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The Big Bite-Size Banquet
Published on Tuesday, 17 May 2011

4 stars

The Brunswick (venue website)
15, 22, 28 May, 2:30pm-4:00pm, 4:30pm-6:00pm; 12, 17, 26 May, 7:00pm-8:30pm, 9:00pm-10:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.

If you’ve spent any time at the Brighton Fringe, you’ve surely already sampled Bite-Size.  Brainchild of local man Nick Brice, it’s a smorgasbord of short plays – a series of 10 or 15-minute pieces, all from different writers and served up by a talented team of largely-professional actors.  At the end, you have the chance to play the critic through a handy voting form... so if you find you disagree with what I say below, be sure to make your own voice heard.

For me, the clear winner was Vintage, a gently nostalgic piece formed around a simple, inspired idea.  Revealing that idea would spoil too much of the joke, but I can tell you they have a hobby which first seems harmless – but whose over-literal rules and restrictions later take over their lives.  Sophia George and Antony Reed wear their roles with as much style as their vintage clothes, drawing their characters with the bold strokes needed for this short, punchy piece.  What’s more – and I mean this as a sincere compliment – I’ve never seen actors forget their lines with quite as much verve and élan.

I’ve criticized Bite Size’s previous menus for being too heavy on comedy, but this time I thought the balance was just about right.  The final piece, Perfect Stillness, is especially touching, as a man’s recently-departed wife speaks to him from beyond the grave – or maybe just in his own mind.  Lex Hills excels as the deceased lady, excited about the journey she’s about to make but anxious for her final moments with her husband.  Bad Bride is a worthy counterpart, set not at the end of a marriage but at its very start; it relies on humour but it’s quietly affecting too, with the young couple overcoming crises of their own creation to enjoy, in a manner of speaking, their special day.

All Hail is a play of contrasts; some of what happens is so deadly serious, I was a little ashamed that I’d laughed on cue.  It took me rather too long to get the point of it, but there’s a rewarding pay-off when the penny finally drops.  The Rehearsal was slow to start, but grew on me; the central character’s apparent arrogance fades into a charming vulnerability, and there’s a bittersweet note to the punchline at the end.  And of course, there were a couple of pieces I didn’t like so much.  Suspicious Minds relied too heavily on a ridiculous scenario which just wasn’t funny enough, while Keeping Annabelle cut a little too close to the bone.  The opening image of a hooded woman tied to a chair was too uncomfortable for me, and the admittedly-witty way she turned her situation around never quite dispelled my initial queasiness.

In a new twist this year, Bite-Size have moved the action outside a regular theatre.  The first half of the theatrical menu is served in the Brunswick ’s performance room, audience seated at cabaret tables; after the interval they mix it up with a quick tour round the rooms upstairs.  Billing the offering as “site-specific” is rather stretching a point – there’s little or nothing in the procession of plays with is really specific to a pub in Hove.  Still, the novelty of moving from space to space helped keep up interest in the second half, for all that the marshalling felt a little bossy.

There’s the option of a plate of canapés to enjoy with the plays downstairs, and while the fare’s maybe a little mean for £5 pub food, I did enjoy Chris Cresswell’s cameo as a mute but pompous matîre d’. Overall though, I wish Bite Size would dial down the gimmicks; they hit on a successful format years ago, and there’s no need to keep adding oversize cherries on top.  Such old-fogey grumbles aside, there’s a lot to enjoy in this year’s feast – and there’s some welcome food for thought, as well.

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