Stratford Fringe - three years and counting
So it’s three years since we launched the Stratford Fringe website (cue rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to you”) and we’re going to mark the occasion by catching up with some of the Fringe makers we’ve met and without whom there wouldn’t be a Fringe scene in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Here in Bardy Town, theatre dominates the Fringe scene, but we’ve seen the growth of other Fringe performance as well.
Stand-up Comedy has long been a feature of the local Fringe scene. Headline performers continue to drop into the Playhouse, as they did when it was the Arts House, and the addition of a regular monthly comedy club has built a good following.
A new fortnightly Comedy night at The Keys is yet more proof of an appetite, or maybe need, for a good laugh.
Cabaret, Burlesque and Variety performance are flourishing. thanks to those resilient folks at Ice Crystal Productions, initially to be found with a regular spot at what is now Stratford Playhouse, male and female performers were most recently seen at one Stratford’s swankiest hotels showing off their talents, natural gifts and uninhibited beauty. The Valentine’s Day event has just gone, and the Midsummer gathering is no doubt being planned.
Over the last three years there have been occasions when finding anything Fringey has been a challenge. But ever present has been Tread The Boards at The Attic Theatre.
Last year the Company celebrated 10 years of doing business right under the noses of the RSC. Such longevity is no mean achievement and while determinedly a Fringe operation, the risk of being too Fringey means finding the right shows is absolutely vital.
The 10th anniversary season for 2019, hit the right balance. No reigning in of ambition, as the Company scaled Shakespeare’s Everest play - King Lear - pretty successfully and later in the year the Attic stage was cleared to a practically empty space for the hostage drama - Someone to Watch Over Me. A triumph which showed that a no-frills Fringe show is every bit as an enthralling as big budget offerings in theatres with posh seats.
The astute management of John Robert Partridge(opposite - right) and Catherine Prout sees the company about to kick off a new season with their annual Shakespeare double bill - this year Macbeth and Twelfth Night but more Fringe offerings are apparently lurking including a Festival. Watch this space as the say.
The challenge for Tread the Boards and other wannabe Fringe makers (and indeed die-hard Fringe fans like us) is finding an audience for Fringe theatre in Stratford. With the exception of Tread the Boards’ home of The Attic (left), there isn’t a regular space available to perform let alone rehearse and prepare Fringe performance.
The challenge of finding an audience has been such that several of the Fringe makers who we’ve seen entering the Stratford scene in the last three years have also departed or at least hibernated.
SE Theatre Company, foundered by Elliot Wallis and Simao Vaz, emerged energetically with – The Course of True Love a mash up of Shakespearean love stories which they premiered at The Attic before heading for the Edinburgh Fringe. An ambitious and energetic production of the classic tragedy of Antigone followed by a mesmeric, blood-soaked I Banquo in 2018 showed the company had the talent and creative ideas well worth the attention of any Fringe fan and won two of our much coveted Fringey Awards for their endeavours.
But both shows struggled to find an audience in Stratford and 2019 saw them busier and pulling the crowds out of Stratford. Last Summer, the company braved the Bedfordshire weather with an outdoor, cut-down Comedy Of Errors. The sun which didn’t shine on the seaside setting of the production in the Summertime, came to Stratford in November as the company once again brought their distinctive style back to The Attic.
It’s a bit of a disappointment for us that one of Stratford’s most creative and exciting Fringe companies is going from strength to strength out of the town where they started.
An undoubted highlight of the last three years was the performances in the summer of
2018 of a new play After Aulis by Rowena Cooper. A one woman-show superbly performed by Emmeline Braefield the play not only showed how a classic (Sophocles Iphigenia in Aulis) can be reshaped as a contemporary tale of urban angst. The play and its production showed how Fringe performance can find a space to tell and an audience to hear it told.
We met up with Emmeline and Rowena last year as they were about to take “After Aulis” to the Brighton Fringe and we’ve been back in touch to find out how what’s been keeping them busy and away from Stratford.
Rowena has been very busy since the last performances of After Aulis at 2019's Brighton Fringe, where it was shortlisted for Best New Play by New Writing South. Success as poet has also kept her busy and this year she is one of 6 writers who are each creating a new play on an attachment programme with the Oxford Playhouse.
Meanwhile Emmeline was getting a taste for the glitzy world of TV drama with a a lead role in Netflix's Haunted - Ward of Evil; - a genuinely scary performance we thought. Less scarily Emmeline was out on tour for much of the 2019 summer playing Celia in As You Like It with Rain or Shine Theatre Company. More film work is on the horizon but both Rowena and Emmeline have promised we haven’t heard the last of After Aulis – which is great news.
As one of the country’s major arts organisations and recipient of wagon loads of public, private and corporate dosh - the RSC is by nobody’s measure a Fringe theatre operation but it’s not averse to fishing in Fringey waters for an audience. Some of stand-up comedies biggest names have peddled their latest jokes against a Shakespearean back drop and in September last year, a quality, if pricey, Comedy Festival filled a bit of void before A Boy In A Dress took up residence for the winter on the company’s main stage.
But the really interesting work has been happening in The Swan - more daring productions of Shakespeare, lots more new writing including recently two history plays by women writers A Museum in Baghdad and The Whip - which explore cultures and issues to which the Fringe world is open and accommodating but for the regular RSC audience this was new and daring. Perhaps RSC regulars can be tempted with even more daring shows out on the Fringe of Straford town.
On the subject of new and daring – the two things, for us, that are essential ingredients for
the best Fringe performance – many of the most daring shows we’ve seen have since in the last three years are in Stratford thanks to the Shakespeare Birth Place Trust. Always with a link or inspiration from the man himself, the shows have been anything but traditional. The gardens of New Place in December have been alive after dark with acrobats, dancers and actors leading audiences around the gardens on eccentric and fantastical journeys. At other times of the year, taking a cue from Hollywood, Shakespeare have been given the Marvel Comics treatment to hilarious effect.
These shows not only pull in a crowd but in doing so show that not everything, when it comes to staging the Bard, has to be traditional – whatever that actually means.
And so, we start a new year looking forward to another year of being surprised, delighted and occasionally pissed off with what Fringe makers bring to town.
It’s not easy making Fringe performance for the reasons mentioned – finding an audience, finding somewhere to perform but it’s essential. Just look what happened when the main house at the RSC was given over to preparations The Boy in The Dress. There was suddenly a gap in the offer to visitors. A thriving, high profile – Fringe scene can fill that gap – let’s get filling.