Vertigo Theatre productions are uprooting from Manchester to London. In the 13 years since Craig Hepworth and Karl Burge launched themselves onto the Manchester fringe scene, they have been partly responsible for dragging fringe out of the darkness and into the mainstream with their imaginative set designs and deft direction.
When their first show, 3Sum, premiered at Taurus bar in 2007, little did Craig Hepworth realise he would become one of the most sought after directors on the Greater Manchester fringe circuit. In the years since, he has directed, produced and written some of the most challenging works ever seen on the fringe circuit in the UK, including productions of off-Broadway and Tony-nominated hits by such writers as Charles Busch.
Although they are now staying put physically in Manchester, all productions are now going to be London and Southern-based with tours around the UK. Asked why not move to London (which was the original intention) Craig is very open.
“It’s a two-hour train ride to London from here, I can still do everything I want to do, plus be able to spend time on the train doing rewrites, planning scenery with Karl and turn the commute into something more productive.
“I am very disciplined like that.”
Having sold out venues across Greater Manchester and won numerous awards as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe, London is the next logical step. It’s not an easy move by any means, but Vertigo has never been afraid to take chances, either with the productions or their casting.
Their 2016 play “Black Ice” was called “Ambitious and a disturbing, moving play” by the Manchester Theatre Awards. They have been nominated for Best Fringe/Regional production for OUT! at the Broadway World Awards, Best Fringe/Regional production for MYSTERIOUS SKIN at the Broadway World Awards, Best Fringe/Regional production for PORNO CHIC at the Broadway World Awards and have won Best Play and Best Fringe Production at MTA awards for Watching Goldfish Suffocate
The company took time out of the GM Fringe in 2018 and 2019, not to recharge their own batteries, but to watch what everyone else was doing, and then improve their own output. With their revival of Die, Mommie, Die! they went all out on every aspect, even casting reality TV star Alex Reid in one of the main roles. Playing to packed houses in both Salford and Highgate village, London, it showed the scope of Vertigo to expand beyond the traditional Fringe and into pastures new.
“I’ve never met anyone as driven to perfection as Craig.” said writer and actor Danny Clifford.
“He pushes his cast to be the best that they can be in each role. He’s a very competent director and an incredible writer as well, one of the toughest people I’ve worked with.”
Their final Manchester-based production, Exam, closed to 5* reviews in November of 2019, and hits the road in February of 2020 and tours until August, followed by a new and immersive version of their hit Noir in November.
One actress who owes her career to Vertigo taking a chance on her is former model Emma Morgan. Having only had a few acting lessons when she was cast in Murder She Writes as Betty, It was obvious to her that Craig was going to be not only a tough taskmaster but also a father figure who was keen to help her develop her talents.
“I don’t know what it was Craig saw in me, but his encouragement and guidance have meant so much to me.
“No matter what the show, he really pulls everybody together as a family during rehearsals.”
I asked her what made Craig such a hard taskmaster and why so many actors wanted to work with him.
“He can be a bit of a diva at times, and he’s not the easiest to work with, but it’s worth it in the long run. He pours his heart and soul into every word on the page and can be sometimes working on 5 or 6 plays at the same time in different ways, but the moment you are in a room with him, he’s driven to succeed, and he pushes you to be better.
“If he sees you not putting the effort in, and pulling your weight, he’ll tear a strip off you without hesitation, no matter what your level of experience is.”
Danny is just as ebullient about his times with Vertigo;
“You know when you take on a Fringe show as an actor, you’re giving up a lot of your personal time to work on the show. Craig knows that and tries to make it as enjoyable and also as educational for you as possible.
“He is happy to spend time with his cast, explaining how he sees the role and why you are the right person for it. It’s things like that, that really make Vertigo different from some other company’s I’ve worked with.
“Some people just think that they can miss a rehearsal and it won’t make any difference, but it does to Craig.
“He wants only the best, and I think that shows in the nominations and awards they’ve been given.”
For Craig, it’s a feeling of release that sees Vertigo begin to locate their shows away from Manchester.
“We began by taking Porno Chic away from the Kings Arms in 2018 because I wanted to see how we could adapt it to a different stage, and Footlights in Media City was perfect for us. It was a new venue, and that posed all sorts of challenges of its own!” he tells me.
“Also, the chance to move shows to bigger venues really isn’t there. A show like Porno won’t be taken by somewhere like the Royal Exchange, and there is a lack of medium-sized venues in Manchester sadly.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Manchester, and we’ll be bringing shows back here, but the chance to get shows into larger venues just isn’t there in the city at the minute, and that’s a shame.”
I think We’ve done all we can in Manchester for now.”
Vertigo appears to be alone in leaving for pastures new though. None of the companies I spoke to is looking to expand beyond the current Manchester fringe circuit, with one producer telling me that they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.
“Manchester is where I first fell in love with theatre, and I don’t want to leave it.” she said.
“Why would I risk what I’ve built here to try my luck in another city from scratch?”
Speaking to actors, they too feel that their futures lie in the Manchester area. I sent out a survey to 50 actors and producers who have all appeared or produced shows on the Fringe scene asking them about how they view the Fringe theatre scene in Manchester.
From the responses I received back, most were happy to stay in Manchester and felt that the only thing holding it back was the lack of productions, rather than the number of companies making shows, in fact, 75% of the 31 who responded felt that they didn’t need to leave Manchester to further their career.
On the question of needing larger venues, the unanimous answer was that yes, Manchester did need bigger venues for Fringe productions, with a quarter of respondents also saying that Manchester had too many Fringe companies.
Overall, the Fringe scene in Manchester is very healthy, and Vertigo leaving will no doubt leave a hole. What Manchester does need are larger venues to better adapt to the needs of smaller productions and to allow productions from the Fringe to expand the theatre scene.
Manchester is a hive of brilliance, Vertigo and others show that. What it needs now is for the owners of some of those medium to large venues to open their eyes to what the Fringe has to offer and to see the potential of allowing Fringe productions to grace their stages.
Vertigo successfully leaving Manchester might just show others that there is life beyond the fringe. They will be back with their tours, and no doubt Craig will continue to encourage and support fresh Mancunian writers and actors to improve and strive for more, Hopefully, they will also show the London theatre bubble that there is quality Fringe theatre outside of the M25.