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Finally, Alex Belfield is Sent To Jail – Justice Is Served

Alex ‘The Voice of Reason’ Belfield has been jailed for five years and 26 weeks after being convicted of four stalking charges against broadcasters and others including Jeremy Vine. One of the victims, a fellow BBC presenter, was seconds away from killing himself, the trial heard.

Alex Belfield was described by Jeremy Vine as the Jimmy Savile of trolls

Although Belfield claimed that he was “deeply sorry for what he did”, albeit an apology with a current bill that runs at more than £100,000, his barrister David Aubrey KC said he “now has developed the insight that he didn’t have before.”

How the not very mighty are destined to fall into obscurity.

Mr Justice Saini, sentencing at Nottingham crown court, said he accepted Vine’s assertion that Belfield had “weaponised the internet”.

Furthermore, Justice Saini imposed restraining orders against Belfield, prohibiting him from having contact with the victims, and ordered him to pay costs of £10,000. 

In relation to the women, so cruelly dismissed previously during sentencing, the judge said: “Each of them suffered a campaign of harassment by email and social media communications. Each of them suffered serious mental health problems arising from Mr Belfield’s conduct.”

Alex Belfield arriving for sentencing

The judge explained he did not question the verdicts of the jurors, but was applying the civil standard of proof when making the restraining orders.

For now, stalker Belfield will serve up to half of his sentence in prison and the remainder on licence. He has been warned he could then be recalled to prison if he commits a further offence.

Yet truth retains at least one advantage: that reality itself can be counted on to support it. In contrast, every lie requires further lies to stay alive.

The tale of conspiracy theorist Belfield is a pungent mix of alternative facts, selective quotation and counter-narrative. Unfortunately, the game is up.

Naturally, the whole business has appalled freedom-loving trolls on Twitter, who are “shocked” by the “harsh sentence”, before concluding that “the deep state truly does exist”. 

You get the picture I trust?

Still, I’m no stranger to these demented folk having taken Belfield to task during the past 3 years. This is just the latest chapter in a much longer history of compulsive lying, obsessive intimidation and malicious bullying.

Nottingham Crown Court

Alas, this insane situation is precisely why we have courtrooms, judges, lawyers and juries and why it’s vital that their inquiring of truth from belief remains a last recourse.

As so often in the rabbit hole down which shadow lurker Belfield has led us, I fear he will never be fully rehabilitated. For all the drama of this sorry saga, the way back still remains unclear.

Now, Belfield’s Youtube Channel currently leads with a ‘best of’ montage that says ’back soon’. Don’t count on it.

At last, though, righteous justice has been done. For now.

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Has Edinburgh Fringe Finally Hit The Wall? *Reset required*

Where are we with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s slow-motion death spiral.

Even in 2021-22, a recovery year, more than 2.2 million ticket sales were recorded across the fringe: the sixth-highest figure in the event’s 75-year history. 

In 2019, before the pandemic, the eight major producing venues at the fringe sold 1,965,961 tickets, but projected ticket sales fell by 25% in its first full year back to just 1,486,746. The lack of the Fringe app didn’t help. 

There were around 3,582 shows to choose from, playing at 277 different venues. However, most shows I attended were barely at 60% capacity.

Over to William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of Assembly, who estimated that venues had missed out on £7m in revenue because ticket sales were down by a quarter, resulting in “significant loss[es]”.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This “really has hurt” the companies delivering the shows, with the result that some may not survive without fundraising or government support, he said. In a normal year Burdett-Coutts said he would expect 10% of the companies he booked not to be able to cover their costs, but this year it would be more like 60%. It’s telling, too that Royal Military Tattoo in Edinburgh audiences were down around 20% this year. 

It’s also telling that Assembly, Dance Base, Gilded Balloon, Just the Tonic, Pleasance, Summerhall, Underbelly and ZOO collectively condemned soaring accommodation costs as the biggest risk to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s future, it urgently needs to adapt to survive. These 8 venues account for 60% of the tickets sold during the event. 

Meanwhile, premium pricing reached the festival; £107 ‘VIP tickets’ for Ian McKellen’s 75 minute Hamlet. Totally against the spirit of the fringe, and the beginning of a trend to make commercial gains and hoping to go unnoticed. Pure greed.

Its hard to know what to say about arts coverage – The Stage reviewed 178 shows this year, which is less than previous years. Impressive nonetheless.

The Scotsman state that their arts coverage has been pretty consistent for years. Indeed, there are more people with their own platforms writing about theatre than ever before. Unfortunately, due to rocketing accommodation costs many are staying for shorter periods – myself included.

Elsewhere, Edinburgh’s “free speech” venue The Pleasance cancelled the Glaswegian comedian Jerry Sadowitz for being offensive. Sadowitz has long been known for routines that most people would find grossly offensive.

Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, a bin strike left Edinburgh looking like Beirut; Street performers and residents were left litter picking after bin workers began a 12-day waste collection strike.

The bin strike in Edinburgh on its fourth day

 The Guardian went with the headline “The Edinburgh fringe is too long, too expensive, and too gruelling. It must change or die”. The Stage opted for: “The fringe will have to change, or it will wither”. 

Either way, somebody is getting rich, mostly greedy landlords. (Nica Burns unwelcome suggestion that Edinburgh Council waive legislation designed to protect tenants to bring costs down was plain stupid.) 

So, Edinburgh is now firmly the centre of capitalism – should we judge it as big business doing what it does i.e., centralising, synergising, excluding, and closing the shop to the in crowd? Probably.

For at the exact moment culture loving audiences need to be lifted out of an endless cycle of news misery with merriment and laughter, though, the Fringe Society have somehow dampened the mood even further with inaction and the go-to phrase: “It’s out of our hands.”

It isn’t, of course.

It is a very convenient way of transferring responsibility for something that sits with them. 

How long, in fact, can the Fringe Society’s alternative reality avoid contact with actual reality? Indeed, the festival stands at a crossroads, with costs for performers soaring and many younger acts staying away. Everyone blames everyone else – there is no joined up thinking.

Princess Khumalo and Sara Hazemi in A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

And what about diversity? The fringe talk a good game. However, if you want to know exactly how far this commitment to diversity really stretches, though, read the damning open letter by Nouveau Riche. They highlight incidents of racism experienced during the 2022 Fringe and call for a fundamental overhaul of the event to reflect the diversity of wider society. 

The theatre company said that it was surprised “little had changed in terms of diversity and safety” for black and global majority artists since it performed at the fringe in 2018, despite the wider industry taking steps towards inclusion and anti-racism.

Organisations such as Fringe of Colour and Best in Class are working hard to address this, but a reset is now urgently required. But what’s impossible to stomach is Fringe Society spokesperson, in all apparent sincerity, telling us: “The fringe is an open-access arts festival’. 

Access is and continues to be a total disgrace. The Fringe Society boasts that ‘60% of fringe shows are in accessible venues to wheelchair users’ – that still leaves over 1,400 spaces that are inaccessible to disabled audiences.  

So that’s the venues. There will be those of you feeling pessimism is the rational response, and it’s hard to disagree. The question is not just whether the world’s largest arts festival is elitist: the question is whether it is sustainable.

Samuel Barnett in Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen at Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

The simple solution would be to get tough with the greedy landlords, introduce a diversity quota to level the chaotic playing field, cap the festival at 2,000 performances and grow a spine. By putting artists first, the creative industries have a chance to reshape itself into a business that makes money and passes it on the creative people who deserve to be paid fairly for their work.

Against this backdrop, the rich – whose wealth swelled during the pandemic – remain unaffected. But young people see no rational incentive to back a system that seems to offer little other than insecurity, debt, and personal crisis- and that fact is surely becoming ever more obvious. The fringe’s model promotes the concentration of wealth among a select few at the expense of everybody else’s.

But for all the barbs I aim at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I hope it endures, not just as it fills a big hole in a quiet month, the stars of tomorrow are there, everything is up for grabs. The city is so completely beautiful. The people are, too.

Miraculously, the under-fire figurehead of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Shona McCarthy has secured the “full” backing of its board.

As the cost-of living crisis is set to worsen, a new democratic and inclusive festival is waiting to be born – one that breaks decisively with all the failed systems of the past.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World credit: Jeff J Mitchell

Old habits die hard after 75 years, though. The Fringe Society takes itself incredibly seriously and I sense the leadership void will prevent it from performing such a spectacular 180-degree turn.

If it comes to pass, the festival publicity department is welcome to use some of the tweets I’ve received this week in answer to my question How would you describe Edinburgh Fringe 2022 in one word: ‘Full-of-rubbish’ and ‘Enraging’ and ‘Over’.

Time to reset. if not now, when?

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Into The Woods, Theatre Royal Bath: be careful what you wish for

“‘Horror! Shame! Disgrace!’ laughs Terry.” runs the programme note asking what co-directors Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman want audiences to take away from Into The Woods in Bath. 

Mm. 

The cast of Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

Some evenings at the theatre make an instant impact, others lurk in your unconscious and won’t go away.

As you may recall, last year the Old Vic cancelled Gilliam’s show following unrest (he’d made contentious comments about Netflix special by comedian Dave Chappelle and the #MeToo movement) about its original decision to programme the production. 

During the pandemic, Theatre Royal Bath agreed to re-home the production.

Terry Gilliam & Leah Hausman on stage with the cast of Into The Woods

In that context, this disquieting revival becomes a riposte. With a cast of 23, the macabre musical is almost too vast for Bath’s proscenium, but it wittily (and pertinently) blends the carnivalesque and the gothic.

Anyway, in the first half of co-director’s Gilliam’s and Hausman’s slippery production, a childless couple go on a quest to lift a curse placed by a witch (Nicola Hughes). We encounter as Red Ridinghood (Lauren Conroy), Cinderella (Audrey Brisson) Jack of the Beanstalk (Barney Wilkinson), Rapunzel (Maria Conneely) and of course the Baker (Rhashan Stone) and his wife (Alex Young)– all of whom seem emotionally damaged. And even The Mysterious Man (Julian Bleach) can only raise a snarl.

In the superior second half, an unforgiving giantess inflicts mayhem on the fairy-tale community, whose survivors realise self-discovery. There’s magic in the air around Young as the childless Baker’s Wife and superb Brisson as Cinderella – they are the key to what makes this evening so beguiling, I think. 

Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

Interestingly, Sondheim saw the richly atmospheric designs before he died and is said to have wholly approved. This surreal staging ingeniously mashes up the vividly dark and the popular.

Ingenious use is made of designer Jon Bausor’s Victorian toy theatre creation: a sinister cuckoo sits above the curtain, a large chicken with “Made in China” on its thigh lays a golden egg, a massive pocket watch drops from the sky, counting down hours to undo the curse. 

Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

Elsewhere, Will Duke’s opulent video designs compliment the storytelling effortlessly. The ensemble is drilled. The singing is good.

It’s a heady mix: political, playful and profound.

Gilliam and his co-director Hausman make us unsure if we are to care about the characters, or if it is all just for a laugh – there is a lot of mugging off – and this can occasionally be at the expense of the more melancholy numbers. 

Furthermore, too often this rollicking production mistakes the overwrought for genuine emotion. You never really emotionally connect with any of the material. Well, except for Milky White – Jack’s bug-eyed pantomime cow. 

Still, it’s a dreamlike evening defiantly served not just by its leads but the entire top-notch, shape-shifting ensemble and a small but perfectly formed 10-piece band.

Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

So, transfer Into The Woods? Only if it comes with this warning out front: ‘be careful what you wish for’.  

Into The Woods runs until 10 September at Theatre Royal Bath. 

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Edinburgh Fringe 2022: Day 2

I really rate James Ley’s brutal but adorable Wilf, directed by Gareth Nicholls. Wilf is a Volkswagen which has had seven previous owners. (“we’ve both been used” says Calvin)

This unusual, salacious and feel-good play explores Calvin (Michael Dylan), a gay man’s journey through a breakup and sex addiction set to the soundtrack of 80s power ballads. 

Wilf at Traverse

Unexpectedly, the most striking innovatory material can be seen in the apparently modest, over-familiar form of the duologue with immensely watchable and hilarious Thelma (Irene Allan) a woman with her own issues and history. 

What impresses me most about Ley’s play is its attention to detail. The quips, the nervy shame, unpacking mental health & the brilliant design by Becky Minto.

That may make it all sound a little kooky. But this is a tender and cracking play suffused with grief and absence that scratches at the fragility of our crazy existence.

★★★★

More queer joy at Summerhall, in cabaret musical Grandmother’s Closet – performed by the immensely watchable Luke Hereford.

The closet here is a gateway to endless glitzy costume changes and small-town childhood hijinks; its surface exuberance seems to conceal a great sadness around his nan’s memory loss. 

Talented Bobby Harding plays the perfect deadpan musical foil to Hereford.

Grandmother’s Closet at Summerhall

Ostensibly, this autobiographical piece is fast and furious, occasionally crude and theatrically tender, too. But it’s mostly well-paced and entertaining as it explores the glamorous musical icons in his life, that include Judy Garland, Kylie Minogue, Jake Shears. And his nan, of course. A true ally. 

Indeed, there’s plenty of growing up gay cabarets at the Fringe but I doubt that I will see a more authentic one than Grandmother’s Closet this year.

★★★★

At Pleasance, No Place Like Home by Alex Roberts & Co. (winner of Les Enfants Terribles Award 2022) is described as a tragic odyssey into gay club culture and the places we can call home. On his first night out to a nightclub, he surprises himself.

I really, really wanted to get behind this piece, but it never takes off and it lacks grit. In this one-hander, Alex Roberts plays both Connor, a teenager exploring his sexuality, and Rob, a casual barman.

No Place Like Home at Pleasance Dome

Here, the club soundtrack and fluorescent video design is ill-pitched. It doesn’t help that there is *sometimes* quite a lot of acting going on, the kind that offers signposts rather than subtlety. 

Alas, this is a show that feels as desperate as its characters, but there are two redeeming features: the fluid physicality of Roberts and his poetry. 
★★★

2,500 years after the Euripides original and 22 years since it was last seen, the National Theatre of Scotland’s operatic Scots-language production returns.

Edinburgh International Festival’s transfixing Medea at The Hub is theatre to enchant. In Liz Lochhead’s promenade version we see things fresh-minted.  

Tom Piper’s cunningly uncomplicated set design, which raises the actors on a catwalk, with audience standing, offers a immersive view of the female-centred tragedy. 

Medea

A diverse chorus of 10 women are made up and include Pauline Lockhart, Eileen Nicholas, Janette Foggo, Wendy Seager and Fletcher Mathers. 

All of this tragic evening is steely and well-focused. It is beautifully lit by designer Colin Grenfell. Spellbinding, in fact. 

By the end, as Medea rails against the patriarchy you can’t help sobbing. 

Totally timeless. Beyond brilliant. Pure class. 
★★★★★

Wilf

Grandmother’s Closet

No Place Like Home

Medea

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Edinburgh Fringe 2022: Day 1

DOWNTOWN, the world’s largest arts festival, resembles Skid Row

Down on Skid Row

Mini tornadoes of detritus are flying into the faces of pedestrians.

Cleaners in Edinburgh have begun an 11 day strike – local authorities on Friday increased their pay offer from 3.5 per cent to 5 per cent, but until they accept it, the Edinburgh industrial action will continue. 

I will be writing to Ms Sturgeon.

Anyway, the first good thing about Myra DuBois, as far as I can glean, is that she isn’t taking prisoners. 

Uptown, DuBois – at The Dairy Room, Underbelly – ferociously addresses our problems in her camp comedy chat that flamethrowers good taste – the whole hour feels like being kicked in the shins and rolled in glitter. 

Her biting wit is on fine form as the scathing diva berates audience members’s dress sense and first world problems. If I was measuring pleasure in decibels then the screams and squirms would sound like a joyous riot.

This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Anxious For Nothing

Overall, really, really wickedly funny. 

★★★★

We’ve all read in horror describing the bureaucratic hurdles facing asylum seekers, and the inhumane Rwanda policy but plonking Exodus makes us wish we could book a one way ticket there for ourselves. 

The point of this show, i guess, is to be on the nose on a topical subject – all the best shows on television, film and stage are.

I had high hopes for this timely play at Traverse. Unfortunately, Uma Nada-Rajah’s farce about an MP using refugee intolerance to get ahead is depressingly clunky and lacks imagination. 


The attempts at farce are painful, though. I blame the director, not the spirited all-female cast.

The play revolves around Home Secretary Asiya Rao, a Priti Patel clone played with some flare by Aryana Ramkhalawon.

Exodus



This MP sets about a policy to stop migrants crossing the channel by erecting a radioactive barrier.

I lost the will to live after 20 minutes.

Max Fosh is a YouTuber with over a million subscribers. Unfortunately, his debut live show Zocial Butterfly is a laboured and repetitive experience.

Max Fosh
Max Fosh

Playing games with the audience and combining it with tepid stand-up, Foss supports his act with a slideshow and clips of his self proclaimed greatest moments. 

Nevertheless, “The A to Z of conversation” one of the games he plays – starting the first word of each sentence in a conversation in the same order as the alphabet – is just kind of mediocre. 

For his casual stage show, charismatic Fosh cracks jokes about his penis, the exotic name Gary, and his diverse education at Harrow. Hardly radical. 

★★★

Over at Summerhall the press team are on roller-skates. Literally. 

Riffing on modern gay culture, Samuel Barnett is wildly ingenious in Marcelo Dos Santos hot play Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen.

Barnett is consistently amusing and greatly enhanced by his playful, forceful manner.

Meanwhile, Matthew Xia’s startling and intelligent production marries filthy eloquence with sheer silliness that makes you laugh out loud. Pretty and witty and gay.

★★★★

One of the top picks of Edinburgh Fringe 2022, Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder: a joyous piece of theatre about two hapless best friends from Hull who host a true-crime podcast. 

Written and directed by Jon Brittain (Baby Reindeer), with irreverent music and lyrics by Matthew Floyd Jones (Frisky and Mannish) – it’s the most promising thing I’ve seen at the Fringe. 

Performed by a cast of excellent five, actors Rebekah Hinds (Kathy) and Bronté Barbé (Stella) root the heart in the hysteria. 

Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder

Also from Fleabag producer Francesca Moody, this larky whodunnit mini-musical is a complete one-off: a little bit weird, totally charming, bags of fun and very, very sweet. I loved the songs.

This show deserves a further life.

Kill for a ticket.

★★★★★
Myra DuBois’ A Problem Shared

Exodus

Max Fosh: Zocial Butterfly

Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen

Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder




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My, My, Mamma Mia! ABBA rule London: The Musical, The Party & Voyage

“Without a song or a dance, what are we?” The answer to this profound rhetorical question is, of course, nothing. 

I used to be a theatre snob.

So convinced that jukebox musicals had little to no redeeming qualities. It wasn’t that I had anything particularly against shows like Jersey Boys or Tina. It’s just that I’ve always felt that ‘proper musicals’ were a… higher art form. I have certainly mellowed, and perhaps my critical faculties have withered. 

At the risk of making my life sound more camp than it really is, last week I went to 3 ABBA related occasions in London: Mamma Mia!, Mamma Mia! – The Party and Voyage.

Mamma Mia was a song that became a musical, and then huge two films. And then an immersive dining show, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t seen it in London or on tour, DVD, or indeed, Amazon Prime.

ABBA can do no wrong. 

ABBA

Before we go on, whatever people think about the band’s music, their global popularity is undeniable. If proof was needed, ABBA Gold was the UK’s 20th best-selling album in the first six months of 2021 and recently became the first LP to spend 1,000 weeks in the UK top 100 album chart.

In Mamma Mia! we have a bulletproof feel-good jukebox musical that will run and run.

Recently, Judy Craymer’s hit musical celebrated its 23rd anniversary – it’s now the West End’s sixth longest-running show – and has been seen by a staggering 10 million people. There is currently a popular UK tour on the road, too. Really, really fun. 

The London production is still breathtakingly simple – while Anthony Van Laast’s choreography builds and builds to impressive ensemble numbers. The icing on the cake here, though, is Mazz Murray. She is pitch perfect as mum Donna and leads the company of Phylida Lloyd’s production that is packed with talent and dynamism. 

Mamma Mia – photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

And what’s not to love about a show about an independent hotelier in the Greek islands, preparing for her daughter’s wedding with the help of two old friends.

It is the high spirits, the genuinely touching depth of emotion. The get-up-and-dance curtain call provides some of the happiest minutes you will experience in a London theatre, the extraordinary power of musical theatre to make everything seem well in the world, no matter what’s happening. 

On the Greenwich Peninsula, a slick ABBA infused gourmet occasion. Created by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeushere, here adapted by Sandi Toksvig – Mamma Mia – The Party! is set in a joyously contrived Niko’s Tavern on the island of Skopelos. Essentially, this immersive dining experience takes place around our tables while we enjoy Greek grub while 35 inimitable ABBA songs play out. 

Mamma Mia! – The Party

With 4 courses of fresh, vibrant flavours at every turn, carnivores will be happy: for a main course, a chunk of confit lamb shoulder and slow cooked beef, potatoes and courgettes have been roasted and partnered with peperonata and garlic.

I opt for the vegetarian menu; roasted cauliflower with a lemon-herb dressing and stuffed tomato with lentil ragout. I end up drinking the aromatic jus. And on it goes. Dessert is a delicious lemon sponge cake with citrus yoghurt and confit. Tea and coffee follow.

Vegetarian cuisine – Mamma Mia – The Party

Oh, and the ticket prices. £115 to £220 depending on how close to the action you are; drinks are extra. The evening ends with an ABBA disco– this continues until 11.30pm. It is a slick operation and no mean feat delivering 500 covers. The talented waiters make the night fully fabulous. Not bad value, overall.

Sited close to Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, I had something approaching an out of body experience at new virtual concert Voyage. The pop titans themselves– Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus – have returned as de-aged digital pop spectrums.

The flat pack steel and timber venue is a 3,000 capacity (1,650 seats, standing 1,350) spaceshiplike venue and Voyage has the potential to extend until April 2026, when the permission for the Arena expires, with the land being designated for housing. 500 moving lights, 291 speakers and “largest kinetic system in the world”. Make of that what you will. 

Abba Voyage Arena – Stufish Entertainment Architects

The Swedish band, now in their 70s, have collaborated with George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic special effects, over five weeks by performing in motion capture suits, with 160 cameras scanning their bodies and facial expressions.

Furthermore, the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor helped them extend movements into younger bodies. One billion computing hours collectively logged from 1,000 special effects pioneers across four different studios and this is the extraordinary result. I was captivated.

What’s more, if light is intrinsic to Voyage’s triumph, then so is shadow. Our world is darker – but that won’t stop ABBA pushing the boundaries; this is a breakthrough, landmark entertainment and a masterclass in showmanship and restraint, too. 

‘jaw-dropping’ Voyage

One reason the evening was so enjoyable is that it is deliriously theatrical; “To be or not to be — that is no longer the question,” virtual band member Andersson declares in a pre-recorded solo address, the stunning effects blurring boundaries between the digital and the “real world”. 

Another is the euphoric setlist that carries us through 95 minutes of glittering pop heaven. 20 classic songs of pathos and romantic despair perfectly balanced with new material from 2021’s surprisingly good studio album of the same title. (ABBA have recorded more songs, to warrant repeat visits.)

In fact, the effortless hits that they created are prodigious. Voyage’s setlist includes not only “Fernando”, “SOS” (ultimate banger) and “Chiquitita” (sung against a dramatic lunar eclipse) but also a scorching “Summer Night City”. One song is performed brilliantly by the glassy eyed avatars in sassy rhinestone-emblazoned pink velour jumpsuits. 

At one point during “Dancing Queen” I stood up and swore. Not just ABBA’s most perfect song, but arguably pop music itself. Crucially, the 10-piece real life band of musicians are energetic, fleshing out the crowd-pleasing retro vocals amid the kaleidoscopic ripples of light and futuristic video screens. 

Still, there’s a couple of moments in this virtual comeback that sum up the spirit of the show. Anni-Frid pays tribute to her grandmother, Agnetha thanks fans for the decades of support and Benny tells us that we are the fifth member of ABBA. This beautiful, melancholic, bitter-sweet retrospective gets quite emotional by the time the night concludes with epic ballad “The Winner Takes It All”. 

ABBA Voyage (Photo by Johan Persson)

Ultimately, Voyage feels like the most meaningful and ingenious cultural moment I’ve experienced in 10 years of loitering around cultural events. I loved it to bits. 

Having listened to around 80 ABBA songs live over 48 hours, my love for them is solidified forever more.

See, I do have a heart.

Mamma Mia! booking until 5 March 2023 

Mamma Mia! – The Party is booking until 26 February 2023 

Abba Voyage is booking until May 2023

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Tyrant Alex Belfield: Guilty of Stalking- Sentenced to 5 Years In Prison

Some stories feel so astonishing that every time you think of them again, you have to sit with the basic concept for a few moments just to remind yourself how staggeringly outrageous the whole affair is.

Alas, Alex Belfield has been found guilty of the relentless stalking of other broadcasters, including Jeremy Vine, who he subjected to an “avalanche of hatred”.

The 42-year-old, from Nottingham, is due to be sentenced on 16 September and has been warned he could be jailed.

Let’s do the brief summary: The ex-radio host, who presented on BBC Radio Leeds, was labelled “the Jimmy Savile of trolling” during a trial which heard he repeatedly posted or sent abusive messages, videos and emails during the period 2010-2022.

Alex Belfield & Jeremy Vine

Following this destructive trial, though, has frequently resembled tipping-out time at Arkham Asylum. A fascinating story that’s so strange it could only be true.

Belfield, of course, had made claims that this was a BBC prosecution. This is not the case – these were criminal proceedings. 

Anyway, Jurors deliberated for 14 hours and 27 minutes before reaching the verdicts, following a four-week trial that began on 5 July: 

  • Rozina Breen – not guilty
  • Liz Green – not guilty
  • Helen Thomas – not guilty
  • Stephanie Hirst – not guilty
  • Bernard Spedding – guilty (majority verdict)
  • Ben Hewis – guilty (unanimous verdict)
  • Philip Dehany – not guilty to the charge on the indictment but guilty of the alternative charge of “simple” stalking (majority verdict)
  • Jeremy Vine – not guilty to the charge on the indictment but guilty of the alternative charge of “simple” stalking (unanimous verdict)

Giving evidence to the trial, Mr Vine described Belfield’s behaviour as “absolutely Olympic-level stalking, even for broadcasting”.

The CPS’s case was that the sustained nature of this abuse amounted to stalking. 

Referring to videos shown in court from Belfield’s YouTube show, Vine said he wished he had not watched some of the content.

Vine added in court: “I wished I hadn’t. Watching this man is like swimming in sewage.”

By PA News Agency

The CPS statement concluded: “His actions online, whether in the form of messages sent directly to victims, personal comments directed at them from his broadcasts or him contacting friends, family and colleagues had the same devastating impact on his victims.” 

Serial stalker Belfield argued in his defence that as a journalist, his conduct amounted to free speech. However, it was plain for anyone to see that his behaviour went beyond the legal, sane limits of freedom of speech. 

As such, it is no mean feat to dominate a platform where the people on the right are incredibly angry about free speech, and those on the left are incredibly angry about hate speech.

As for the wider lessons of the scandal, what a lot it says about a society crossing the threshold of madness. As tech visionary Jaron Lanier has long been excellent at pointing out, the best way to keep people on platforms like YouTube and Twitter is to make them angry. 

There’s parallels with far-right Infowars owner Alex Jones, whom this week has been ordered to pay $4.1m in damages over his repeated claims that the deadly Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.

The outcome in Nottingham this week is many things, but one of those is a cautionary tale about what happens when “news” is entirely unmoored from facts. He dug his own grave.

Furthermore, having represented himself at the trial, and declining to give any evidence, conspiracy theorist Belfield stated that his legal fees are £300,000. 

Conspiracy-theorist Alex Belfield

Against the backdrop of the actually excruciating cost of living crisis, however, this spectacle is increasingly sickening. I mean, it’s also a bit like unscrewing the top of your skull and pouring Sambuca directly on to your brain.

Nevertheless, I felt bad for pretty much everyone caught in Belfield’s crazy orbit—including Alex himself, whose sorry trajectory follows the same squalid arc as so many strivers who have tragically, disastrously tried to forge their own mythos. His character and wellbeing have been really damaged by his unpleasant social media addiction.

Remember, I also received a ‘legal letter’ for my exacting 2020 account of the expanded universe of all its gnarled and wrongheaded characters. 

My reply? ‘Do not contact me on behalf of your ‘client’ again or I will have no choice but to refer the matter – along with everyone else – to the police.’

‘legal letter’ from stalker and conspiracy theorist Alex Belfield

Funny, I thought he appreciated free speech; but that’s limited to his own abusive free speech. The charging police officer and Jeremy Vine are believed to have launched separate defamation proceedings.

So, what are we looking at here? Anything from 6 months to 10 years in prison. A suspended sentence would suffice – I hope Belfield gets psychiatric help. Truly. 

So that’s the short version, but of course it all feels inadequate. Even listing every individual injustice would render this blog dissertation length; at even cursory depth, each story is beyond disturbing and alarming. 

Alex Belfield

On the plus side, the trial judge, Justice Saini, told Belfield that he needed to be “extra careful about your online communications… There’s a good chance of a custodial sentence,” he added.

Belfield may as well believe his own lies, because there is nothing to be gained from him not believing them. Except perhaps a sense of decency.

Still, as Belfield is now discovering, very few things in this life are more horrifyingly overrated than “having your day in court”.

UPDATE

Belfield has been sentenced to five years and a half years in jail. He will now serve half of his sentence in prison and the remainder on licence. Restraining orders have also been granted in relation to all of the complainants, including those Belfield was not convicted of stalking. Justice.


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Here’s Your Definitive Guide to Edinburgh Fringe 2022 (you’re welcome)

It’s nearly that time again: Edinburgh is set to host more than 3,000 shows when it starts next week.

The Fringe was cancelled completely in 2020 because of the pandemic but made a limited return last year with about 600 shows. But, top venues have warned that ticket sales are down by about a third relative to pre-pandemic levels, with the cost of living crisis, summer’s travel disruption and Covid cited as reasons.

I have no idea why the bone brained bosses made the horrendous decision not to have an app for this year’s event. And don’t get me started on the scandalous accommodation costs. Not a great look. Removing barriers to attending the Fringe for artists and audiences is a key priority for the Fringe Society.

(There’s always the Free Fringe, though, if you are feeling the pinch.)

Gulp.

First up: Lauryn Redding’s terrific Bloody Elle. First seen at The Royal Exchange, this gig musical is full of quirky original music performed live on stage. At Traverse, obvs.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

Next, I’m curious to see Uma Nada-Rajah’s new dark comedy Exodus, at Traverse, too. It’s about politicians and posturing, and exposes systematic deception and indifference to human suffering.     

I am looking forward to seeing Afghanistan is Not Funny by Fringe veteran Henry Naylor at Gilded Balloon, Teviot. 

Elsewhere, Silent Faces ask why half the world’s population is excluded in a funny, pop-culture piece Godot is a Woman, at Pleasance Dome. If you need to laugh (don’t we all) don’t miss fleet-footed Nina Conti’s hilarious The Dating Show at Pleasance Courtyard

Horizon – Performance Created in England is back with its second showcase, this year focussing on tour-ready performancesa curated programme of ten artists making vital, genre challenging work. Check it out.

Feminist and female-led Rash Dash are always up to something daring. This year, they present Look At Me Don’t Look At Me – a two-hander featuring a piano, a synth, two microphones, a shaky egg and 14 original songs. 

Over at Assembly Checkpoint is Americana – A Murder Ballad – an intriguing premiere by leading Scottish playwright Morna Young. 

At Gilded Balloon Justin Huertas’s wildly original musical Lizard Boy unpacks self-love and acceptance, and particularly finding love today as a gay person of colour.

Lizard Boy

Indeed, Summerhall is essential for any Fringe visit. While you’re there go and see Invisible Mending; a show about love, grief, and knitting. Also: grab a ticket for Maimuna Memon’s Manic Street CreatureBill Buckhurst (Sister Act) directsCarly Wijs (Us/Them) returns to Summerhall with Boy. Don’t miss it. While you are there, have a G&T and head over to Luke Hereford’s fun autobiographical queer cabaret, Grandmother’s Closet.

Among other highlights, Caligari at Underbelly Cowgate, I’m sure, will be a riot: Five actor-musicians reimagine the seminal silent film, with the doctor’s victims taking centre stage. While you are there, go and see Max Fosh’s bonkers but brilliant drama-comedy Zocial Butterfly. I really want to catch Cassie and the Lights; a spellbinding play with music about children and the care system, too.

Paines Plough’s Roundabout is usually good value for money. Get along to world premieres Sami Ibrahim’s A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain – a poetic fable of an immigration system that mirrors our own. In Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s play Half Empty Glasses, a young Black student who auditions for a prestigious music school, but becomes disenchanted by the lack of Black names on the curriculum.

Half Empty Glasses – photo by Paines Plough

Over at Greenside, storyteller Kim Kalish’s The Funny Thing About Death looks like a tonic. Brain and Hemingway  piece about a songwriter with severe writer’s block – also looks fun.

If you missed the laddish Olivier Award nominated Choir of Man originally here in 2017, or last year in London, you can catch it once more.

Succession fans will want to take a walk over to Assembly George Square to catch a glimpse of legend Brian Cox. The actor and his wife have teamed up to produce new play She/Her. A hot ticket. 

So, there you have it, that’s the end of my Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2022 guide.

It’s good to be back, isn’t it?

Choir of Man

Anyway, I hope you have found some use in this guide to what the Fringe world has on offer. 

If you have show tips, tweet me: @mrcarl_woodward – I’ll be updating this blog weekly. 

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Suzie Miller: “Don’t give up. If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.” 

When Prima Facie hits our cinemas next month cinemas as part of NT Live to see Jodie Comer’s sell-out West End debut the play’s writer Suzie Miller will be watching intently to see how it translates from stage to screen. Prima Facie shines a light on the Australian legal system. Around 60,000 people shared in Tessa’s story at the Harold Pinter Theatre – from 21st July the conversation continues with the rest of the world.

Suzie Miller © by Helen Murray

We are talking on the telephone, a couple of weeks after Opening Night, in which Comer received rave reviews. “I just think that NT Live is such a wonderful thing, it makes theatre accessible to everyone and is an astonishing leveller and the ultimate invite to experience theatre filmed,” Miller says.

An Australian-British criminal defence lawyer working in the human rights sector, writer Miller witnessed first-hand how the Legal System fails most sexual assault victims. She studied while working as a lawyer and left the bar to be a full-time playwright in 2010.  

“The play began when I was studying criminal law and how it is structures and thinking there’s something about the way sexual assault that is doesn’t feel right – as went through my practice in law it continued to come through to me that it just wasn’t working for victims,” Miller tells me.

Due process is everything: “I was and still am committed to the concept of innocence until proven guilty. I also think that sexual assault is a special area that is not necessarily being catered to by a very male focussed legal system.”  

At almost 2 hours long and with no interval, the play packs a lot in. Essentially, a play about a lawyer who specialises in defending men accused of sexual assault, until she is assaulted herself: the insecurities she’s faced, heartbreak, sexism, misogyny, being told to look and behave a certain way. 

I mention that Comer owned the courtroom; a theatre animal. “Jodie is such an incredible screen actress,” she says with some admiration. “It is astonishing how she stepped out on the stage (Comer had only been in one play before, in Scarborough, when she was 16) and become a theatre actor. I just think that she’s born to do theatre. She is incredible.” 

Suzie Miller with Jodie Comer © by Helen Murray

The play, it is fair to say, recieved a mixed reception here; some critics were not enthusiastic about the text itself. In a four-star review, the Evening Standard said: “Suzie Miller’s script is a great vehicle rather than a truly great play, however – shrewd and economical in its analysis of how the system treats assault survivors, but schematic in its plotting.”

The Guardian’s review stated that “[Comer] roars through Suzie Miller’s script. The play roars, too, sometimes too loudly in its polemic, but Comer works overtime to elevate these moments,” and that the script “ falls into a loudly lecturing tone at the end.” 

I ask her how the critical and audience responses varied here to the Australia run. She responds pragmatically. “Somehow having a woman stand on stage and make a direct political address within the confines of her story, it is bordering on being a lecture,” she says. “Look at Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird or Mark Rylance’s final speech in Jerusalem. Hailed as mesmerising. It seems to be something that some critics here are not used to. You know you’ve made a difference when the play is not just in the arts pages,” Miller says. 

Still, quibbles about polemic do not matter, Prima Facie was one of the hottest tickets in Europe; with Killing Eve star Comer attracting the mythical kind of post West End show frenzy not seen in years – and her legions of teenage fans love her. Truly.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie

For Miller, though, the idea that someone is consenting unless they tell you that they are not “doesn’t fit with women’s lived experience” and she thinks that “something in the legal system is fundamentally broken.” It is hard to disagree. It becomes clear as we talk that this is a universal issue. 

In fact, figures released earlier this year showed that in the 12 months to September 2021, only 1.3% of the 63,136 rape offences recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged.

“I think what consent runs through everyone’s relationship and what sexual entitlement is and when it should be called out. It can also happen to anyone. So, it’s about a huge change and a group of Barrister’s are going out to schools to talk about consent which is fantastic,” Miller says.

Prima Facie has partnered with The Schools Consent Project and has given away free tickets to 10 partner school groups so that teachers can bring students to see the show and access further ancillary support. Funds have also been donated to support the essential work the charity does to educate young people in the UK about consent.

Set up in 2014 by barrister Kate Parker, The Schools Consent Project is a charity that sends lawyers into schools to teach young people (11–18-year-olds) the legal definition of consent. Their aim is to normalise these sorts of conversations; to empower young people to identify and communicate boundaries, and to respect them in others. To date, they have worked with over 20,000 young people across the country.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie © by Helen Murray

Miler believes a rich cultural education is key to changing the world: “It’s fundamental,” she tells me. “Theatre is the town square. It is so important – people can pretend to be other things, whilst an audience breathes in the same emotional mist. I feel like it offers a way of interpreting the world. A writer’s job is to show the paradox of being human. I went to law to change the world and now in theatre I still want to do that and make a difference.” 

So which writers inspire her? “Well, growing up I read a lot of Shakespeare. I was mentored by Edward Albee early in my career. All hail mighty Edward. Dennis Kelly, Mike Bartlett, Caryl Churchill and Maria Irene Fornes,”

Looking to the future, Comer will reprise her role in Prima Facie on Broadway. It will have a limited engagement at one of New York’s Shubert theaters, with the exact venue and dates to be announced. “It has been an absolute privilege to tell Tessa’s story here in London over the past few months and to now have the opportunity to take Prima Facie to New York is a dream come true,” said Comer in a recent statement.

With Prima Facie playwright Suzie Miller on Opening Night

In conversation Miller is as tranquil and delightful as she is compellingly eloquent. You’re relatively productive, I add. What’s your secret? “Don’t give up,’ she says quickly. “If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.”  

Prima Facie is released to cinemas around the world via NT Live and in association with Sky Arts on Thursday 21 July 2022.

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£400 tickets for West End Cock? No thanks.

Well….

The cynic, as Oscar Wilde put it, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For commentators, that switches into reverse: indifferent to price, we are expected to deliberate value. 

Full disclosure, I am privileged to not have to usually pay for tickets. Occasionally, though, I despair. I feel there is no place for the working class in theatre. This is by no means my first rodeo, either.

This week, premium tickets for Mike Bartlett’s play Cock – starring Jonathan Bailey and Joel Harper-Jackson – were put on sale with ticket prices that had been spiked to £400.

If you thought that was bad, though, add the additional burden of ATG’s booking fees, the total came to £460. £460!  A sorry state of affairs.

Let’s do a brief summary: Cock is directed by Marianne Elliott and made headlines after understudy Harper-Jackson stepped into replace Taron Egerton who left suddenly due to ‘personal reasons’ having fainted during the first preview.

A spokesperson for the 90-minute play defended the unprecedented ticket prices as the result of “supply and demand.” That’s showbiz, honey. However, following backlash producers Elliott & Harper subsequently reduced the cost of the seats significantly.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The world may be shifting, but we must remind commercial producers – especially those recently in receipt of three rounds of significant Culture Recovery Funds – the value of accessible and affordable tickets, and a sense of the very real dangers should they discard it.

The risk of knowing the price of everything is that you can end up forgetting about its value.

Nevertheless, 15% of tickets sold have been at £20 and there is a daily lottery with tickets at this price point. Ambassadors Theatre is also a small house with only 444 seats. But most of these £20 tickets require a degree of flexibility not compatible with most people’s lives.

Still, the West End is a supply-and-demand business – and if there is escalating demand, there will be little pressure for a ceiling on what producers and theatre owners will seek to earn from. Even so, accessible tickets equal sustainability, as fair ticket prices encourage theatre-going generally and are key to the creative industries survival.

Data collected by the Society of London Theatre for 2019 found that the average ticket price for its member venues, which include all of the commercial West End and London’s major subsidised theatres, was £52.17. 

Anyway, Cock briefly became the most expensive play in West End history, thanks to dynamic pricing. First developed for the retail sector, dynamic pricing software uses algorithms to tell a theatre what they can get away with charging. It felt like a tipping point.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Top-price Cock premium seats are now £175. Ones that had been greedily priced at £350 are now £150, additionally £300 tickets are now on sale at £125 plus booking fees. Quite frankly, still absurd for a 90-minute play.

In reality, however, inflated ticket prices – particularly West End ticket prices – risk alienating an entire generation of future audiences as increasingly unaffordable tickets further limits audiences to very rich white people – whose wealth largely surged during the pandemic.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have predicted the UK will fall into recession this year. What’s more, an estimated 1.5 million households across the UK will struggle to pay food and energy bills, as rising prices, and higher taxes squeeze budgets. This, coupled with the ongoing decimation of cultural education in our state schools, is a theatre time bomb. Potential audience members now face the choice between heating and eating, rather than whether to have an interval ice cream.

Yet the ever more pressing wider issue is that theatre’s future, and indeed recovery, rests entirely on the next generation of theatre-goers. Price them out at your peril. Habits are changing fast; with disrupted education, rising rents and low wages.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Producers Elliott & Harper have stated that they will not be commenting further, but this outcome speaks for itself.

This U-turn was not just a people-power social media victory: this was direct action. A historic watershed.

That is all.

Cock is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 4 June