Dead Dogs, Forged Old Masters, and lots of Wild and Witchy Women: Brighton Festival and Fringe 2019

So, that was May. A month spent swapping hats, literally and metaphorically, as I raced from Brighton Festival and Fringe over to Norwich to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and back again to Brighton, sometimes performing, sometimes facilitating other people’s performances, sometimes reviewing for Total Theatre Magazine. Oh and given that the Brighton Fringe extends into June, the May madness has only, as of 2 June, subsided.

I’m focusing here on Brighton.  A quick glance through the recent posts on the Reviews section will reveal that between us, we’ve seen a fair few shows in Brighton Festival! I felt I chose well – the two very different ‘Afrofuturist’ productions, Nwando Ebizie’s Distorted Constellations (Lighthouse) and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s Séancers, (Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts) are both continuing to haunt my dreams. Without Walls outdoor arts programme was a little bit stymied by the weather, but I did get to see the fabulous Scalped by Initiative.dkf, so that made it all worthwhile.

Kneehigh are always a Festival fave, and  Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) didn’t disappoint, although for me it wasn’t quite as strong as shows previously seen in Brighton Festival, mostly because I struggled to love Charles Hazlewood’s music – and in a musical, that’s pretty key. I know that as an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera that wasn’t The Threpenny Opera, the composer and director were keen to avoid any suggestion of Brecht and Weil, but it was hard not to long for a rendition of Mack the Knife. That said, the  direction (by Mike Shepherd), writing (by Carl Grose), and design (Michael Vale) were spot-on. There are very many snazzy dance sequences by choroegrapher Etta Murfitt, and the staging of the piece is excellent. Performances were astonishingly strong from the whole cast – with a special shout-out to gangster-puppeteer Sarah Wright, whose Punch and Judy creations – there to echo, mirror and mimic the story throughout – are beyond good, they are magnificent.The show was previously seen by TT at Shoreditch Town Hall in 2015, when it was reviewed very thoroughly by Rebecca Nice, so I will defer to her as she captured the show very well!

Another returning company were Berlin (from Belgium), who brought True Copy to Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, an exploration of the work of famous art forger (and then later painter in his own right) Geert Jan Jansen, who in a previous show by the same company (Perhaps All The Dragons, seen at Brighton Festival in 2014) said, ‘The only one who never gets any recognition is the forger. Unless he is unmasked’. Geert Jan was eventually unmasked – and this is his story. I haven’t given this one a ‘proper’ review because text is vital to the show, and I just couldn’t read the inadequate surtitles (I asked to be moved forward and was allocated a seat a little further forward, but was still squinting to make out the words – which were in white on black, a complete no-no for any of us with visual disabilities, to add to the problems). There were a number of walk-outs from the back of the auditorium – perhaps others were struggling to see too! So as I missed a lot of key twists and turns in the story, I didn’t feel I could give it a proper critical assessment, but to say here that it is as clever, complex and beautiful as the company’s other shows. The art gallery set, with its panels that shift from reproduction paintings to screens showing video and then documentary footage from the artist’s studio, is the perfect setting for the action; and the choice of music from mock-Satie to mellow saxophones, is perfect. And although what was to be the denouement, the central twist in the tale, was apparent from the beginning (to my eyes, anyway – not-so-sharp in some ways but sharp in others!) it was an enjoyable moment when it came. I went to see the show with painter/sculptor friends, and they particularly appreciated the thorough investigation of what we mean by ‘real’ and ‘fake’; the challenging of who actually is the expert (major art collectors, galleries and auction houses across the globe have failed to spot Geert Jan Jansen’s Picasso and Kappel forgeries). It was wonderful to discover that in his castle (yes, he has a castle) Geert Jan has a room for each of the painters he mostly mimics, around 18 in total I believe. A fascinating exploration of the line between fiction and reality. Another show with visual design at the core of its dramturgy: I also very much enjoyed Vox Motus: Flight, which will be the subject of a feature article (coming soon, watch this space!) on non-naturalistic shows about migration and refugees.

Also high on the visuals was the new Gravity and other Myths show, Backbone, which had a clever and funny show-within-the-show structure of game-playing; some lovely visual images, including a great use of buckets on the head as masks; and wonderful live music (mixing violin, percussion and electronics most adeptly). There was an onslaught of extraordinary acrobatics and hand-to-hand sequences from its cast of ten. I enjoyed a lot about it, but I also struggled with some aspects. So much high-octane energy, so many evolving and dissolving human towers and swing-the-girl sequences! I became desperate for something quiet and slow – which we eventually had moments of, for example when all the cast balanced long wooden poles on their heads and walked slowly with them. There was also one very nice, calm scene between three women performers, gently nudging and edging each other over into handstand walkovers, then creating interesting acro-balances. I also longed for something, anything, that challenged the traditional male base/ female flyer dynamic. I stated to feel that if I saw one more girl swing up and over I would scream. This is an Australian company, with many ex-Circa performers in the cast list. Perhaps they feel that gender role reversal is Circa’s thing and they don’t want to go there? Who knows…  At 80 minutes, the show feels too long – it could easily lose 15 minutes and be stronger for it. But top marks for exuberance, stamina and extraordinarily skilled acrobatics! And to be fair, the packed audience at Brighton Dome absolutely loved it.

The one Brighton Festival show I wish I’d seen is Birds of Paradise/National Theatre of Scotland’s My Left Right Foot: The Musical, an irreverent look at disability and inclusion, reviewed very ably by Matt Rudkin. It is still touring, so perhaps I’ll catch it somewhere else. Oh and I failed to catch anything at all by guest artistic director Rokia Traore – although I did get to here her sing and play at the press launch (and very lovely it was too). I was intrigued to read what Miriam King made of the latest Ultima Vez production to come to Brighton, TrapTown. Mim has been a longterm aficionado of Wim Vandekeybus’ work, so I very much value her opinion. Read her review here.

Meanwhile, at the Fringe,  I saw two great shows by fabulously feisty women, both at The Warren: A&E Comedy’s Witch Hunt, the follow up to the enormously successful Enter the Dragons is fresh out of the rehearsal studio (where the the company have been working with Cal McCrystal) and still in the early stages as a touring show, but already great. Klein Blue’s Are There Female Gorillas? is also a female two-hander, in this case two much younger women, and it is also a sure winner. I was also pleased to see Cock Cock Who’s There, which won a Total Theatre Award for Emerging Artist for creator Samira Elagoz at Ed Fringe 2018, coming with the tagline ‘’Not your average show about rape, female bodies, feminism, and the male gaze’. I wasn’t wowed, but I was interested… Also a solo female show, by someone who has come a long way since she won the Emerging Artist accolade at the TT Awards: Bryony Kimmings kicked off the Fringe in style at ACCA with I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, enjoyed greatly and reviewed here. Her opening night was also the celebration event for the Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive project, the culmination of a year’s work digitising the entire 25 years worth of the magazine in print, a project made possible by a National Heritage Lottery grant. If you haven’t already, please do dip in

So there we have it: Brighton, May – Festival and Fringe – done and dusted. Next?


Featured image (top): Kneehigh: Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.