A city with an ancient, prestigious university, a confused road system and streets clogged with tourists and street performers seemed just the place to escape Oxford for a month. Edinburgh, however, was practically overrun by Oxford students as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival brought the brightest lights in theatre, comedy and music swarming onto the Royal Mile. People certainly noticed a heavy presence from the dark blues, with several colleagues asking if Oxford offers a degree in a cappella after having walked down the Royal Mile punctuated with the Belles, Out Of The Blue, In The Pink and the Gargoyles. With comedy acts from Oxford Revue alumni as well as the revue itself, the Imps and many others and a selection of theatre shows to rival any week in Oxford there was plenty to make any Oxonian homesick and happy.
I was working as an editor and reviewer for another publication (broadwaybaby.com) for the duration of the Fringe, which meant that Oxford’s shows were off-limits during working hours due to potential conflicts of interest (and, after expressing some healthy rivalry, Cambridge shows too). However, with such a plethora of Oxford events on the cards it was pretty much impossible to not end up seeing some and, more importantly, seeing how they measured up against the competition.
In an environment like the Fringe, with over two thousand shows battling to get bums on seats, every production team had to go above and beyond the usual Oxford marketing fare. If you’ve ever considered it vaguely annoying when you’ve been invited to a Facebook event, or noticed half of your friends profile pictures becoming poster images overnight, then be grateful you have never stumbled upon the Royal Mile at noon during Fringe. Marketing strategies ranged from actors lying screaming on the cobbles, to the half-hearted thrusting of soggy flyers. Oxonians stepped up to the challenge. Swan Song spent hours folding their flyers into origami swans, a thoughtful touch with only one downside – the swan tore itself to pieces in my bag, fortunately after I’d seen the show. There was scarcely a day I didn’t spot the Oxford Revue pressing leaflets into outstretched palms. Machinal posters were simply all over C-venues from day one. I even glimpsed a rubber dinghy being toted towards the Mile, though I’m still not sure if it was because of the revival of New Writing Festival entry Rubber Dinghy or not – that’s Fringe for you.
You might have guessed from the word ‘revival’ but it quickly became clear that Oxford’s Fringe productions were not the ‘fringe’ of Oxford – in fact, most of what was put on was exactly what you’d expect to see at the BT. This is no criticism; instead, it is a testament to the variety and proficiency of drama and comedy here. What was clear in the staging of every Oxford play I saw at Fringe was the way the constant flurry of productions being conceived here have given Oxford’s actors and directors the skills to adapt to any space – Swan Song changed venue halfway through its run with professional competence – and whether opulent or sparse the sets showed a level of thought that was impressive given the relative lack of control over staging and space that performing in a Fringe venue, used by several different production a day, entails.
The fare ranged from traditional in the Trinity Players Noel Coward plays to the strange and wonderful The Tragedie of MacClegg. This latter play, performed in a vault underneath a church that could only be accessed by walking under a bridge crowded with bins, seemed
to epitomise the makeshift spirit of Fringe and was a sell-out success. A fairly simple exploration of the anger felt, mostly from a student perspective, to Nick Clegg’s betrayals, it carried through a blunt political message with charm and comedy to an enthusiastic audience which, notably for a small student play, ranged across several generations. In a festival where ‘student’ productions are often lumped together, Oxford plays frequently rose above their peers in delivering thought-out, well-acted pieces. Sometimes we forget how good we have it.
The Oxford name undoubtedly carried some clout amongst a crowd of student productions from the UK and beyond and, fortunately enough, the productions lived up to it. The Oxford Revue, frequently compared to the perhaps slightly more famous Cambridge Footlights, triumphed with a hugely successful run, replete with five star reviews. Spin-off shows, featuring members and alumni of the group, fared less well and notably received a great deal less exposure – both Sploshy and Failure and How to Achieve It received only one review apiece, which points to both the vastness of the Fringe and the force of the Oxford reputation in pulling in press interest. It’s from that position of strength that Oxford thesps as a group can push forward to create a standard of excellence to stand future Fringe productions in good stead.
PHOTOS/Festival Fringe Society, Roxy Rezvany