Week One of Brighton Festival and Fringe 2017

Phew. Brighton Festival has a packed schedule all across the city, Brighton Fringe is boasting its biggest programme ever, and wow, we’ve been busy. After our preview suggestions last week, we hit the streets for fireworks, impromptu performances and even more comedy, theatre, dance events and talks than we originally planned. We’ll be publishing a weekly round-up every Thursday during May. Here are our reviews and recommendations from week one:

The Ruffian on the Stair
Lantern @ ACT, 5th May
This Blue Devil Theatre production of Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair stays true to its 60s roots, with a seductive soundtrack and a stylistically decorated set. Staged to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, this is a play that makes an outrageous plot seem relatable, and the production succeeds in making the damaged, complex characters seem peculiarly familiar. There are genuine, engaging relationships between the trio of actors, particularly between on-stage married couple Mike and Joyce, played by Padraig Lynch and Kiki Kendrick. Elliott Rogers’ performance as Wilson, at times dangerous and at times coy, is powerful. Although the play’s themes are dark, sparking around love, Catholicism, prostitution, gay incest and murder for hire, this delivery is insouciant, entrancing, and playfully light. (JMM)
Buy tickets for 26th & 27th May here.

In Conversation with an Acid Bath Murderer
The Old Police Cells, 5th May
There’s a sinister atmosphere in the Old Police Cells beneath Brighton Town Hall, and a creeping coldness to the stale air as you descend the narrow stairs. Unsurprisingly, the tension rises when you’re crammed into a low-ceilinged room with a wild-eyed acid bath murderer blocking the only exit. Nigel Fairs, the writer who also plays the lead role of George Haigh, tells the tale with the cold-blooded, scheming relish you’d expect from a gruesome killer. Though he’s skilfully menacing, it’s the actress who plays all of the female roles who really captured our imagination, with entrancing comic mannerisms that make her characters feel completely believable. The plot is well-planned but has little mystery, and could easily be condensed without losing impact. (JMM)
Buy tickets for 13th May here.

The Writers’ Bloc
Rialto Theatre, 5th May
Take five great Russian writers. Imprison them in a room. Order them to write a great novel for Stalin. That’s the starting point for this ingenious new play, written and directed by Luke Ofield. It then explores the consequences for their lives, their relationships and the act of writing. Bulgakov, Pasternak and the team debate themes. Writing becomes an industrial output at 100 pages a day. But nothing is good enough for Uncle Joe. They are propelled by fear of the gulags. They are ignited by vodka. Mutual mistrust creeps into their cell. The proletariat guards, innocent and ultimately brutal under orders, muddle through. The bourgeois writers debate great ideas. One of them says “true literature is written by mad men, heretics and sceptics.” It’s a stunning play. The murmuring peasant songs ‘shubahla, shubahla’ set the scene. Beautiful stagecraft, honed by subtle lighting, accentuates the dark brooding. We sense the tragedy to come. The Writers’ Bloc is one of 20 carefully curated plays at the Rialto this May. You could easily do all your festival drama here. (MA)
The run has finished, but keep in touch with Unmasked Theatre here.

Robyn’s Bad Decision Time
Laughing Horse @ The Quadrant, 5th May
If we were to write a recipe for the perfect set-up for a comedy show, it’d be something like this: mix together a central venue with free entry, add a well-regarded comedian to an early evening slot and finish with weather which is dry, but not so warm that everyone’s drinking outside instead. Bizarrely, all of these ingredients were present for Robyn Perkins’ new show at The Quadrant, but the room was almost empty. Sometimes all the choice available during the Brighton Fringe can leave potential attendees overwhelmed, but after a brisk 45 minutes of Perkins’ Bad Decision Time, we can thoroughly recommend this show. Robyn is warm, self-deprecating and witty as she spins through a myriad of reasons for her bad decisions, including standard themes about her family, lovers and self-acceptance, but also global politics and neuroscience. (JMM)
Buy tickets for 18th – 20th May at The Blue Man here.

Ladyboys of Bangkok: Who Runs the World?
Sabai Pavilion, Victoria Gardens, 5th May
A stalwart of the Brighton Fringe, the Ladyboys of Bangkok camp descends annually and has a devoted fan base. The glamorous performers (all male Thai nationals, the compere enthused at the start of the show) maintained their fixed grins throughout, but there’s something a bit forced about them. Trevor, a man of short stature with a gruff Midlands accent, seems cool with being spanked and swung about dressed as a lion cub, but does that make it okay? Are these performers empowered or exploited? If you can put aside your reservations, and put away a few drinks, it’s an entertaining evening. The hen parties whooping around the stage are there to have a good time, and they get it. Ladyboys of Bangkok is heavily choreographed and flagrantly lip-synced, with a soundtrack that progresses from current pop hits to school disco classics, and features some truly beautiful costumes. It borrows more from holiday camp cabaret than Khao San Road ladyboys shows, and is actually pretty tame in terms of content. But fundamentally the premise is mixing high-octane pop with some unashamed gawping. And that doesn’t sit right, really. (JMM)
Running until 3rd June, buy tickets here.

Samantha Baines: 1 Woman, A Dwarf Planet and 2 Cox
The Warren, 6th May
The themes of this interplanetary hour – science and equality – need all the witty championing they can get at the moment, and Samantha Baines possesses a warmth and directness which make you root for her, not least as she talks about the barriers she has faced to be acknowledged as an equal among comedians and scientists, and the encouragement from her gran which led to this show arriving on the festival stage. There are several enjoyable ideas and moments – the somewhat brave audience participation permits a viewer to ring a bell each time Baines tells a pun, which is an occasionally tricky task given that some of them take a while to notice, if at all. There is also, in patches, material which, if it doesn’t ever drag, perhaps lacks the finesse and chiselling to add to the structure of the show and turn the chuckles into sharp laughs. Some of the cruder parts aren’t funny enough to seem like much more than heavy-handed attempts to add shock value, and the positing of Professor Brian Cox as a nerd sex symbol – far from a new concept – is overcooked. Cox, though, would undoubtedly find elements to admire in Baines’s comedy and exploration of science. If she keeps on tweeting him, maybe one day he’ll see for himself. (BM)
Buy tickets for 20th & 21st May here.

Fem.Ale Brewster Beer Festival
The Marlborough, 5th-7th May
May is Brighton’s finest month, and it’s great to wander around the pop-up venues on a Saturday afternoon and see where you end up. Last weekend, if you were lucky, you’d have drifted past The Marlborough, where a full street party played out with the Royal Pavilion as a backdrop. Featuring live bands (shout out to Sink Ya Teeth, who were great) and a selection of guest ales (shout out to the Annie E Taylor by Brewster Brewery, which was also great), this was only part of the weekend-long series of events held as the Fem.Ale Brewster Beer Festival. With DJs on Friday and special vegan roasts on Sunday, along with stalls and talks, this event catered for all, whilst toasting the talents of female-run breweries across the UK. In a realm dominated by beard-twiddlers, this was a rare and welcome cause for celebration. (JMM)
Keep in touch with the Fem.Ale brewers on Facebook.

HIV: Is Victory in Sight?
Sallis Benney Theatre, 7th May
A frankly shocking one in fifty men in Brighton and Hove has HIV, and some of those are undiagnosed. It’s not just a disease that affects men, though: both the people who discussed their positive statuses at this event were middle-aged women. HIV, we are repeatedly told, can affect anyone. The title of this conversation, held as part of the Brighton Festival and in conjunction with Brighton & Sussex Medical School and The Martin Fisher Foundation, seems at first to be dubious. But victory isn’t just about a cure. By 2020, the panel want 90% of people with HIV to know about it, 90% to be on treatment, and 90% to have viral suppression. The main point to be taken from this conversation was that being tested is beneficial to the individual as well as wider society. The sooner a person is diagnosed, the more effective their treatment will be and the lower the chance is that they’ll ever infect anyone else. There was nothing new on offer with this talk, but after discussing stigma and misunderstandings, it gave a message of strength, support and togetherness. (JMM)
HIV tests are free from your GP or from anonymous clinics open in the evenings and weekends, or can be ordered online if you’d rather test at home. For more information, click here.

Eimear McBride Introduces Megan Bradbury
Brighton & Hove High School, 7th May
Having read segments from their newest works The Lesser Bohemians and Everyone Is Watching, Eimear McBride and Megan Bradbury discuss work, travel, love and modernism. When asked how she came to her fractured prose McBride recalls her desire to “capture moments…what happens in the body, around the body and in the brain”. Her prose is something natural, an expression of what it means to be a human being. Bradbury’s novel connects the physicality of New York with its past, and its people. Punctuated with insightful, uplifting comments on ‘adventurous readers’ and writing as ‘expressions of character’ the evening is filled of talk of beginnings in Norwich, whether modernist writing has returned and the ‘fruity’ nature of McBride’s work. An inspiring night for readers and writers alike, these two authors shine a light on striking out into the unknown, and having fun while doing it. (HA)

An Dhá: Supertigers
Komedia, 7th May
An Dhá (meaning ‘The Two’ in Gaelic) are an award-winning duo, comprised on Jaya Hanley from Brighton on violin and Sarah James from Lincoln on cello, who play a play a rich mix of mostly self-written tunes that draw on the Scottish tradition. Jaya and Sarah have the precision of classically trained musicians but also the individuality and flair that comes from an appreciation of pop and jazz. At a series of concerts at the Fringe they are playing tracks from their excellent new album ‘Celtivation’, due out next month, but available now at their shows. The music includes some moving numbers like Sarah’s gorgeous ‘Tartan Fields’ as well as upbeat numbers such at the traditional song ‘Jenny Dang the Weaver’, and the jazz-inspired finger-work from Sarah is particularly impressive. The duo also provide a family-friendly show that will appeal to parents who want to give their children an introduction to good music and have scheduled some afternoon shows to suit. (JS)
Buy tickets for 16th, 21st and 24th May at Komedia, or the 14th, 19th and 20th at Brighton Buddhist Centre, here.

Brodi & Dave: Paranoid
The Caroline of Brunswick, 7th May
Late-ish on the Sunday night of the Fringe’s opening weekend doesn’t sound like a great time to debut a show. Still, at 9pm and after a full weekend of festivities, these two Brighton comedians managed to pack out the upstairs room at The Caroline, with standing room only at the back. Though billed as a double-act, this show features half-hour sets of each comedian’s new stand-up material on the loose subject of paranoia. Dave Fensome’s material is energetic and relatable and littered with puns, as he touches on themes of aging and family. Brodi Snook’s sharp and dark, with a cynical, engaging delivery and a serious commitment to the theme of paranoia. Even if you’re in denial about your innermost paranoia, you’ll enjoy this show. Don’t miss it. (JMM)
Back on 3rd & 4th June, click here for details.

The Brexorcist
Spiegeltent, 8th May
Safe to say, you will see nothing else quite like Sam Hewitt’s Brexorcist in the Fringe this year. Half Rocky Horror Picture Show and half Jonathan Pie video, it is in equal parts brilliant and frustrating, but has the artistic soul of a genius and its heart is very much in the right place. On its opening night we bore witness to musical theatre, dramatic depth and comedy sketches on the theme of the decline of modern Britain and the corruption of its people. The storyline didn’t really hang together, Satan’s appearances were too long and the digs at famous figures-of-hate were probably libellous, but there were plenty of highlights, such as Seth Morgan’s superb opening monologue as the titular character and Graham Darg’s hilarious skit as an EU official tasked with auditing atrocious love songs. The Dulcetones’ regular appearance as the Greek Chorus also proved a brilliant theatrical trick, and their accompaniment to Tim Harbridge’s anthemic songs were also high points. The Brexorcist plays one more time on the 22nd and we expect the Spiegeltent to be as full to the rafters then as it was on its opening night. (JS)
Buy tickets for 22nd May here.

Polly Toynbee & David Walker
Brighton & Hove High School, 9th May
Beloved Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and her co-writer David Walker have got a new book out. Dismembered: How the Attack on the State Harms Us All looks set to be an interesting, well-researched tome on how the Tory cuts are damaging our society, our collective values, and our understanding and compassion. We know this because the first half-hour of this talk was dedicated solely to a sort of rapid-fire, dual-presented book advert. The second, much more interesting half-hour was dedicated to actually discussing the hugely important issues and themes the book raises, with a few questions from the audience given considered, insightful answers from Toynbee and Walker. It’s not their fault that the show was only scheduled for an hour, but the whole thing seemed rushed; less of a debate or conversation and more of a sales pitch. How does the attack on the state harm us all? You might have to buy the book to find out. (JMM)

Swan Lake / Loch na hEala
Brighton Dome, 9th May
Staggering animalistic onto the stage is a man tied to a cement block with a necklace of rope. White wings are suspended on ladders over a dark, bare, industrial stage. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake: Loch na hEala is introduced with the transformation of this bleating man into our reluctant narrator. Visually stunning dance and something deeper combine into a modern Irish take. The dances are beautiful and light, then painful, tinged with madness. The story is powerful, exploring mental health in a modern world and the ruin of beauty. Even the pausing of the final scenes, a tribal dance of feathers, for an audience member to be escorted out by a paramedic did not dampen the ethereal quality of this play. Michael Keegan-Dolan himself walked on stage, asking everyone to “be cool”, sitting on the stage cross-legged amongst feathers and dancers, and asked: “any questions?” as a teacher would a class. One thing is for certain. No one will be questioning the sheer beauty of the tragedy he has produced. As Keegan-Dolan suggests, “Don’t be afraid of the dark – it is your friend.” (HA)

We’ll be back next week with reviews of Jane Postelthwaite, Ocean Wisdom, The Four Owls & Jam Baxter, Bovine Cemetery’s Literary Funeral, Tez Ilyas and as many more shows as we can.

Words by Mike Aiken, Ben Miller, Hannah Aston, Jessica Marshall McHattie and Jon Southcoasting

The Brexorcist and An Dhá photos by Jon Southcoasting
Fem.Ale Brewers Festival photo by Jessica Marshall McHattie
The Writers’ Bloc photo by various artists at Unmasked Theatre

See more of our Brighton Fringe and Festival reviews:
Week Two, Week Three and Week Four

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