Take a trip to the seaside in May, and there's no telling where or when you might find yourself in the midst of a theatrical event.
No sooner have you stepped off the train then you'll come across a Victorian-style bathing machine in the railway station – one of six placed in similarly odd locations – and providing the setting for a series of unsettling one-to-one theatrical encounters. If a swim is in order, be sure not to doggy paddle your way into Eau Eau Seven, during which the synchronised swimmers of Brighton celebrate all things Bond-related in a performance at the Prince Regent Pool. And on the off-chance you end up detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure, you may come face to face with Tube Light's Single Cell, a dark tale of incarceration making its debut in the old Victorian police cells beneath the city's Town Hall.
All of which is to say that the Brighton Fringe – the wayward younger sibling of the Brighton Festival – is bigger, ballsier and more unpredictable than ever. Like its Edinburgh counterpart, the Fringe is a three-week celebration of new creative talent. This year's programme has 681 acts across 193 venues (including several new ones), with cabaret, stand-up, theatre, music, visual arts and literary events all jostling for the attention of an estimated 200,00 visitors, and that's not counting the performers who hijack the city's pavements for impromptu shows.
Site-specific performance has fast become a cornerstone of the biggest arts festival in England that once hosted a theatre production in a public lavatory. Along with railway stations and police cells, more adventurous audiences are likely to find themselves in watching shows in hotel basements, churches, municipal gardens and the roof of the iconic Art Deco apartment block, Embassy Court.
Highlights of this year's theatre programme include Something Witty's interactive production of Noël Coward's Private Lives at the famous Grand Hotel on the seafront, and A Right Pair in which the legendary Bette Bourne returns to the Fringe to pair up with long-term collaborator Paul Shaw to revisit their greatest hits. Elsewhere plays by Shakespeare, Wilde, Sondheim, Pinter and Arnold Wesker go up against new works including White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by the Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour, performed by a different actor each night, and Feral Theatre's Triptych, which blends puppetry, physical theatre and acrobatics in a tale about a Romany storyteller.
While the main festival may boast the big names, the Fringe still comes with familiar faces with a cabaret line-up including Desmond O'Connor (no, not that one), Lynn Ruth Miller and the award-winning Bourgeois and Maurice, and stand-up from the likes of Mark Steel, Gina Yashere and Isy Suttie. A seam of mischief and provocation runs through shows such as Sameena Zehra's Tea With Terrorists, Ria Lina's It's Not Easy Being Yellow and the comic ensemble piece Shaggers (Warning: 35 shows at the Fringe come with warnings of nudity). The literary programme has blossomed this year to include a Charles Dickens cabaret in celebration of the writer's bicentennial, and talks from Tony Benn and the US writer and sociologist George Ritzer. Hendrick's Library of Delightfully Peculiar Writings returns to Jubilee Square in the guise of a vintage-style speakeasy and with an eclectic programme including Damian Barr's Literary Salon with Jojo Moyes and Alex Preston and gastronomic architects Bompas and Parr's Literary Feast, though – and I speak from bitter experience – diners should beware genial-looking hosts wielding electrically-charged cucumbers.
Brighton Fringe (01273 917272; brightonfringe.org) 5 to 27 MayReuse content