Flashback: Festival at the Edge 2012 6x 200 word reviews

The Festival

I am a lizard creature, and so for an ideal festival escape my first need is sunshine. From this angle Festival at the Edge (FaTE) on Wenlock Edge from the 20th – 22nd July  was almost perfect this year. My second need is a feeling of escape – from the city, the day to day, and from crowds – so I like my festivals small – but without sacrificing choice.

Where many a small music festival is reduced to just one stage and a children’s area, FaTE manages to boast two storytelling tents, a music tent (primarily folk), a children’s tent (mostly storytelling), a workshop space, a circus activity tent, as well as programming walkabout, a village stage and events in the bar – oh! and not forgetting the bonfire and the story walks.

It is a beautiful event and deserves to be attended in much higher numbers – a fabulous family experience, a truly romantic setting, a cliff top location that drains beautifully in all but the worst of weathers… On a weekend where I was mostly focused on catching up with friends old and new I still managed to watch seven distinctly different performances each in a very distinctive style. Try it next year!

Vital Stats:
Show: Various
Company: Various
Venue: Stokes Barn, Shropshire
Date: July 2012 – next event 19-21st July 2013
Event: Festival at the Edge

Festival at the Edge Website

Individual Show Reviews Follow

The Elephant Story – Fred Versonnen

This is a genre rarely seen in the UK outside heritage properties –researched and performed historical story. It’s one of the forms I studied in the USA, and so I was utterly delighted to find that Belgian teller Fred Versonnen’s The Elephant Story, set among the travelling circuses of Barnum era America, is a beautiful example of how to get it right.

To be effective as performance entertainment a historical story needs a powerful narrative arc not scattered events; a manageable selection of characters with enough depth to empathise with; turning points with strong and varied emotional content and delivery which focuses on the story, allowing the historical detail to inveigle itself into our brains almost subconsciously.  The Elephant Story does all of this and it does it with a strong and almost, but not quite, schmaltzy emotional punch.  The hook is an age old classic of any narrative art form, the unique bond between one man and one animal, and Fred’s skill is twofold – a smart choice of events which shape a narrative, and an understated delivery which saves power for key moments.  See it if you can – especially if you’ve been disappointed by the genre in the past.

Sweet Shop on the Shore – Kate Corkery

The audience seemed to love this. I enjoyed some elements.

Comparisons with Under Milk Wood are almost right – Kate Corkery’s 2012 FaTE commission is a collection of sharply drawn vignettes, a wander through characters from her childhood Ireland, nodding to the theme of wisdom of elders, but without quite the poetic rhythms of Thomas.

The piece is a foray into the heart of personal storytelling as seen more commonly in the USA, and Kate pleases many people. The stories are chock full of nostalgic observations and humour which the audience laps up; she manages to build the story round her childhood self as a character without straying into the territory of therapy  and as an actress delivering sharp character portrayals her skill rivals many a one woman show.

But the piece left me unsure.  Whilst there is a clever frame, there isn’t a narrative arc with deep human change. And much as I admired the skill of narrating from so many different perspectives I found it disorientating and disconnecting, my attention wandered and I ended up longing for a more obvious journey and guide. Ignore me if you love Ireland and you’re happy drifting, you’ll be a huge fan.

Paradise Square – Chirine El Ansary

Chirine El Ansary has a deserved reputation in the field of storytelling for graceful movement, exquisite use of the stage and wonderfully rich poetry as well as subtle sensuality and humour. All of these were in play in Paradise Square, together with the pleasure of hearing two different languages– but ultimately I was confused.

I had a sense of something being attempted – a desire to connect Arabian Nights’ tales to current situations in the Middle East perhaps. Was it a fully fleshed allegory or something subtler? Was there a political message or simply an expression of frustration, alongside a celebration of beauty and love?

I’m really unsure of any of those things. And more importantly I don’t think that is because the storyteller chose to leave me unsure (though that is possible), I think instead it was a failing of purpose.

I felt the balance of languages failed, not making the cultural references comprehensible to a western audience. And languages aside, the composition, the balance of descriptions and narrative events, outbursts and story pushed me away instead of drawing me in, which is a shame given the beautiful style Chirine exhibited and her undoubted passion for her material and message.

Ursula Holden Gill – Fairies in the Gutter.

Wow. This was a tour de force in the personal storytelling genre.

The focus was on the audience enjoying a nostalgic journey of brilliantly sharp observational humour – with absolutely phenomenal execution.

Ursula Holden Gill is an award winning actress and her theatrical skill is front and centre in her portrayals of characters from her childhood, alongside an observational wit that verges on being cruel. She’s also got a decent singing voice; an ability to compose humorous songs and, crucially for me, a sense of narrative shape which allows her to fit her observations and comedy into distinct stories that drag you along wanting to know what happens next. All this is put together  under an overall emotional arc.

Ursula’s ‘fairies’ are people on the edge of society (be it homeless, eccentric, or with mental health issues) and whilst on the whole the piece allowed the audience almost constant and fairly comfortable laughter– risking falling into the rose tinted land which scars a lot of personal storytelling – she also shaped a moment towards the end of the piece which asked us to reflect and challenges us with harsh questions – a rare skill and a courageous choice. I was impressed.

Pete Morton –A Miller’s Tale

This felt like the kind of show you might see at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’d have a mixture of dreadful reviews from those who didn’t get it and some warmer ones from those who love the British sense of the shambolic.  I mean that as a compliment – I found it fairly refreshing and enjoyable.

Pete is a strong folk musician with a good voice and the doggerel is well done. This is a modern verse telling of Chaucer’s Millers Tale, punctuated by Bob Dylan songs, inexplicable unnecessary Morris dancing and a ridiculous collection of hats. The character acting is dreadfully hammed – but that’s part of the point.  It’s riddled with ‘mistakes’ – failed hat changes, a crowing cockerel that is triggered by noise too often, and even dialogue delivered in the wrong character’s voice.

Pete charms the audience, persuades us to laugh at/with him and creates the odd foray into genuine helpless mirth. I wonder if there is scope for him to work with someone from the comedy world on timing and shaping the order and connections of the show just that bit more because I have the sense that he almost has a massive alternative comedy hit on his hands.




  1. Tim Ralphs

    So, so good to see deep and honest reviews in the storytelling scene. It felt like last year there was a certain flavour of reminiscent narratives to the festival and rich character portraits. Will you be there this year?

  2. dreamfired

    Yes I’ll be there, just decided there’s so much I want to see I’m buying a ticket instead of stewarding. I agree, last year almost felt like being in the USA in some ways.That’s not a bad thing necessarily – but too much of it and I’ll be longing for something deeper and more relevant.

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