What is the Fringe for?

I was struck by the above questions raised by my colleague Mark Shenton, who is “producing” — what does that mean, exactly? — a play in the Cock Tavern, Kilburn, any minute now, and beating his own drum with the bright and  jolly desperation of someone who knows that nobody else will beat it for him.

The fringe, when it started in the mid-to-late 1960s, was where you changed the world. It had nothing to do with critical approval, sponsorship, grants, matinees for old people, awards ceremonies or chit chat, which is all the fringe seems to be about these days.

Above all, there was an idea that theatre was made and performed in a different way to the suffocating respectability of the mainstream, and that battle lines were therefore drawn.

The fringe is now a subsidiary of showbusiness — just look at the success of the Menier Chocolate Factory, with its fifteen Tony nominations and outlets for Hal Prince and Trevor Nunn, for heaven’s sake, like they needed such an opportunity to atone for past misdemeanours.

Maybe that’s OK, running along in a sort of self-obsessed existence removed from the real world until, finally — and this is where we wanted to be all along!– we’re scooping Tony nominations and, darlings, we really are wonderful after all! Yippee for the jolly old fringe, and all our middle-aged customers, and all those yummy reviews!!

A better way of looking at it is that the fringe in places like the Almeida, the Donmar and the Orange Tree is where good stuff gets done and maybe moves along the argument for good work on bigger stages.

But there’s nothing much aesthetically or ideologically brave or innovative about most of what happens. Nor is there, frankly, about Shunt, or all the other installation wallahs and site-specific pseuds to whom we critics give such a very soft soapy ride.

The West End, outside of the obvious big hitters (I can’t mention Andrew Lloyd Webber because every time I do, some anonymous, envious little creep or other bleats libellously on this blog), doesn’t originate new work, or new talent.

The fringe sometimes does, but not often. And our leading dramatists and actors now gravitate to the comfort zone of the subsidised sector, where reputations are cotton-woolled in financial security and fawning critical attention.

You just yearn for someone like Pip Simmons, or Mark Long, or a new Mike Bradwell, or even Charles Marowitz, to come along again and stick a stick of dynamite somewhere.

Why, one wonders, almost daily, hasn’t a director like Deborah Warner or Katie Mitchell created some new enclave of theatrical superiority on the fringe, instead of being swallowed into the phoney maw of cultural approval in Europe or the National Theatre?

So, good luck to Mark Shenton — not so much a critic, I always feel, or even a producer (don’t you learn that trade for years and years any more, with your elders and betters?), as an enthusiast, paragraphist, plugger and likeable Stage Door Johnny, a delightful comic character from Sheridan — with his new play for two people on a psychiatrist’s couch (not another one of those!) in a Kilburn hell-hole once graced by Ian Dury and his resident band — I was there!

But don’t tell me it’s the now and the future and the cutting-edge fringe of today.

It’s another no doubt worthwhile little enterprise in a whole bobbing sea of them, and nothing will change or improve in our theatre as a result, even if we critics turn up and write polite little notices in support of the venture.

Meanwhile, I look forward to attending the opening and being proved hopelessly wrong, just for a change. Now, excuse me while I retire to bed with the “Ego” diaries of James Agate  which I  proudly possess in their first leather-bound editions with author’s marks – a terrible warning to all critics about taking themselves too seriously.  Myself included, of course.

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