Fringe fledglings: the novelty is wearing off
Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 21.08.2009
Every year, the Edinburgh fringe unearths a handful of promising young companies, giving them their first real chance of exposure. As Lyn Gardner wrote yesterday, the ethos of the fringe allows them to stand flyer to flyer with their more established elders, and anyone can have a hit – regardless of age and reputation – if they have a good show to capture the public’s attention.
In recent years, the Total Theatre awards’ best emerging company category has thrown up some exciting examples, many of whom are making theatre with a luscious sense of visual invention and imagination. The benefits of an award nomination are great and allow those shortlisted to return to Edinburgh and expect a ready audience and a welcome reception. This year, several such companies, including Analogue, Dancing Brick, Precarious, Little Bulb, Gomito and the River People, are back at the fringe earning warm responses to new work.
However, being recognised as a promising newcomer is no guarantee of future success or development. I have felt let down by a number of the shows from young companies this year. Analogue’s Beachy Head, Precarious’ Anomie and The Lamplighter’s Lament by Gomito all maintain previous high levels of visual accomplishment, but display disappointing symptoms of neglect.
While Beachy Head resurrects the slick panache with multimedia that characterised Analogue’s 2007 show Mile End, it lacks the same playfulness. Its narrative, revolving around two film-makers who have captured a man’s suicide, is forged from short, staccato scenes, which probably work on film but feel stilted in theatre. Likewise, the interplay of live action and visual media in Anomie is vibrant and colourful, but Precarious handle their craft so messily that the piece becomes an impenetrable shambles. Another company, Gomito, are let down by the slightness of their chosen story. Though they couch it in some enchanting images, The Lamplighter’s Lament simply doesn’t contain enough to sustain itself for an hour.
Such symptoms point to a topsy-turvy approach, in which style is elevated over content. It’s as if these companies had decided how to tell a story before they had fixed upon a story to tell.
Of course, form and content cannot be readily separated; the novelty factor that originally elevated these companies relies on the two being taken together. As time goes on, however, a strong hallmark style is no longer enough. Once we come to expect a certain technique of a company, their work is rightly judged on content and compatibility.
I respect all these young companies, even to the point of feeling protective of them. But Edinburgh has a habit of shielding its young offspring, so that audiences will return and stylish work will stand out from the amateurism that stalks the fringe. This can stifle the need for development.
Cast an eye over the Forest Fringe and the picture is altogether different. Several of the youngest companies presenting work here have taken a completely new direction. Little Bulb, for example, have swapped the tatty fragments of last year’s award-winning Crocosmia for a rounded narrative in Sporadical, an “epic folk opera”. Similarly, Bristol-based Tinned Fingers have moved away from the cardboard cuts of When You Cry in Space Your Tears Go Everywhere in favour of a more technological approach. Meanwhile, my former colleagues, Present Attempt, have left the studio entirely to broadcast from a white van in Network 1.0.
These companies recognise that how they say something is as important as what they say; the vehicle must carry the cargo. If they are to survive and develop, the young companies getting by on the Edinburgh fringe must take note: form is not the same as formula.