I should be happy. I’m heading back home to London from Brighton, my favourite city, after two days at its Fringe festival, full of lovely comedy offerings.
But instead, I’m annoyed, frustrated and disheartened. Of the last six shows I’d planned to see, four didn’t happen – largely because of a lack of audience – and a fifth probably shouldn’t have. It begs the question, if no one wants to see these shows, what is the point of the festival?
This isn’t entirely confined to Brighton. Stories of shows in Edinburgh performed to the apocryphal one man and his dog are legion, and despite the supposed comedy boom, it appears easier to fill a miserable soulless arena than an intimate 50-seater above a London pub.
In Brighton, I had done what every good festival-goer should do, and gone off the beaten track – seeking smaller shows often on a whim; the sort of act that would most like have got submerged come Edinburgh time, if, indeed, they are heading north of the border this August.
The first raincheck was for the Dog-Eared Collective; not because of low audience numbers but because their ‘people’ had deemed that the show was not ready to be reviewed. Yet it was not billed as a work in progress in the programme, and it was certainly ready enough to charge the good people of Brighton £8.50 (£7 concessions) for an hour of their time.
This illustrates a major problem every regional festival in the UK has. The Edinburgh Fringe is such a ravenous beast that every other city is treated as a giant Petri dish where it’s hoped comedy might grow. The intense focus on Edinburgh might be fine for The Industry, but it does seem contemptuous of anyone who just happens to live in a provincial town, who are reduced to lab rats for this comedy vivisection.
More honesty in what’s unfinished business would be welcome in such cases – and perhaps a bit more diligence on those running festivals and venues to ensure they are not merely a testing ground for the unproven. If audiences feel that a festival is offering sub-standard, unfinished fare, of course they will stay away.
Unlike other forms of entertainment, comedy has to be forged in front of a live audience – but there’s a difference in presenting a well-written show in which every effort has been made offstage to ensure it as good as possible before taking it our into the field, and someone just winging it with a headful of half-formed jokes and ideas and no idea what to do with them. Into what camp the Dog-Eared’s show, You’re Amazing, Now Look At Me, falls, I have been denied that chance to say.
After that, TeakShow’s Mindwarp Show, a 10pm performance, cancelled at curtain-up when they discovered the audience numbered two. Both of us reviewers.
At lunchtime the next day, some distance out of town, and a free show called Now! did go ahead, albeit with just five people in the audience. Poor Matt Willis-Jones ill-advisedly chose to do the show four times in one day, so fingers crossed he got better numbers later, or this will have been the most dispiriting of days.
After another free show that did go ahead, newcomers Mark Diamond and Derren Walsh pulled their 7pm show after getting no audience. So onwards to Richard Coughlan’s depressingly titled 8.15pm show Eat A Queer Foetus For Jesus. There was some audience here, but no performer. And no clue as to where he was. We sat patiently in the venue - – The Temple run by the Laughing Horse -– but nothing happened, and no explanation. After 20 minutes, I assume another wash-out and amble away.
A dismal performance all-round then, and one which inevitably sours my view of the Brighton Fringe. Is this a festival worth covering on Chortle at all?
Does my experience indicate a malaise in the comedy section, at least? There are bigger shows that will get an audience, but they would have done so without the festival. Brighton is a lively, clued-up town that doesn’t die at 7pm.
Maybe that’s one problem: there is so much going on year-round, that the Fringe is almost superfluous. Certainly there are no shortage of open mic nights in town – a local sausage factory – sorry, comedy course – churns out far more acts than there is demand for, so spawning a plethora of low-end gigs where graduates play for each other’s benefit. Against that, another influx of work-in-progresses from acts no one’s heard of isn’t going to excite.
The Brighton Fringe, an open-access event where anyone can stage a show, has grown to be England’s largest arts festival, but it’s very unlikely to become a tourist draw on its own merits, like Edinburgh is, despite its proximity to London’s millions-strong market. Maybe size isn’t everything, and fewer quality shows – though still drawn from the fringes of the mainstream – would produce a festival more people want to see. Last weekend’s Macynlleth festival seems to be an example of that.
More is only better if you can generate an audience to match; and Brighton’s surely not the only festival that might want to be wary of that fact.
Or maybe I’m just reading too much into an uncharacteristic run of bad luck…