Category Archives: Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh Festival 2014 Round-Up

“Did you enjoy the show?” “Yes, it was good.”

Good. Bad. The only words I have left after seeing over 100 comedies, dramas and everything inbetween at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Sorry, all of the rest have gone in reviews – and even there they ended up repeating themselves. I’m pretty sure you could devise a drinking game around the times I’ve said “the play’s world”, “emotional journey” or “a celebration of [insert something rousing]”.

A lot of people think it’s not possible to do justice to every show you see when you’re writing up four, five or six a day. That’s because it isn’t. There will be a something that you give three stars to that, at a later date you think should have been four, or vice versa. You will try and get names and facts correct, but invariably you will undermine yourself by saying “Smith” instead of “Smyth” and announcing that “life was tough in ancient Rome 3000 years ago”. There will always be times where someone else (who I like to think has less reviews to write in more time) manages to say what you wanted better. And it will be annoying when you read it and you’ll wish you’d written what they’d written, and WHY DIDN’T YOU WRITE WHAT THEY’D WRITTEN, IDIOT…

But there are also times when you rattle off 300 words in 20 minutes and think: wow, that was better than anything I’ve ever done in two hours. Covering the Edinburgh Festival like I (and many others) do is an intense but inspiring experience where, every day, you push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. The downside is you have to re-read all of your reviews at the end to remind yourself of what you’ve actually seen. So, having done that, here are my observations on the 3.1% of 3,193 shows I was lucky enough to go to:

Just because a show seems feminist doesn’t mean that it is

Lots of people I spoke to at this year’s festival seemed to think: women on stage + dialogue about sexism = feminist play. But by focussing purely on women as the victims of men, the media and the make-up industry, plays such as Freak (by Anna Jordan) and Sirens (by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed) – as well-written and performed as they are – are in danger of making it look as if victims are all half the population are.

I have heard more sexist jokes in plays highlighting the problem of sexist jokes than I ever have in real life. And if I want to spend £15 on a lipstick, I’ll do it. In fact, Ontroerend Goed, even if I don’t want to spend £15 on a lipstick I’ll do it, just to show you that I can. Oh, and aren’t you the company whose show a few years ago, Audience, involved bullying a female audience member the rest of us were supposed to step in and ‘save’? Go feminism.

But there were also lots of shows that had more interesting female characters and perspectives on sexism too: Travesti put real women’s words into the mouths of male performers in a way that highlighted how farcical it is that men and women are still treated or viewed differently. Clara Brennan’s Spine is about two working-class women who certainly don’t need saving – least of all by a middle-class theatre goers who might think they know best. Pondling, written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, is one of the best depictions of a teenage girl I have ever seen on stage. And in The Capone Trilogy – three plays from some of the company formerly known as Belt Up, written by James Wilkes – the archetypical screen goddesses of the 20s, 30s and 40s are given their say within the traditionally male-driven gangster genre.

Some plays can change the way you watch all subsequent ones

I’ll never look at stand-up comedy or political theatre in the same way again. This is because two excellent shows – Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-Up Comedian and Confirmation – have, in my mind, pulled both of the genres to bits. And I’m very grateful to them for that. The first, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a stand-up performance within a play within a stand-up performance and dissects how making people laugh is often at the expense of others, who may or may not deserve it. The second, written and performed by Chris Thorpe, is a one-man exploration of how we use our experiences to enforce, rather than inform or change, our deep-held political beliefs, whether these are as a left-wing theatre maker or right-wing member of the BNP.

Many of the plays and comedy shows I saw after these two were made far more interesting as a result. Thanks to Gary, when I hear a comedian at Late ‘n’ Live telling an audience member from Pontefract “I spent half of my childhood there”, I automatically assume this is a load of rubbish. And much as I enjoyed another show, Cuckooed, in which comedian and activist Mark Thomas gives a compelling account of being spied on by the BAE Systems, having seen Confirmation I can’t help thinking it’s still only one side of the story. “I’m a very good liar, but everything I’m telling you today is true,” says Mark. But because I don’t like BAE Systems, I’m happy to ignore the first part of that sentence.

There are not enough good roles for female audience members

If you’re a woman, watching a play, and you’re picked out by a male performer, it normally means only one thing: you’re going to be serenaded, presented with flowers and, basically, turned into a generic female love interest. Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson, a smart multi-award winning look at our attachment to things from the past, spends a lot of time doing this. Don’t perform or try and be funny, female audience members are told just in case we want to, god forbid, do our own thing.

Whenever I’ve seen the brilliant comedian Adam Riches (whose shows are built around audience participation) pick out a woman they are turned into someone whatever cartoon-like eccentric he’s playing fancies. In contrast, male audience members, who are chosen far more often, get to do things like ride ‘lizard men’ on skateboards, seduce Ryan Gosling’s mother (played by Riches) and be covered in the contents of pots of Yakult. Even in Every in Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan Macmillan’s lovely, upbeat show about finding things to be happy about, an embarrassed-looking woman in the front row is turned in a familiar girlfriend-type. Cue everyone waiting for inevitable awkward snog.

Kiss-him-or-spoil-the-show is often the implied message for women who find themselves chosen to join performers on stage. Sometimes the audience are even chanting some such thing, or cheering their approval increasingly loudly. And so, behaviour that in real life might be classified as, at best, mass bullying or, at worst, sexual assault is turned into light entertainment.

If you want to make me cry in a play, this is how you do it:

Be funny. Be sad. Be funny. Be sad. Keep alternating. Be more funny. Be more sad. End with a character either facing death or dying. Zap the house lights up. Tell me to get out because there’s a five minute turnaround time.

OK, maybe don’t do the last one. But basically this formula of shifting from something funny to something sad and back again is one that I and the many other anonymous figures sobbing in dark venues find very effective. Daniel Kitson probably does it best and summed it up in his 2012 show As of 1.52 GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title as “’I’m thinking, I’m crying, I’m laughing,’” before adding, “You’ve been Kitsonned.”

Unfortunately, Daniel Kitson didn’t have a theatre piece at this year’s festival (although he was dong comedy, with friends, at The Stand), but keeping someone in the mini-tissue packet business going was Irish writer Pat Moylan’s Beowulf: the Blockbuster, a nevertheless uplifting story about the power of storytelling in which a father uses the ancient poem and all of its magic to tell his young son he’s dying. There was also So it Goes, Hannah Moss’s moving but playful autobiographical play about dealing with her own dad’s death told almost entirely without words (because there are some things words can’t say). Which leads me to…

There were a lot of plays about dead or dying fathers

As well as Beowulf: The Blockbuster and So It Goes, there was Banjo Man, Quina Chapman’s upbeat but touching play celebrating the life or her father, the creator of the 90s cult song Swamp Thing, and her childhood with him. And the semi-autobiographical Jim, by David O’Connor, which follows two sons brought together through dealing with the death of their cantankerous dad.

So, if you’re one of those people looking for ‘Festival Themes’, there you go.

Sometimes the best plays make you feel the worst

To be honest, I spent the majority of The Christeene Machine thinking “My god, when is this going to end?” It’s a confrontational show, particularly if you’re standing, like I was, right at the front of the stage. And that’s the point – or part of it. Basically, it’s the kind of explicit New York underground LGBT cabaret show designed to make you feel at times very uncomfortable. But it was also the most invigorating thing I saw this year, juxtaposing understated monologues with genuine menace as Christeene and her dancers shouted and stamped their way through explicit yet expertly choreographed rap numbers.

This combination of down-to-earth friendly banter with images and behaviour that make you recoil in horror is something that Kim Noble also uses in his epic show You’re Not Alone in which real-life and fiction, as well as comedy and theatre, are blurred together to form a piece that veers from being bleakly funny to heartfelt to horrific approximately every four seconds. It can’t really be confined to a single theatre performance, drawing on the lives of real people who, we are told, have been secretly filmed or recorded. While this makes it ethically dubious, Noble’s disregard for social norms is also part of what makes it so fascinating and simultaneously uneasy to watch.

Vanity Bites Back also plays with audience emotions, asking us to laugh and then throwing this back in our faces, morphing from a seemingly innocuous one-woman character show, by Helen Duff, to a bold and thrillingly fresh exploration of a troubled relationship with food. The lesser-known venue, in the dark and damp South Bridge Vaults, brilliantly lowers expectations, as does the smiling, chirpy woman who greets us there, before all of this is sharply and painfully undermined.

None of the above three plays are comfortable to watch and all of them are all the better for it.

Interesting shows have interesting problems

A lot of plays I’ve enjoyed at this year’s festival have things wrong with them: their stories needs dealing with, everything finishes too abruptly, there are too many ideas crammed into too little time. While these issues could do with being sorted out, they are BORING to talk about compared to how enjoyable the shows containing them are. The Art of Falling Apart has a structure that, yes, falls apart but it also has brilliant characters – probably too many brilliant characters – and one of the best depictions of going on a night out clubbing I’ve ever seen.

One of my favourite shows this year, Looking for Paul – Wunderbaum, ends with all of the characters covered in what appears to be excrement and mayonnaise, with straw shoved into any available orifice. But it’s also a terrific satire about public arts funding, the type of people who become artists and the things that, rightly or wrongly, drive them. The ending goes on way too long and the piece risks becoming the very thing it’s sending up, but the fact it otherwise so successfully breaks down and parodies theatre itself, while still being a great piece of theatre, is (unlike, I imagine, the watery spaghetti which covers the stage) simply delicious.

There are lots of good three star shows. But many of you won’t go and see them.

“What’s got five stars? I only want to go and see four or five stars,” people are often saying to me. But if you’re interested in a play’s subjectmatter, or you like a certain genre, or are following the work of a specific writer or group, seeing a three star show could well be more enjoyable that a five star one about something you have no interest in by a company you hate. Why avoid something that sounds entertaining and just your kind of thing because it hasn’t got that magic extra, highly arbitrary, star?

Here are some of my favourite three star shows from this year’s Festival: Milk Presents: Self-Service, Burger Van, Blind, First World Problems, Something’s in the Living Room, Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve F*cked, Glue, The Height of the Eiffel Tower, Beans on Toast, How Does a Snake Shed It’s Skin, Standby for Tape Back-Up, I’m Thinking of Leaving Facebook, The Secret Wives of Andy Williams.

The star system has lots of problems

Here are some of the main ones:

• It is impossible to accurately ‘rate’ plays by giving them a number between 1 and 5. Invariably there will be shows that both have the same amount of stars and one will clearly be better than the other.

• Critics generally think a three star show means something interesting but flawed, or well put-together if not exactly earth shattering. Audience members think it means avoid at all costs.

• Choosing how many stars to give is difficult when you respond well emotionally to a play that is technically less successful. Or vice versa. You may have the “3 stars or 4 stars?” conversation with yourself. It can go on for hours.

• Normally about three weeks after you’ve written a review – when the show is over and no ones cares what you think any more – your true and lasting opinion becomes clear.

Celebrities sometimes face unfairly harsh criticism just because they’re ‘big names’ (and other times it’s completely justified).

I thought Simon Callow in Juvenalia was an interesting if somewhat meandering insight into everyday life and attitudes in Roman times. Others found it to be full of sexism and prejudice too dubious to stomach in today’s world. Meanwhile, Callow complained at the Fringe First Awards that “the London critics “don’t properly appreciate one-person shows”. Whether this is true or not, I do sometimes wonder if being a ‘big name’ at the Edinburgh Fringe means critics are likely to judge you more harshly.

Saying that, the fabulous Nancy Dell’Olio put no effort whatsoever in to her one-woman show Rainbows From Diamonds. While I gave it one star, it has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen albeit for all the wrong reasons. It was like watching someone do a completely unrehearsed speech at a wedding – one that went on for over an hour, cost thirteen quid and involved a ten minute costume change during which we stared at an empty stage accompanied by incongruous dramatic music.

I don’t often feel like I want to get directly involved in other people’s shows, but this was like stepping into A&E, discovering a patient was haemorrhaging and that all the doctors had disappeared. I might not know what I’m doing or be the best person for the job, but Nancy, if you need a script, I’ll give it a go. Failing that, call someone. Call anyone. Whatever they can come up with can only things better.

***

Hopefully some of the above shows will go on tour and you’ll get a chance to see them. But, like every year, there will probably some that won’t and the only record that they existed will be in a few people’s memories and any reviews, blogs and features that commemorate them online. While that’s a bit sad, it’s also one of the things that makes the Edinburgh Festival special. No amount of ‘round-ups’ like this or ‘best of’ late-night TV programmes on BBC3 can really capture what it’s like to be there.

If you still haven’t had enough of reading about the Edinburgh Festival 2014 here’s the rest of my reviews

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How to be an Edinburgh Festival reviewer

Every year there are more critics at the Edinburgh Festival. Soon there will be more than there are shows. When that happens they will have to take to the stage and review each other. Eventually, the whole process (and possibly the whole festival) will implode and all that will be left is a giant meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square with a few charred fliers and scratched lanyards covered in radioactive dust.

This week, for the eighth year running, I’ll be one of this army of notetakers in comfortable-yet-smart-yet-waterproof shoes, getting on the train at Kings Cross (yes, some of us live in London I’m afraid) with a suitcase full of big coats, out-of-date Microsoft products, and stars. Awaiting our arrival will be audiences, primed to see who we give these stars to. In some cases they will be so dazzled by them that what happens on stage will seem far brighter (or duller) than it actually is.

Those putting on shows will also be waiting to see what we think of them – many ready to hurl a disproportionate amount of praise or abuse in our direction depending on whether we “get” (i.e. like) or don’t “get” (i.e. dislike) their work. Everyone else will be, at best, ambivalent to us as we embark upon three weeks of frantically typing in bars and cafes or from the pavement, like nothing else – not even the massive meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square – matters. Because if the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t a competition for who can be the busiest I don’t know what it is. Oh yes, it’s an arts festival. Or is it dream lottery? Or a chance for Foster’s to sell you beer?

It’s actually all of these things, and more. But perhaps most importantly it’s really good fun, especially if you’re reviewing it – even more so if you’re getting paid, and more so again if you’re getting paid properly. I mean, really, what better job is there than doing something you love all day in a place where large numbers of people are doing the thing they love, and then writing about it? For a month!

If you’re lucky enough to be joining me and many others for the first time as part of this disparate, fractious, paid, under-paid, not paid, experienced, not experienced, enthusiastic, cynical, happy, not-so-happy group of people classified as fringe reviewers – welcome.

There is an elaborate and often difficult to figure out hierarchy among reviewers at the festival. The ones who work for certain newspapers can be disparaging about the ones who work for other newspapers, and the ones who work for other newspapers can sometimes seem to think very little of the ones who work for websites (unless they’re websites they like, and then that’s OK).

At least once a day you might end up in a conversation about what qualifies someone to be an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer. People may even ask you directly, usually because they’ve had a negative review or they’d like your job. Of course, there are no qualifications (BA theatre critic?) in the same way there are no qualifications for people who read scripts or commission TV shows or decide you’re going to win or lose this competition or that competition. Someone in a position of power just decides that you’re able to do the job in the same way whoever’s in charge of them at some point just decided they could do their job.

And if you can’t get someone to publish you (or even if you can), you can always publish yourself online. Newspapers are cutting back, websites are growing. Of course it’s more difficult to get people to listen to you from a small blog with an out-of-the-box turquoise font than, say, the front page of Scotsman – but at least no one’s stopping you from giving it a go due to lack of space, budget or appreciation of your genius ideas.

The Edinburgh Fringe is all about artists producing their own work. And more and more people who write about this work are publishing their own reviews. The spirit of the fringe – that everyone can have a go – has spread. And while some people might be horrified by that, I’m just happy there are other people sitting on the pavement typing. It makes us more visible to passing buses.

So, if you’re coming to review the festival for the first time – or if you’ve been before but would like me to tell you how to do your job – here are my tips for being an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer:

* If you’re under 30 you might want to try and win the Allen Wright Award. Or you might not. But you probably will.

* If you’re over 30 you might want to moan about being too old to enter the Allen Wright Award – or the fact you didn’t win it in 1997. Or you might rise above all of that. But you probably won’t.

* People putting on shows are not your friends – unless they are your friends, and then you should avoid reviewing them (that is, if you want to stay friends).

* Your opinion is your opinion. Other people will have different opinions, but they can’t tell you you’re right or wrong because that’s why it’s called an opinion.

* Sometimes there will be a general consensus regarding which show’s a multi-prize-winning work of a creative god, and which isn’t. It may be disconcerting that everyone disagrees with you. But it may be that you’re ahead of your time.

* At some point you’ll give a show a number of stars you later think was too generous or too conservative. Either way, everyone will have hundreds of the things by the end of August. By this point you might (rightly) question what stars mean anyway.

* Three shows is an ideal number to review in a day. Four is do-able. Five is too many (but not impossible). Seven is dangerous.

* You will write something nonsensical. You will forget to eat. And drink. You will leave all your money in a venue that looks just like another venue. That’s what happens when you review seven shows in a day.

* If you want to see and hear interesting stuff out and about, don’t wear your press pass around your neck. People will know you’re from the press.

* At some point there will just be you in the audience. You will feel awkward, but not as awkward as the performer.

* You might notice other reviewers taking notes. Chat to them. Chat to everyone. They will tell you stuff. But wait until the show has finished first.

* People will refer to you using only your surname. i.e. “Stott says this to that.” If you’re a woman and you’ve written something they really hate they will precede it with “Ms.”

* Be prepared for every performance you see to be amazing. Many of them won’t be, but at least you’ll have given them all a fair and equal chance.

* Sometimes the characters actors play are more appealing than the people they are in real life. That is the power of acting.

* Don’t say anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. At some point, that someone will want to chat to you about it. And then you’ll have to say them to their face anyway.

* The Festival is one of the few places where many people get to do a job they love – at least for three weeks. Others are simply working to earn money and be a part of it. So be nice to the bar/ restaurant/ café staff. Serving you falafel is probably not their dream.

Making sense of the Edinburgh Fringe Guide 2014

A blog originally published in 2013. I was going to write a new one, but my friend said “why don’t you just update that other one you did that was really funny” – and how could I say no to that? (Although I also wrote a new one anyway…)

***

Choosing what to see at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a stressful process for a lot of people, particularly my Dad. Throughout August he emails me saying things like: “We want to go and see four- or five-star theatre show at 3.30pm on Sunday 12th August at the Pleasance Dome, or within a five-minute radius, and it can’t be like that dreadful boxing one that won all the prizes you sent us to last year. Do you have any suggestions?”

By this point, I’m usually seeing lots of shows for The Scotsman and, as a result, have lots of recommendations. However, I can’t remember when or where any of them took place because venues, times and titles are a jumbled mass of numbers and letters rolling around my head like lottery balls. So I just email him a single word: the name of my favourite. It has really stuck in my mind and I’m pretty sure will win all the prizes. Why wouldn’t it? It’s by the company who did that wonderful boxing play.

It’s around this time of year that lots of lists come out called things like ‘Top 20 things to see at the Edinburgh Fringe if you can’t be bothered to read the programme’. They predominantly suggest you go and see shows by companies or individuals who have done good stuff in the past, similar to the way banks only lend to people who can already prove they have lots of cash. These shows are ‘a safe bet’. However, safe can mean predictable and, in some cases, disappointing. For instance, you’re unlikely to appreciate a harrowing expose of sex trafficking, no matter how well done, if what you really want to see is a musical starring ex-soap stars.

Reading the Fringe Guide for yourself avoids this. It means you will be more likely to find and see what you want; less likely to have to buy your ticket now (or last week). However, it’s a time consuming process. I know, because I do it every year. It’s boring! Don’t even try and read more than ten pages without a break. But, in the end, it is worth it. Out of the hundred or so shows I see each year most of the ones I choose are good, and the ones I like best are often on few people’s lists except my own.

In 2008, I was one of the first and only critics to see Little Bulb’s debut show Crocosmia, performed in a hotel room. There were two other audience members. Their last show, Orpheus, sold out Battersea Arts Centre. A picture of their 2013 one, Squally Showers, topped the Guardian’s ‘to see’ list. In 2007, I saw one of the first performances of the recently formed 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It went on to win multiple awards and tour the world. The company didn’t have critics at their follow-up show in 2011. They didn’t need them.

Seeing a great show before anyone else is brilliant. You can take your time and choose where to sit, you won’t have someone else’s head blocking your view because there is no someone else, and the cast will probably chat to you at the end because they’ll be so grateful you came. “Why did you come?” they’ll ask, impressed that you’ve managed to find a venue listed 5km off the edge of the festival map. “Oh, I just read about you in the Edinburgh Fringe Guide,” you’ll breezily reply. None of this is going to happen when they’re selling out the National Theatre and appearing on BBC Breakfast.

While you will never again have the chance to see Little Bulb or 1927 in a quiet, unassuming atmosphere uncluttered by expectation in the way I originally did, reading the Fringe Guide will increase the likelihood of you having a similar experience with another currently unknown company.

But be warned, the Fringe Guide is a bewildering place: hidden gems are submerged in a cauldron of false advertising and unsubstantiated claims. In order to find the really good stuff, you’ll need to weed out the really bad stuff. To help, I’ve created a dictionary of the kind of terms you’ll come across here – words and phrases describing shows, and what they really mean:

Edinburgh Fringe Guide Dictionary

Immersive
You will probably end up on stage.

Site-specific
There isn’t a stage

One-on-one
Talk about your life with a strange man

Interactive
A strange man will try to snog you

A classic dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century
A pointless new setting for a familiar old tale

A rollercoaster ride of emotions
Lots of people crying for no obvious reason

Tackling issues
Talking about issues

Heart wrenching
Self-conscious

Poignant
Slow

Loveable
Annoying

Experienced
Boring

Burlesque
Stripping

Hilarious!
Painful!

America student company
Cheerful, rich teenagers on holiday

Iraq
Play written in 2003

London Riots
Play written in 2011

Ban the Bomb
Play written in 1963

Brechtian
Don’t go if you like Brecht

Beckett-like
Weird and confusing

New writing
Play by someone no older than 25

Monologue
Long

Verbatim
Saying other people’s words for them

Giving people a voice who don’t have one
Writing other people’s words for them

Science meets theatre
Someone like Brian Cox

Theatre meets art
Someone like Tracy Emin

Suitable for under 4s
Don’t go on your own if you’re 43

Suitable for over 14s
Don’t go on your own if you’re under 4

Adults only
Sex

Starts at 1am
Probably good

Free food!
Croissants

Multimedia
A projector

Five stars (audience member)
The critics gave it two

Five stars (unnamed source)
Everyone hates it

Five stars (well-known critic)
You will be left feeling mildly disappointed but predominantly smug

Won a prize in 2002
And hasn’t won one since

The critics loved it
We care what other people think

The critics hated it
Fuck other people

Adapted from a radio play
Was better as a radio play

Is on the telly
And should have stayed there

Anti-establishment
Mainstream

A play about tuition fees
Created by people who don’t want to pay them

A lot of hard work has gone into it
It’s not very good but please be sympathetic

Robert Burns
You will only see this play at the Edinburgh Festival

There will be a Q&A afterwards
No one will ask questions except the director

You will laugh until you cry
You may cry but not in a good way

You will cry until you laugh
Could be interesting

Good luck!

If you still can’t face the idea of reading the Fringe Guide and were really hoping this blog would be another list of recommendations for shows from someone who has yet to see any of them, please continue reading.

 

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Tackling Issues or Talking About Issues: Scripts at the Edinburgh Festival

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival I’ve seen over 100 plays, written up 82 of them as reviews for The Scotsman (which you can read here if you like) and heard about lots more which sound interesting that, try as I might, I will never be able to see. I am, after all, only human – despite what those getting one, two or even three stars might think.

This year, a lot of the plays were about weighty subjects. Things I’ve been immersing myself in for the past month – between eating scones and finding new words for “disturbing” – include rape in India, conflict in the Middle East, dementia in care homes and the holocaust.

When we’re reading scripts in the BBC Writersroom, people often comment that not enough are really “about” something. Or, that when they are, they’re “too on the nose.” Here are a few things I noticed about work that tackled (or talked about) issues at the festival which might help with your own writing – whether it’s for theatre, film, TV or radio.

Writing that tackles big issues wins prizes

I’d say that out of the 20 shows to a win Fringe First prize for new writing (for which I’m now one of the judges), well over half are about things currently happening in the world, rather than non-specific life-affirming stuff with, say, puppets and pyrotechnics – although there were lots of great examples of these at the festival too.

The Oscars are similarly famously for awarding prizes to films about serious subjects (although here are a few examples of times they haven’t). While choosing to write something issue-based isn’t a golden ticket to a plaque with your name engraved on it, it does seem to be something a lot of people want to reward when it’s done well.

However…

You don’t have to write about serious subjects in a serious way

One of my favourite plays at this year’s festival was Ballad of the Burning Star which uses comedy, cabaret and drag to tell the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that feels fresh and urgent – particularly impressive since a lot of straight-faced and obviously “serious” pieces on the subject make it feel stale and boring.

Comedy is a great way of making topics that can feel heavy-going or done-to-death engaging again. Bridget Christie won the Foster’s Comedy Award this year with her feminist show A Bic for Her. Bryony Kimmings’ and her nine-year-old niece Taylor’s Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel is both a funny, provocative and imaginative look at growing up as a young girl. It won an Arches Brick Award and a Fringe First.

It helps if you have a point beyond being harrowing

No sane person wants to spend an hour and a half locked in a theatre watching someone get tortured, abused and/ or murdered if there’s no real point behind it. I have done it many times and believe me it’s not pleasant, however well done. Similarly, no one wants to feel like they’re being lectured. Issue-based scripts are very dull without well-developed characters and stories.

One of the most harrowing shows at this year’s festival was Nirbhaya (winner of the Amnesty Award), which centres on the shocking rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in Delhi. Performed by a group of women (and one man), who draw on their own horrifying experiences of rape and abuse, at times it’s not easy to watch. However, the fact it’s also about the women’s journeys from silent victims to telling their stories – stories that many people would like to cover up – makes it more than just a relaying of misery. Indeed, it’s a surprisingly hopeful and inspiring piece.

TV, film and radio can generally reach more people than theatre

Theatre is often fighting a bit of a losing battle when it comes to genuinely affecting the issues it wants to tackle. It can end up simply reiterating things to audiences who are already believe in whatever point it’s trying to make. I doubt anyone went to see Nirbhaya believing rape is a good thing. Or came out afterwards thinking: “Well, now I know exactly how I will stop that from ever happening again.”

A lot of theatre companies run after-show discussions and other activities to widen the impact of their work. The writer and director of Nirbhaya, Yael Farber, and the cast did one at the festival. The Belarus Free Theatre also talked about their activities beyond performances at a recent event.

However, it’s difficult for theatre companies to instantly reach the numbers of people film, TV and radio can – which makes it strange that…

TV, film and radio scripts sent into the BBC Writersroom don’t tackle topical issues as much or as well as the theatre scripts we receive

This seems a shame when TV, film and radio have the potential to reach more people and, when written in an entertaining and engaging way, maybe even genuinely change the world for the better (you never know!).

While no one wants to listen to clunky, on-the-nose, self-consciously educational political messages shoehorned into characters’ mouths, it is interesting to read scripts from writers that have something to say – particularly if you haven’t heard it before or it’s presented in a new way.

Lots of new writers seem to see British TV, radio and even film as a place for low-key domestic dramas where nothing of consequence really happens. However, what those on judging panels – whether they’re at the Edinburgh Festival or in the Writers Room – seem to really enjoy is something that has ambition and ideas. “Write about what makes you angry,” people often say. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of things to choose from.

Written for BBC Writersroom

Edinburgh Festival: Four Walls (2 stars)

A girl trapped in what’s either her own imagination or a fantasy universe converses with a talking kettle, grandfather clock, her mirror image alter ego and a pair of warring oven clothes. They discuss fixing the toilet, play cricket and have a picnic. It’s as if Alice visited Wonderland on a day when nothing was really happening.

Eventually, the surreal banality morphs into a chance for childish heroine Sarah to get over the past and, through a final scene involving lots of snotty crying into her sleeves, she at long last says goodbye to the chattering household objects who have guided her.

Written for The Scotsman

Edinburgh Festival: Cinderella Lives! (3 stars)

From feminism to capitalism, what exactly have those campaigning for equal rights for women achieved? Not equal pay, that’s for sure, points out Aisling Kiely’s imaginative one woman show. It costs businesses 16 per cent less on average to hire a female rather than a male, didn’t you know? You probably did, and while it’s a piece that covers the depressing facts and familiar arguments, it’s vivaciously performed by the charismatic Kiely in a way that is anything but predictable. A compellingly androgynous figure, who moves between male and female identities, she questions whether men and women are really so different after all. Suits, glitter, shoes, hair styles. Aren’t we all just wearing costumes?

Charting the story of a character called Eve and her relationships with her boss, flatmate and partners, it can feel like our host, who flits in and out of character, is having a conversation with herself, rather than us, as she agonises over what being a modern woman means. Is it the right to be sexy? Or something more? Through pop music, dance and glittering props, she fuses contemporary life with fairytale imagery, presenting the arguments with theatricality and pizzazz, even if they have been heard before.

Written for The Scotsman

Edinburgh Festival: Power Games (3 stars)

It’s an innovative idea: an interactive piece of dance theatre where the audience vote, in a TV gameshow set-up, for what they’d like to happen next. Meet Deepak, a wealthy banker and someone who, today at least, we would like to see have hot coffee spilt on him and get a huge bill from the tax office. While Deepak isn’t especially dislikeable, he is into gambling on the markets and in the casino – which, in this day and age, is difficult to find attractive.

Polished but somewhat obvious movement pieces, fusing contemporary and South Asian dance, capture the cold, sharp lines of city living and anxiety driven by the constant pressure to succeed. The decisions the audience make often have little effect on wider action. Through a single routine Deepak goes from meeting a woman to their relationship falling apart, all without us holding up our voting cards.

The story is less interesting than the form, and the form – despite a final twist – feels under-explored. In trying to do a lot conceptually, performer, director and choreographer Shane Shambhu’s new company, Altered Skin, doesn’t have time to make us care about the people whose fate we are supposedly deciding, which is a shame.

Written for The Scotsman