The Column – 2010 Archive

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The Archive for 2012 is here.
The Archive for 2011 is here .
The Archive for 2010 is here.
The Archive for 2009 is here.

5th December 2010

No to shops please where art should be!

FringeReview supports the Assembly in Edinburgh’s petition against the horrific developments planned by the council at the Assembly Rooms. I encourage you to sign their petition. We are featuring free ads on this site linking to the petition page and wish Assembly every success in remaining in one piece in that lovely and vibrant venue. Their own alternative proposals are well laid out and feasible.

But I will add this. Assembly itself as an organisation has become a little too "corporate" itself over the years and this might well reflect in the number of signatures it gets. It will be a shame if it doesn’t get a million, but that may be because a number of people have started to see its own business model that underpins its wonderful artistic endeavours as a bit of an example of the thing it is trying to oppose. Ticket prices (for theatre) were getting too high last year and access to the venue was becoming wholly too commercial and not in the spirit of "Fringe".

The Fringe shouldn’t be dominated by commercial sponsorship and, in past years, Assembly was a strong mix of public and private, if individual and group, of non-profit and wealth-creation. The business feel of an arts venue can become too much about marketing and PR, about box office splits and deadlines – then the partying seems to have a desperate feel about it which is a shame, as the Assembly bar and the old supper room were unique, about cabaret not rave, about socialising not alcoholism. I hope they do get their signatures, and I hope they revive their deepest values too.




1st November 2010

The Delights and Dangers of Directionless Creativity

In recent years, many people have fled into the arts and creative sector seeking an antidote to "non-creativity". Non-creativity is represented often as working life where the job is so strictly limited as to have little or no room for creative movement. The call centre, the corporate cafe chain, the tedious office job. It is also often described at a higher level of autonomy but still labelled as tedious, repetitive or "serving someone else’s agenda and not my own".

Uncreativity is marked by automaton behaviour, repetition, tedium and a sense of pointlessness. On a general level, the arts as become attractive not for itself and its own pull of vocation for a section of the community (often those with an artistic reslessness and temperament), but as an anti-world to the one described above. Creativity is a kind of pain-killer, a generic alternative, a "not-that". It’s led to the arts becoming flooded with displaced people, in their tens of thousands, who are in the sector because it is a "not-place". Not-places rarely generated lovely landscapes or architecture and tend to fill up with ghostly forms.

This has resulted in a lot of directionless creativity, where the creative activity and artistic pursuit is often rather lazy, half-hearted and without passion at the level of detail. Creativity becomes a kind of "warm bath", a tranquiliser or a stimulant, where the people involved are largely passive, resulting in quite a bit of output for little input. Often the emerging "flip"-technologies have facilitated the creation of a lot of copyness and mediocrity that is more about therapy than passionate exhibition and expression.

Emergent art is a wonderful thing in its own right, but directionless creativity can often paper over the cracks of authentic restlessness that would call forth a deeper, longer-term and more committed artistic effort.

Directionless creativity can also be a kind of neutral zone, a sabbatical from overstructure, but too often it is simply a kind of half-existing, diluted shadow of what could be more specifically possible and realised. Fleeing into creativity leads to half-hearted arts events and "festivals", pisspoor films (badly concocted and edited), cliched bands, derivative theatre and, most of all, random astral ramblings that simply externalise the turmoil of the soil in ways that are, at best, self-indulgent and, at worst, pitifully third-rate.

This isn’t intended to spoil everyone’s right to creative escape and expression. Indeed, creative escape, like a retreat or a holiday, can be just what we need. But then we come home. The challenge of other sectors such as service, industry, education, administration and so on, is to revive itself, re-enliven itself, not by puking all of its disaffections into the arts and creative realms, but by seeking creative inspiration at a revolutionary and profound level from those with genuine artistic fire in their bellies.



27th October 2010

Naming the Darkness



For many people working in or running their own arts businesses, recessions are times of “darkness”. The shadow nature of recessions is something of a double-edged sword. Shadows can be places of coolness, out of the strong heat of the sun. But they can also be “shady” places in another sense – a place of hiding, a place where there isn’t enough light to see clearly.

The price we pay for hiding in shadows is that, though we can hide from the gaze of others, we also can’t see as well in those shadows ourselves. Our eyes of course can get accustomed to the gloom, but when we do step out into the light, we squint, and the glare is too great. The paradox of hiding is that we can get too used to it, and, when we come out of hiding, we can be fearful and disoriented.

Recessions, yes – they can be times of darkness. There is no longer plenty of light to go around. It becomes a time to do something we may have forgotten how to do, or even lost belief in completely. It becomes time to generate our own light.

And yet, in dark times, many people retreat further and further into the shadows. When we call something by its real name, face it – no matter how uncomfortable – when we confront it, we are shining a light onto it. We bring light into the darkness.

I remember back in 1992 when the war was still on in Croatia, hotel owners on the coast at Opatija claimed there was no war anywhere near them, that business was booming – even as they stood outside their almost deserted hotels. They were lost in their own shadows, their prices were still boom-time high, and no one was booking. They were in the darkness of denial. If one of them had shined a light on the situation and said “hey, we’re in trouble here”, they may have finally faced up to the situation. The war wasn’t THAT near and the roads from Slovenia (an easy route from Italy) were safe enough, and dropping prices would have led to a big jump in demand. I believe they could even have had a mini-boom. But they stayed in the shadows.

In the UK, many restaurant owners are caught like rabbits in the headlights of their own portion-controlled, boom time pricing strategies, and are half empty. The “credit crunch lunch” offers of three pounds for a lunch in the smaller local restaurants ensure those places are full and still making profits in hard times. These smaller businesses have had the courage to step out of the collusive shadows and named their situation. “It’s a recession”. The almost superstitious notion that “if you talk it down then it will go down” only even possibly works if things are still up. But when we are in tough times, naming it as tough throws light into a dark situation. We use our real eyes to realise.

The power of “Positive thinking” lies, not in deluding ourselves with fake positive talk, but by taking an authentically positive approach to challenges. And if things are really bad, then naming them as really bad is also the place from which we can start the long climb back up. We may be too far down and lost in the very, very, dark of the bottom of the pit, but it is also in those places of despair that a little light can start to work wonders and show us there is a bottom rung of the ladder, just over there, within our reach. We can also name it earlier, before we have fallen so far, we can prevent too much complacency turning quickly into unstoppable decline. Naming something honestly can be very preventive in terms of later disaster.

So, go on, dare to name it. Our theatre company, which only recently, was on the up and up, is struggling. We have less people in our cafe, less people are booking our holidays or buying our products. It’s a recession and we are in it.

The arts funding cuts are here, and they are big – and audiences will have less money to spend. Look at it from a place of light. Then, we can act.



4th October 2010

Comedy of Theatre or Theatre of Comedy
FringeReview, in recent years has covered more comedy theatre that overlaps with stand-up. We don’t to cover standup per se, but more and more stand-up is flirting with storytelling, character work and improv is still growing. Where is the overlap between improvised stand-up storytelling and traditional improv? It’s getting harder for us to hold the line. We don’t tend to review someone just being themselves telling gags; however, the rise of the stand-up storyteller is perhaps not surprising as audience attention spans have tended to drop in the televisual age. In some cases, character comedy can be a real enhancement of a stand-up routine (Emo Philips was a pioneer in a sense and Brian Gittins is a master at it. 
Of course the overlap between traditional stand-up and comedy theatre has always been there, and some would argue that all stand-up is theatre – be it improvised or well crafted script. We’ve tended not to review stand-up, not because there is anything wrong with stand-up; it’s more to do with many of our theatre reviewers not seeing themselves as qualified to review it, not feeling an affinity with it as a field of practice. It’s our problem, not yours, stand-up folk! 
But where stand-up makes clear use of theatre tools such as character comedy, storytelling, improv and so on, we’ve started to review more. The world of boundaries is, and ought to crumble, especially where those boundaries serve no purpose other than elitism or insecurity. (Shit, that was cheesy). Both the Brighton Comedy Festival and the Brighton Comedy Fringe mine a rich vein of non-stand-up based comedy – there’s sketch, improv, puppetry, storytelling and even magic. And so there should be. But theatre goers would do well to take in some stand-up and see some genius impressarios working a room, spinning tales, improvising, or simply delivering an excellent script in the name, not only of laughter, but also theatre.

26th September 2010

The Commitment Crisis
One of my favourite and somewhat ambiguous quotes (I forget who even said it) is ‘An artist will only truly commit when they are free of commitment’. With funding cuts in the offing, I wonder how this statement will change in terms of its truth. Some artists I know grind to a halt as soon as they have to fill in a form, or are given a deadline, or have some boundaries put around their freedom space. Even with no strings attached, I know writers who fall into Writers’ Block as soon as they are given some money to write something. Some artists reading this may think we mad, but it is true – many artists completely creatively crash when attempts are made to motivate them, even positively, from outside.
Only when the horizon of possibility can be seen in all directions (and even dimensions,  where even time itself is an open book with nothing yet written in its pages), do some artists find creative inspiration buzzing up from within. I’ll call this "inner buzz", ‘Dionysian Artistry’ – it’s an urge that is rarely stimulated (at least directly) from external events or agents. On the other hand ‘Apollonian artists’ take their cue from outside, and it only needs a good funding call or offer of work to get them fired up and creatively flying.
I think Apollonian artistry will respond to the funding crisis in the way it often does – grumblingly and reactively and, occasionally, with shocking and wonderful inventiveness and revolutionary zeal, though some work may be shattered in the process, as much work is now resource-intensive and needs money to be sustainable. An example is art drawing on multimedia that has certain unavoidable costs attached. And many outer-motived artists will only kick into gear when the bills have been paid and there is gas in a tank and credit on the mobile. A lot of the post-Thatcher generation of artists define uncondiitonal commitment to their muse as "Once the rent has been paid". Some, of course, will accept the further poverty that goes with the vocation and get on with it.
The inner-motived, Dionysian artists who have had enough trouble accepting the higher levels of recent funding anyway will be in trouble if they try to engage with ever more competitive activity, as artists fight for less and less resource. Some, I believe, will go mad, others will be driven (further?) into depression. The sane approach will be to step free of institutional commitment and rediscover the sheer pleasure of the work that bubbles up from within. And there is of course the possibility of a revival of the old, Victorian patronage where the rich offer up no-strings-attached cash as they fund "approved" people and work, for the sheer love of it (or for other hidden motives we won’t go into here). 
The arts is in for a bumpy ride and the choice will be whether to look without or within. One thing’s for sure: those looking without will have to get used to going without. Those looking within will find resources beyond cash and price. Oh, and the usual chaos…

6th September 2010
The Paper-Thin Future
One thing I’ve realised at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is that the traditional print-based media are beginning to feel threatened by those online publications that are really getting their act together and, in particular, online media that they see as ‘batting above their weight’. Paper news media has been dying a death for years now and the online fringe media have emerged to fill a perceived gap in coverage.
The paper media feel they have a reserved and deserved place in the online territory and feel that their stakes in the ground are somehow divinely bestowed. They, of course, labour under the partial illusion that somehow ink text is more real, more precious and should command more authority in the arts than e-text.
One behaviour that has emerged has been the insistence of the traditional media on such measures as length of article, on the key quality measure of a publication being the activities of sub-editing, spelling and grammar checking. Here’s a polarized question for you: as a theatre goer in Edinburgh for a couple of days, what would you prefer: an unspellcheked, even clumsily worded review of a show that is made available to you within hours of the reviewer seeing it, with a dynamic realtime feel, or a technically perfect review, written in a slightly distant style, and made available to you a week after you have left Edinburgh? Of course this is a clumsy polarity, created to make a point.
Many of the new media, who are more representative of the droves of Generation Y arriving in the sphere of arts audiences, have a new definition of quality that doesn’t root itself In a Victorian view of language. Language now is a means of immediate expression, and the artistry of expression is now 140 characters, of live feel, of the triumph of vibrancy over accuracy, of connectedness over detachment. And the paper junkies simply don’t get it. The world moves fast and information now runs along fire optic cables. The book is now a new tool, paper a place for a preferred experience of words, on a train, in a library, a tactile way of engaging with literary art.
Like radio over television, I think it will always thrive in that sphere of society. But the immediacy of dynamic content, of the hourly changes at a month long arts festival, is now seeing the birth of horizontal communication, of citizen journalism, and of the preference of essential content over spellchecked content. And, ironically the technology is developing so fast that soon online content will be technically perfect anyway. I did a quick check of one fringe web site compared to a national newspaper and found it to be better in terms of spelling and grammar than its paper rival. 



25th  August 2010

Driving up reviewing standards? Or driving everyone to underground?

Tim Cornwell of the dear old Scotsman published an article looking at five star fever at the Edinburgh Fringe. I find it ironic that paper media may start to see themselves as the last bastion of quality in Fringe coverage. Also that the payment of journalists is somehow a guarantee of quality and even good governance. Poring over reviews in some of our fellow online publications I find reviews, which are longer, often better referenced, and which come into the public domain sometimes within hours of the show being seen, spell and grammar checked, full of insight and sharp observation. I did a quick random sample (unscientific) read of reviews from online publications and compared them to a few of the nationals. In many cases the nationals fell short on detail (and yes, length does matter if you are properly reviewing a piece of theatre), and more than a few of the nationals contained spelling errors. I think it might be a time to sit merrily along side each other. Let he who is without a grammar checker cast the…



15th  August 2010

Their own snobbery bites their asses and they are too dumb to feel it

It almost shocks me how many theatre producers and so-called PR experts are still locked, like dinosaurs in a bygone age.

The rise of social media and quality online publications isn’t even recent. With some sites and bloggers attracting daily ever more genuine readers and carrying authentic influence  and opinion-forming weight in the arts, the self-preening ancient ones still look to the few remaining paper publications as the top of their media hierarchy, even though fewer and fewer people are actually reading them.
Don’t you shortsighted ones get it yet? It isn’t readership that keeps these tree guzzlers afloat, it’s advertising revenue. If you actually want to sell more tickets then you need to come into the 20th century at least, from whence at least you have a chance to seeing what we are all up to in the 21st. If your shows are struggling for audience and paper based reviews, then serves you right. 🙂 🙂 🙂

You are snobs and your snobbery is now backfiring. Yes, you occasionally get a sell-out run and a prominent middle-page spread which feels good as the ink comes off in your hands. But watch as the numbers continue to tail off in your longer term average. You haven’t got an inkling let alone a clue.  

"Twitter you know, it will never catch on". "No one really uses the Iphone application". "All of these web sites – no one actually visits these web sites". It would be hilarious if it wasn’t actually a bit sad as well. It isn’t arts funding cuts that will kill off a lot of theatre companies, it will be their own dysfunctional and self-destructive down-nosing.



12th  August 2010

Muffling and Asymmetrical Fringe-iness

 I love the various perfomance spaces at the Assembly and the space I am about to mention is only used as an example, not in any way to denigrate this venue. The Edinburgh Suite is strangely shaped as a theatre space. You enter at the side of the stage along a marked off "pathway". Because of this, if you leave to go to the toilet, a sign warns there will be "no re-admiitance" as you’d be walking beside the performance, right in front of the audience. It would look like you were part of the performance! Well, not exactly, but it would be distracting.

Because of this inconvenient quirk of the space, the stage is a little off to the left from the audience perspective, yet the raked seating runs right across the space in usual rows so we are all facing front, but having to turn our heads just a little to the left in order to look fully on at the performance (particularly if you are sitting on the right side of the theatre. It isn’t much of a head turn but it does make for a space that feels a tiny bit asymmetrical – enough, in my view, for it to be subonsciously registered. If you want to laugh, you feel you might be laughing just a little too much into the breathing space or "laughter territory" of the person next to you.

It also feels that – on stage – some of the sets are turned somewhat at an angle to compensate for this, which actually makes the people on the very left of the space in the audience also feel a bit out of kilter with the proceedings. I think it is subconscious but I think it makes for a certain awkwardness. Symmetrical-feel spaces create a sense of common ground for audiences, allowing them to behave collectively and relax. Askew spaces, even slightly askew, can knock things a bit out of sync – literally, off centre. I think it can muffle an audience.



8th  August 2010

Fringe Repetition and Rhythm

Well, yes, a lot of it is the same as last year, sometimes it feels alarmingly the same, from the placing of the toilets next to the purple cow, to the same burger stall next to the Gilded Balloon, to the virtually identical formats of the launches, to the traffic gridlock. There’s a high degree of repetition. And, yet, there’s also a kind of healthy inner rhythm to it, and within that rhythm is the space for creative variety. I’m off to the Pleasance Dome to meet one of our reviewers over (every year) from Amsterdam, to have a cup of organic breakfast tea, sitting upon the same sofa that we do every year (disarmingly moved from its usual place to make way for a shockingly poor Magic Roundabout clone called the box office). Once we have settled, the variety, enabled by the repetition will kick in: what shows we have seen so far this year, what’s new and different, what Mike’s been up to over in the flatlands, what we are going to see today. Finding the enabling rhythms that a repeating festival can bring can feel like a comforting, empowering thing, and I think it is one of the reasons many of us come up here, again and again and again, year after year after year after…


2nd August 2010


Getting Metaphorical at the Fringe


The Fringe was once a small event, sitting, literally on the fringe of a bigger one, The Edinburgh Festival. The Fringe was a reaction, an alternative, and also something in its own right. 

Being on the Fringe meant being alternative, and also somehow free of structure, of the institutional form, and of the Institution itself (control of the many by the few).

The Fringe was successful and grew. The little market on the edges of the town centre did well and attracted the attention of the centre, who always seek to expand and grow.

The "Main Festival" could only get so big as it was rather an institutional form (tied into funding structures etc). The little fringe village on the edge of town had, as part of it’s "reaction" to elitism, a policy of "anyone can set up a stall in our market". Then two things happened, almost simultaneously.

In the comedy sphere, a number of huge supermarkets set up along with new and disreputable (wide-boy) market hall stall holders (attracted to the rich pickings). Soon, among the little comedy craft stalls and one person tinkers, there were humungous Asdas, Wallmarts, and Tescos, all calling themselves Fringe.

Alongside this the market grew to the size of a town and then a city and pretty quickly the big players bought up most of the stalls. And then, from the original centre came more big monsters –  the Harrods and the John Lewises of theatre, peddling theatre in huge halls. And now the Fringe was bigger than the thing it was supposed to be a fringe at the fringe of, and also the original reactionaries had, probably accidentally, institutionalised their reaction and themselves in the process.

Imagine that. An old town, crumbling a bit and full, with a huge sprawling shanti town of a city surrounding it, and among the tents and corrugated iron huts where people still sat around camp fires, told stories, sang and sculpted great art, were palaces, and factories.

And then on the fringes of that Once Fringe, new little markets and villages sprang up – free ones, cheap ones, and even ones trying to locate far enough away in different regions to try to attract new and different people.

Meanwhile, the original fringe visionaries threw up their hands in both wonder at the magic of it all and sadness at how their fringe was no longer a fringe at all, but a new centre, bigger, more institutional, more monstrous the the one they had reacted against.

First they tried spinning. But when you stop spinning, you end up back where you started. They tried restructuring, but all that did was create mangled structures, one upon another. They decided to make a virtue of it and simply enjoy the growth, and that is where they are now. The Fringe is now a fringe, not at the edge of the outer reaches of the the core, but on the periphery.

It now sits, not at border of the centre, but at the border of the universe, looking greedily outwards, the only boundary being infinity.

In all directions they stare, into the endlessness of space, where all is possible and yet the limitation is the limitation of limitlessness, the hopelessness of growth without passion or deep purpose. For we were not made to breathe only outwards. 




16th July 2010

Where do they all come from?

The Fringes are growing and, in London, there are more of them. The programmes are growing and there seem to be more "dates" than ever, especially in theatre and comedy. How do they do it? How do they travel to Oxford, then Buxton, taking in one of the London fringes, before heading up to Edinburgh, then over to Ireland, and maybe even popping across to New York, and even Canada?

They are, of course, Fringe mad, and this is a condition we have known about for a long time. They can’t all have rich parents or dwindling legacies. There must be some kind of sustainable model to it. Yes, I said it, sustainable. Many are coming from the many drama school’s that have sprung up in warehouse buildings once occupied out of town by Toys R Us or MFI. Others have spilled out of office jobs and call centres and want to try something more creative – anything but where they have fled from. But the majority are seeing the fringes as a kind of touring possibility in their own right. I’d love to see the costing model. Perhaps it’s a new lifestyle, and it is certinaly to be welcomed from the fringe theatre point of view. Perhaps it becomes more sustainable with the advent of free fringes and camping out of town.

Perhaps the fringes around the UK (and even the world) will have to join up a bit more when they realise they are becoming a mini touring circuit in their own right for more and more acts and productions. This has, of course, been happening with some shows for years, but it is growing as a phenomenon. Where the money comes from to do it, I’m still not sure unless… unless you can actually at least break even doing it! But how? Tell me HOW?



2nd July 2010

The Art of Failure

It’s happened again. This time it was another sweet shop selling retro-sweets – fruit salads, Mojos and the like, at over a quid for a hundred grammes, at the out-of-town top of St James’ Street, all pink, edible and gay-friendly and, sadly, commercially a dead duck from the start. Everyone could see it coming. Was there every anyone in there? There’ll be a loan to pay off, a story of closure to tell, and a lingering sense of "My two year old daughter could have told you that business idea was a non-starter."

You see it all over town. The boards are up; there’s activity within for a few weeks, and then the shop opens, selling only muffins, or Finnish ice cream, or gifts and cards all themed on turtles or meerkats, often located (for the cheaper rent or lease) on side streets that few people venture along.

What were these people thinking of? So much hope and so little common sense? Some of the entrepreneurs have an air of death-wish about them from the moment you see them, but others are clearly just self-deluded or plain crazy.

So with some Fringe shows. They arrive, you can’t quite believe the show’s title or its premise. You wonder "what on earth…? You watch the one-star reviews drip in, you see them forlornly flyering. A musical version of Harold Shipman’s life, a four hour Greek drama set in a swimming pool, a contemporary dance piece about an obscure piece of social media, a sketch show about condoms and cancer performed by an ensemble cast of sixteen, an all female version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs presented as a cutting attack on male stereotypes. They flounder, they fall, and we all saw it coming. And they didn’t have a clue.

And yet there’s a footnote to this little clever diatribe of mine. In Brighton, the expensive oriental cosmetics shop on no-hope street is still there. The Scandinavian Ice Cream shop that sells a brand of Swedish chocolate called "Plopp" is thriving, and one cafe I said had no chance, is one of the most popular in town, is doing great trade. Within madness often lie the seeds of a new wisdom. And common sense has the Achilles Heel of often being its own form of madness in the community of unrecognised geniuses. Roll on the Fringe!


24th June 2010

I lost the bet, but the jury is still out
Chris Cooke from Three Weeks wins this bet, a bet I am sort of happy to lose. The number of registered shows at Edfringe 2010 is up, up, up! Records broken, etc. etc .etc. I predicted a recessionary Fringe last year and many production companies had cut budgets and tightened belts, though most still decided to give Edinburgh a go, and have done so this year. A quick look at the programme shows new venues on offer, Hill Street back and also Roman Eagle Lodge.
Last year I felt the overall standard of theatre was down, as it was at Brighton Fringe. The standard lifted this year in Brighton and it was good to see budgets raised slightly. I do wonder when the predicted cuts in the arts will kick in. Am I a miserable bastard, an addict of doom? I’m quite a jolly sort of person, but I am interested in the phenomena of Fringe. Free Fringe continues to develop; it’s good to see fringe theatre holding up well at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
The Edinburgh Fringe evolves. Last year, as press, we felt the arms of the Fringe leadership were in a gesture of openness. We raised our own game to support the Fringe post-box office meltdown. We fully committed to Fringe Central hosted activities and look forward to Meet the Press events this year. We hope the Fringe stays warm towards its community, open and open-minded. We look for flexibility and NOT a return to the over-bureaucratic days of the past. Edfringe is a community AND a business opportunity. These things are not mutually exclusive. But the business imperative can, if handled clumsily, turn the Fringe into a corporation rather than a thriving arts initiative. It’s about managing the dynamics and learning to sometimes say no to market forces in favour of community cohesion. This is going to be, in my view, the critical success factor in the coming years – finding a community cohesion and sustainability as the post-recessionary forces kick in, one of which will assert itself in trying to take us all back to the olden days of growth for its own sake. Growth needs to serve a purpose, and that purpose needs to be conscious, not just around a board room table, but also vibrantly alive in the stakeholder community.


24th May 2010

Refreshing Improv
The Noise Next Door are an impressive, high-octane improv troupe. We regularly rate them highly on FringeReview. After seeing several of their shows, these Chicago-school-standard improvisers, like the Maydays, clearly anchor much of their improv onto the sea-bed of tricks of the trade, for example their songs. Audiences love them; I think they are full of just the right zing and competence. I acknowledge their talent, the amount of group skills development they clearly do, and their impressive skill. In many ways they are "leading edge" in this field.
The only weakness can be, as with computer games and virtual worlds, that regular viewing can become too comfortable – you get to feel the boundaries they are working within, the walls of the game – the structures they anchor their playfulness to. They can be, and are often, genius – but it’s a genius of content often within structures that become more visible over time. For many in the "improv" field, these structures and anchors are seen as necessary as cement is to a builder; without them, the building will totter and fall.
At this year’s Brighton Fringe, we saw a few examples of improv that appeared to ride more by the seat of its structural pants as well. There were elements of a more raw improv in Tales from the Coffee House, and Katy and Rach often make it up in ways that are much more emergent and white-canvassy. Of course, we all have sub-conscious structures as work in our theatrical expression, unless we do specific inner work on really trying to find a truly emergent inner space. Being, as C.S. Lewis put it, "surprised by joy", is highly difficult and some would say, impossible, for the very process and intention of seeking it out is, itself a kind of anchor or structure.
However, the moments of truly unstructured and unplanned improv in Katy and Rach, in "Tales", and sometimes in the Noise Next Door creates what I have often referred to as the "electric moments". It’s a risk, it can become it and miss, but the hits can truly rise to the realm of both stunning AND original. I’d like to see more of it. I think we, as reviewers of improv, need to raise the bar and expect some of the anchors to be cut and left on the floor of the sea bed, even at the expense of security and certain-ness. For, if we don”t, the forms are going to become cliched (they already are in my view, to an extent), the content variability won’t be enough to thrill. It’s time to let the boats of improvised drama sail without the safety of anchors and go where they will.


19th May 2010

Plays with Beginning, Middle and End Can Never Be Outstanding?

I’ve met the Fringe Art Creature again. The Fringe Art Creature can be of any age, size or gender. The Fringe Creature is aghast when we give five stars to a straight piece of old-fashioned style theatre. It may be a play or a musical and it may be "light". As an example of its genre it will be outstanding, will often gain a standing ovation from its audience, the acting will be perfectly suited to its style.

It probably won’t be set in a department store of a sewer, it may not involve the projection of film onto the actors’ stomachs. The Fringe Art Creature doesn’t "get" traditional theatre and thinks it incredible that it might ever be five-star-able. 
There’s been a movement in cuisine for years to get back to plain food, cooked to perfection. The culinary artists who favour this see it as progressive, not regressive. There’s a way of staging traditional theatre that can be refreshing. For example, Here Comes the Bride, which we gave an award to and five-starred, was staged in a church of difficult acoustics and, on the night I attended, pulled it off. The singing was mostly outstanding and there was a shamelessly sentimental script, aimed at a "Positive" audience who responded to it with delight (I saw a few Fringe Art Creatures in the audience as fixed in their own reactions as they might claim traditional theatre makers are in their own creation process). 
There’s a potentially outstanding way of being traditional that can involve subverting the form – Here Comes the Bride was set site-specifically and made use of existing popular music in well chosen ways (mostly). It also made clever use of a narrator, telling the story via a pastiche on the Wedding March. There was also a remarkable infectious sense of the cast enjoying themselves, playfully challenging the fourth wall. And yet it also came across as a good old fashioned musical. We rewarded it in review for all of those aspects.
Fringe Art Creatures are, ironically, conservative and myopic in one essential area of art: the ability to innovate WITH the traditional in minimal but powerful ways, not just to (often clunkily and radically) innovate OUT of it purely for its own sake.


19th May 2010

The FringeReview Furrowed Brow

A few reflections on our reviewing this year. The dangers of only publishing reviews of three stars are more is that "three becomes the new zero". I’ve had to remind several of our reviewers that our scale runs from one to five, and that a three-star review is a good, recommended show. Shows which fall below three, we don’t publish the review but offer private feedback. We are a "good food guide" to the fringe, pointing out the good to outstanding theatre eateries, not focusing any attention on those not worth eating it. So, all the shows reviewed here are the ones we recommend seeing. 

It’s therefore vital that reviewers don’t use the three starred shows as an opportunity to sneak in harsh criticism simply because their egos can’t be satisfied  by not having a review of something they have seen and not rated as good theatre published.
I find it sad how many people think it is a duty to shame shows publicly at ALL opportunities. When I go to a new city I prefer to buy a guide that I can trust (usually on reputation) and that will recommend places to visit. Sometimes I just wander and trust to instinct, but when I have limited time, a guide is invaluable. A guide of what to see has easy accessibility as a quality; thick guides I have to wade through telling me what to avoid are not what I am looking for. That’s what FringeReview is partly about. You visit this publication and there’s a list of recommendations, a kind of filter of all the many shows on offer. This doesn’t mean all shows NOT reviewed here are bad; it means that here is a considered selection from people who keep their ear to the ground.
Three star shows are GOOD shows worth seeing. Though you may find significant criticisms of one or more aspects of three star shows, you’ll not find a review of a three star show on FringeReview that doesn’t point to its virtues and why it is worth seeing.
My brow furrows when I see some of our reviewers forgetting the spirit of three-star show reviews. It happens rarely and I am addressing it here again. If a reviewer has seen a good show then that needs to be the core of their review with critique part of it, but not the sole object of it. They need to say what is good about it and critique needs to always be constructive. Often a reviewer will express frustration with a three-star show that could have been so much better, but the review must always be clear about the recommended status of it.
If you are looking for a good, very good or outstanding play to see, then FringeReview is an ideal place to visit. If you’re looking for a comprehensive list of shit and honey, there are plenty of shit and honey sites and publications already out there.


10th May 2010

Suffocating Research

I very much enjoyed Five Clever Courtesans at the Marlborough Theatre this week. The acting was strong and much of the dialogue funny with some wonderful banter between this historical whore quintet. Five Courtesans are thrown together after death, by the Goddess Venus, and they share their personal life stories in a wickedly funny way.

What let the writing down a bit was the obviously copious research that had gone into fleshing out the characters and their life stories being allowed to suffocate the monologue and dialogue. Some of the lines sounded as if they had been lifted directly from a history book (I am not saying they were, it just sounded like that) and it also gave all of the five characters a vanilla wash at times. 

Writers can spend hours in libraries, travelling to interviews, visiting places and, increasingly these days, glued online, and they can get very emotionally attached to the investment in research they have undertaken. I think it was Winston Churchill who said that the best way to keep power is to give it away. Ritual burning of the research material can be a good way to let go of material that should not find its way into a script, overburdening the lines with too many "interesting facts" and even polemic.

When research material is put into the mouths of characters, it has to be properly rendered – there’s a translation and, ideally, a complete transmutation. Facts can be more interesting to a writer than an audience and, sometimes, they can be more interesting to the audience than the writer who gathered them in during the research process.

Getting an independent viewpoint can be helpful here. But there’s also no substitute for self awareness in the writer. The problem is that a writer really can fall in love with their pre-work, their hard-fought-for facts and documentary source material, especially in historical plays or plays exploring our frontiers of knowledge and thinking. Love doesn’t lend itself easily to self-awareness – it is rarely selfless when we are lost inside it. 

The writer needs perspective. Weighing down characters to research-heaviness