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Postcard from Brighton: May 3

In today's first Postcard: the follow-up to Aeneas Faversham is anything but Dreadful, there's a fiery evening in Queen's Park and we catch up with some of our colleagues in Brighton.

It's a long way from Edinburgh to the South Coast - and a faintly calamitous journey South ended in style at Brighton Station, when I somehow pulled a crash barrier apart with my bare hands.  I'd like to think I don't know my own strength, but I suspect I just underestimate my own clumsiness.  Will I make it through the week without ending up in the sea?

It's a delight to stroll by the Pavilion again, but a mid-afternoon start means no time for sight-seeing today... so it's straight into the theatre, for the first of this year's reviews.

4 starsThe Penny Dreadfuls

May 23, 24; 5pm (1hr); Upstairs at Three and Ten

The Penny Dreadfuls have earned a coveted reputation thanks to Aeneas Faversham, a sketch show set in the Victorian era - and I have to admit I'd turned up at Three and Ten expecting more of the same.  But wisely sensing that the gimmick's run it's course, they've made a complete break this year.  Their new show, The Never Man, is a good old-fashioned mock-thriller romp, revelling in all the hackneyed stereotypes of the genre: a busted copper, an evil overlord, a man who's lost his memory and a some of the most girly fisticuffs ever seen on stage.

For the first half I worried, wondering whether reducing themselves to "just" another parody troupe had robbed the Dreadfuls of what had made them great.  But my concerns were joyfully answered in the genuinely hilarious denouement, proving once and for all that - as well as an inspired gimmick - these people have always had skill.

Thom Tuck excels in the title role, hamming it up deliciously as the Panama-hatted fool thrust into a world of intrigue.  I loved, too, the clever nods to the play's questionable production values, which got the audience squarely on-side from the very start.  True enough, the plot wouldn't stand much inspection... but it's engaging enough, and anyway, that's hardly the point of this show.

I sensed that most of the audience would have five-starred this one, but it's not quite ready for the top accolade from me: there were a few pacing issues, some indigestible lumps of exposition and perhaps a couple of extraneous characters to cut.  But, hey; it was the second-ever performance of this show, and there's no doubt the Dreadfuls have backed another winner.  I can't wait to see how it's developed when it comes to Edinburgh this August.

I bumped into Paul Levy from Fringe Review after the show.  It's a bit weird to give a shout-out to a competitor, but I'll make an exception here: Fringe Review is a great website, run on deeply sincere principles, and one of the first places I turn to when I'm planning my own day out at the Fringe.  You can find Fringe Review's Brighton coverage on their website.

3 starsFire, Smoke and Mirrors

Run ended

I'm in two minds about Fire, Smoke and Mirrors, the opening-weekend centrepiece of the "official" Festival's programme.  The trouble with these outdoor street-performance spectaculars is always that they're too crowded to enjoy... and as I trudged in the company of half the population of Brighton along the "enchanting" candle-lit route through Queen's Park, I'm afraid I found myself predictably underwhelmed.

But the destination was worth the journey.  The inspired central installation saw metal-workers with acetylene axes cut vast engraved columns in front of our eyes - while the fruits of their previous labours stood proudly behind them.  Completed, the vast columns were themselves turned into flaming braziers, as a technician at a control board set off the occasional fiery blast.  It's always a delight to see the creative process at work, and this impressive show turned craftsmanship into a performance of its own.

Not far away, the second highlight installation - an unfolding, gossamer-winged flying-boat - was mechanically impressive; so much so, in fact, that I enjoyed watching two burly technicians assemble it almost as much as seeing the elfin performer unfurl it later on.  It was all a bit too slow to hold the passing crowd, but it was worth the wait to experience this simple tale of aspiration, endeavour, disappointment and ultimate joy.

I'm afraid you've missed Fire, Smoke and Mirrors, but there's another outdoor spectacular - Big Splash - planned for Sunday 24 May.

And that's your lot from a busy first day in Brighton.  There'll be another card in the post tomorrow - or if you can't wait, try our live updates by following us on Twitter.  See you there!

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2009.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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