Camden Fringe, various venues, August 2011

Just down the road the St. Pancras hotel sat like a monument to another era – the nineteenth-century industrial revolution or the early twenty- first-century boom, the fat cousin of past glories. At the Shaw Theatre a company who had scraped together the money for a production, and hoped merely to break even, put on a play. Here is the root of capitalism, the spirit of enterprise – but not its excesses. This is not about the turnover of money that leads to grand hotel reconstructions; it is not the spirit of self-celebration that ends in over nine billion pounds being ploughed into a two-week long event showcasing sports no one watches in a part of London that has been systematically stripped of anything useful or beneficial for decades. At the Shaw Theatre the itch was to put on a play and see what came of it. It is an itch that forms the backbone of the Camden Fringe, an August theatre festival whose aim is to provide an alternative to the all- powerful Edinburgh fringe.

Fringe theatre occupies the space between total amateurism and total professionalism. It is a place for the talented as well as the deluded. Those with talent tend not to shout too much about it but almost all of them will tell you that they are working on getting somewhere bigger. The deluded ones are fond of self-identification. Sometimes more acting goes on in the bar than on the stage. ‘I’m a producer’ one chap bellowed in my direction at a Camden pub after a show. He had helped put on one play. The lack of self-awareness can be astounding – and tragic. We are familiar with this kind of figure. It is the kind of figure represented by Corky St. Clair, the ‘off-off-off-off-off-Broadway’ director in the film, Waiting for Guffman,who tells his cast he ‘got off that boat with nothing but my dancer’s belt and a tube of chapstick!’ The Camden Fringe hopes, of course, to attract companies whose talent is for putting on plays on the stage not in the bar (unless the bar doubles as a theatre). This year’s festival provided examples of both.

As with Edinburgh, there was more of an emphasis on comedy. Here, the shadow of the Scottish festival was again noticeable. A number of the comics – including James W. Smith, whose in-set analysis of his own jokes was funny and, inevitably, recalled Stewart Lee – were only in Camden to do a couple of nights before heading north. But what could have been seen as a failing turned out to be something of a blessing. Outside of Edinburgh’s hothouse environment, and shorn of some of the need to relentlessly impress, a number of comics turned in looser, funnier sets. Marc Burrows was another, running through a half-hour show on the nineties that played with nostalgia without being dominated by it.

Not every comic act, though, was in Camden to wipe away the cobwebs before hitting Scotland for a shot at fame and fortune. With the Edinburgh fringe becoming more and more expensive, to the point where competing with millionaire TV stand-ups for four weeks before returning home having lost money now appears almost unglamorous, comedians are beginning to view Camden as a cheap, convenient alternative. James Mullinger is one of these. He got his first bookings in August because all the comedians were in Scotland and he has done the Camden Fringe, which he ‘loves’, for three years. His routines often deal with very tried- and-tested subject matter (cab drivers, Danny Dyer) but at the Roundhouse Studio his energy came over well. Another producer told me that Camden provides ‘excellent, off-West End venues that are cheap because everyone has run off to Edinburgh’. Mark Magill, the director of the Lost Theatre Company, a pioneering stalwart of the London fringe scene, also praised the democracy of Camden: ‘I think the Camden Fringe Festival is a marvellous event, promoting the true ethos of the London Fringe by giving a wide range of people a platform on which to perform’.

Away from the frantic grind to make the public laugh, life becomes even more fraught. Fringe theatre is built for comedy: it is cheap and, if it works, it provides the audience with an instant release that they can quantify. Dramatic work is not so lucky. We return to the Shaw Theatre and to a production of George Hull’s play, Peter, which ran alongside another work with lofty ambitions, No Comment. Produced by the fledgling company, Anatrope Theatre, Peter grapples with some weighty issues: religion, sexuality and death. The teenage Daniel is locked in a conflict with his older brother, Peter, a religious prodigy who appears to have performed miracles in the past and is now living with a cult in the United States. Their mother is dying and Daniel challenges Peter to use his much-vaunted powers to save her. The obvious trap here would be to make Peter a ridiculous figure, a stereotypical cult member, but he is given a genius for community that stops him resembling an evangelising television preacher.

Peter’s writer, George Hull, recognised the danger in putting on a serious play: ‘It is a bigger risk to do a full-length play with a cast and a set. It is harder to get your ideas across, but there is more of a demand for it than people realise. The biggest challenge is getting an audience. Nobody’s expecting to make a profit’. Social media helps to promote the Camden Fringe, but with journalists away in Edinburgh it is hard to get attention. As Hull says, ‘no one comes to London for the Camden Fringe’. As a brand, it is not yet properly established. The name – the use of the word ‘fringe’ – alludes to Edinburgh, dares to place it in the same category, but it also highlights the automatic association the theatre-going public make between Edinburgh and fringe theatre.

The festival was also hampered in its first week by the outbreak of the London riots, which swept through Camden just as they swept through so many other boroughs. Shows were cancelled. Money and momentum were lost. The theatre was out on the streets, and it was dangerous and vital. Inside the theatre, particularly in a fringe production, you seek what Jacques Rancière called ‘the emancipation of the spectator’. Instead of feeling alienated because she does not know how the play is performed and must remain static, the spectator is brought into the production, feels as though she is a part of it and is engaged. Outside Camden theatres, London’s spectators felt dangerously emancipated. It was bad for the business of the fringe and it raised the challenge artistically: with twenty- four-hour news and live blogging coming into their own as the riots raged, could the theatre do what it was traditionally meant to do best? Could it entertain and inform? Anatrope Theatre grandly and comically told me that:

‘The Shaw Theatre is the best fortified venue for this year’s Fringe. Anatrope takes the view that we are the forces of civilisation. Civilisation has always existed side by side with barbarians. What we have to communicate has taken months to prepare. But it can be destroyed by barbarians in seconds. We are committed to carrying on the civilising process undaunted.’

And so they did, with mixed success, while unwittingly providing a salutary lesson in the pitfalls of fringe theatre. To produce a successful piece of theatre a number of things must come together, among them the script, the acting, the direction and the design. This is hard enough in the West End where there is money to be spent and made, and established talent to be utilised. The pressure may not be overwhelming outside the West End but the resources are scarce and ingenuity must be deployed. So often a good script can be let down by bad acting, or good actors can be let down by a bad director. At the Shaw Theatre, leading actor Neill McReynolds, just sixteen years old but in possession of some impressive experience, appeared to have been let down by his director. His over- enunciation and lack of variation spoke of a paucity of proper guidance. The script, whittled down from one used at a production earlier this year, had lost its fat but had also lost some of its variety. Hull’s ideas felt less fully explored even though they remained good.

Still, the spirit of invention was alive in Camden this August. Slowly but surely the Camden Fringe chips away at Edinburgh and, while none of us will live to see it eclipse the Scottish festival, we may see a time in which people have actually heard of the Camden Fringe and recognise it as a legitimate venture. In a city that holds up the promise of artistic recognition like a glittering trophy, theatre will always come pouring through the canyons and the cracks, brought to life by the gifted and the grating. Fame or obscurity, professional or other, the battle for identification goes on.

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