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2014 in review: fringe/Off-West End

Guy Rhys (Zeppo) and Sarah Middleton (Keaton) in Pomona. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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On bullish form in 2014, fringe winners included cerebral explorations, feminist fightbacks and provocative journeys into darkness. Honour Bayes says it was a good year to be called Chris.

This year proved how resilient the fringe is, with a number of new theatres being announced and opening up, both in London and elsewhere.

Thebes. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Thebes. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In this burgeoning environment, plenty of fantastic shows made their mark. The year began ambitiously with Gareth Jandrell’s epic Thebes at London’s New Diorama, which managed the almost impossible act of neatly weaving Sophocles and Aeschylus together.

Also in the capital, the wonderful The Body of an American kicked things off at the Gate Theatre. Audiences sat in a snow-filled cave held in the steely grip of two of the most detailed performances of the year. The Gate is a venue at the peak of its game with its productions of Grounded, Chimera and Idomeneus also hitting it out of the park.

At the Arcola, Barney Norris’ first full-length play, Visitors, tenderly examined the issue of dementia. Equally devastating was Beyond Caring at the Yard. This piece unfolded so slowly it became almost a task of endurance to watch. But under the mundanity bristled a seething political anger that left you physically winded, powerfully repaying your patience.

The Union confirmed it would be moving to a new home in 2015, which is great news as it is consistently one of the best musical theatre producers in London. Pacific Overtures was a particular highlight for me, with this gusty show sparking fierce discussions about yellowface casting.

Nick Payne stole the show at HighTide with Incognito, an incisive play about neuroscience given a sharp production by Joe Murphy.

Visitors. Photo: Mark Douet
Visitors. Photo: Mark Douet

Meanwhile, despite murmurings of an average turnout at the Edinburgh Fringe, I thought there was plenty of great stuff to be enjoyed. It was the year of the Chrises, with Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities at the Traverse, Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation (part of the Northern Stage programme) and Chris Brett Bailey’s This is How We Die at Forest Fringe impressing, shocking and delighting audiences in equal measure.

Also at Forest Fringe, Verity Standen stole hearts with her choral acapella pieces Hug and Mmm Hmmm – the latter of which was at Zoo – while Barrel Organ’s Nothing and the provocative but brilliant Looking for Paul were surprise hits at Summerhall. Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed released its inner feminist at the same venue with Sirens.

Back in London, Joe Orton’s riotous satire Fred and Madge, at the Hope Theatre, took me completely by surprise, pegging Rough Haired Pointer as a company to watch, while Invisible Flock reminded us that sometimes sentimentality isn’t a bad thing with the very moving Bring the Happy.

Foxy and Husk brought her strange medley of lip-sync, film, dance and interactive song to Camden People’s Theatre, a venue that also brought back its wonderful Calm Down, Dear festival of feminism.

Imaginative Christmas shows abounded, with Grimm Tales’ immersive, dark world experience impressing at the Oxo Tower. Daniel Kitson proved he’s still the king of warm, wise and caustically funny storytelling with the masterful A Show for Christmas at Battersea Arts Centre.

Piranha Heights ripped through London’s Old Red Lion – a venue that’s fast proving it’s the go-to place for electric productions of Philip Ridley’s dark and magical poetry. With so much promise, it will be exciting to see what 2015 delivers.

Best fringe show of 2014:
Pomona, Orange Tree
This blew people’s minds at the Richmond venue, causing a palpable shake-up at the theatre that points to a thrilling new direction

Worst fringe show of 2014:
Dorian Gray, Riverside Studios
A hammy adaptation with songs that sidestepped being morally reprehensible by being simply risible.

Read more fringe columns from Honour Bayes

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