Fringe Diary: Preview Week

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 6 August 2008

The Fringe is about experimentation in theatre. It’s a safe space where the loss of a grand or two equals a successful show and your career isn’t necessarily on the line if your idea doesn’t quite come off. Chief among the sadly failed experiments this year is Three’s Company production Auditorium. It’s an interactive farce – a sound idea in theory, adding the unpredictable wackiness of audience interaction to the already madcap comedy of farce. But Three’s Company are overly optimistic about the willingness of the average Fringe audience to get up on stage and participate. In order to work, farce needs to keep the doors slamming at a crazy pace, and taking time out to coax reluctant audience members into joining in stalls the show fatally at several key moments. You have to applaud the company for trying to do something new and interesting with such a rigid genre as farce, but unfortunately it’s rigid for a reason: bend the rules a little and it all falls apart.

At the other end of the spectrum is Belt Up’s Women of Troy; here the experiment is successful because it doesn’t push any boundaries. The audience is blindfolded and manhandled into a darkened room, joining the cast as defeated Trojan prisoners. But the promising immersive experience ends there, and once the blindfolds come off the audience are mere spectators once again. The company are clearly looking to do something a little different; surely at the Fringe they can afford to push the envelope more than this.

Three to a Room’s Mommie & the Minister takes this week’s prize for utter barecheeked weirdness. A celebration of so-bad-it’s-good B-movie Gothic horror, it’s chock-full of deliberate overplay, melodrama, violence and near-the-knuckle comedy (the kind you hate yourself for laughing at). Not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but credit to it for being unashamed of what it is.

Pick of the week is The Rebel Cell by Babasword Productions. It’s a Socratic dialogue pitting civil disobedience against change from within the system through the medium of rap (blank verse for the twenty-first century?). It could just be that I share Babasword’s politics, or it could be because the rhythm and rhyme of their rap-battle dialogue is a joy to listen to, or more likely it’s a combination of the two, but I found it enthralling. If you can’t get to the Pleasance Dome to see the show, I highly recommend you download the soundtrack from Babasword’s website. (Having said all this, I have since wondered whether I shouldn’t have a problem with Babasword commandeering the music of black emancipation for a largely white middle-class theatregoing audience…)

Most innovative flyering technique of the past few days comes from Play Possum, who have turned the flyers for their show Ruling the Board into stylish bow ties.

Those were my highs and lows of Preview Week. Before I sign off here’s the round-up of what other people, both in my company and on the street, have recommended (or not) from the shows they’ve seen.

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, a play about Heisenberg set in occupied Denmark, was under-rehearsed despite only having a three-night run. Overlong exposition on particle physics caused several audience members to leave at the interval.

Comedy trio The Boom Jennies come recommended by the crew of Abbas Tactus, who I ran into on the Mile, and also picked up four stars in ThreeWeeks, a not-for-profit newspaper that aims to review every single show at the Fringe. Others I’ve spoken to, however, said that while the Jennies’ performances were slick and got a good deal of laughs, their material felt a little safe.

Finally, the production team for I Love You, Bro (and, coincidentally, Mommie & the Minister) loaded me down with recommendation after recommendation when I collared them in trendy Hunter Square eaterie Chocolate Soup. They’re excited about a number of new musicals including Departure Lounge, The Butler Did It!? and Only the Brave – although I’ve since been told the latter feels unfinished. Also on their list were big-name acts such as Berkoff’s On the Waterfront, Total Theatre Award nominee Al Seed’s The Fooligan and Footsbarn’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged in their own big top. In fact the only negative feedback the I Love You, Bro team had was for UWE Drama Department’s attempt at Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. It seems the show defied description, because the only reaction I could get was a slow, wide-eyed shake of the head. One to miss, then?

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