FringeReview UK 2018
What is it about Fringe Theatre that makes it so exciting? For me it’s the possibility of risk. Mainstream commercial theatre has to cover its overheads and make a profit, so there’s a necessary obsession with ‘bums on seats’ that so often drives companies to choose safer options or well-known pieces that will (hopefully) guarantee a decent audience.
Fringe doesn’t have the same agenda. There are still financial constraints, of course, but for the most part the runs are short, and the venues smaller, so there isn’t the need to seek out the comfortable or the unchallenging, that will attract big numbers. Fringe companies can take risks with their productions – creative risks with the writing, the staging and the performances. “We put on a great show, even though only six people turned up …”
There were a great deal more than six people, though, at The Brighton Scratch Night – the venue was packed for all three evenings. The event was organised by Unmasked Theatre’s Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill, and hosted by Roger Kay and Lauren Varnfield at The Rialto Theatre. Ross Dinwiddy, from Blue Devil Productions, was also part of the team. Nine short play extracts, each performed twice over the three nights, by a group of twenty-one actors, some of whom appeared in several of the pieces. All nine works were new writing, and six of them were directed by the organisers themselves – they’ve all previously directed full length plays at The Rialto. Each night the audience voted for their favourite, and the overall winner will be produced at The Rialto for next year’s Brighton Fringe.
You’ll have to read to the end of this review to find out which one that is, though . . .
Risk. There are few things riskier than the potential state of Brexit UK, and playwrights are responding to it. In ‘English Wine’, by William Patterson, the main political parties have become so useless that Plaid Cymru have become the UK’s government. The characters are two middle-aged men living in a house, in a state of complete inertia. They can’t even be bothered to leave the ground floor rooms any more. Then a sharply dressed woman appears, telling them that their house will be demolished to make way for Blackburn Rovers’ new stadium. In fact she claims to actually be Blackburn Rovers. Bizarre. I had the feeling of watching ‘Waiting for Godot’ cooked up with ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy’. Loads of ideas tossed into the mix (but not developed) made this rather an Irish Stew of a play.
Ireland itself was the setting for Lorraine Mullaney’s ‘Shamrock Empire’. It’s 2027, and the post-Brexit Brits are heading to the now re-united Republic to find work after the economic collapse at home. There were some great lines in this piece: the low-paid agricultural workers are no longer Eastern Europeans but BMWs – British Migrant Workers. There are questions of identity, too – how are they going to deal with a British person with Irish relations, who claims to be more Irish than they are themselves? The usual disputes over inheritance of land come face to face with the chant of “We are the Diaspora – the Plastic Paddies”.
Our political class has messed up so badly over Brexit that there’s a feeling that the whole bunch are useless. In Vivienne Allen’s play ‘Conchiglia’, ten year old Andy has been put in the care of the Home Secretary while his mother, Ruth Ellis, is hanged. Andy doesn’t know what’s happening, and the politician spins a web of lies (what a surprise) to keep the truth from him. “Your mother’s gone to Italy – you can write to her” This explains the title, as Andy looks up Italian words to use in his letter. It was touching, and sad, but what came across clearly was the total lack of empathy from the politician. Sympathy, yes; he’s probably a decent man, but a man with no understanding of the feelings of others, or of the damaging consequences of his evasions. Sound familiar?
Another authority figure is the subject of ‘Stone’, by Patch Harris. She’s a Health and Safety Executive official from the National Trust. The face of modern bureaucracy, in trousers, with a clip board, and an obsession with ‘risk assessment’. Dave – “Mr Hitchens” – is trapped under a rock after falling down a cliff. But the official blames him, because “accidents don’t happen by accident’. She’s intent on removing all possible responsibility from the National Trust. Having seen Dave’s wife, though, I’m sure it wasn’t an accident. Lorraine, in a skimpy dress, shrieks her way through gossip and domestic detail as she spoon feeds Dave with yoghourt. She’s his wife, but she’s a nightmare – in Dave’s place I’d have jumped myself. And all the time, neither of them attempt to get him out. Dave is caught between a rock and a hard place – and another hard place …
In Stephanie Dickson’s ‘Bark’, it’s the authority figure of their Doctor that’s key. We never see him or her, in the cancer hospital where Grace and Helen are patients, but as they strike up an unlikely friendship – Helen’s 48 and the younger woman is only 17 – their existences are constrained by the institution’s rules of not leaving the building. Grace has dreams of being a television presenter, and talking about them encourages the older woman to reassess her own life and make the most of the time she has left. It looks like both of them will, in fact. Helen organises an escape to a rock concert for the two of them, and we get the feeling that this act of rebellion will be transformative. They will have stopped being passive victims and taken back some control over their lives. Carpe Diem !
‘Mission Creep’, by Bee Scott, has a wonderful authority figure too, in the person of Dr Mary. Tess and Liam are trying to be selected for an interstellar space mission, which will get them off a nuclear-devastated planet Earth. But they will have to breed – “Securing the Future of Humanity” – and it becomes clear that they will have to perform the sex act in the presence of aliens, as well as the cameras of the research team. Dr Mary was wonderfully knowing and wheedling – digging out the truth that Tess and Liam aren’t actually a couple, and in fact he’s gay and she’s asexual. Very funny, and good pacing on the plot development, with a gradual reveal of the couple’s dilemma, and lots of physicality in the non-verbal communication behind Dr Mary’s back.
Anyone in a position of influence becomes a sort of authority figure – think about the balance of power between an author and a literary agent or publisher. In ‘Naked Kittens’, by Max Wilkinson, Franz Kafka visits one. Franz is poorly dressed and ascetic, while Herr Plume (Mr Pen, I suppose) is a fat bourgeois pig, with appalling manners and crude behaviour. Great body language from the actor, sprawling in his armchair, spraying food while Kafka stands with his arms folded protectively round himself. Herr Plume is obsessed with all the prurient possibilities in Kafka’s work, and how to pitch it to a modern audience. He wants to insert shocking events and sexual deviance, of which Kafka has no experience. “You have no concept of the modern world”, to which Kafka retorts “I am the modern world!” Because both are right – Kafka’s view of anomie and bureaucracy define the modern world brilliantly, but he’s completely out of his depth confronted by the rapacious hyper-sexualised side of today’s culture. So has Franz actually visited the future?
Pete Barrett’s play ‘Further Education’ is set over thirty years ago, during the Miners’ Strike of 1985. Frank’s a strike picket, billeted with three female university students. The man has a wife back home, but he finds himself increasingly attracted to Emma – and the feeling is reciprocated. Her flatmate Rachel’s a feminist, and although she supports them politically she’s appalled at the casual sexism of the miners. Jake is one of their lecturers, and he’s sleeping with Claire, although, like Frank, he’s married. “it happens”. It seems that in his case it happens regularly, with each new batch of undergraduates. Jake’s a caricature middle-class Marxist, totally unaware of the realities of actual working class life. An interesting, sensitively directed, piece – it looked like it was going to be a about sexual manners, but finally it’s about the gulf in understanding between different social classes.
And last, but not least, there’s ‘But at My Back’, by Jane Sunderland. A slow burn, this one, deliberately taking a while for the actual situation to become clear. Mharaid is very recently widowed, and she’s going to have to come to terms with her dead husband’s son, Lars, who he produced outside their marriage. Then Lars, arrives: the son she never had. Mharaid resents him on principle, and even more when he crassly wants to commandeer his father’s (Mharaid’s husband’s) ashes to scatter them. But he’s got his father Jack’s eyes, and his temperament, loving the outdoors, hiking and mountain climbing. “Four points of contact”. Will she finally go on a hike with Lars?
Nine very individual pieces, often very funny, occasionally shocking, but with interesting parallels in a number of their themes. Zeitgeist – people’s resentment of authority, and of an unstable present and future. But some truly surreal moments too, as you’d expect in Fringe offerings. We were only given extracts, and part of the assessment of them was whether the situation and storyline could be expanded to produce a full length play. The overall winner of the Scratch Nights was ‘Mission Creep’, by Bee Scott. Ross Dinwiddy directed this one, and if he directs it again during Fringe it should be remarkable. The last production of his that I saw was ‘Franz Kafka: The Apparatus’ during this year’s Fringe, again at The Rialto. Funny how Franz Kafka keeps cropping up. Zeitgeist again?