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It’s 6:30pm and I’m back in Fabio’s Bar, camera in hand. The buzz of the crowd rises, buoyed by the excitement of those who have stayed on after the last comedy act. Everyone wonders what to expect. A brief soundtest - a few gentle folk songs - tantalises. It’s the last night of the first Durham Fringe.

Guilty to admit, I’ve seen these guys three times now. Wishes on the Wind is a new romantic comedy blending northern folk music with a story of two young adults searching for belonging. The music is great, the acting is top notch, the various characters channelled through the cast of two is inspired. I sit back with my friends, excited to be able this time to enjoy them undisturbed. I’ve been darting around venues all weekend snapping promotional photography, but tonight I can relax without any pressure to take photos.

Five minutes in and I’m behind the lens again, each “silent” shutter click carrying a mental apology to anyone within earshot. I resist temptation but by the end I’m out of my seat, across the room -- I haven’t any from this angle yet and I have to capture the rapt attention lighting up the crowd’s faces. You see, night after night photography inevitably loses its charm, good subject matter is a must, but these two up on stage are something else. Quirky facial expressions, razor-sharp comedic timing and northern folk songs guaranteed to replay in the mind all week. They are magnetic.

Afterwards they relax and mingle with the effusive audience. After 4 days straight of the same old drama they deserve it. But what really stands out, listening to them, is that they only started rehearsing a week ago.

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Wishes on the Wind is just one of the shows which turned heads at the first Durham Fringe. Over four days, four venues (each remarkable in themselves) have served up a variety of music, dance, cabaret, theatre, and comedy acts, stand-up and sketches.

Outside in the gardens of St Chad’s College I am a fish out of water. Two dozen dancers frolic on stage to Rocky Horror and more. But after a few minutes finding the right vantage points (oh for a faster telescopic lens and access to those intriguing corridors above the courtyard!) I found myself thoroughly caught up. Later, there’s live music from up-and-coming singer-songwriters. The crowd hushed, night falling, the large courtyard is suddenly intimate.

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At the recently revamped Assembly rooms, there’s magic and theatre. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde is a short but sweet retelling of the old classic. With brilliant use of light and shadow, clever props and great acting it’s a fantastic end to the evening, but at 45 minutes it is over far too soon.

Then there’s Screen 9. For those heading to Edinburgh Fringe, it’s not to be missed -- though brace yourselves. When I sat down in my seat, free popcorn in hand, I had completely forgotten what I had come to see. A tribute to cinema - that was plain - both from the freebie at the door to the stage set for the movie premiere, velvet ropes, popcorn machine and all the scattered detritus of a happy audience. If only.

The cast emerged, addressing us as if trapped in a documentary of their lives. They were all going to this premiere, them, their loved ones, their children, all excited, all heading for this Colorado movie theatre to see The Dark Knight Rises.

Ah.

My best recommendation is, like me, go in blind folks. Do not read the bio. Forget why you’ve put it on your list. Just see it. Americans out there, it is your duty. Your duty to your children who may one day want to go out and just watch a film.

It is an atmospheric and engaging piece of theatre, with the cast joining the audience in the stage to present their story (worry not, fellow introverts, there’s no participation!). It will transport you there across the pond, immerse you deep in these people’s lives, their excitement, and punch you hard in the stomach. As you stagger out the only words on your lips will be the questions which beg to be asked.

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On a lighter note, there’s comedy all round. Over the three evenings I was there, I caught plenty of snippets as I dashed between venues, often bits of the same show twice. Its intriguing watching the same routine again. On some nights these great comedians were matched with quiet audiences, on others they had the crowd in tears. And constantly the acts grew and learnt, adapting to the space and the audience around them. One highlight was Biscuit Barrel which after two runs at Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe has arrived here with an hour of random unfiltered sketches. It’s great fun and utterly daft. The whole experience enlivened all the more by that couple in the audience whose hysterics were triggered, by the end, simply by the characters walking on stage. I’ll have what they’re having -- which is usually something in Durham.

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Behind the scenes, a small team of passionate volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring the Fringe to Durham, from finding performers and venues, supervising shows and bookings, to branding and promoting an entirely new festival for Durham. Its success is a sure sign of great things to come.

The first Durham Fringe ran 28 July - 1st August, 2021

Honourable mentions

Screen 9 by Piccolo Theatre

Wishes on the Wind by Squiggle Productions, written by Benjamin Story and starring Adam Ross Greene and Shannon Swan.

The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde by Northumberland Theatre Company

Comedy: Richard Pulsford, Becky Heaviside, Biscuit Barrel and more besides...

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