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Postcard from Brighton: May 9

In the last of his daily Postcards, Richard scurries down the sea front, buzzes off to the circus, and flies around the world with a vintage cabaret.  Catch up with the news from our final day in Brighton.

So it's a sad goodbye to the seaside today - after a long, exhausting but very happy week, it's time to head back home to Edinburgh.  The Brighton Festival and Fringe go from strength to strength, and it's not too much of a stretch to suggest it might one day rival its northern neighbour.  For now, though, I've admired its relaxed and manageable style, and I'm pleased especially to see so many local groups finding a place on the Festival stage.

Before I leave, a quick word of thanks to the staff of the Premier Inn on North Street for their professionalism in handling Wednesday's fire.  BBC News reports that a woman's been charged with arson, and I'm sure the full story is yet to be told.  But I do know that we were well looked after, that the fire drill was well rehearsed, and that a member of staff hospitalized by the incident was back on duty - at his own insistence - the very next day.  Premier Inn didn't ask me to write this; I'm just really impressed by what I saw.

And so, without further ado, here are the final reviews of a busy week in Brighton.

Brunswick: A Town Within A City

May 15, 17, 22, 24, 29, 31; 2pm (1hr15); Meet at Peace Statue near Embassy Court

It should be a pleasant stroll along the sea-front from Brighton to Brunswick - but a late end to the previous show saw me charging down the promenade, scoffing a sandwich as I jogged along.  That's what happens when you pack 'em in... and in my book, it's not a proper day at the Festival unless you've had to run.

Fortunately for me, local history expert Michael Robins greeted latecomers with what turned out to be characteristic charm.  His low-key but entertaining tour painted a vivid picture of the birth of Brunswick, the Regency equivalent of a New Town built squarely between Brighton and Hove.  We learned how the moneyed gentlemen of the day were tempted to buy into a grand and stylish urban plan, and saw - as we skirted round the back of the magnificent terraces - the infrastructure which supported their lifestyle, too.

Michael has the names and dates at his fingertips, but this wasn't just an historical tour; a leading light in modern-day civic society, our guide was equally forthcoming on the area's recent history.  And if it did, occasionally, start to feel like an advert for the local businesses we passed by, I never suspected anything less noble than genuine enthusiasm for the way of life in this part of town.

3.5 starsThe Insect Circus

Until May 17 (not Wed); 3:45pm (1h30); Fletch @ St Andrew's

Why on Earth is this show in the Dance section of the Fringe programme?  It's a pretty decent comedy; it could pass for cabaret; and judging by the reactions of the families who were there, it's a great kids' show, too.  Pretty much the only thing it isn't is dance.

All the same, this eccentric variety act delivers a lot of show for your money.  In an entertaining and brilliantly simple premise, a Victorian travelling insect circus is made real: flies, wasps, beetles and ladybirds are scaled up to human size, to perform a seemingly neverending parade of old-school circus acts under the benign control of a besuited ring-master.

Of course, there are real circuses here in Brighton, with Tabu making a big impression down in Hove and the Chinese State Circus coming to Preston Park later in May.  Against that backdrop, I'm afraid a few of the segments in this show left me underwhelmed.  Average juggling is still average juggling, even when done dressed as a giant beetle, and I'm led back again to that programme listing; given the way it's billed, I expected a little more.

But when all's said and done, this was good clean fun - a homely, old-fashioned take on an inspired idea, good for all but the youngest kids yet with plenty for grown-ups to chuckle at too.  I loved the Great Flingo, a neatly-done parody on a not-so-great knife thrower.  I'd never expected to praise a troupe of performing dust-mites, but their cute comedy of manners built to an hilariously predictable conclusion.  And when the wasp-tamer foolishly turned her back on her deadly pets, I swear I felt a genuine frisson of fear.

The ring-master's patter was occasionally faltering and a few of the acts, it must be said, were a bit too long, but that didn't spoil a charming and relaxed afternoon.  I was all the more impressed when I realised, as the company lined up for their curtain-call, that the men and women I'd seen on stage been playing all the insects too.  So do try to make the time for this singular show; you'll not see its like elsewhere.  Oh - and whatever you do, don't get in the way of the charging beetle.

4 starsThe Aviator Club

Run ended

If the Insect Circus was good old-fashioned fun, the Aviator Club was good old-fashioned filth.  Matching the antique setting of the Parlure Spiegeltent, this well-structured cabaret sported a vintage style: transported on board a 1940's airliner, we toured the great cities of the world, each stop taking in an act or two with a fittingly exotic theme.  And from our trolley-dolly hostesses' amusingly smutty take on the safety demo to our deliciously camp pilot's twirls of his scarf, the golden age of flying was exploited all the way.

Resplendent in flying suits, live band Top Shelf Jazz ably accompanied the vast and varied cast through turns as varied as topless tap-dancing and heart-breaking song.  Dancing girls the Bees' Knees weren't always quite in time, but their musical interpretation really wasn't what I was meant to be studying.  And lest this all seem a bit unfair, let me reassure you that Alex Poulter's muscle-popping aerial acrobatics satisfied the ladies in the audience, too.

A cabaret, of course, is no place to be prudish, but there was one point where I felt it crossed the line.  As our flying-boat visited New York, "Anna the Pocket Rocket" captured the mood of the city with a jaw-dropping hula-hoop routine.  But as she turned to leave the stage, a menacing thug blocked her way; ripping off her dress, he forced her to perform again.  Casting the shadow of real-world exploitation over an otherwise escapist routine, it was uncomfortable, unpleasant and completely unnecessary - it's not as though cabaret dancers normally need a back-story to justify removing their clothes. 

Still, my sense of unease was soon dispelled by Piff the Magic Dragon, whose unexpected appearance signalled a detour into conjuring.  Imagine Jack Dee as a stage magician, and you'll have an idea of Piff's style; his twist on the old saw-in-half trick was simply brilliant, the dismembered woman singing her heart out while he shambled, bored rigid by it all, round the stage.  He had some fine ad-libs, too - and in fact, the unscripted interplay between the cast and the audience was a recurring highlight of the night.

After the interval, the show turned still racier, but it wasn't all Carry On hijinks.  Towards the end, we were treated to a ballet act performed on a trapeze - downbeat, beautiful and sad.   And finally, as the notional aeroplane flew into Paris, a chanteuse took centre stage for a satisfyingly bravura conclusion.

That New York lapse aside, Aviator Club was a solid night of harmlessly hedonistic fun, the perfect end to my week in Brighton.  Unfortunately it's run's finished now, but another cabaret - the Interstella Circus Show - is coming to the Spiegeltent later in May.

And with that, my all-too-brief time in Brighton's come to a close.  Seven days, fifteen shows, a trip down the sewer and a good few turns along the pier... I've had a whale of a time beside the sea.  I've found some gems, summoned some ghosts, and made a few good friends along the way.  If you've missed any of my Postcards, you can still collect the set here on

The Brighton Festival runs for two more weeks - but then, all eyes turn to Edinburgh.  We'll be covering the build-up to the Edinburgh Festival throughout June and July, and we'll be bringing you news and reviews for the whole of August.  If you'd like to keep in touch with FringeGuru, sign up with us now or just follow me on Twitter.

Enjoy the rest of the Festival!

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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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