For the last few years I’ve been largely living my life in accordance with two principles: that almost every situation has the potential to be brilliant and that I should always act upon my curiosity. I will wonder what’s happening around a corner then confidently head down it, hopeful for the best outcome. So, when I was asked to act as a judge for this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, it felt like I was in the ideal state of mind.
I planned my days around the event schedule, catching dozens of shows across Salford and Manchester, rarely fully knowing what I would be seeing and excited about that. I barrelled between 53Two, The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Salford Arts Theatre and Jimmy’s. Or haunted The Kings Arms in Salford, the beating heart of the festival, flitting between their Theatre and Studio spaces, greedily keen to cram in the greatest number of performances and generally forgetting to eat.
I caught feverish works in progress, like Robin Ince’s brilliantly frenetic ‘Chaos of Delight’ and Ros Ballinger’s ‘Better Than Dying Alone’, an unflinching stand-up show about sex and relationships. I saw Ben Moor’s hilarious and exquisitely-crafted comic lecture ‘Pronoun Trouble’. Rosa Wright’s heartbreakingly funny and startlingly honest bingo-based music and poetry show, ‘Love Calculator’. Quina Chapman’s ‘Fan Girl’, a charming and lovingly-assembled tribute to fan culture. And Marlon’s Solomon’s labour of anger, ‘Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale’, a show that rode hilarity, fury and tear-jerking positivity as it delved into the dark and insidious nature of antisemitism. All shows that variously left me reeling and satisfied that my enthusiasm was paying off.
Many of the shows I caught are currently impossible to get tickets for at the Edinburgh Fringe. Like award-winning young comedian Maisie Adam’s effortless and perfectly paced debut show, ‘Vague’ and Damien Warren-Smith’s world class ‘Garry Starr Performs Everything’. It would be hard to name a more finely honed hour of physical comedy and I staggered out afterwards, my face and stomach still flinching from the exertion of an hour of concentrated laughter. Immediately evangelical, I WhatsApped a group of my friends as I headed out of the theatre, making them a pledge. “If you come to this show and don’t have an incredible time, I will let you all punch me in the face.”
One evening I took my 12 year daughter along to see ‘Things We Tell The Hours After Midnight’, a mature and powerful piece of theatre written by 16 year old playwright and actor, Libby Hall. As the largely teenage cast took their bows, so brimming with talent, hope and potential, it was tough not be moved. My daughter reached over to me in the darkness and gently wiped away a tear running down my cheek. Knowing that when the house lights went up, it would be straight up mortifying for her to be seen sitting next to a crying middle-aged man. But safely in the car and driving home, she quoted her favourite lines and talked of how inspirational it had been to see what people of her own age could achieve. And that she’d prefer a backstage theatre role, where she wouldn’t have to tolerate the sight of me blubbing like I was sending my firstborn off to war.
Much of the charm of the fringe shows comes from their informal settings. Bob Young’s ‘King Lear (Alone)’ for example, is a powerful and finely-tuned solo interpretation of the Shakespeare tragedy. But his wife was equally compelling, chatting with the audience after the show and loudly broadcasting his career highs and lows while he stood on stage, waiting it out, clearly used to this sort of thing. “So, go on. Be honest,” she asked us. “Who fell asleep?” This was a magic I knew I would not experience at the Royal Exchange.
Similarly, I arrived at The Peer Hat for ‘Poezest’ to find a man standing outside, wearing a cocktail dress and a coal-black pageboy wig, his face painted to resemble a raven. He was explaining to two passing middle-aged tourists that they should come back in half an hour to see him portray a psychiatrist in a show about Edgar Allan Poe, in which he was starring alongside the lead singer from Dr and the Medics. What kind of a mind could hear that and not be intrigued?
The opposite is true of The Thermos Museum, which sounds exactly as boring as it isn’t. A captivating, largely improvised touring exhibit, set up throughout the Kings Arms and out into the beer garden, it swept up fascinated passers-by as it moved, essentially forming a conga. But one that, in place of music, was led by the voice of an eccentric man explaining that Thermos flasks were perfectly suited for the transport of both human organs and animal semen. At the end of the tour, I chatted with him in the bar and he revealed his master plan.
“My goal really is to lose money on this,” he said, pausing to grab the attention of the barman. “Would you like a drink?”
After a while, the number of shows I was catching began to have an effect on my thinking. Wolfing down dinner on a bench in St Anne’s Square, I found myself chatting with an old man named Raymond, who began telling me his life story. Of growing up in Prestwich, caring for his ailing mother, his homelessness and subsequent appearance in a Sherlock Holmes movie. Listening to him talk, I couldn’t stop my brain from assembling a potted review. “A compelling one man show but often unfocussed and distracted. Three stars.”
Yet my enthusiasm remained undampened. Heading into the Kings one night I noticed a woman showing people into the cellar.
“Ooh, what’s happening down there?” I asked.
“A play about the complex relationship between two reunited ex-cons. We can squeeze you in.”
Five minutes later I was settling down on a tiny folding chair to watch ‘This Wide Night’. Two dozen of us sitting in the bowels of a pub, so convincingly transformed into a gloomy bedsit that watching the performance felt less like being a part of an audience and more like a peeping tom collective, staring through the window and into someone else’s fascinating life.
Not that every show was perfect, of course but even then there was often something to enjoy. Arriving for one event I was asked by a performer if I’d mind being renamed Barbara then handed a pad of stage directions so that I could act as her prompt. In another show, I watched a poet drinking a whole bottle of wine on stage and confronting the audience, so completely involving them that, by the end, everyone in the room was an active participant in the show. The line between artist and audience completely blurred. These were experiences that you cannot plan for so become special in their own right.
Midway through the festival, I asked my boss for time off so that I could catch a 1:30pm performance of ‘Janet’ at the Kings Arms, leading to the sort of conversation that had become typical by that point. “It’s a puppet show,” I told her. “But with a lump of dough.”
“So, how was it?” she asked me the next day.
“Fantastic!” I said, trying to sum it up as best I could. “A water jug had sex with a bag of flour, they had a dough baby and in the end we all got to eat her as sandwiches.”
“Bloody hell” she said.
“I know! Then after that we went to see this brilliant comedy duo called Norris and Parker, who were sex witches.”
She looked at me for a few seconds then spoke. “Are you still drunk?”
“No, but I’m planning a works night out for next July and you’re all coming.”
Because I shouldn’t be the only one in my office who sees this stuff. Who gets to witness events like ‘One Man Bond’, where a man breathlessly performs condensed versions of every James Bond film with so much commitment and enthusiasm that you wonder if he might actually die. To watch a play that will make your heart rise in your chest and choke back tears until you realise that everyone else is crying too. Or to laugh so hard that you worry your face will remain fixed in a permanent resting grin, like The Joker. Or Professor Brian Cox. These are the things to see. The risks everyone can and should take. Because,for a month each year, the fringe is a gift to the region, ensuring that there is always something potentially brilliant around the corner. That every theatre, function room and bar involved could contain the funniest, most heart-breaking, transformative and wonderful thing you have ever seen. And to find out if that’s the case, all you need to be is curious.