Theatre review: Buxton Festival Fringe 2019
This year the Buxton Festival Fringe celebrated its 40th anniversary and managed to bring a record number of shows to the Peak District town, with 220 entries and over 760 individual performances. Not only that, but the standard of the productions - from the small sample that I was able to enjoy over a short stay there - was of an exceptionally high standard.
Stage3 Theatre Company
Fringe Theatre more often than not tends to be one-man shows in make-shift venues that have little in the way of lights or sets. That of course is no impediment to good writing and performance and we got both and an added dose of theatricality in an upstairs room of Buxton's Green Man Gallery with Mike Brown's Sir Henry Irving and The Bells.
Any play that deals with Irving, Ellen Terry, and his association with Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker is already a great proposition, and in outline the play is essentially a run through of the great actor's early life, his initial attraction and introduction to the theatre, his overcoming of early setbacks to become the first knighted star of the stage right, through to his death on his final tour of the country in 1905. Largely narrated, Brown however brings some additional theatricality to the storytelling by adopting the persona of a fellow actor who witnessed and helped Irving from early in his career.
What really brings the nature of Irving alive however is the decision to associate his career with one of his earliest successes, his rip-roaring adaptation of a French supernatural melodrama The Polish Jew, adapted by Irving as The Bells. Brown's account of the three-act melodrama serves as a good way of accounting for Irving's ability to know how to please the public, and that works as well for the benefit of Brown's play. A few choice quotes from Shakespeare on the métier of the actor round it out brilliantly in what proves to be an entertaining historical yarn, a celebration of the art of storytelling and the power of the actor to take and recreate it into something living and entertaining.
With a good piece of writing and strong performances, Abby Coppard's White Nurse manages to make a terrific bit of drama out of a crisis. The situation is laid out with admirable clarity in the writing and delivery, setting out a meaningful steps to recovery process. Layla is a young woman who has decided to enroll in a series of experimental therapy sessions at LARC, a new experimental technique to help her get out of a troubled relationship. A nurse gives her a course of medicine that is intended to gradually flush an abusive lover Joe out of her system.
Step by step then, with each dose of the medicine, Layla relives her experience with Joe. He initially moves in with her as a lodger but they soon become lovers. Joe however starts to become controlling and physically abusive but Layla believes she loves him and can see no way out. Despite some vivid reliving of events, the nurse encourages Layla to persist with the treatment, to facing up to the reality of the nature of the relationship, assuring her that success is guaranteed.
The manner in which each dose is followed by a flashback works exceptionally well. A lot of that is down to excellent performance from Layla, who not only transforms from one time frame to another, but simultaneously declines in one reality while she progresses in the other. It's a credit that the actor not only makes this look easy and natural but it's also clever writing and directing that allows those different emotions to coexist. That is essentially Layla's problem, that she needs to separate herself from these contradictory emotions where love and abuse go hand in hand.
The shortness of the work makes that resolution seem a little easier than it perhaps ought to be but the characterisation and insight into behaviours is accurate and credible. It would be too easy to just see Joe as abusive for no reason, but Coppard ties it into insecurity and bullying and he naturally backs down when challenged and is no longer in control. Good performances from Joe and the Nurse succeed in putting this engaging drama across with clarity, concision and with nuance, switching persona on a hairpin. White Nurse is an impressive piece of writing and acting from JustOut Theatre, a clever little piece of work that gets its point across exceptionally well.
Written (and improvised) by Rob Rouse
My heart sank and I dropped my head a little when Rob Rouse ('Bottom' in BBC's brilliant Upstart Crow) started his routine by going straight into the audience for inspiration; a worrying situation for anyone wanting to keep a low profile when there are only a few dozen people in the audience. Chances are that in an hour-long show he's going to get to you eventually. Of course it doesn't help that you have left your phone switched on and someone rings you in the middle of a comedian's act. Mercifully it seems that a visitor from Belfast was well outside Rob's range of reference and he didn't pursue the issue much further. Can't blame him. After randomly asking me what my favourite dinosaur is (I said stegosaurus but should of course have said Arlene Foster), I was able to sink back down in the seat again.
Still, you can see why Rob might be curious about the 15 people (there were at least 20, he's underselling himself) who turned up at 10:00pm in Buxton on a Wednesday night in the small upstairs room of a pub. And it has to be said, we were a pretty unusual bunch which probably make for a very unusual make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of show. "Let's have this same group again next year", Rob proposed, "We can keep in touch on Twitter" he suggested, until he realised that only about one person in the group was in the age group to have a Twitter account and understand his references to Love Island. All Creatures Great and Small was more of a target audience reference when Rob's first audience victim Joe (we were all on first name terms by the end of the show) turned out to be a vet. Being up to your elbow inside the back end of a cow kind of set the tone for the rest of the show.
For a show that was supposed to be a celebration of 21 Years in Show Business it was fairly haphazard and very much below-the-waist material (when not fixated on the back end of an animal). Reminding us that Professor Brian Cox says we are all made of stardust however enables him to keep things down to earth and the level of audience participation certainly helped set the bar amusingly low. It inevitably got downright surreal at times, the audience held hostage 20 minutes over running time, Rouse unsure how to finish the show and not getting a lot of help or encouragement to find a big note to end on. There was however certainly appreciation for it being such a surreal experience, there were definitely high-points in his Tom Jones and Bruce Forsythe impersonations (got the target age right there) and his musing on the subject of Statutory Rights has a lot of potential. See you next year, Rob.
Rec Youth Theatre's Senior Company
A combination of strong natural individual performances and excellent ensemble work ensured that the REC Youth Theatre's Senior Group's staging of Zero for Young Dudes at the Arts Centre Studio was a surprisingly accomplished piece of theatre. Alistair McDowall's play was well constructed to show how good those performances were, but it helped that the play was also an important subject related to youth, to opportunities, to the world and the necessity of looking to the future.
We're in a youth re-education camp in an unspecified time in the near future. From the activities in the camp it's apparent that the youths are living under a repressive regime that tries to control their thoughts and behaviours, and has a fundamental mistrust of youth. It's gradually made known that there has been a war, an uprising and young people have played a significant role in what has happened. Despite re-education and hard labour, it's clear that the memory and meaning of the war hasn't been erased; the young people are preparing another revolution coordinated with camps all across the UK.
Little in Zero for Young Dudes is spelled out for the audience but a series of vignettes gradually build up a frightening picture. Some scenes have a punch ending, others - like one girl walking on in shock covered in blood - are left unexplained, but the accumulation of clues and their implications make the severity of the situation and its meaning clear. Their legacy hasn't been looked after, the old ways don't work and it's only a fresh youthful outlook that can instigate true change in the world, and it needs to be a revolution.
That's a promising if worrying outlook but what is certainly promising is the quality of the acting. There's no am-dram or stage-school mannerisms here, it's completely authentic throughout, every performer making a real impact. There's even a little bit of improvisation but you really couldn't tell the difference between what was scripted and what wasn't, such was the naturalism of the performances. Clearly it comes from a place of identification and combined it made Zero for Young Dudes an impressive Fringe Theatre experience. Astoundingly good even.
Written by Pieter Egriega
One thing I've noticed in the eight years I've been coming to Buxton is that there's a strong sense of identity and community here. Looking at the incredible local art works in the Buxton Museum perhaps that applies the Peak District in general, or maybe it's because I only usually see the best of Buxton during the festival season but I don't think so.
Pieter Egriega's 11 Reasons show confirmed that impression for me and in a way what the show does - through music, singing, narration and photographs - is try to understand where that sense of identity comes from and what are the essential things that define it. It's a huge undertaking for a one-hour show and it requires that range and combination of art forms that Egriega applies, but he also unexpectedly adds another layer to his song-cycle, aligning its central love story to the 11 cards of a Tarot deck.
The story is that of a young man finding his place in the world, growing up, experiencing life and coming to better understand himself though the love of another. Unfortunately life is not that simple and there are challenges to be faced that cause doubts and questions and some soul searching. Egriega uses photographs taken on location around Buxton during the narrative interludes to 11 songs played by a jazz trio with Egriega on double bass. The songs start appropriately with a short instrumental, the start of a journey from knowing nothing or nothing that can be formed in words. The other 10 songs bring out impressions of the journey the young man undertakes as he grapples with that growing sense of self, a sense of others and a sense of the world he is living in.
The songs are concise little classic cool jazz trio numbers that have a marvellous looseness and fluidity, reminiscent of Tom Waits or Bill Evans. Accompanied by Charles Omrod on piano and Alex Clarke on saxophone, Pieter Egriega plays double bass and sings with heartfelt sincerity and expressiveness. No more so than in My Town, when struggling to find a sense of what he wants and who he is, he finds some sense of grounding and foothold in the familiarity of the place he lives in.
Egriega has won numerous festival awards over the years and if there's any justice, 11 Reasons will add to the tally. It's an ambitious project, intimate and yet expansive, simple and yet it deals with issues that everyone can identify with and recognise the complexity of the feelings that this journey through life engenders. And it's not the end of a journey, but very much a cycle that continues, turning the cards over and starting again.
11 Reasons website
Written and performed by Charles Ormrod
Having provided piano for Pieter Egreiga's 11 Reasons jazz trio the previous night, Charles Ormrod took to the piano again for a solo show, 4Khz is a Chilli, a wonderfully entertaining and educational live piano performance about how music and food are connected. In his own way he touched on similar themes to Pieter Egriega's show, even if it's just to show how music can be served with different ingredients to, shall we say, add a little spice to things.
Most of the musical observations Charles makes come about through accident and experimentation as well as a general curiosity about the nature of music. He notices for example that both Debussy's Claire de Lune and I'll Be There by the Four Tops are in E-flat Minor and brings them delightfully together on the piano. Debussy's expansive impressionism offers other such possibilities, as Ormrod's version of Elton John's Rocket Man illustrates.
He shows how music can have colour and character related to culture, somewhat randomly picking the 1920s jazz-influenced Cantina theme from Star Wars, slowing it down to make it sound distinctly Russian in a Prokofiev manner before transforming into a Harry Potter theme. I'll take his word for the latter, and for how Lewis Capaldi can be linked to Beethoven's Für Elise. The way that Haydn's 18th century music connects with jazz in another interesting observation.
It's very much the kind of thing Howard Goodall did in his Story of Music programmes when he connected Adele's piano balladry to Schubert's song cycles, but Charles Ormond is providing more than a music history or music appreciation lesson here. His way of viewing music composition is like making a ham sandwich or perhaps it's more like a great big music bake-off. Picking them out on the piano he shows how the ingredients are related to culture, how timing, keys and rhythm and generous application of a few spicy and buttery elements can contribute to a cross cultural feast. In a very engaging and personable way, he provides numerous little insights into the magic of making music in the most perfectly accessible way. I'm sure his restless inquiring look at music will continue to find new delights and I hope we see more of them in another show at next year's Buxton Festival Fringe.
The Buxton Festival Fringe runs from 3rd to 24th July 2019. Check their Website for details.