Theatre Review: Buxton Festival Fringe 2018

This year's Buxton Festival Fringe ran for 19 days from the 4th to 22nd July presenting a huge range of theatre, comedy, visual arts and spoken word events and running alongside the main Buxton Festival's music, opera and books festival. With only a 2 day stay at Buxton within that period to attend events at the main festival on the 19th and 20th July, there's only so much you can take in at the Fringe and many interesting looking shows had already been and gone. I was fortunate enough however to sample a few of those at the latter end of the festival.

The Ladder

Written by Helen Rutter
Director: Helen Rutter
Cast: Helen Rutter, Rob Rouse
Underground at the Arts Centre Studio
Buxton Festival Fringe
19 July 2018

The situation in The Ladder is simple enough. A woman is stuck up a ladder while decorating her living room, her finger caught in the catch at the top. Unable to move it for fear of cutting her finger off, she is not only annoyed that her husband is no great help to her, but in the time she has the time to consider and be concerned about the direction her life has taken that has brought her to this point. Helen Rutter's little domestic drama is however interspersed with little visual tricks to keep it moving along, some brief musical interludes and a great comic turn from husband Rob Rouse, but there is some reflection on deeper issues that arise out of it all to engage the audience further.

Left stuck in a painful position for hours certainly provides plenty of time for reflection, and mostly it's about how difficult it is being a young mother and having a useless husband with peculiar childish ways that are unconnected with the real world. You'll find the usual observations there about men and women but with Rob Rouse providing looks of bewilderment that his contributions aren't being well received, it's playful and amusing and prevents it from becoming just a bit of an 'I'm fed up and have had enough' and a 'he doesn't understand me' rant.

With the anniversary of the death of her mother bringing fresh and still painful memories there is also however deeper reflection in The Ladder on family through reminiscence of childhood events and escapades, of important and meaningful values learned and wanting to instill them in your own children, but recognising now just how difficult it can be to keep it together, feel like you know what you're doing and that it all has a purpose. The idea of losing your finger even starts to have an exciting novelty value, something out of the ordinary, something that might at least take your life in a new and unexpected direction.

Largely delivered in monologue, these observations and concerns are delivered confessionally and conspiratorially by Helen Rutter, seeking assurance and recognition with the audience that we've all been there; fearing that somehow we've lost control, that everything has caught up with you and it's almost become too much to bear. Rob Rouse however adds another dimension, playing his 'I may look stupid but I told you so' look that he does so well as Bottom in Upstart Crow. Metaphorical and whimsical, but also intimate and real, The Ladder takes the highs with the lows.

The Fetch Wilson

The Corps Ensemble
Written by Stewart Roche
Director: Jed Murray
Cast: Edwin Mullane
Underground at the Arts Centre Studio
Buxton Festival Fringe
19 July 2018

One-man shows are common at Fringe events for obvious reasons, allowing new ideas and writing to be road-tested in small scale environments. In reality however it's far from a one-man affair, with people working on lighting, directing and writing, coming together to create a sense of dramatic performance that goes beyond mere story-telling. Somehow however The Corps Ensemble's The Fetch Wilson doesn't strike the right balance between the writing and the performance that amounts to an entirely satisfying theatrical experience.

The idea is certainly something you can work with. The Fetch Wilson has an air of ambiguity, a sense of otherworldliness that is evident from the moment you step into its world. The room is dark, a single bulb glowing, illuminating large playing cards representing a King and Queen with a Joker on the wall at the back. Into this arena steps a young man in wearing a dressing gown over underwear and an inflatable child's water ring around him, looking somewhat confused at how he get there and in this condition.

Essentially the question that the man is trying to get to grips with in The Fetch Wilson is discovering what is our true nature or whether we can ever really understand it; particularly that darker side of human nature that doesn't get acknowledged much less expressed. Liam Wilson's narrative journey exploring this is - perhaps necessarily, perhaps intentionally - a bit random and unclear. Parental influences are brought into it (the King and Queen); a mother worshipped but dead, a father who is a businessman and a bit of a chancer, who puts Liam (the Joker) into a boarding school, but none of this really helps fills out the picture that develops.

It's at the boarding school that Liam Wilson meets another student with the same name. He even looks like him enough to cause some confusion. Liam however is hardworking and determined to succeed academically, while his namesake is a little more devil-may-care and self-confident. He knows he will do well without having to try too hard. Liam eventually finds his calling in a more unconventional path, playing cards, learning the tricks of the trade and cheating where necessary. He crosses paths with the other Liam Wilson over the years however at unexpected but significant points in his life.

I say unexpected but you can probably see what is coming if you're familiar with Fight Club or Dostoevsky's The Double (or Richard Aoyade's film of the same). Edwin Mullane relates the story well, but it is all quite one-note and it feels more like a reading rather than something that has been or is being actually lived through or experienced. Perhaps though there's just not enough in the story which gives us answers without revealing any great subtext, nuance or insight into whatever elements lead Liam Wilson towards the dark side, other than revealing just that we all have the potential within us.

Sea Wall

Sudden Impulse Theatre Company
Written by Simon Stephens
Director: Simon N W Winterman
Cast: Jack Brosnan
Underground at the Clubhouse
Buxton Festival Fringe
20 July 2018

By way of contrast, Simon Stephen's Sea Wall is an even more scenically pared down one-man storytelling performance but, as delivered by Jack Brosnan, it carried a story of real 'lived' experience and dramatic force, a huge range of different images and impressions that contain a wealth of sentiment and ideas about life, what it means and what it means to lose it all.

Again the method is one man talking directly to an audience, and although it's not entirely clear why, there is a sense that the story he has to tell is a dark one that has a tragic twist. Certainly it's evident in his demeanour and changes of expression, but there's also something in the stop-start fragmentary approach of incidents and impressions he makes before he gets around to the troubling events that leave him with a metaphorical but plainly visible hole right through the centre of him.

Alex is clearly a man who loves his family and life deeply. There is warmth in his descriptions of his child Amy and his father-in-law Arthur who lives in the South of France, an army veteran who has seen something of life and some of life's horrors. Alex and his wife Helen are also reasonably happy, or at least content with their life together, although you can sense a tinge of regret that they may have fallen into a pattern where there is not longer that love, excitement and vitality that they once shared.

The reason gradually becomes clear as Alex describes their holidays to his father-in-law home in the Carcassonne, his experience of scuba diving and his realisation of the enormity of the shelf of the sea wall. You think you know where your stand until suddenly a gulf appears and you realise that there are depths you can go to that you had never thought about or imagined.

This is how a simple relating of a story to an audience can be a complete dramatic experience, the moment lived through in painful real detail, the associated impact it has on family and individual lives understood and felt by the audience. Jack Brosnan's performance is simply outstanding - it must be one of the highlights and award-winners of the Buxton Fringe (he did in fact win Best Actor)- reaching out, holding back, stopping to think and restart, linking and drawing together the disparate parts of the fragmented narrative, trying to find the words and necessary images to capture the enormity and totality of the experience. He has the audience in the palm of his hands and a story to tell that forces you to consider what it must be like to be Alex, to feel that hole going right through your middle.

Richard Pulsford - Uns-pun

The Rotunda Theatre
Buxton Festival Fringe
20 July 2018

You need to have a quite a bit of nerve to do a stand-up comedy routine, and even more so to do a bunch of gags based on puns, supposedly the lowest form of wit (or is that sarcasm?) Even more so when you are faced by a sparsely attended Buxton audience in a tent in the Pavilion Gardens in at the Fringe Festival at 9:30pm on a Friday night. The young people are in the pubs, the majority older contingent of the Buxton audience are heading off to bed after an evening at the opera and a long day of Festival Talks, so full credit to Richard Pulsford for being able to run with mostly one-liners for a full hour and get a decent reception from a sad collection of punster punters.

Richard noted once or twice that he was bringing this show to Edinburgh and a warm-up is fairly essential for material like this as you never know if a one-liner with a particularly cringeworthy pun is going to fly, whether it's going to be greeted with a chuckle, a guffaw or a groan. Luckily the Buxton audience are not the violent type or given to abusive heckling, but let's face it, there was little here to offend and anyone to going to see a comedian whose routine is based on punning, knows what they are letting themselves in for.

Comedy reviewing isn't usually my scene but as far as I'm concerned there's nothing like a good bad pun. I was dying to ask if the choice of venue at the makeshift Rotunda was "in-tent-ional" but I'm glad I thought better of it. 'Never try to match your wit against a professional comedian' comes second in the rule book to 'Never sit on the front row of a stand-up show', or in this case when there's no-one in the front row, don't sit in the second row either. Someone in the audience did suggest a follow-up pun to one of Richard's jokes, but to his credit (and status as "Former UK Pun Championship Finalist") Pulsford managed to fire another back off the cuff. Not a great one, but he's working with amateurs here.

All the same and despite the hour and venue, Pulsford managed to establish a good-humoured rapport with the audience, which might be an important attribute to employ at venues where people have been drinking and more prone to heckling. The Uns-pun show was a little bit scattershot and it can be hard to keep up with one-liners coming one after another without having time or enough of an audience reaction to let them sink in. A longer build-up perhaps breaks the rapid random flow and gives time to react, but it usually demands situations contorted to deliver the worst possible pun that is almost guaranteed to elicit a loud groan after all the build-up. Sometimes, like the "hydron pina-collider" joke, the build up just allows you to see them coming.

Politics are very briefly touched on; the hot subjects of Trump, May and Brexit to the forefront. You'd think there should be more of this, but maybe politics is heading towards self-parody anyway or maybe those jokes just aren't funny anymore. I daresay however that the Edinburgh Festival will have plenty of other comedians to exploit that material. Some jokes aren't puns at all - "I ordered a mail-order duck, but when I opened the package I was disappointed to find that they had sent me a pelican. I should have know something was wrong from the size of the bill".

I'm not going to give away any more of Richard Pulsford's material, but that gives you a fair indication of the style. It's delivered amiably and confidently (even if the above joke was stumbled first go) and an hour passed by in a shot. The material is hit and miss evidently and it got as many groans as chuckles, but in the context of a punning comedy show I think a groan is as valid an indication of approbation as a belly-laugh, although you probably won't find a recommendation as unwieldy as that on a poster for the show.

Buxton Festival Fringe

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