Brighton's festivals leave an unforgettable impression

Though Brighton's festivals are hardly as big as Edinburgh's, together they do pack a considerable punch

BLINDFIOLDED and with a plum stuck between my jaws, guided only by my hands on the shoulders of the punter in front of me, I can smell what is indisputably a fish and chip shop. I have to measure my footsteps against the sounds of a busy pedestrian street. "They're in the festival," a woman is reassuring some startled child.

This isn't Edinburgh in August, but Brighton in May, but it's reassuring to know that this particular Fringe encounter, A Live Trail, has been marshalled by a former student of Edinburgh's St George's School for Girls, Verity Combe, in an impressive first postgraduate project. In the show a series of artists very effectively writhe in clay in shop windows, make strange sounds around our blinded ears, and introduce us to a basement meeting with an earnest apocalyptic cultist, rehearsing a naked dance as a warm-up for Doomsday.

A Live Trail has promise - get 100 people gagged by plums and you have the makings of a spectacular Fringe parade entry. But in a rapid four-day swing through the closing weekend of Brighton's festivals month, the prize for most memorable show - judging from the comments of a few of the reported 30,0000 people who'd seen it - was for The Forty Part Motet.

This was not edgy theatre or character comedy but a work of sound art with no live performers. With high-impact simplicity, It featured a circle of 40 black speakers on stands, facing inwards, around the bare floor of a former Regency church. The work, by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, presented by the city's Fabrica art collective as part of the Brighton Festival, plays Thomas Tallis's choral masterpiece Spem in alium - written in 1573 for 40 parts, eight choirs of five voices.

Each speaker is a recorded voice. The piece plays continuously through the day, every 40 minutes or so. It was striking how people wandered into the building, through one of two doors, and were immediately caught up in the welling medieval harmonies of a kind of electronic flash mob. They sat with eyes closed on simple square seats in the centre, or wandered around to listen in to individual voices; it was like being able to walk among the singers of a choir as they performed.

For an Edinburgh visitor to the Brighton festivals, running through 15-20 or exhibits in three days, there's a bit of readjusting to do.

The Brighton Festival Fringe claims a place as the third largest Fringe festival in the world after Edinburgh and Adelaide, but has never swallowed its parent.It's the mainstream Brighton Festival, 40 years after its founding, which remains the festivals' artistic driver. It's the most visible city presence, from a giant mural of the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi - this year's inspiring, and headline-generating guest director - to major outdoor theatre spectacles.

Visual art also plays a highly visible, grassroots role in the festivals here. The city-wide Artists Open House, started 30 years ago when painter Ned Hoskins invited a group of fellow artists to show work in his house, now features 250 mostly home-based shows. They claim 250,000 visitors, a rival to the Brighton Festival's numbers and more than the Fringe, who quote 180,000 attendances. This year, AOH has spun-off a curated, Arts Council-funded component of high-quality contemporary art in the House Festival.

In a windy, cold field in the city's Wild Park - with a disappointingly small audience at a venue well outside the city centre on an uninviting night - As the World Tipped was a high end production for the Brighton Festival that paid off handsomely. A giant white outdoor stage is the setting for a scene of panicked backroom bureaucracy at the Copenhagen environment summit. While the voices of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama deliver world-saving platitudes, the frantic paper-pushers are overwhelmed with growing boxes of paperwork from innumberable discarded draft agreements.

As the stage begins to tip, the show becomes a dramatic aerial piece, with expertly counterbalanced performers on wire. The now-vertical stage, suspended from a crane, becomes a big-screen cinematic backdrop for a world busily destroying itself, while humans scrabble for survival, caught like insects in forces beyond their control. They run, memorably, through spools of digits unrolling in space. Our nervous tension over a high-wire act brings home the fear of a forthcoming environmental disaster. Weather-sensitive shows like this aren't bred for Edinburgh in August.

A Brighton Fringe production that is heading over the Border, and rightly so, is And the Birds Fell from the Sky. It again involves clever use of technology without defining itself by gimmickry, this time using video goggles, headphones and wheeled office chairs. Two audience members are taken into the show every few minutes, and drawn into an multisensual world of manic Faruk clowns that, in film terms, is a cross between Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker in Batman and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. There are ambitious plans to expand this short performance, inspired by news reports of an eerie bird die-off in Arkansas, through a longer mockumentary and street work, which sounds promising.

The Prince Regent was instrumental in launching Brighton as a Victorian holiday resort, with the extravagant onion domes of the Brighton Pavilion. Then he became George IV and went to Edinburgh on the journey north, a founding figure of all the formal trappings of Scotland's Victorianised identity. It shows how the two cities' traditional characters and colourings couldn't be much more different. Brighton's gone from holiday resort to a centre of gay and lesbian culture and Green politics. If Edinburgh's August jamboree still brings a welcome frisson of sensual and sexual liberation into the stony city, Brighton, I would guess, is not easily shocked at any time of year.

Crowding into a bathroom to watch actor Martin Lewton very naked in the bath, declaiming the rich words of Herman Melville's Billy Budd amid rubber ducks and Lego pirate boats while pulling out his hoard of gay porn, delivers a clever double-layered story of illicit lust.

Then there's The Great Wall of Vagina. Brighton might not be the only city where an artist could set about persuading 400 women to take casts of their own private parts for an artwork that runs round his gallery like a frieze from the Elgin Marbles, but bodycaster Jamie McCartney's work is a hit of the festivals. He has used skills from his commercial trade - reproducing babies' feet - to create a considerable artwork. The only complaint, apparently, was from a woman among the visitors flooding to the show, incensed that the over-18s only restriction meant her daughter couldn't see it.

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