How to Win Against Edinburgh

Áine Flanagan, the producer behind last year's cult musical hit How to Win Against History, tells Stewart Pringle about making the type of work she wants to see

feature | Read in About 4 minutes
31001 large
Prom Kween
Published 22 Jul 2017

This time last year, an intrepid producer and a cast of Edinburgh Fringe regulars did something extraordinary. In a small red box on Assembly George Square, which they quickly dubbed "the microwave", Áine Flanagan Productions presented Seiriol Davies’s batshit musical biopic of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey. The rest, as they say, is history. This year Flanagan is bringing the multiple award-winning How to Win Against History back to the Fringe, on the crest of a glitter-crested wave that most producers can only dream of. Soon to tour the UK, its run at London’s Young Vic theatre has already been extended due to whopping advance sales.

It’s a triumph for thoughtful, empathetic theatre that wears its politics lightly but firmly, and its ornate headgear fabulously. It’s hardly surprising then that Flanagan’s first Fringe hit was Jon Brittain and Matt Tedford’s brilliant Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho. Born as a rapid response sketch at new writing incubator Theatre 503, it blossomed into a full show, spawned a sequel, and as Flanagan explains, still visibly astounded by the journey it’s had, "now we’re onto our fourth year of Maggie, and about to start a club night".

Maggie’s first rave will be taking place sporadically during the festival, while main show Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows plays at Assembly George Square Gardens. Its first incarnation last year saw its writing process rocked by Brexit, Flanagan recalls, leaving Brittain and Tedford "still writing up until the first preview, the second preview...we were a week in and they were still writing bits.

"We thought at least we can just do it again this year, but then the general election happened, Trump happened, so it’s a show that’s constantly evolving." It means that 2016 stalwarts can safely spin the wheel with Maggie again, assured of a whole new show.

Maggie has also toured the world, including to Australia and Ireland. "We went to Dublin with it, which I was really happy about," Irish-born Flanagan enthuses, pleased to have brought Tedford’s liberated incarnation of the milk snatcher to her hometown.

Not content with dashing between her two proven hits, Flanagan’s also bringing two new shows up this year, presenting what all adds up to be a pretty diverse portfolio of work. "I have the luxury of getting to work with shows and people who create the type of work I want to go see," says Flanagan, with considerable enthusiasm. "I have always believed that theatre should be for the masses, make people feel included and comfortable."

The first newbie, Rebecca Humphries’ Prom Kween, is a "parody comedy of those classic high school musicals" that tells the true story of a non-binary student who successfully ran for prom queen after the Orlando nightclub shooting. After a smash-hit run at The Vaults in London, where it was snatched up by Underbelly after just a single preview, it’s one of the most eagerly awaited new musicals at this year’s festival. Like How to Win Against History, it celebrates an individual willing to stand up for their own identity and view of the world. And deploys a fuck-tonne of glitter in the process. 

To top it all off, Áine Flanagan Productions is premiering Daniella Isaacs' new solo show, Hear Me Raw, an exploration of orthorexia nervosa, a condition whose sufferers become obsessed with their own wellness, whose need to be 'well' becomes something that's unhealthy.

"I know more people who suffer anxiety than who don’t," says Flanagan. "It’s just everywhere, and I know so many of them who turn to 'healthy' things to deal with them, and now with things like wellness on social media and Instagram, it’s like the way fad diets were in the '80s and '90s." Hear Me Raw has been developed by the team behind the award-winning Mush and Me, and its message of the dangers of too much clean living might just take a soupçon of the guilt out of that deep fried haggis. 

Not that Flanagan, with her punishing schedule of shows, isn’t keenly aware of the dangers of an unhealthy Fringe lifestyle. Her advice to young producers: "Get yourself a good pair of shoes, and eat your vegetables. Maggie came home from Edinburgh one year and got scurvy. Only pirates get scurvy!" 

Well, pirates and performers—and producers—who neglect their greens while stomping the cobbles to bring a clutch of fierce, funny and deeply smart work to the Edinburgh Fringe.