The Brighton Fringe is smaller than the Edinburgh Fringe, and judging by what I've seen of them, Brighton's offerings don't have quite the production values some (though decidedly not all) Edinburgh shows manage. But if Scotland leaves the UK and becomes an EU member in its own right, the English people who flock north to perform and spectate in August like confused and misdirected migrating birds may have to learn to love Brighton. God only knows what the theatrical work visa situation will look like for small companies then.
This may seem small potatoes compared to the prospect of such an upheaval, but the Edinburgh Fringe is a huge economic event (£4 million in ticket sales in 2016, not counting the 600+ Free Fringe shows which rely on donations [source] or the £142 million the Fringe generated for Edinburgh in 2010 [source]). It’s also a major part of the UK's theatre lifecycle, the whole shape of which may change if the EdFringe becomes even more expensive and inconvenient to participate in than it already is. While the EdFringe is great for Scotland’s economy, at present it’s often a loss-leading operation for performers: a risky, sometimes disastrous venture that, if they’re lucky, enables them to establish reputations and set up gigs for the rest of the year off the back of it.
I like the Brighton festival, and I particularly like Brighton/Camden-on-Sea itself. The town’s so pretty and hipster I feel almost demographically obliged to like it, though the Brighton Fringe itself can feel slightly Highgate Mums. However if you're familiar with The Other One, you may be aware of a Wimpy vs. McDonald's difference between the two Fringes. McDonald's isn't perfect, but it has the distinction of Being McDonald's, with the reach and economic power that implies. I don't want to centre Edinburgh, but as the bigger Fringe it is more likely to be people's comparative touchstone. While some shows do transfer between the two festivals, I don't think you'd be well-served by expecting the same experience from both. Brighton Fringe is more low-fi and less professional overall, and is best enjoyed on those terms.
Here’s what I enjoyed on those terms (or failed to) this year.
Oyster Boy, from all-female troupe Haste, adapts Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy for the stage. Honestly, this is the point at which it all went wrong. The source text didn’t provide this team sufficient or sufficiently interesting material.
A young couple (after an extended courtship that dominates a big chunk of the play) has the eponymous child, struggles with his difference from The Other Boys, and finally (spoilers for a 2004 children's book) returns him to the sea, hoping he’ll find a better life there, or at least stop being their problem. This decision is framed as an uncomfortable, permanent end to the paternal relationship and the boy's time on land, rather than a triumphal claiming of the Oyster Boy's aquatic side.
There is always an unrelieved backdrop of normality in such stories: they rely on it. The intrusion of the wondrous is treated as something strangely banal, yet extraordinary in a world seemingly without other forms of semi-analogous Otherness—say, disability or racial difference. The narrative of the “off” child is weirdly juxtaposed against a static hyper-normality, which is itself a fantasy that never was, anywhere, anywhen. The Oyster Boy’s father is an Italian immigrant, but that bothers no one, and no one whispers that it might have anything to do with his child’s failure to conform.
The story is so exactly the sort of thing getting adapted right now that the plot felt oddly familiar in nearly every particular. The treatment is Industry Standard as well. Gorey-gothicky, fairy-taleish, clowning, physical theatre, integrated music. I don't dislike any of that, but damn, Fringes are chock-a-block with this aesthetic right now, and it's seeping into mainstream productions too. It's very much the style of the moment, and the overlayered Collectif 50s look of this Coney Island-set production doesn't strike new notes either.
One problem with this On Trend, non-naturalistic style is that it can be really stratifying. Companies with incredibly trained, experienced all-rounders who can play fiddles with their toes while belting a song in Welsh and contorting themselves Poignantly—companies with a good amount of money to put into their productions—execute this style very differently than companies without those resources. Bear in mind that training and experience in dance, clowning, physical theatre, etc., is also money invested in the production; it’s just been invested at an earlier, less immediately visible stage.
You can still achieve great effects via this house style without a vast budget, but in some ways, minimalism or naturalism might be kinder on younger or less formal, polished, and professionalised companies. It's not an accident that this house style is on the rise at a time when the evaporation of student support and generous council level theatre grants have colluded to make UK theatre whiter and posher. Dominic Dromgoole, former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, called the increasing dominance of public school (in the British sense, aka privately educated and ancestrally wealthy) actors a “real worry.”
Oyster Boy wasn’t a bad production, but during it I caught myself doing what I never do: checking my phone for the time under my jacket. The cast isn't bad at all, they just feel raw. (Put the crap oyster pun down.) The script spends a lot of time circling the same emotional points, which it was more impressed by than I was in the first place. An hour of theatre just to smugly and insipidly shout, “Gotcha, people are unwilling to accommodate difference and suck!” (Man, thanks for that insightful truth bomb). There were also some moments of incoherence in the emotional arc surrounding the Oyster Boy's playmates and his eventual departure to the sea.
Oddly, the play seems to lose some energy and direction after the birth of the eponymous child. The boy was portrayed by a puppet, but not that engagingly. Puppetry, by the by, is yet another thing that is Big Right Now. I often like it because it signifies a level of commitment and staginess I appreciate, but it’s definitely also become something of a box to tick.
Even while watching it I was comparing Oyster Boy unfavourably to Kill the Beast's electrifying adaptation of Tom Baker's The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, and later in the day I had occasion to compare it to Brighton Fringe's similarly all-female production of The Great Train Robbery. Both companies utilised some of the same techniques as Oyster Boy and went for similar aesthetics or affects in some places, but both productions also felt more developed and mature. Oyster Boy felt thin, and slightly Student Showcase. While I wanted more to be going on, I also wondered whether a more streamlined production could have made more of the flawed source text.
The Forecast was my SFFnal highlight of the Fringe. The project was still in development and the company asked us to regard it as such, even passing out suggestion cards at the end. Because it was also a paid public performance, I feel justified in commenting on it with this caveat. It’s based on George Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” which you can read here, and was developed in collaboration with Olivier-award-winning writer Bola Agbaje.
The Forecast, as its classically dystopian title might imply, is set in a near future where, as an act of charity and conspicuous consumption in one, rich people install desperate women in their gardens as floating decorative statues/a neurally linked Alexa system. This premise pulls on an aristocratic tradition of hiring a “hermit” for one's stylised garden grotto, and on the female names we give our domestic butler/personal assistant technology.
The play’s collection of four “angels” includes Maria, a chipper Brazilian girl; Magdalena, an older Ukranian woman; Aramide, an “African” woman; and Jasmine, a somewhat unexpected English woman. The others question Jasmine’s right to be there, taking up a space. It's a mindful production with input from a Nigerian-British writer, and Aramide is perhaps the most compelling member of the cast. Yet while a fierce regard for her privacy fits with Aramide's proud reluctance to engage with the others, it does rankle that the other countries are specifically named and Aramide’s isn't.
All the performers were very strong. It almost didn’t occur to me to say so, because they were strong in a way that let me enter into thinking about the piece rather than in a way that called attention to individual virtuosity. The ensemble knit together well as a cast, which is no small thing.
The Forecast is a play about relationships, interested in the central character’s relationships with their own pasts, their connections to one another, and their relationships with the house and the larger systems of control, exploitation, and promise it represents. As the neural net starts to malfunction (or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say, as it develops externalities the company that installed the women doesn't particularly care about), the women begin to blend into one another in a way that disturbs them, threatening their individuality.
This is a play rich with Aboutness; it throws out a lot of resonant themes and sees what sticks. It’s not careless, so much as brimming over with ungovernable meaning. Histories of domestic help entwine with female affinities and workplace frictions. Family duty, women as spectacle, globalisation, female labour and how it can be rendered invisible or picturesque, race, and class all push against one another in Forecast, creating unexpected snarls and nexuses. Strange rifts open between the women when they realise they've all contracted for different lengths of service, at different rates of pay. When Maria's mother, whom she was doing this to support, dies in her absence, she loses all faith in the work. But the others can't perform without her, and they are forced to awkwardly cajole the wild, grieving girl back into the harness dress she was forced to pay for in order to get this job in the first place. The other women are rendered complicit by their own need.
Perhaps the conclusion feels slightly rushed, and the way in which Maria lost the remainder of her family a bit unclear. This doesn't really challenge the play's overall character and thematic successes. We only ever see the four women and their “installer,” but of course through their conversation we see their whole world.
The Girl Who Fell in Love With the Moon
Everything I said about on trend production re: Oyster Boy, but slicker and with a heavier emphasis on clowning.
Girl has a somewhat trad “troupe traveling to the Fringe” frame narrative. The troupe's car breaks down, and the irate friends decide to just do their show in the woods anyway. This performance consists of a series of stories (one starring each troupe member) that seem to reflect the failings and ambitions of the “real” (frame narrative) actors in an exaggerated manner that often leads to the story version of the character's gruesome death.
What seems to be a string of cautionary tales sits strangely with the last story, which is in a somewhat different, kinder, realer register. Luna, the leader of the troupe and star of the final and eponymous tale, which we understand to be directly autobiographical (within the frame narrative), is now willing to take a chance on the very cosmic romantic ambition that earlier characters were punished for. Is that a statement about the wilful self-destructive stupidity or faith love requires, or insufficiently thought-through writing? I'm not sure.
Girl had that devised theatre problem of seeming to struggle a little to find its way, to determine what the production’s core elements were. The tales are funny, well done executions of silly material. The simple jars of “stars” that decorate the stage work well. I also really liked the first departure from the formula, a song that a member of the troupe who, unbeknownst to his friends, is an alien, sings in lieu of a story. The last story seemed to push the frame still further.
It's easy to be comfortably moralising about vanity, self-absorption, and cluelessness, as most of these stories were, but harder to drag out the strange, actually kind of otherworldly feeling of the final story: to deal in vulnerability. I wanted more of that.
The Ruby in the Smoke
While this adaptation isn't SFFnal in and of itself, it's based on a book of the same title by popular His Dark Materials author Phillip Pullman, and is thus of significant interest to many fantasy fans.
The Ruby in the Smoke follows Sally Lockhart, a young woman who's just lost her father (and with him, it seems, control over her family's money). In following up clues about her father's death, Sally uncovers a complex and dangerous tangle of mysteries involving her own past, her father's time in India as a soldier, and the business her father established subsequently, which Sally discovers is involved with Chinese triads and opium smuggling.
This production is a well executed handling of penny dreadful material. It has moments of very strong staging, particularly the slow motion, self-consciously pulpy fight scene, wherein a sensation-novel-obsessed young office clerk comments on the action as it happens. The way letters and diaries are conveyed is compelling. The office clerk who has a heart attack and the boxing vicar (the same actor, I believe?) were exceptionally fun.
However, the connection (or lack thereof) between Sally's father's two big predicaments, in India and China, is somewhat muddled. I haven’t read the novel, so can’t say for sure whether this is an inherited issue (versus, perhaps, a problem arising from the adaptation process). But frankly, even if it is, an adaptation does have its own responsibility to make sense and have a degree of cohesive elegance to its plot structure.
The play’s substantial doubling could also have been stronger. Casts that do doubling as one of their Major Things, like (again) Kill the Beast, really work to perfect and stylise that character acting, and when you’re not willing or able to put that work in, everything gets confused. Even a hyper-professional outfit can fall prey to this. (Who the fuck is who in the middle of a Globe history play?) Frankly even if the doubling had been fantastic, this show felt like it needed a couple more cast members. There were some weaker acting moments and baggy adaptational turns.
The set looked like the cast had taken an x-acto knife to pasteboard and then painted feverishly through the night, supplies not to cost in excess of £200. I suspect this is exactly what happened.
While this production had a lot going for it, I’m a little surprised it’s already been to the EdFringe and been well-reviewed there, as well as had involvement from Pullman himself. Frankly I don’t feel it’s quite ready for that now. It needs more work (and more money, honestly). It was one of those shows where we walked out talking about what we’d enjoyed, but also about what the production would look like staged at Southwark or some similar playhouse, given time and tightened up.
Moondial won me over with its opening scene. A young girl named Araminta, called Minty, is sleeping in her bed, disturbed by murky dreams. The actress stands against a sheet, and it's as if we see her from above. As she tosses, clawing hands and faces press through the sheet in evocative flashes. It's simple but really effective, doing the same work to disturb the sanctity of the bed as the scene in Ju-on: The Grudge. There, the ghost creeps up under the covers her victim has pulled over her head, pressing herself into the very cocoon-like space you hide from unpleasant, frightening things in.
Minty's staying with her Aunt Mary (an elderly family friend) for the summer. Aunt Mary works at an old manor house, the grounds of which contain both the eponymous moondial and some restless spirits. Minty’s recently lost her father, and her mother is severely injured in an accident soon after she drops Minty off.
Minty reckons with anxiety on these points as she meets and sets about freeing two ghosts from their own unresolved business: a late Victorian-era serving boy, Tom, and Sarah, a girl from an ambiguous earlier period who’s hated and feared by the children of her own era because of the birthmark that disfigures her. Minty time travels via the moondial to interact with Tom and Sarah, so she doesn’t recognise them as ghosts per se. I found the jerky physicality of the play’s time travel evocative (the attendant blue disco lighting possibly a little less so). A further complication arises when Aunt Mary takes in a boarder: a ghost hunter with evil intentions towards the lingering phantoms, who uncannily resembles Sarah's cruel and neglectful guardian.
Moondial is adapted from a BBC children's serial (1988), which was itself adapted from a book by Helen Cresswell. Moondial is of a piece with programs like Children of the Stones (1976, HTV/ITV), coming out of that era of wonderfully odd, earnestly done children's SFF/horror. British networks no longer want to invest in projects like this, preferring longer-running properties which of necessity can't deliver the same suspense or comparable arc-plotting. It’s probable that such stories would also be considered too frightening or too involved and dull for contemporary youth audiences. (I disagree, but.) Russel T Davies' slightly later Century Falls (1993) comes at the tail end of this period, and is almost a homage to it.
Unfortunately Moondial's origins prove something of a problem for the production. The narrative is burdened with too many cycles of visiting the Wise Gardener, who's anxious that Minty free the spirits he's sensitive to, but unable to communicate with. We keep returning to him and not really receiving much new information for our pains.
The central villainess's plot doesn't make much sense in either Sarah’s timeline or Minty’s. What threat does this ghost hunter pose, exactly? How is she connected to the earlier “version” of herself? I get that exposing her to a mirror shows the true ugliness of her soul, etc., but how this defeats her is very unclear, and I wonder if the book was more explicit. (Everything feels kind of diet-Diana Wynne Jones, right down to the wtf ending.)
A lot of what goes wrong with this play, I suspect, comes from bits of the original(s) too faithfully preserved, or from the act of adaptation itself (moving between mediums and time compression). The BBC serial was six parts, which must have afforded plenty of time for chatting up this wise Dickensian shambler working the ticket booth. He should have appeared in the play about once, if indeed he was necessary—I’m not convinced you couldn’t have cut him entirely.
We don't get much information about Sarah's era. We see several mobs of threatening children chanting “devil's child!” at the little girl, which was a bit eye-roll-inducing to begin with and did not precisely grow on me. If we'd had more detail about Sarah’s time period and situation the harassment might have felt grounded, rather than like a vague invocation of Olden Times. I'm not asking for a timestamp—what I want is a sense of that environment and those circumstances as a real part of history rather than a plot contrivance necessary for this particular child to feel bad.
It’s strange that the play wants a perhaps disproportionate degree of the audience’s sympathy to be given to this child, whose family seems to own the manor. While Sarah is admittedly abused by a cruel guardian, Tom the Victorian kitchen boy has lost his parents, been separated from his remaining family, is routinely roughed up by older servants, and has been forced into hard manual labour. He's also due to die of an epidemic quite soon: all part of the Victorian capitalism starter pack. So Tom probably seems to have it at least as hard as Sarah, but his problems are rendered somewhat invisible because we think his situation is kind of “normal.” Tom also doesn't have the cache of being a beautifully suffering aristo, physically marked but not too disfigured (the Rosa Dartle/Phantom of the Opera Film-Version Special). As with Oyster Boy, Sarah’s Abnormality is spoken of as though no one else has a divergent body. Is this the early modern period? Because if so, everyone has a fucked-up body and exists in a low-level condition of poor nutrition and pain. The healthy, unmarked body as a “naturalised” state is like five minutes old. The villagers are all worried about Sarah and not, I don’t know, Plaguey Jim over in the stables? I don’t buy it.
The somewhat mystical ending features Sarah and Tom being “saved,” though we know they still perish (god knows how Sarah cops it—possibly more Threatening Children do her in, or she dies of being so bored of being called “devil’s child”). I guess they pass in sufficient peace that they don't become ghosts due to Minty's friendship, and her being there for them when they felt alone? And maybe also the defeat of this witch lady, somehow?
My girlfriend came down very hard on this play, but I thought it had some engaging elements, like that banger opening scene, and could be cleaned up with (considerable) work. Mostly I just need someone to draw “what is going on in this play?” out on a piece of paper, answer all those questions within themselves, then make sure that understanding is similarly available to the audience. I haven’t seen the original, and thus I’m not sure if these issues are inherited, but frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. Children’s theatre should be coherent as well as atmospheric if at all possible.
Per the earlier discussion of the Fringe and theatre life cycles, most of these plays will pop up again at this year’s EdFringe, and in Britain generally over the next year or two. The more successful plays may also cross oceans, appearing at Australian Fringes, European festivals, and American theatres. (Asia, Africa, and South America routinely get missed by such tours.) These plays may be in different forms when you have the opportunity to see them, with higher production values (if these outings secure grants or investors), edited to different lengths, sharpened up, etc. But they'll get around. It’s worth looking out for anything you like the look of on the companies’ sites, or those of your local venues (provided you still have some after National Endowment cuts, etc.).
I'd like to make mention of two non-SFFnal plays that were exceptionally noteworthy. An all-female company's production of The Great Train Robbery, a play about the £2.6 million 1963 heist of a Royal Mail train, was wonderfully fun and accomplished. This comedy starred a small cleaning crew, though the actors also doubled as the “real” criminals, the police after them, and the attendees of a Women's Institute meeting. Scratchworks’ doubling was accomplished: there were clearly established, developed characters at every stage, excellent transitions between them and great physicality. There was also a painfully embarrassing panto “children playing kazoos” section: Great Train Robbery had it all. With few props, no set, and only four actors, Robbery made other productions look ponderous and somewhat pretentious in their vision and execution by comparison. Catch this play, threaten it with a gun, and extort vast sums of money out of it.
One-woman show Obama & Me follows a black British woman's career promoting free movement of people as an EU employee, negotiating her Britishness, her Europeanness, her belonging to Ghana (the country to which her father has returned), relative global blacknesses, and the racialised political rhetorics of her workplace drama and the larger policy goals that work aimed at.
Sylvia Arthur's story is poetic, personal, rich with detail, and irresolvable as a piece of theatre. Multi-layered, unyieldingly logistical, and complicated, it was exactly what it needed to be. Arthur seemed at times somewhat nervous in her presentation, but I put this down to first-night jitters and the work of exposing herself, which I can only respect. It can be easy to hide behind mannered technique and the smug, pat story that says nothing new and exposes nothing new, that does not reach. Arthur allowed herself to be messier than that, to risk boring and offending you. While I'd have liked to spend more time with the climax of her monologue, that very fact testifies to the steady power of her material. This show was as simply delivered as a conference paper with media clips, but did more than a lot of more complicated productions.
And I do think there's something particularly SFFnal about this political moment, and thus about explorations of it. We are in a time of wild danger and possibility, of political fantasy and the hypothetical. Things that have not happened for fifty years, for a hundred, have come to pass again. Inhabiting this nexus feels like an SFFnal act, and as Jennifer Marie Brissett has pointed out, “#BlackLivesMatter is a scifi term. We know that it is not true today, yet we are being bold in declaring its truth for tomorrow.”
Obama & Me also made me keenly aware of how fucking white this Fringe was, and indeed the MacDaddy Fringe is. Britain's BAME population isn't well-represented here, and touring companies from countries like America (Theatre Movement Bazaar being a notable exception), hailing from urban centres with significant multicultural populations, are also disproportionately dominated by white performers.
Like elements of it though I do, there's something about the current House Style and its pervasive sepia-tinted nostalgia that permits or even encourages the envisioning of a past without its historically present multiculturalism. If this grammar of techniques relies on class-restricted access to certain rhetorics of training, then that winnows out capable performers and would-be performers without those resources. If people form troupes of friends who they feel they can work frictionlessly with, it's telling that those clutches of friends are often all-white.
We put a lot of stock in everyone comfortably gelling in a troupe, but friction, the dissonance of ideas from different cultural perspectives, can be generative. This whole thing is getting a bit stale, isn’t it? Everyone tops each other by going harder Gaulier; more Night Circus (while never doing anything that actually discomforts or challenges audiences). We’ve got to keep it fresh, or what was once expressive ossifies and becomes rote, as well as white as bone.
Even some highly professional troupes I love, like the people behind Yonderland, are nonetheless pretty relentlessly white. There are reasons behind each individual decision to form an all-white troupe, but in aggregate this leads to a kind of impoverished theatrical landscape that doesn't offer equal opportunities to non-white practitioners and is in something of a formal and thematic cul-de-sac at present. I know troupes are under a lot of pressures to create work in this economy, but it would also behove them to bear this disparity in mind, and to think hard about whether they're contributing to it. The more professional such troupes are, the more askance I look at their demographically disproportionate racial uniformity.