptation is over before it’s really begun. Mary says that she shall base characters on the people closest to her who she lost, including Percy and Lord Byron – but we never what these fictional characters have in common with their true-life counterparts, which I was looking forward to.
I try to avoid saying how other people’s plays should be written, because it’s easy for that to turn into turning their play into your play. However, I will break this rule here because I can easily see this format working as – rather than Mary saying she’ll write a book, announcing the characters are diving straight in to the story – deliver this as if she’s confiding with someone as a story she has in her head. The delivery could drift between her reminiscing about the lives of those closest to her and how this is playing out in the story. The parallel with the ending is clear though: Mary Shelley was not the last man on earth, but it felt like she was. This was on for two nights, so hopefully there are plans to bring this back another time with more development. It’s a good call to make the story of The Last Man the story of Mary Shelley – so let’s me the most of it.
Friday 27th May, 6.00 p.m.:
A comeback for The Lantern?
And we’re off. No reviews just yet – as is customary, I like to mull plays over for a minimum of a few hours before I put thoughts in writing.
In the meantime, however, it’s worth a quick comment about Lantern @ ACT. ACT is the Academy of Creative Training, one of many drama schools based in Brighton. As per many drama schools, this one has its own studio theatre, and this one doubles up as a small year-round theatre. I’ve now been there twice, and it’s a pretty decent space with some pretty decent technical capabilities.
Until this year, it’s not registered on my radar at all – but there again, it had no reason to before now. Prior to 2020, Brighton Fringe was getting more like Edinburgh with the programme gravitating to big multi-space venues. But with the biggest mutli-space venue out of action this year, suddenly the small venues such as this one have taken the overspill and become notable.
Now that we must contemplate the possibility that the Warren-shaped hole could be here for the long term, we also need to contemplate the possibility that the small venues that hurriedly took the overspill will carry on doing on. In which case, The Lantern is in quite a strong position to become a major player if it wants to. Its scale is similar to The Rialto, and as we know the Rialto has been the long-standing exception to the rule: a successful single-space venue in the fringe where multi-space became the norm. The Lantern didn’t quite have a big enough fringe programme to join the new “big five” (Sweet, Rialto, Spiegeltent, Laughing Horse and Rotunda), but it wasn’t far off. If small venues spread over the sity stays the norm, we could be learning a lot more about The Lantern from next year.
Friday 27th May, 2.00 p.m.:
Government denies plans to scrap Arts Council England
I’m here. Took a small detour to check out Crossrail, which I can confirm is real and not just faked images you see on TV organised by the Illuminati. There again, I could be in the payroll of the Illuminati to tell you that, so think carefully. First play in half an hour. Before then, it’s time for a small break from Brighton – it’s hot take time.
So a few days ago there was a bit of panic that the Government was poised to axe Arts Council England and replace it with another body full of yes-men that would give funding to more yes-men. That wasn’t an unreasonable thing to worry about. This government has a track record of crying foul and demanding reform every time an independent or arms-length body criticises or otherwise refuses to agree with them. And with the review conducted by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries being Culture Secretary – both amongst the worst offenders for meddling where the Government shouldn’t – I wouldn’t put it past them.
However, there is a counter-argument to this. Many are claiming the Government wants to destroy the arts because the arts criticises them, as some claim they are doing with the BBC and Channel 4. The difference is that BBC and Channel 4 have a lot of public reach. I hate to break this to, but subsidised theatre doesn’t exactly have the government quaking in its boots. It’s a niche pusuit I and many others love, but it’s still pretty niche. And, let’s face it, the majority of people seeing it aren’t planning to vote Conservative anyway. Commercial Theatre has a much bigger reach, but it not nearly so political – and in any case, you can’t punish a West End production with a cut to subsidy if they weren’t subsidised in the first place. Is it really worth picking a fight over this?
Whatever the reason, the Government has swiftly denied there’s any talk of scrapping Arts Council England. Of course, this is a Boris Johnson Government denial, which is different from a normal denial, but one would think you wouldn’t say this if you were softening public opinion for something this controversial. There is also the concern over cutting funding in general – however, the government’s had more than enough chances to sit on its hands and let subsidised theatre wither and die if that’s what it was after.
Do I believe the government would do something as reprehensible as to control the arts if it thought it worthwhile? Yes. Were they testing the water to see if they could get away with it? Maybe. Will they still try pulling a stunt like this after specifically saying they won’t do this? Probably not. Should we be vigilant just in case? Of course.
But I’m more relaxed than I was last week. It’s a bit a dampener that the reason for this might well be because the Government thinks we’re not important enough to be worth fighting. But, for better or worse, that’s where we are.
Friday 27th May, 8.30 a.m:
A lot of five-star and four-star reviews are coming
One thing that’s worth mentioning it this point is that I’m seeing a lot of five-star and four-star reviews flying off the shelves this Brighton Fringe. Normally, I would treat this with caution – we are still in the recovery phase of the worst crisis to hit the fringes in their entire history, and there’s a lot of good will for those picking themselves up and getting back in the game. There again, I don’t remember this translating into star-rating inflation last year. It’s only an unscientific sample, but out of the small number taking part, I reckon I saw two-star reviews with roughly the same frequency as a normal year. If there was lack of evidence of lowering the bar last year, it seems unlikely they’d suddenly start doing that this year.
More to the point, however, some of these heavily-praised plays are ones I’ve seen for myself, and I can attest that they were good enough to be earning this good reviews. And this is reflected by my own experience. You may have noticed I’ve been a lot more praiseful of the plays I’ve seen that I am in a typical year. Admittedly my own sample is affected by a lot more review requests this year, but I’m not sure this would affect the results.
I’d need to do some better analysis to confirm this, but it does seem that there’s been a high quality of Brighton Fringe plays this year. Given all the woes to hit Brighton this year on other fronts, that would be welcome news if true, and welcome news for fringe theatre in general too. There can be little doubt that there’s been a hit and a lot of groups are leaving and not coming back, but perhaps the survivors are the good ones.
Friday 27th May, 7.00 a.m.:
Coming in up in weekend 4
Yes, that’s right, 7.00 a.m. Hope you appreciate the dedication. But I’ve got a ludicrously intense 48 hours ahead of me. I’ve had a lot of review requests, but for some reason the lion’s share have fallen over these two days. It’s taken a very tight operation to schedule all of this, but I’ve managed it. For future reference, it is advisable to send press releases before the fringe begins, and failing that, certainly not a few days before. By then, I have probably already scheduled what I’m doing that day and may even already have the press tickets.
Vermin returns tomorrow and runs until Monday, running various times. I saw this my first time round and it’s really good. To repeat a content warning (I have a policy of not giving content warnings when common sense would tell you what to expect but this is one of the time it doesn’t): there are graphic descriptions of animal cruelty which you will need a strong stomach for, but it’s worth it for the power-struggle between a seriously messed up couple. Also returning tomorrow and Sunday is The Huns, a funyn but sadly too relatable play set on the world’s most passive-aggressive (shortly to become aggressive-aggressive) conference call.
Three new plays on my recommendations list begin this week. Testament of Yootha starts a Sweet @ the Poets tomorrow and Sunday at Sweet at the Poet’s at 2.45 p.m. This is a solo biopic of Yootha Joyce, but goes into wider strange and somewhat shallow world of how women are treated when they’re not valued for looks. The first of two performances of Fragile is tomorrow at 3.15 at Laughing Horse at the Walrus. Don’t know much about this other than it involving a woman finding herself on a long walk, but it was at Brighton Fringe last year and everyone raved about it. And just starting (actually yesterday but I miss it) it The Event, possibly the world record holder for the most meta and self-referential play. Rotunda 7.45 until Sunday.
And finally, still running is the second and last performance of The Last, Sam Chittenden’s play that crosses over Mary Shelley’s fictional story The Last Man with the real-life tragedies that inspired the stories. And Underdogs, the apparently true story of a man who want for the world record of being buried alive, runs until tomorrow at the Rialto Theatre, 8.00 p.m.
Thursday 26th May – Moral Panic:
Review of Moral Panic
Before we get on to the last review in my backlog, an interesting observation about use of venues. One obvious side-effect for The Warren 2022’s demise is that there’s an awful lot of plays taking place in spaces that don’t have the sound and lighting capability we’re used to. Or more precisely, we’re used to in Edinburgh. Anyone used to Buxton Fringe will know it’s not that unusual to perform without. As we saw with Vermin, some plays work perfectly well on the strength of just the words. Moral Panic, however, is a good example of the other solution. This took place in the basement on Conclave, an art gallery, and even though it was just a normal room, a pretty decent makeshift set of lights were rigged up which did almost as good a job as the real thing. Many groups often abandon their fringe plans if they can’t get a space in a “proper” venue, but Blue Dog Theatre did a good job of demonstrating what you can do with DIY if you’re determined to make it work.
Anyway, enough of the space, on to the play. It’s the 1980s, and there’s a panic over the “video nasty”. Owing to the proliferation of the videotape, films that previously had to be vetted through the cinema have gone straight to the corruptible public. To be fair to censor Charles, there’s is some pretty nasty stuff out there, but being the the 1980s, the panic is all over blasphemy involving demons and crucifixes. One moment you’re watching The Exorcist at home and the next moment you’re drawing pentagrams and having orgies in goat entrails. “Ah”, I hear you cry. “But why don’t the censors who see this stuff go round murdering people?” Duh, moral fortitude. Do keep up. And so we watch a perfect opinion as stuffy pencil-moustached Charles (Jack W Cooper) watches Lesbian Nuns Demonic Orgy 6 or something like that, furiously scribbling on his clipboard as he does so.
Charles’s no-nonsense old-school attitude extends to his home life too. He expects his food on the table when he comes home from his loyal Susan because she likes doing that sort of thing, probably. She also probably likes his advice on what jewellery shouldn’t be worn outside the house. It wouldn’t be fair to write him off as on out-and-out sexist though. When the first woman is appointed to the board of censors, I’m sure he’d have been perfectly fine with an equally stiff elderly spinster muttering “It’s filth!” whenever someone says a rude word, such as “bottom” or “knickers”. Unfortunately, the new appointment is young Veronica. Provocatively dressed, distressingly European in her attitudes, doesn’t seem to have a problem with anything Charles demands cutting, and goodness knows what debauchery she partakes in over in Italy. Worse, she’s been appointed by the retiring Chief Censor – a position Charles was sure he had in the bag. What is going on here?
I’ve just talked about the importance of characterisation; here, however, writer/director Stuart Warwick gets it. It would have been easy to have made Charles into a right-wing caricature, but the secret to this is that – however silly his old-fashioned views on censorship are – you always understand what he wants and how genuinely is is horrified by the heathen liberalism of Veronica. And the references to the video at the time are of real films that caused panic. The only thing where I felt something was missing was the twist at the end. I will refrain from giving it away, suffice to say that there’s somebody who proves dangerous to underestimate. Does the dirty deed make sense? Yes – it was a pretty devious move which all made sense if you’d thought to through. What I didn’t quite register, however, is why that person would do something so extreme. I think we need something extra to show why this was the logical course of action for our unexpected malcontent. That’s only a small issue though. If you remember the Mary Whitehouse era, this will get you nostalgic – if you didn’t: it’s a different kind of stupid compared to today’s censorshiup, but you’ll pick it up soon enough. This has now finished its run in Brighton, but hopefully this will be returning to more fringes very soon.
Wednesday 25th May – Mala Sororibus:
Review of Mala Sororibus
And it’s that time already. I’m returning for two days in Brighton and I’ve got masses of review requests to process. Looks like I have a very tight operation coming up on Saturday and Sunday. It looks like I’ll be unable to meet some review requests simply due to impossible scheduling. If that’s you, sorry, sometimes this comes down to luck. Best thing to do if contact me again if you go to future fringes – I normally end up prioritising those who are determined for me to review them. In the meantime, please enjoy this wholesome picture of the bandstand in Brighton. I see something like this every year and I never tire of it.
Time for today’s review: Mala Sororibus from Troubador Theatre, and a heavy crossover with New Venture Theatre. Three middle-aged women are out walking in the countryside. They bicker over the most trivial things, but stop when their niece Beth arrives. It was only recently that Beth’s mother died, and with the two of them keen on survival in the outdoors, it’s considered a fitting way to commemorate the departed. It soon becomes clear, however, that Beth and her three aunties have not been seeing each other until very recently. A bit strange, you might thing, but there’s an early explanation that might explain this: Beth is actually quite annoying. She might not even realise this, but her mildly scolding tone when giving Barbara, Judith and Glynnis rules for survival is enough to make anyone find another engagement. But that’s only the start of it. The three sisters don’t seem to have had that happy a time at home. Beth has seemingly inherited a lot of money. Someone is not being straight with someone, and out in the middle of nowhere it’s asking for trouble.
For this sort of play, the biggest challenge by far is characterisation. The one rule you can never escape from is that everything a character does must be plausible – and the more out of the ordinary a character behaves (and the ending is as far from ordinary behaviour as can be), the harder you have to work to explain why. But when all is not as it seems, this principle has to work on several layers. Each characters’ behaviour has to be plausible to the audience at face value – you can drop the odd hint that something’s not quite right, but in the harsh world of fringe theatre implausible actions are put down as bad writing. Each characters’ behaviour has to be plausible to the other characters – when your characters know each other, you have to consider what would be accepted as normal and what would make them smell a rat. Finally, it all has to make sense at the end – the audience should be able to retrace the characters’ steps and not think “wait, why didn’t she just do that instead?” One similar consideration is when characters reveal secrets? Always be asking yourself: What made her open up now? Why did she never open up before? Yes, it’s a plot requirement that the audience need to know, but still you have to make the moment believable.
What I would say is resist the temptation to stick to the plot you have in your head when a plot point isn’t quite working. There’s nothing more frustrating than have a plot requirement that isn’t possible to write without somebody doing something out of character, or failing to react to something obviously wrong, or failing to register danger. You might have an explanation in your head but the audience don’t, and if it’s not possible to get that across, it’s sometimes better to abandon that plot point completely and find another way to make the story work. The framework for a farcical comedy masking a thriller is there. Pleasantries mask greed and resentment; the questioned is left in the balance as to who will outwit who, who will get their way in the end, how far they are prepared to go to get it. The icing on the cake would surely be showing why it’s the only way it could have gone
Tuesday 24th May – Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me:
Jay Bennet’s second show as the delusional diva
And a happy Crossrail Day to those who celebrate. Now, I’ve sure the question you’re all dying to ask me is will I use the opportunity whilst travelling through London on Friday. But that would be a spoiler. Anyway, let’s get through these remaining reviews in the order I saw them.
Today’s review is Yasime Day: Songs in the key of me. This will be a quick review as I am theatre blogger, and this one, whilst it does have some crossover with theatre, is moving sharply back in the comedy direction. Yasime Day is a comedy character of Jay Bennet, an 80s diva whose opinion of herself vastly outstrips her ability to be a pop diva. She would like to glide on a moving stage, but owing to budgetary constraints and limitations of the capabilities of this space, she has to make do with a beer trolley. She is also accompanied by her pianist (also her nephew and lodger). If this sounds crummy, it’s your fault for not understanding the art deeply enough.
Yasmine Day’s previous show was painfully pretentious renditions of 80s hits. This time, however, she’s treating us to renditions of original music, which goes a long way to explain why she never made it into the charts. A light-hearted song about to teenagers getting it on gets the chorus “We are kissin’ cousins” (spoiler: cousins may be more related than advertised). And with street harassment increasingly a topic for discussion, Yasmine thinks outside the box, and in response to the time builder invited her to suck his big fat cock (or something like than), Yasmine sang “I still got it.” Actually those songs are quite catchy. There is a rule with comedy music it’s almost always funnier if the songs are musical in their own right, and that’s certainly the case here.
However, I must say I do miss the tragi-comedy of the previous show. Jay Bennet tells me that Yasmine’s lifelong feud with Cheryl Baker and the way she blames everyone else for her failures is still canonical and feeds into the character now, and I can’t expect every new show to go through this all over again. But one of the most poignant memories of An Audience with Yasmine Day was the moments when her vulnerability slipped through. But although I may miss that, it feeds well into the diva who’s scaled even more heights of delusion than her last outing. Recommended as a lot of fun.
Monday 23rd May:
Coming up in week 3 …
Bloody hell, packing as much as you can into 96 hours catches up on you, but the fact is we’re only just past the half-way point. Let’s once again take a look at what’s coming up.
On of the Rialto’s flagship productions comes up this week. Underdogs is billed as co-written by the writer of The Shark is Broken, a popular documentary about the making of Jaws, but it’s play Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon that gets my attention: Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks, an funny but insightful look the the trend that began in the 1970s of watch two overweight men having an obviously staged fight. This play is about an equally strange story of a man seeking the world record for longest time spent in a coffin (alive). This starts tomorrow and runs until Saturday, all performances at 8.00 p.m.
Also new this week is The Last from Sam Chittenden. She had an interesting style of writing about authors, teetering between the stories of their real lives and the fictional worlds they created. This is based on The Last Man by Mary Shelley, which supposedly set (ominously) in a 21st century world ravaged by plague, but it considered by many to really be about the death of her husband and three of her children. This is on Thursday and Friday and Friends Meeting House at 7.00 p.m.
If you liked the sound of Vermin, that’s not coming back until Satuday, but between now and Wednesday you can see their other play, An Audience With Stuart Bagcliffe until Wednesday at 7, Laughing Horse at the Walrus again. The Huns do their last two performances on Tuesday and Wednesday 7.30 at the Rotunda. And speaking of the Rotunda, there’s a change to see Ross Ericson doing War of the Worlds on Wednesday at 7.45 p.m.
So plenty to keep you busy until I return. Join me tomorrow when I start clearing these last few reviews.
Sunday 22nd May, 11.30p.m.:
The visibility of Brighton Fringe
Back in Durham. One final thing before beddy-byes. One thing I’ve heard from several people about the Brighton Fringe is that it doesn’t feel like there’s a fringe on. Some people even think this is damaging ticket sales. That latter one is difficult to prove, but it’s nonetheless something that needs thinking about.
What I do know is that there was a marked difference between Brighton and Buxton fringes in 2020. At Buxton Fringe, the only in-person events were the visual arts exhibitions (plus one very determined comedian who wanted to do a live performance no matter what). The Buxton Fringe Committee, however, still decorated the town the same as a normal fringe. Even though the majority of people viewing Buxton Fringe online wouldn’t have seen that. Contrast that with Brighton Fringe 2020, and outside the venues there was no sign of a fringe. If you weren’t following events you would probably had no idea it was on.
There’s no point arguing over how 2020 fringes were done – they were difficult circumstances and anything at all was an achievement. However, I think what this tells us is that, unlike Buxton, Brighton Fringe has been happy to let the venues be the visible presence, particularly the Warren and Spiegeltent. Suddenly we don’t have The Warren, and although Spiegeltent has still been in his usual spot, I guess it’s not enough to cover a Warren-shaped hole.
I think the lesson from 2022 is that Brighton Fringe needs to be more proactive in marketing itself. They would do well to take some inspiration from Buxton here. Obviously the same solution won’t work – Brighton is a much bigger place that Buxton to be noticed in – but in Durham I’ve seen similar-sized festivals get decent visibility in a similar-sized city. A long way to go to work out the details; all I know is that we can no longer rely on pop-up venues to do the job for us.
Sunday 22nd May, 6.00 p.m. – Sex, Lies and Improvisation:
Review of a different king of improv
This is a bit of an unusual one to review. You rarely hear the term “improv” outside of “improv comedy”. In theory, this should be no exception. It’s literally called “Sex, Lies and Improvisation” and it’s in the comedy section of the programme. But where did the assumption come from you can’t have one without the other? We have scripted comedies, so why not an improvised drama?
Sex, Lies and Improvisation started off its life as Between Us, which has been on my Edinburgh Fring radar for some time. The rebrand, I understand, was mostly for marketing purposes, but it also gave the premise for the seed to the improvisation: a lie told to your partner. Originally, they asked for people to shout out suggestions, but they weren’t always forthcoming – and, seriously, do you think I’m going to own up to that? So instead they asked people to own up through the more anonymous medium of a website. With lies numbered from 2 to 69 available tonight, I was incredibly dismayed that the whole audience wasn’t crying out for 69 – come on, the play has the word “sex” in the title folk – and we ended up with “I tell my partner I vote Labour, but I don’t really.”
And so Rachel Thorn and Alex Keen begin their story and notch this lie up a few levels. Not only does Rachel openly vote Labour, she’s a Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner superfan. Alex Keen, on the other hand, is a closet Tory (albeit a Tory with sense, which I’m told still exist somewhere), but he’s gone along with canvassing for Labour. That gets some laughs, as does the mention that Alex’s father as really right-wing. From this point onwards, however, the laughs peter out, and it goes on to two more serious subjects. In spite of efforts to win him over, Alex’s father is an steadfast lech and bully. Rachel, on the other hand, has no room of difference of opinion in her world and wants ideological purity.
It’s a pretty decent story for something knocked off the cuff – to be honest, it’s better than some conventional scripted plays. There is a school of thought that playwriting should be based on rounded characters and how they respond to each other, and to some extent it’s an exercise in seeing how it can work if you leave characters to their own devices. There’s not much point in analysing the story I saw too much – the only bit I thought got a bit repetitive was them hesitating in wondering how to answer a difficult question from their partner. I realise a two-hander is improv in hard mode when there’s no opportunity to knock up the next scene in the wings, but anything that avoid umming overkill would be a plus.
This is a very different form of improv to Murder She Didn’t Write or Notflix or Crime Scene Improvisation. Those work as out-and-out comedies very well, but I think it would be a mistake for Sex, Lies and Improvisation to trying outdo them on playing it for laughs. Like Room, it’s difficult to rate this as there’s not really anything like this to compare it to. But it’s different, it’s worth seeing for being different, and it makes it mark for showing this concept can work.
Sunday 22nd May, 3.45 p.m.:
Where did the weekday daytime shows go?
That’s visit one concluded. 13 plays over four days. I now have five pending reviews to clear before Friday. I will get through them as fast as I can.
Now, one mystery we’d forgotten about i all this excitement over The Venue Who Must Not Be Named is the return to a weekend-centric festival with hardly anything before 6.00 p.m. on weekdays. I have done the analysis and it’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds. The Rialto have advised me they never opened on weekday daytimes in the first place. I’m not sure what Laughing Horse and Spiegeltent used to do before 2020, but as venues dominated by comedy and cabaret I can’t see them have done much before 6 on weekdays. (Theatre can be viable during the day, but comedy and cabaret rarely so – I’m not counting family shows which is a whole different category.) Based on memory, most of the weekday daytime programme came from Sweet and the Warren, and we all know what happened with The Warren. Sweet had started running a decent afternoon programme in the late 2010s and is the only like-for-like change here. However, with the new venue hedging its bets on patronage from locals, you probably don’t want to rely on times when everyone’s working just yet.
However, whilst the shift away from weekday daytime might be down to most venues simply carry on as they were, it seems unlikely we will be going back any time soon. As I think I have mentioned, the observations from practically all of the venues is that weekends are selling a lot better than weekdays, especially start of the week. Those who chose not to bother with Mondays aren’t regretting their decision. Historically, weekday daytime programming happens when you run out of evening – but at the moment weekdays aren’t looking that good a bet at all. So whilst it’s not impossible we will return to pre-2020 schedules eventually, I’m not expecting weekday daytime fringe to be coming back to Brighton any time soon.
Sunday 22nd May, 9.30 p.m. – The Huns:
The most passive-aggressive conference call
That’s better. Time for another review. This one is The Huns, and comes from a Canadian company One Four One Collective. I’m not sure why it has the name; I vaguely remember seeing a video on their social media feed explaining the title, which I might check at some point. Please be assured there’s no Vikings or World War One soldiers called Fritz in this, just the equally brutal world of the conference call.
Three people assemble in a conference room to discuss a burglary last night. The obvious question why a break-in would require the attention of several offices around the world, HR, and the CEO of the company himself. However, that is going to have to wait. Before we can get on to this subject, we have to put up with faulty presentation equipment, nobody understanding how to do a conference call, people chipping in with irrelevant questions, and a particularly useless Vice-CEO (coincidentally married to the CEO) who won’t mute her phone to cut out wind because she’s can’t hear anyone telling her to mute.
According to the press release, this starts off as a civilised and professional meeting. Sorry, you don’t fool me that easily. Speaking as someone who’s been these sorts of calls, this is starts off as a passive-aggressive and superficially-professional-but-obviously-a-complete-shambles-underneath meeting. Amongst the chaotic set-up of the call and the endless stalling over what actually happened last night, one thing soon becomes clear: not only is the building they’ve moved in to a shambles from top to bottom (which faulty lifts, rubbish piling up everywhere and burglar alarms that go off every five minutes), everyone is manoeuvring themselves to say this wasn’t their fault. Clearly the routine issues in the Estates department have suddenly become a lot more important than anyone’s letting on. I won’t give away what the bombshell is, but it be honest, it’s no surprise when it comes.
There is a serious side to this. As someone who works in tech and has been on those sort of conference calls*, I’m afraid to say there’s not much hyperbole here. This is considered normal behaviour. Due to the nature of tech projects, they gravitate to lots of long hours being worked at the last moment. That is far from inevitable, there are plenty of ways of ensuring it doesn’t come to that, but that requires effort. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who double down on defending this culture. It’s exciting, it’s team-bonding. Anyone who complains about being forced to cancel their life outside of work is decried as insufficiently committed. Most alarmingly, a lot of people who call themselves left-wing think some leisure facilities in the workplace are an acceptable recompense for treating your workers like the property of the company. Of course, the problem with packing all work into the last moment is that one small setback is liable to kill the whole project. And no-one ever learns the right lessons. It’s all blame games, as we see here.
* Arse covering footnote, the worst conference calls I witnessed pre-date my current job and most of my tech work, but I have it on good authority the same exists in tech.
I do need to be careful about making this review into an endorsement of the opinions rather than the play. What really matters is how the characters respond to this, and yes, it is a very believable depiction of smiles and professionalism thinly hiding a survival game trying to pin the blame on anyone but themselves. If there was a weakness, the moral to the ending, much as I agree with it, was a little overdone. The human cost of crunch culture heavily dominates the last quarter of the play, but the lengthy monologues used to spell out a lot of things already implied by the rest of the play drags the pace down to something that was otherwise fast moving. But even if the message is spelt out a little too dogmatically by the end, the message a good one and made well. This is on at the Rotunda with another performance at 3.00 p.m. today, and two more at 7.30 p.m. next Tuesday and Wednesday.
Saturday 21st May, 8.30 p.m.:
More info about The Warren
And it’s finally happened. I’m starting to flag. This is something I’d forgotten about. Throughout all of 2020 and 2021, there was only a finite number of fringe shows on offer and not possible to pack four in a day. In addition, long walks to and from outlying venues have gone from an occasional activity to a regular thing. Never mind, two to go in this stint.
I will drop one bit on news before signing off today. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been asking around about The Warren, which is increasingly looking worse than what we know publicly. So far, I’ve refrained from repeating much of what I’ve heard because I want to make absolutely sure I’ve got facts straight and verified before I publish anything that could be damaging. I do not want to ignore this and once I have reviews out of the way I intend to do some proper fact checking.
However, there is one thing I think I can safely say now. I have spoken to numerous people, from performing to venue managers to fringe organisers, and there’s one thing that’s consistent. It is my understanding that The Warren didn’t jump, it was pushed. I’m pretty sure Brighton Fringe put their foot down; some are also saying that Brighton Council put their foot down too. How The Warren responded to this is a bit more supposition, but that would certainly explain why the Electric Arcade is running this “The EA in May” programme. One would have thought that if it was Otherplace’s decision to pull The Warren, they would have either kept Electric Arcade in Brighton Fringe with their blessing, or pulled the Electric Arcade too. Certainly not run a May programme over Brighton Fringe’s dates sort-of branded to look like the same thing.
There’s a lot of other stuff I need to verify first, but it is looking like The Warren is going to come out of this a lot worse than it went in.
Saturday 21st May, 6.00 p.m.:
A look at Junkyard Dogs
This is my busy day with my most packed schedule. Up to now I’ve kept up with reviews quite quickly – after today there’s likely to be a backlog. I will catch up as soon as I can (if nothing else, I don’t want to be back next Friday with reviews from the weekend still to do). As per previous practice, reviews seen on press tickets generally get priority over those weren’t. I will also take into account whether I can get a review out whilst the play is still running.
Now, whilst I have a gap, it’s time to look at another new venue. Now, those of you with long memories might remember that in 2019 I took a lot of interest in Junkyard Dogs, twice winners of best venue, now upscaling to a three=space venue. Suddenly it all went quiet. Junkyard Dogs’ year-round venue closed, and there was only a small presence at a pub for 2020. Then along came The Event and this became a small detail in the grand scheme of things.
But last night, I went back to Junkyard Dogs at its new home in the Round Georges. I’d assumed that, like all of these other downsizing moves happening, the closure of Junkyard Dogs’ permanent event was down to rule one of fringe theatres: Landlords Are Cocks (TM). But apparently not – this was actually the decision of the Junkyard Dogs teams themselves. Whilst they were running a venue successfully, it was too much hard work to keep running as a business seven days a week. Whilst running within a pub in Hannover means you work on the lucrative weekends and take off the start of the new week.
Their 2022 programme is basically the 2020 programme rolled over two years. Had the 2020 fringe happened as intended, Junkyard Dogs would probably have been relegated to a footnote. However, with a heavily reconfigured 2022 fringe and Sweet Venues now heavily courting a local audience in Hove, Junkyard Dogs at the Round Georges isn’t that unusual courting an audience the other end of the city. A lot will depend on whether this reconfiguration sticks. Once again, all bets are off.
Saturday 21st May, 11.00 a.m – 0.0031% Plastic and chicken bones:
A play with echoes of Brave New World
This is going to be a tough one to review, simply because it’s going to be hard to say anything about it without giving away some sort of spoiler. If you want a spoiler-free version, I believe there were already two five-star reviews out when I saw this on Thursday, and I can tell you those ratings were given for a good reason. If you are already planning to see this I advise you to stop reading this, because the greatest thing about Malcolm Galea’s writing is the way the information about a dystopian future is revealed.
“Dryskoll” wakes up in an unfamiliar surrounding in an unfamiliar body. It soon becomes clear that body-hopping is something that Dryskoll does all the time – in fact, in the future under the direction of the benevolent omnipresent AI system “Zimmy” everybody does this. Humans don’t really have their own bodies any more – rather they all an “ideologue”: a mind that can be transferred from body to body. The first use was evading death – since then, it has now been used for travel and even a fashion statement. However, Dryskoll is one of a few permitted to go a step further than most of Earth’s three billion subjects, and is sent through time. Only there’s a 0.031% chance of a glitch and ended up in the wrong time, place and person, and Dryskoll has been unlucky.
One early sign of things to come is Dryskoll commenting it’s a bit cold, to which Zimmy calmly responds that in 2022 this temperature was normal. The current quest of humanity is to undo the damage of the war that would have destroyed humanity but for Zimmy’s intervention, and when repairing damage is too difficult, to go back in time and try to stop it happening in the first place, such as nuclear disasters. However, if you’re really really perceptive, you might spot there’s a bit of this plan that doesn’t quite add up. Is Zimmy really such a benevolent dictator as she claims to be? And if you don’t spot the catch (and you’ll need to be a genius to spot this early), someone’s going to point this out, which throw everything into question. Some excellent parallels to Brave New World here, but with the catches harder to spot.
That’s as far as I can go without giving too much away. What I can say with spoiling any more is that it’s a very clever concept which is brilliantly revealed to the audience one bit at a time. If there’s one small thing I would suggest for improvement, it would be a clearer relationship between narrator and audience. I like solo plays to be more specific than one actor telling a story in first person. Who are the audience? Why is the actor talking to them? Normally I don’t discuss this as it’s just my own personal preference, but on this occasion there’s a very good reason to establish to audience as people from the present who’ve stumbled across this strangest of stranger. I can’t say why, but the reason will become clear at the end.
There are two performances left of this at Sweet at the Poet’s, tonight and tomorrow at 6.00 p.m. I know it’s a trek, but trust me, it’s worth it for this one.
Friday 20th May, 11.00 p.m.:
Why did Brighton Fringe revert to May
One last things before I close tonight. Although we’ve been kept distracted by that change to Brighton Fringe, one other change that we thought might happen was keeping the June Brighton Fringe of 2021 permanent. There was quite a bit of support for this, but in the end it reverted to May. What happened there.
Well, I have made some enquiries. I was not mistaken about support for a June fringe, but what I hadn’t clocked was that the support was predominantly coming from performers. Venues, on the other hand, were more supportive of reverting to May, mostly for logistical reasons. The other factor was how much opposition there was to the two options. Most of the people who expressed a preference for June were apparently happy to stick with May should the decision go that way. However, there were more people who expressed support for May who said they wouldn’t do June.
The possibility of doing June in the future hasn’t been ruled out, but as long as the fringe season feeds into Edinburgh a move to June would squeeze from fringe season into three months instead of four. So whilst the option might be open for future years. I don’t think they’ll move from May – at least, not without another major intervening event.
Friday 20th May, 6.00 p.m. – Vermin:
Review of Vermin
Before you can see this play, you first of all have to find it. This is my first visit to a Brighton Laughing Horse venue, and boy, it was hard work finding this one. The Walrus is an absolutely massive pub, with two different spaces, and no indication anywhere of where to find these rooms, or which space was which. This surprised me a little, because I’ve found Laughing Horse to be the best-organised of the Free Fringe venues in Edinburgh. Although, to be fair, the very nature of their operation means they run on a skeleton staff and I guess it depends a lot on how enthusiastic the host venue is. At the moment, I am in Caroline of Brunswick, which is clearly a comedy venue in its own right. But anyway, I found it eventually.
As expected, Laughing Horse is a similar deal to Edinburgh: expect no special lighting or sound, just make use of what the room already has. As it turns out, Tryptich Theatre’s play is ideally suited to this. The entire story is Rachel and Billy telling their story. The are the world’s most in-love love-dovey couple, and the excitedly tell as about the fateful moment they met on a delayed train. Although there’s already something a bit off about this. Most people react with either sympathy of “for fuck’s sake” when there’s a jumper on the line – Rachel and Billy, on the other had, and mawkishly gawping over whether he lives or dies.
There is a content warning I really need to give about this play: there’s A LOT of graphic references to animal cruelty in this. (This is why I think the current category tickbox system used by Brighton Fringe doesn’t work – the content warnings supplied gave up no idea what was coming. More thoughts here.) Billy’s ghoulish obsession with death didn’t come out of nowhere – he was a pathological animal-killer as a child, starting with bugs and creepy crawlies, but being forced to end when it became clear what he was killing and how he was doing it. He quips at one point about “everybody” getting the urge to push someone on to the tracks at a crowded tube station once in a while – it increasingly looks like the only thing that stops him are the consequences.
Benny Ainsworth and Sally Parfett are a great double-act of this messed up couple. When a rat infestation blights their new home, it becomes clear that Billy doesn’t see this as pest control – he enjoys the killing way too much. For a long time, Rachel has been egging him on – even the worst of the animal cruelty stories is a hoot to her. But when she comes face to to face with the rats, she unexpectedly becomes a sort-of rat-whisperer. That is a rather strange change of heart, but there is a reason for this. And once the reason is clear, we know this is not going to end well. And there’s only one context I could see the two of them telling this story together now.
Again, be aware you need a strong stomach for this one. In a way, this does the opposite of Lizzie Boone. The last play was someone who was a victim of circumstance and did stupid things because the hand life dealt her. Rachel and Billy, however, have so much going for them, and yet there is a twisted inevitability about how these two are doomed to be the architects of their own misfortune. Recommended if you have the stomach for this. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Friday 20th May, 3.30 p.m.:
A look at Sweet at the Poets
Now to take a look at another new venues, and it’s the most significant change. In 2022, it’s goodbye Sweet Werks, hello Sweet at the Poet’s. I was caught up the the events that led to the move from Werks Central. I won’t comment on that as what I know is off the record, but for my wider thoughts on unplanned moves of small venues (features some less diplomatic language from me), you can read an article from a couple of months back on The Laurels.
As I previously said, I miss The Dukebox. Back when the pub was called the Iron Duke, it was a great little year-round venue where a theatre doubled up as a community of performers. Sweet did a good job of trying to do something similar with the Cafe in a building of creative offices, but it wasn’t really the same. Anyway, the move was taken as an opportunity to reset and make new plans. Having seen the Poets Ale and Smokehouse myself, it looks like it does this job well. There’s a couple of bonuses: the upstairs room they’re using as the venue has bigger stage space and capacity than the Dukebox, and with downstairs spilt into two bars, you have a handy separate spaces for theatre goers are regular pub goers. There is one major issue to be aware of, though: it’s in Hove. Not the Dukebox Hove which was just west of the peace statue, but a good distance away.
I won’t tell a lie. If I’d made this decision with all of the other venues expected to stay as they were in 2019, I’d have been nervous about this gamble. In 2019, the major venues were getting increasingly centralised, and a lot more like Edinburgh where you can pop from one venue to another in 15 minutes. This venue? Not a chance. It’s taking me a good half hour to get too and from it, and indeed I had to abandon a plan so see a play there today and there simply wasn’t enough time to get the next play where I already had a ticket. As it happens, this is suddenly less of an issue. Through a combination on unplanned events, most of the major venues have scattered to the four winds and the Poets is no longer as much of an outlier as it might have been.
However, as far as Sweet are concerns, they sees as many opportunities in this as there are challenges. Specifically, a move away from central Brighton is an opportunity to connect with a new community. One thing that is worth remembering (something that is frequently overlooked by people used to Edinburgh) is that most of the venues in Brighton are now year-round operations. Being a stone’s throw from other fringe venues is only an advantage one month every year; build up a link with a local community and it’s an advantage for the other eleven.
So far, Sweet is quite quite optimistic with how things are going. They do indeed seem to have attracted some Hovians as regulars, and sales so far at the fringe seem comparable to venues elsewhere: stronger sales weekends than weekdays; overall ticket sales fine but having to work harder to get the numbers. What does it mean for the fringe overall? To be honest, I’ve no idea. Thanks to the sudden dispersal of venues over Brighton, all bets are off. Come back in a year’s time before I attempt to answer that one.
Friday 20th May, 12.30 p.m. – The Formidable Lizzie Boone:
Review of The Formidable Lizzie Boone
As I mentioned last night, the standard of the plays I saw yesterday was exceptional. So expect high praise for the ones coming up. Any criticisms I make here can be considered the equivalent tips from how to get from four stars to five.
To start with, The Formidable Lizzie Boone. This is a bit of an unusual one in term of expectations. Depending on which publicity you read about the play, you can expect either a play about therapy or a play about burlesque. I was wondering how the two would combine. In fact, the play is very much about the former. Lizzie is coming to therapy because she thinks she may be a psychopath. This is her fourth therapist; we can only assume the other three failed to open up. A psychopath is not a fair description at all, but she has done a lot of things in her life that she’s ashamed of. She is also ashamed of a lot of things she has no reason to be ashamed of. So messed up are things that she is now running and hiding from the few good things happening in her life for once.
Selina Helliwell’s story of a this screwed up life is very convincing. Lizzie is not a bad person. Neither is there a single defining moment that causes her life to fall apart. Rather, it is a slippery slope. Small acts of thoughtlessness and petty cruelty from childhood snowball into bigger ones. Playground politics equates having red hair to being a slag. Unfortunately, Lizzie lives down to expectations in the naive belief she’ll fit in, and that only makes things worse. A lot worse. However, just as the catalogue of mistreatment is believable, Lizzie’s reaction to the world is always understandable. She has lost close friends when they found about about some of the worst things she’s done in her life – but in the context of what led her to do that, it’s more understandable.
Strangely enough, the thing which I could have offered more was the burlesque. Not more burlesque, but more impact in the story. The main function of this in the story is how her most worst partner of all reacts to it. There’s no surprises she ends up in such a toxic relationship – her life experiences to date have led her to believe this is normal behaviour – and the reaction of her partner to doing a burlesque strip show is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. But rather than just a plot point in the story of Lizzie’s latest bad relationship, this could easily have been a whole plot thread in its own right. Until now, Lizzie’s sex life has been almost entirely ne’er-do-wells using her as a sex object – here Lizzie gets to be the one in control. I realise we’re in a one-hour time limit here, and there’s no straightforward way of doing this, but there’s a lot you could do with what in effect is Lizzie’s therapy to regain some sort of self-esteem.
But remember, we are discussing how to get from four stars to five here. It’s ultimately part of a story of a woman pushed to the brink and finding herself again on her own terms, and as a whole it does an excellent job of this. Ultimately it’s a story about how good people can end up doing bad things and let bad things be done to them – and how to move on from this. There are two more performances of this at the Rotunda, one at 6.15 today and then a final one at 3.15 tomorrow. There a plenty of burlesque shows at Brighton Fringe, but see this for its story of finding yourself.
Friday 20th May, 10.30 a.m.:
My verdict of the Daily Diary
Now that I’ve had a better chance to use a Daily Diary, I can give a better verdict. I’m hearing mixed reactions to this change of format, but I wanted to see this for myself.
The first thing to say is that this is a big improvement on what was on offer the year before. It’s okay to use the website to find out details of shows, but in terms of planning an actual itinerary is was a massive faff. It really does help to see all the shows listed in order of time for the day you’re trying to plan for. Once you get used to this, you can check the venue and go to the map at the back. Essentially, this Daily Diary keeps the bits of the Brighton Programme that is used the most, and that does make sense.
From an accessibility point of view, one change is that by having Daily Diary and nothing else, it is possible to print the text at a reasonable font size, rather than the tiny typeface in the old programme needed to keep the size to something sane. However, this is offset by some pretty poor decisions on colour contrast. Teal text against a light grey background is easy enough to read in a well-lit room, but with low-light the in thing in most venues it’s a pain. One other small but irritating absence is the lack of any online version of the Daily Diary. For those of us unable to pop in person to pick up a paper copy, the online verson on issuu was a really handy resource. Please put that back.
What I think is most over-rated, however, is the integration with the website. Quite a bit thing was made of scanning QR codes to get the details on your phone. However, there is only one QR code per day, which takes to to basically with the website listing with the filter for that day selected. As we learned from last year, this is not easy to use. The daftest bit: it still lists online events running the whole fringe. Apologies for pointing out the obvious, but if you were looking for online you wouldn’t be using the Daily Diary in the first place. In addition, the page mixes up all categories in a random order and doesn’t show the times. I have to say, whether I’m looking for details of a specific show or the online version of a certain day, I find it much less of a faff to just load up the website and search manually.
Here’s my suggestions for how to improve this:
Please don’t use low-contrast foreground on background. It creates a lot of problems for no benefit.
Use the spare space in the listings for the grid code on the map. At the moment you have to look up the venue on the venue list and only then look up the map.
Improve design for the website used in conjunction with QR codes. You can easily start by removing the online entries, and sorting events by category and time to match the order on paper.
Further improvements could be one QR code per day/category combo (rather than just one per day), and showing times on the listings rather than clicking through to each entry.
It’s a start. If you use the experience of this year wisely you could come up with something a lot more useful. But at the moment, consider this very much a work in progress.
Thursday 19th May, 11.15 p.m.:
Anger festering over The Warren but an excellent standard of plays
Excuse the late update, but this evening I saw three plays back to back, with lengthy walks between the three venues. Just a quick update that this is quickly turning into a tale of two fringes.
Firstly: I’ve been keeping this to myself for the last 24 hours pending further information, but I’m now in a position to say that I’ve been hearing a lot of anger over The Warren. At this stage, I’m going to refrain from repeating details of what I’ve been hearing until and if I can get these claims verified, but what I can say is that if the worst of the complaints are true, it’s a lot more serious than the February statement from Brighton Fringe makes it out to be. I still want The Warren to sort things out and settle with the numerous artists with grievances – however, I will at this stage say that we must start contemplating the possibility that The Warren will not be around next year either. Things could get a lot worse before it gets better.
However, the good news is that based on the shows I’ve seen of Brighton Fringe so far, the standard has been exceptional. I have three reviews of excellent performances coming up for you, as soon as I have the time. What’s more, I’m seeing a lot of excellent reviews coming out elsewhere as well. One might think these are reviewers being kind after a difficult couple of years, but that was certainly not the case last year when I saw a liberal number of two stars floating about. No scientific analysis yet, but it may well be that the difficult circumstances surrounding Brighton Fringe are being offset but the high standard being viewed on stage.
Thursday 19th May, 5.30 p.m – The Unforgettable Anna May Wong:
Review of Anna May Wong
Whilst I’m waiting for Fringe to get going today, let’s get the other pending review out of the way. This is The Unforgettable Anna May Wong, one of Michelle Yim’s plays about historical women of East Asian ethnicity. I will declare straight up this is advertised as a work in progress. Not because the performance needs to be polished – indeed I saw now problems there, with Michelle Yim treating us to show tunes with a hitherto unknown musical performance. Rather, she is learning new things about the life of the real Anna May Wong and constantly working this into the story.
The ongoing question of monologues: who is the performer addressing? I have seen solo biopics that have unironically ending with “and then I died”. This one doesn’t beat about the bush and Anna May Wong welcomes herself to the Brighton Fringe audience as says she’s dead. She then briefly goes over the last relatively uneventful two decades of her life before going back to how she got into her heyday is a Hollywood star. Inevitably, being an east Aisan woman in early 20th century Hollywood cannot be ignored. It was possible to have a successful career, but there were quite specific idea of what actors of certain races should play. Anna May Wong had a successful career as a sex symbol (much to the disapproval of her more conservative Chinese descent peers – there is whole separate strand of film industry politics in play there), but it was a struggle to be anything different. One thing I’ve been learning about race relations in 20th century America is that is as well as the big things (such as segregations and the so-called “literary tests”), there was other things that were just fucking petty. In this case, it was the bizarre rule than you weren’t allowed to have a white man kissing an Asian woman in a film – something she made it her mission to defy.
One view I’m arriving at for biopics, however, is that it’s better to allow imagination to fill in the gaps that shy away when in doubt. It’s relatively easy to piece together what people did in their lives, but much harder to know for certain how they felt. To repeat what I’ve said before: this is a play, not a documentary. We may never know what made Anna May Wong tick, but I can see a lot of potential with her quest to win acceptance of her family. The strongest thread I see is her quest she give her sister the same success she has on the silver screen, only for it to backfire. But we only heard about this late in the play, when this narrative could have built up through the hour.
I am aware that earlier today I railed against plays that talk over historical figures to attribute opinions they may or may not have held – I liked Room specifically because there’s no doubt that’s what Virginia Woolf believed. This play quite rightly give Anna May Wong the same treatment here. However, I think you can take more artistic license on someone’s hopes and aspriations. I look forward to seeing what else there is to learn about this fascinating life – but don’t be afraid to let fiction step in whre we don’t have the facts.
Thursday 19th May, 1.00 p.m.:
A look at the Rotunda
Time now for a first report on venues. The biggest change to venues is of course the disappearance of The Warren. (More on this another time, but brace yourselves.) The other notable changes is Sweet relocating its primary venue to The Poet’s in Hove, the rise of Laughing Horse and the arrival of The Rotunda. Only the Rialto and Spiegeltent have stayed as they are. Anyway, the first venue I’ve checked out is The Rotunda. It turns out I was fed duff information earlier. “Bubble” and “Squeak” are not the existing tent split into two spaces, but two rotundas. If you’re not sure which one is which, remember that squeak is the noise a mouse makes, and mice are small, and this is the smaller space.
Why two domes instead of one? It turns out they’ve been very popular for a new venue. That’s unusual – I don’t remember many pop-up spaces being oversubscribed in Englandtheir first year – but The Rotunda already has already built a reputation outside of Brighton. Buxton, of course, a few other festivals around the country, and whilst their use as a space at Edinburgh Fringe wasn’t really their programme, that must have counted in their favour. The result was that one space was hopelessly over-subscribed, so they took on a second smaller dome specifically for Brighton to keep up with demand. That, incidentally, was all before The Warren’s woes, and they were pretty much full before Warren refugees started looking for new homes.
The result of this is that, unlike Buxton which was the tent and not much else, in Brighton it’s looking more like a full venue in its own right, with the outside hoardings advertising all the events like we’re used to with Warren and Spiegeltent. However, Ross and Michelle are not trying to imitate these venues – many people criticised these two venues for being drinking spots first and arts venues second, and they don’t want to go the same way. There is currently no bar at the Rotunda, and as I understand it that’s a possibility for the future, but a low priority. There’s various complications with licensing, keeping the neighbours happy in this residential area, and staying on good terms with the nearby pub. I do hope they can find the right balance though – as I said earlier, the best venues are ones that are communities as well as performance spots.
The down-side? Apparently the wind’s been a bigger problem that everyone expected. When the Rotunda set up in Buxton, everyone made jokes about the tent blowing away. That turned out to never be a problem. But, for some reason, Regency Square is acting as a bit of a wind tunnel. It’s all be fine now, but it was hard work securing all of this.
Anyway, so far, so good. And depending on how events go elsewhere, The Rotunda has arrived when Brighton needs it most.
Thursday 19th May, 10.30 a.m. – Room:
Review of Room
Enough commentary, let’s get started with the reviews. It’s Room, which is going to be an unusual one to review. Heather Alexander has adapted A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. What she didn’t mention is that this text is not – as is the case with every other adaptation since time memorial – a novel, or a short story, or any kind of story at all, save for a recollection of a visit to an unspecified Oxbridge college. This is an essay. In the same same that George Orwell’s essays are so highly regarded they form part of his literary canon, A Room of One’s Own does too.
There is a good reason for this. A Room of One’s Own was pretty on point for its day. Originally delivered as a lecture delivered twice to the only two women’s colleges that existed at Cambridge University, it began with an observation that women’s colleges in Oxbridge, step in the right direction though they may be, were still a second-rate service compared to the men’s world. The focus, however, is the position of women in literature, as characters in story but more notably as the authors, or rather lack of them. She was one of the first to observe the era from Austen to the Brontës, women normally wrote anonymously. It wasn’t so much that society disapproved (indeed the only bit of her identity that Austen disclosed on her first book was that she was a lady novelist), but the expected repercussions, real or perceived, from those who’d have no wife/daughter/sister of theirs taking up writing.
However, this is a review. We are not here to discuss the arguments of Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction essay, we are here to discuss the theatrical performance of it. To be honest, we’re at a bit of a blank page here. I guess the first question is to ask what a stage adaptation offers that the text doesn’t. Why not just read the essay? The obvious thing: perform it as Virginia Woolf, with the passion and conviction the real Virginia Woolf would have had – that is without a doubt Heather Alexander’s strong point the give this play its mark. The play is mostly delivered as Woolf giving the lecture, but it’s not an exact reproduction, but, it’s face it, standing still at a lectern for an hour would get a bit boring. Instead, the performance is done more as solo play, with the same liberties taken on moving through time and location as we’re used to in standard solo plays, which works here.
It is normal to rate plays against others of the same genre and format. Here, it’s closer to say Heather Alexander has invented a new genre and format. It’s probably fair to say that you’re best off going into this play understanding what this is an adaptation of, but I managed to work out what was going on so I wouldn’t worry about that too much.
What I will say is this: there’s a trend amongst some in theatre that annoys me. For all the talk about giving a voice to writers, usually women, some try to use this to attribute their own views to a respected historical figure who’d probably never heard of these issues. I remember one adaption attempting to give Mary Shelley a voice on what she’d have thought about Brexit and Trump. To be honest, the end result was incomprehensible, but even if there had been a clear message – so what? That’s not Mary Shelley’s voice, that a writer and director talking over a woman who can’t answer back. This is the right way to do this, and I recommend this play as something different which respects the voice of an influential figure the right way.
Wednesday 18th May, 10.30 p.m.:
Weekdays versus mid-week
So that’s the end of Day 1. Been chatting to people at two venues and there’s quite a lot of food for thought. For now, I’ll stick with a simple one on business.
It does look like there’s a sharp contrast in business between the beginning of the week and the end of the week. Monday-Wednesday has so far been quiet, but Friday-Sunday has been quite good. (Thursday also seems to pick up business, but we only have one Thursday to go on so far.) In fact, at least one venue is disputing the description from Paul Levy of FringeReview of a quiet opening weekend. That does seem to be different to pre-2020. Weekends have always been busier than weekdays, but there does seem to be a more marked difference than before.
Still getting to grips with how Fringe 2022 difference from Fringe 2019. Seems the dust has not settled just yet.
And that’s all for today. Join me tomorrow when I get on to business and write my first review.
Wednesday 18th May, 5.30 p.m.:
My first look at the daily diary
I’m here. My first press ticket is in 45 minutes so this will have to be quick, but I’ve pick up my Daily Diary. I’m currently playing around with QR codes and I will report back to you on that later.
However, there is something I’ve noticed from the Daily Diary that wasn’t clear from the website. There was a time when Brighton Fringe was a weekend-centric festival. Everything happened after 6 on a weekday and all day weekends because, we presume, a lot of the potential audience are locals who work during the day. In the 2010s as the fringe noticeable expanded, the start times started drifting earlier, and afternoon slots were perfectly feasible.
Suddenly, we’re back to 6 p.m. starts on weekdays. And it’s not clear why. It’s difficult to do a venue-by-venue comparison from 2019 because most of the venues are very different from 2019 in one way or another. The one thing I’d rule out as a cause is The Warren pulling out at the last moment, because almost all of the programming would have been done before the other venues knew this was going to happen. Other than that, I’m puzzled. I will try to see how individual venues have handled timings, but there’s no way I’m going to try speculating.
Wednesday 18th May, 2.30 p.m.:
Daily Diary: the story so far
One thing I intend to check out sooner rather than later is this Brighton Fringe “Daily Diary”.
Last year, none of the main fringes did conventional programmes. Brighton and Edinburgh were out of the question, giving how last-minute the programme was. Buxton Fringe, I believe, was uhmming and ahhing about this but eventually decided there was took much risk of late changes to make it worthwhile. Anyway, having worked out the hard way how to run a fringe without a programme, the question arose of whether this should be made permanent. After all, paper programmes came into being before you could look up shows online. And – especially in the case of Edinburgh – the printing costs of the programme were swiftly become the most expensive bit of the fringe.
The argument against? Relying on the website alone turned out to be a bigger faff than anyone expected. Information which we’d got used to scanning down the page in a paper programme required a hell of a lot of clicks to locate the same information online. From the perspective of my day job, Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes should have done some usability testing. A mistake made by countless organisations is to design a website assuming – on paper – that people will use it exactly the way they expected. That mistake is forgivable – what is less forgivable is the web designers angrily doubling down on the design when it becomes when it’s not living up to reality. But that’s a moot point now. No-one is sticking to web-only in 2022. The surprise is which one of the three didn’t stick to the status quo.
There was never any doubt that Buxton would revert to a paper programme – it’s not a big or costly programme, and apparently a lot of regulars are adamant that’s their preferred medium. Edinburgh, however, has reverted to the paper programme too, even though theirs costs way more. This might have something to do with wanting the full works for their 75th anniversary – I suspect they also want the message that the fringe is back to business after a cancelled 2020 and a severely depleted 2021. Whether they’ll still want to stick with in in 2023 remains to be seen.
It is Brighton, not Edinburgh, who has broken ranks. They has a “Daily Diary” which lists when shows are performing by time. It’s fair to say this is the most used part of the paper programme – it’s no big deal to look up details of a show online, but if you want a quick decision on what to see today, there’s no substitute for a list of what’s on today sorted by time. (In fact, this applies even more to Edinburgh, which is why I think scrapped their daily guide in the late 2000s was a mistake.) Apparently there’s a QR code next to each entry to allow you to look things up online.
That’s the theory, anyway. Will this work in practice? I hope to have an answer in the next few days.
Wednesday 18th May, 11.45 a.m.:
A rule change for who I review
And a warm hello from somewhere on the Selby Diversion line between York and Doncaster. I am running to schedule and expect to be around some time 4 p.m. I could have arrived earlier, but contrary to what Andy Burnham seems to think, most of us don’t wilfully travel at the most expensive time of the day so we can screech about how expensive it was.
Now, before we get stuck in I have a housekeeping announcement about reviews. For the last few years, I’ve had a rule in place for Edinburgh that I generally don’t consider for review: stand-up comedy, dance and – more recently added to the list – classic theatre (which roughly means anything earlier than Wilde/Shaw). It’s not that I dislike these – on the contrary, I’ve loved some of these event – but more that I don’t go to enough of these things and/or understand them well enough to do a proper job of reviewing. Outside of Edinburgh, I’ve been more relaxed with the rules, but at the Edinburgh Fringe, where my schedule is jam-packed, every show I see for review means another show not seen and not getting a review. I wish I could review everything I was asked to but I can’t, so I use the time I have to review the things where I think I can deliver the most benefit.
Well, the time has finally come for Brighton. Until last year, only a minority of plays were seen on press tickets, and I was comfortably able to accommodate pretty much everything, just so long as it was running on the right days. This time, however, I have had loads of requests and had to be a lot more organised. I’m not sure exactly what it is since 2019 that changed things, but I suspect it has something to do with me being one of the few people who carried on reviewing in what was left of the 2020 fringe. Once again, I am hugely grateful to everyone who has shown interest, because it motivates me a lot to know what I have to say is valued. It’s just a shame I have to respond to this by saying “no” more often.
Okay, we are past Doncaster. Will drop in again when I’m approaching Brighton.
Tuesday 17th May:
The future of Arts Council England and content warnings
Almost time. This time tomorrow I will be joining you.
Before then, there have been some jitters over yesterday’s announcement by the government to review “arm’s length” bodies, specifically Arts Council England. This has led to a panic that the government’s about to pull funding on the arts. I don’t think that’s likely – if the government wanted to kill off the arts, it had more than enough chances in the last two years. All they had to do was sit on their hands as finances went down the pan.
No, what they are considering doing is even worse. The review consider whether the functions of the body are appropriately taken by the body under review. And we know from experience that this particular government doesn’t independent public bodies making decisions that don’t go its way. I could easily see them replacing Arts Council England with another body that’s the same except that it’s run by yes-men, who then allocate the lion’s share of the funding to more yes-men. And, unfortunately, I fear that the theatre world has already handed to them several excuses they’re looking for. I am racking my brains for the best why to respond to this – I was say more when I have some ideas.
Now that you’re all feeling depressed, let’s change the subject. In 2019 Brighton Fringe introduced content warnings on its web listing. There were impossible to not view if you wanted to know when a play was on, and sometimes the content warning gave away what they play was about. This time, they have move more to Edinburgh’s system of less specific content warnings in categories (so it might have “triggering content” without saying exactly that content is). I have separate reservations with this.
I have my own dilemma. I have an online play coming with with an absolutely massive content warning attached to it, but it would not be possible to tell you what it is without giving away the whole plot in advance. Well, I think I’ve got the answer on how we should handle content warnings, and the source of my inspiration is an unlikely one: a website called “Does the Dog Die?” Yes, I’m serious. Curious as to what I’m on about. Come to this blog post.
Monday 16th May:
What’s coming up in week 2
Welcome to week 2. In two day’s time, I will be joining you. Until then, once more, let’s see what’s coming up.
Out of all the plays I’ve seen before, the headliner has to be Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show. This went down very well in the last two years and is back for another encore. Heather-Rose Andrew is the perfect female Jekyll/Hyde and indeed the play was written specifically for her. It might not be quite what you think though. A lot of these gender-swap stories try to stand out by focusing on what makes a female character different; here, it stands out by how much is the same, including the bits of the original that you wouldn’t expect to be workable the other way round. You need to concentrate on this, but it’s worth it alone for the transformation. Starts today and runs until Sunday.7.30 p.m. at Sweet at the Poet’s.
Whilst we’re on the subject of Sweet at the Poet’s, in case you haven’t already noted so, be aware this is in Hove. Not the definition of Hove we’ve got used to for Brighton Fringe which meant slightly west of the Brighton Town Centre (west of the angel peace statue, to be precise) – this is Hove Hove, near the station of that name. There’s an interesting wider pattern of decentralisation of the fringe that I will explore another time, but for now, do not make the mistake of assuming you can be easily pop from central Brighton in the venue in 10 minutes.
Later in the week, we’ve got a couple of notable plays at the Rotunda. Michelle Yim’s other play, The Unforgettable Anna May Wong starts on Wednesday. I previously saw The Empress and Me and the notable thing about these biopic plays is that you can’t try predicting them in advance. Real life is complicated, and a life story always has something in it that’s counter-intuitive. The Wednesday performance is at 7.45 p.m., and there’s two more on Saturday and Sunday at 6.15 p.m. Meanwhile, The Formidable Lizzie Boone from Selena Helliwell runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7.45, 6.15 and 3.15 respectively. It’s a play about with burlesque in but apparently not a burlesque show as such. In intrigued, but everyone was raving about this at Greater Manchester Fringe which looks promising.
And finally, on Thursday and Friday, you can see Alasdair Beckett-King’s work-in-progress comedy Nevermore. Probably easiest to just link you to the video to see his humour (usually parody, pedanticism, or a delightful hybrid of both) so enjoy watching ever Scandi-noir thriller ever, as crimes are solved by detective Bjårn Hjuredessönssönssönssönssön, or something like that.
Right, 1.45. See you in 50 hours.
Sunday 15th May:
Accommodation problems at Edinburgh
I will at some point be looking ahead to fringes other than the big two. I don’t have much unexpected to say about Buxton Fringe, but I may shortly have something interesting to say about Durham Fringe. On this occasion, there is something I know that I’m not telling you yet, but I should be able to reveal soon.
However, before I get into the thick of Brighton, I’m going to take a second look at a headache facing Edinburgh. There has already been a row over workers’ rights and alleged exploitation of volunteers; I’ve already given my thoughts on the latest situation back in April (short answer: there is no short answer – there’s a lot of complicated issues to unpick). However, there’s possibly a bigger problem emerging, and that is accommodation. I’ve long said that the cost of festivals is heavily influenced by supply and demand, and it doesn’t pay to try to disregard this. Unfortunately, this is exactly what a lot of landlords are doing and I think this is going to end in tears.
One problem with Edinburgh Fringe is there simply isn’t enough city to accommodate all the acts who want to take part. The Festival Fringe Society has pledged to find more affordable accommodation, but in the meantime some landlords have taking it on themselves to acquire properties for the sole purpose of letting out over August, with anyone else who wants to live there having to make do with an 11-month let. Needless to say, that does not go down well with locals. However, business of course crashed through the floor in 2020 and 2021. We are now hearing reports of such landlords chasing their losses and ramping up fees in 2022. And, so far, many acts have responded by saying “fuck this” and not taking part.
For what it’s worth, the worst thing that the Festival Fringe Society could do would be to appease this. I hope the advice given to acts is to either find reasonably-priced accommodation (which at least some of the venues are trying to do), or just not take part. The best defence I can offer for these landlords? A lot of people who buy property have this as their only reliable source of income and may well be facing hardship after two years of no business through no fault of their own. I almost sympathise, but there’s no getting round the fact that the people they’re trying to get money from are also facing hardship after two years of no business through no fault of their own. The last thing we want is Edinburgh accommodation operating as a cartel where they name their price and everyone else has no option but to cough up.
I am sceptical the Festival Fringe Society can deliver the affordable accommodation it wants to, but they might. If they don’t, this might be the thing that causes the endless growth bubble to finally burst. I can easily see this being the thing that finally prompts artist and the arts industry and the arts press to realise that Edinburgh Fringe is not the be all and end all and you don’t have to let landlords name their price. This could get really ugly. I could easily see landlords digging their heels in, and let properties go empty rather than give in to groups offering less than the asking price. It might cause Edinburgh Fringe’s size to crash for a few years. There might even be a property market crash in Edinburgh for a few years. If I was on Edinburgh City Council I would be worried about this.
If we absolutely must have a landlord bailout to avoid something this drastic, it had better come with a lot of conditions on rent controls in future years. But, to be honest, if it does come to the catastrophic scenario I’ve hypothesised, I won’t complain too much.The Edinburgh Fringe will adapt and survive. And if the landlords go bankrupt, I’m afraid that’s a price I’m prepared for them to pay.
Saturday 14th May:
The strange reappearance of The Warren
Small but strange observation: the Electric Arcade is running events after all – just not as part of Brighton Fringe. What is going on here?
The context: Electric Arcade is supposed to be The Warren’s year-round venue. Just like the Rialto runs year-round and Sweet runs at least one of its venues year-round (currently The Poets), this was supposed to be The Warren’s way of sticking around outside of a big pop-up venue in May. It was also going to serve as a couple of spaces at Brighton Fringe. So far, this hasn’t happened – in 2020 the Warren ran independently of Brighton Fringe with The Warren Outdoors, and in 2021 those two small spaces were probably a bad idea. 2022 might have been Electric Arcades debut but we know what happened there. Except it is running after all.
Now, it is only fair to remind everyone that Brighton Fringe is not the government of Brighton culture. The may be able to set rules of codes of conduct for venues, but they most certainly do not (and absolutely should not) have the power to ban venues from operating without their say-so. Even so, wasn’t The Warren supposed to be taking time out to get its finances in order? Also, the Electric Arcade’s programme is called “EA in May” which I don’t believe is a coincidence. On the other hand, a year-round venue doesn’t stop costing you money if you halt operations and you might need income. I’m also wondering if this was doing used as a refuge from homeless Warren acts who, let’s be fair, didn’t get much chance to find new homes when Brighton Fringe didn’t budge from their deadline.
I guess what I’m really interested in is what’s been going on. For the record, I do sometimes have inside information given to me in confidence on what the goss is with venues, but in the case of The Warren, I assure you I am just as much in the dark on this is you are. There is nothing I know that I’m not telling you. In particular, whose decision was it really to pull the plug on Warren 2022? Otherplace Productions or Brighton Fringe? The latter would set an important (and potentially very messy) precedent for the Edinburgh Fringe where the issue of worker rights is way more controversial. I’ll see what I can find out that’s a) verifiable, and b) doesn’t betray confidentiality. But, boy, we may not have heard the last of this.
Friday 13th May:
Weekend 2 and a look at online fringe
We’re approaching weekend 2, so it’s time for another look at what’s coming up. Nothing new from the theatre section this week, but we do have a couple of new comedy entries on my radar. Biscuit Barrel come to the Rialto theatre for their hyperactive sketch show. I hosted this troupe at Durham Fringe and it was one of the highlights in the closing phases of the festival. 9.45 tonight and tomorrow, and I’m hoping this will include the Mickey Mouse Smoothie. We also have the return of Privates who I last saw doing a war movie but with sperms. This is the more family-friendly Great Ideas by Geniuses at the Spiegeltent/ Saturday and Sunday at 4.00 in the Spiegeltent.
We also have the return of 80s pop diva Yasmine Day’s stunning comeback / embarrassing failure (delete as applicable) with Songs in the Key of Me (9.00 p.m. Junkyard Dogs tonight) and a final performance from Crime Scene Improvisation (5.30p.m. Sunday, Laughing Horse @ The Walrus). Apologies for the content warning on CSI, by the way: “we cannot predict the input of live audience members.” I think that might have been me.
As well an Eleanor Conway’s ongoing Talk Dirty to Me, we also have Blue Devil’s The Tragedy of Dorian Gray online. If you didn’t catch it last year I recommend catching up on this, as it’s a clever retelling of the Oscar Wilde story, told in the way he way well liked to have told it but couldn’t. However, as whole, the online section of the programme is pretty small compared to last year. Online theatre at festival fringes has persisted a lot longer than many of us predicted, forming a substantial part of the programmes for Edinburgh and Brighton. However, I sensed the writing was on the wall at both these fringes when the overwhelming mood was that it was good to be back to the real thing. Neither did the sales figures help, especially at Edinburgh. Sales for the few in-person shows were excellent (albeit inflated persisted by an audience being shared amongst a small number of shows), but online was typically only attracting 30 or so views.
I’m not ruling out the complete disappearance of online shows though. Living Record, who formed a large part of Brighton Fringe’s online programme, might not be taking part this year but still had its own festival in January and February. There’s still a lot of things online theatre can potentially do that in-person can’t. We saw that – evening with the controversially high registration fees – online provided a much cheaper option than in-person for Brighton and Edinburgh. Small fringes such as Buxton are also cheap, but perhaps online is a different entry-level option. There also the back catalogue of old fringe shows – much as I loved some of them, no-one can tour the country indefinitely, whilst a recorded play has longevity. Finally, there’s the option for online theatre to do things in-person can’t. Pedantically you can argue that’s not really theatre. But it’s a performing art and there’s no reason why theatre makers should be confined to just theatre.
My forecast is that online theatre’s role in festival fringes will decline further. Most fringegoers have firmly made online their plan B. It will eventually be just the occasional production that the big venues use to complement in-person programmes with something different that can’t be done on live stages. (I suspect Summerhall will be keen on this.) However, I can see online having a future separately from the fringes with its own online communities. Exactly what this will look like is up in the air and it will take a lot of trial and error, but don’t close this chapter just yet.
Thursday 12th May:
A look towards Sweet @ the Poets and The Rotunda
We haven’t yet talked about the elephant in the room. That is, of course, the shitshow that led to the disappearance of The Warren. If you haven’t done so already, you can read it in the opening of my preview. I intend to check this further: primarily what happened to all the acts supposed to perform there, and also – if my spies are really on the ball – what went wrong in the first place.
But that can come later. Right now, I want to focus on some positives with new venues. One thing we don’t consider much is whether a venue is more than a performance space. The primary job of any venue is somewhere to perform and see performances, but do people stick around before and after performances? Is there a sense of community? The big socialising areas provided by Spiegeltent (and, until this year, The Warren) are a great way to show Brighton Fringe is here, but that’s not quite the same thing. You do have performers and punters mingling, but this is diluted by the multitude of people who come for drinking and partying.
For this reason, I’m actually quite excited by Sweet Brighton’s new home. Sweet have actually got back to me about their move to the Poets, and whilst the circumstances for moving may have been out of their hands, they’re quite upbeat about the result. My own reason for feeling positive? I miss the Dukebox. That venue with the Iron Duke was a nice little hub that had exactly the kind of community built up I was talking about. Sweet did their best with Werks Central (and the coffee bar normally used for creative businesses was a very handy thing to have there), but it was never quite the same. I have yet to see what Sweet @ The Poets is like, but it looks set up ideally to work how the Dukebox did, both in its immediate role as a performance space and its wider place as part of a fringe community.
I’m also interested to see how the Rotunda takes to Brighton. I now have confirmation that “Bubble” and “Squeak” does indeed mean the Rotunda has been spilt into two spaces. The Rotunda never really tried being anything other than performance space at Buxton Fringe, but to be fair there wasn’t really much of a point to that – The Old Clubhouse was a stone’s throw away, already functioning as a hub for the entire fringe. However, Regency Square is a location the Rotunda has all to itself. I will be interested to see how they respond to think. Stick with what works or aim for something more?
Anyway, that’s the theory, how does this work in practice? I will be seeing this for myself next week.
Wednesday 11th May:
Latest news on Edinburgh’s size
It’s not just Brighton Fringe I am commentating on – I will also be looking ahead to the other fringes, plus anything else important that happens during this time. The big news, of course, is what’s going on with Edinburgh. Last year the prospects for Edinburgh Fringe looked alarming and bleak, thanks to a highly questionable decision by the Scottish Government to set absurdly prohibitive social distancing rules for theatres but not pubs. They backed down to a sane compromise very late in the day, by which time it was too late for many acts to make plans. However, against the odds (and, to be fair, with some financial support from the Scottish government), Edinburgh Fringe pulled together at the last moment and managed a token presence.
And so Edinburgh Fringe 2022 is on course to return to some sort of normality. Unlike Brighton Fringe, however, there’s little appetite to go completely back to how things were before. There’s an all-round consensus that 3,800 acts was too many – few people say a limit should be enforced, but nobody’s encouraging a repeat of 2019. However, for the time being this looks like a moot point. When the first batch of tickets went on sale in March, there were only 300 shows. Then it went up to 800 in April and last week went up to 2,000. There is one final batch coming up on June 7th, and whilst it is not impossible to get another 1,800, this seems unlikely, as all the major venues have done most of their programming and are now filling in gaps.
The current mood is that we’re heading for a 2022 fringe size comparable to the mid-2000s. If that is the case, one would think that would relieve considerable pressure on the city of Edinburgh. In the case of accommodation, it might not be so simple – I will come back to that another day as it’s an issue in its own right. From an audience point of view, however, it might feel similar to before. The Birghton Fringe of 2017-2019 was visibly a much larger event than a few years before when it was half the size. But even though my first Edinburgh Fringe in 2006 was only about half the size of the 2019 peak – that didn’t feel much different. I guess if it’s fringe fringe and more fringe as far as the eye can see, the overall size doesn’t make much difference as to the (perceived) experience.
However, there is one footnote to this that might be worth considering. In years gone by, it was normal for acts to run the entire festival, and deemed all but compulsory if you wanted to be noticed. Acts that ran for a shorter time were either beginners who were more interested in dipping their toe in Edinburgh than being noticed, and highly established acts who don’t need noticing any further. This time, however, I’d say only about half of the acts are running the full fringe. Please treat my observation with caution, because I have not done any proper analysis to confirm this is the case – indeed, the media notoriously formed this consensus in a previous fringe that turned out to be completely wrong. But if this is correct, this will matter. Do you really need to run the full length of the fringe? If we discover the two-week runs perform as well as the four-week runs (with half the accommodation expense), that will turn things on its head.
Tuesday 10th May:
Early news of ticket sales
And we have our first bit of news from Brighton. And it’s not great. This has come via Paul Levy of FringeReview, who in turn is basing this off anecdotal accounts from the venues, but if he is right, the opening weekend on Brighton Fringe has been, in his words, “quiet” as far as ticket sales are concerned. There are plenty of signs of activity in the venues, but the most visible parts are drinking, eating, and socialising. This is apparently not translating into selling tickets. We haven’t yet heard anything from Brighton Fringe itself, but there is a tendency of fringes in general to shout from the rooftops when sales are going well and keep quiet the rest of the time.
Does this matter? Few people go into a fringe expecting to make a profit. I advise anyone who’s new to Fringe to budget with a projected income of zero. It’s never that bad, but if gives you a worse-case baseline that your finances should be able to withstand. Of course, it’s nicer to perform to a big audience than a small one, but as I like to remind everyone, I got my first professional break off the back of a Brighton Fringe performance to an audience of three. However, a lot of more experienced acts know what sort of ticket income they can rely of on what’s worthwhile. Disappointing news of ticket sales one year raises questions over whether projects are worthwhile the next. Perhaps you can run a fringe entirely on beginners with zero expectations of sales, but without more experienced groups being part of the community it would be a different experience.
A little more concerning is what happens with venues. No-one’s under threat of going bust. Nevertheless, ticket sales one year is an indication on whether it’s worth upsizing or downsizing next year. Whilst there’s no rules against doing a fringe play in a community hall you hired yourself, the combined capacity of the managed venues does have a lot of influence of how big a fringe is (with many acts preferring to give up if there’s no slots at managed venues going, if Buxton’s experience is anything to go by). The counter-argument is that actually ticket sales don’t matter that much, because in the ancillary income such as bar sales which really count. That, however, carries its own concerns. There’s already worries that the big venues at Edinburgh and Brighton are becoming drinking establishments first and performing arts venues second. The last thing we want is programming based on who draws in the most drinkers.
As far as I can tell, we’re not at any sort of crisis point. Another time, I will have a think about why this has happened. I confident we will get to the end of this fringe with everyone having a good time (or a stress-induced panic-fest, which many of us consider the same thing). But it might have implications for next year’s fringe. But what implications? And will they be a good thing or a bad thing? At the moment, it’s anyone’s guess.
Monday 9th May:
Coming up in week one
It’s the start of week one, and with that time for our first look at what’s on mid-week.
Long-standing fringe stalwarts Pretty Villain have started their run of The God of Carnage. This is written by Yasmina Resa, best known for Art. This time, instead of an argument over a stupid painting we have a confrontation between parents over one child attacking another, but it looks like once again the showdown will say more about the people arguing over the issue than the issue itself. The first performance was yesterday afternoon, but there’s another three from Tuesday to Saturday at 8.00 p.m. at the Rialto Theatre.
Meanwhile, over at the Rotunda we have most of the performances of The Ballad of Mulan, promised to be an undisneyfied version of the Chinese legend. If you’re wondering why Ross Ericson and Michelle Yim have so many shows on this year, it’s because they’ve brought along their own venue. There will be a lot of other opportunities to see numerous plays of theirs at the Rotunda, but we can get started with this one, running Tuesday to Thursday at 7.45 p.m. I will be keeping a keen eye on the Rotunda because this could be a game-changer for the fringe circuit, but this can keep you busy for now.
There is one other fringe listing that’s notable. You don’t need to rush here, and the reason you don’t is the reason it’s notable. Eleanor Conway’s show Talk Dirty to Me is running the entire fringe. That’s unprecedented. It’s was normal for Edinburgh Fringe shows to run the entire festival, but the only show I’ve seen do this before is The Lady Boys of Bangkok. That, however, is practically a venue/festival in its own right. The conventional wisdom has always been that – whilst the ever-changing visiting audience at Edinburgh can sustain an audience for a month – Brighton’s audience is local and after a week everyone who is thinking of seeing it will have gone. Is Eleanor Conway about to turn conventional wisdom on its head.
Whatever the outcome, she’s earned a plug. Eleanor Conway’s routine is heavily themed about sex positivity and why it’s okay to be over 40 and childless if that’s what you want. I really don’t understand why so many people have exact views on what other people should be doing with life decisions such as this one, but for some reason they are are obsessed with it. This runs at Laughing Horse at the Walrus, either 9.15 p.m. or 9.30 p.m. depending on the dates, and on some days she does a matinee too. Bold move, so good luck.
Incidentally, the conventional wisdom about running a full festival at Edinburgh has been thrown into question this year, but that is a topic for another day.
Sunday 8th May:
Looking ahead to ticket sales and housekeeping
One of the earliest things to look out for is how the ticket sales for the opening weekend went. This is especially important in years where the size of a festival fringe has radically grown or shrunk. We might know how the size of the fringe as changed, but how has the size of the audience changed? Does it sustain the new size.
No info on the bigger picture yet, but one interesting tidbit I picked up is that one show (Reach for the Lasers) sold out its opening night. Sell-outs aren’t that unusual if the name already has a big following or if word-of-mouth publicity boosts sales during the run – but it’s unusual to do this in advance of the run. Anyone who gets a sell-out is doing something right, but it’s an early sign that there’s plenty of audience to go round. If and when I have any more reliable figures, I will come back to this.
And now, one housekeeping notice. I have received A LOT of review requests for this fringe. I will do by best to accommodate these, but this is likely to come down largely to luck. I will be at Brighton in person on the 15th-19th May and again on the 27th-28th (plus, at a push, the earlier half of the 20th). In the meantime, I have sent acknowledgements to everyone who sent a review request prior to the start of the fringe. (Sorry I can’t reply personally to everyone, but this is the only way I can keep up.) If you have not received an acknowledgement, please get in touch now, because this probably means I never got your request.
And, yet again, I really appreciate this. I have never actively pursued press requests, but back home it can sometimes feel like the in crowd considers you to not be a “proper” reviewer. And yes, I know I haven’t exactly made many friends by saying what I think instead of saying everything’s awesome, but it can get dispiriting sometimes. It’s these gestures that make me feel valued. So please don’t feel you’re wasting my time – I just wish I could do more in return.
Saturday 7th May:
My recommendations for Brighton Fringe 2022
As for the rest of the fringe, I have my light of highlights completed. You can come over to What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2022 to see what I rate, or look at the quick list here. (No particular ranking: apologies to anyone getting excited over being listed first.)
Testament of Yootha Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed God of Carnage The Tragedy of Dorian Gray [Online]
The Ballad of Mulan Yasmine Day: Songs in the key of me Jekyll and Hyde: A one-woman show The Last Underdogs
You might like …
Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore The Event Lionhouse Cabaret
Fragile The Formidable Lizzie Boone
From the comedy:
Crime Scene Improvisation Biscuit Barrel: No time to digestive Privates: Great Ideas by Geniuses Alasdair Beckett-King: Nevermore Aidan Goatley: Tenacious
Also of note:
Elanor Conway: Talk Dirty to Me (more about this shortly)
But remember: this is a preview, not a shortlist. At every fringe, some of the best things I’ve seen are plays I’ve never seen before by groups I’ve never heard of. Who will be rated a pick of the fringe that I don’t yet know about?
Stay with me for the next month to find out.
Friday 6th May:
Coming up in weekend 1 …
Before my arrival on the 15th May, I will be monitoring Brighton Fringe from afar. In particular, I am interested to hear how Brighton Fringe fares without its centrepiece venue. Before that, however, let’s take a look at what’s coming up in the first weekend.
My highlight starting tonight is your first of three Fridays to see Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me. I saw Jay Bennet’s creation of this deluded power-ballad diva-wannabe at her launch in Buxton Fringe 2018, but behind the comedy of her ridiculous grandiose ideas is a somewhat tragic tale of a washed-up singer – and as this has developed, we’ve been getting a darker story where Yasmine is her own worst enemy, unable to let go of lifelong grudges. 9.00 p.m. at Junkyard Dogs at the Round Georges.
Starting tomorrow is Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore, probably the all-time most successful play from Jonathan Brown. If you are a regular Brighton visitor it is worth catching up on some point and the strange history of the town – a lot of what makes Brighton unique today can be traced back to the era of George VI – and this play is a good way of learning about it. Runs this Saturday and Sunday at Brighton Fishing museum, and don’t worry, that’s not in sticks, but right next to the pier.
And on Sunday we have the first of two performances from Crime Scene Improvisation. I’ve been learning a lot about improv comedy over the last year and been impressed by the high standard, but thing I’ve noticed about this group is, when they make a mistake, not only do they make it funny, they also make it part of the rest of the show. Sadly I don’t have time to explain why Molly-Molly-Shoe-Shoe was such a funny joke last year. This is at Laughing Horse @ The Walrus at 4 p.m. Be advised through, this is a much smaller venue than The Warren where they performed last year, so you might want to book this early to be on the safe side.
However, the bad news is that Wired Theatre are not performing this weekend, or any weekend, due to a member of cast withdrawing from the production. This is indeed a shame, considering how determined they are the put on something every year. Anyway, for those of you already at Brighton, enjoy yourselves and keep me informed.
Thursday 5th May:
It’s the eve of Brighton Fringe 2022, and welcome to my live coverage. I won’t be coming to Brighton until the 18th May, but until then I will be keeping track of how England’s largest fringe is unfolding from afar.
After a 2020 fringe that struggled on against all odds, and an impressive 2021 fringe that looked set to catapult Brighton Fringe back to full strength, the 2022 fringe was all set to be back to full strength. There was even a moment when it was possible it might overtake Edinburgh. However, just when it looked like everything was going Brighton’s way, there was a big setback. As a result, we have a third consecutive fringe that is going to look very different from what we were used to.
You can read all about what went wrong in my Brighton Fringe preview. But you can also read about all the acts I am looking forward to. For now, let’s put this setback to the side and get busy with all the acts and venues that are here.
And we’re back. For the first time in three years, a fringe I can cover without a crisis dominating the story. I can go back to my usual focus of looking through the programme and telling you what I can recommend. However, we’re not quite back to normal. There is one indirectly related event which has shaken up Brighton Fringe a bit.
The big change:
A lot of changes were made for Brighton Fringe 2021. Towards the end of the fringe, there was a discussion on whether any changes should be made permanent. The hot tip was that the delay to three weeks leading to a festival mostly in June would be made permanent. That was considered, but in the end they decided to revert to May. In fact, the only thing which has partly stuck is doing away with the paper programme. This year, Brighton Fringe is instead doing a printed daily guide, with details on the website only. Last year it was a faff to work out what was available today – maybe this will work better. However, it does put them at odds with Buxton and Edinburgh who are reverting to full programme.
The biggest trailblazer over the last two years was undoubtedly The Warren. When most of the theatre world shut up shop for eighteen months, they got going faster than anyone with “The Warren Outdoors” in the summer of 2020. This was a big success, and they used this as the basis for their socially distanced fringe in 2021, as well as repeat of a summer season, now called “Warren on the Beach”. With the ticket sales across all of Brighton Fringe 2021 surpassing all expectations handsomely, it seem that The Warren’s boldness was thoroughly vindicated. I was even wondering if Warren on the Beach would become permanent.
But, unknown to me, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Even though the fringe was on the surface a roaring success, complaints were emerging of staff and acts not getting paid. It does seem strange that this should happen when the income looked so good, so I wondered if they’d somehow allowed expenses to spiral out of control. It now seems more likely it was just shonky financial management. Then the story went quiet again and I assumed they’d settled this quietly. But days before the programme was announced, the bombshell was announced: The Warren would not be taking part this year whilst it sorted its finances out. Worse, it seemed the acts programme into the Warren found out the same time as the rest of us.
So far the first time since 2019, we have preparations underway for all the main fringes. Last year was cause for celebration when, against all odds and so much stacked against them, the two biggest fringes put on great comeback festivals. Now, however, it seems we’re into the hangover. Oh dear, here’s what’s been going on.
Brighton Fringe loses The Warren
How could this possibly go so wrong? Brighton Fringe 2021 was, by all accounts, a roaring success, with custom for both ticket sales and ancillary income (i.e. drinking) vastly outperforming every expectation. But then, last October, signs emerged that perhaps all was not well after all, specifically with The Warren. Complaints started emerging online from performers and staff about not being paid that year, both from the Fringe and the subsequent Warren on the Beach (although some are going further and claiming the problem goes back years). It did seem strange that such difficulties were happening after such a lucrative summer, but apparently it’s perfectly possible for this to happen simply because of inadequate financial management. The absence of anyone from The Warren at registration launch also seemed strange. Then the news died down and the registration for Brighton Fringe approached and I assumed that The Warren must have got a grip on events and settled it quietly.
And then, days before announcement of the full programme, the bombshell was announced by Brighton Fringe: The Warren will not take part in 2022 whilst it sorts out its finances. The announcement came from Brighton fringe rather than the venue, but it sounds like they’ve admitted they screwed up. The problem with the timing is a lot of artists were already programmed to perform there. There is currently a scramble to find alternatives, but off-hand it doesn’t look like there’s enough spare capacity at the other venues to absorb this. At the time of writing, Brighton Fringe doesn’t seem to be budging on its 7th March deadline to get in the printed daily guide. It also dashes the (previously quite high) hopes that Brighton Fringe would be back to full strength for 2022.
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.
The 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.