Most people in the UK will have heard of the Edinburgh Festival. Down in the south we have the similar Brighton Festival, which runs for most of May, with numerous cultural happenings ranging from formal artistic exhibitions to off-the-wall comedians in tiny rooms upstairs in pubs. The latter is part of the Fringe programme - a festival within a festival, which describes itself as 'the third largest open access arts festival in the world' with 'more than 600 shows at 200 venues over three weeks'. Pretty impressive? Some of these performances are a hoot. We (that is, myself and two trans friends) went to one where the five actors endeavoured to improvise two plays in genres chosen by the audience (romantic, action, horror, sci-fi and so on). So in each case the basic play had to morph into Gone With The Wind, James Bond, Dracula or Star Wars, depending the audience's choice. The audience were also invited to determine the first and last lines spoken, these things obviously having an enormous influence on the plot. It must have been very difficult for the actors, with no time to confer or rehearse, doing it all on the fly, right in front of an audience sitting only a few feet away. They worked hard, and deserved their applause, especially as the audience barely outnumbered the cast. But then that's the essence of Fringe events: small and intimate in every way. Some are of course much better attended. A few days earlier, we saw a performance of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis in a large tent in a pub garden. It had a cast of twelve, and maybe a hundred people watched. The place was packed. This wasn't comedy, though it had its wry moments. I came away feeling better educated about what it means to have a mental illness. It wasn't depressing, although Sarah Kane never wrote anything else, killing herself soon after finishing the play. You did wonder what part her treatment played in that. This was a polished production, and yet many of the cast were new to acting. And I suppose that's another point to make about Fringe events: they showcase fledgling talent. It doesn't matter if your act is a little rough and ready; you get a chance to try out something daring and fresh in front of a relaxed audience who aren't expecting a West End performance. A lot of the comedy is very dark indeed: on yet another occasion, we were entertained by a comic who was frankly relating how he came to overdose in a suicide bid. He survived, and worked it up into something worth listening to, and rather funny.
All in all, I think my eyes have been opened somewhat. Theatre doesn't have to be a big name in a posh venue doing Richard III at ludicrous seat prices.