Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice

Rubbish piles high on a big
This particular mess wasn’t Edinburgh Fringe’s fault. But there’s a lot of other messes that the Fringe Society need to clean up.

COMMENT: The fundamental mistake made by the Festival Fringe Society was trying to please everybody. They must realise this is no longer possible, decide who they want to please, and be open about it.

Well, we made it. Edinburgh Fringe was set for a bumpy ride, and the first few days were particularly turbulent, with complaints about support for reviewers, the relocation of Fringe Central, the lack of an app, and all sorts of other things being aired in the first week. There were even worries that the Big Four might break away and work entirely off their own ticketing site with other venues invited to join. Then the festival got underway properly and attention turned to what was actually being performed. In a way, it had parallels to the 2012 Olympics: lots of complaining in the run-up, but taking a back seat to the festival people love. Then came the Jerry Sadowitz saga and Assembly and Pleasance started fighting each other, undermining any prospect of a co-ordinated breakaway. Meanwhile, the performers at the free fringe venues have started clashing with the Big Four again – it seems the Festival Fringe Society was caught in the crossfire.

At the time of writing, it looks like the worst is over. Ticket sales are probably going to be okay. It’s not clear what sort of size we’re looking at next year, as it’s possible that numbers this year were inflated by postponed plans from the last two years, but we’re unlikely to be facing meltdown. There might also be a reduction as expectations of what post-Covid fringes would be like have been tempered with reality, but a modest reduction might be a good thing if it brings demand on accommodation down to something sane. The worst mistakes made this year can be rectified for next year. The app can be brought back, or, at the worst, the website can be improved to do the job. We can have the discussion of how best to support reviewers. Finances should be in a better state to roll back some of the less popular economisations. At this stage, I’m quite relaxed about 2023.

However, there is a root problem that isn’t going away any time soon, which is that Edinburgh Fringe has hopelessly outgrown the city that hosts it. Demand outstrips supply for both accommodation and performances spaces, and piles up expenses for performers; and although Edinburgh Fringe has tried to source some cheap accommodation, this is only a drop in the ocean. The bottom line is that unless you have a trust fund, already live in Edinburgh, or are able to run in one of the cheapest tech-free venues (or preferably a hybrid of all three), you are taking on a huge financial outlay without anything guaranteed in return. Anyone who thinks that your reward is directly proportional to how good your play was is naive – so much comes down to luck and factors outside your control. The Festival Fringe Society, remember, isn’t that big an organisation and can’t do that much about it. Even the Big Four supervenues can’t do that much about the sky-high rents that landlords charge for their spaces.

What the Festival Fringe Society can do, however, is decide who the fringe is for. The idealistic answer is “everybody who wants to go”, and I don’t think we should change that (indeed, if they dropped the open access I would probably stop going). However, we can still decide who Edinburgh Fringe is optimised for. Does the Festival Fringe Society concentrate its efforts of helping the minnows thrive in an environment where they compete with some big commercially successful players? Or should the society concentrate on a festival which the brightest and best compete for the prestige, and work on a sink or swim basis for everyone else? Both are valid aspirations, but they are very different aspirations that will please some and alienate others. However, alienating some performers is an improvement on alienating everybody, as happened this year.

Continue reading

Edinburgh Fringe 2022 – as it happens

Thursday 1st September

And that’s it. This is the end of my Edinburgh Fringe coverage, and the end of a fringe marathon that has involved reviewing, performing, venue management, and back to reviewing again. All this will be summarised in the fringe roundups in due course, but in the meantime, here is a recap of what went down at Edinburgh Fringe 2022.

  • By far the most pressing issue facing Edinburgh Fringe is accommodation costs. This has been raised time and time again and is clearly a barrier for lots of would-be performers. Unfortunately – and in spite of the Festival Fringe’s efforts to secure some affordable accommodation – there isn’t that much anyone in the fringe can do to stop this. And worse, the early signs are that the overcharging landlords show every sign of wanting to do the same next year. Unless the City Council intervenes, it’s hard to see how or when this will end.
  • In line with the earlier fringes, audience figures are recovering, but not as fast as participation. Sales were down 27% on 2019 against registrations down 17%, which works out as a fall of 11% sales per registration. That’s not too bad, considering some of the panic at the start of the fringe, but it’s probably going to be a dampener on further growth.
  • There has been a lot of in-fighting this year. The Festival Fringe Society has come in for a lot of criticism; the support for national media and lack of an app have been particularly controversial. (Other matters such as the virtual half-price ticket hut and lack of paper programme availability are I think over-rated.) To some extent they’ve been caught in the middle of a struggle between the big acts and venues seeking to restore their prestige, and the smaller venues and acts who are struggling to even get one review.In my opinion, the fundamental mistake made by the Festival Fringe Society was trying to do both and ending up pleasing no-one. They probably need to decide which of the two they want to prioritse.
  • There was also an ugly incident halfway though the fringe when a shock comedian had his second of two performances pulled following complaints over his material. There’s a lot of claims and counter-claims going on here, but I’m firmly of the opinion that The Pleasance handled this badly. Most specifically, if – as they claimed – his material was not acceptable for this venue, why did they programme him in the first place? I may summarise all of this another time, but either they’ve crossed the line into censorship, of they’ve made Jerry Sadowitz into a martyr. Or both.
  • Despite all this, the fringe itself as run smoothly and it’s been just as much fun as any fringe from before times. That, I think, gives the festival fringe society a breather. Just like the Olympics in 2012, the complaints didn’t carry nearly such weight once everyone started having a good time.
  • From a local perspective, Durham Fringe has had an excellent August, with plenty of acts that went to Durham Fringe going on to make a name for themselves in Edinburgh. One particularly notable milestone is that one act, Experiment Human, got a major award, which can only help to put Durham Fringe on the map. (Okay, I teched for this at Durham so I’m biased, but honestly, this is great news for us.)
  • The Space also had a good fringe. It operates on a first-come-first-served basis, but in before times had a notoriety for being the place for acts not good enough to get into any other venue. Perhaps thanks to their push to get going in 2021 when many other venues were keeping their heads down, they’ve taken on a lot of good acts this year, and The Space has a new air of respectability it didn’t have before.
  • There’s been a few other niggles I’ve picked up during this fringe. It didn’t help that Fringe Central was out fo the way in a shopping centre (even though it saved a lot of money). Signage within venues has been getting confusing, and it would really help everybody if press tickets could be streamlined better. But there are minor issues comapred to the big ones.

On the whole I think the Festival Fringe Society can breathe a sigh of relief. The worst is probably behind them and they can focus on what went wrong in 2022 and put it right for 2023. The only thing they might need to brace for is a smaller fringe in 2023 – and that will be a problem is anything less than a return to 2019 levels is considered a failure. But do we really want that? The sooner we realise size isn’t everything, the better.

Thank you to everyone who’s been following me through this. I am now going on holiday for a week, and then it’s back to coverage of north-east theatre. Local followers, stay tuned. Fringe fans, I’ll see you back in May.

Wednesday 31st August:

And here it is. The moment of truth. Who has made it to Pick of the Fringe?

First, a reminder of the rules. Anyone who I saw performed this year who is listed with Edinburgh Fringe is eligible for this award (except those plays I worked with as venue host as there’s a conflict of interest). If I saw something at another fringe, I don’t normally see it in Edinburgh again as I don’t have time, so this is my way of giving those plays I saw in the run-up to Edinburgh a fair chance against those I saw in Edinburgh itself. Plays I’ve seen before are eligible – this is one of my ways of keeping the standard high. Where I felt a performance wasn’t enough like theatre to make a meaningful comparison (including Finlay and Joe, Jess Robinson, and How I Learned What I Learned), I left it out of the list, and they will be handled separately.

Plays in (round brackets) I saw at Brighton, Buxton and Durham Fringes; plays in [square brackets] I’ve seen in previous years. The remaining plays I saw for the first time in Edinburgh 2022. They are:

Pick of the Fringe:

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe
(The Ballad of Mulan)
The Bush
Ghislaine/Gabler
[Green Knight]
Gulliver
[Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show]
The Land of Lost Content
Make-Up
(No One)
[Mustard]
Second Summer of Love
[Skank]
(Vermin)
Sugar
Svengali

Honourable Mention:

Antigone, the musical
Beg for Me
Famous Puppet Death Scenes
Fabulett 1933
Ghost Therapy
(The Glummer Twins)
(Head Girl)
The In-Laws
Morecambe
(Nyctophilia)
(Room)
(Sex, Lies and Improvisation)
Salamander
Take It Away Cheryl
Utter Mess!

After two years of being relaxed, I’ve raised the bar. At least five plays in Honourable Mention would have gone up a tier if the standard we a little bit lower. Well done to everyone. You can all now relax.

Tuesday 30th August:

So that’s the end of Edinburgh Fringe. There’s just a few things to wind up before we close this, and the first one is the news that always comes at the end of the fringe: how did the ticket sales do? Normally, we would be looking at a few percent here and there. If registrations grew by 4%, 6% in sales would show this is sustainable, 2% would suggest otherwise. However, there were alarm bells ringing at the start of the fringe over pre-sales being down by 30%. It is not clear whether that meant 30% behind overall sales in 2019, or 30% of sales per show. The former would have been a problem, but the latter would have been a disaster had it been reflected in all sales.

Well, Edinburgh Fringe has reported 2,201,175 ticket sales for 2022, compared to (and I think this is the like-for-like figure) 3,012,490 in 2019. That means sales are at 73% of 2019 level. As previously reported registrations are 82% of 2019 levels, if you compare those registered in time for the printed programme. That means tickets per registration work out at about 88%. If we take into account a small shift towards shorter runs in theatre, the number edges up a bit more. Regardless, I think 88% isn’t too bad, considering how much panic there was before.

Usual caveat applies: this is an average. The average alone doesn’t tell us much about variances within those numbers. Some people sold out their entire runs in advance of the fringe. Some people have sadly reported getting audiences of zero in the last few days. Anecdotally the mood seems to be that ticket sales started off okay but tailed off in weeks 2 and 3, hence the unplanned push for 2 for 1 tickets by the big venues. The venues under the edfest.com umbrella are reporting a 25% fall though, so there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the big venues and small ones.

Why is there a fall? Difficult to tell. There are two obvious drivers but it’s impossible to tell which one is at play. The first one is ongoing Coronavirus worries from some people still wary about crowds (which certainly seems to have been a problem at Buxton); the second one is worries about costs of living and people tighten their belts. Similar worries over finances and economies in 2008-2009 made no dent in sales figures, but perhaps there’s more worries this time. Does it matter which one is the cause? Yes it does – because that decides when this problem is going away. I’m getting increasingly confident the worst of Covid is well behind us, whilst cost of living problems are probably going to haunt us into summer 2023 at least. However, there is one other thing to consider about Covid which cost of living may exacerbate: we now have people who, for one reason or another, have stayed away for three years. That might become permanent, and even in Covid and war in Ukraine were magicked away tomorrow, these people have got out of the habit and are never coming back.

So, what does this mean for Edinburgh Fringe 2023? I can’t see 2022 levels being sustained myself. As well as the discouraging precedent set by the ticket sales, there’s the various disappointments over fringe 2022 which will be dampening expectations for next year. What’s more, I suspect 2022’s numbers were artificially inflated by people who had postponed fringe plans over the last two years – that won’t apply next year. I guess a lot will depend on what happens with accommodation. I have hearing unconfirmed reports that landlords renting for next year’s fringe are being just as extortionate, and, if anything, are ramping up prices even more. I don’t see how the Festival Fringe Society can offset this single-handedly, and the only thing I can see making a difference is if Edinburgh City Council pull their finger out and intervene. And they’re going to have to do this in the next few months if they don’t want people writing off Fringe 2023 as unaffordable.

On the plus side, we have a battle royale between the media heavyweights. Robert Peacock predicts a big fall, Brian Ferguson predicts an all-time high. Whatever happens, I do hope we can drop the collective mentality that anything less than regaining all lost ground from 2019 is a failure. Edinburgh Fringe would be a great festival even if it was half its current size – and if it has to share the limelight with other festivals, that’s not a bad thing. And if it puts a stop to greedy landlord, it might even be better.

Monday 29th August, 8.00 p.m. – How I Learned What I Learned:

The memoirs of August Wilson

We are at the last review. First, a note about why I picked this one for review. I normally have a policy of not giving anybody preferential treatment because they’re part of an underrepresented group. I certainly don’t choose to review a play just because it’s advertised as female-led, nor do I review the female-led plays I choose to see more favourably. There is a very good reason for this: they don’t need preferential treatment: I monitor my picks of the fringe every year and there’s always been an even split between the two. As such, I am firmly of the position that it’s better to be absolutely clear that no-one gets a leg-up. I don’t want anybody saying “She’s only got a good review because she’s a woman”. Everybody on Pick of the Fringe has earned their place.

However, racial diversity is another matter. As I’ve already mentioned (scroll to 24th August), I do think there’s is a problem with lack of participation from artists who aren’t white. One of these days, I might look more into why this is and what can be done; in the meantime I’m happy to let the people affect have their say. Equally, however, I worry – based on my own observations as a neurodivergent artist (scroll to 24th August again) – that theatre has a pretty poor respect of agency. For at least some minorities, the voices theatres choose to platform suspiciously resemble the views that the leaderships assumes the respective minorities hold, whilst ignoring all criticism from those who dissent. This was a review request and I probably would have picked it anyway, but there was one thing that particular stood out here: there’s no question of agency here. There’s no doubt that August Wilson’s autobiographical play of his life – written when he was one of America’s most respected literary playwrights – is his voice and no-one else’s. For the record, I had no idea what was going to be in this play was, nor what his politics are. I was entirely doing this on the basis on hearing what he has to say.

The circumstances surrounding How I learned What I Learned are unusual. It was supposed to be performed by Wilson himself, but by the time he wrote it he was too ill to do it, and so he opened it up to other actors to perform, in this version by Lester Purry of Saints and Poet’s Theater. Racism does feature in this 90-minutes monologue quite prominently (indeed it start with the dark joke that for over 100 years after his family came to America, there was never any trouble finding a job), but not as much as you might think. A lot of time, it’s simply life going on. Wilson recounts a whole host of eccentrics and friends and lovers he knew, including this first love in the nativity play and a shocking murder that taught him the lesson that you can say the wrong thing, but it’s worse for you to say the wrong things at the wrong time. This is a fully rounded portrait of life in a black neighbourhood in 1960s Pittsburgh.

And yet where racism does feature, that’s not what you might expect either. One rather telling phrase Wilson recounts is hearing the phrase “When you go to jail …” Not if. When. I can think of three possible interpretation of that phrase, but none of them were good. However, he talks very little about the big things such as who the cops arrest and who refuses to hire who, and instead talks about the little things. One thing you learn from Wilson’s story of his life as a young man is that he always stood his ground, even when the stakes seems low. He quits his job mowing lawns rather than help his boss appease the racist woman who won’t have a black man doing the job. Why not just mow another lawn like the boss suggests? He finishes off the play with the time when the bank cashier spend a suspiciously long time doing security checks on him, but that’s not what he objects to – it’s the lie that they didn’t have an envelope to put the money in. Why the focus on something so petty? The reason, Wilson argues, is precisely BECAUSE it’s petty. It’s not much, but it’s still a small-minded power-trip, and is completely deliberate. Tolerate that, and it won’t end there.

And the verdict? This is a difficult one – I make a point of reviewing on how well crafted the story is rather than approval of any message within the play. I personal think the key message of standing up to pettiness is a good one and it is well argued – indeed, this is a pattern I’ve been noticing lately over all forms of prejudice of low-level but completely deliberate acts to get one over someone, both now and historically, and yes, it’s a problem that I think a lot of people underestimate. But it’s an unhealthy practice to write favourable review based on how much it validates the reviewer’s views. So, I would never tell anybody that it your duty to agree with what a play says. But if another performance of this play comes along, I would encourage you to hear what August Wilson had to say. When people talk about racism the discussion is usually on the big issue. This is a compelling case for standing up to the little things.

Monday 29th August, 6.30 p.m. – Famous Puppet Death Scenes:

Funny. And pretentious. But ironically pretentious.

I nearly ran out of time, but I couldn’t let a second fringe go by without seeing for myself exactly what this weirdly-titled performance is about. Had I known that writer and master puppeteer Louisa Ashton of Sparkle and Dark was one of the three puppeteers in this, I would have cleared my diary in the first week. I’d previously mused this would either be funny or pretentious. Well, I wasn’t quite right – it’s not either/or, the performance is funny AND pretentious. But it’s ironically pretentious rather than unironically pretentious, and that’s a defining feature of this show.

puppet

Famous Puppet Death Scenes works by sustaining a number of in-jokes. Yes, we know this is a comedy really, but it’s presented as something deathly serious. The action takes place in an around a puppet marquee which is both colourful yet strangely macabre. And then we a treated to the most heartbreaking, sombre and respectful re-enactments of famous death scenes reacted by puppets. Or maybe it’s death scenes of puppets so famous they’re being re-enacted by more puppets. In reality, however, these stories are all completely fictitious, created for the purposes of showing the unfortunate puppets about to meet their makers (and I don’t mean the people who built them). One story that seems to have an awful lot of death scenes is “This Feverish Heart” by Nordo Frot, where copies of the same stout figure are continually splatted by a giant fist that comes out of nowhere, just because. There’s also the element of the surprise on when the unfortunate puppet is going to die, not to mention the unexpected on who dies and exactly when, and then there’s the recurring methods of death that become increasingly commonplace as the performance goes on. Finally, there’s the instructions for the audience, but instead of “Laugh”, “Laugh Hysterically” and “Applause” like they do for bad sitcoms, you’re more likely to be asked to say “Oh”, or clap – but do it somberly and respectfully.

One of my favourite death scenes was at the beginning was the children’s puppet show with two doors Ja and Nein, where selection of the wrong door (okay, either door) results in death full of blood, guts and bones from the monster that lies behind. The Old Trouts are a very versatile puppetry company, and use about every technique going. Frequently the puppet theatre raises and outside curtain and the puppeteers appear for some larger-scale puppeticide. For an operation involving three macabre-looking puppeteers, it is one of the most complex and sophisticated puppetry operations I’m seen pulled off at a fringe.

If there’s one weakness I’d pin on this performance, it gets predictable. It helps a lot to vary how the puppetry is being done, and switch between the surprise deaths and the obvious deaths (e.g. the star of The Ferverish Heart, who is probably getting sick of this by now), it inevitably hinges on variations of the same joke. Perhaps one area that might have been made to work better is managing the audience participation – or maybe I just came on a quiet day. But it doesn’t really matter because The Old Trouts have pulled off what everybody on the Fringe wants to do – a wild and bizarre original concept that is unique to them and audiences pick up and loves. A gamble like this could easily have backfired, so well done for pulling this off.

Monday 29th August, 5.00 p.m. – Salamander:

When polite society started to reach out to sex workers

Salamander seems to have enjoyed a very successful week-long run at the fringe, partly through to its local connections, and partly from the sudden pertinence of the subject following Edinburgh Council’s decision to ban strip clubs, which Pretty Knickers heavily used to market this play. My own interest in this play was helped along by an online play I saw last year called Cash Point Meet. They play had its flaws, but it did make a convincing case that clamping down on sex work – however good the intentions might be – end up doing more harm than good. I remember the time when Edinburgh made itself one of the most liberal cities, with so-called “licensed sauna”, and if you’re enough of a fringe old-timer you will remember the days when you walked past the building off Merchant Street with “SAUNA” written in grubby orange lettering, which was so obviously not where you go for a sauna.

This is set in the 1980s. Polite society is starting to realise that you can’t wash your hands of the sex industry, and the murder of a prostitute has prompted the Police to create a prostitute liaison officer. Much of the play was written around speaking to real people involved in the events. Four of the sex characters are working prostitutes: an assorted bunch of characters who have got into the business for various reasons. It soon becomes clear that, as far as they’re concerned, the closest thing they’ve got to the Police is each other. They each other which clients to steer clear of and look out for each other the best they can. Which means that Police Officer Pat’s job is to win over their trust. It’s far from an easy task, with a long history of looking the other way to contend with – and just when she’s making progress, other less tolerant people in authority do the something to set the whole thing back to square one.

The surprise character with the strongest story arc, however, is Joan. She appears at the first meaning as a representative for the Church and the Women’s Institute. “This is a terrible idea”, I’m already thinking. “The last we need is somebody trying to sell the virtues of less sex and more God.” But wait – Joan is not like that at all. We find out from her prayers that, far from a cringe-worthy evangelical mission, she genuinely wants to make life better for some of the most shunned woman in society, bit like Jesus did. However, she’s going it alone – the support from the church people who agreed to this is at best lukewarm, and most of her friends are horrified that she’s have anything to do with such people. That’s only half of it though. Some of the worst finger-waggers in public are regular clients in practice, and when someone close to Joan turns out to be one of them, things get nasty for everyone. Becky Niven’s performance as Joan is excellent and adds another dimension to the story.

One thing the play doesn’t say much about is the question over whether banning sex licences really does any favours – and with the current reasons appearing to be a new idealism of disapproving of women degrading themselves rather than the old-school puritanism of wanting nothing to do with those sort of people, that would have been very interesting. However, when a play script is so heavily based on speaking to real sex workers and listening to what they have to say, I am wary about trying to steer the message to support a point the play writers want to make. And, to be fair, this issue has cropped up very recently, and probably too late to work into any play. Regardless, this a good play that takes on an issue that some people have strong opinions on one way or the other, and handles it without sensation and just says it how it is. Sorry I’ve reviewed this too late to help with audience numbers, but it looks like it was already doing well from what I saw, and it’s earned.

Monday 29th August, 3.30 p.m. – Sleepover!

Could do with better characterisation

Cambridge University Musical Theatre got my attention last year with a showcase for one of the catchiest tunes out there – this time my interest was grabbed by the concept. 17-year-old Jenny is organising a Sleepover for her three besties, before they all go their separate ways. It’s taken ages for Jenny to get her mother to agree to something like this. However, there is a hidden agenda to this. What Jenny really wants out of this is a talk about everything she wants to know about sex but is afraid to ask. And in order to get round asking, she’s created a board game called “Sleepover” which involves answering questions on cards, all of which are obviously the aforementioned things about sex she wants to know. (Spoiler: her friends see through this ruse straight away.)

I really liked the idea of this, but where I felt this musical fell short was characterisation. That’s not unique to this show; On Your Bike produced by the same society last year was also let down a little by moments where key plot-driving decisions weren’t that believable. Okay, we are discussing musicals here, and it’s fair to remember that nobody spontaneously breaks out into song, but the songs are always more effective if you can believe the characters singing this means it and feels it. Here it feels more like the songs and issues were chosen first and the characters fitted around this. Any of these three 17-year-olds could be crushingly shy, confident and brash or anything else, but it has to be consistent. I find it difficult to believe that someone shy enough to create that board game wouldn’t be rumbled in the first five seconds – I also find it difficult that by the next song Jenny’s already shed her inhibitions to partake in “Get your titties out”.

The production values are good, and songs are managed well, and the set of a sleepover does a lot to add the the story. I would focus on the ending. At least two of the teenagers have uncomfortable secrets they’ve been holding back on, and those are the strongest opportunities for creating rounded believable characters. The big question, as always, is: why now? What has happened to persuade these characters to open up when they do? You might have a perfectly good answer in your head, but we need to know this, and conveying the information without spelling it out the challenge that needs to be addressed in the middle. And if that means you sometimes can’t include a song you wanted to include, or can’t talk about an issue you wanted to bring up, so be it.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what CUMTS wants Sleepover to be. It’s down in the comedy section rather than theatre or musical theatre; and the primary purposes of comedy is fun, which this achieves. But I think Jenny, Nina, Anita and Ruth deserve more than this, and I hope we can get to truly know them one day.

Monday 29th August, 2.00 p.m. – Antigone, the musical:

More cheese please

The first thing I will say about Hard Luck musicals is that I respect for doing the musical the hard but more rewarding way. Most fringe musicals understandably economise by sequencing and recording the backing music in advance. For those that choose to play the music live, they generally struggle – it is rare to see a live band in a fringe musical that gets all the tuning and balance right. Hard Luck musical, however, has a live nine-piece orchestra on stage playing to a pretty impressive standard, and – apart from some early tech problems with the stage mics – a good standard from the singing to.

For the first two third of this play, Antigone the musical does what it says on the tin. It tells the story of the fateful events that led to the heroine’s imprisonment by King Creon quite accurately, and also accessibly. Some musicals don’t bother with the motivations of the main characters, but there’s never once any doubt over what is motivating either Antigone to risk her life of Creon to insist on a death sentence over a matter as petty as giving someone a burial. And they could easily have stuck with this approach and gone right up to fateful moment when Creon has a change of heart too late.

And the comes the twist: apology for the spoiler, but in this version, Antigone doesn’t die. Haemon and Ismene incite a last-minute uprising and come to the rescue in the nick of time. That certainly is a different take on what we’re used to, but in terms of cheesiness it’s right up there with the version of The Titanic where the ship dodges the iceberg. That jars a bit with the down-to-earth faithful staging done to this point. I feel this could do with making a decision one way or the other: either a faithful adaptation or a cheesy adaptation, but I’m pretty sure the intention was the latter.

To be fair, a cheesy retelling probably needs some good movement direction to work to its full effect, with the orchestra taking up so much space, there wasn’t really much room in the space that was left. That’s not a problem unique to this musical – it’s always a bugger for any production with a cast of more than five to find a place which both gives you the space we need on stage and is affordable. If this is has a life beyond Edinburgh Fringe – and looks like it’s gone down well enough to achieve this – I hope this gets further performance on a stage that does this justice. And cheese away for all it’s worth.

Sunday 28th August:

Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice

I’ve been out of the loop today as I’ve been in Amsterdam on a family thing. Coming back home now, still plan to get the remaining four reviews out of the way tomorrow. Just a reminder that if you aren’t happy with what I wrote in a review, the complaint procedure is here. Please be aware that if you write subtweets containing personal attacks thinking I won’t find them: they crop up on my timeline anyway. And please be aware that personal attacks based on me sometimes not sitting still (and whatever stupid judgement you draw from that) is technically speaking attacking someone for a disability. You know who you are.

Anyway, changing the subject, with me being out and about too much to concentrate on reviews today, I instead wrote my thoughts on the choice Edinburgh Fringe has to make. I have arrived at the view that the Festival Fringe Society’s #1 mistake this year was to bend over backwards trying to please everybody. They can either optimise the fringe to be the best possible opportunity for entry-level acts, or they can optimise the fringe to give maximum exposure to the best highly-regarded acts – but they cannot do both. I consider what either of these choices might look like – and a third possibility if the fringe and venues can’t agree on a way forwards.

Saturday 27th August:

What went down at the AGM

There’s going to be a hiatus in coverage this weekend. Sorry. Big family gathering coming and that’s going to take up most of my time. I count four outstanding reviews to complete, and I intend to spend Monday getting them all out.

Meanwhile … we have news on how sales are doing. According to the Scotsman, at the AGM at was reported that 1.5 million tickets had been sold, compared to 1.8 million at the some point in 2009. That would be about 83% of 2019 levels, and with registrations also at around 83% of 2019 levels, that’s okay. The only thing to watch out for is what happens in the last week. Anecdotally, it seems that sales starting off good but tailed off at the fringe went on. The final figures may be a bit more disappointing yet. (One small puzzle is that it was reported that the final sales in 2019 were 3 million, but to add an extra 1.2 million in the final week seems like a stretch, unless there’s a time lag between selling tickets and reporting it. Anyway, we’ll have a better answer in a week’s time.)

The other bit of news is that Shona McCarthy get a vote on confidence in the board.It’s harder to know what to make of that. It does mean that she’s not being booted any time soon – and with the bumpy fringe of 2022 almost done and dusted there’s reasons to believe the worst is over, with expectations of fringe 2023 and reality hopefully converging. However, the fact that a confidence vote was even discussed may be a problem. After all, Theresa May and Boris Johnson won confidence votes and we know what happened a few months later. All in all Shona McCarthy has won the battle, but the jury’s out on winning the war.

As far me – I am writing up my thoughts on what Edinburgh Fringe should do now. The mistake it made this year was trying to please everybody and ending up pleasing nobody. But who do you try to please? I will discuss this soon.

Friday 26th August – Jess Robinson, Legacy:

A look at character/impression comedy

Now for another occasional foray into a short-of character comedy. It is 2032 and the world is about to end. The last of the earth’s population has been evacuated on to rockets, except for super genius 20-year-old Jess Robinson, who was definitely born in 2012 and couldn’t possibly be lying about her age, or indeed her ability/reliability to be entrusted with anything important. She is taking a message from the supreme commander Olivia Coleman (yes, the Olivia Coleman, because she’s a national treasure who always gets the best parts). Anyway, the last task that needs completing is uploading a memory stick containing all of the world’s arts and culture. Apologies for the spoiler, but Jess does indeed fail to live up to her reputation of ultra-reliable agent and spilling wine on her laptop and everything is deleted. What a lucky coincidence! Jess is good at impressions! She can fill the gap that way. Some more refined connoisseurs might say we’re taking an awful of a implausible plot points to set this up but IT’S COMEDY DAMN IT WE’LL BE CONTRIVED IF WE WANT TO.

The problem with entrusting this task to Jess Robinson is that, well, she’s not actually that well read on culture. When she should have been watching high-brow nature documentaries she was gorging out on trash TV. And so, for example, when tasked with reconstructing clever nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough, she does the David Attenborough voiceover for Love Island. That’s the same thing, isn’t it? Surely no-one will notice. In a sign of the times, we in a future where Liz Truss bombed as PM and Theresa May is back in charge. Yes, we’re already at the point where people are going “She was all right, really, I suppose,” God help us. Anyway, you get the idea. Other highlights including moments of the voice of her mother giving advice for anything but the moment in hand, and speed-impressions that Jess Robinson breaks into when stressed.

I can’t give a verdict on all of these impressions because I don’t keep up with popular culture and don’t recognise all of them (he says pretentiously), but those I saw were nailed pretty well. I’d say that Jess Robinson’s strength is impressions first and character comedy second, but that fine because this is the kind of comedy where the lead character’s decisions aren’t supposed to make sense or have any deep motivation. Nevertheless, some of the funniest comedy I’ve seen worked from believable characters behaving in a plausible way in the most ridiculous of situations, so perhaps there’s room to explore than in a future show. The production values are top-notch though. As well as the energetic performance and the impressions, she’s go a great singing voice and a slick backdrop in sync with her performance. This show is meant to fun and nothing more, and so should be judged on those terms, but if you’re after a fun night to round off a day of fringing, I can recommend this.

Thursday 25th August – Waterloo:

Not that explosive

This one grabbed my interest with the promise of a “dangerous” performance and an “explosive” interrogation of the intimate relationship between a high-ranking right-leaning military official and a bleeding-heart lefty greenie. This play has been on the fringe circuit in Australia and picked up a lot of accolades, and in Edinburgh has similarly been scooping praise from various reviews. What I hadn’t realised is that the performer Bron Batten was one half of this relationship. Which is fine – after all, a lot of ace solo plays are indeed based on the performer’s own real life experience. However, in this case the concept is complicated by the need to keep the identity of the other half confidential. Unfortunately, the solution to handle this problem is one I just don’t subscribe to.

The story is that Bron met the unnamed military officer is Paris, and set up an on-off relationship for the next five years, in spite of being politically ideological opposites. The thing, that’s not exactly what I’d call “explosive”. Couples who disagree with each other on political issues aren’t that unusual. There were a couple of events that might have had explosive results, such as stumbling across a documentary outlining what he’d done and how many people he’d killed, or even the fact he had a wife and family he’d failed the mention. However, the relationship carries on regardless. I estimate about on third of of the play was taken up by telling this story. The other two thirds were taken up by general thoughts on military action abroad and footage of a visit to a paintball session which is supposed to be R&D for this play, but doesn’t appear to have any function other than a self-referential inclusion in the performance. Oh, and at various points Bron stabs balloons whilst blindfolded, throws ping-pong balls in liquid air, and puts herself inside a balloon; I suppose any of this could be literally dangerous if Summerhall skipped their health and safety assessment, but I don’t understand how this piece is meant to be metaphorically dangerous. I just kept thinking: what does any of this have to do with the story?

To be fair, Bron Batten was constrained by what she could tell on stage. I do have my doubts over whether plays in this format really are a raw and uncensored as they’re meant to be – intimate relationships are messy and complicated. I would expect anyone out of a recent relationship to hold back on at least some details – certainly when you’re broadcasting details in public to a room of strangers – and even if you’re prepared to go no-hold-barred, warts and all, it can’t help when you’ve got to hold back on information that gives away the identity of the other person. Learning the darker side of the man you love would be a great twist in a normal play, but here it’s all redacted. With a lot of good reviews to this play, it’s clear there’s an audience for this format who like this play for what it is; as such, I don’t see any benefit to changing this now. But if you were to ask me how to do this story, I would have said forget about the true story completely. Keep the bits of the real story where they suit you, but where you can’t talk about what really happened, use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Give us the dangerous explosive relationship we’ve been built up for, and if it means taking liberties with the real story, so be it. This is, after all, a play.

Wednesday 24th August:

Why Edinburgh Fringe is more neurodiverse-friendly than regional theatre

As is customary, I take a break from review after I can back from a visit, so I don’t review someone on the day my brain recharges. Instead, I’m going to draw attention to an issue that may otherwise be talked about by the wrong people.

The age-old debate has flared up again on whether Edinburgh Fringe is diverse enough. The big ongoing debate is racial diversity. I might give my thoughts on that another day, but I’m quite happy to let the people involved speak for themselves for now. One thing that’s new this time is whether Edinburgh Fringe is neurodiverse enough. I swear I’ve seen a lot more shows about neurodiversity this time. Nevertheless, Simon Jay who founded neurodiverse review has questioned whether venues are accessible enough or making sufficient reasonable adjustments.

For it’s worth, whilst there probably is room for improvement, I think Edinburgh Fringe (and the fringe circuit in general) is ten times better for neurodiverse inclusion than regional theatres. And the reason why is agency – or rather, the lack of respect for agency elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong – it is great to see plays cropping in regional theatres taking on the issue of neurodiversity, and whilst I maintain anyone should be allowed to write about anyone and anything, it is good that this is being led by neurodiverse artists. The problem is that the power of who to programme and who to support remains with the leadership of theatres, mostly people who are neurotypical. I should stress at this point I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the voices of neurodivergent artists on stage, and I have no reason to believe is slavishly parroting opinions that someone in charge told them to say. But the fact remains that other people get to decide who gets a voice and stage and whose voices stay sidelined. And with programmers almost always knowing what hopeful artists intend to say should they get their break, it’s far too easy to curate your neurodiverse programme to validate whatever views you think neruodiverse people hold – or, worse, what views you think neurodiverse people should be holding.

Ultimately, regional theatres have a lot of power here that they need to use responsibly. Have they done enough to for me to trust them with this power? Not really. The subjects promoted by my local regional theatres are, I have to say, unimaginitive – mostly what a tough time we’re having, lists of words that we’re supposed to be offended by (and we’re not, they’ll tell us why we should be) and how Rain Man is apparently the most burning issue for us. There’s a lot of mutual back-patting between regional theatres and disability advocacy groups, but I know from bitter experience that organisations can use this to preach one thing and practice exactly the opposite. Most telling, there is absolutely zero engagement with critics. On the rare occasions a regional theatre has engaged with my concerns, it has been to tell me that they are doing me a favour. Sometime they add that they have neurodivergent staff, but the problem with that is they are only a subset of neurodivergent creatives who are probably fine working with you, but may or may not reflect what the rest of us think. Don’t get me wrong, there is no simple solution to this, but the first step is surely to ask us “How can we make you feel included?” So far, not one single person from Live Theatre or Northern Stage or Alphabetti Theatre has asked this. And worse, they don’t seem to think this is a problem.

The open design of Edinburgh Fringe, on the other hand, largely eliminates this problem. I don’t know what barriers stand in the way of neurodiverse artists, but for those who do take part, they are free to say whether they like. True, there is still curation by venues to consider, but the bar is much lower. In general, if you reasonably know what you’re doing and you have a reasonable track record in getting an audience, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting into a reasonable reputable venue. You might have some venues prioritising plays about neurodiversity to meet a quota, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be in a position to cherry-pick views to validate their own worldview. Compare this to many regional theatres where it’s an open secret what worldview they want on stage and there’s no contest. Sure, they have some great development schemes for a small number of hand-picked artists, but we don’t know what strings are attached. At Edinburgh Fringe, for all its faults, you know where you are.

By the way, I don’t think this problem over agency and disrespect for it is unique to neurodiversity. I’m not convinced theatre is better for anyone else, and off-message minorities are just as liable to be sidelined for not womaning correctly or not minoritying correctly. And what if you don’t want to write about being part of this minority? I hear plenty of complaints from ethnic minority artists who feel they’re being sidelined for just wanting to produce the same material as everyone else. I suspect the effect varies on whether or not mainstream theatre opinion is in line with mainstream opinion of the respective minorities. Off-hand, Jews and working-class people spring to mind, with the representation of these voices suspiciously lacking in issues I know for a fact a lot of them consider important. The solutions aren’t going to be quick or easy, but it’s really up to theatres to want to change – we can’t do that for you. In the meantime, if you want to know why I don’t bother engaging with my local theatres that much and engage with the fringe circuit instead – well, there’s one of my answers.

Tuesday 23rd August, 10.30 p.m. – Second Summer of Love:

A rose-tinted story of a rave-filled youth cleverly unravels

There is always one play in the Edinburgh Fringe programme that I would have put in my recommendations had I not missed it. Pants on Fire impressed me at Vault Festival 2019 with Ovid’s Metamorphosis, with Roman legends transplanted to the music hall World War 2 era. This is a quite different production, and instead of a wildly innovate musical extravaganza, it’s a relatively conventional solo play. How does this square up?

Writer/director Emmy Happisburgh plays Louise, now a respectable wife to a respected headmaster – but in her youth in the early 1990s she was part of the “Second Summer of Love”. This was when there was the craze for the illegal rave, and rather than do the sensible thing and just create a legal version with the music but without the drug, they passed absurd laws banning music with repetitive beats (which the rave DJs took as a challenge to create non-repetitive drum beats). Honestly, if they were that bothered about it, John Major, Norman Lamont and Michael Heseltine should have embraced it and performed their own set, instantly rendering the whole rave scene so toe-curling no self-respecting teenager would have anything to do with it.

Anyway, I digress. Louise was a raver, and misses her hedonistic rave days, drug-taking included. The one vice she allows herself today is to go to “ravercise”, which is like Zumba but with rave music, glow sticks, and middle-aged housewives wondering about what to cook their kids for tea. Not at all the same as the real rave, as Louise fondly remember the trip to her first rave. Amongst the many things we learn from the 20-minute sequence covering this is that she previous went to an all-girls’ school. One suspects going to a rave is the first bit of excitement she’s had in her life – and no, her stunning singing voice doesn’t come anywhere near. In fact, the whole progression of Louise’s life is portrayed convincingly, with her life choices after her rave days leading back to boredom explained well.

The clever thing about the story, however, is how Louise’s story unravels. Her ultra-romanticised version of the story glosses over all the bad bits. To be fair to Louise, she doesn’t know how her rave sweetheart has become even more of a disappointment than she is (a policy wonk for the Conservative Party, I believe), but other things she’s chosen to ignore. The friends who suffered last damage from the drug taking. When you think about it, the most telling part is how she airbrushed out the damage it did to her own life. She tells herself the high point was taking a super-powered pills that kept her awake for 72 hours, mental or what? But one side-effect of that was the end of her aspirations to be a singer. An exciting life that could have lasted far longer than five years of raving. It is going to take others to tell her exactly what her rave days cost her.

I’m not convinced this is that well suited to a solo play. Although Happisburgh does a good job of switching between characters, there’s only so long you can do both sides of a conversation before it gets strained, never mind a four-way conversation that dominates most of the rave sequences. I’m aware that a solo play costs a lot less than a bigger play for all sorts of obvious reasons, but the economisation comes at a price, and I think this performance would be stronger with the performance done as a four-hander. There again, a four-hander is well within Pants On Fire’s capabilities. I did enjoy this as a solo play and it has a lot to say, but I’d love to see how this would turn out as a scaled up production. Pants On Fire, consider this a hint.

Update: there are indeed aspirations to upscale this play – in fact, she’s eyeing up a seven-hander. See this comment.

Tuesday 23rd August, 9.30 p.m.:

The writeup of remaining reviews

At that’s it. I’m on the train back for the last time. I make it 24 plays on press tickets, with 2 near misses involving frantic trips to press offices, but 0 failures to see plays I promised I would. Including the events I brought tickets for, I make it 33, or 34 if you count the press launch.

I managed to process most of the review requests I received before or early on in the fringe. (For those who missed out, it’s no reflection on you – the reason almost always come down to scheduling.) As has been increasingly been the case, I’ve been getting a hell of a lot of review requests in weeks 2 and 3, by which time I’ve already planned most of my viewing. This year, I’m aware that a lot of groups hoping to get a review at Edinburgh have got none. I’m embarrassed that I’ve not been able to help more people, but there’s only a finite amount of plays I can view in seven days. At some point, we need a discussion on what we do about this. I will posting my thoughts on this another day.

I will be catching up with the rest of the reviews over the rest of this week. I am aware that some of these will only arrive after the performances are finished; others are likely to arrive too late to make a difference to audience numbers. Again, I’m sorry about that, but don’t obsess over this too much. In my opinion, the effect of reviews on audience numbers is over-estimated. If your audience numbers soar after a four- or five-star review, it’s more likely it’s equally impressed audience members doing word-of-mouth publicity for you that any reviewer winning people over. Reviews, on the other hand, keep their value after the fringe finishes. This is what you have to show what you did and whether people thought it was any good, and trust me, that influence carries over into future fringes easily.

Thank you for bearing with me. I’ll get to you as soon as I can.

Update: Should add, for the plays I’ve seen before and paid to see again, I’m putting these to the bottom of the pile – you’re doing well enough without further help from me. So I probably won’t get round to adding anything in this live coverage. However, they will still be eligible for Pick of the Fringe, and when I get on to the roundup I’ll aim to give my thoughts there.

Tuesday 23rd August, 4.30 p.m. – Beg for Me:

An insight on the route to radicalisation

Sorry for the slow reviews. Quickly learning that internet provision in venues is terrible. Even in venues that claim to have openly accessiblw wi-fi (Pleasance excepted), the service is so terrible it’s unusable. Worse, no-one seems to consider this a problem. Look, if it really is impossible to provide reliable internet to the general public, could you at least allow accredited press access to your staff networks. It’s your acts that are losing out when we can’t do our jobs.

So this is why Beg For Me is late, but here we are. This one grabbed my interest because it’s about a man radicalised enough to take part in the infamous January 6th insurrection. We don’t have his name, but his Twitter handle is @R3alAm3rican99. A visitor comes to his cell, which he presumes to be Police. But as far as @R3alAm3rican99 is concerned, he’s done nothing wrong. The storming of the House and Senate was a peaceful protest, and the only attempts made to kill anybody were provoked by the Police, who are all in league with the secret cabal of the liberal elite hell-bent on sending Mexican immigrants to rape your white daughters.

One frequent mistake made with depictions of the other side is to set up your enemies as straw men to take down, and normally that’s what I’d been questioning here. After all, Trump fans might claim anyone who disagrees with them are NCP cuck snowflakes scared of mean words, but Hillary fans are equally swift to paint their critics as alt-right Nazis who watch Jim Davidson on repeat. However, in the aftermath on the US election I was following the social media activity of people who insisted the election was rigged for my amusement research, and, honestly, this level of batshittery is perfectly normal. In fact, there’s even higher levels of batshit craziness (e.g. anything claims by Qanon supporters) that we don’t even go into. What this play is really about is how he got to this point in the first place. I remember the shock in I Am A Camera (the stage play that led to Cabaret) where Fraulien Schnieder is still a kidly caring landlady, but she believes all the things the nice men in suits say about the Jews. This man never used to spout the racist and misogynistic bile he now spouts, and however much he may decry the old version of him as a mindless sheeple, it’s clear he was once just an ordinary guy.

The message this play seems to be giving is that it didn’t happen overnight. He didn’t open a reddit thread and suddenly sign up as a full-blown Trump-worshipping Nazi. In fact, he was already disappearing down that rabbit hole long before he read any of this. Prior to that, he was subjecting his girlfriend to degrading sexual acts, and blaming her for being the digusting whore who’d degrade herself exactly the way he meant to. However, there is a missing link in the back story here. He went into that relationship as a shy man asking for permission to kiss her – but there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for how he got from that point to a shitty controlling partner. And okay, there’s only so much you can explain in an hour, but I did feel too much of the play was taken up by the visitor admonishing the accused for the way he treats women. Look, this is the Edinburgh Fringe, not Parler. I’ve 100% confident no-one saw this play and thought “You know, @R3alAm3rican99” has a point. I’m pretty sure we can take it for granted that everyone thought “What a fucking nutjob.”

To be fair, there is a good reason why the mysterious visitor is so insistent on giving our man a dressing down, which ties into the journey from normal guy to alt-right fanatic. I won’t spoil the play by saying what the reason is, but it’s a good one. Rhys Anderson’s portrayal as the radicalised fanatic is excellent. The one thing I would seek to add to this is more about the beginning of the journey. What I think this play underestimates is what a lot of people underestimate – how perfectly understandable and legitimate grievances are ruthlessly exploited by extremists and twisted with half-truths and distortion. Rosa Maria Alexander is 80% of the way there – I hope we can completely this with the final and most uncomfortable 20%.

Tuesday 23rd August,12.30 a.m. – The Land of Lost Content:

An outstanding and very moving play. Bring hankies

Okay, that’s another congested day’s viewing done. Normally I would leave the reviews until tomorrow. But this one can’t wait. It’s happened for the second time this fringe. But the last time this happened it came from a front runner who I already expected to do well. It’s a different thing when it comes out of nowhere.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

Henry and Judd are sitting at the bar table in the pub, the Flat Earth in, of the rural village they grew up in. They have been best friends since childhood, but there used to be more of them. This is not some idyllic sleepy town from a Hovis advert, however, but a deprived town with a lot of people struggling and – more relevantly – a lot of boredom. Their teenage years were spent mostly drinking and getting stoned because there wasn’t anything else to do. And, in a way, they are the lucky ones. Other teenagers the same age as them go through worse things.

The Land of Lost Content is written by Henry Madd, playing Henry, and his heavily based on his own memories of his teenage years in this town. A lot of memories involve the 292 bus which somehow seems to serve everywhere you could possible want to go; other memories are more dangerous actt of recklessness. To some extent, this is a similar format to Sandcastles, set as a memory play, with the story told in a non-linear format going back and forth in time from the Year 7 disco where Judd joined the class as the insecure new kid taken under Henry’s wing, to years as the class clown sneaking in booze to school proms, to definitive moments in their twenties that made Henry and Judd what they are today. They also make heavy use to soundscapes, used to wonderful effect here.

But there is one crucial thing that Henry Madd does much better here. Rather than just memories of teenage parties and holidays after exams, Henry and Judd and their other friends have all been through so much together. And it’s when you stick to each other through thick and thin that you can truly understand how much their friendship means to them. Even when there’s bullying from bigger boys, you can quickly see they’re in the same situation of boredom and low life prospects, merely being slightly ahead in the pecking order. Not all of the time though. There are some bad people in the town, and Henry’s closest two female friends come off particularly from the dregs in society. The saddest part of the story is that Henry can see the lives of his friends falling apart around him – but whilst his friends are there for him to pull him back from the darkest moments, try as he might, he doesn’t know how to do the same when they need him.

Writing so closely about your own life experiences is always a risky game; a play can only ever be a simplification of real life, and all sorts of things can go wrong when distilling it into an hour. You might steer clear of uncomfortable details that stop the on-stage story making sense, and even events that happened in real life can come across as not ringing true. Not here – I never doubted at any point the believability of these characters and the vulnerability that stopped them doing more when things mattered the most. You must see this – but bring the hankies.

Monday 22nd August, 7.00 p.m.:

Why the lack of availability of fringe programmes is a good thing

Excuse the sporadic coverage, got yet another press ticket in a moment, so don’t have time for a quite exciting review. But in the shorter gap I have, here’s an odd observation a few of us have: Edinburgh Fringe programmes seem to be harder to obtain this year. I ordered my programme in advance and plan almost everything prior to a visit so it doesn’t affect me much, but anecdotally other people have had trouble picking up a programme, which used to be ten-a-penny at all major venues. For what it’s worth, I don’t remember seeing Fringe brochures at any venues myself – however, there are plenty at the Fringe Box Office (also Fringe Central, if anyone can make the detour).

However, I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing. I’m not in such a panic over paper wastage as Brighton is (who have already decided they’re not going back to a full programme for all next year), and I think one programme per punter is bearable. However, programmes that are both free and easy to obtain are, I think, easily wasted. People may continually abandon brochures and pick up new ones. People who re only sort-of interested might pick up a brochure and throw it away without buying a single ticket. I’m not against making a programme slightly harder to obtain if it means we have to print less.

One thing I would seriously consider for future years is making category-specific brochures the main type of brochure distributed by the fringe. It is silly that someone who only looks at the theatre section gets a brochure with all the comedy listings in, and vice versa. If we need a full brochure, I would consider charging a token amount. Not necessarily the full printing cost, but enough to make people think twice about taking one if they’re not serious about going to anything, and maybe take a bit more care before losing it.

Happy to hear other people’s verdicts, but if the lack of availability of brochures is an economisation by the back door, I’m fine with it. In fact, be open that you’re doing it. Like the half-price virtual ticket hut, this is an economisation I like.

Monday 22nd August, 11.30 a.m.:

A call to streamline the press ticketing system

Rush hour is about to start, with me watching four plays in seven hours. This is proving a challenge. I have long since accustomed myself to getting from venue to venue and pacing myself, but the thing that’s proved an absolute bugger this year is all the administration around press tickets. It’s a bugger to deal with half a dozen different press offices at the same time, and whilst I have so far never missed a play due to a bit of missed paperwork, I’ve had some near misses. What’s more, I’m starting to think this is more complicated than it needs to be.

First of all, an overview of how the press system works. Until 2019, I was working entirely on informal arrangements dealing with individual shows asking me to review them. It was fine when it was just a few, but it got harder as the requests piled up. Last year, I got upgraded to full reviewer status by Edinburgh Fringe – I don’t know whether that was merging two tiers into one, Edfringe needing all the reviewers they could get in 2021, or just the year I earned a promotion, but this meant I had access to the full press ticket system. This is much easier – select the show your want, website will tell you whether or not there are press tickets*, and if so, bing! It’s yours.

 

 

*: Actually, the website is still confusing if you’re not used to it, but it’s still easier than darting around a dozen press offices.

 

 

However, most venues don’t use this system. The only venues I’ve managed to get press tickets from are Space and Greenside. There is a caveat that although press tickets are given to accredited media, no questions asked, you are expected to actually review the plays. If you are caught breaking this rule, they can revoke your accreditation and any tickets you haven’t yet used. So far, I’ve not known any complaints of abuse of the system. That, however, is not enough reassurance for the Big Four and other venues who won’t issue press tickets without the company’s consent. For the record, this is how I operate anyway – I never take a press ticket if I wasn’t expressly invited – but it’s understandable that some venues are more cautious. A free ticket with a face value of £15 must be tempting for the freeloaders out there, especially the big name comedians.**

 

 

**: (For the record 2: I could have claimed a free ticket via a publicist to a big-name comedian I wanted to see, but as I don’t know how to review stand-up comedy and I knew I’d be taken what would otherwise be a paid seat, I couldn’t justify it to myself.)

 

 

The thing is, the red61 system that Edinburgh Fringe uses can do exactly this. Brighton (where I’m also accredited) has a very similar setup, with one exception: the tickets have to be manually approved. Surely Edinburgh Fringe’s system can be configured to support both routes – no questions asked for venues who trust the current system, approval needed for venues such as the Big Four that want to be more vigilant. The different is that reviewers only have to deal with one outlet. It also makes it a lot easier to keep track of what you’ve booked.

I need to be careful about “Won’t someone think of the reviewers?” As I’ve said, the Festival Fringe Society exists for the benefit of the performers, not us. However, when the odd review falls through because of errant paperwork, it’s no big dead to the reviewer – but it’s the act who loses out. That could have been the only review this play was going to get. Usual note of caution applies: apply technological solutions with caution, make sure it’s properly tested. But get it right and it will benefit everybody.

Monday 22nd August, 10.00 a.m. – Colossal:

A play with a message that desperately needs subtext

With comedy the dominant category at Edinburgh Fringe but theatre coming a strong second, Edinburgh is a good place for established comedians to branch out into theatre. This is what Patrick McPherson is doing, with Colossal being his second performance in the theatre category. At face value, this is a story about dating. Dan is excited to be going on a new date, and in the hour he has to get ready, he talks about his last long-term relationship. At first, the excitement of a new relationship, first accidental meeting, nail-biting wait for reply to first text, first kiss, first meeting with parents. And then it goes to the arguments and the infidelity that led to it falling apart. However (apology, spoiler alert, but impossible to review without this), this is not all that it seems. Dan’s version of the story is his own version. Reality, he later admits, wasn’t quite the same.

This is the fourth play at this fringe I’ve seen on a subject ranging from sexual predators to unhealthy relationships. What this one is desperately missing, however, is subtext. Not all plays about unhealthy relationships need so much subtext, but when the central premise is an unreliable narrator, it’s vital. How do we know Dan started off head-over-heels in love and over-optimistically judged the situation? Because Dan tells us at the end of the play. How do we know Dan was glossing over his faults in the failing relationship? The same. Worst, of all, the play is supposed to give a message at the end about looking at your learned behaviour – but there are no examples anywhere in the story of what the learned behaviour is or how Dan came to learn it. Just a direct quote from his ex telling him to address his learned behaviour, whatever it was. “Show, don’t tell” has never been more important here.

To be fair, subtext is difficult to write, especially if you’ve come from comedy where subtext has little importance (certain kinds of character comedy excepted). It is not clear whether subtext wasn’t written into the script or whether it was so subtle it wasn’t picked up, but either way, the only thing I picked up that sort-of indicated something wasn’t right has a flickering light. I suppose the argument where the two accuse each other of gaslighting might have been meant as a sign of an unhealthy relationship, but with no context to the arguments it was impossible to tell whether they were simply words in anger or something more – and if the latter, no indication of who was gaslighting who. Personally, the best opportunity I see for subtext is a passing reference at the beginning of Dan giving a favourable spin on his previous relationship. That could easily set alarm bells ringing when the same things happen again – but once more, the only reason we know Dan glossed over his last relationship is because he told us directly.

I am probably in the minority here – it’s got a string of good reviews from its run and the show I was in was close to sold out. The main reason this is getting praise for its production values, and those were excellent. McPherson is perfectly choreographed to an intricate lighting and sound scape, and had the plot been stronger I might have been shouting praises from the roof tops. There’s one other possible reason for its popularity though: popularity with people who already agree that with the message about learned behaviour, and don’t care if nothing is done to expand on it, only that their view is stated back to them. I hope I am wrong about that, because in the long run, playing to the gallery is a mistake. So much discourse is dominated by soundbites without substance, and plays give the opportunity to expand on this and show how things such as learned behaviour can work out. It’s a shame that a play with so much going for it missed this opportunity.

Sunday 21st August, 11.00 p.m.:

How are ticket sales doing?

Now here’s a big question we’ve not yet discussed much: how are ticket sales comparing to 2019.

First the baseline. The number of registrations at Edinburgh Fringe is just over 80% of the 2019 peak. I have previously observed that there’s a lot of shows not running the full fringe this time. Having checked this further (and thanks to Richard Stamp for doing the number crunching), this effect looks less dramatic than it looks. The short runs seem to be mostly affecting theatre – certainly most of my comedy picks are still running the full length. (This should not be too surprising when you remember most comedy shows are one person, which lessens the impact of expensive accommodation.) There does seem to be a reduction in full-length theatre runs, but not a big one – I perhaps underestimated how many were doing short runs back in 2019. On the whole, I’m not expecting this to have much effect on number of performances, which I’m currently expecting to be around 75-80% of 2019. The big question, of course: will sales also be around 75%-80%?

There was an early panic around the start of the fringe when it was reported pre-sales were down a lot. It now looks like alarm over an imminent meltdown was overstated. Instead, this seems to be fitting into the pattern seen at Brighton that people are buying tickets later. Does that really make up the shortfall in pre-sales though? What really matters is the total number of sales, by they in advance or on the door. Here we don’t seem to have any data (or at least nothing I know about which anyone’s pick up on) and instead have to rely on anecdote.

For what it’s worth, my own observations are that attendance in the shows I visited looks about the same as a normal year. Treat my estimates with extreme caution, as this varies enormously between individual shows, and it’s hard to recall what an average attendance looks like. (Also bear in mind that an an audience member, you’re more likely to be in a well-attended show than a poorly-attended one, although I’m currently guessing the effect is the same in 2019 and 2022 and cancels out.) Other reviewers I’ve spoken to are having similar observations, give or take a little in the details. From performers I’ve heard from who’ve been in the game long enough, they seem to think it’s been quieter, but not enough to be a cause for alarm.

wp-1661120468469So it looks like we’re going to have to wait another week and a bit to get an answer to this one. The only prediction I’m going to make is that when the figures do come, there won’t be anything jaw-dropping. In the meantime, here is a picture of the Sold Out board at the Pleasance Courtyard a few hours ago. If you know what a typical Sold Out board on the Sunday of Weekend 3 looks like in a typical year, let me know.

Sunday 21st August, 8.00 p.m. – The Bush:

A nice story about protest from an unlikely group of dissidents

I’ve been off-grid again a while, because I’ve just seen two consecutive plays at Summerhall. On the plus side, I have heard some exciting news, as Summerhall has added itself to the list of venues that could be as close as five years away from having wi-fi that actually fucking works. In a separate development, Summerhall are extremely pleased with their collaboration with mobile phone networks to make sure there’s absolutely no backup mobile internet available. But now that I’m back somewhere I can connect, let’s start coverage of visit 3 with something that wasn’t here with my last two visits.

How do you make a story about a protest movement into a play? In the case of The Bush, it’s about a local protest to save a piece of rural land with local sentimental attachment in 1970s. The trouble with these sorts of stories is that real life doesn’t lend itself that well to scripted drama. I am a great believer in writing events that keep the viewers’ attention: one event leads to another and another, this things happens every now and then to change the course of the story. Real campaigns, however, tend to consist of a set of little events largely unrelated to each other adding up to an outcome one way or the other. The other problem particular to this one is that the decisive moment that saved Kelly’s Bush was a coincidence never alluded to before (because nobody knew). In fiction that would be decried as a contrived way of ending the story. But this is what really happened. What do you do?

The way Alice Mary Cooper makes this work is making the story just about the people in the protest movement as the campaign. Of course, stories about liberated/hedonistic campaign movements behind worthy causes are done to death, but this works by being exactly the opposite of what you’d expect: a prim and proper collection of suburban housewives, as middle-class as you can be. Being the 1970s, the men have jobs and the women stay at home, but the men barely feature in the story, always referred to in the party where the movement is founded as somebody’s husband. Regardless of campaigning activity underway, it always seems to be running parallel with a drive to provide the most sublime cooking, with assorted kitchen disasters turned around with initiative and years of culinary experience. Somehow they find time to save Kelly’s Bush whilst juggling school commitments. When they form an alliance with a construction union, and one of them mildly flirts with a housewife who’s never been flirted with for ten years, she turns beetroot. What might have been a dry play that was difficult to follow is made into a story with warm humour.

Alice Mary Cooper’s preferred format is third-person storytelling. Whilst I personally would have preferred her previous work, Waves, to have been done in first person, it makes more sense here when the story is about a protest movement rather than a political character. The obvious question whenever a play is done in this format: why do it on stage at all? Why not just do it as a podcast? The answer is that Alice Mary Cooper is very good at making her storytelling visual, sometimes using naturalistic props, and sometimes repurposing them into new uses, pulling every trick in the book to keep the play visually engaging. The only downside I can see with the solo format is that I completely lost track on which housewife was this. It doesn’t matter too much as the focus of the play is on the cause rather than the individuals, but maybe there were some characters arcs I was supposed to pick up that I lost.

This play has been touring for six weeks in outdoor spaces similar to Kelly’s Bush, which I reckon would have suited it well. And I optimistic expectations for this one and Alice Mary Cooper delivered about an unlikely bunch of dissidents. Remaining runs is at Summerhall, Tuesday to Sunday, 3.00 p.m.

Sunday 21st August, 11.45 p.m. – The Glummer Twins:

Another recommendation from Buxton

Here we go. The last Edinburgh Fringe visit, and my last of all 2022 fringe visits. The last metaphorical mile of a metaphorical marathon than began in May. And just like a real marathon, the last mile is going to be the most gruelling. I intend to relax the pace in my final visit, and I will be concentrating more on plays I want to see than reviewing duty. And where there is a gap in my schedule, I will not go out of my way to fill it.

Before I get stuck in to visit 3 (or visit 7 if we’re counting all four fringes this year), it’s time for one more review from Buxton Fringe for a show about to start in Edinburgh. The Glummer Twins might be in the spoken word section of the programme, but they actually straddle four categories quite smoothly: as well as their beat poetry what puts them in the spoken word section, they crossover with music for the tunes than accompany some of the performances, comedy for the warm humour than comes throughout their poems, and theatre for the characters they adopt for their double act.

The Glummer Twins bill themselves as “the beat poets for the Saga generation”. It is often assumed that the fringe is a young person’s game, so it is refreshing to see a pair of older performers become such fringe favourites at Buxton. Crucially, however, they don’t appeal to one age range at the expense of another. This set of poems is set through the decades of their lives, starting with nostalgia of decades gone by and the later part featuring their signature hit “He’s just turned sixty, he’s taking it badly,” but at every point the performance remains accessible to everyone. The nostalgia is broad topics than younger whippersnappers have heard of; the dodgy nightclub they reminiscence about may be specific in Rotherham in the 1970s, but there are plenty of clubs in other towns and other decades this could relate to.

Ray and David, too, are perfect as a double-act, they banter they share with each other might be scripted between them, but it’s perfect for their stage personas and shares a similar style to Morecambe and Wise. They do give the game away – mentioning different birthdays during the aforementioned poem about turning sixty – that they’re not actually twins. But whilst they’re not literal twins they are certainly showbusiness twins. I’m a theatre reviewer so trust the verdict of comedy and poetry reviewer ahead of mine, but I loved it. I can confirm they are Buxton favourites for a reason. Runs 2 p.m. tomorrow until Sunday at The Space, Surgeon’s Hall.

Saturday 20th August, 8.30 p.m.:

What’s starting in week 3

We’re approaching week 3, which means time for another changeover. However, on this occasion I must apologise for lack of planning. I was supposed to give you advance notice of acts about to finish, but I forgot that most week 2 finishers finish today, not tomorrow. So if you were hoping to catch No One, Head Girl or 1972: The Future of Sex, I’m afraid you’re already too late, the last day was today.

What I can to is tell you about what’s coming up. There’s less of a changeover compared to week 2, but there’s a couple of new things starting to draw to your attention:

Call Mr. Robeson: The fascinating and frequently counter-intuitive story of Paul Robeson, one of the few black singers in mid-20th century America who could take on segregation and win – instead, the fight of his life came with the communist scare. Starts tomorrow (Sunday), 10.10 a.m., the Space at Surgeon’s Hall.

The Glummer Twins: They’ve down in the spoken word section as beat poets, but they straddle comedy, music and theatre. This double act is a favourite at Buxton Fringe, with a warm humour with echoes of Morecambe and Wise. Starts Monday, 2.00 p.m., the Space at Surgeon’s Hall.

That’s all from today. See you in person tomorrow.

Saturday 20th August, 6.00 p.m.:

How many groups have been lost permanently?

Now let’s turn attention to something that may feel missing from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It used to be a fixture on the mornings for many people to see Bite Size Plays. I saw the first production in 2006 and saw this go from strength to strength, but not this year. We do, however, have the founder, Nick Brice, giving a speech on the Bite Size Story (his day job is business so he’s well suited to this). The Edinburgh Fringe edition of this takes place today. Now, Bite Size fans, don’t panic. It doesn’t mean Bite Size is gone for good from Edinburgh – in fact, I believe one of the purposes of these talks is to raise money for an intended return next year. It does, however, remind us of a legacy of Coronavirus we haven’t considered that much. There’s been a lot of panic over respected venues closing; that seems to have been largely averted. However, how many respected groups have left the arts and aren’t coming back?

I have no data to track what’s happening; nevertheless, I can see reasons why this could be a problem. Although some of the more determined groups sought out every opportunity to perform in 2020 and 2021, most groups have been on a eighteen-month break. Can you simply pick up where you left off? Not necessarily. For a start, there’s all the financial considerations – I had a day job to keep me going so I don’t have much first-hand experience of this; other people on the sharp end can tell me better what the impact is. However, I suspect there’s also a psychological element to this – fringe theatre is almost always a highly stressful experience where the adrenalin keeps you going, but I wonder how many people with an enforced 18 months of doing little decided they couldn’t face the stress again. Similarly, if you were forced to get a job with a more reliable income, how many people want to go back to an unreliable one?

But I also suspect the effect is magnified with ensembles who form so many successful returning acts at Edinburgh. Bite Size plays may have started off as one man’s project and passion, but by the second half of the 2010s it was a team effort with the same actors coming back year after year. Maybe some of the Bite Size crew are gone for good, maybe they’re all raring to go next year, but if the worst comes to the worst, Nick Brice built one team, he can build another. Other groups are in a weaker position though. I don’t want to pick pick out examples of other acts because I don’t know their individual circumstances, but off-hand I can think of a couple of acts not here this year who were tight-knit teams. Lose one member of the team and it’s the end of the act as we know it. Could this be the worst cultural legacy of Covid?

I will float a counter-argument though. It’s been three years since the last Edinburgh Fringe of any proper size. Even without a pandemic, three years is a long time. Perhaps the losses we’ve seen amongst fringe perennial acts since 2019 are no worse than natural wastage over three normal years. Someone with a lot more resources will need to research this if we are to ever get a clear answer – but it’s possible the lasting cultural damage isn’t the closure of venues, but loss of hundreds of talented individuals and groups who just aren’t in the arts any more.

Saturday 20th August, 12.00 p.m.:

Jekyll & Hyde gets extended

Late to the party, but one small bit of news is that Jekyll and Hyde, A One-Woman Show, has had its run extended. Was supposed to finish last week, now finishing this week. So there’s performances at 8.15 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, Zoo Playground (same as last time). This might be connected to a nomination for an Infallible Award for this play. I’ve not really kept up with which award is which, but apparently this one is good.

I’ll be back later with an update on what’s finishing this weekend and what’s starting next week.

Friday 19th August:

Why no reviews from Paines Plough or Roundabout?

Today I am making preparations for my third and final trip to Edinburgh Fringe. To manage expectations, I’m not going to be jam-packing this one with reviews as much as before – I like to make the end of the fringe more fun and less of an endurance test. There are more things in my schedule that I’ve seen before and want to see again, and where I have gaps in my schedule, I won’t be going out of my way to fill them.

However, this is a good time an answer a question I’ve been asked by an eagle-eyed follower who’s noticed I’ve never covered anything from Paines Plough Roundabout or the Traverse, the two venues with the strongest reputations for new writing. The short answer is that there is nothing personal against this two venues, it’s just the way things have worked out. However, in the interests of transparency, it’s fair to expand on this and give some insight into how I choose to review.

The first point to make may seem quite counter-intuitive, but strangely enough, the reputation of the venues actually counts for very little in Edinburgh. I’ve long maintained that what I cover on this blog should be considered a cross-section of what’s on offer at Edinburgh Fringe rather than seeking out the best of the fringe. From a more idealistic standpoint, I am I big supporter of an open festival where anyone can take part, and in the spirit of this I have a system where anyone can get a good review from me. If you have a vote a confidence from Paines Plough or the Traverse, congratulations – but you are going into the fringe with a head start on everyone else. Over here, I want the minnows and the newbies to have a fair chance against the most favoured acts of the cultural great and good. This is why I might be reviewing an unknown act at The Space one moment, and a well-known act at The Big Four the next. A lot of review publications have this ethos on the fringe circuit, by the way; in contrast, on the regional theatre scene it is next to impossible to be reviewed if you aren’t in the programme of a notable producing theatre.

The main factor, however, is what I get invited to review. About 80% of what I’ve booked to see this year has been on press tickets, which almost entirely come from individual acts contacting me themselves. I don’t keep track of which venue they’re performing in, but so far, I don’t think I’ve ever had a request from an act performing at either Traverse or Roundabout. Which is fine – I like to focus by reviewing efforts where it is most wanted and appreciated, and acts at those venues already have a lot of acclaim on their side. To a lesser extent, the same could be said of acts at The Big Four, but I still get enough requests from there to keep me busy. The only real influence that venues have on my decision on who to review is balance. I try to have an even spread of venues over my coverage, and I especially try to balance up Big Four venues (who primarily take on better-known acts with higher budgets) with cheaper venues such as Space, Greenside and Zoo (who are better homes for less well known acts). A review request from Traverse or Roundabout would probably be snapped up as that would be an opportunity to get a different kind of venue into the mix.

There’s also a few other odds and sods that might indirectly disadvantage the new writing venues. Whilst I’m not that bothered about the reputation of venues, the reputation of individual acts does make a difference – especially acts whom I previously saw for myself. And in my case, the most likely place I saw an Edinburgh Fringe acts prior to Edinburgh is Brighton Fringe. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be much crossover between Traverse/Roundabout and the rest of the fringe circuit; in contrast, there’s a lot of names at the Big Four and Summerhall that I recognise from other fringes. I often use the half-price hut and nearby/now as my means of taking a punt on something random, but I don’t remember seeing either of these venues use the half-price hut, and they’re a bit out of the way to come on as a nearby/now pick.

I almost booked for the Traverse on Sunday, as there was something listed by a publicist that was on at a good time which grabbed by interest, but that one sold out. Ah well, close but no cigar. I hope the overall message from this is that no venue’s being snubbed, and the door is always open to review requests, same as everyone else. I’m almost booked up now, but maybe next year.

Thursday 18th August – Svengali:

Ambiguous in a good way

Good news, folks. You enjoyed reading my last two depressing reviews on sexual predators so much, I’ve got another one for you. This one is a little different from the other two though. All three of these plays have been good – but this time I’m not sure I’m picking up the message I was supposed to pick.

The start of this play wrong-footed me for a while. The play is openly advertised as a reimagining of a classic character for the #MeToo era, but without knowing anything about the source material I just saw Chloe-Ann Tylor on stage in a suit – something, I assumed, to fit into a victim preparing to give a testimony to court. To her, tennis is everything. She considers the soft-porn quality of tennis appealing. For a moment, I wonder if this is another victim-blaming narrative being set up, and it’s only a few minutes the penny drops: Tylor isn’t playing the victim, Tylor is playing the perpetrator. But unlike Sugar, where the villain of the piece is a ruthless manipulator exploiting a vulnerable teenager for sex, this is not so simple. This perpetrator – who idolising the Svengali for the source book – is a lot more interested in control. Sex, it seems, is simply the icing on the cake. And, unfortunately, our Svengali-superfan is doing pretty well in the job as a coach. With chosen young player Trilby storming the major tournaments, nothing is questioned. Controlling behaviour that would set alarm bells ringing anywhere else is accepted as a normal part of the relationship between mentor and protege.

One thing the stood out for me is that unlike Ghislaine/Gabler and Sugar, nothing this coach does is anywhere near breaking any law I know of – but it is still the most morally repugnant thing imaginable. I wasn’t entirely wrong when I thought a victim-blaming narrative was being built up. Trilby might be destined for phenomenal stardom on the tennis courts, but if that’s got anything to do with being the chosen protege, the reason’s a distant third at best. It’s pretty obvious Svengali is more interested in how pretty she is … but more still, how vulnerable she is. She was previously in an unhealthy relationship a more assertive woman might have bailed on sooner – and one suspects the thinking here is that if she can stumble into one unhealthy relationship, she can stumble into another. (I do think one problem that is being underestimated is opportunist predators choosing their targets based on who has the lowest self-esteem – if that was the intention to flag this here, it did the job.)

Now for the bit where I think I may have interpreted it different to writer Eve Nicol’s intentions. After establishing Tylor is playing the perpetrator, for the next 20 minutes or so I assumed she was playing a woman married to another woman with an eye on other women. In fact, I think there were only a few words said by her character that unambiguously make him a man. Some reviewers call this a portrayal of male power, but I see this as taking gender out of it. Why does it matter? The controlling and coercive behaviour was equally plausible whether it was from a domineering man or a domineering woman. It is also equally appalling either way. If anything, what this play does is show just how much it comes down to who has the power, and what you have to do to get that power in the first place. Incidentally, whether or not the ambiguity was intentional, I liked it. Some reviewers have criticised the end of the play for indeterminably switching to Trilby narrating, and yes, it took me a couple of minutes to think “Wait, are we hearing Trilby’s story now … yes we are.” And I liked that experience, although I appreciate it might not work so well if this is your 12th play and your brain is running on empty.

When I looked up the original, a final thing occurred to me. In the original book, Trilby isn’t a tennis superstar, she’s a singer superstar – but the one discipline other than sports that is notorious for controlling relationships is the arts. Mentors can have a huge amount of power over proteges, and controlling behaviour that would set every red flag flying elsewhere are all to often accepted in the arts as artistic temperament. In this sports-based retelling, Svengali’s power over Trilby wanes as she become more and more popular with the crowds and he can no longer isolate her – and in the arts, Harvey Weinstein suffered a similar fate when his power waned. Did I pick up the message this play was supposed to? I don’t know. But it looks like this play gives you a lot to think about however you perceive it.

Wednesday 17th August:

Some more thoughts about Sadowitz

Right, time for an update on the Sadowitz affair, which is not going away any time soon. The more I read about this, the more I’m convinced that The Pleasance has handles this badly, and are still digging themselves into a deeper hole over this. It’s even leading to a rare bit of infighting with the Big Four. And whilst it’s a long way from being called censorship, it does raise some important questions about artistic freedom that the leadership of The Pleasance need to address.

Firstly, Jerry Sadowitz himself. In the interests of balance, I should report that he has written his own response. Read it for yourself if you want to make up your mind, but the defence of the objectionable content is “there’s a lot of silly exaggerated irony and nonsense, real fake and exaggerated bile”. I have to say, I’ve never really subscribed to the often-used defence of “he didn’t really mean it”. I personally don’t understand why we’re not focusing on shoving his nob at one particularly person, which is potentially a sex offence that no amount of humourous context excuses, but since no-one else is talking about that I’m debating this on everyone else’s terms. The reason I’m focusing on The Pleasance is that their actions have more consequences here. Unless you wish to argue that people who watch his skits proceed to go around committing hate crimes (which even the most ardent Sadowitz-haters are stopping short of claiming so far), his offensive routine has no bearing beyond the room it was in. The Pleasance’s response might.

The issue isn’t so much The Pleasance not consider this sort of humour welcome. As I had before, Jerry Sadowitz is a liability and I don’t blame any venue for wishing to have nothing to do with him. If you’re concerned about venues engaging in moral vetting, this is nothing compared to other venues – it’s very much an open secret, for example, that the programming in the main producing theatre back him is very much in line with the moral codes of the leaderships. What’s different is that The Pleasance cancelled a show they’d already booked. What’s more, they refused to say exactly which material was the problem. I get nervous when this happens – even if I’ve got a pretty good guess what it was. This sets the precedent that the venue is the sole arbiter of what is and isn’t permissible on stage and has the right to punish you retrospectively. What’s more, if they don’t even have to explain what is was you did wrong, you have no hope of defending yourself. How can stop yourself crossing the line if it’s a secret where the line is? Can we really be sure it’s going to end here? The hashtag hordes don’t always stop at grossly offensive material – sometimes they demand punishment for minor moral transgressions, or views they don’t agree with, or even opinions expressed by the artist several years ago that weren’t even in the performance. Does The Pleasance cancel acts in mid-run because it’s the right thing, or the easy thing? Do they bow to petty moral outrage and ignore worse material depending on who buys more tickets? Or has the bigger social media following?

Most importantly, The Pleasance needs a better explanation of why they booked Jerry Sadowtz in the first place if they consider him so objectionable. This didn’t totally come out of the blue, he’s been notorious for this sort of thing. The Pleasance’s explanation (as reported by The Stage) is: “We don’t vet the full content of acts in advance and while Jerry Sadowitz is a controversial comedian, we could not have known the specifics of his performance. The Pleasance has staged his work numerous times over the years, but as soon as we received complaints from those in the building which caused us great concern, we knew we could not allow the final performance to go ahead.” That is implying that they knew he would be shocking, but not as much as he was. However, having refused to give the specifics, I’m not sure I’m prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. If you knew what to expect, you should either admit the mistake’s on you and apologise, or stick to your guns in the face of complaints. If you didn’t know what to expect, you’re going to need a better explanation before I believe you.

The most charitable explanation I can think of is that the staff were about to mutiny and they forced The Pleasance’s hand. If the staff did that, it would be understandable. (There’s also complaints of abuse being directed by staff, but it’s unclear whether that was from Sadowtiz himself or from fans after the event was cancelled – even so, Sadowitz has made no attempt to tell fans not to behave like that.) That, I accept, would put The Pleasance in a difficult position. I don’t envy anyone in the position of damned if you do, damned if you don’t – but they should have seen this coming. They could have made it clear that marshalling controversial acts is part of you job from the outset. Or they could have brought in outside workers for these performances. Or they could have not programmed him in the first place.

So, I’m sorry Pleasance, but you are going to have to give a better explanation for what you’ve already given us. What exactly were you expecting when you programmed him? What did he do that went outside your expectations? If you were wrong to programme him in the first place, just say so – if not, what changed? It is in your interests to answer this to everyone’s satisfaction, because a lot of big-name comedians aren’t going to want to work with a venue who comes across as behaving like judge, jury and executioner. You’re better than this Pleasance. Please give us the answers we deserve.

Tuesday 16th August – Sugar:

Not so sugary

There are two things notable about Sugar. Whilst the fringe circuit has mostly moved on from the online programme pioneered over the last two years, some of the biggest successes have been remembered and brought back in person – it seems The Space’s efforts to be part of the temporary online programme have paid off in this regard. The other thing is that this is a prime example of why I think the current system of content warnings doesn’t work. Sugar contains subject material that I’m pretty sure some people really don’t want to relive, but it would not be possible to spell it out without giving away how this play goes. I am going to spell it out here because it’s not possible to review this without giving the theme, and on that note, please consider this your spoiler warning. If you have already decided you want to see this (and you’re comfortable with having anything thrown at you), stop reading now. (And for the way I think we should handle content warnings without acting as spoilers, come this way, for a solution with the unlikely inspiration of the joke website Does the Dog Die?)

The tagline of Sugar is “One Girl. Five Ages. Many Morally Ambiguous Life Choices.” Between the ages of 6 and 18, Mae (written and performed by Mabel Thomas) tells the stories of her madcap adventures in a sort-of hybrid of Just William and Derry Girls. Whether it’s her scheming at six years old to get the coveted raffle prize of a day with the headmaster in a fast food place, her foray into entrepreneurship at ten or her underhand tactic to boost her grade point average at 16, the story is kept light-hearted with warmth and humour. Until we reach 18½. The cheapest higher education she can find is impossible to afford. And her latest get-rich-quick scheme is to get a sugar daddy. I already have a bad feeling about this.

In a different play, I might question what the point was of the first five of these six chapters. Story-wise, they have little to do with what happens at the end. But that’s not really the point here. We are not building up a story, we are building up a character. Why is Mae embarking on something which is so obviously dangerous and she’s so obviously out of her depth? Because for the last twelve years of her life, she has built up a lot of misplaced confidence. It’s true that she’s got her way most of the time, but it’s a lot more down to luck than her ability to talk her way out of any trouble. But it’s not so much an overestimation of her own abilities, but an underestimation of what a big bad world it is out there. Until now, she’s lived in a relatively innocent and sheltered world where the stakes are low. In the world of sugar daddies and sugar babies she’s stepping into, there are people more ruthless, more amoral and more exploitative than anything Mae can imagine. Whatever petty lying and cheating she’s done up to now, she doesn’t deserve this.

There is one piece of subtext about this play I liked, and I’m not sure how much is deliberate and how much is accidental. There is the obvious question of how there is any justice in some awful people have incomprehensibly vast amounts of wealth. But the more subtle question is the attitude to people without the money. The only reason Mae is doing this is to get enough money to pay for a community college. As the girl from the poorest family at school, the safe and morally accepted route means no money, no higher education, and perhaps a lifetime of soul-crushing minimum wage jobs. Over here, there would be at least some protests over this situation, but in the leafier parts of Wisconsin, it’s just accepted as completely normal. Neither Mae nor anyone else questions this – it’s just the way it is, that’s that.

So yes, I must advise you that, contrary to what the title might imply, this play is a lot less sugary than the title and first two thirds may lead you to believe. This play has a lot to say, and it’s not just trap many plays fall into that Good Things and Good and Bad Things or Bad, but other less comfortable subjects about the dangers of naivety from a sheltered youth, and how some of the worst people out there can get away with some of the worst things. Recommended, but brace yourself for the final uncomfortable chapter.

Monday 15th August:

What’s starting in week 2

We’re now into week 2. Today and tomorrow a lot of full-run shows will be taking a day off. Don’t worry, fringe bingers – that’s more than enough on offer to make up a full day. You just might need to plan a bit more carefully if there’s someone specific you want to see.

As well as that, we have some new things starting this week. Unless otherwise noted, they run until the end of the fringe/ We have:

  • No-One from Akimbo Theatre. A physical theatre-heavy piece loosely inspired on The Invisible Man, but what it captures from the original it does well. This actually started yesterday, and has a short run until Saturday. 5.45 p.m, Zoo Playground.
  • The Bush, Alice Mary Cooper’s new play which I’m looking forward to, about the original fight for a green belt in Australia. Starts tomorrow, 3.00 p.m., Summerhall.
  • The Grandmothers Grimm, a play about the origins of stories before they ended up in the Grimms stories. To be fair, the originals were even more fucked up than the Grimms versions, but was the change entirely a good thing? Starts tomorrow, Greenside Riddle’s Court, 4.25 p.m.
  • How to Live a Jellicle Life: See the weird CGI version of everyone’s favourite felines brought to life by Linus Karp. Starts today, Greenside Ridde’s Court, 5.15 p.m.

And also, since I think I won’t get round to mentioning this separately in time, we also have a two shows running since week 1 that close in a few days. There is:

  • Head Girl. One of the plays from Durham Fringe, an energetic two hander about a schoolgirl desperately wanting to be Head Girl without really understanding why. Finishes Saturday, runs this week Space on the Mile, 10.55 a.m.
  • 1972: The Future of Sex: Another Durham-originated production. Bold move to take on such a difficult play perfected by The Wardrobe Ensemble, but I’m hearing good things from those who’ve seen it. The Space on North Bridge, finishes Saturday 1.20 p.m.

Have fun everyone. I’m next joining you on Sunday.

Sunday 14th August, 11.00 p.m. – Utter Mess!:

A clowning show for a change

And last up in my weekend catchup is another different things: a clowning productions. One of the reasons I picked this is that Stonecrabs is one of the most determined theatre companies to ask me for reviews, and with one of their productions somewhere I can see it I wanted to check this out. Stonecrabs is quite a large theatre company that do productions over sort of different genres, and this clowning piece is a joint production with Busu Theatre, a Japanese company primary specialising in folklore.

A pair a clowns: an older Japanese man and a younger European woman, start off getting the audience to do a warm-up. Any preconceptions this might be a jolly hour of custard pies and cars with wheels that might fall off are dispelled at the end of scene one, when the exciting message they’ve looked forward to seeing says “You’ve been drafted!” Yip-ee-yiy-ay! They are clowns after all. Then comes the “interval”, where the clowning stops and the older clown is informed that the board has decided to lay him off.

I do need to give a major caveat to this review: I am not that familiar with either clowning or Japanese folklore, so there may well be something I didn’t pick up that other people would. From the point of view of someone used to more conventional theatre though, it did feel a bit like this had “concept overload”. There were a lot of abstract concepts thrown in with subjects chopping and changing. The main theme, I picked up, was the two clowns being locked up the Musuem of Lost Things, and they cannot leave until they find what they have lost – not a physical object, but what they have lost in themselves. But I didn’t get what the younger clown constantly taking selfies for Instagram was about. Now, to be fair, I read about the meaning of this in the press release later, and it made more sense. But you can’t count on everybody going back to the press release when they’re stuck.

There are some strong points to the performance. The pair of clowns are both strong performers, and they certainly know their stuff with the loop pedal. I really liked the scene of the laid off clown seeing the annoying psychiatrist who keeps switching to the messenger from the boardroom telling him he’s lost in touch and other messages to talk him down. I guess that, ultimately, this is Stonecrabs’ call. If their target audience is people more used to clowning and/or Japanese folklore, and they’re confident they will pick this up, fair enough, carry on as you are. If, however, this is supposed to be accessible to everybody no matter how little they know of this format, that’s a much bigger challenge, and I don’t have any bright ideas here as this is way outside my field. But good luck either way. Runs until next Saturday at Greenside Infirmary Street if you want see for yourself.

Sunday 14th August, 12.00 p.m.:

The reduction in flyering

Now for a subject I’ve been meaning to get around to. There’s been a lot of talk about a “sustainable” fringe, and one thing that is in the firing line is flyers. I have to say, I’m a bit sceptical about the focus on visible aspects of an event – being seen to make a difference is not the same as actually making a difference. A pub that proudly flaunts is paper straws could still be wasting masses of plastic packaging in the back room, and no-one cares because it’s out of view. Nevertheless, there’s an awful lot of flyers handed round at Edinburgh and it’s worth questioning if this is really necessary. One company who’s made a big thing of this is Box Tale Soup.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The first thing I will say – and I’m sure Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers will agree with me here – is that what works for one group may not work for another. Box Tale Soup don’t need to flyer – they could probably have a got a tramp to sit on the Royal Mile holding up a piece of cardboard saying “BOX TALE SOUP HAVE A NEW PLAY” and still filled the house. However, what I think a lot of people are forgetting is that this form of publicity has little to do with a piece of paper and a lot to do with direct engagement between performers and prospective audience. The chance of somebody going to a show based on a flyer alone is low, but if you chat to someone about the play who later comes to see it, 80% of the work was done with the chat – the flyer is simply a reminder of the chat, with a note of where to go and when to see it. In theory, the QR code does the same job as the flyer – but I’m sure the small number of flyers handed out this way are negligible compared to all the other resources being burned up.

The practice that I think does need clamping down on is what I call “flyer-spamming”. The logic here is that the chance of getting someone to your show simply by handing out a flyer on the street as they walk past is low – maybe 1% or thereabouts. But if you hand out thousands of flyers, some of them will have success, and you can hand out a lot more flyers if you don’t bother to chat. Or – and this is the big problem – you can pay someone to hand out flyers for you. That way, you can scale up for flyering as much as you like, dishing masses of paper, and it might be low return per flyer but still (in theory) gets you an audience. I hate it myself – there’s few things more soulless than someone flyering who doesn’t care about the play and whose only connection is being paid to hand it out. And no, reciting a pitch by rote doesn’t make it any less soulless. Even if you don’t think this is a big deal environmentally, it places a big extra financial overhead on performing groups, as those who don’t want to hire extra flyerers feel obliged to keep up with those who do. Based on my observations so far, this seems to have been cut down on a lot, and it is a change for the better, maybe environmentally, definitely financially.

There’s other kinds kinds of flyering between these two – there’s piles of flyers in venues, and there’s flyering by venue staff. For reasons I don’t have space to go into, I’m okay with both of those. What I think is important is that we separate out the different kinds of flyering practices going on at the Edinburgh Fringe. The occasional flyer given out by people who are involved in the shows who care about them are not the same as paying for thousands of flyers to be handed out indiscriminately. I personally what we’re seeing at Edinburgh Fringe this year is about the right balance – but don’t obsess over this too much. There are less visible impacts on the environment that might need more attention. It would be a mistake to fall into the trap of performative environmentalism.

Sunday 14th August, 10.30 a.m. – Finlay and Joe, Perpetual Hype Machine:

A fun family-friendly hour of sketches

Okay, that’s enough shitstorm analysis for now. I must get back to reviews. I caught up with visit 1 yesterday, now it’s time for visit 2. I’m going to start with something I don’t normally review: sketch comedy. It’s not quite in my no-go area of stand-up but quite far removed from my normal area of theatre. However, it was what happened to fit into my schedule, and I like to occasionally explore outside my comfort zone, so here we go.

As it happens, this duo might be a sketch group, but they do overlap in theatre a lot. Their on-stage personas are a couple of losers who hear phrases such as “Oh, you’re still at the bar, good for you! I’ve just been promoted.” and “Still at you’re mum’s? That’s nice. I brought a house.” and ” Are you still single? So am I. However, I’m more attractive than you.” However, all that is about to change. They have a new machine that automates sketches. Just spin the wheel and away you go.

Finlay and Joe are a family-friendly sketch group, and it was only about half-way through I realised I was enjoying myself without hearing a rude work or anything risque once. (In fact, I’ve actually dragged down the done myself with the rude/Anglo-Saxon word at the start of this update.) It is fair to say that whilst the sketches are family-friendly, the humour is more likely to be picked up by grown-ups than children. Nevertheless, is was good fun, such as what happens when the engagement ring is the One Ring from The Lord of Rings, and how confusing it is to explain sentient engines to Mick Lynch as he visits the Island of Sodor. In the strongest sketches, the fun part is the moment you realise where this is going.

However, Finlay and Joe have taken a leaf of out Beasts‘ book, and the sketches eventually become part of a story – by creating a super-intelligent AI contraption, it becomes sentient and hell-bent on taking over the world. This, I think, could have been built up a little better – there was an argument over who gets the straight character and funny character in the sketches, but surely this need to be mixed in with increasingly sinister hints building up to the “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t let you do that” moment.

Fortunately, everything is resolved in the end, culminating in a super-sketch that encompasses at the other sketches. This includes giving a ten-pound note to someone earlier in the show and assuming you’ll get it back later, which I can only describe as brave. As I said, I’m not the best person to rate fringe sketch shows as I don’t have that many to compare it to, but this looks like a good start for a duo who are relative newbies to the comedy circuit on the fringe. Looking forward to seeing where they go next.

Saturday 13th August, 9.15 p.m.:

The war of words between Edfringe and venues calms down?

I’ll crack on with reviews tomorrow, once I’ve got my recovery day out of the way.

On the day of the unexpected shitstorm, it’s worth taking a look at what isn’t shitstorming. After the war of words amongst various venues over the Festival Fringe Society, it’s calmed down in week one and everybody’s just been getting on with things. In some respect, the Edinburgh Fringe has the precedent of the London Olympics counting in its favour; for all the sniping ahead of the games – and there were a lot of thing to argue over – they were swiftly forgotten when the games began. I don’t expect all the issue to go away here, but it might provide some breathing space to re-engage in constructive discussions for next year.

The thing might still be a problem is ticket sales. Should ticket sales across the fringe be particularly bad, expect there to be hell to pay for the Festival Fringe Society, whether or not this is actually the case. One observation that is being repeated all over the fringe (not just this one but also Brighton) is that there a a lot fewer presales and a lot more being bought on the day. As for overall sales, this is harder to gauge. My informal observations from the shows I’ve been in is that they’re about the same as pre-2020, but it varies enormously from show to show. Other observations I’ve heard so far have been similar, give or take a few details.

There are, however, reports of some shows struggling. At this stage, it’s unclear whether this is any better or worse than a normal year. I guess we’ll have to wait for sales figures at the end of the year to get an objective measurement. I would expect a modest shrinkage – the observations from Brighton and Buxton have been that audiences aren’t recovering as fast as participants. But if Edinburgh Fringe is hoping for an acceptable level of ticket sales, I’m cautiously optimistic it’s been achieved.

Saturday 13th August, 5.00 p.m.:

The Jerry Sadowitz business starts kicking off

Brace yourselves. New shitstorm approaching, and not one I was anticipating. The issue of censorship is back.

Amongst the hundreds of comedians lined up for the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s one called Jerry Sandowitz. He was due to perform last night and again tonight. An hour ago, he tweeted this:

But whilst I was writing up my thoughts on this, this came up. Scottish Sun, I’m afraid, but the article seems to keep to factual account of claims. This is probably an over-simplified accounts, but two things stand out. If these claims are true:

  • He used some, shall I say, “interesting” words to describe Rishi Sunak related to his ethnicity.
  • He exposed himself to a woman in the front row.

On point 1, I am reserving judgement. What he is alleged to have said is appalling, but freedom of speech means defending the right of other people to say things you loathe. Much as I hate it, the alternative is to give other people the power unilaterally censor you because they said you were offensive – and if you don’t think other people can’t find ways to twist your words if they want you silenced, you are very naive. Never underestimate the power of self-appointed people who get to decide what offence is. However, no-one is obliged to offer you a platform, and even in an open-access festival such as Edinburgh I would defend a venue’s right to steer clear of anyone who’s going to be a liability. What is less impressive is a venue cancelling a show in response to protests when you knew perfectly well what you were getting in the first place. That’s not standing by your principles, that’s flip-flopping depending on which crowd you want to appease this week.

This one pushes my patience to the limit. If The Pleasance knew exactly what he was going to say, my dispute would be with The Pleasance – you could take issue with The Pleasance for accepting that in the first place or attack the Pleasance for flip-flopping, but either way the fault would be with them. However, my reading of his publicity is that he has a reputation for being offensive and he might do anything – that’s a weak defence. Maybe the Pleasance should have been clearer over what they would and wouldn’t accept, but if it was me and I heard “I could do anything” I would probably assumed it wouldn’t include something like that. However, there may be details over who said what to whom when, and if this was the only issue I would have waited to see what comes out.

However, point 2 renders point 1 moot. I don’t care how many content warnings you give about what content to expect, waving your dick in from of someone is not acceptable. That’s not a matter of offence versus free speech – that’s verging on being a sex offence. Unless there was an express warning he was going to do that sort of thing, he should count himself lucky the Police weren’t involved. I would have done exactly the same thing if something like that happened in the venue I was responsible for.

So I reluctantly accept The Pleasance had no option but to boot him – but I’m not convinced about their reason. Apparently, they said “opinions such as those displayed on stage by Sadowitz are not acceptable and The Pleasance are not prepared to be associated with such material”. Hang on a second, what exactly is the issue here? Brandishing his dick at someone without her consent, or expressing opinions the management don’t agree with? Surely the first one is the bigger problem here? I accept The Pleasance had to get a statement out quickly, but they’re going to have to be more specific over what this is about. Sure, they did what they had to do, but does this mean they can retrospectively punish anyone they programmed for opinions – even when they knew what to expect when they booked you? I hope not – but it’s up to Pleasance to explain things better.

Saturday 13th August, 3.00 p.m. – Sandcastles:

Popular with audiences, but I don’t get it

I was keen for an opportunity to see Brite Theater as they were behind Emily Carding’s hugely popular Richard III. I never got to see this myself, and I wish I had because 1) I’ve heard a lot of good thigns about it from people who I know and trust, and 2) it features stickers saying “dead” applied to certain unlucky members of the audience. This one features a different writer and different actors, but, it would appear, shares the same high production values as previous plays. Like Ghislaine/Gabler, I think it’s fair to treat this one as a marmite play, with a concept that people will like or won’t. Unfortunately, on this occasion I’m on the other side.

Hannah tells Beth she’s moving to New York. Even though they are lifelong friends – even since the moment they met in the sandcastle park as children – Hannah never told Beth she was thinking of leaving. Throughout their friendship, Hannah has always been the risk-taker and Beth has been the cautious one arm-twisted into wild scheme, and even though Hannah frequently oversteps the line by stealing Beth’s boyfriends and other things, they stay friends. Hannah is finding her feet in New York, keeping little contact with Beth, but dies in a terrorist attack … That’s it. Normally I would hold something back, and in many plays I could not possible write about (or remember), but that’s the entire plot. When the first six minutes consists entirely of Hannah and Beth arguing over this unplanned decision and nothing else, the play swiftly fails the “Get on with it” test. The rest of the play unfolds at a similar slow pace.

That’s a pity, because everything else about the play is done to a high standard. At every point you feel like these two on stage really are the best of friends through thick and thin. The script too is naturalistic and serves the pair well. I was particularly impressed with the music for this – there has been an upturn across the fringes for supporting plays with fitting music to set the mood, and this was one of the best. But sadly none of this can distract me from the painfully slow pace of the story. Much as I have to say this, when the truck attack finally gets talked about – the moment when I ought to be hoping against hope the inevitable never comes – I was wait itching for something, anything, to move the plot along.

I know other people like this. If you want an in-depth intimate portrait of a friendship, and long digressions into memories that need not have any bearing to the story are a plus for you, this could be your think. Indeed, this play as attracted glowing reviews elsewhere for precisely this reason. But me? I don’t get it. Sorry.

Saturday 13th August, 10.30 a.m.:

Finishing in week 1

I meant to do this last night, but my stamina ran out halfway on this train.

Anyway, as we approach the end of week 1, some plays are coming to an end. Here’s a roundup of picks finishing soon:

  • Green Knight, a retelling of the story of Sir Gawain as told by Lady Bertilak. Saw it again yesterday, better than I remembered. Finishes Sunday, 5.00 p.m. Scottish Storytelling Centre.
  • Nychtophilia, a play set (mostly) in the dark with some cleverly executed writing and staging to go with it. Last performance today, 10.10 p.m., Greenside Infirmary Street.
  • Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show: Helps if you’re familiar with the original book, but the gender-flip used in this story has a different impact to what you might expect. Last performance today, 8.15 p.m., Zoo Playground.
  • Ghost Therapy: A fun play about a therapy session for ghosts, written to a surprisingly good standard for an 18-year-old writer. Two last performances today, 11.50 a.m. and 7.20 p.m., Zoo Playground.
  • The In-Laws: Mime piece with a down-to-earth storyline that gets very surrealistic very quickly. Half-hour of finely-constructed stagecraft. Last performances today, 11.05 p.m. and again at 11.40 p.m.
  • Take It Away, Cheryl: Play set in a kissing booth, except that Cheryl’s lucrative business actually doesn’t involve kissing, instead being a sort-of agony aunt for men. But can Cheryl ever put herself first? Last performance today, 5.30 p.m., Greenside Infirmary Street.
  • Late Night Dirty Scrabble, which is Scrabble with rude words. And if you don’t have a rude work, made one up. Or come up with a rude meaning for a normal word. Last performances today and tomorrow, 10.30 p.m., Gilded Balloon Teviot.

Join me later when we catch up with some more reviews.

Friday 12th August, 9.30 p.m. – Make-Up:

The rework pays off

I realise I’m still on reviews from visit 1 when I’ve just hopped on the train home from visit 2, but I will be posting multiple updates over this weekend and catch up.

For this next review, I must declare a conflict of interest. As you should have picked up by now, if I think a play has room for improvement, I will suggest how – and until now, that’s been the end of that. No Logo productions, however, have been keen to stressed to me that that have specifically acted on my feedback from this play what originally saw online for Brighton Fringe 2020. Under these circumstances, it is very tempting to say that the revised version is great and congratulate myself for giving such good feedback, but that temptation must be resisted at all costs. I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you believe me, but it is my honest opinion that this has changed the play for the better.

So, to recap from just under two years ago, Lady Christina, drag artists extraordinaire, is leaving the stage. In the dressing room, glamorous Christina undergoes the transition back to plain old humdrum Chris. Chris expresses some mild snark over these newcomers to the drag scene who think it’s a quick ticket to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. However, the day has arrived when Chris discovers he looks like his estranged father. The one who threw him out for being gay. The weak point with the original is that plays about a gay man and his relationship to a homophobic father are ten a penny. What stood to be interesting was the fantasy world of Christina, with her imagined father who was everything his real dad is not – but that was only an aside. It would be a lot more interesting, I thought, if we heard more about Chris’s alter ego. Clearly Lady Christina means more to Chris than a drag act – but what is it about her that’s so important?

Well, I can sort-of take credit for the idea (not full credit, I gather other people said similar things), but I can’t claim credit for the solution. Andy Moesley now works Lady Christina’s backstory (as imaged by Chris) throughout the play. At some points, Lady Christina’s life is completely different from reality, sometimes different from Chris’s family, other times different from Chris. At other times, however, Chris lifts his own life into Christina’s – every comeback he could have made against the bullies at school, how she won over the cool kids. I won’t tell you the best touch into how Christina came into being, though. That’s too close to the end, too much of a spoiler, but it does a lot to explain why Chris can never leave Christina behind.

I just have one small issue. There’s a slightly confusing lighting cue at the beginning of the play. The rectangle implies that Lady Christina is in the door of her dressing room, but if I have understood the text correctly, she’s still on stage addressing her fans. If that’s the case, I’d have though a spotlight would make more sense. Other than that, good job done. I will give a health warning here and advise that it doesn’t always pay to act on feedback given by a reviewer, not even me – if the reviewer doesn’t share your vision it will only make it worse. On this occasion, however, I’m very happy with the way it’s gone, so thanks a lot to No Logo for persuading me to give this another chance.

Friday 12th August, 3.30 p.m.:

The new virtual half-price ticket hut

I have now tried out the new-look Half Price Ticket “Hut”. I was going to tell you about it earlier, but earlier the internet went for no reason at all. But I can tell you about it now. The Edinburgh Fringe has got stick for a lot of things, but for once, this is a decision I support. In spite of everybody saying the Fringe has to change, there’s been a lot of calls to keep things the same, and this one I think doesn’t make sense to stay the same.

The Half Price Ticket Hut is an unusual part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Most things need to be made quick and easy, but the Half Price Ticket Hut needs, by design, to be just the right level of inconvenient. Make it as easy as buying a normal ticket, and everyone’s going to buy the half-price tickets instead and your box office income halves for the day. Make it too difficult and nobody uses it. What you ideally want is a method of sale that people looking for a bargain will use, but people who would see your play anyway won’t. Until 2019, that meant a jaunt to the bespoke Half Price Ticket Hut on Princes Street.

The Festival Fringe Society says the prefabs used for the physical hut are at their end of life and they can’t afford to replace it. Maybe that’s true, maybe the real reason is cutting down on the cost of staffing two different ticket offices. But the more important point, I think, is that ticket buying has changed. E-tickets, rolled out for an emergency, have become permanent, and I’m willing to bet that most people aren’t switching back from online tickets. With half-price listings (if I recall correctly) already available online, I’m not sure it’s worth going out of your way to show the listing on a noticeboard too.

So I tried this out myself and it all went smoothly. The only hiccup is that I couldn’t remember how to spell the show I’d chosen to see, and with no mobile reception in the ticket office it was impossible to look it up. Maybe the fringe Box Office staff need access to the same list on the website to cover this situation – and if people ask what’s on sale at half price, we can live with that. There is one other caveat: I got my ticket first thing in the morning as the box office open. I know that historicially the central Fringe box office was notorious for long queue times. This may well have changed with the rise of online sales, but if it hasn’t, this might push the half-price system from “right amount of inconvenience” to “unworkable”. Let me know what your observations are.

Finally, just a reminder that you shouldn’t write off plays just because they’re on sale at half price. You’d be forgiven for assuming that if they’re reduced, they’re having trouble selling tickets, and therefore the play can’t be that good. However, my long experience is that plays on half-price tickets are just as likely to be good or bad as regular tickets. Indeed, the promising-looking play I brought a ticket for did not disappoint.

But on the whole, I don’t see merging two box offices into one as a big deal, especially when in-person sales are not nearly as important as they used to be. So move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

Friday 12th August, 8.00 a.m. – Ghislaine/Gabler:

An insight into the mind of a predator who blames anyone but herself

On my way back for a day visit. Later today I will be doing my first “lucky dip” chosen by what’s in the half-price ticket (virtual) hut. Before then, let’s use the time to catch up with reviews from last week.

Now for one of the wildcards I’d listed in my picks and one of the riskiest. Once of the big news stories at the start of the year was the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, now proven is Jeffrey Epstein’s number one accomplice. But whilst it’s easy to guess what made Epstein do what she did, there is the puzzle over Ghislaine. Why did she do it? She certainly had far from a normal childhood – a controlling father and children competing to be his favourite, (something that she finally succeeded in doing) – but how do get from that to chief conspirator for a systemic abuser?

Obvious caveat before we proceed: this is a play, not a documentary. The only person who might know what is going through Ghislaine Maxwell’s head is Ghislaine Maxwell – this is only speculation of what she might be thinking. Nevertheless, Kristin Winters’ depiction is one that has been observed in countless abusers and sex offenders: they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. They may deny doing what they’re accused of, but even then they don’t really think the thing they were accused of doing is that bad. At this point I should give a content warning for the play. I know I’ve been getting heavy on content warnings lately – I try to avoid them when it’s obvious from the title, but this one is pretty full-on with the victim-blaming. Sometimes Winters switches to playing the victims – little about the abuse itself but a heavy focus on the exploitation of their naivety. Back as Ghislaine, she insists she was doing all these teenage girls a favour when she did all the things she denies doing but obviously did.

How does Hedda Gabler fit into this? It’s only a small part of the performance, and you could probably have run the rest of the play without this bit. Nevertheless, on the occasions this parallel is used, the gamble works. In this depiction, Ghislaine admires Hedda Gabler – but for all the wrong reasons. Hedda shows her true colours as the play goes on over how much of a controlling individual she is and that she can’t help herself, perhaps a rationalisation of her like-minded father. The one exception she insists on is that the Maxwells don’t give in. They don’t commit suicide, so it must have been murdered – but Ghislaine only reveals the level of delusion she shares with her fictional role model.

I think it’s fair to say this is going to be a Marmite play. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with the way this subject material is portrayed, essential though it is to the concept. The parallel to Hedda Gabler is a wild idea which I suspect is going to split opinion. If this isn’t the sort of thing you want to see, I don’t blame you. But see it if you can. Many plays are fast to condemn the worst things that happen in the word, but few try to understand.

Thursday 11th August – Death of a Disco Dancer:

Technical excellence, but would benefit from better characterisation

That’s enough ranting, let’s get back to reviews. Next up, a play that concludes on Saturday.

In Death of a Disco Dancer, four friends, newly-graduated from university, get together for one last party. This final party, it quickly emerges, involves, dancing, playing loud music, drinking a lot and taking all manner of drugs. It’s a wonder they don’t attract any noise complaints for the neighbours, but perhaps they have good taste with their bangin’ choons no-one minds. The drinking and drug-taking is taking its toll though. At least one of this cozy foursome never has the death of his father far away on his minds, and there’s only so far anyone can keep this up.

The first thing I will say about this is how good the sound and lighting plot it. In fact, this applies to lots of fringe shows now, from entry-level to the highest budget. The technological capabilities to have sound and lighting plots this sophisticated have existed for at least ten years now, but expertise has been slow to catch up. I have frequently cursed when I see simple technical problems that could have easily been averted with a little technical know-how. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve seen companies get a lot more ambitious, with people who know what they’re doing, know what can and can’t be achieved, and produce impressive results with what they have. Ultraviolet Theatre have produced one of the best technical plots I’ve seen, covering music, sounds, gorgeous lighting, and – the important thing that’s easy to forget – a production that knows how to work with this.

However, the exquisite staging conceals some weaknesses with the plot. I get that these four friends are presumably close through their shared love of hedonism and debauchery, but apart from that I never really understood why they behaved as they did. In particular, why one of them suddenly turn on the others half-way through and rail against the shallowness of their parties? Okay, he’s got a steady job so maybe he’s seeing things differently, but why change tune so suddenly when he’s been just as drink and drunk-addled as the others up to this point? The root problem, I suspect, is that the characterisation isn’t coming across the way it should do. This company may have very good reasons why each of the four behaves like they do, when they do – but if the audience doesn’t pick this up, it counts for nothing and just confuses people.

The even more root issue? Devised theatre is hard. Individual character arcs created by individual cast members sometimes get confusing and/or contradictory when combined into the same play. It is this sort of situations where it helps to have a dramaturg, but that is a minefield in its own right, for sometimes a good dramaturg has to ditch the favourite story arc created by one of the actors for the play to make sense. All I can suggest is to try to disregard everything you know about the play and its characters and try to imagine what an audience who knows nothing about this story will pick up – and I realise this is easier said than done. But if, as I suspect, there is more to this story than is coming across, there is a lot of potential still to be unlocked. And with the technical plot that is top of its game, there’s a lot to be made of this.

Wednesday 10th August:

Yet another drama school overrun by gropers?

But now, it’s time for a pause from Edinburgh Fringe coverage. This live coverage isn’t just for the fringe, it’s also for any other big news relevant to the theatre I cover. I apologise to those of you who regularly read my blog who will notice me flogging a dead horse and saying the same things over and over again. But my peak readership comes at Edinburgh Fringe so I can’t let this pass.

The big theatre news a few weeks back was the sudden closure of the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts – so sudden that students turned up one day to find the building was locked. At the moment, the majority of complaints in the arts concerning sexual harassment or racism seem to involve drama schools, but this one seemed to be down to crap financial management (albeit something the law looks on very dimly if they were trading whilst insolvent*). Now, according to The Stage, there were allegations of sexual and harassment at this one too, with the management at the time yet again allegedly to not take this seriously. I must stress these are currently only allegations, and the former principal implicated in overseeing this denies wrongdoing. In my experience, these allegations get proven true a lot more than they’re proven false, but I’m not really interested in the merits of the allegations over one particular venue. I’m far more concerned at the sheer number of times these allegations are coming up – and the sheer number of times the rests of the arts industry shrugs their shoulders and does bugger all about it.

* Footnote: I should add that this is the one thing where it now look like management are off the hook. By reporting their financial difficulties to the Office for Students five months before closure, they probably have enough of a defence to say that their financial activities were in line with what the OFS said was okay. Whether the OFS’s guidance was reasonable is another debate, but unless somebody knows something I don’t, it gets them off the most serious charge of concealing the true state of the finances.

These sorts of complaints don’t always involve drama schools, but a hell of a lot of them do. I don’t believe this is a coincidence. There is an old saying that the greatest power an actor has is to say no, and whilst that’s a massive over-simplification, it’s very relevant here. Even when directors and producers with a track record of abuse are never held to account, the actors who used to work with them before won’t work with them again, and – with the exception of the most powerful individuals – word gets round to future actors who think twice before signing. Drama school students do not have that luxury. If you discover what your teachers are really like, you’re stuck with them for months or years. They have the power to mark you down, maybe end your career before it’s started. Furthermore, whilst more experienced actors probably have some idea of what is and isn’t acceptable, it’s far too easy to pass off predatory or bigoted actions to drama students as normal behaviour. The only sort-of comforting news from ALRA is that there’s a distinct possibility that tolerating this sort of behaviour may have let to eventual financial meltdown. If morals isn’t enough to make you stand up to abusers, perhaps the prospect of closure will.

Why are theatres up and down the country not up in arms about this? The moral high ground taken by theatres in the wake of Weinstein gets hollower and hollower every time a scandal such as this goes unacknowledged by them. In retrospect, the stance increasingly looks like the cowardly one used by so many people. Yes, groping and bigotry is a Bad Thing™, but it is done by the Bad People™ who are Over There™, and Nothing To Do With Us™. Sorry, but this isn’t good enough. You fail the victims when you cosy up to organisations when the going’s good and fall silent when the truth comes out. You fail the victims when they fear speaking out will get the kicked out the arts and you say nothing to indicate the opposite. You fail the victims when you go along with the discredited status quo that arts organisations can be trusted to police themselves and needn’t be held to account. And no, commissioning plays to say why the Bad Thing™ is bad is not an acceptable substitute for taking responsibility, and does not in itself put you amongst the Good People™.

I apologise for interrupting Edinburgh Fringe’s coverage with a rant like this, but if you are somebody with the power do to do something about this, I’m begging you to do so. Major theatres would do so much good telling drama students whose side they’re on. Make it clear that no working relationship, however valuable, is worth turning blind eye to things. Give an assurance that you will never refuse to hire an actor for speaking out against another organisation. That’s the easy bit – whether people trust you to practice what you preach is the hard bit, but at least try. Everyone else – if you know people with the power to change things for the better, please talk to them. I can’t do this as a one-man crusade. It’s going to be a lot easier if I’m one of many saying the same thing.

Okay, rant over. Back to news, review, spicy bantz and memes tomorrow.

Tuesday 9th August – An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe:

The companion play to Vermin does not disappoint

Triptych Theatre impressed we the Brighton Fringe with Vermin. That was one of two plays; the other one I couldn’t catch owning to timings, but I was keen to see the other one. One of the first things I noticed as the play begin was that most people in the audience – possibly everyone but me – was seeing this as a comedy, as socially awkward Stuart takes to the stage. In spite of the title, he is possibly the least prepared person for any audience. Nor does it help that the techie seems to miss most of the cues.

I wasn’t laughing though. Not because of the delivery, but because of what I just knew was coming. For a start, with this being the same writer as the dark-as-hell Vermin with its graphic descriptions of animal cruelty (not to mention playing the nutjob-in-chief himself), I knew something bad was coming. Even if I hadn’t know that, though, I probably would have guessed. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that not only is Stuart unsuited the stage and doesn’t really want to do it, there’s no way he should be forced to do this. Instead, it’s his pushy mother making him do this. For another thing, Stuart has a rare medical condition with his blood, but to be honest, that’s not his real problem. Stuart is very naive and trusting. I know from bitter experience what this leads to.

Benny Ainsworth’s writing of both plays shows just how good he is at characterisation. If Vermin writes a believable character guilty of some of the worst things, Stuart is written as the archetypal innocent. He assumes that the correct way to answer a question about density of water is to ask if it’s solid or liquid, not understanding the science teacher is an arrogant egotists who hates anyone putting a foot out of place. Stuart’s mother is a nuanced character, and whilst I can’t quite let her off the hook for keeping her child under her thumb, she still cares for her son and wants what she believes is best for him. Even when things happen that would be dismissed as far-fetched, Ainsworth finds a way to make it plausible.

There is just one thing about the story which doesn’t quite work. Much of the story surrounds his first love Daisy, who understands him the way the rest of the school doesn’t. Trying my hardest to not to do a spoiler, Stuart and Daisy both separately get mixed up in something worse that overbearing parents or arrogant teachers. I can easily see why Stuart would have fallen for it, but I found it hard to believe that level-headed Daisy would have fallen for it too. I can’t see any easy way of making this plot point more believable, but it was a shame to have this weak point amongst such good characterisation.

That’s the only criticism I have amongst two excellent plays though. This is truly is an achievement. I’ve seen groups come out of nowhere with one excellent play, but two excellent pays on the first attempt is very impressive. I highly recommend catching both – this one at 10.55 a.m at Zoo Playground, with Vermin at 1.00 p.m. at Gilded Balloon Teviot. But know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Monday 8th August:

The two fundamental mistakes made by the Festival Fringe Society

First of all, another housekeeping announcement. My next visit to Edinburgh is a day visit on Friday 12th. This is going to be mostly mopping up things that didn’t fit in last week, but there may be opportunities for new reviews. Will draw up a plan tomorrow. Before I write any more reviews though, it’s time for the hot take I promised. Here’s what I think are the two fundamental mistakes the Festival Fringe society made this year. One is uncontentious; the other one might lose me a few friends.

The first mistake I believe was made this year was over management of expectations. I doubt many people will argue over this now. Even the Festival Fringe Society themselves must realise this. With the exception of the silly decision over media support, all of the controversial things attributable to the Festival Fringe Society were down to money. Why is Fringe Central out of the way in a shopping centre? They were giving the space away for free. Why is there no physical half-price ticket hut? The old one is falling to bits, can’t afford to build a new one. Why is there no app? Lack of money (plus a miscalculation on how high the priority was for many people). Most of the bailout money, the festival fringe society said, went into keeping the society afloat (and I don’t believe for a moment they could tell porkies about that without their funders going over the accounts and finding out). It was simply not possible for Edinburgh Fringe 2022 to run on the same level of central fringe services as Edinburgh Fringe 2019.

The problem is, they should have said that months ago. True, no promises have actually been broken – the Festival Fringe Society never said there would be an app, for example. But the fact remains everybody assumed that everything that was part of the fringe in before times would still be there, and many people registered on that assumption. There wouldn’t have been nearly so many arguments if the Festival Fringe Society has been clear from the outset not to expect something in 2022 just because it was around in 2019. One side effect might have been some acts deciding it wasn’t worth taking part after all. Well, good. There’s far too much demand on accommodation playing into the hands of greedy landlords, let’s take the pressure off a bit and get costs down to something saner. The downside? Fewer registrations means less cash flow to keep the Festival Fringe Society afloat. They may have to downsize, maybe even make redundancies. I sympathise – but everyone’s job is in a lot more trouble now. Yes, I’m saying this with the benefit of hindsight, but still, wrong call.

The second mistake might be more controversial. In my opinion, the biggest error of judgement made by the Festival Fringe Society was to bend over backwards for the Big Four. The 2021 fringe happened because of the Festival Fringe Society making a last-ditch bit for financial support, but the lion’s share of the support went to the Big Four. And, okay, that was an emergency, they had to do something quickly, but that excuse doesn’t hold into 2022. Many of the unpopular decisions were optimised to the benefit the Big Four and the acts performing there. As I’ve already said, subsidising national newspaper journalists (who are notorious for never leaving to swankiest venues) suits high-profile acts in high-profile places, but is of little help to the cheap venues. The cuts to Fringe Central and the app disproportionately hit the acts in the smaller venues – the Big Four have their own marketing and performer support and needn’t worry as much. I find it difficult to believe the Big Four didn’t have a hand steering things in their favour.

Which might have been okay if the Festival Fringe Society and Big Four stood shoulder to shoulder to defend their position. Instead, the Big Four have been mostly joining in with the dogpiling. With one honourable exception (The Pleasance on their press launch), the Big Four seemingly want you to believe all the unpopular decisions adversely affect acts mostly at other venues was entirely the Festival Fringe Society’s doing and not in the slightest bit to do with them. Sorry, but I’m not buying this, I don’t believe you can duck all responsibility for this. And after the Festival Fringe Society moving heaven and earth to get the Big Four running in 2021 (and barely anyone else), this comes across as sounding like a bunch of ungrateful tossers.

The complaints from the smaller venues and the acts that perform there are valid. They have perfectly legitimate reasons to be angry. But it seems to me like there’s no pleasing three quarters of the Big Four. It might already be too late for the Festival Fringe Society to change its priorities, but you should be extremely suspicious of venues who should be sharing responsibility leaping on a convenient scapegoat.

Rant over. Let the flame war begin.

Sunday 7th August, 10.45 p.m. – Take It Away, Cheryl:

Kissing booth or agony aunt?

This final review is later than I planned because it’s taken me time to get home. I knew evening buses in Durham were shite, but I’ve just found out the service level on Sunday is even shiter. Anyway, here we are. Time for one last review before bed.

In this play, Cheryl welcome you to her kissing booth. If you are the audience member who’s sitting on a dime, you can place it into the coin slot to activate the booth. But before you get too excited, Cheryl’s kissing booth does not actually offer kisses any more. She inherited the business from her family and now her service is to listen to the problems of men. And she’s pretty good at this. And – just like some men who hire prostitutes discover they’d rather sit and talk rather than have sex – this service is proving very popular.

Actually, this is only half the story. There is another plot thread not advertised anywhere that feeds into this not that far into the play, but I think it is possible to to review this without giving the game away. What I think I can safely say is that, even with the new unexpected theme coming in, the central theme holds, which is that Cheryl spends so much time listening to any trying to solve other people’s problems, she doesn’t take enough time for herself. The one thing she is desperate to do today is lay flowers on the grave of the love of her life who shot himself – one might suspect the reason she’s so invested in solving other people’s problems is to compensate for the man she couldn’t save.

There is one thing I would change about this. For the second time in as many days, I’m going to suggest that a solo play would work better as a two-hander. It’s not crying out for this quite as strongly as Morecambe, but a lot of this story sounds like a visit from someone not like the others. One problem with being an agony aunt in a booth advertised as a kissing booth is that some of these losers mistake listening for feelings, which she normally knows how to deal with. Unfortunately, this particular man is a bit of a nutcase. The problem is that is lengthy conversations she has with a voice makes the play go static. My hunch is that we need to see him on stage to really see him for the unstable man he is. After he departs (people who’ve seen it don’t spoil it), I’m sure the plot at the end could be tweaked to give him a role one way or another.

I’ve refrained from giving away the unexpected direction in the plot and I won’t tell you now, except to say that this may increasingly take over the plot as we reach the climax, but it does not lose sight of the central theme: can Cheryl ever choose herself for a change? Worth a visit, and runs until Saturday 13th at Greenside Infirmary Street, 5.20 p.m.

Sunday 7th August, 6.15 p.m.:

Has signage in venues got worse?

I am on the train home. For those of you familiar with my coverage, you will know that it slows down when I’m away from Edinburgh and I have a day job to do. For this reason, I will be prioritising the plays on short runs next. I want those that finish on the 13th to have a reasonable amount of runs remaining if they wish to make use of my reviews.

Before then, I want to make a brief observations. It’s not a big deal compared to all the other things causing outrage, but no-one else seems to be picking up on this.

For some reason, signage within venues seems to have got particularly bad this year. There was a time where you could turn up to a venue, see what is on today on a board, see which space your chosen show is in, and from there know exactly where to go and which queue to join. This year, most of the venues I’ve seen is missing at least one of those things. I’ve seen listings for evening shows with no idea where listings for afternoon shows are, listings across all of Pleasance when I want to know which venue to go to, and in Underbelly Cowgate not be able to see signs to any of these spaces. Yes, I’m reputed to have a good memory for fringe plays, but my skills to not extend to knowing off by heart the name and location of dozens on individual spaces within major venues. (I’m aware the e-tickets now say which individual space you’re going to, but e-tickets are clumsy to dig out and certainly don’t help you with finding the space you’re after.)

I apologise for getting on my software tester high horse again, but this is something that I think could benefit from usability testing. I’m aware this isn’t software but the principle is the same: just as the Edinburgh Fringe website is designed by people who assume everybody knows how to navigate the website, signs in fringe venues seem to be designed by people who already know their way round the venue and assume everyone else will pick it up just like that.

In this case, testing would entail getting some volunteers who know little about the venue to be sent in with a ticket for a show. Don’t prompt them, don’t guide them, just leave them to their own devices and see if the information you have laid out is enough to get them there. One principle of software usability testing that applies here: if your volunteers are making mildly snarky comments, that is you warning that things aren’t working as well as you hoped. Learn from your mistakes and try again.

Anyway, that’s me passed Morpeth. I am in a rehearsal for another play this evening (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment); I’ll try to get another review in before bed.

Sunday 7th August, 5.45 p.m. – Fabulett 1933:

A solo musical about the Nazi crackdown on gay-friendly clubs in Berlin

Welcome back. That was another three plays seen in quick succession. Scores on the doors: 4 review written so far, 6 pending. Let’s get moving.

So next up is Fabulett 1933, set on the closing night of the Fabulett Nightclub, Berlin. Between the two World Wars, Berlin enjoyed a spell as the hedonistic capital of Europe. Needless to say, the new government in Berlin is not at all keen on This Sort Of Thing and has ordered the closure of all dens that “promote immorality”. For Fabulett’s, there’s no wriggle room, for the emcee Felix is dressed in an outfit that makes The Rocky Horror Show look like Andy Pandy. Which, I must stress, is perfectly fine if you like that sort of thing, but try telling that to the Nazis.

Fabulett 1933 is performed as a one-person musical, somewhat fitting for the host Michael Trauffer) presiding over the defiant closure at 10 p.m. Felix’s own story is of a youth demobbed after the Germany’s defeat; faced with the choice of returning to his authoritarian father or more tolerant Berlin, he opts for the latter. When he loses his more understanding mother – his relationship with her one of the most touching bits of the play – Fabulett’s becomes his only life. As well as the brief period of hedonism in Berlin, the other thing portrayed knowledgeably was the rise of convention defying science from people such as Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the first researchers of transgenderism. We know his work is going to suffer a similar fate to Fabulett’s.

Where I think this play could have said more is on the rise of the Nazis. In this production, the Nazis are portrayed as something that people should have seen coming and suddenly they were there. I wonder if that’s all the story though. One thing that I Am a Camera portrayed so well (something that wasn’t in either the stage or film versions of the musical) was that the Nazis didn’t gain a foothold with Jew-hatred just because of what some demagogues on podiums were says – it was when ordinary people going about their lives started saying the same thing. Did a similar thing happen for gay people? Did people who used to ignore them suddenly see them as the root of all immorality? Because that’s too good a chapter of the story to miss if it was.

One small thing I’d say on a technical note is I’d dispense with the headset mic. I’ve seen those little buggers in action often enough to know they’re notoriously unreliable. When your songs are prone to being disrupted this much, they easiest solution is to just not bother and rebalance the piano to work with acoustic vocals – and in a small space like this one it shouldn’t be too hard. On the whole, however, this was an enjoyable and informative performance. Runs to the 13th at The Space Triplex at 8.55 p.m., and then runs for the est the Fringe at Surgeon’s Hall.

Sunday 7th August, 10.15 p.m.:

Press launch at The Space

Now that I have my seven-show day out of the way, I can turn my attention back to The Space’s press launch on Friday, which I was invited to. For those who don’t know how this works, in Edinburgh all the major venues have their own press launches, with most of them having excerpts from shows in their programme.

Space fringe launchI only starting getting invited to their launch in 2021 (I have previously been invited to launches but not been there on the right day), so I don’t have any pre-Covid launches to compare this too, but this looks pretty good. This needs to be treated with some caution – it is in the interest of all the venues to pick their absolute best acts to showcase and don’t say much about the rest of the programme – but what I saw seemed impressive. Out of all of these, UK Underdog interested me the most: a story which seems to combine every form of racism with the gladiatorial culture of a rough secondary school. I must try to catch this.

I’ve been wondering for the last couple of years which way The Space will go. Prior to 2020, The Space did have some notoriety. Unlike most venues, that curate to some extent, The Space works on a first come first served basis. The good news is that The Space performs a vital function on keeping the fringe open. The bad news is that there’s a lot of terrible plays that end up at The Space because no-one else will take them.

The standard I saw at The Space last year, however, was pretty decent. Part of the reason, I presume, was that last year, we had the Big Four, The Space, and very little in between, and so The Space took many acts that otherwise would have gone to places such as Greenside and Zoo. This year, Greenside and Zoo are back. However, other mid-tier venues such as Sweet and Bedlam haven’t come back for 2022. C Venues is around, but only on a small scale, having not escaped the spotlight over working conditions.

What I’ve seen so far at The Space seems fairly decent too. Treat my observations with caution, because I am only working on a small sample, but The Space might be emerging as a winner of post-Covid fringe.

Sunday 7th August, 12.15 a.m. – Gulliver:

Box Tale Soup’s best play yet

Sorry about the gap in coverage – it was full-on seeing four more shows back to back, of of which was Dirty Scrabble where I was in Dicktionary Corner assuming the character of a sleazy version of Richard Osman. Oh well, that’s my reputation as a serious theatre maker in tatters.

But I am not going go to bed until we get this exciting announcement out of the way. Here we are. We’ve only had to wait until my second day for this is happen, but for Box Tale Soup it’s been a longer wait. But it’s about time they got my highest accolade, equivalent to five stars,

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

I expected Jonanthan Swift’s famous story to be ideal for Box Tale Soup to take on – after all, you have to take on the challenge of tiny people in Lilliput and gigantic people in Brobdingnag somehow, and puppetry is the logical way to do it. However, Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers have had years of practice and several previous productions to hone their craft, and it pays off handsomely.

adriftWhat you see on stage is a playbook of everything crafted to perfection. The obvious choice of the tiny people of Lilliput is puppets, and as any accomplished puppeteer knows, it is possible to keep the focus on a puppet but still make the puppeteer part for the action. All of the cast of three operate puppets at some point, and it always pays to apply the facial expression of the puppet you’re operating. However, Box Tale Soup are very versatile and masterfully switch between Lilliputians played by puppets and the actors playing the Lilliputians themselves. When the land of giants comes, the obvious choice is to make Gulliver the puppet himself, but not always. When a human-size Gulliver views is first giant – well, I won’t spoil that for you, but let’s just say the set of the doomed ship used at the beginning of the play has all shorts of uses through the hour.

No amount of clever puppetry, though, compensates for a misunderstood story. Here, again, Clarke and Christophers deliver handsomely. In all four of the strange lands visited (for this adaptation does include the lesser-told chapters of the flying island and the land where horses are masters), the politics are reflections of human society, commentating on just about every acts of vanity, cruelty, vindictiveness, prejudice and arrogance known to man. The Lulliputians, for instance, are at war with their neighbours over a stupid dispute on the correct way to open an egg. (We, of course, know the correct thing to fight centuries of war over is who got the details correct in a story of a magic baby and a stable.) It’s not just the shortcomings of these other lands that is brought to bear – Gulliver find the vales of the continent he came from challenged just as much. The common theme brought throughout this is all civilisations thinks they’re better than the others. Even the Houyhnhnms – the horse beings seemingly the most enlightened of all the beings he encountered – always look down on Gulliver is inferior to them.

It’s a challenge to bring four separate stories together in an hour, but the script chooses what matters perfectly. Everything about this production is flawless, from the choreography to the sound, to the pace to the puppetry, and if I was to wax lyrical about every inventive acts I would never finish this review. I am used to Box Tale soup producing high-quality shows in their unique style, but this time they have excelled themselves. I thoroughly recommend this to everyone, and you can catch them at 10.50 a.m. at Underbelly Cowgate from now to the end of the fringe.

And with this exciting news broken, it’s now time for bed.

Saturday 6th August, 5.00 p.m. – The In-Laws:

Top-notch mime comedy

Now we go over to something from the Comedy section. Like a lot of my favourites, though, The In-Laws straddles multiple categories, and could just have been under physical theatre or theatre.

Tim Ogborne plays a may who starts off his day in the office. He starts with multiple failed attempts to log into his computer. A lesser performer would have taken as easier route and said “Come on, take the bloody password,” but his this performance Ogborne keeps in perfect synchronisation to a soundtrack, reacting both to fruitless and fruitless attempt to type a login, and the look of frustration syncs every time we hear the inevitable login failed sounds. The good news is that he finally makes it in, but the bad news is that his girlfriend phones him up to remind him that tonight she’s introducing him to her parents.

In performer Tim Ogborne’s own words “This one-man show breathes new life into the form of mime, blending tightly rehearsed choreography with a meticulously created soundscape.” I wouldn’t normally quote a blurb verbatim, but I couldn’t have done it better myself. It’s becoming increasingly common to craft action round soundscape, but it’s obvious from the outset he does this much better than most of his peers. The battle with the login prompt is just the beginning, with the rest of the action from the day in the office to an awkward meeting with the overbearing parents to the death-defying chase and showdown with future father-in-law.

The only flaw I have to pick out is the transition I’ve just mentioned. One moment we’ve got a relatable awkward meet-the-parents moment, the next moment future father-in-law is trying to kill him, reason unclear. As far as I can tell, our hero went to the bathroom and discovered a secret passage and saw something he wasn’t supposed to see, but I fear there is an important detail there I didn’t pick up. But it doesn’t matter too much. This story isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously, and it’s a lot of fun to watch with a lot of skill needed to put this together. At 30 minutes this is on the short side for fringe performances, but it’s the ideal length for this. This runs until the 13th at Greenside Infirmary at 11.05 p.m. with extra performances at 11.40 on Friday and Saturday. Recommended as you’ll see nothing like this.

Saturday 6th August, 3.00 p.m.:

Why subsidising the national press is a mistake

Right now meet the media is going on. I’m not at this, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t be much use there (with almost all my reviews decided on press releases in advance), but I didn’t miss the drama about Broadway Baby pulling out in advance. This is in protest over the Festival Fringe society’s decision to provide accommodation to high-profile publications (namely The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Evening Standard, I-newspaper, Beyond the Joke, The Stage, The Observer and The Sunday Times), but not the smaller publications. Cue outrage from the bespoke ones who do nothing but review fringe. Whilst Broadway Baby is the only one to make a gesture this noisy, other publications have backed up the reason they’re protesting.

I think the decision to support the larger media publications is a mistake, but for nuanced reasons.

First of all, apologies if this annoys any colleagues, but Edinburgh Fringe owes the media nothing. Yes, The Wee Review and Broadway Baby and many other publications do the fringe a favour by working for free and at their own expense, but the same can be said of most performance, many of whom invest a lot more for even less reward. There is one reason and one reason only that the Festival Fringe Society should consider any form of help to the media, and that’s if it benefits the acts who are registered with them.

The smaller publications and the bigger newspapers perform different functions. For the smaller publications such as Broadway Baby, this gives countless smaller groups the chance to get a review that they wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting from the big players. Reviews are not the be an and end all, but the difference between zero reviews and one reviews for many acts is a significant one. It may be your only chance at constructive feedback for the future. It may be your only way of being taken seriously back home. If you start the fringe in a strong position, however, that’s when newspapers such as The Times and Guardian come into play. That might get you into the big time. So there is a case to support all of these.

At this moment in time, however, this is the wrong priority. Subsidy for the big publications is a great deal of help, but only for the small number of acts in a position to get their attention. At this moment in time, I think we should be prioritising what helps the most acts. In other words, it is comes to a choice between The Guardian or Broadway Baby, pick Broadway Baby. If you want to support the big acts, that seems like something the Big Four should consider – they, after all, have a lot more at stake supporting the top-flight acts.

The other reason I think this is a mistake at this particular moment, however, is more obscure. I have been saying for several years now that it would be better for the Edinburgh Fringe to lose its status of “holy grail”. Focusing on the big publications at the expense of the small ones does the opposite. We do not want to be entrenching the idea that Edinburgh Fringe is the place to be discovered (a place, yes, but not the only place). If anything, we should be encouraging The Times, The Guardian et all to be spending less to in Edinburgh Fringe and more time in small festivals such as Brighton Fringe. So many problems at Edinburgh could be avoided if other fringes shared the load, but as it standing the national media is doing everything to entrench the unhealthy status quo.

Finally, just a small issue, but why the fuck is the Daily Mail on this list. I can see a case for any of the others, but the Daily Mail, particularly Quentin Letts, is quite open in its contempt for theatre makers. Quentin Letts can come along and spout his attention-seeking drivel because he has free speech, but why encourage this?

So a black mark for the festival fringe society – but are they really the only ones at fault? I will be addressing this later.

Saturday 6th August, 9.30 a.m. – Morecambe:

A solo show crying out to be a two-hander

Phew. The problem with jam-packed schedules is that there isn’t much time to write up these reviews. One written, three pending, so let’s use the quiet morning to get another out of the way.

Morecambe is about the comedian and not the town, although we do learn that Eric Bartholomew did adopt his home town as his stage name. Out of the two of Morecambe and Wise, the former is probably the better of the two to make a solo play about, mainly because of the build-up to the premature final curtain. Like many beloved entertainers, he literally worked himself to death, with the sensible option to call it day overruled by the pleasure of giving millions what they want. The story most of us know is the rise and rise and rise with their famous television shows. As with most success stories, however, what you seldom hear is what happened before then. The story from the beginning covers the numerous failures before the big time including, somehow counter-intuitively, their first TV appearance. (Note: never trust a TV executive who insists on writing the gags for you.)

Judging by the age of the audience, I think I can safely say this play has a particular appeal to the Morecambe and Wise generation. A lot of the play includes the most famous jokes of Eric and Ernie, both on stage to their audiences and within the story. My knowledge of their routines is largely limited to the Andre Previn skit, but it looks like this was a sufficiently faithful reproduction to earn the approval of the fans. Speaking of Andre Previn, the appearance of the stars is a good marker of the peak of their fame – as the play observes, appearing on their show was the sig the nation consider you a good egg.

We didn’t always get Eric Morecambe as a person though. His brushes with mortality were done well, especially the applause following his first stage appearance after his first heart attack. However, we didn’t always pick up how he felt in his earlier career. Saying “I got depression” after the first TV flop is all very well, but writing this into what he says would be stronger. What I think is missing, however, is Ernie Wise. He is represented by a puppet throughout the play, but with his partnership with Ernest Wiseman making up at least 80% of the story, it get a bit clumsy for Ernie to say all of his lines. But, more to the point, Ernie isn’t just his co-star, he’s also his closest friend who supports him throughout the ups and downs. I could see the camaraderie between the two being very movie if done right – also, on a practical note, this adds a lot of flexibility to allow two-sided conversations (Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy and Brain Mitchell’s Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks are good examples of how to do this.)

So there lies the paradox. Morecambe won’t disappoint the faithful, and for a small group is Soham it’s impressive. But this one-hander is, I think, crying out to be made into a two-hander. A decent play could be a fantastic one. Does Viva Arts have a suitable Ernie Wise look-a-like amongst their number. If so, I say go for it.

Friday 5th August, 6.00 p.m. – Ghost Therapy:

An impressive debut from an 18-year-old

Here we go. It’s time for the first review and it’s a decent start. Ghost Therapy is advertised as written by an 18-year-old writer and that was a quite impressive standard. You are invited so drop in on a series of encounters with a variety of ghostly characters. From looking at the title, you might be think that you’re having a therapy session using ghosts – but you’d be wrong. The therapy session is FOR ghosts, and we find this out in the first minutes when an unusually white clad Dr. Soul apologises for the dodgy lights – her technician only died last week.

Much of the play works as a series of character comedy skits of various ghosts. The fictional universe seems to encompass all fictional ghosts. One client desperately wants to be liked by the family who lives in her house, and has been taking inspiration from Caspar the Friendly Ghost. In fact, she’s Caspar’s number on fan and has the T-shirt to prove it – sadly, she is also even more annoying than Caspar ever was. The Ghost of Christmas Past is also a client – he’s having trouble with his wife because he just can’t help bringing up the past. The grim reaper also has a stroppy goth daughter who has no real interest in following her father’s footsteps, instead doing a funny routine of helping herself to all the ghost cookies she obviously has no room to eat.

There is some room for improvement. Dr. Soul herself has her own issues – her fear of chickens and her controlling relationship with her aforementioned recently-deceased assistant. However, these don’t really get developed until the end of the story. The pace seems to fall a little flat between the visit of clients, so perhaps this could be used as an opportunity to build up her controlling behaviour and/or chikenophobia. However, Trenetta Jones is excellent as Dr. Soul and really makes the character her own.

What is interesting about this is that this went into the Edinburgh Fringe too late to make it into the paper programme. That can be the kiss of death for getting an audience. Writer Jaz Skringle, however, seems to have got a decent audience anyway with some good social media marketing. An enjoyable 40 minutes, and whilst there are some things that could be better that is an excellent standard for a fringe debut.

Friday 5th August, 3.00 p.m.:

My full list of picks

 

So, a pleasing start to my Edfringe viewing, but I clean forgot – it’s day 1 and I haven’t listed my picks. Most of these are now written up on myWhat’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2022 page, and I will be writing up the rest shortly. In the meantime, here’s the full list. Bold are running in weeks 0-1; italics are coming later:

Safe choice:

The Ballad of Mulan
Call Mr. Robeson
Green Knight
Gulliver
Mustard
No-One
Nyctophilia
Skank
Watson: the Final Problem

Bold choice:

The Bush
Jekyll & Hyde: A One-Woman Show
Make-Up
Trainspotting Live
Vermin

You Might Like:

Charlotte Johnson: My Dad and Other Lies
The Glummer Twins: The Beat Goes On
The Grandmothers Grimm
Head Girl
The Importance of Being … Earnest?

Room – A Room of one’s own
Shelton on Sinatra

Wildcard:

Famous Puppet Death Scenes
52 Souls
Ghislaine/Gabler
1972: The Future of Sex

From the Comedy:

Aidan Goatley: Tenacious
Alasdair Beckett-King: Nevermore
Biscuit Barrel
Crime Scene Improvisation
Eleanor Morton has peaked
How to Live a Jellicle Life
John Robertson: The Dark Room
Michael Spicer: The Room Next Door
Nathan Cassidy: Observational
Late Night Dirty Scrabble with Rob Rouse
Notflix: Binge
Rosie Holt: The Woman’s Hour
Shit-Faced Showtime
Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me

And one from the online programme:

The Little Glass Slipper performed by the Queen of France and her friends

So quite a lot to still write up. But bear with my, I have three more plays and a press launch coming up shortly.

Friday 5th August, 10.00 a.m.:

About the app

A lot to do today. Four press tickets plus a play I’m seeing again. Whilst I have a calm moment, however, let’s talk about the app. Boy, this is a shitstorm.

So, in before times, one way of getting around was to use the Edfringe app with its “Nearby and now” feature. If you are looking for something to do next, the app will show you what’s coming up in what venue, and how far away it is. Experienced fringegoers, as far as I can tell, tend to make less use of this, as they have a pretty good idea of who they want to see, and where they are and how to get there, but if you’re a beginner is a handy tool. This, I suspect, was the first part of the problem, with the people in charge and the people with influence underestimating how much use this tool gets.

However, the factor I overlooked – and I suspect many other people overlooked too – is how valuable this is seen by some performers. I don’t know if there is data to back this up, but there is a perception that a lot of smaller acts get their business from people just turning up having seen on the app they’re on in five minutes. This is especially pronounced if you’re a Free Fringe show registered with the Edinburgh Fringe – there’s a high chance you registered specifically to be on the app. It’s not clear what benefit the rest of their services to for a small act. Whatever the reason, this has provoked a lot of anger.

Edinburgh Fringe says that although there wasn’t the money to develop an app, there is a “nearby now” feature on the website that does the same thing. That would have been good solution, delivering the benefit without the expense of a separate app platform. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t work. On my laptop it says there’s no matches; on my mobile I can’t even find the option. The one thing I will say in the festival fringe society’s defence is that they’ve made the same mistake almost everyone makes: they got someone to make the website and assumed it would just work. Take it from me: web developers are not to be trusted when you hand them the money and they say it’s all going to work fine. They either run the website in a demo environment without the complication of running in the real world, or they watch things go wrong and just assume it won’t happen in live. Get some people to test in properly, people who understand what’s liable to go wrong and find the problems before it goes to give, people who understand that what’s intuitive to a web designer isn’t always intuitive in the real world. This is not the first time we’ve had problems with the Edfringe website, but the festival fringe society really needs to wise up to this and get some proper testers in. Guys, I’ll volunteer for this.

The other point is that the Festival Fringe society never said there would be an app – it was something everyone assumed would be there. I take Edinburgh Fringe’s point that they’re struggling for cash and most of the bailout money has gone into clearing expenses after the disaster of 2020. However, this is a prime example of where management of expectations would have gone a long way. I will talk more about that later. This is also possible related to the hot take I have coming. But if you want to know what they hot take is, you’re going to have to wait.

Friday 5th August, 12.00 a.m.:

A regrettable announcement

And I leave you with the breaking news. I regret to inform you that tonight I was a guest of Dirty Scrabble. Here I am trying to make a name for myself as a writer and performer of serious theatre, and my first appearance on an Edinburgh Fringe stage is on the back of my immature toilet humour.

Anyway, night night. The serious business starts tomorrow.

Thursday 4th August, 9.30 p.m.:

Good evening.

Assembly Hall

 

Thursday 4th August, 8.00 p.m. – Nyctophilia:

From Buxton, a play set in the dark

All right, that’s enough promotion of my own venue, it’s back to impartial honest theatre journalism. I just need to change out of my venue manager trousers into my theatre blogger trousers. Would you mind turning round a moment? And no peeping … Right, where were we?

Yes, I have a review for you already. No, I haven’t seen anything at Edinburgh yet, but I have yet to publish my reviews of Buxton Fringe where, as some of you are aware, I was there for quite a long time. Since a couple were on their way to Buxton, I should cover them now. Nyctophilia is in my list of safe choices which is a giveaway that I liked it. Now I can go into a bit more detail.

The unique selling point of this play was performing the entire play in the dark. The challenge for all plays with a wild idea is what you make out of it? Can you achieve a good execution of an eye-catching idea, or does it simply come across as novelty that fizzles out after five minute. More specifically, there’s a challenge here of what the point of this is? Why go through all of the trouble of a pitch black stage? Why not just do radio play?

Haywire Theatre’s answer is to use the darkness to support the story. This is a series of shorts, all of which are set in the darkness on the same hillside, with individual stories separated by decades or centuries. One moment it’s a couple out on a hillside looking for either a lost mobile phone or a first kiss; a woman says goodbye to her fiance signing up to fight in the trenches; later a medieval mother giving birth seeks the help of a stranger in a life-or-death situation. Sometimes the stories are naturalistic, sometimes they are tinged with the supernatural.

Now for the surprise observation. Although the performance was billed as being in pitch black, they still act out the scenes on stage, and I could just about make out what was happening. I gather there were some nerves over whether this was spoiling the play – should they reinforce the darkness with blindfolds? Actually, I thought it was quite effective as it was – just enough visibility to give an idea of what’s happening, but only just, with the partial ambiguity doing its job. There are moments in the play when there’s a brief moment of light, be it a found phone or the sunrise at the end. Apparently that was put in at the last moment to break up the continuous dark, but I though this was one of the best touches. Potentially more could be made of this – I could see a shock moment when something is lit up that you weren’t expecting to see.

If there’s one thing I would ask, I wish the play would make up its mind whether or not these stories are supposed to be interlinked. I’m personally leaning towards yes – the introduction of a faerie spirit sets the scene rather well for all these tales having some sort of link to the faerie folk who inhabit this spot. Other than that, I can recommend this – a good concept executed well. The Buxton dates have come and gone, but the Edinburgh dates have just begun. On tomorrow and Saturday, then Tuesday to Saturday next week, all at Greenside Infirmary street, at the fitting time of 10.10 p.m.

Thursday 4th August, 6.00 p.m.:

Durham Fringe, and what’s coming from there

All right you lot. Here I come. Sitting in Durham station, boarding the next train shortly.

Before I do that, a break from my theatre reviewer capacity to switch to my venue manager capacity. Last week it was Durham Fringe, and the timing is no coincidence – it was specifically scehduled to be the week before week zero of Edinburgh, in the hope that groups going to Edinburgh might use Durham as a final stop in preparation for the big one. That seems to be working, because a good number of the plays on at Durham are indeed on their way to Edinburgh.

Obviously, I can’t give my usual commentary of pros and cons of a festival I am actively working to make a success. What I think I can say, without falling foul of conflict of interest rules, is that the mood surrounding Durham Fringe has been very upbeat. Clearly a good job’s been done making the fringe visible in the city centre, and anecdotally they managed to get a fair amount of audience coming to shows off the street. I even hear a pair of people sitting behind me in the pub discussing that they’d just found about it, and what they should see. I realise this is doubling up as a sales pitch, but I’m genuinely hopeful for the outlook next year. [I may even have put in the groundwork for something very exciting in 2023, but I’m keeping quiet about this until and if it happens.]

Anyway, there are six acts I was looking after in the City Theatre who have come to Edinburgh. I’m leaving them out of recommendations and reviews as I have a different responsibility towards these acts. But I will give a quick mention of what I had the pleasure to preview:

Experiment Human: The clear winner for the weirdest and craziest show, sisters Rosa and Maya from Hooky Productions have kidnapped a mystery celebrity to study what is it like to be human. Laughing Horse Dragonfly, 5.45 p.m., Laughing Horse Dragonfly, thought fringe except Monday.

Battle Cry: Then it’s stright to the other end of the scale, with a superb performance from Steven Cowley as a veteran who’s seen one too many bad things on the battlefield to cope with a return to civvie life. The Merlin, 8.45, 11th-17th, 20th-28th. (This one is with PBH Free Fringe but not Edinburgh Fringe itself.)

Cottage: A promising script from a student production set in the days when homosexuality in public toilets carried severe consequences – I also really liked the performance of a character who appears and the end, which I won’t mention as that’s a spoiler. 22nd-27th August, 10.10 p.m. Greenside Infirmary Street.

Delivery: Another student play, not so much about the pizza delivery business but the loneliness of the various people who get these takeaways. 5th-13th August (not Sun), Greenside Nicholson Square, 11.40 a.m.

The Single Lady: Four-hander musical about Elizabeth I and her doomed relationship to the probably loverat the Earl of Leicester, somewhat in the style of Hamilton. Really liked the musical score to this. 5th-13th August, The Space on North Bridge, 2.05 p.m.

Sascha LO and friends: And the City Theatre closed with this comedian. She is on with new support acts at Just the Tonic at the Mash House throughout the fringe (not 15th).

Plug over. Back to impartial commentary now.

Wednesday 3rd August:

A summary of the things we’re arguing over

Although Edinburgh fringe doesn’t officially start until Friday, performances start in earnest today, with many full-length runs looking on today and tomorrow as preview days.

Anyway, I am arriving tomorrow, so before things get too frantic, now is a good time to summarise what everybody’s arguing over. There have been broadly five different things I’ve heard talk about. Two of them are unfair, as they are things that are not really within the Fringe’s control.

Accommodation costs: It does seem that some landlord who buy up properties specifically to charge through the nose in August are chasing their losses by charging through the this year. Anecdotally I have heard a lot of complaints from people who have chosen not to go, or shortened runs, or commuted from other Scottish cities. Unfortunately, the latter option is being compounded by …

Rail strikes: There are a couple of rail strikes being scheduled in week two on the fringe. Might stop people going to the fringe, also might make it difficult for those commuting into Edinburgh from outside. Have to say, though, I really don’t see why this is being raised with the Festival Fringe society. It’s not like their influence extends to Grant Shapps or Mick Lynch.

One issue was raised earlier but has since gone quiet:

Working conditions: At the start of the year, there were concerns that C Venues – pilloried in 2018-2019 for alleged poor conditions for volunteers – were up to their bad old tricks. The Festival Fringe Society responded with an action plan that stated, amongst other things, than anyone breaking the law would be kicked out. I am sceptical this is going to be enough, but so far this has been enough to keep complaints quiet.

The final two, though, were areas inside the Festival Fringe Society[‘s control and where, in my opinion, they made the wrong call.

Fringe app: There is no fringe app this year – and, to be fair, they never said there would be an app this year. Nevertheless, this has upset a lot of people, particularly smaller acts who count on the “nearby now” feature to get business. Apparently there is a “nearby now” feature that can be used on the website instead – I will check this out in due course.

Media presence: There were complaints over Edinburgh Fringe not doing enough to get a media presence. However, when they said who they were brining, that caused even more upset: support heavily focused on national newspapers, with little support for fringe-specific publications – hence the protest from Broadway Baby yesterday.

Personally, I think the Festival Fringe Society has made two fundamental mistakes. One is a failure to manage expectations – had they been clearer over what they could and can’t deliver this year sooner, I think there would have been fewer arguments. The other mistake … well, that’s a bit more of a hot take. Don’t go away, I will be expanding on both of these later.

However, Underbelly made a good point at their launch event today. Do we want the next three and a half weeks to be about the organisation of the festival, or the multitude of the acts who have come to perform. They suggest the latter. And I intend to keep my focus on that too.

Tuesday 2nd August:

Broadway Baby pulls out of Meet the Media

And what do you know? The shit has hit the fan already. One of the many rows taking place at the moment is over support for Edinburgh Fringe media. The short version is that the small fringe-specific publications are upset that support has been given to the bigger publications, and now Broadway Baby has pulled out of Meet the Media in protest. But I’m going to have to come back to this later.

Right now, I need to give some housekeeping information about how reviews work. There is a long-standing rule that I review plays I see at fringes whether or not I was on a press ticket, but I give priority to review requests. This time, it looks like I am going to be going almost entirely on press tickets. My first visit to Edinburgh will be the 5th – 7th August (that’s this Friday to Sunday), so if you’re only running in week 1 the the fringe and you want a review off me, you’d better get a move on. Contact me if that’s what you want to do. I will probably start scheduling reviews tonight.

Now, to cover an oft-discussed question: what should you put in a press release. For me, to be honest, it makes very little difference. I’m not the only person who does this, but my first port of call for deciding what I want to see is to scan through all thousand theatre entries in the fringe programme. All I really pick up from a press release is the fact that I’m being offered a press ticket. Next, at both Edinburgh and Brighton I usually discard stand-up comedy, dance and and classic theatre – I don’t where to start reviewing those. After that, what I see broadly comes down to scheduling – quite simply, who is on at the right time. And that comes down to luck more than anything. I might have a better look at press releases if it comes down to one or the other at a particular time, but it’s rare to come down to that sort of tie-breaker.

Where I do look at press releases, I tend to be interested in whether I have something useful to offer. I’m happy to review a new play that turns out to be below average if I am in a position to say something constructive. However, quite often I see press releases for plays with huge amounts of pre-existing public acclaim on things I know I’m unlikely to enjoy – a frequent offender at the moment is plays whose number one selling point is to spoon-feed their target audience’s pre-existing opinions back to them. They know what audience they want, they may even get praise from reviewers amongst their target audience – what do I have to offer?

What counts in your favour is I think you want a review off me, as opposed to just a review. I get it, for many people an Edinburgh Fringe run comes to nothing if you get no reviews, so it’s a scattergun tactic asking every reviewer and his dog. And I’m happy to be part of this. But it’s even better when people specifically value what I have to say. I notice some people put something in their press release to show you’ve read my blog – that’s fine, my fragile ego is easy to message. However, the people who stick in my mind the most are the people who are determined to get me to review them, who ask at previous festivals, and if I can’t make it then, ask again at the next one.

Anyway, hope that helps. If all goes to plan, first press ticket requests will be going out tonight.

Monday 1st August:

Welcome to a wild ride
No app

Welcome to my coverage of Edinburgh Fringe 2022. Edinburgh Fringe does not officially begin until Friday, but this is known as week zero. Plenty of acts have already travelled to Edinburgh, and from Wednesday we will have a good number of preview performances going on. So the build-up begins now.

This time last year, Edinburgh Fringe was in survival mode. There were even worries that the Scottish Government’s strange decision to single out performing arts for prohibitive Covid restrictions might push this fringe into terminal decline. In the end, however, the tiny fringe cobbled together at the last moment was a big success. Buoyed with confident with show after show close to selling out, 2022 was envisaged as the relaunch. And with Edinburgh Fringe 2022 around 80% the size of 2019, it’s the big welcome back party, right?

Perhaps not. If 2021 was the big party, 2022 is the big hangover. The journey back to business as usual has been far from smooth. Expect to hear a lot in the new few weeks over the absence of the Edinburgh Fringe app, but that’s really a symptom of some much deeper problems. Don’t expect any easy solutions to come in the next few weeks, because there aren’t any. You can, however, expect a lot of recriminations and blame games. I will be going over some of the higher-profile controversies later, and considering them individually on their merits, but expect things to get very very messy.

Hold on tight folks. This is going to be a wild ride.

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2022

Skip to: The Ballad of Mulan, Call Mr. Robeson, Green Knight, Gulliver, Mustard, No One, Nyctophilia, Skank, Watson: the Final Problem, The Bush, Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show, Make-Up, Trainspotting, Vermin, Charlotte Johnson, Faulty Towers, The Glummer Twins, The Grandmothers Grimm, Head Girl, The Importance of Being … Earnest?, Room, Sex, Lies and Improvisation, Shelton on Sinatra, Famous Puppet Death Scenes, 52 Souls, 1972: The Future of Sex, Ghislaine/Gabler, comedy listings, The Little Glass Slipper

So, welcome to Edinburgh Fringe 2022. Last year, when all the fringes launched comebacks against the odds, it was the big celebration. Now comes the big hangover.

Edinburgh Fringe is not the only fringe with post-2021 blues. Brighton Fringe has had its own problems – in fact, Brighton Fringe’s woes were a lot more obvious: the disappearance (possibly permanent disappearance) of its biggest venue. To an Edinburgh Fringe visitor, Fringe 2022 is probably going to look very much like a typical fringe of the 2010s. Under the hood however, there’s a lot of trouble brewing.

As this piece is primarily a list of recommendations for punters, I shall hold off giving the full story just now. Most the problems are going to be noticed by performers a lot more than the public, but for now I’ll focus on the big one: the cost of accommodation. There have been a lot of stories of ridiculously-priced digs, and it appears to be down to a lot of landlords who bought up properties specifically to make money from renting in August, who are now trying to chase their losses from two years with next to no income by whacking up prices this year.

This might have a knock-on effect for punters, as performers stay away from rip-off digs and instead take up accommodation normally used by visitors. However, the most prominent effect – I think – is the rise of short runs. I’m going to avoid committing to this one too much because a few years ago everyone was convinced this was happened until someone did the number-crunching at this was debunked. But, I swear, I’ve seen way more shows only running part of the festival than before. On top of that, I’ve anecdotally heard lots of performers say they’re doing short runs because the full fringe isn’t affordable. Lots of consequences of this if it’s true, but what it means for you right now is to not assume that the show you’re thinking of seeing will still be running next week. A lot of them won’t.

Continue reading

Odds and sods: February 2022

Right, what happened in February. Oh yes. That.

But apart from That, this also happened.

Stuff that happened in February

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

E2u1hO0XoAQQfM2How 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.

Continue reading

A curated fringe won’t be a kinder fringe

COMMENT: An unwelcome part of open access is people spending too much money on Edinburgh Fringe who clearly aren’t ready – but it’s not open access you should be blaming for that.

With Edinburgh Fringe 2021 having pulled back from the brink, most are now expecting 2022 onwards to be the road to recovery. Few people, however, are enthusiastic about a return to 2019 levels. For years, Edinburgh Fringe has had a big problem of supply and demand. More and more people want to take part, but Edinburgh isn’t that big a city, and there’s only a finite amount of accommodation and finite number of buildings that can be made into theatre spaces. Consequently, the cost of these two things is going up and up and up; and no, the money isn’t being squirrelled away by greedy venue managers, but simply a product of landlords – in many cases Edinburgh University – simply renting out space for whatever people are prepared to pay.

As a result, there’s been a lot of talk of building back a “kinder” fringe. There are several things that might address the supply and demand problem without undermining open access (one of which I’m come on to later). Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably in the current climate of culture wars, a movement seems to be emerging that would rather undermine open access. I won’t link any particular story as this is a trend rather than specific people, but they do seem be edging towards the easy solution: let’s just not allow people who aren’t us to take part. At the moment the language used is that the principle of open access is “outdated” and maintains the “status quo” (whatever that means), but I think I can see where this is going.

Now, as most of you should be aware, I am a staunch supporter of open access. Not all arts festivals or venues need to be open access – indeed, it would be impossible for many of them to work that way – but it is vital that such festivals exist for those who wish to go that route. Why? Because there is way too much gatekeeping in theatre, and across the arts in general. Too many venues have exact ideas of what art people should be making and watching. That wouldn’t be so bad if every venue had their own tastes, but increasingly they’re all after the same thing, and if you’re not to the liking of one you’re not to the liking of any. Open festivals are a crucial check in the balance of power – if you’ve got something good to show an audience, and the audience likes it, no-one can stop you. I have to say, the loudest voices undermining open access seem to be the people who benefit the most from the current culture of gatekeeping. Perhaps they assume they’ll be amongst the approved line-up of a vetted fringe. I suspect it’s more likely they’ll get a nasty surprise, when the big venues pick big comedians and other commercially lucrative acts over them. But I have no intention of letting it get to that stage.

Continue reading

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

Very depleted What's On board

Skip to: Zumba Gold, Sinatra: Raw, Under Milk Wood, Shook, Northanger Abbey, Skank, Mustard, Fow, The Little Glass Slipper, Mimi’s Suitcase, Myra’s Story, The Event, Madhouse, Patricia Gets Ready, Fear of Roses, Brave Face, On Your Bike

And a final catchup of reviews before we go into the Christmas & New Year period, it’s the Edinburgh Fringe. Most of what you saw here was already in my live coverage, so all that remains here is to put this is some sort of order for posterity.

Credit where it is due. The Edinburgh Fringe held its nerve and salvaged a festival of sorts long after almost everybody had written it off for a second year running. Whilst festivals in England such as Brighton and Buxton were bouncing back, in Scotland there was a ridiculous rule that theatre – and only theatre – had to have a two-metre distance. The reason why this rule didn’t apply to pubs in spite of pubs being a far greater danger was never explained, leading some people to suspect live events were being targetted on purpose as some sort of “bleeding stump” tactic. But at the last moment a bailout from the Scottish Government and, to a lesser extent, a relaxation of the rules (lesser extent because the big venues had factored in two metres by this point), allowed something to go ahead.

Inevitably, a last-minute fringe could only be a fraction of the size of a normal year. By registrations, it was 20% of a normal year, but many of those were online (more on this later), and those that were in person rarely ran the full festival. As a result, the number of performances of offer each day were tiny compared to before times when you’d have a choice things available in walking distance in the next ten minutes. The audience numbers also plummeted, with those present generally being the hard-core regulars who were determined to be there no matter what.

But – and this is the big but – audience numbers did not fall as much as performance numbers. As a result, the numbers per performance were generally excellent. In 2019, selling a third of your tickets was considered reasonably good – my own observation, backed up by available stats, however, suggested that three quarters full was more the norm here, from the biggest names to the humblest beginners. I suspect a lot of punters who’d decided against taking a play to Edinburgh this year are now wishing they hadn’t. I’m one of those people. The only down-side is that there were times when finding a ticket for anything was a nightmare.

Continue reading

Edinburgh Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Friday 3rd September:

Hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Before you go, one small but crucial stat. I don’t know how The Stage managed to get hold of this when no-one else seems to have the numbers, but it looks like there are fringe-wide figures for ticket sales after all. And, crucially, they separate in-person and online.

So, it’s 381,192 tickets for 528 in-person productions, compared to 3,012,490 in 3,841 productions in 2019. This means the fringe is 12.6% the size of 2019 if we’re going on ticket sales, or 13.7% in terms of number of in-person registrations. We were expecting both figures to be hammered, so there’s little surprise there. The important figure, however, is sales per production. That’s 722 per production in 2021, slightly down from 784 per production in 2019.

But but but but but but but but – almost all productions in 2021 didn’t run the full festival, which in 2019 most did. A lot of them ran for half the festival. We don’t appear to have the number of performances, but I think we can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that sales per performance were a lot higher. This might be offset by a lot of the venues being big ones (30 sales per performance in a 35-seater is much better news than 30 in a 350-seater), but with every performances I saw being way over half occupancy, I’ll still wager those numbers are good.

Online sales, for what it’s worth, are 14,500 for 414 shows on the Fringe Player platform, averaging 35 per production. Obviously there’s no equivalent numbers to compare this to from 2019. Not all shows were on the fringe player platform, other platforms may skew the figures, but if we assume this was representative, this suggests that online is a much cheaper option, but gets much less reach. If you’re serious about getting an audience, it seems in-person remains the way to go.

There’s a lot of nuance around these figures that I’ve already discussed, but I think we can safely stick with the earlier conclusion that these are as excellent as a fringe under these circumstances could be.

And with that, I really am signing off. Thanks to everyone who over the month. Join me next May when we do it all over again, starting with Brighton.

Thursday 2nd September:

And that’s it, folks. This brings us to the end of coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe that nearly never was. We aren’t quite finished with fringes, because Greater Manchester Fringe is running in September instead of July this year (tied in, I understand, to the reopening plans of most of their venues). This had 60-ish registrations, so their recovery is comparable to that of Brighton or Buxton, as far as this city-wide fringe can be compared to the big three.

The summary of Edinburgh 2021 is as follows:

  • Edinburgh Fringe has gone ahead at a fraction of its normal size, mainly due to some very late decisions from the Scottish government on what would and wouldn’t be allowed. Supporters say this late decision was a necessary move by an administration taking the threat of the virus seriously, whilst other people say it was an act of hypocrisy by a bunch of clueless cretins with ridiculous double-standards such as more relaxed rules for pubs even though they knew perfectly well the risk of transmission is far greater, and if you think they’re any more supportive of performing arts than the other bunch of clueless cretins over the border you’ve got another thing coming. As you can see, I’m sitting on the fence here.
  • As a result, the feel of this Edinburgh Fringe is very different from a normal year. Within the core area of George Square and Bristo Square, is does feel a bit more like a festival. Outside of a core hub, it doesn’t feel like there’s a fringe on – even on the Royal Mile.
  • The fact that the Fringe only went ahead as a fraction of its normal size hasn’t stopped the nimbys coming out in force. Most notorious this month has been the Cockburn Association, who so obviously are against the fringe for the reason that they don’t like it therefore no-one else should. Their objections are textbook nimbyism, where they raise issues they would never have given two hoots were they not trying to make the fringe bad. The most outlandish claim was that the Fringe was putting Edinburgh’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under threat. UNESCO eventually said that wasn’t true, but the fact this rubbish was repeated often enough to prompt them to intervene is shocking.
  • The good news is that, for the few acts that did go ahead amidst all the uncertainty, ticket sales have been excellent. Audience numbers have been massacred, but with the number of acts massacred even more, the sales per performance have improved. A lot of acts who shied away from taking part must be wishing they had now. Myself included.
  • One notable absence this year has been second-tier venues. Nothing from C Venues, Greenside or Sweet, and the only presence of Zoo being a four-way collaboration with a temporary joint venue. This means that The Space has risen in prominence this year, taking a lot of acts that otherwise would have gone to the second tier. Big question now over what The Space does next. (See 24th August for possibilities.)
  • Online theatre has also managed a reasonable presence, in spite of early scepticism over registration fees being off-putting. In fact, so far the online medium has persisted longer than most people expected, as in-person shows are returning across the board. I wasn’t seriously expecting this to become a permanent feature of fringes, but having surprised us this far, maybe it can surprise us further.
  • The web-only booking system has proven troublesome are all sorts of logistical reasons, and the lack of a paper programme has compounded this. Although the paper programmes are one of the Festival |Fringe Society’s most expensive operations, it looks like fringe land is not yet ready to go fully paperless just yet. (That said, paperless ticketing seems to have worked – that is something that I expect to remain in place.)
  • Shona McCarthy has stated for the first time on the record that Edinburgh Fringe is no longer judging its success by size. It’s been quietly backing away from bigger is better for a few years, but this is the first time it’s been made official.

All in all, the Edinburgh Fringe is in a strong position to begin a proper recovery next year. But do not underestimate the mountain they have to claim. It’s one thing for Brighton and Buxton to build on half-size fringes, but Edinburgh is more like tenth-size. There are aspirations to rebuild in a sustainable way without it being clear how that will be achieved, but perhaps the easiest way to do it is if demand never returns to the levels it was in the 2010s.

Edinburgh Fringe’s mission this year was to survive, and they have succeeded. The job of rebuilding the fringe, however, has only just started.

Wednesday 1st September:

We now have the stats of ticket sales – or some of them, anyway. Edinburgh Fringe has chosen not to release sales figures like it usually does. The reason given by Shona McCarthy is that she wishes to “stop defining success by scale”. A cynical interpretation is that Edinburgh Fringe is really holding back the figures because they’re not good, but I think this is unlikely because 1) all the anecdotal evidence was that the figures were as good as could be for a fringe this size; and 2) under Shona McCarthy the Festival Fringe Society has been quietly stepping away from “bigger is better” for a few years now. However, it does make it harder to assess how this have gone based on proper stats.

Some of the individual venues have nonetheless released their own figures, which Chortle has summed up, but I’ve not managed to work out out anything beyond what I knew already. The two big sticking points are: most of the stats do not separate sales for online and in-person; and the prevalence of large high-capacity venues (even after social distancing) against lots of small spaces in 2019. Between them, it makes a like-for-like comparison difficult. As such, I don’t think we can on anything better than percentage occupancy, where we still only have the 78% reported by The Space. I still think the Big Four’s performance was similar based on my observations, but if anyone can draw some better conclusions from number-crunching, I’d be happy to hear it.

It might be helpful, however, to stick to first principles and consider why these stats matter. For a fringe to grow – and whatever the FFS society may say, they’re desperate to grow past their 2021 size – ticket sales per act need to be high enough to make people think it’s worthwhile the following year. I think there can be little doubt that sales around the three-quarters mark will do the job. The other questions is whether the venues think it’s worthwhile to expand. Again, three-quarters occupancy should be encouraging, but the venues get to see all the data and there might be something out of view that’s more off-putting. Regardless, the big unknown factor is public funding. It’s one thing putting together a stop-gap fringe to prevent a total collapse, but another thing to support a fringe at anything near its normal size. Will they get the backing they need to expand? If not, how far dare they go without?

Those questions, folks, are unlikely to be answered until next year.

One other bit of breaking news: after all the hints that Brighton Fringe might decide to stick with its enforced three-week postponement for good – they’ve decided to stick with May after all. Bit surprised, seeing as everyone who’d expressed an opinion on this seems to back the change, but I was a little sceptical about this – I’m not convinced blazing hot weather at the seaside is good for ticket sales. No reason given as yet, but I expect I’ll find out the thinking in due course.

What that means for Edinburgh is that they keep their status as only viable fringe for student productions. May clashes with most students’ exams, but June is better, and with even a large student cast sharing expenses getting prohibitively expensive, that might have might Brighton a tempting alternative. Whether that would have been good or bad for Edinburgh Fringe is another question, but now that’s a hypothetical debate. What is does mean is that I can go back to covering fringe season over four months – four fringes in three months got somewhat back-breaking.

Tuesday 31st August:

So it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Who has made my pick of the fringe? Here it goes. With all categories ordered in the sequence I saw them:

Pick of the Fringe:

Zumba 2021shook_capGold
Sintara Raw
Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed
Shook
Northanger Abbey
Skank (based on Vault 2020)

Online Pick of the Fringe:

Mustard
Fow
The Little Glass Slipper performed by the Queen of France and her friends
Mimi’s Suitcase

Honourable mention:

Myra’s Story
The Event
Madhouse
Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man who used to hit her)
Fear of Roses
Brave Face
On Your Bike

Observant readers will notice that everything in-person I have reviewed here gets honourable mention or higher. This is intentional: anyone who have braved the odds to come to the Edinburgh Fringe this year has my eternal respect. It wasn’t automatic though: there was one pretty major performance I saw that I didn’t review because I thought it fell way short of expectations – everyone on this list gets the honour of doing better than this unspecified major performance. (I also didn’t review a music event, a tour, and a magic show but only because they were too far removed from theatre for me to make a meaningful assessment.)

Don’t go away just yet though. I have been tipped off of a piece of news coming tomorrow that could be significant for Edinburgh.

Monday 30th August:

And that’s it, the last day. Time to wind up coverage. We’re possibly waiting for news on fringe-wide ticket sales (we currently only have word from The Space) and we may also get some news from Brighton Fringe this week that might affect Edinburgh – in a good way, in my opinion.

But before then, let’s complete the online theatre reviews with a second and last batch:

Till Love Do Us Part: There are two halves to this play. The first half starts with a new couple saying goodnight on the start of a very successful first date. By the next scene, they’ve already moved in together, and for the next half-hour it’s practically a checklist of a relationship progressing like a dream: engagement, marriage, deciding to have kids together. Sadly, the conception ends in a miscarriage (the worst kind: the one where a scan predicts a doomed foetus will continue to grow but miscarry at a later time), but surely Jen and Simon’s love can survive this, right? Wrong.

The second half is what the play is really about. Nature is cruel and nature has decided a second conception isn’t going to be anywhere near as easy as the first. Jen’s desire to become a mother becomes an obsession. News of friends having their children without any effort only depresses her. Jen and Simon now only have sex for the purposes on conception. Until, finally, this puts a bigger strain on their lives than the original miscarriage.

It’s an informative play, but I wouldn’t have given half of it over the exposition. Whilst the time-frame over the length of the relationship is a temptingly tidy one, by the time we reached to meat of the story I was getting needlessly bored. Off-hand I’d have given a maximum of 10 minutes to bring us up to speed on life before. That I think would have given a tighter play; there may be further opportunities to explore to ups and downs in this fateful period. What this does achieve, however, is drawing attention to an issue that seems to attract little attention. It does that well, so credit for that.

Cash Point Meet: An Irish play that takes a look at the world of Sex Work it titled after one particular strand. A “Cash Point Meet” actually is a thing (look it up if you don’t believe me) involving men who, for some reason, find it a real turn on to be humiliated by a pair of women who take his money off him at a cash point. When Emma and Sinead are unexpectedly offered the chance to do this via a weird request on Tinder, it proves too tempting: all the money you get from sex work without actually having to do the sex bit. However, it turns out it’s not as easy as one imagines to separate this unexpectedly lucrative line of work from the rest of their lives. Like it or not, they are in it with all the other sex workers when it comes to their own safety.

The most obvious weakness of the play is a slow-moving plot. I would have cut the first 20 minutes completely – the exposition of two close friends on the breadline with no boyfriends could easily have been covered in the rest of the play. The play also digresses into issues such as mental health and Dublin’s notorious housing market that drag the pace down further. Nevertheless, once the play gets into the nuances of the complex situation around the sex work trade things get interesting. At the forefront, commentary on controversial the sex work laws on Ireland, with writer Niamh Murphy arguing the case that making paying for sex illegal for the punter only making life more dangerous for the sex workers. With one friend wanting out and the other friend wanting to campaign for her fellow workers, that’s where I think the real story lies.

The Little Glass Slipper as Performed by the Queen of France and Her Friends: And now, another unexpected gem. This was one of the stranger concepts: Marie Antionette, famous for being wife of Louis XVI and saying “let them eat cake” (which she probably never actually said), is putting on a play for the cream of Parisian aristocracy. She has cast herself into the most glamorous role of Cinderella, or, seeing as this is France, Cendrillon.At first glance, Marie comes across as the world first hipster. The kind who think it’s cool to spend an obscene amount of wealth of looking poor because looking poor is trendy. The kind you’d want to punch if you met them.

But tonight is the night the Bastille is being stormed, and as news reaches the Queen and friends must decide whether to flee to safety or stick with their sovereign, we see what she’s really like: in this play, she is defined by her naivety. She has no idea why this event is a big deal to France, and doesn’t seem to have any idea of the danger she’s in. She does, however, sense that so many people hate her, when all she does is to be liked by everyone. She is woefully out of touch – but it’s hard to see what chance she had to know any better.

It is not without its flaws. The role of Prince Charming is hastily taken up by a revolutionary intend on killing her are claiming the price on her head. He ends up pitying her – but the explanation for why he agrees to help the show go on is vague at best. But I am still hopeful that this can come to Edinburgh fringe for real. Some changes will have to be made – it is hard to see how the play as it stands could be performed on the smaller stages at the fringe – but this has a lot going for it. This is a beautiful portrayal with equal measures of comedy and tragedy – I hope the Miles Sisters can make the journey from America.

Sunday 29th August – Shook:

Before we go into the last in-person review, one bit of breaking news. We have our first report of ticket sales from The Space. They are reporting 64,000 ticket sales, down from 120,000 in 2019, but with the programme merely at 65 shown down from 445, that’s a lot more to go round. Seat occupancy is reported as 78%, which is in line with my observations across the fringe. I can see many would-be acts wishing they’d taken the plunge.

So let’s close with on the The Space’s most high-profile shows: Shook. Big coup for New Celts Productions to get performing rights for this, because this is a very recent winner of a major playwriting competition (Papatango). Samuel Bailey’s play is set in a prison where three young offenders are either fathers now or due to become fathers soon. Cain and Ryan begin the play with masculine bravado. As anyone who’s a man or has hung around with men knows, at least 60% of masculine bravado is bullshit, but in a prison that figure is more like 90%. Jonjo is a third quieter inmate, who looks like he needs help more than he needs prison, but when you hear what he was pushed into doing you see why he’s in prison. Can Grace give them one last chance to appreciate life as fathers.

Most drama set in prison are harrowing, either through the brutality of the inmates or the brutality of the people who locked them up, so it is refreshing to see a play that offers hope for a change. Cain, a traveller who spends time in and out of the nick makes a good point: the politicians who pledge to be tough on criminals like him hate him for who he is rather than what he’s done. Grace succeeds in getting Jonjo out of his shell where everyone else failed. Even Ryan – who comes across at the beginning as a bully at best and a misogynistic bully at worst – calms down for a while. Against the odds, Grace bring hope for almost everybody. Almost.

But how does this production fare? A lot to live up to with the fully professional premiere not that long ago. However, this young company does an excellent job of it, with the London setting successfully transplanted to Scotland. The only real limitations was the fringe environment such as the small stage, but they handle this. One thing that particularly impressed me is how much was achieved when actors aren’t speaking. In one moment where Grace is listening to Cain’s bullshit, Ryan – still in his masculine bravado phase – is sprawled out trying to dominate the room, whilst Jojno is cradling the doll of a baby even though he doesn’t need to.

The only shortcoming is one perhaps unavoidable to fringe conditions. It is normal for full-length plays to be shortened to fit in the programme – and most of them time, if you don’t know better, you can succeed in making it look like this is how it was written all along. This time, however, it would appear that something major about Ryan’s backstory was cut. When he snaps, there’s very little to tell us why, other than an unclear grudge against the person he lashed out at. But with the only thing I have to fault out of their hands, everything else is positive. The best was to get performing rights to a play written so recently is to persaude the writer you know what you’re doing. I hope Samuel Bailey and Papatango were proud out this.

Saturday 28th August – On Your Bike:

Now for a rare foray into musicals. I was drawn to this one by a very promising preview at The Space’s press launch. On Your Bike is a musical about one of the most recent additions to life: the takeaway delivery cyclist. The good news is that delivering takeaways by bicycle is much more environmentally friendly than driving everywhere by car. The bad news is that this often goes hand-in-hand with another not-so-welcome recent arrival: the casualisation of labour, where zero-hour contracts and/or so-called self-employed status are used as workarounds to evade employment protections that apply to everyone else.

The showcase song, however, has nothing to do with cycling or takeaways. “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” as a song on a first date where everything is going right. Can this promising standard apply to the rest of the songs. Yes they do. Writing songs for musicals is tricky – if either the words or the music doesn’t work out, it falls flat. The music in these songs, however, is consistently good and consistently catchy. The lyrics are also impressive. Even people who have no trouble letting the words flow in regular prose can struggle when setting it to music, but the words are crafted exceedingly well here. In the opening we learn Gemma is doing this because she’s had 77 consecutive rejection letters using every platitude know to man (increasing to 78 by the time the song finishes), and her living arrangements is even more precarious than her job than her job. Aidan is a little more secure with his arrangement, fitting his art around these irregular hours, but that too is going to come under pressure.

The story, however, isn’t quite as strong as the music. The brilliantly catchy “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” loses its edge a little when you notice the two people getting together don’t really seem to have anything in common. No soon has Aidan started his whirlwind romance with a social media marketing-obsessed middle manager, she’s already badgering him to quit his art aspirations and join her in faceless middle management, which makes we wonder what they saw in each other in the first place. The play starts off making some intelligent comment about the culture around casual labour, where maximum flexibility to stakeholders is pushed at the expense of any real security or dignity, but too many of the resolutions are contrived. Yes, there are are ethical questions around animal welfare and takeaways, but a takeaway manger have a change of heart and converting to a vegan falafel restaurant after reading one leaflet from an animal rights group? Come on.

Despite these limitations, this is a good start from a student ensemble for what I think is the most difficult form of writing. Songwriting gets a lot more complicated when you are supporting a story, story-telling gets a lot more complicated when you’re mixing in music and lyrics. The ensemble of four give a strong performance, and the musical standard remains high from start to finish. Four year ago the same society came up with Six, and we know how that’s going. Good job from their successors in keeping the flag flying.

Friday 27th August:

A break from the reviews now to look at the end-of-fringe news. By now, I think everyone is confident that the Edinburgh Fringe has done enough to put itself on a firm footing to recover. Now they have launched a Save the Fringe campaign aiming to raise £7.5 million. As anyone’s who’s manage to successfully book a ticket through the fringe website how, the donations page has been asking for support for 2022 which they are now eyeing up as their relaunch year, coinciding with their 75th anniversary. This campaign, however, is a long-term one one aiming to raise money over 3-5 years, according to The Stage. At present, we don’t have details of what the Edinburgh Fringe plans to do with this £7.5m that it couldn’t do without, but we do have a list of seven principles they aspire to.

However, I think there is another factor that needs to be considered. When I previously wrote about 7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe when the situation looked the bleakest, I considered scenarios from “phoenix from the ashes” to “meltdown”. The danger of the meltdown scenario is now receding, but instead we should now consider a scenario at the opposite extreme: the Fringe recovers too well, and all the problems of a large fringe that came to a head in 2019 come back. It might even go beyond 2019 and hit breaking point. Edinburgh Fringe stopped cheerleading year-on-year growth a few years back, but with the festival open to all, they can’t stop the same people doing it all over again.

So does these seven principles address this? Debatable. The most relevant principle is number 2, which says: “Break down barriers to participation in the Fringe”. Money isn’t the only barrier, but it’s by the far the biggest one, and there’s no escaping the fact that the bigger the fringe gets, the more it costs to do it. However, whilst no-one would object to the principles, the devil is in the detail, or rather the lack of it: there is so far no information on exactly how the Edinburgh Fringe intends to break down barriers.

This ties into the wider issue of the great reset. Every man and his dog is currently taking about this year being the great fringe reset. Everybody agrees that the fringe is too expensive and needs to be kinder, and most people agree that the fringe got too big, but few people are proposing a solution, and amongst those who have, there’s next to no consensus. The only thing everybody can seem to agree on is that other people who are responsible for making the fringe too big. If 2019 mustn’t be repeated, who shouldn’t go? Never themselves, that’s for sure.

My current feeling is that whilst the aspiration to make the fringe a better place might be there, the drive isn’t. Few people are coming up with ideas, fewer still are prepared to compromise for the greater good. If the fringe does reform, it’s more likely to be market forces. It does look a lot of freelancers who have left the arts won’t be coming back, and with all fringes so dependent on freelancing, that could reduce uptake a lot. This is also the year that alternative festivals rose in prominence, and potentially will start taking people who would otherwise have gone for Edinburgh or bust. Edinburgh’s problem has been supply and demand – it looks like the cut in demand may be permanent.

There is will time for the Festival Fringe society, venues, arts industry and public bodies to get their heads together and make a plan, but at the moment there seems little will to even attempt to do this. If a recovered Edinburgh Fringe has fewer barriers and is more sustainable, it may not to because of the efforts to reform, but in spite of the lack of effort. If you want to to prove me wrong -well, that’s in your hands.

Thursday 26th August – Brave Face:

It truly pains me to say this, but although Brave Face is a story with huge potential and so much to say, it fails the “What’s going on?” test. The message that writer/performer Everleigh Brenner gives at the end of the play is that there are many women who have suffered sexual violence who put on a brave face, and few if any of the people there would disagree with that. But the play sets out to say more than that. Her character em becomes, in her words “a woman the world fears” are resort of some extreme measure. Clearly a powerful statement is being made here, but I’m completely lost as to what statement was being made.

Based on what I can piece together (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the play but I don’t know how else to summarise this): Em was raped seven years ago, and wants revenge. But with proven rapists hard to identify, Em has widened her net to exact her vengeance on adulterers, philanderers, misogynists and lecherous wankers in general. After she sees her fuck-buddy cop off with another woman, something prompts her to take action, although it’s not clear whether the trigger was that incident or a video shown after of what appears to be an attack – is this a flashback to an earlier event or something that’s just happened? Either way, she starts blackmailing the other men she’s been having affairs with and attacking some of her pick-ups with anaesthetic she took from her dental job. Her number one target, however, is a touring DJ, although it’s not clear whether his crime is being her rapist or simply liking photos of hot women on Instagram. She meets him, intending to lure him to bed for an unclear ulterior motive. And she succeeds, but not before he behaves like a gentleman and she discovers she has feelings for him (and if he is indeed her rapist that confuses me further). But in bed he doesn’t understand stop and she retaliates in the most extreme way possible.

I think I can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, I have missed something vital that’s supposed to explain what’s happening and why. I don’t have many rules for playwriting, but one of the ones I swear by is that the more out of the ordinary a character behaves, the harder you have to work to show what made him or her do this. I’m not interested in her multi-partnered sex life – there is no normal way to respond to rape – but the revenge she dishes out is as far removed from normal as can be. I’m pretty sure Brenner has a very good idea for why Em is doing this, but I don’t, and when I discussed this with another member of the audience, she floated another theory. It was a good one that never crossed my mind, I admit, but when a play is intended to sent a message loud and clear, the last thing you want is multiple interpretations of what the play was actually about.

The thing is, apart from that, I think this play has all the ingredients of a great one. Even without fully understanding Em’s motivations, Brenner gives a articulate, confident and often emotive performance. I was also particularly impressed by the technical achievement. This kind of multimedia approach usually falls foul of one of two things: either not really adding to the story, or getting out of their depth. Neither applies here This is a story heavily interlaced with the online world, where real life blends with everything from diary organisers to social media containing all sorts of casual bigotry and nastiness. And performer and tech blend seamlessly.

So here’s what I would do next. This play is currently 40 minutes along, but fringe productions typically run 60. 20 minutes should be more than enough to flesh out any unclear plot points, but more importantly, go into the depth that’s needed to explain why she’s done what she’s done. Brenner understands Em better than anyone else,so there’s little else I can suggest on who to do it, other than the obvious principle of “show, don’t tell”. And that’s it. That, I reckon, is all that’s needed to get this play to have its full reach and live to its full potential. And this has bags of potential. Don’t sell it short.

Wednesday 25th August – Fear of Roses:

This play is described as a pulp thriller, but at first glance it looks more of a play about character relationships and office politics. Nicollette works as PA for Tabby aka Tabitha, expected to be imminently promoted with Tabitha expected to be promoted along with her. Tabby is a rising star, and in a victory for gender equality proves that women are just as good as men at going to strip joints on managers’ nights out and discussing it inappropriately at work the next day. That aside, the opening is actually quite interesting. At first, it looks like the two are old friends, but as time goes on hints are dropped that Tabby is actually quite self-obsessed. In particular, Nicollette has been forced to take on a night shift to make ends meet, and Tabby is wilfully oblivious to the circumstances of her supposed old friend.

However, the balance of power is about to shift noticeably. It turns out Tabby’s career path to date has not been entirely above board, and this has attracted the attention of Keely who’s come to visit. It is never specified exactly what skeletons are in Tabby’s cupboard, but it is enough to make her agree to a sum of half a million in 48 hours. And the only way she can get that amount of money in that short a length of a time is to rob her own bank overnight. If only there was a soft target in security – wait a mo …

The plot continues at a satisfying pace as more secrets are revealed and more things turn out to not be what they seem, but this play does suffer a little from a few plot points that don’t quite stack up. Nothing is serious and it doesn’t get to the point where the entire premise ceases to make sense, but there still a few questions that bugged me afterwards. In particular, why was blackmailing Keeley so unrelenting on a 48-hour deadline once it was clear Tabby couldn’t deliver the goods in time? Surely it’s better to get the money late than not at all. There is a twist at the end which I won’t spoil. but if you’re going to do that you need to make sure the story continues to stack up in light of what’s been revealed.

In spite of this, however, it’s a decent comedy-thriller that covers bases of social comment and character relations. This show has been overshadowed somewhat by their other production, Press, which seems to be going down very well, but as long as you can resist the temptation to nit-pick too hard you shouldn’t be disappointed with this.

Tuesday 24th August, 9.45 p.m. – Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man that use to hit her)

I must apologise that I cannot cover this next play with my normal impartiality. If I was part of a reviewing publication I would ask someone else to do this, but as sole reviewer of chrisontheatre I don’t have this option. The thing that attracted me to this play was the subject of long-term trauma – in the case of Patricia, the aftermath of a violent relationship. She has long rehearsed the words she intend to she if she ever sees the bastard again – but when the bastard shows up out of the blue, she instead resorts to small talk, and when he suggests going out to dinner for the evening, she forgets how to say no.

Why would anyone agree to do that? If you’re hoping there’s somehow some sort of of remorse on the part of her ex, forget it. There’s barely any time between falling head over heels with the bad-boy man of her dreams, and the violence that follows. This is based on playwright Martha Watson Allpress’s own personal experience, but it falls into a depressingly predictable pattern: from the outset exact ideas about how a woman should behave down to choice of drinks; resorting to the fist at the first sign of disagreement; and ludicrous amounts of paranoia and jealousy over matters as trivial as dancing with a gay best friend. That’s not to say the play doesn’t bring new insights – it is recounted here how the tension in anticipation of being hit becomes almost as bad as the violence itself. At one point, a gut-wrenching phone call is played as Patricia finally tells her mother what’s been going on all this time, begging her not to cry.

However, there was one thing in this that didn’t ring true – to me. This is where I need to tread carefully. There’s few things I hate more than reviewers or whoever using someone else’s traumatic experience and making it all about themselves, so I will say this on a need-to-know basis only. My interest was long-term trauma is a personal one. You don’t need to know what – if you want to know I’ve talked about it extensively elsewhere – but before you ask: not an abusive relationship; not anything nearly as bad as Patricia’s story. Even so, it took me eight years before I was comfortable going into all the details of what happened to me. One year after the event, I was still making excuses for my gaslighters.

So here’s what doesn’t ring true for me. Patricia narrates a very convincing and harrowing account of two years’ abuse in a composed and articulate manner. But if I was in no such state to recount my experience one year after the event, I just can’t believe it would be any easier for someone who’s been though much much worse. The Patricia speaking to us is a fully recovered strong Patricia who now sees the scumbag for every despicable thing he is – but the Patricia talking to her ex, or even anybody else when going into her story, is a very different Patricia. The first Patricia struck me as someone who would have no trouble telling her ex to go fuck himself.

The message at the end, however, is an important one: there is no typical battered partner. If it was me, I would consider doing most of Patricia’s story in third person – there is enough artistic license to do this. The other option would be to write this in the mind of post-trauma Patricia; that would be a much harder thing to do if she’s reluctant to go into the worst of what happened, even though she must. But similar things have been done, and they’re very effective when done right.

Reality trumps character assessment, of course – if anyone is ready to talk about every detail of a violent relationship within a year of the event, please say so. I would love to proven wrong here. I guess, in the end, I was looking for something I can personally can relate to: that you can get on with your life and be resilient, but still shut down when made to recount a traumatic memory – the two are not exclusive. If that wasn’t the point of this personal story, fair enough. What I hope we can agree on is the fallacy of the phrase “But it was a long time ago.”

Tuesday 24th August, 5.00 p.m.:

We are currently in what’s going to be a very Space-heavy section of reviews, so now’s a good time to look at this venue. The Space has had an interesting year, and is now at a crossroads.

Historically, the Space has differed from other venues is that it runs entirely on first-come-first-served. In practice, this gives almost everybody a place to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe even if no other venue will have you. One easy criticism to make is that this makes The Space home for all the acts that aren’t good enough to be taken by anyone else, but that’s not entirely fair. Whilst it’s true to say The Space has more than its fair share of godawful plays, no venue is immune from this and The Space has also hosted some very successful plays. I am strongly of the view that it is better to allow an untested artist to try and fail than to prevent an untested artist from trying and succeeding, and The Space performs this important job.

This year, however, it’s been a bit difference. With the near-total absence of second-tier venues, The Space have taken on a lot of acts that would otherwise have gone to Zoo, Sweet or Greenside. But the other development is that The Space has pushed an online platform more strongly than any Edinburgh Venue. They ran an online programme last August when most venues shut down completely, and carried on running this after Edinburgh time finished. The third season was done for Brighton Fringe, which Space had never had any association with before. They are still running an online programme this time, which is less newsworthy as most venues are running some sort of online platform, but they have been one of the key drivers with this rise of online fringe.

So, what happens next? I honestly don’t know, but let’s sketch out four scenarios, any of which might exist in combinations:

  • Back to before: We still don’t know the long-term future of “online fringe”. Certain a lot of online fans acquired over 2020 have said how good it is to be back to the real thing. Should interest fade, the Space could return to its original role of entry-level tier.
  • Online platform persists: One of the arguments in favour of keeping an online fringe platform is that it gives artists the chance to get things out there in an environment where people take a punt on unknowns, but without the expense associated with coming to Edinburgh. It might run parallel with the fringes, it might also be moves to its own festival (maybe winter) as some people have suggested. Either way, I think it’s a safe bet that if there’s an online fringe of any standing, The Space will want to be part of it.
  • Moving up the league: If The Space have taken acts who would normally go elsewhere, it may hang on to them. If they are really lucky, the good reputation of these more experienced acts will up the reputation as the place where the good stuff is, which in turn attract other notable acts. The snag? That might spell the end of The Space as an open-access venue. I’ve seen this happen to other venues that forgot their ideal to provide a space to perform the moment everybody wanted to go there.
  • Less focus on Edinburgh: Is Edinburgh Fringe the right fringe for entry-level acts anyway? You can certainly get started a lot more cheaply at fringes other than Edinburgh. Who knows, now that The Space has been part of Brighton Fringe’s online programme, they might decide it also suits them to be part of their in-person programme. Sweet has shown the running at two fringes can work, so might The Space go for three?

As always, we’ll see.

Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

People holding the Edinburgh Fringe logo, but spaced out.

Skip to: Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho; Skank; Watson: The Final Problem; Mimi’s Suitcase; Northanger Abbey; Screen 9; Mustard; The Great Gatsby; WSTL: Epistles; Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name; The Importance of Being … Earnest?; Could it be Magic?; Dahpna Baram: Unmuted; Those People: a play about QAnon

Let’s give credit where it is due. Two months ago the picture for Edinburgh Fringe was as bleak as can be. The mood amongst everybody was that Fringe 2021 might not be officially cancelled, but it was as good as cancelled. But Edinburgh Fringe and most of the major venues held their nerve, and in the last month has managed an impressive turnaround – given the circumstances. At the time of writing, Edinburgh Fringe has 675 registrations. This is far less than pre-Covid levels and only slightly ahead of Brighton Fringe, but compared to a month ago when the number of confirmed acts barely made triple figures, you’ve got to hand it to them.

But the fact remains that the Edinburgh Fringe has been hit much harder than fringes such as Brighton or Buxton. And whilst everybody has pulled together for the latter fringes, the same cannot be said for the big one. Most controversially: the Scottish Government’s highly questionable decision to enforce two-metre social distancing for theatres when pubs could have one. This rule has now been relaxed, and may even be dropped completely in time for most of the festival, but not before numerous acts and venues ran out of patience and opted to perform south of the border instead. On a more positive note, the Scottish Government has provided some support to many of the bigger venues to have some sort of festival. It could have been worse – but whilst Brighton and Buxton Fringes did have a feel similar to a normal year, it looks like Edinburgh Fringe 2021 will only be a shadow of its pre-2020 former self.

However, there is still enough in the programme for me to pull together a list of recommendations. Before then, however, let’s look at the fringe as a whole.

What to expect at Edinburgh

I did this for Brighton, and I’m going to do this again for Edinburgh. Whatever you want to see, there will be a lot of differences from before. These, I think, are going to be the biggest ones:

The diminished fringe: Already said before, but will say it again. Brighton and Buxton managed to pass off as normal fringes with a 40% reduction in size, but you cannot disguise an 80% reduction. This means that Edinburgh Fringe 2021 is going to be lot more like Brighton Fringe 2020, where the object of the game is to simply put on any kind of fringe. On the other hand, you have to hand it to the performers who braved the uncertainty and come anyway. The few performers here deserve a lot of respect.

The REALLY last-minute fringe: You think that Brighton Fringe left it to the last moment to put together a programme? That’s nothing compared to Edinburgh. When tickets went on sale a month before fringe opening, there were just 170 registrations – and had the numbers stayed that way, it would have been a disaster. However, that was partly because The Space and Summerhall were the only two notable venues who’d announced their programmes. Most of the venues announced their programmes later, but Edinburgh only edged ahead of Brighton with one week to go. Brighton managed to keep together with a programme known only a month in advance – we will shortly find out if Eidnburgh can get away with just a week in advance.

Continue reading

7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe

Through most of the last year, there has been a lot of justified alarm over the future of theatres. Amongst that is what would happen to the the festival fringes. But what no-one forecasted was for Edinburgh Fringe alone to be in uniquely dire circumstances. Whilst Brighton Fringe is bouncing back better than anybody’s wildest dreams, Edinburgh has still not even listed a single show. As everybody now knows, in Scotland they’ve been ultra-cautious and planned restrictions well into August and beyond. The problem is the level of restrictions demanded: two metres indoors for performing arts, ignoring all possible forms of mitigation such as masks, barriers, or everyone facing the same way. That is virtually impossible to comply with.

Make no mistake, this is the perfect storm for the Edinburgh Fringe. Had all festivals in the UK been in this situation, it would have been more secure, but with strict rules only applying to Scotland, the festivals south of the border have stepped up where Edinburgh can’t. Last year’s Warren Outdoors was a success because they were able to programme a lot of popular acts seeking to fill an Edinburgh-shaped hold in their schedules – it now turns out this was only the tip of the iceberg. Now many of the the Edinburgh venues are staging new festivals in England: Pleasance is running “Fringe Future” in partnership with the Vault, Gilded Balloon are running a pop-up festival with their inflatable cow, and Assembly is running “Assembly Garden” in City of Culture Coventry. As a result, many of Edinburgh’s favourite acts have already signed up for these or other non-Edinburgh fixtures. There is no guarantee they’ll go back to Edinburgh.

Continue reading

15 ways Coronavirus might change theatre for good

11230494

As you might have noticed, my last article on Coronavirus didn’t age well. I won’t go over the embarrassing details just yet, but pretty much everything I could have got wrong I did get wrong. The latest I’ve heard is that consensus is most theatres are provisionally planning things to get back to normal in September, with a few having plans on standby for started sooner at short notice.

Do you think I’m making any more predictions after that fiasco? Of course not. So what I’m doing instead is, instead a single vision of the future, I’m going to give fifteen. I will stress straight off that none of these are predictions – indeed, most of them are mutually contradictory. But all of these are, in my opinion, plausible outcomes. There’s still a multitude of things that could happen in the short term, but this is my speculation for how things might turn out in the long term.

So, imagine it’s 2025. Coronavirus is long consigned to the history books, as is the great shutdown, but its legacy lives on. But what is that legacy? It might be any of these:

1: Edinburgh Fringe reinvents itself for the better

[This is the scenario a lot of commentators are hopeful for. I am sceptical about this one myself, but let’s see how it might work anyway.]

It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe has a record-breaking 4,452 acts. Any observer from the now-infamous 2019 fringe, where the 3,841 acts seemingly pushed the it to the limits, might call that a disaster waiting to happen. But the pessimists are confounded and the Fringe has sorted out its problems.

In hindsight, the problem was time. For all the Festival Fringe Society’s efforts, they could only achieve token victories single-handedly. What they really needed was the co-operation of the major venues, but the moment the fringe finished the venues had their hands full planning next year. Suddenly, the shock cancellation of the 2020 fringe gave all the venues time on their hands. With the PR disaster for Hogmanay 2019 still reverberating, Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon were all eager to show they’d learnt the lessons Underbelly hadn’t – Underbelly was forced to go with the flow. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government got on board, and an unprecedented level of co-operation arose. Continue reading