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Review: Colchester Fringe Festival 2021

Inspired by the legendary Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, a format that’s often repeated around the world, Colchester Fringe Festival is a new festival of the arts, bringing together theatre, comedy, dance, spoken word and more across multiple venues. Accessibility and promoting under-represented voices is a key part of their program. Originally planned for 2019 the pandemic has sadly delayed things a little bit but they ended up with an excellent four days of programming, with shows in Lion Walk, The Headgate, Coda, The Soundhouse and Best Days Vintage.

Kicking the festival off for me, on the Thursday night, is The Masque of Anarchy, a recital of poetry from 1819, read by Colchester Arts Centre’s Anthony Roberts. Listening to the poem, a piece set after the Peterloo Massacre, I was impressed by Anthony’s ability to recall near half hour of prose while delivering it with a tone which kept the listeners interest. Demonstrating the utter variety of performers at the Fringe, I follow this with Friendzy, a comedy set complete with magic over at The Soundhouse. Apparently this should have been a duo performing, one half of the pair unfortunately positive for covid (a reminder that despite things appearing back to normal everything is still a bit up in the air). It was held together well despite the circumstances, the blindfolded knife throwing a real highlight of fifty minutes of laughs.

I started Friday evening over at Best Days Vintage to catch Miserus, who point out “we’ve never played in a clothes shop before!” Dressed as Romans, this duo tell us multiple stories from Greek mythology. The whole thing is set to live music, something I wasn’t expecting despite standing outside the tent during their Thursday night performance – the variety of instruments played was quite impressive given their setup. I followed this up with my first ever visit to the Headgate Theatre to catch iNk’d, which ended up being one of the most emotionally intense and moving pieces I saw all weekend. This two person dance performance explored the relationship between a transitioning trans woman and a cis man, a biographical piece which really felt raw and honest. At some points it felt hard to watch as you completely empathised with the characters but, as the powder was spread from the box you could feel the cathartic release that came with it. A really powerful piece of art.

As the weekend arrives there’s a lot more going on in the town centre; performances are starting earlier but the tent in Lion Walk has now become a circus area, with the possibility to learn to juggle or unicycle or spin plates. Soundtracking this is the job of the resident musicians, Polly Haynes and Rosalid Harniess peforming acoustic sets. There’s no shortage of workshops going on.

The first performance of the day for me is Jumbo & Number One, a pair of radio plays, over in the Headgate rehearsal studio. The first play was a more comic piece about a mishap which, thanks to the local setting, was incredibly easy to visualise. The second piece raised a moral question with the audience, the lines between right and wrong blurred. In both cases the performance was incredibly engrossing. I followed this up with Let’s Try Gay an act by an Italian duo with plenty of comedic elements set in a bedroom as two straight men plan to film a gay porno. The duo got no shortage of laughs from the audience but also delivered a huge amount of depth to the characters around their insecurities, their past relationship and their current lives.

The Miners Crow was another incredibly moving piece, an autobiographical performed from Paul T Davies, looking at his life growing up in Wales with an abusive father as well as moving to London and then Colchester. An emotive piece of theatre, the performance ended with the audience writing something that’s bothering them on a piece of paper, shredding it and throwing it into the air while Abba played in the background. One of the best performances of the weekend. Moving from theatre to standup, Paul Merryck’s Lies, Alibis & Filthy Stories took us on a ride through his life, full of gigs and anecdotes. Some fairly dark jokes and definitely not suitable for children, I have to commend Paul for dealing with the slightly odd split crowd/bar in Coda and some very drunk people on the front row.

Sunday started with Entrée over at the Headgate, the tale of a magician who’s props turn on him I spent so much time laughing that I forgot it was also a magic show, suddenly shocked when a bow tie reappeared or a mic stand climbed skywards. The way the magician responded to children in the audience was great too, a real family friendly show.

Lost Dolls was a particularly busy performance, with people turning out in huge numbers to watch. The tale of troubled school children having to prepare for an important drama exam. What started out as a quite amusing tale of school life became more engrossing as you learned more about the characters and the reasons why they were in the class in the first place. Some of the dialogue felt a little bit forced (or maybe that’s just how people talk now, who knows, I’m too old) but the characters still felt believable and I found myself rooting for them.

Back To The Roaring 20s was an energetic piece of work told through dance. Featuring a mixture of music old and new, some incredibly lively dancing as well as some fantastic pole work. I would say I found the narrative a little hard to follow but the impressive choreography and well picked soundtrack more than made up for it. Ending the weekend for me was Accident Avoidance Training for Cutlery Users, PowerPoint driven stand up and probably the funniest hour of the weekend. With a mixture of visual gags, audience questioning and perfect timing this was always going to be a hit. The certificate at the end was a nice touch and it’s good to know that having a favourite bit of cutlery is wrong.

I find it hard to fault anything that I saw at Colchester’s first Fringe Festival. The schedule meant I got to see almost everything I planned on seeing (save for a sold out show in Ghost Therapy) and going from show to show was a breeze. I look forward to the next one!

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