Produced by Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle Fringe Festival is a two-week programme of theatre, music and comedy accompanied by talks and workshops for local creatives. It’s an eclectic programme aimed at the broadest possible audience, with a mix of online and in-person shows. While some are just online (such as mandla rae’s film as british as a watermelon), most offer a choice of options in recognition of the differing comfort levels of the audience. Alphabetti has adopted a cautious approach to live performance – social distancing and masks are still very much in evidence – but also recognises that many people aren’t ready for the full-on festival experience just yet. All shows are Pay What You Feel, reflecting the theatre’s commitment to accessible art.
As with the best festivals, the most striking pieces often turn out to be the most surprising. As a woman who has spent way too much of her life sitting in the back of a car making awkward conversations with taxi drivers, the concept behind Izaak Gledhill’s 39 Horses wasn’t one that appealed: a solo show performed in an actual taxi. It’s the curse of reviewing in a pandemic that anything ticketed for bubbles or family/household groups inevitably means viewing it alone – many is the time I’ve turned down a show because I can’t face the embarrassment of being outnumbered by the cast – but 39 Horses overcomes the inherent cringe in the concept and turns out to be a big-hearted delight.
Directed by Alphabetti’s Artistic Director, Ali Pritchard, it’s a lip-synch comedy that packs a huge amount into a mere 15-minutes or so runtime, using voice clips from both drivers and passengers that cover everything from racism to queerness to safety and risk, all seamed with the odd intimacy of being confined in a small space with a stranger. Gledhill is a tremendously engaging performer, and the show has expended no little care in how it represents the diverse range of voices it utilises, bringing an underlying thoughtfulness to the comedy.
Another short comedy that tackles serious issues is Other Stories’ Muslim First Dates. Superficially a light-hearted look at one woman’s attempts to find romance, it sees its sometimes-spiky protagonist, junior doctor Jemima, tackle themes that are both universal (the terrible first date, the horror of online matches and dealing men who misrepresent themselves) and those that are more specific, stemming from the societal and religious pressures of being a young Muslim woman in a world where people have very divergent ideas on what that should mean. Fitting in back-to-back first dates at a coffee shop between demanding shifts at the hospital, Jemima is meeting men suggested by her mum, her mum’s friends and her local Imam – making them a mixed bag of prospects for a whole range of reasons.
Performed with enormous charm by A N Fair, who also wrote the piece, it does at times feel slightly unpolished. (Though I viewed the livestream, which sacrificed some of the energy it would have had in person – I suspect its flaws would be far less evident watching with an audience in the same room). But it’s often very funny with some great lines, and a production which, in its down-to-earth protagonist, delivers a heroine you can root for.
On the more experimental side of the festival, both gobscure’s solo show rose carved in rain and [whalesong] by xvelastín make for deliberately demanding viewing, offering up pieces that are not afraid to challenge.
gobscure’s rose carved in rain tackles an ambitious array of subjects from homelessness to mental health, folding in biphobia, sectioning, politics and disability, all loosely structured around the artist’s discovery of Sergei Parajanov’s ground-breaking 1969 film The Colour of Pomegranates and the biography of the filmmaker, who was imprisoned in the Soviet Union for his sexuality. Although a passionate narration by a compelling performer whose work regularly challenges the constraints of ‘traditional’ theatre, it tries to cram too much in its hour-long run-time, resulting in a scattershot approach that leaves a lot too lightly touched on. A more streamlined approach or more time to explore its themes in depth would perhaps serve the piece better.
A similar problem affects [whalesong]. A mix of performance art, sound installation, theatre and gig, by sound artist xvelastín (Xavier Velastín), the piece uses a range of sound and visuals as a reflection of the sea and our relationship with its inhabitants. Billed as a human-computer duet, it’s a production that revels in its own strangeness, reminding us that at their heart the oceans are unknowable. Though they’re familiar figures in the animal world and loom large in conversations about ecology — we were wearing ‘save the whale’ badges long before climate change became a common phrase — in their immensity and difference, living on a scale we can barely imagine, whales always exist as a thing apart. While [whalesong] occasionally meanders (as with rose carved in rain, it would have benefited from a firmer editorial steer to keep a tighter hold on the audience) its aims are undeniably worthy, and its look at the plight of this much-plundered species is ultimately moving.
Newcastle Fringe Festival runs from 27th July-7th August. More info here.