I have just returned from the Barnstaple Fringe Theatrefest and I had a fabulous time. This was the first year I had been, but I had heard such glowing praise about it from fellow performers that I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about and it absolutely lived up to its reputation – it reminded me a little bit of Edinburgh before it became a bloated corporate monster, a little bit of PBH’s Edinburgh Free Fringe and a little bit of the avant garde theatre festivals I used to go to when I lived in Poland, but it had a charming camaraderie and ambience that was every bit its own.
Designed along the Canadian model, it strives to be as affordable and accessible for performers as possible – venue slots are allocated by drawing lots (so emergent and smallscale companies can’t be squeezed out by people with more money and/or fame than them) and the organisers charge only a £35 fee for use of a venue for 3-4 performances and do their best to find local families willing to put performers up for free (so the festival genuinely nurtures artists, rather than exploiting them as a money-making opportunity). It is small enough to be intimate (a large proportion of the performers met up for drinks every night after the shows went down), but large enough to be packed with more brilliant shows than one person could possibly see in 4 days.
While there were a lot of spoken word shows there, it is predominantly a theatre festival and, while it lent itself to experimental forms like physical theatre, to do well, shows had to appeal to a broad general audience, not just to arts connoisseurs. I learnt a huge amount about tailoring and pitching shows to people outside the spoken word bubble and came away extremely moved, entertained and inspired by the work that I saw.
I saw far too much brilliant work to fit it all in here, but this is a write-up of just some of the fabulous shows I caught. I recommend the following, most of which are going on to Edinburgh, in the strongest possible terms:
One Foot In The Rave, a spoken word show written and performed by Alexander Rhodes, was an astonishingly brave and candid account of Alexander’s emotionally scarring upbringing in a strict religious sect and his struggles to adapt to a life outside it after breaking away. His immensely powerful writing and performance skills and the unflinching honesty with which he recounts the life of rock’n’roll excess with which he tried to staunch the wound left by his abusive childhood had much of the audience in tears at the performance I saw. Utterly astonishing and ought to be compulsory viewing.
Raw Materials Productions’ Tideman’s Piece was an absolute gem of a one-man show which blended folklore, rural oral history and fabulous folk fiddling in a magical fashion. Paul drew on tales of his paternal North Devon roots and his maternal Irish family and used accent and dialect, story-telling and music to bring his ancestors to life and paint a picture of a quirky and rapidly vanishing world. Absolutely mesmerising.
White Hippos Productions’ The Numbers Station was a brilliantly written and performed one-man play which managed to simultaneously convey both the bloodboilingly frustrating jobsworth bureaucracy of working for a large institution and the sinister hold that social media has over us. Wickedly funny and incisively analytical.
Losing my Mindfulness, a very, very funny comic play written and performed by Katie Macleod, accurately skewered the toe-curling awfulness of corporate training events in laugh-out-loud fashion, but then unexpectedly took a more serious turn to explore the issues of coercive control and emotional abuse with heartbreaking authenticity, made all the more moving and powerful by the fact that it was understated and projected through a comic filter. Anyone who has ever been forced to waste time they’d rather spend somewhere else sitting in a room with colleagues they hate doing deep breathing exercises and visualising fluffy clouds will love this play. Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship will love it even more.
I had seen Robert Garnham’s spoken word extravaganza, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, in Bristol a few days before it transferred to Barnstaple, but I was eager to see it again there (and not just because Robert is my friend, but because it’s brilliant). A surreal narrative that uses a bizarre nighttime train journey with a troupe of circus performers, interrupted by an appearance by a mythical day-glo beast which is a harbinger of change, as a metaphor for life, it has all of Robert’s trademark features – zany, off-kilter humour (his surreal tannoy announcements and a poem about having sex with a stranger in a miniscule train toilet had me aching with laughter) underlaid with subtle but powerful messages about LGBT issues and loneliness – but is a braver, more ambitious project than he’s ever done: less throwaway crowd-pleasing, more unapologetically poetic, and IMO all the better for that. Moving, life-affirming, exquisitely written. And he wears a ringmaster outfit!
I had also seen some of the material Harry and Chris present in their comedy jazz-rap show It’s Literally Harry and Chris before, but I could watch it again and again. So, so clever, jaw-droppingly technically accomplished, hugely engaging, really feelgood and unashamedly aimed at the non-artsy, casual viewer. You will leave it with a spring in your step and a silly song about a panda indelibly imprinted in your head.