Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2018

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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.”

“Brilliant!”

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.

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The Real Story on Evidently Radio

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On June 2nd, Nija Dala-Small and I will be appearing on Evidently Radio to play some tunes, read stories and discuss our upcoming The Real Story:LIVE! event on June 23rd, headlined by Amy Liptrot.

You can catch the show here at 8pm (after which it will be archived) and find out more details about Evidently, their regular poetry night in Salford and details about their forthcoming appearance at Guy Garvey’s Meltdown Festival here.

Update: You can hear the show over on Mixcloud here.

 

 

 

 

Year 1

Mum

This is a photo of my mother pole-dancing at Hull Pride in August. There are several things you may notice while looking at it. The muscular couple in the centre perhaps. Or maybe the woman in her underwear on the right, her handbag clamped between her thighs. But one thing I think is immediately clear; that my mum does not give a shit.

Mum

Here she is again, look. The blonde, front row left. Not giving a shit during the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent 2015 with her burlesque troupe, The Ruby Red Performers. While watching this broadcast  I learned that she knew how to twirl a set of nipple-tassels in opposite directions. Also that she owned a set of nipple tassels.

Mum

And here she is not giving a shit while riding a scooter across the stage during the live semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. This despite the fact that, seconds later, the blasting caps on her bra would cause her bosoms to explode in front of an estimated viewing audience of 10 million.

I could go on but I fear I’m labouring the point, which just to be absolutely clear, is that my mum does not give a shit. What’s more, she never has. At least as long as I’ve known her. Whether that hasn’t always been the case, I’m not sure. All I know is that for the past 39 years she has been immune to stage fright. Doesn’t fear hecklers or criticism. Could not give a Christmas fig about negative reviews or cruel comment. She does what she enjoys, refusing to let anyone else’s sour-faced opinion stop her. And what she enjoys is entertaining people.

I know this because I have spent my life watching her on stage and witnessing the enthusiastic reactions she receives. In pantomimes, flitting around the stage in glittery wings as fairy Godmothers. In plays and cabaret. Singing and dancing. Or, on occasion, standing in front of Simon Cowell while wearing her undercrackers. If something requires charisma and confidence she’ll give it a try and she’ll generally ace it. Because she is fearless.

“I don’t know why,” she’ll tell me. “I’m just not bothered about what anyone else thinks.”

This is an attitude I’ve always admired in her and wanted for myself. Sadly, along with hazel eyes and the ability to hold my drink, it was not something I inherited from her. In its place I have a mortifying aversion to being the centre of attention.

Now, you might think that being the centre of attention is exactly what I might want. After all, I write indulgently self-focused non-fiction on a blog where there is a photo of me on every page. And I guess I do want attention but that doesn’t stop me fearing it. Because, unlike my mother, I’ve always been bothered about what people think. Always hated being stared at. Never keen on being the focal point.

As a child I would scream and run from the room each year when my family sang me Happy Birthday. And unlike my siblings, I refused to be involved in mum’s passion for amateur dramatics. My sister was convinced by her to dress as a flying monkey for a production of The Wizard of Oz (and later to join the Ruby Reds, that’s her in the BGT audition photo, 2nd right). Likewise my brother ended up performing a solo rendition of “Where is Love?” on the town hall stage. But I was a complete disappointment in that regard. My best effort would be to sing old time music hall songs and even then only in our living room and with a blanket over my head. I have never been anyone’s idea of a born performer.

But last year, from somewhere, I found a pinch of my mother’s confidence. Not much, just enough to make me say yes to the offer of reading one of my stories at a spoken word event promoted by The Real Story in January. I told myself it would be good for me, taking the line that nothing worthwhile is easy. What it ended up being was traumatic.

Weeks of anticipation and mounting stress seemed to have steadily whisked my guts into a soup, which sloshed around in my calves while I stood on the stage, feeling distanced from myself. Wondering if the words coming out of my mouth were words at all. Afterwards I had to take other people’s word for it that I hadn’t just been standing there for 10 minutes mawp-mawping  like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. But I’d got through it and once the sickness had died away I realised that I liked performing slightly more than I hated it. The thrill of getting a laugh when I’d hoped for one. And God, if I’m being honest here, the validation of a crowd. It wasn’t bad. So I read at another night. And another. And another etc. I learned from them all.

Some nights were wonderful. Others okay. A couple were truly appalling. Exercises in public failure where embarrassment hissed and spat inside me. Underscored my insecurities in fierce lines. But no one died. Apart from me. And then only on stage, so not really. I carry those experiences with me, where they persist like small stacks of bones. Never rotting away. Ever-present. Reminding me how awful things could be but also that, in the grand of scheme of things, that’s not very awful at all. And I found that the more I read on stage, the more comfortable I got and the less my anxiety owned me.

Throughout last year I read at a lot of spoken word nights and saw many people like me. Sensitive, ticking characters gambling with their own scraps of confidence. Squirming under spotlights that were not built with them in mind, their voices cracked and nervous as they apologised before reading. Sheets of A4 paper fluttering in their hands as if they were trying to demonstrate the beating wings of a poorly constructed origami bird. Some of these people read once and were never seen again. Others returned and grew, becoming performers that I’ve been anxious about having to follow on stage. And they’d been afforded this thanks to the nurturing nature of Manchester’s live literature scene.

Since last January I’ve read at many spoken word nights. For Bad Language, First Draft, Tales of Whatever, Speak Easy, Verbose and The Real Story. And at each event I have found supportive, constructive and inspiring people. A community that is not necessarily there to decorate people with praise but is certainly not there to destroy anyone. Only wanting the best from everyone who steps up to the mic. And for that I’m more grateful than I can really say.

From pushing myself to take that first step I’ve had the confidence to take further risks, which while not always ending in anything like victory have at least had value. I’ve sent my stories off to publishers and had my share of rejections but also my first successful book submission. I’ve been interviewed on the radio. Had one of my stories published on a podcast and picked up a regular paid magazine column. I also joined The Real Story, a group that supports emerging non-fiction writers in the northwest and gave me the opportunity to read in the first place and set my ball rolling. None of this is particularly earth-shattering by most people’s standards. I don’t consider myself to be a success. But as a socially defective periphery-dweller with crippling performance anxiety and low self-esteem, I’m cautiously proud of myself.

I’ve long accepted  that I will never have my mother’s courage and fearlessness. I will always find performing nerve-wracking. And I will never stop fretting about what people think. But I have learned that sometimes taking risks can be enough to change your life and that it doesn’t always hurt to give a shit.