Sorry Scotsman, but “pop-up” reviewers are legitimate competition

COMMENT: There are valid reasons to criticise independent reviewers – but writing “entertaining” reviews at the expense of saying anything helpful is worse than anything so-called pop-up reviewers are accused of doing.

I apologise for burdening you with yet another anti-Scotsman article. I was planning to let this go after my original article on why you should think twice before letting The Scotsman review you, but then came Kate Copstick’s bizarre passive-aggressive column for Broadway Baby, seemingly unable to let go of her outburst the year before over comedians exercising their right not to give out press tickets for previews. So I wrote about that hoping it would be the last time. But now I’ve come across this article in the Edinburgh Evening News: ‘It’s these pop-up reviewers who haunt festivals such as Edinburgh Fringe that have done much to devalue the review as an art form’. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, this is bad. It’s not entirely clear what is meant by “pop-up” reviewers – most of the time it seems to be independent bloggers such as myself, but it’s vague and possibly extends to pop-up review sites. The only people cited as valid reviewers are – yes, that’s right – the reviewers at The Scotsman, co-incidentally the sister publication of the Edinburgh Evening News.

Even though this piece is a blanket attack on people like me, I’m going to refrain from making personal attacks back. Unlike Kate Copstick and Paul Whitelaw, who both squandered all my respect a long time ago, Liam Rudden, by all accounts, is highly thought of as both a theatre maker and an arts journalist. And yet the way this article is written, it reads like a hit piece sanctioned by the fringe editors of The Scotsman with Liam Rudden acting as a proxy. So let’s respond. Continue reading

Advertisements

Guest post: Flavia D’Avila on Edinburgh Fringe – a Love/Hate Relationship

AdtQHCoG.jpg:small
Alfredo Jaar’s installation for the Edinburgh Art Festival

The endless growth of Edinburgh Fringe has provoked a debate on two big issues: the affordability of the Edinburgh Fringe, and the conditions for workers at the venues. But there is a third issue that also needs attention, which is what effect Edinburgh has on the locals of the city. Is it a chance to enjoy the greatest cultural festival in the world on your doorstep and take an annual windfall? Or does it make your own city inhospitable for a month every year? I haven’t commented much on this as I don’t live in Edinburgh and don’t know much about this issue.

So let’s get the perspective of someone who does. Flavia D’Avila lives in Edinburgh. Coincidentally, she is directing a play that is coming to Edinburgh this year (which I happened to see at Buxton and loved), but she is more importantly someone who I’ve seen commentate on contentious issues at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere in a fair and thoughtful manner. So here is the perspective of an Edinburgh Fringe local …

I first moved to Edinburgh in 2006. I arrived the day before the Fireworks Concert that year, so I had just missed the Fringe but that was one of the reasons I decided to move here from Brazil. I had never been to Scotland and had no personal connections here but I had my mind set in Edinburgh as a good place to develop my theatre career after the suggestion of an English friend living in Brazil and reading a short article in a local newspaper about the Edinburgh Festivals.

I skipped 2015 because of issues with the Home Office (that’s another story that you can read on my personal blog here), so 2019 is my 12th Edinburgh Festival Fringe and although I am sadly still not entitled to a Scottish passport, I feel very much like a local here. That said, during the Fringe, I’m not just a local. I’m part of it. So when Chris kindly invited me to write this guest post reflecting on the Fringe impact on the Edinburgh locals, I gladly accepted but I feel the need to warn readers that my experience is that of a local theatremaker who is very much embedded in it all. That part of me absolutely loves the Fringe. Part of me also hates it.

I can’t tell you much about the experience of the other locals, those who just want to be able to get to work in an office or need to pay a bill or go the library and get annoyed because the Fringe keeps getting in the way. I got little insights here and there, like when I was speaking to a bouncer who sometimes works at the venue where I work year-round. He rarely goes to shows that he’s not working at and doesn’t really care much for it. He enjoys some music gigs and has done some private security for Kylie Minogue in the past so he was delighted to see her at Edinburgh Castle last month. He isn’t super keen on how busy the city gets but he also acknowledges that August is his best month for business so he works his ass off and then he takes his family away for a 4-week holiday in some remote beach resort in January. Although he doesn’t engage with the Fringe, it allows him to have some quality family time a few months later. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/62/Pleasance_Courtyard.jpg/800px-Pleasance_Courtyard.jpg

Skip to: Bite-Size, From Judy to Bette, Great Grimm Tales, Green Knight, Mustard, Police Cops in Space, Sary, Testament of Yootha, All of Me, An Audience with Yasmine Day, The Grandmothers Grimm, Moby Dick, Myra, Police Cops: badass be thy name, Taboo, Trainspotting Live

Apologies for the late arrival this year – a lot of things have been happening with inconvenient timing this year. But Edinburgh Fringe is already in its first weekend and I’d better get a move on.

So, welcome to Edinburgh Fringe 2019, the biggest Edinburgh Fringe ever by a long way. There was a time when this news prompted all-round celebrations – not any more. Questions are being asked everywhere of the affordability of Edinburgh, both to performers and punters, and last year the issue of working conditions has also joined the debate. But these issues were all the rage last year, and none of this is stopping the growth. This issue must surely come to a head eventually, but it looks like it won’t be this year.

Instead it’s business as usual. I’ve looked through the programme and picked out a selection of plays I think are worth seeing. As always, I must remind you that this should be considered a cross-section of what’s on offer rather than a comprehensive list – most of the listings are plays and acts I’ve never heard of, some of whom will be as brilliant as anything I list here. However, I have set a new rule for Edinburgh: performers get a maximum of one recommendation per category. Some groups are bringing several plays to Edinburgh and I have confidence in all of them, but in order to stop smaller artists getting swamped by all these entries I have to do something to keep the list down to something manageable. Where a group has other plays of note, I will list those against their entry.

Unless otherwise noted, all plays listed here run the entire fringe.

Safe choice:

So we start, as always, with the top tier. Most safe choices are plays I have seen before performed by a group I’ve seen before; occasionally, however, a performer has had such an impressive record I’ve put a new play straight to safe choice.

In all cases, this is a surefire recommendation if – and this is the big if – you think this play appeal to you. Few plays appeal to everyone of every taste, and if you don’t like the sound of the play, all the five-stars in the world won’t change this. However, all of these plays are considered to have wide appeal, if you like the sound of this I’m confident you’ll like it for real, and even if it’s a bit different from what you usually see it may be worth giving any of these a go. They are:

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show

04-05-2019-205838-4908

One of the greatest pleasures of going to fringe after fringe is the rare occasion when obscure newcomers go on to great things. Bite Size’s sets of ten-minute plays was something I saw in 2016 in the smaller soom of Roman Eagle Lodge, then the bigger room, then a bigger space in Gilded Balloon, and for the last few years they’ve been a headline performance at Queen Dome, one of the Pleasance’s biggest spaces. But there are bigger ones, and this year they’re in Pleasance Forth, one of the biggest of all. That’s about as big as you can get, and the full journey has been done. There is one touch of sadness attached to this: the earliest runs worked very well with the intimate setting of a small audience. But it would be impossible to go back to this now – in recent years the tickets have been selling out solidly, so there really was no option but to go large. (And even then, I am hearing that the Monday and Tuesday in week one, always in high demand because of two-for-one deals, have sold out already.)

Bite-Size aren’t the only company to perform short plays, but for one reason or another they do a better job of finding the best short plays than anyone else. However, there has been one obscure but important transition that has been happening under the radar. Bite-Size used to have a rotating cast with few people staying on more than three years. When Bill Knowelden came back year after year, “We just can’t get rid you” started becoming an in-joke. Now this has become the norm for the whole ensemble. And what’s more, they have started writing their own plays, some of which were superb.

And the last thing: there are three different sets of plays. So you can come back on three consecutive days (I do) and see fifteen ten-minute plays. It’s a 10.30 a.m. at Pleasance Courtyard (not 13th or 19th).

From Judy to Bette

judy-to-bette-the-stars-of-old-hollywoodRebecca Perry was a hit a few years back with her play Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl. Before you make any quips about the shit 1970s films with Robin Asquith, she’s already beaten you to it with the joke with her sequel being named Adventures of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl. The two plays aren’t bawdy romps but instead a mostly autobiographical account of her time working at a Toronto coffee shop and through a stroke of luck moving on to a dream job with an unexpected sting in the tail. However, she’s keen to be known for more than one story, and From Judy to Bette is her headline companion act.

I haven’t seen this, but this goes straight to safe choice because her other plays were very musical, both with Perry’s own singing voice and the really slick musical score that underpinned the two plays. This looks like a mixture between a tribute act to the icons of Hollywood’s golden age and a play about the stories behind the scandalous headlines. I’m now sure how much there is of each, but such a brilliantly-executed format from her first two plays should transfer well to this act. Shows at 7.30 at Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (that’s what was C Venues until … well, if you don’t know you’ll be catching up soon) at 7.30 p.m. (not Wednesdays).

Great Grimm Tales

30092c3392c1458abb82adaabd6ee72bBox Tale Soup are another big name in Edinburgh, with their unique blend of puppetry and live acting setting them apart from everyone else. Northanger Abbey was probably their big hit that earned them top-level acclamation, and since then Dorian Grey and The Turn of the Screw have gone on to be critically acclaimed too. The cast varies from year to year, but the key performers are Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, who invariably play at least one human character and at least five puppet characters with flawless transitions.

There’s always some sort of gothic/dark element to the productions (even the nice Jane Austen one), so the Grimm Tales are a perfect choice here. We are yet to discover how many unnecessarily painful deaths of villains will be kept from the originals, or whether they are going to reinstate the even gorier stuff that was cut out (more on this later) but you can expect something good. It’s at Underbelly Cowgate at 11.00 a.m. (And every day. I hope Christophers and Byrne scoff at the wimps who want a day off.) One word of warning though – Box Tale Soup end up touring most of their work, but there’s often a year’s gap between Edinburgh and the subsequent tour. So if you want to avoid the wait, you’d better see it now.

Green Knight

Most of the names listed in my safe choice are well-known names that would not come as any surprise in any list of recommendations. However, this next one is much less know but just as worthwhile a watch. Green Knight was an unexpected hit at Buxton Fringe last year; I finally got to see it this year and all of the buzz was thoroughly earned. Debbie Cannon wrote for herself a simple storytelling piece of a retelling of the story of Sir Gawain. Another notable name is Flavia D’avila, the director of the play and also I think one of the most intelligent commentators of the state of theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe – she was the one who summed things up so well with “a mainstream that thinks it’s a counterculture” – but this recommendation is on the play alone.

In this retelling, the ageing wife of the story of Gawain recounts the time Arthur’s gallant nephew visited her husband’s castle. Like many of the best retellings, no events are removed or changed from the story as such, and Gawain is still the selfless gallant knight of the original tale – but it’s what added to the story that makes it unique. The original story makes out the nameless wife to be a temptress. In this- … well, yes, she’s still a temptress, but there’s a lot more to it. Unlike most fringe shows, this is only on for a set number of says, so it’s at the Scottish Poetry Library on the 7th, 9th, 10th, 13th and 14th August at 7.30 p.m.

Mustard

I’ve been following Eva O’Connor’s work for the past few years now. A mixed verdict on the first play quickly turned into a string of follow-ups that impressed me with her variety of stories heavily drawn from personal experienced and the way she told them. My favourite one of all is the one I think is very under-rated: The Friday Night Project, that gets the audience to make decisions, starting trivial and escalating into an agonising moral dilemma.

This is one of her more cryptic stories though. “E” meets the man of her dreams, a professional cyclist, and when she loses him, turns to “mustard” as her coping mechanism. I’m guessing that “mustard” is an allegory for something more sinister here, and I’m also guessing there’s a parallel to doping in cycling. But even if her drug of choice is literal mustard, I’m intrigued. This is on a short run, so you need to catch this as Summerhall on the 2nd-11th August at 11.30 a.m.

Police Cops in Space

https://i2.wp.com/www.policecops.co.uk/userfiles/multimedia/large_1511205587.jpgOne way of measuring the success of a show is the name of the company. When Police Cops first came on the the fringe circuit, the group performing it were a trio known as The Pretend Men. Now, with a huge cult following and a sequel, the name of the company is Police Cops. They are now branching into new work – and it is the new work that interests me more – but if you are looking for a lot of fun this is the surefire choice for you.

Police Cops was a parody of basically every 1970s cop show ever made, so the sequel, Police Cops in Space, is a parody of every 1970s sci-fi show ever made. It is, of course, a very silly parody, with practically a checklist of every corny line and cliche, but what earned the most praise was the high energy of this trio and such a slick performance. Oh, and as it’s the 1970s everything is 100% heterosexual and not in any way camp, is that clear? This is a limited run on various dates up to the 17th August, at 10.40 p.m. at Assembly George Square.

Sary

https://brightonsource.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Different-Theatre-Sary-hare.jpgSam Chittenden and her company Different Theatre may not be big names at the Edinburgh Fringe, but she may be soon, with her work at Brighton Fringe scooping a who raft of awards. Two of her plays are coming to Edinburgh, and I’d be happy to list either of them, but between the two I’m going for Sary, that I saw this year. Like Green Knight, this is a re-telling of folklore, where nothing is changed from the story as such – instead a new story is added: in this case, the tale as seen by Ol’ Sary Weaver herself, a woman reputed to be a witch. It begins with what made her a recluse, and ends with a clever twist on what the folklore said happened to her.

One thing you do need to be aware is that the two women in the play are usually playing the old and young Sary Weaver – you might get lost at the beginning if you don’t realise this. But there’s a lot that’s different about this, and even its description as a “feminist folk-horror” might not be what you expect. This is at Sweet Novotel at 5 p.m. (not Wednesdays). The other play is Metamorphosis, but another re-telling, this of the story of Greta, not only witnessing her brother’s transformation to an insect but also the changes to herself. Same venue, same days but at 6.45 p.m.

Testament of Yootha

And rounding up this list in alphabetical order is Caroline Burns Cooke who has delivered two superb monologues in the last few years: And the Rope Still Tugging her Feet, a story surrounding the Kerry Babies Scandal in 1980s Ireland, and Proxy, and semi-ficticious story of a mother with Münchhausen’s Syndrome by Proxy. She develops very compelling stories and believable characters but the thing she is best at is explaining what makes people do terrible things. Whether it’s understanding why the nuns of Ireland believed in the strict Catholic upbringing or exploring what would make a mother do such a terrible thing to her daughter, her plays condemn where it’s due but always try to understand first.

This new play is about Yootha Joyce, a beloved sitcom star from comedies such as George and Mildred. But away from the cameras, her life was very different, drinking herself to death at age 53. This is a little different from her previous plays as she plays the same character throughout this time, but it does mean she gets to dress up as Yootha. Whatever there is in store here, expect something thoughtful and fair rather than any sensationalism. This is at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 12.15 p.m.

Bold choices:

The next tier is a bit more of a gamble, but not much. Some of the plays listed here are different, some are new, and some suit more tastes more than others, but for all of them I’ve got reasons to believe they are risks worth taking. If you like the sound of this, you might stumble on the next big thing.

All of Me

Caroline Horton was a huge hit in 2011 and 2012 with two huge successes: You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, the story of her own grandmother who spend the war in occupied France, and Mess, a very personal story about her own fight with anorexia. And then came Islands. That was supposed to be a searing indictment of tax-havens in a place known as “shit-world”, but that was not a success in London, although it did better in Edinburgh where it found an appreciative niche. So now comes a new solo play, another personal one, this time about fighting depression: All of Me (the possibility of future splendour). That’s about all I can gather from this – other than that, it’s a very abstract play, like both Mess and Islands.

I honestly don’t know which they this will go, and normally I would put this play in my Wildcard category. But this going in Bold Choice because when Horton gets it right, she gets it very very right indeed, because Mess truly was outstanding. Can she repeat that magic here? This shows at Summerhall at 3.10 p.m. (not 12th or 19th)

An Audience with Yasmine Day

I don’t normally put entries from the comedy section in my theatre recommendations, but I’ve put in Yasmine Day because behind the character comedy of Jay Bennett’s pretentious washed-up 80s diva is a sad story in the background. I first saw this at Buxton Fringe last year, and whilst it was fun to watch I thought the real potential lay in the unspoken backstory. One year later and returning to Buxton again, that’s exactly what we got. Yasmine Day still has the same delusions of grandeur, but this time, she’s someone who almost did have the grandeur, and became her own worst enemy as her big break slipped through her fingers. In fact, the story now is a lot darker if you think about it long enough.

But you don’t have to watch it for the dark backstory – you can just as easily enjoy this as an hour of fun, with her absurd props, a rendition of Eternal Flame using only the vowels and bringing a whole new meaning to an intimate performance. And if you think this is a bit too far-fetched, I am assured that everything that happen on stage, no matter how ridiculous, is based on real events. (Usual warning: if you are an 80s tribute singer and you recognise your routine in Yasmine Day’s set, I strongly advise you not to admit it). This is at Pleasance Courtyard at 10.30 p.m. (not 13th or 20th).

The Grandmothers Grimm

Some Kind of Theatre, I admit, got my attention as they were one of the most determined groups to get me to review them, but it’s paid off because after years of luckless scheduling I caught them at Buxton with this play. It’s set at a time when the Grimm Brothers are making decisions on what material should go into their books and what should be left out – but are they letting self-interest get the better of them and taking credit that isn’t theirs?

It’s a play that makes you think on a lot of levels, but – most surprisingly – it’s the original folklore. The Grimm Tales, of course, are quite notorious for the unnecessarily painful and gory deaths of the baddies at the end – but if that’s the sanitised version, what the hell is in the unsanitised version? Oh boy, that’s quite an eye-opener. This is at Paradise in the Vault on a short run until 17th August at 9.15 p.m. (not 11th).

Moby Dick

Grist from the Mill and its artistic director Ross Ericson became a big name on the Fringe Circuit thanks to The Unknown Soldier, but lately he’s been making a bigger splash as a venue manager of The Rotunda, a pop-up venue at Buxton and – from this year – a tour to other places too. But they’re also busy with new plays at Ross Ericson’s latest play he’s written for himself is a one-man performance of the hunt for the elusive white whale.

Bold choice instead of safe choice because Ericson has not rested on his laurels after The Unknown Solider; everything he’s done since has taken risks, some gambles paying off, some not. But it does mean that whatever is store for Moby Dick won’t be more of the same. This shows at 4.05 p.m. at Assembly Rooms (that’s the Assembly Rooms in the new town, don’t get caught out) on alternate days (odd dates up to 19th, even from 22nd).

And if you’re wondering what’s in the other dates, that’s Grist from the Mill’s other show, The Ballad of Mulan. To be honest, it was a close-run thing which one I put as bold choice, but this is a performance from Ross Ericson’s co-producer, Michelle Yim, whose doing her third East Asain-theme play. I’m promised it’s not the Disnified version of Mulan. Same time, same place, different days.

Myra

This was one of the most talked about plays at Brighton Fringe – and also one of the most divisive. Originally booked for the 2016 fringe, then cancelled because writer/performer Lauren Varnfeld (also one of the managers at Brighton’s Rialto Theatre) wanted to get the play right, then finally getting its showing last year, the play explores the mind of Myra Hindley, the notorious murderer who – so she claims – found a conscience and reformed in prison. One criticism levelled at the play – not unresonably – is that as a whole we spend too much time putting the voice of murderers on stage and not enough time putting the voice of the victims on stage. But over 2018 and 2019 the play got more good review than bad, and those that did commended it for exploring what would make someone do something so unspeakable.

And do, Myra finally comes to Edinburgh, and it’s anyone’s guess what Edinburgh will make of it. This is at The Imagination Workshop in the New Town at 3 p.m. (not Wednesdays).

Police Cops – Badass Be Thy Name

Police Cops already have an entry in my safe choices, but I’ve given them an additional entry in bold choice for this new follow-up. Successful though Police Cops in Space was, I did have a worry that they might take the easy option and do endless sequels with more of the same. Badass Be Thy Name, however, looks quite different. It combines kitchen-sink drama, vampire slaying, martial arts and a rave soundtrack, whilst keeping the physical comedy that made their first two shows so successful. It could be the next big success, or it might be over-ambitious, but whatever happens, stepping outside the comfort zone was the right move. This shows at Assembly George Square at 9.20 p.m. (not 14th or 21st).

Taboo

I squeezed this into my last day at Brighton Fringe and I’m glad I did. The show describes itself as “A fictitious talk show with a live audience, featuring a guest from the afterlife”, and promises physical theatre and clowning, but in actual fact, this play stands on the story alone. This is the story of Käthe Petersen, a well-respected social worker in Germany – and that career included the Nazi Germany era. One thing that is often forgotten about this period is that the Nazis didn’t win elections on the promise of killing everybody and invading the entire world – it also heavily sold itself as the champions of wholesome family life. It is this vision that Käthe Petersen believed in, dedicating her life to helping what she described as “vulnerable women”.

The safe option when talking about the Nazi era is to depict everything that happened as evil – this, however, looks at the more complicated reality. Karen Schmidt goes out of her way at the end to ultimately condemn what Petersen did, but she didn’t need to, because the play shows very well how good intentions turn to moralising, and how moralising turns to moral hypocrisy, and moral hypocrisy never ends well. This is at Sweet Novotel at 2.15 p.m. (not Wednesdays).

Trainspotting Live

Oh boy. There is probably no better description to Trainspotting Live that the description from Irvine Welsh himself: “I’m shocked, and I wrote the fucking thing”. I saw this at Northern Stage this year and it was exactly what I was braced for. I think the most memorable moment is a toss-up between a naked Renton in a shitted duvet and Renton’s antics on the toilet. Oh, did I say this is immersive? Begbie might pick a fight with you, or if you’re really unlucky you might be next to the aforementioned toilet.

Although Trainspotting Live will almost certainly tour again, the Edinburgh Fringe should be one of the better placing to catch it. Good though the performance is in a theatre, it’s the site-specific performances that really play to its strength, in this case a tunnel. This at EICC with multiple performances each evening (not Wednesdays). Just don not, I repeat, do not, pick the seat next to the toilet.

You might like …

Four picks next. These are productions where I’ve even seen them before or seen something similar, and like safe choices I can confidently say that if you like the sound of this then you can’t go wrong with one of these. The only things that a safe choice needs to have that this doesn’t is the wide audience appeal – these can be more niche. Also, I can relax that ultra-high standards needed for what’s now a very hotly-contest category at Edinburgh.

These five pieces are worth a gander if this is your thing:

The Addams Family

Last year’s musical from Bare Productions, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, wasn’t without its flaws – but I’m still keen to see them again. Bare Productions is an Edinburgh-based company that aims to bring shows popular with amateurs to a professional standard, and they did that well with Charlie Brown. The ensemble all had powerful singing voices, making everything look effortless from the straightforward numbers to the complicated harmonies, and some clever choreography to make use of the limited space. The only thing that didn’t quite work was capturing the mannerisms of some of the Peanuts characters. However, I’ve had a look at their video trailer for The Addams Family and it looks like they’ve done their homework here. Keeping fingers crosses for this for this, at Paradise in Augustines on 3rd-10th August at 7.00 p.m.

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland

Rhttps://www.ridiculusmus.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/EZ-RWD-2014-low-res.pngidiculusmus are taking three plays to Edinburgh Fringe this year on the theme of mental health; all of their plays are very abstract and usually confusing on purpose. However, the most inspired setting of all has to be this one. You are watching two plays at the same time – four characters going in front of and behind a wall separating two worlds. You even get to cross over and watch both halves of the story. One side, presumably, is the real world, whilst the other is an imaginary world. But which side is the real world? Who of the four characters lives in the imaginary world. And don’t think you can find out from what the doctor character says. He may be the one with the psychotic episode – he certainly wouldn’t be the first.

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland is a one-off performance on August 25th at 1 p.m. at Summerhall. The main event from Ridiculusmus this year is a play about attitude to old people somewhat provacatively titled Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! That is part of the British Council Showcase from the 13th. There’s also another one-off on the 25th called Give Me Your Love, with a traumatised veteran turning to MDMA, os you can make the three a triple bill in one day if you wish. None of these may make any sense – but this is about the only time when that can be the whole point of the play.

An Evening with Savvy B

Now from the British Council showcase to a grassroots production I saw in Newcastle a few years ago, a solo play from Hannah Walker. Except that she will be joined by Hannah Walker, who’s had an evening with Savvy B (come on, work that one out). So as a sober version of Hannah Walker sets out to tell us about the intricacies of wine tasting, on video the completely sozzled version of Hannah Walker appears to give her wisdom. Or titter as she spills her drink everywhere. It is fair to say that the whole play is heavily dependent on a single joke, but the drunk-acting version of Walker is hilarious. At least, I think she’s acting drunk. Anyway most of the performances were in week zero (sorry for missing those) but you can still catch her on The Stand Comedy Club 2 at 10.05 p.m. on Monday 12th or The Stand Comedy Club at 8.20 p.m. on Monday 19th. Also, the Stand and Stand 2 are completely different venues, I’ve discovered. You learn something every day.

Ladybones

I saw this at the Vault Festival and this is worth seeing as something different. Sorcha McCaffrey plays Nuala, an archeology student whose finds a skull on a dig that becomes a trigger for the unravelling of her orderly life. And for her, order is important, because Nuala has OCD. And – as this play sets out to show – OCD is not just an eccentricity involving arranging pens; when events send her out of her comfort zone the play shows how the world becomes a terrifying place. Like Ridiculsmus, there are some bits in the middle of the play that are confusing on purpose, but it’s not Ridiculsmus-level confusing with the beginning striaghtforward to follow and also an end where events return to some sort of order. Based partly on personal experience and part fact, this is worth a watch as something different, and it’s at Pleasance Courtyard at 11.25 a.m. (not 12th or 19th).

Pamela’s Palace

Pamela's Palace

And finally, Interactive Theatre International, best known for Faulty Towers, the Dining Experience. That show has been a big success (it was also at the centre of an attempt at corporate censorship a few months back but that’s another story), but this year they’re not bringing their headliner with them. Instead they’re bringing another tribute, Only Fools The (cushty) Dining Experience, along with Confetti and Chaos. I saw the last one two years ago (back when it was known as The Wedding Reception), and whilst the script is really just light-hearted fun, it was done really well as an immersive event, with a series of disastrous wedding guests interacting with the audience throughout a three-course meal. One unexpected bonus was that it’s also a way for strangers around the table to get to know each other at the fringe. (Footnote: this play has been known to take place in a hotel with real weddings going on at the same time. If you see a bride shout “YOU BASTARD MALCOLM!!!!”, that’s not the play.)

However, the one I’m picking as my recommendation is something new, Pamela’s Palace. No meal this time, but it’s still an immersive experience set in a beauty salon, so if there isn’t a bitter feud over something terribly petty I’m going to be disappointed. Expect more fun at Assembly George Square at 10.40 p.m. (not 13th)

Wildcard:

One entry listed under Wildcards this year. Usually this for plays that I haven’t seen and I’ve no idea whether they’re any good, but they’ve nonetheless grabbed my interest. This time, however, it’s something I’ve seen but I’ve nonetheless chosen to put it here.

We Apologise for the Inconvenience

01-17-2019-133047-4727I saw this at Buxton, and if I’m honest, this is a play that I think would have benefited from a year’s development between the smaller fringes and the big one. But I’m still putting this down as something to consider seeing because this could one day be an excellent piece of work. Douglas Adams once said that his favourite thing about a deadline is the whooshing sound it makes as it goes past. With his fourth book, however, his publishers have finally run out of patience and locked him into a hotel room until he delivers.

The thing that is most promising about the play is the opening, where Arthur’s story so far is narrated in the style of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, together with graphics in the legendary style of the TV series. The middle is weaker, and when I get round to my Buxton Fringe roundup I’ll go into some more in-depth analysis, but the short version is that the play misses a trick by not making more on the homage done at the beginning so well. There is work to be done here – but if the work is done so well, this could be the foundations of something great. This is at PQA Venues at Riddle’s Court on the 9th-16th August at 11.30 a.m.

Also of note …

As well as recommendations, there are two other plays that have caught my eye. I’ve not seen either of them, but I’ve reasons to believe they will make an impact at the fringe.

Best Girl

38128348_1554892825914124_r.jpegMajor conflict of interest here: I work with Lois Mackie as part of Theatre Elysium so it would be big misuse of my position to put this in the recommendations. However, there’s no denying that this play has gathered a lot of attention. It got a lot of attention in the run-up to its first performance at the Greater Manchester Fringe, and got a lot of praise afterwards. I can only tell you what other people have told me, but the play is written by Lois’s mother Christine based in part on her own experience of her veteran father’s suicide. This is something I’m supporting as Team Elysium rather than Team Chrisontheatre, but I’m hoping for the best. Whatever happens, expect to hear a lot about this one if you haven’t already. Showing at Pleasance Courtyard at 12.05 p.m. (not 12th or 19th).

Quintesence

The other performer I expect to hear a lot of is Emily Carding. Along with Sam Chittenden, she was the other person who dominated the Brighton Fringe awards. Annoyingly, I’ve never managed to co-incide with any of her plays, mostly new takes of Shakepeare, including a one-women Hamlet complete with “dead” stickers. And if I ever do catch up, I’m not the biggest Shakespeare buff so I may not be able to give a verdict. But there’s no denying she’s one of Brighton Fringe’s biggest names, so she stand to make a big impact at Edinburgh.

She’s taking two Shakespeare-themed shows to Edinburgh, both of which premiered at Brighton. Out of the two, Quintessence was the one that got the more acclaim – set in a future where humankind is wiped out and AI is tasked with recreating the human spirit form the complete works of Shakespeare. This shows at Sweet Grassmarket at 1.20 p.m. on the 12th – 25th August (not Wednesdays). Alternatively, you can see Caliban’s Codex, a fresh take on The Tempest, and that is same place, same days but at 7.15.p.m.

From the comedy

Finally, although this is a theatre blog, there’s a few things from the comedy section (that I count as comedy and not theatre) that I think is worth a gander.

Brain rinse

I saw Mike Raffone’s comedy show at Buxton last year. It’s essentially a character comedy show, with a particular emphasis on ninjas, mountain explorers and army majors barking orders. However, it’s the audience participation that makes this show, and it’s best enjoyed being part of it. Just be warned that there is an opt-out from audience participation – but there’s a catch. See this at The Space at Surgeon’s Hall at 7.10 p.m. (not 11th).

The perennial favourites

In order to keep this list down to something manageable, I’m scaling down coverage of “perennial” comedy shows that come back year after year. I loved all of these, but these all have big followings and don’t need my help. Still if you haven’t seen any of the following yet, now is a good time to do so:

The Dark Room: John Robertson’s homage the 1980s text multiple choice computer games, with outcomes even more arbitrary and unfair than the real thing. Expect the regulars to shout along the best-known lines of the show e. g. “You awake to find yourself in a dark room!”, but it’s also impressive how good Robertson is at taking things on the fly. In a surprise move from the long-standing time and place, it’s on at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 9.15 p.m. Or you co do the children’s show, which I’m told it basically the same show without the swearing. Same place at 5.30 p.m.

Notflix are a recent entry to perennial favourites. Only four years ago this musical troupe performed in one of Gilded Balloon’s smallest spaces – now they’re in one of the biggest with a full band. Every show is an improvised musical based on a movie at the start of the play, with as many hackeyed clichés as possible – for example, we’ve already had The Titanic where the boat doesn’t sink. They really do everything on the fly and not just rely on a bank of songs, and even when they make mistakes, it’s funny. On at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 6.00 p.m.

Imaginary Porno Charades is Charades of Imaginary Pornos (and not Porno Charades that is imaginary, whatever that is). As we all know, the benchmark of a five-star porn movie is the witty title – indeed, once you know it’s called Trouser Snakes on a Plane, you viewing experience is complete and you needn’t bother with the porn bit. It in in this spirit that there’s a stack of cards with the names of made-up porn parodies and, yes, you can imagine the rest. On at Sweet Grassmarket at 10.30 p.m (not Mondays).

Murder She Didn’t Write: I must apologies to this group. They were one of my first review invitation back when they were up and coming, and I’ve kept forgetting to list them ever since. But they’ve hit the big time since then, and deservedly so, as this was the group who first showcased to me how good improv could be. This is again all done on the fly and not a prep-prepared template as I’ve heard some groups so, and it’s a muder mystery with victim and murderer decided by colour-coded cards, as inspired by a certain board game. But we don’t mention this one, just in case some lawyers get too much interest. Lawyers are cocks. On at Pleaseance Courtyard at 3.45 p.m., with an additional show on Saturday nights at 11.00 p.m.

And there you go. Sorry I’m late completing this but as you can see, even with the new rules to keep to list size down, it’s a long list. Enjoy.

Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens

Wednesday 28th August: So here it is: my pick of the fringe and honourable mentions.

This time round, it was fairly easy to come up with a pick of the fringe, but the borderline between honourable mention and the rest. All the plays I’ve reviewed here had things about them I really liked, even if work needed to be done on the play as a whole. In a less competitive fringe, I would have been happy to rate any of these plays an an honourable mention. In the end, I had to decide based on the state of the play at the moment. Normally I allow the potential of the play to carry more weight, but with all plays having potential I’m using the state now as a tie-breaker.

There’s one title I’m excluding from this list, and that’s From Judy to Bette which I didn’t count as theatre in the end – that, as i said earlier, is more of a musical celebration. But amongst the others, here’s the moment of truth:

Pick of the fringe

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Great Grimm Tales
Green Knight*
The Rebirth of Meadow Rain
The Red
The Red Hourglass
Sary*
Testament of Yootha
Trainspotting Live*
Will, or Eight Lost years in Shakespeare’s Life

Honourable mention

An Audience with Yasmine Day*
Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
The Grandmothers Grimm*
Ladybones*
Moby Dick
Myra
Princess Party
Ritch Bitch
Showstopper
Stanley
Taboo*

Both categories are listed in alphabetical order, * indicates a production I saw this year prior to the Edinburgh Fringe that was performing in Edinburgh.

So that’s it, the end of my live coverage. Thank you for following this over the course of a month. The roundup will come in due course. Before then, a rest. We all need a rest.

Tuesday 27th August: I know I said I was going to choose pick of the fringe today, but it turns out I need to update yesterday’s info. Turns out you can’t assume a calculation is correct just because it’s in Chortle. The Stage is reporting an 8% increase, and All Edinburgh Theatre is reporting 6%. I’m minded to go with 6%, because this is roughly in line with my own calculation (note to self: yesterday’s “Chortle says 12% and I can’t be bothered to check if they’re right” wasn’t such a good idea after all),  and also that is a number that came from someone from the Festival Fringe Society itself.

The changes for Pleasance and Underbelly of +1% and -1% are still correct as far as I’m aware, but a new figure that’s emerged is a whopping 30% reported by Assembly. I wonder if the New Town is making a comeback, which may or may not be linked to the increased patronage from locals (if they choose to avoid the busiest areas) – even so, it’s difficult to see how that alone could account for a rise that dramatic. But with the Big Four offering similar kins of programmes, what else can explain such a difference in fortunes? That rise accounts for about three-quarters of the fringe-wide increase in sales (although you can expect a lot of ups and downs with other venues, so that’s a simplistic figure).

One possibility this rules out is the suspicion that the rise is is entirely down to more tickets sales for the biggest acts. Had that been the case, you would expect – since most of the biggest names are with the Big Four in the biggest spaces – the Big Four’s sales to be growing across the board. It’s still possible this could be happening in conjunction with other factors that are making these figures so confusing, but if big names are succeeding at the expense of the small names, it will be part of a complicated pattern rather than a simple one.

There is one other notable observation All Edinburgh Theatre has picked up on, which is that the Festival Fringe Society hasn’t actually made a big thing of this; their own story leads with the record number of Edinburgh locals, and you have to read to the final paragraph to see anything about sales. A similar thing happened with the unexpected growth, with prominence given to the number of international performers with the actual growth buried at the bottom of the press release. Previously the Edinburgh Fringe has shouted figures like this from the rooftops, so this year it’s conspicuous by its absence. It seems that whilst the Festival Fringe Society is not discouraging further growth on the fringe, it has stopped encouraging it. And that is interesting

And what does this all mean for the future of Edinburgh Fringe – do you think I’m going to stick my neck out with a prediction for this?

Monday 26th August: And we’ve finally reached the last day of Edinburgh Fringe. And that means we get the long-awaiting news of the sales figures. There’s been a lot of talk of poor sales figures leading to speculation that the growth bubble may finally have burst, but that’s what everyone said last year, and sales grew after all. Well, the same has happened again: sales up 12% (according to calculations by Chortle), substantially more than the target of 8% theoretically needed to sustain 8% growth. Obviously, this assumes the sales growth is evenly spread throughout the fringe; it’s no good if, as some people have anecdotally suggested, all the extra sales are going to big successful shows. But, if anything, the figures available suggest something much stranger is happening.

UPDATE: Chortle got its calculations wrong. Will do proper update later today.

Pleasance has reported a 1% rise in ticket sales, whilst Underbelly has reported a 1% fall. Had they kept up with across-the-board growth, you have expected something more like 4%. Gilded Balloon has reported growth, but these figures are skewed by the addition of Patter Hoose (also known as what was C Venues), as no-one seems to know how to strip out that effect. Regardless, Pleasance plus Underbelly between them account for about 30% of sales, and unless Assembly has performed wildly differently this suggests the Big Four are flatlining. So where is this 12% growth coming from? One clue might be that there has apparently been a lot of growth in tickets sold to locals. Do Edinburgh locals have favourite haunts away from the Big Four? Is that’s what’s pushing up the growth. Regardless, this leaves a lot of unanswered questions, with no obvious way of getting the answers.

One other effect of last-day Monday is that I really must get these last two reviews out of the way.

So my second last review is Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, and this is truly one of the strangest plays I’ve reviewed. This is performed by Lauren Meckel, but the original performance was from the writer, Jo Carol Pierce, as a record that’s part song and part spoken word. Born and raised in a heavily religious part of Texas, Jo Carol asks Jesus what are these boys for and what she’s supposed to do with them. The answer, Jesus apparently told her, was to enjoy as many as you can – 115 is a figure quoted at one point. It’s not clear how Jo got one message and everyone else got the usual message that impure thoughts are sinful and sex outside marriage is the devil’s work, seeing as Jesus never really expressed opinions on this one way or the other the last time he was around, but the rest of the Texas goes along with the more traditional ideas and she’s seen as an outcast. That doesn’t seem to bother her too much. What does bother her is that love and nymphomania doesn’t play together nicely, and one the few occasions she meets a boy that she sees as more than a fling, the inevitable infidelity dooms any chance of a future.

That’s not the strangest bit though. At the beginning, Pierce talks about how she committed suicide that morning, with a quite detailed decription of how many vehicles hit her on the road. As the real writer is still alive, I take it this was a metaphor for something. There’s also a bit where every goes after a UFO, but not in the sense of an earth-shattering moment that will change to world forever, but a casual pursuit because UFOs are apparently ten-a-penny over the Texas skies. I’d love to know what any of this was supposed to mean, but this is one of the few times I can question a performer on that and the performer could quite legitimately respond with “Your guess is as good as mine”.

Lauren Meckel puts on a fine stage performance as Jo Carol though, with mannerisms and outfit very well of the Texas Bad Girl, but only bad in the sense of what other people consider bad even though Jesus specifically told her it was okay. The original album is online and the style does justice to the voice of the real Jo Carol. The one thing that I wasn’t so sure about was transplanting the songs. The real Jo Carol has a low and husky voice, and I wasn’t sure this quite suited Lauren’s own voice. I wouldn’t be afraid to change the singing to a different style or key if it’s more in the comfort zone, even if it’s less authentic, but that’s only a minor issue. The most memorable part of Bad Girls Upset by the Truth is the monologue. Considering the original performance was only an audio track, a good job here converting this to a visual one. Very odd play, but job well done bringing this to the stage.

And the very last review isn’t quite as bizarre, but still one of the stranger stories: Stanley. And it’s the strangeness of this that makes is different from the others. Stanley lives alone in his flat, most of the time in his pyjamas, scared of the world around him and terrified by what he hears on the news. And say what you like about today’s horrendous news, but modern deluded sociopaths have lost the art of nearly blowing up the entire world. This story, however, takes place between the 1950s and 1970s when almost obliterating the planet was much more in fashion. And it’s one long period anxiety-driven seclusion over two decades. He has to go to great lengths to be secluded – it took an awful lot of not answers letter and phone calls for his sister to stop trying. To start with, he almost manages to attend a party thrown by a neighbour. By the end, even the unavoidable conversations at the corner shop are kept to a minimum. His only solace, it seems, is the uncomplicated life in this is new BBC radio series, The Archers.

There is one weakness to this kind of story, which is that the story is largely the same. The first scene very much establishes Stanley as a recluse terrified of the news, with no prospect of ever changing – after that, it’s really more of the same, only worse as his anxiety and agoraphobia grow unchecked. To be fair, this weakness is very much an unavoidable one, because it’s difficult to see where else this story could have gone. But perhaps this bleak unchanging narrative is the only way this story could be told. By the end, even his old friend The Archers can’t provide solace any more, where his dark thoughts take over his beloved Ambridge and turn it into a nuclear weapons test site.

I will declare that this was a tough watch for me personally – I something have periods of news-related anxiety myself, nothing on Stanley’s scale, but then, Stanley got how he was because his fears took over. Don’t expect anything cheery from this, or any more positive than a warning of what needs nipping in the bud, but do expect something very different from Conor Clarke McGrath, who shows a lot of promise from a fringe debut.

Nearly there. Now it’s time to choose my Pick of the Fringe. I genuinely haven’t decided yet. Just a reminder that if you were in the Edinburgh fringe programme but I saw you at Buxton or Brighton, you are eligible, but you won’t automatically get into Edinburgh Pick of the Fringe just because you were in the corresponding pick of another fringe. Tomorrow should be exciting then.

Sunday 25th August: Before polishing off the last two reviews, let’s take a look at how the plays I’ve covered have been faring against over reviews. This is going to have to be a rush job, so I’m going to use the List’s Top Rated Shows as my reference as it’s the fastest to use, even though it misses out some notable publications. When I get round to the roundup, I might find more items of note.

I’m not going to do a comprehensive roundup here. A single four-star review might be significant if Brighton, but the sheer number of reviews and review publications means you really need multiple reviews before it stands out. I’m also not paying much attention to established shows. Bite-Size and Showstopper both bagged a five-star review this fringe, but they were guaranteed excellent ticket sales anyway. It’s acts seeking to make a name for themselves where it matters.

Out of all the plays I’ve covered, the clear winner with the reviews is Caroline Horton’s All of Me, her own account of living with depression. It was covered by ten reviews and a five-star rating in four of them. I saw this and chose not to review it myself as this turned out to be a far more abstract play than I’m used to covering, but I’m aware this abstract style has a lot of appeal to others, and for they, it went down very well. It looks like the spectre of the original London run of Islands can finally be put to bed.

There were two (very different) plays on my recommendations I never got round to seeing: Mustard and Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name. Those have both done well with the reviews, with a mixture of four and five stars. Hopefully I’ll catch the latest Police Cops installment next time – as far Eva O’Connor, I fear it’s come and gone, but maybe I’ll find a chance another time.

The Red got quite a spread of reviews in the end, ranging from lukewarm three-stars to glowing five stars. Testament of Yootha went down well with three four-star reviews, only let down by two stars from The Scotsman, but The Scotsman wouldn’t recognise talent if it came unicycling towards them playing Chopin’s Minute Waltz with one hand and composing all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. One thing I ought to acknowledge is that East got two five-star reviews. I don’t think I will ever susbcribe to the play myself, but for those who do, it looks like they delivered.

One unexpected result is Numbers, that I covered in the first week, getting five stars, three stars and one star. I thought that play might split opinion, but I didn’t expect it to split opinion that much. But the result I’m thrilled by is The Rebirth of Meadow Rain getting three four-stars and a five-star. This is the one where I wasn’t certain how well it would go down elsewhere. Now that it’s a undisputed success, I really hope this can go far.

However, the one that interests me that most is something I haven’t got round to covering at all, and it’s Titania McGrath: Mxnifesto. I won’t give the blow-by-blow account of this, but the short version is that Titania McGrath is a creation of a comedian Andrew Doyle, and usually exists on Twitter as a self-righteous moral crusader. I gather the live show is done by a woman playing her – I didn’t have time to see it; if it ever comes to a less busy fringe I’d probably see it then to make up my own mind. But it’s notable because it cuts close to the bone of a lot of causes regarded as sacred cows in theatre. So would the fringe publications review this on whether it was any good or would it come down to a moral judgement, as rogue reviewers have done in the past.

Well,  I am pleased to say that the fringe review publications appear to have reviewed this fair and square. Three three-stars, a five, and a two, and even the two-star welcomes the fact that this is different from most of the views expressed at the fringe. For what it’s worth, I recommend Robert Peacock’s review because he has a track record of being fair when reviewing controversial acts. The consensus amongst the reviews seems to be that is anything is to be criticised, it’s the transition from spoof Twitter to an hour-long show.

However, the national press is a different matter. The most prominent one on the fringe radar is Brian Logan’s one-star for the Guardian. It is only fair to acknowledge that the review is neutral about the views expressed and instead is critical of transplanting this to a live show, but he has in the past acquired a notoriety for judging comedy on morals more than anything else. But even if it is the national is polarised into praise or derision almost entirely in line with whether the publication is right-leaning or left-leaning. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

So there’s your review round-up – a lot of good news to people who deserve it. But on the bellweather show that acted as a test on whether reviews are being fair, the surprise news is that the small-scale review sites have scored a lot more highly than their professional counterparts in the national press.

Saturday 24th August: And now, as promised, I turn my attention back to The Big Bite Size Breakfast Show. I’ve already talked about my overall impressions of the new space and how I quite like the idea of having all the furniture at the back as teasers for upcoming plays (see 12th August). One update on the earlier news: it has indeed sold out almost the entire run. A good point was made to me by someone in the audience, which is that the Bite-Size audience tends to be older than the average fringe audience, presumably due to the morning slot. What started off as a the only time-slot available seems to have ended up instrumental to their box office success.

The other thing I forgot to mention the first time round is the process of selecting the plays. A learned a couple of things this year: firstly, the process of selecting the plays is almost as labour-intensive as actually producing them; and secondly, it’s the whole ensemble who take part in this, not just Nick Brice. It looks like one side-effect of an ensemble coming back year after year is that they have a much bigger say in the direction of the company, and my understanding is that everyone has to be on board for a play to be chosen. Even plays written by Bite Size members don’t get a bye.

Anyway, let’s get on to my picks. As always, there’s little to say about the overall experience that hasn’t been said before. I’ve seen many other groups do compilations of ten-minute plays, and so far no-one comes near. Not everybody will like every ten-minuter, but that’s okay, because there’s always another one round the corner. But there’s four in particular that stand out the most:

  • Apocalypto, which is like I Am Legend, except it’s the most rubbish zombie apocalypse ever. This does not stop our protagonist revelling in the mortal struggle for survival, even though his two fellow survivors are more interested in checking out the stuff at Aldi, if they can make it past the slow, easily-avoidable zombies.
  • Stag Do, where a random employee gets invited to his boss’s stag party, only do discover he’s the only guest – a result, it turns out, of his best friend and best man who’s guilt-tripped him into a joyless party whilst his wife-to-be is enjoying her hen night.
  • Hitwomen of Highbury. A meeting of three spinsters, a bit like the women’s institute, only they spend their time going round murdering people. But trust me, the people they murder are horrid. Then the team stands to be broken up as their ringleader gets married to a frightful old bore. Only one thing for it.
  • One of Our Comedians is Missing. Not much representation from the surrealistic comedies this year, but this one flies the flag. It begins with a scientific breakthrough when comedians (British comedians, of course) are resurrected and giving the ability to fly, leading to the comedian wars where millions of people die laughing. It’s up to the British upper echelons of the army to sort it out, with stiff upper lip, of course. And it gets even more surrealistic after this.

Notably, I didn’t check who wrote what, but found out later that Bill Knowelden and Thomas Wilshire accounted for two of these four. They are at a bit of an advantage here, because they’ve seen dozens of these plays through to production and know the craft inside out, but still the results are pleasing. Also noticing that Claira Watson-Parr is joining Bill Knowelden in bagging most of the funny parts, with the tough-as-nails Galdiator in The Warriors (something that bears an uncanny resemblance to a 1990s ITV Saturday Night TV show being one of my highlights.

No risk-taking second show this time – probably a wise precaution with the need to get more tickets sold – but it puts them in a strong position for next year, if they go with that. All in all, Bite-Size have had an excellent fringe, with the move the the bigger venue show just how big their following is, and expect to his the ground running next year with whatever they go for.

Friday 23rd August: In the last few days of the fringe, the debate about the cost to performers – and, indirectly, the wider effect on the city – has flared up again. So far, however, few people are addressing the underlying cause, which is – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – too many people trying to perform in the same city at the same time, driven on by the arts industry and arts media who are wedded to the “Edinburgh or bust” mentality. I wrote about this last year with Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh. Have to say, I’m not impressed with the year that’s followed. The arts industry recognises that cost in a problem and they’re throwing money at it, pushing more groups into doing Edinburgh an exacerbating the supply and demand problem even more. Maybe they’ll twig next year.

Let’s back to reviews. Four to go. I’ll do Myra next – I’ve been taking my time with this because I wanted to give some thought to this somewhat controversial play. Lauren Varnfield first intended to perform this at Brighton in 2016, but pulled it quite late on after wanting to get the show right – after all, the Moors Murders is not a subject to treat on lightly. It finally got its premiere in Brighton two years later, where it was generally – but not universally – well-received. Now at Edinburgh Fringe, this division has continued, with the reviews collated by The List showing a four-, three- and two-star review at the time of writing. Well, having finally had the chance to see this and judge for myself, I can say that I liked it, but I can understand why some people have a problem with this.

The one thing I think everyone is in agreement on is Lauren Varnfield gives a stellar performance as Myra Hindley. No-one will ever know what truly went through her mind – why on earth would a woman abused by her partner collude with murder? – but this play gives a chillingly convincing depiction of what she might have been thinking. A teenager in total awe of a man she loves, and a man who realises she will do anything she say, her collusion in the first murder is little more than commands – picking up Marie Ruck, a neighbour of her mother, a young Myra just about suppresses the nerves in her voice to lure her to her death. The moment where Myra turns up the radio to drown out the screams was the most awful moment to watch. Then it gives her a strange sort of purpose, achievement even, and she grows more confident over the next four murders, being a full-blown accomplice.

Now for the controversial bit: should so much of the play have been given to Hindley’s pleas for release? My view is yes – it’s the only way the play can work. She’s playing Myra Hindley, so inevitably the claims she was under Ian Brady’s spell and now she’s a reformed woman are going to be told through Myra’s voice, however distorted. I do have some sympathy with the argument that we spend too much time talking about murderers and not enough time talking about the victims, but that’s a much wider debate than one play. What I think might have been wise, however, was to put more things on the information sheet given out at the start of the play. The sheet didn’t beat about the bush on what their crimes were, but I’d have also used this as an opportunity for balance. Whatever the aged Hindley proclaimed to the world, in this play or otherwise, I think a lot of the controversy could have been averted had the information sheet included some of the counter-arguments from those who didn’t believe she was reformed.

That wasn’t really an issue for me – as far as I’m concerned, depiction is not endorsement. The one thing that I felt was missing was something quite, quite, different, and that was the final murder – the one that got them caught. When I was researching this subject prior to the review, I learnt how badly Brady overplayed his hand, thinking he could recruit Myra’s brother-in-law as a new accomplice. I realise this would have added extra complications into an hour-long piece, but it seems like such a missed opportunity. What was like for Brady and Hindley as it became clear the game was up. Brady had been brutal to Hindley over matters as trivial as looking at another man – how would he have handled this. For a story so dependent on their relationship, I’d have loved to see what true colours Ian Brady showed in the dying days, even if Lauren Varnfield had to use her imagination to fill in the gaps.

But it’s a play I will recommend, but you must know what you are letting yourself in for. If you don’t like plays or films that give a murderer more of a voice then the victims, this won’t change your mind. If, however, you want to get an insight into why, then go.

Thursday 22nd August: Now that I’m back home, it’s back to daily updates. And I was planning to spend the time between now and the end of the fringe clearing the remaining reviews. But before then, I’ve come across this article in the Edinburgh Evening News: ‘It’s these pop-up reviewers who haunt festivals such as Edinburgh Fringe that have done much to devalue the review as an art form’. Oh dear, it’s bad. Seems The Scotsman really don’t like people like me treading on their turf.

I’d like to imagine this was written specifically in response to my original article about the Scotsman, and I’ve checked for any coded attacks on me personally, but I can’t find any. Which is a shame, because that would have fed my fragile ego no end. But still, as this is a blanket attack on an entire swathe of reviewers that I’m a part of, I have written a response:

Sorry Scotsman, but “pop-up” reviewers are legitimate competition

Thanks a lot to Liam Rudden for giving me extra work to do. Apologies to those of you still waiting for reviews – I will resume tomorrow.

Wednesday 21st August 9.15p.m.: And I’m home. Let’s get one more done before I pass out.

I’ve been thinking about catching this for some time, but I’ve finally seen Showstopper! After Notflix showed me how good an improvised musical can be, I was curious to see how they compared to other groups. Showstopper is one of the most prominent groups out there (doing both an adults’ and children’s show each day), and partly grabbed my interest because they have Susan Harrison, one half of the hilarious Two Star Reviewers podcast. The premise for this one is is that Cameron Mackintosh need a new musical in the West End, and he needs it in 70 minutes – coincidentally the time it takes for them to perform the show – so it’s up to us to suggest something new. (I must say, I don’t think this premise is very realistic – surely, given the crappy state of most musicals, the writers are knocking them off in ten minutes. But anyway …)

On this occasion – not that will ever be repeated – the suggested voted for by the audience is the setting of a werewolf conference. A peace between werewolves and humans has held for some time thanks to a pact to only disembowel sheep, but is a brought under threat by an upstart werewolf who’s a movie star. And he’s gone too far. To my delight, by suggestion of a scene in the underground catacombs was picked – come on, you can’t not have an underground catacomb in a werewolf movie last year – and this instantly brought to live by green light an ominous music. Can this upstart resist the urge to bite a virgin? What if the virgin is already a werewolf? Could that make her into a – double wolf? And so on.

But how does it rate against Notflix? Close call – this is a fixture that may have to go into extra time. What’s interesting, though, is in spite of the different formats (Showstopper takes various bits on input throughout the hours, whilst Notflix starts with a name of a movie to cheesify and off they go) the strategy that makes them work is remarkably similar – you need an ensemble who are musical, confident working with each other, and had lots of practice together, and you also need the courage to make plot-changing decisions on stage, on the fly. But I’ve also picked up one small but important detail: when someone inevitably makes a mistake, they make the mistake funny, so when one of the actors forgets whether he’s a werewolf or a vampire, this takes on a plot thread all of its own of this new species of werewolf-vampire, and possible paved the way for the double wolf bombshell. Even a moment where one member of cast came on stage to play a bullet only to be told we wasn’t needed was funny.

Showstopper has a rotating cast, but it just so happened that Susan Harrison was part of it, and she was an absolute superstar as lovestruck virgin / double wolf. The heavyweight title between them and Notflix will have to be decided another day, but one plus in Showstopper‘s favour is that they tour a lot. So if you can’t catch them this fringe, there will be plenty of opportunities closer to where you live. And since I’d love to see how the kids’ show compares, I may need to borrow my nephew and niece the next time they come my way.

Wednesday 21st August, 10.00 am: Back on the Azuma. Long story how this happened. Let’s get back to business.

The next review is US-based Permafrost Collective with Are You Alice: A New Wonderland Tale. This is in the Dance and Physical Theatre section of the programme rather than straight theatre, and for reasons I’ll go into shortly, this was the right place to put it. It’s a very abstract setting, but the premise seems to be that seven different Alices all go to sleep and share the same dream. What follows over the next hour is a potted retelling of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, with guest appearances from Alice Through the Looking Glass, including the exam to be Queen, the Jabberwocky and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Did you know that Tweedledum, Tweedledee and their Walrus and Carpenter story were originally through the looking glass before Walt Disney moved them to Wonderland? If not, you do now.)

To be honest, I couldn’t make much sense of the premise, other than being a re-enactment of the Alice scenes with the seven Alices taking turns as proper Alice. It didn’t matter too much to me though – the one thing that Lewis Carroll’s books are not supposed to do is make sense. I was more interested in the staging and choreography of this, which was good. I really liked the music written for this, and some of the scenes were impressive, with the Cheshire Cat being represented by just a mouth being a particularly inspired idea, and the seven-Alice Jabberwocky also being quite striking. There are some signs that the play has been planned round the individual actors’ strengths, with the strongest singers getting the most singing and the strongest dancers getting the most dancing – I approve, that’s one of the best ways to make an ensemble shine with what you have.

And yet, I feel I’ve missed something here. According the the press release the play “questions identity, womanhood and self-acceptance in world which constantly redraws the lines and rewrites the rules”. I’ll accept that Wonderland does indeed constantly redraw the lines and rewrites the rules, but I couldn’t work out what this had to do with questioning identity, womanhood and self-acceptance. However, this goes back to what I said about its category in the programme. Dance and Physical Theatre has its own set of conventions, just like theatre has a set of conventions that might not be obvious to someone used to films and television. If people who know this genre better get what this is about, fair enough.

Ultimately, this comes down to what Permafrost Collective want to achieve. If this is aimed at a Dance & Physical Theatre audience and you’re confident they’ll understand the conventions, you can safely ignore what I’m saying. If it’s trying to get a message out to a wider audience, you’ve got to think about whether someone who’s never seen this before will pick up the some things as someone who knows the production inside out – that’s never easy. But I’m just happy to appreciate Are You Alice for what I saw: an absurdist adaption of an absurdist book with some excellent music and choreography. If that’s good enough for Permafrost, it’s good enough for me too.

Wednesday 21st August, 6.30 a.m: Yes, that’s right. Six fucking thirty in the fucking morning. I have to be in London for nine and it was easier for me to get the train from Edinburgh than go home and catch it there. And to add insult to injury, the flashy new Azuma service I was getting all excited about didn’t turn up. You bastards, LNER, you bastards.

Sunrise view.Still, it’s not all bad. You get to see views like this. I’m going to have my breakfast, then let’s get these remaining reviews done.

Tuesday 20th August 9.45 p.m.: And so, I’m calling it a day. Eight days and 29 shows later and I need to get a good night’s sleep before my 5.40 train tomorrow. That’s 5.40 in the morning. Bugger. That’s why I’ve had an extended stay in Edinburgh – it was actually easier to stay here rather than make my way to Newcastle station tomorrow. I think I have six outstanding reviews, so I might be able to clear come on the train tomorrow. Oh Jesus. Five. Forty. What was I thinking?

Before rounding up the remaining reviews though, it’s time to turn attention to the end of the fringe. The event on the last day that always gets talked about is the ticket sales – or, more precisely, the growth on the previous year’s figures. It’s big simplification, but the general target is that sales growth should equal or surpass the growth in registrations, in order to sustain the same income to the increased number of groups. Speculation has started, including from Lyn Gardner, and the mood so far is that sales aren’t going great. Although not part of the fringe, the early sales for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo are apparently down, which isn’t a good precedent. There is also an argument that the general precarious state of the economy might make some people think twice about such an expensive festival. Thanks Bojo.

However, I would still urge you to treat this speculation with caution – not because I don’t trust the judgement of the people making these predictions, but because the rumour mill said the same thing last year and got it wrong, with strong growth of 5% reported instead. This time round, 5% won’t be good enough as the target to keep up with registrations is 8.3%. But Edinburgh Fringe figures have surprised me before, so maybe they can surprise me again.

There is, however, an argument that this festival-wide figure is a red herring. To go back to my caveat, sales keeping up with registrations is a big simplification – maybe simplified to the point where it loses all meaning. Lyn Gardner suspects – and others agree – that it’s the big-budget shows with PR machines that are doing well and the small-scale shows getting the disappointing sales. And, annoyingly, the fringe-wide figures don’t tell us much about that. Even the the most stunning growth figures are useless to the groups who need it the most if it’s all going to the big fish. The worst case scenario is that good figures conceal a financial climate pricing out the groups the fringe was meant for.

One thing that might help is the Cost of Edinburgh project, which is consulting on survey questions at the moment in order to conduct a study during next year’s fringe. That means that the earliest these findings can be put to any use is Edinburgh Fringe 2021. But unfortunately, I don’t see any way around that. It looks like we’re going to running blind for at least another year before we can have any idea where the problem are, let alone how to solve them.

All the same, Sunday’s figures will be very interesting. Continue reading

There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman

COMMENT: The Scotsman is a highly-regarded arbiter of high-profile fringe theatre, but the service they offer groups on their first fringe venture is a different matter.

Edinburgh Fringe is about to begin. And where there’s an Edinburgh Fringe, there’s Edinburgh Fringe shenanigans. This year, the first shenanigan to hit the headlines is The Mumble, who charge people for reviews. I am in agreement with, well basically everyone, that you should have nothing to do with them, especially if you are starting off on the fringe circuit. The good news is that few people appear to have signed up to their schemes – most people, it seems, know better to put their trust in someone with such a dodgy reputation.

However, I am coming to the view that there is another publication you should be wary about, and unlike The Mumble, they are very highly regarded; and plenty of performers, beginners and veterans alike, invite their reviewers along. And that publication is The Scotsman.

It’s not got to the point where I’m telling everyone to have nothing to do with them. Their Fringe First awards are something to take seriously, and if you’re already a big name and you’re in with a shot of awards of that prestige, The Scotsman is as good an option as any. But if, like the majority of performers who read this blog, you are trying to make a name for yourself, it’s a different story. Any review request is a gamble, heavily swayed by a reviewer’s personal tastes that you have no control over. But this particular gamble is one where the odds are not in your favour. There is a high chance a Scotsman review will be useless, or worse than useless.

Continue reading

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

30752831588_68774d18b9_z
credit: byronv2, flickr

Okay, here we go. Let’s round up the big one. After a busy spring and summer with Brighton and Buxton Fringes, Edinburgh does become a bit of an endurance test, but I can think of few better ways of pushing your stamina to the limit. This year, I managed 27 shows over six days, with thoughts on most of them dotted over my live coverage with what I thought at the time. Now it’s time to get this into some sort of order.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Vivian’s Music 1969, Proxy, Build a Rocket, The Fetch Wilson, Bite-Size, Maz and Bricks, House of Edgar, Eight, Neverwant, Hunch, My Brother’s Drug, Por Favor, This is Just Who I Am, Year Without Summer, Kin, All Out of Time, The Narcissist in the Mirror, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Match, Notflix, Dark Room / Sexy Sweaty Party Party

Edinburgh Fringe as a whole was dominated with talk of “peak fringe”. The flatline in 2016 turned out to be a blip, and now the 2018 fringe is bigger than ever – and not everybody’s happy about that. Top of the list of complaints was the over-subscribed demand on venues and especially the accommodation rendering the fringe unaffordable for many, and indeed there was a event to discuss this very issue. A secondary issue was the way that fringe workers were treated, with some serious allegations made about the behaviour of some venues that – so far, apparently – the venues in question have not denied. (Index at all the these issues as and when they were raised in the article at the bottom of this article.)

At some point, I will write my thoughts on what I think should be done about employment rights at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve already said the reform I would make to bring down costs: stop obsessing over Edinburgh to the exclusion of all the other fringes. That is unlikely to be the solution favoured by the Festival Fringe Society – but they have to say something, having already backed the cause. At the moment, the ball is in their court. It will be very interesting when they finally say what they propose to do.

But enough of that. We’ve got a lot of reviews to get through, so let’s get started.

Pick of the Fringe:

As always, in recent Edinburgh Fringes – as I’ve got better at finding the good stuff – I’ve had to get pickier over what goes in this top tier. Things that might have made it into pick of the fringe in other festivals or previous years might not make it now. At some point, it looked like I might raise the bar even higher, after an exceptional start over my first 24 hours. But in the end, there were eight that I could pick out as a cut above the rest. Continue reading

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

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

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

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