THE Great Yorkshire Fringe exited stage left from York in 2019 after five years, 1,200 shows, 9,000 performers and 110,000 visitors.
Frustrated by red tape, impresario Martin Witts pulled the plug on his fiesta of comedy, theatre, spoken word and children’s shows, since when the black hole in York’s summer entertainment calendar has never been filled.
In no way on the same scale, but occupying the same pre-Edinburgh Fringe slot, here comes the Stilly Fringe, out on the fringes of York at Stillington Mill, the home of the At The Mill arts hub, Saturday café and guest-chef supper club nights.
Running from tonight(July 22) until July 31, this is the latest enterprise from newly married Alexander Flanagan Wright, North Yorkshire writer, theatre-maker and visionary facilitator, and Megan Drury, Australian actor, writer and creative artist.
“It’s come about because a bunch of our dear pals said, ‘can we come and do this?’, like most of the things we do here come about,” says Alex. “There seemed to be a critical mass to make us think these weekends would be a good way to test things out.
“We thought, ‘let’s do it in a communal and convivial way’ with that bond between audiences and performers giving it a different vibe, seeing new work with a chance to chat with the artists. We love doing that here.”
Presented in the mill gardens, either on the open-air stage on the repurposed tennis court or under the cover of the café-bar, the Summer At The Mill programme takes in theatre and spoken-word premieres, comedy, children’s shows, concerts, Gary Stewart’s folk club bills, even silent disco dance nights.
The Stilly Fringe largely mirrors that format but with the added intrigue of giving an early opportunity to see shows bound for the Scottish capital in August. “Six out of nine are going to Edinburgh,” says Alex. “The Lovely Boys, The Gods The Gods The Gods, Invisible Mending, Opal Fruits and Casey Jay Andrews’ double bill, The Wild Unfeeling World and A Place That Belongs To Monsters, are all heading there.”
First up, tonight at 7pm, will be Joe Kent-Walters and Mikey Bligh-Smith’s absurd clown bonanza, The Lovely Boys, followed by Harrison Casswell & Friends, an 8.45pm set of electric spoken word and live music fronted by the Doncaster poet and writer, who Alex first saw on a Say Owt bill in York.
Next will be Say Owt leading light, York poet, actor, playwright and spoken-word slam champion Hannah Davies’s The Ballad Of Blea Wyke, a lyrical re-telling of the selkie myth, set against the Yorkshire coast, complemented by original live music by Jack Woods, in work-in-progress performances at 7pm on Saturday and Sunday.
On both those nights at 8.45pm, and on July 27 and 28 too, Alex and fellow Easingwold School old boy Phil Grainger will give their first Stillington performances of The Gods The Gods The Gods, the third in their trilogy of spoken-word and live music shows rooted in ancient myths after Orpheus and Eurydice.
“We first did the show in Australia in early 2020 before the pandemic forced us home, and we’re going to do a big, loud, bopping version in the garden, different from the indoor production that had a pretty massive lighting set-up,” says Alex.
“We’re having to look at how to play it within this landscape and within the Mill’s vibe, rather than trying to pretend we’re in a black-box theatre design. We’re just really excited to be telling these stories that we’ve been living with for three years.
“We’ve been doing loads of work with Megan as our dramaturg, and Phil and Tom (Figgins) have been re-working the music, re-writing some parts and writing plenty of new pieces.
“It feels like a two-year hiatus that has allowed us to think about these different story-telling modes to tell it with greater clarity.”
Why call this Wright & Grainger show The Gods The Gods The Gods, rather than plain old The Gods, Alex? “A lot of things come in threes and a lot of things in this show fall naturally into threes,” he reasons. “It’s one of those powerful numbers: a triad, with the three of us [Alex, Phil and Megan] telling the story.
“There are in fact four stories, three of them everyday stories and one story of the Gods. Most of those stories are told in three parts, and we repeat things three times in parts – and it’s just a good title!
“It’s also the third in the series of storytelling pieces we’ve done, taking a big jump on from the first two with a lot bigger soundtrack of Phil’s songs and Tom’s music production and a more complex narrative that we’ve weaved into it.”
The Stilly Fringe also will present Opal Fruits, Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s solo show about class, nostalgia and five generations of women from a South London council estate, on July 28 at 7pm; Casey Jay Andrews’ The Wild Unfeeling World, a tender, furious and fragile re-imagining of Moby Dick, and A Place That Belongs To Monsters, a re-imagining of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, on July 29 at 7pm and 8.45pm respectively.
Lucy Bird, originally from Ampleforth, will head back north with her Birmingham company Paperback Theatre for an “utterly Brummie” re-telling of The Wind In The Willows on July 30 at 2.30pm and 7pm.
Yoshika Colwell will return to the Mill for the Stilly Fringe finale, Invisible Mending, her exploration of power in small acts of creativity through original music, metaphysics and verbatim material, presented in collaboration with Second Body’s Max Barton, on July 31 at 7pm.
For tickets, head to atthemill.org.