The Star System: A Biscuiteer’s Perspective

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The first 5 star review for Fringebiscuit 2012 was granted by yours truly to the incredible comedy blues band Jonny and the Baptists. I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm as I sent off my tweet-sized assessment straight after the show, but since then I’ve had time to consider whether I should’ve been more discerning (which, as a young writer on a training scheme, I’m naturally keen to seem). I‘ve concluded that even after a period of reflection I still wouldn’t knock a single star off my review. The band was awesome.

There’s been much discussion surrounding the star system in the Fringebiscuit flat and it seems to me that 1 star, 2 star and 5 star reviews are relatively easy to grant. In my mind 1 star is applicable when something is so hopelessly awful you want to walk out. 2 stars are given when something is still pretty dire but there are tiny flecks of gold hidden amongst the slurry. 5 star reviews are undeniably wonderful shows from performers firing on all cylinders. They burst outside their genre, and then some. They can be life-affirming, possibly even life-changing.

But 3 and 4 star reviews have been more problematic for us as a group. Before I joined fringebiscuit I regarded 3 stars as a bit of a slap in the face. To me, they suggested mediocrity. But I soon learned that that’s not what we mean here. 3 stars suggest a show is an excellent example of its genre. It can be a great show if you like that sort of thing, which naturally a lot of people will. A 4 star show is fantastic whether you like that sort of thing or not. I struggle slightly with that distinction between 3 and 4 stars.

It’ll be interesting to see how this evolves for the 10 of us as the festival continues. Will we grow more exhausted and jaded as the weeks go on and become harder to please? Or will we hone our grading skills so finely that it becomes effortless? Watch this space, and keep watching our Twitter feed.

Lucy Ayrton: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry

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Poet and songstress Lucy Ayrton is on a mission with her new show Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry. That mission is to move away from the soppy, sleepy and domesticated women of fairy tales – currently doing the rounds in a shop near you – and get back to the grace and power exuded by the heroines celebrated in tales of yore. I spoke to Lucy to find out how she plans to use this year’s Fringe as a platform for her mission.

Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry has been placed in the brand new spoken word category. What do you think this category offers to performers/audiences that we haven’t had in previous years, and was it important to you to be placed in this category?

Yes, I was really delighted at the new category. I just think that spoken word is such a distinct thing – a bit like stand up, a bit like theatre, a bit like cabaret, but really, very much its own genre. It’s brilliant that this has been recognised and now audiences can get at the kind of shows they want to see more easily!

I’m also involved in running the Flea Circus Open Slam which is a platform for anyone to rock up and do five minutes of spoken word. We’re really hoping the show will be a great chance for everyone who’s interested in spoken word at the Fringe to meet and show each other what they’re up to.

You sound as if you’re using this platform to communicate a strong feminist message. Is the main aim of the show to change people’s perceptions of stereotypical fairy tale damsels? Do you think this might even help to change (mis)perceptions of women in general?

The show definitely has a strong feminist message, and it’s totally true that it doesn’t help women that the stock character of a heroine is so pathetic. But what I think is even more important is the way that works the other way round – what effect on your behaviour it has if your whole childhood has been spent being told that you’re meant to act like Cinderella. This emphasis on “niceness” and “prettiness” and being super-sugar-sweet to people all the time is fine for a 6 year old, but as soon as you get any older than that, you need to put a lot more stock in your own opinions, the way you think things should be, and the way you’re going to live your life. And the way you learn that is by having a heroine who stands up and says “nope, I’m not standing for that. I’m going to sort this all out.”

This niceness, prettiness and sugar-sweetness links back to how so many fairy tales have been ‘Disneyfied’. Does your show seek to get back to the original forms of these tales, with all the brilliance (and grimness!) that involves?

It definitely does! I think that, originally, fairy tales weren’t just nice fluff to get kids to sleep – they were told as warnings. Don’t wander off on your own! Don’t make deals with witches! Don’t let your guard down! Disney has robbed us of that, by nice-ifying the whole thing.

The reason we teach kids things is to help them towards being adults. But your average Disney princess never has to grow up. There’s no development – they just go from doing whatever their stepmother says to doing what their husband says. And that’s not just annoying, it’s dangerous. If we want our little girls to kick ass in the future, we’ve got to give them some dragons to fight now.

In the process of giving our heroines dragons to fight, what role do you think poems and songs have in telling (or retelling) these sort of tales? The whole oral tradition vibe seems the perfect thing for the new spoken word category.

As much as I love books and films – even Disney! – there’s something about sitting down with someone and telling them stuff, person to person, that’s special. Part of my argument is that, if you’re using fairy tales as a teaching tool, it works best when it’s your actual mum who’s sitting you down and telling you stuff she thinks you need to know. Like, if you’re a reckless child, she’ll probably want to remind you not to run off into forests, but if you’re a bit shyer, she might tell you a story about how important it is to be brave. The oral tradition is so key to fairy tales. And I think poems and songs are very useful, because stuff sticks better with repetition, and poems and songs aren’t just throwaway things, they’re for telling and sharing again and again.

This idea of repetition links nicely to the way you tell some new fairy tales of your own in the show, because there’s a great tradition of this (Angela Carter springs to mind).  Do you think it’s important for women to keep telling and retelling their own tales to make sure they don’t ever have to go back to napping and sweeping?

ABSOLUTELY. I think we need to start telling the kind of stories that we think our girls need today. What Angela Carter did with the idea of wolves was just perfect – don’t just be scared of a raw, dangerous power, think what it means, think how you can use it. I think we have to keep questioning what we’re saying about our lives when we tell stories, because that is what we do, every time we tell a story. In a time when men actually legally owned women, we needed different messages than we do today. There are some things that we’ll always need to warn our girls about (it’s never going to be a good idea to mess with witches), but as society evolves and we get more and more equality between the genders, we need to change our messages to suit and to build on the work we’ve already done.

Lucy Ayrton: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry, The Banshee Labyrinth, 4-14 August, 18.20

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Abridged burst into life at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987 as the creation of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Adam Long, Jess Borgeson and Daniel Singer.  Such is its abiding popularity that it’s been performed ever since.  25 years on, Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Tread the Boards Theatre Company will be taking on the stomach-flipping challenge of cramming the complete works of Shakespeare into a mere 97 minutes (gulp!). I caught up with the three brave men stepping up to the helm this year: John-Robert Partridge, Dan Gough and Andrew Patrick.

Why do you think the show continues to be so popular, and was it at all daunting to fill such well-worn shoes?

I think the show is so popular because it’s accessible to both Shakespeare lovers and haters.  There’s something for everyone, and if you don’t get the jokes about Shakespeare you can laugh at the fact that there’s a man running around the stage attempting to play a woman very badly.  When we first thought about performing at the Fringe it was a little scary as the original company are so well-known and the production was such a success: would people be interested in seeing the show by a different company?  However, we put our own brand of humour into the show and the fact it’s English rather than American makes the show more our own version of the original.

The show’s known for its spontaneity and for having no ‘fourth wall’: can audience members expect a fair amount of participation?  Will you be improvising?

Well we don’t want to give away too much, but this show needs the audience for ideas, suggestions and willingness to give everything for the cause, including looking as stupid as we do (and, believe me, that is pretty stupid!). The show itself is scripted, but the structure of the script allows for a few adlibs to be thrown in, and dependent on audience reaction, we will have to improvise no doubt!

The show features lots of references to pop culture (rap, cooking shows etc.).  Do you think this is a good way of introducing Shakespeare to a younger audience (the way ‘Horrible Histories’ does with history, for example)?

We think this is a fantastic introduction to Shakespeare.  Many people that have watched the show have no understanding of Shakespeare (certainly not the more obscure plays like Titus Andronicus, Pericles or Troilus and Cressida), so by the end of the show the audience have laughed their socks off and learnt a little something, even something as simple as how many sonnets Shakespeare wrote.  We’ve had a 9 year old in the audience on our tour and other children along the way and they’ve found it hilarious.  It’s not really meant for the younger children (as it does contain some swearing), but innuendos are laughed at by the older audience members and the younger ones laugh at the silliness of it all.

There are so many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works set in just about every time-period and setting imaginable.  Why do you think people have so much fun playing about with Shakespeare?

Well, from a business point of view, there are no performance rights, so people can do whatever they like.  There are no rules, which can be incredibly freeing but can also be very dangerous and people can take it too far.  But Shakespeare is global, and the reason he’s so popular is because of the relevance his works still have on modern society, so you can cover current topics.  For example, Comedy of Errors is all about twins coming into a foreign country, so why not cover illegal immigrants?  There really are no rules.  Many people come to watch the shows purely to see how the actors will interpret the most iconic characters in Shakespeare.  For me, Malvolio is Twelfth Night so I’m always intrigued to see how different actors play him.

Your credits listed on the Tread the Boards website include some seriously impressive, high-brow stuff: was it a treat to do something altogether comedic and a bit daft?

The three of us have worked together for a long time; we’ve known each other for about 5 years and we’ve acted and directed each other in many shows.  This show definitely caters to each of our strengths.  We all love comedy.  The character Dan (played by John) is always the leader who attempts to keep the other two from killing each other.  Jess (played by Dan Gough) is the bookish ‘intellectual’ and Adam (played by Andrew) is the cross-dresser who we found as we had no one left to cast.  But seriously, this show is harder than some of the straight stuff.  This show relies on laughter and energy and perfect comic timing, so a huge amount of rehearsal goes into putting on a piece of work like that.

3 men, 37 plays, 97 minutes: there’s a fashion in the Fringe for ‘cramming’ things into an hour or so, for example this year we have the complete works of Dickens, the history of the BBC and the complete Greek myths.  What do you think draws people to take on this challenge?

It’s great for losing weight for a start!  We’re on the Shakespeare diet and so far we’ve all lost 1/2 a stone, so we’re hoping to lose another 1/2 by the end of the Fringe (fingers crossed!).  It’s also just about the craziness of attempting to cram so much into such a small space.  It’s the challenge of how we can make this interesting, fun, accessible and still cover everything.  Sometimes you have a moment of madness, say you will do something, then wake up the next day and think ‘oh my god I must be insane’.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Abridged, theSpace@Venue45, 3-11 August, 8.05pm

Rise of the Nerds

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Who doesn’t relish a bit of gloom every now and then? Comedians like Stewart Lee and Dylan Moran tickle audiences with their brilliant cynicism and grumpy displeasure over the irritations of modern life. Who can blame them? There’s a recession on, the politicians representing us are just awful, we’ve used up all the oil and ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ is in its seventh season.

But I’ve noticed a new trend of geeky, shambling comedy emerging in this year’s Fringe guide. Much of this comedy shares traits with that of Lee, Moran et al. It’s wordy, conversational, sometimes seemingly rambling, but it reacts to modern life with a lighter, more whimsical touch. In short, it’s a bit nerdier.

Josie Long and Sam Schäfer’s Awkward Romance (Mood Nightclub) will relate the cringe-worthy tales of fumbling encounters and dating faux-pas made by the pair. Harry Potter-graduate Jessie Cave (she was Lavender Brown) will unashamedly discuss her favourite literary characters in Bookworm (Underbelly, Cowgate), her pretty face obscured behind a chunky pair of nerd-specs. Tim Key will continue to delight audiences with his ruffled style and wonderfully maladroit poetry in Masterslut (Pleasance Dome), and in Numb (The Bongo Club) Simon Amstell will discuss the vulnerability of, and daily blunders made by, gawky individuals like himself.

Over the past year there’s been a backlash against a nastier streak of humour (Frankie Boyle’s vitriolic ‘Tramadol Nights’ springs to mind), and this swell in sweeter comedy might be due, at least in part, to the public’s growing distaste for shock tactics. Certainly many folk will welcome the increase in comedians who have at least a kernel of kindness in their material.

In doing away with a more scathing form of delivery and celebrating our universal fallibility in an increasingly uncertain world, these performers demonstrate that you can be intelligent, subversive and satirical whilst wearing a crumpled suit, an unfashionable jumper and a bewildered expression. They’re not the sexiest or sleekest bunch, but they’re certainly some of the funniest comics the Fringe has to offer this year. All hail the rise of the nerds.