A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain

10/08/22

Roundabout at Summerhall, Edinburgh

Sami Ibrahim’s play is a fable about immigration. We meet Elif (Sara Hazemi) as a teenager, newly washed up on the shores of a mythical island. She finds work with a rich landowner, herding and shearing sheep, spinning clouds from their wool. It’s a solitary life. But then she meets the landowner’s son (Samuel Tracy) and she’s smitten, and her story spirals out of control.

At first, this feels like a fairytale. The language is lyrical and there’s magic in the air. Elif is a sweet-natured dreamer, happy to accept her lot; a heroine in the Cinderella mould. Soon, though, reality intervenes. Elif has a baby, and the landowner’s son has gone.

Elif’s daughter, Lily (Princess Khumalo), is more down-to-earth, more practical than her mum. She recognises the stories for what they are and calls bullshit. She can’t escape them though: Elif isn’t ‘registered’, and if she’s not, then nor can Lily be. The clock is ticking down to Lily’s eighteenth birthday. Unless she’s registered by then, she has no right to stay.

This is an ingenious way to convey the absurdity of the UK’s immigration system. Couched in the apparel of a fairytale, it heightens our sense of right and wrong. We recognise the innocent persecuted heroine; we know that she’s supposed to win. We also know the villains and that they’re supposed to lose. But, despite Elif’s best efforts, that’s not what’s happening. The parallels are all too obvious. What sort of people are we, always letting the baddies win?

At the beginning, the three storytellers are all enthusiastic, clamouring to have their voices heard, each wanting to tell their version of the tale; by the end, even Elif can’t spin a yarn that’s strong enough to cast away the clouds. She desperately articulates her vision of Utopia, but harsh reality intrudes into her imagination, corrupting her dream.

This ensemble piece by Paines Plough is every bit as inventive and compelling as we’ve come to expect, and Yasmin Hafesji’s direction is both playful and assured. I especially love the use of props, with wooden sheep, a balloon and a Matryoshka all adding to the folk-tale tone. The muted colour palette – all greys and browns – evokes the misery of a rain-soaked isle, as does the muted lighting (by Rory Beaton).

Ibrahim has successfully created a kind of whimsical polemic. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Emily Wilson: Fixed

09/08/22

Pleasance Courtyard (Beneath), Edinburgh

Emily Wilson’s Fixed is part musical, part stand-up and part catharsis. Clearly a born performer, Wilson takes us on a tour of her youth, from beaming toddler to broken teen. It’s all been chronicled, of course: she’s 26 years old, a whole lifetime of phone recordings and insta-chats and YouTube videos. Oh, and primetime national TV too.

That’s the crux of the story: Wilson appeared on The X Factor USA in 2011, as one half of the earnestly named duo, Ausem. “Because my best friend’s called Austin, and my name’s Emily, so together we’re Ausem!” She thought her dreams had come true: she was 15 and destined to become a star. But then they hit a snag. The judges decided they liked Austin, but not Emily…

Wilson’s tale, co-written and directed by Sam Blumenfeld, is compelling. She’s a vivacious, funny, talented woman – and, while she’s disarmingly self-deprecating, she’s justifiably pissed off. The X Factor nearly destroyed her. How is a child supposed to process such public humiliation? How do the powerful adults in charge legitimise hurting her for viewing figures, for more dollars in their bulging bank accounts? Do the haters on social media sleep well at night, knowing they’ve made a young girl cry?

The past is detailed via a series of video clips and diary entries, interspersed with stand-up and original songs revealing Wilson’s current perspective. What emerges is a thoughtful commentary on fame, ambition and exploitation, and it’s riveting.

Oh, and she really can sing. Whatever Nicole Sherzinger says.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Flesh

09/08/22

TheSpace@SurgeonsHall, Edinburgh

The names Burke and Hare are infamous in Edinburgh – and I’m not referring to the lap-dancing club that (chillingly) chooses to name itself after two of history’s most prolific serial killers. Their story is fascinating (indeed, I’ve featured the duo myself in my novel, Seventeen Coffins). The Fringe has always offered a platform to am-dram theatre groups and it’s gratifying to see this ambitious musical version of the tale selling out the spacious venue on a Tuesday afternoon.

Co-written by John Montgomery and Derek Batchelor, Flesh relates the story in flashback, explaining how two Irish navvies, working on the digging of the Union Canal, came to murder sixteen people and sell their bodies for dissection. Billy Burke (Jeremy Frazer) was outwardly affable and charming, while his associate, William Hare (Roddy McLeod), was the complete opposite. How they came to work with the well respected anatomist, Dr Robert Knox (Frank Burr), would seem far-fetched if it weren’t absolutely true and, while a little bit of poetic licence has been used here, the story sticks pretty much to the facts. And how apt that the show appears at Surgeon’s Hall, where much of the subterfuge occurred.

References to contemporary tropes – Netflix, zero-hours contracts and luxury cruises all receive a namecheck – are at first jarring but, once the idea beds in, I begin to appreciate the writer’s intentions.

This is a big cast by Fringe standards – fifteen actors in all – so there’s a lot of stage traffic, and this isn’t always well-managed. Scene changes are a real issue: there are too many extended blackouts disrupting the flow (the design of the venue doesn’t help, with props – and sometimes bodies – being dragged off through the central curtains into a clearly lit backstage). Incorporating the transitions into the scenes would improve this enormously.

Niggles aside, everyone involved in the show gives one hundred percent. I particularly enjoy Alison Henry as Burke’s long-suffering partner, Nell (her rendition of No-one Was Listening is delightful) and Tegan Gourlay’s dancing is also a standout.

But this, of course, is a musical version of the story and, happily, the songs are the show’s strongest suit, ranging from poignant ballads to swaggering Celtic rock that sometimes recalls Thin Lizzy at the peak of their considerable powers.

The applause at the show’s conclusion is enthusiastic and heartfelt and I find myself humming the infectious chorus of Sailing to America as I leave. Those who’d like to take home an extra pound of Flesh are invited to purchase a CD of the soundtrack. And why not? They’re cracking tunes.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

The Twenty-Sided Tavern

08/08/22

Pleasance Dome, Bristo Place, Edinburgh

The Twenty-Sided Tavern is billed as experiential entertainment, “destined to delight everyone, from hardcore fans of D&D to those just dipping a toe into the world of role-playing games”. It doesn’t quite live up to this promise. As a toe-dipper, I find it baffling and a little dull. But I’m an outlier here: the show is a sell-out, and the bulk of the audience clearly falls into the former category. Their laughter is raucous; they’re having a whale of a time.

The premise is simple: it’s a choose your own adventure with added dice. We’re in a tavern, and there are three players onstage (Carlina Parker, Mateo Ervin and Madelyn Murphy), as well as a game master (David Andrew Greener Laws) and the tavern keeper (Sarah Davis Reynolds). We’re asked to access their website via a QR code and, from thereon in, it’s interactive insofar as we are allocated a team, then asked to choose which of three characters each player adopts, and to vote between two options at various points along the way. A couple of people are brought onstage for panto-style audience-participation moments, where they’re told to role a dice or throw balls into a pot. And there are a couple of riddles to answer.

But the game-play is more complex, and – to the uninitiated – rather confusing. When they roll a dice, they call the number, but then add other numbers for no reason I can discern (we’re here with two family members who love a good table-top role-playing game, and they explain it to me later). I can see that it would be fun to actually play, if I were inhabiting a character, and was actively involved in shaping the storyline. However, I don’t really enjoy watching it, especially as the players don’t seem to explore their roles beyond a few surface characteristics.

It feels rushed too; indeed, it over-runs by ten minutes, which is a no-no at the Fringe, where audiences and venues have tightly-managed schedules. There’s too much to fit into seventy minutes. It doesn’t help that the tech isn’t working properly (the wifi isn’t strong enough), so a lot of the voting is done in the old ‘analogue’ way – which team can cheer the loudest?

It’s a good idea, and it’s clearly pleasing a lot of people, so I can’t dismiss this out of hand. But I’d file this under ‘for the fans’.

2.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Zach Zucker: Spectacular Industry Showcase

08/08/22

Monkey Barrel 4, Blair Street

Zach Zucker isn’t entirely new to me (I saw him in 2018’s Where Does the Love Go?, in partnership with Viggo Venn), but he’s clearly much more familiar to the crowd packed into the sweltering confines of the Monkey Barrel. When he asks, ‘Who has seen me before?’ a large contingent shouts an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ He launches into an opening song, his glitter shirt open to the waist, as he works through a series of Travolta-like moves to the sound of a keyboard accompaniment. The fact that the ceiling is mere inches above his head gives the impression that at any moment, he could smash headlong into it, but he manages to get through it without serious injury. Phew!

And then, abruptly, he’s into the stand-up routine and, it has to be said, his confidence is not misplaced. The crowd loves him. A guy sitting in front of me is at serious risk of falling off his chair.

It’s apparent from the word go that Zucker is supremely charismatic, able to ignite belly laughs with the merest sideways glance or throwaway gesture. Some comedians are funny because they have good. material and others because they are just funny in their bones. Zucker falls into the latter category and I cannot deny that he soon has me laughing like a maniac, particularly at the extended routine where he attempts to read a ‘serious’ poem in a weird approximation of a London accent. There’s also comedy gold to be found in the bit where he offers to improvise a rap about three random suggestions from the audience…

But, in a profession where content is king, this does feel increasingly like a sixty-minute slot that’s only got forty minutes worth of material to fill it. Zucker’s tendency to free form and ride on his audience’s evident enthusiasm occasionally feels a bit like repetition. Perhaps Spectacular Industry Showcase (I love the self-aggrandising title) is a work in progress and, over the Fringe run, he’ll add more substance to the pot. I really hope so. It won’t take more than a few extra belters to turn this promising show into a triumph.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for laughs, make no mistake – you’ll certainly find them here.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

The Anniversary

08/08/22

Pleasance Dome

Jim (Daniel Tobias) and Barb (Clare Bartholomew) are eagerly preparing for their 50th wedding anniversary but they’re not always in control of things and some of the items in the finger buffet might better be avoided. Still, they stubbornly insist that every last detail must be just right for their guests. As the clock counts steadily down to party time, the problems become harder to deal with…

This handsomely mounted helping of slapstick from Australian company, Salvador Dinosaur, features no real dialogue, just gibberish and the occasional mention of each other’s names – but the soundtrack is far from silent. It’s essentially a piece about the indignities of ageing, replete with references to forgetfulness, dodgy bowels and the ill-advised over-application of both prescription drugs and prunes. It ought to be tragic but it’s somehow horribly funny.

There’s a delightfully constructed set, a central corridor using forced perspective to make the place seem bigger than it actually is, and cleverly constructed props, designed to fall apart at inappropriate moments. A (mostly) hidden technician takes care of the show’s other ‘performers’ – a cat, a rat and a cuddly rabbit. Tobias and Bartholomew throw themselves into the clowning with gusto. We’ve seen and been impressed by both performers at the Fringe before, Tobias in The Orchid and the Crow in 2015, and Bartholomew in The Long Pigs in 2019.

What begins as silly slapstick metamorphoses steadily into something darker. The weather deteriorates and soon there’s a full-blown thunderstorm and rising flood waters to contend with. There’s a charming scene where Jim improvises a song about his long suffering wife – some Elvis styled mumbling with the occasional ‘Barb’ thrown in for good measure – and Barb’s headlong tumble onto a table laden with food actually makes me gasp. While you can spot some of the gags coming a mile off – put a rabbit and a liquidiser into the same space and the result is both inevitable (and inedible) – The Anniversary nevertheless has me laughing pretty much from start to finish.

If the conclusion is undeniably OTT, it still reinforces the fact that a couple who have been together for fifty years are always going to stick it out to the bitter end, even if some of that sticking involves kitchen knives. Those who relish clowning should give this a go. But be warned, if Jim offers you a taste of his pâté, perhaps you’d best say you’ve already eaten.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

BriTANick

08/08/22

The Box, George Square

Comedy sketch duo (trio, if you include their invisible horse, Midnight), Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher, hail from Atlanta, Georgia, and call themselves BriTANick (it rhymes with Titanic). They are currently appearing in an adapted shipping container on George Square, much to Nick’s evident disgust, but the place is sold out tonight and the punters are lapping it up.

“Brian” is the more driven of the two, intent on pursuing his art and attaining his goals, while “Nick” has clearly been created for the sole purpose of putting his partner’s dreams through the shredder, mostly by whingeing about stuff: the flight attendant who gave him inferior seats on the flight to Edinburgh; the fact that he and his wife had agreed to have no sexual contact until their wedding – which has already been postponed for two years because of the pandemic; he’s not a happy bunny.

Sketch comedy is notoriously difficult to get right but McElhaney and Kocher do an excellent job of it – they are confident performers, adept at incorporating whatever happens into their show. A couple of late arrivals find themselves featured at one point to much hilarity. They also have a flair for the surreal – Midnight is the first invisible horse we haven’t seen at this year’s Fringe. The sketches are wide ranging, skipping effortlessly from Pythonesque whimsy to clever character studies, and their post-modernist approach to taboo subjects allows them to get away with material that, in less skilled hands, might make audiences uncomfortable.

Of course, the acid test is does it make you laugh? And the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ I spend the hour giggling, chortling, sniggering and yes, even laughing out loud at some of their more absurd antics. I particularly enjoy an extended thread about dreams. Is Brian really going out with Salma Hayek? Is that an invisible knife I don’t see before me? Only one sketch (a piece abut man-snogging) feels a little over-extended, but most sequences are short and punchy and I do admire the way they keep drawing a line through to earlier sketches to ensure that everything, no matter how disparate, hangs together as a whole.

Audiences hungry for laughter – and let’s face it, after recent world events, that’s most of us – will find it waiting for them in a metal box on George Square. Grab your tickets, form an orderly queue and head inside… but mind you don’t step on Midnight’s tail.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ruckus

07/08/22

Cairns Lecture Theatre, Summerhall, Edinburgh

Louise is a confident, vivacious character: an ambitious young primary school teacher with a kick-ass attitude. But her best mate’s impending marriage spells the end of their flat-share, and Lou finds herself adrift. When she meets Ryan, he’s funny, sweet and considerate; he seems like the answer to all her problems. Sure, he’s a bit possessive, but that’s just because he’s insecure, and, yeah, it’s a shame he’s not more welcoming when her mum comes to visit, but he doesn’t get on with his own family, so it’s difficult for him. Lou shrugs off these early warning signs; she wants the relationship to work. And slowly, drip by inexorable drip, Ryan exerts his control…

A one-woman show, Ruckus, written and performed by Jenna Fincken, explores this horribly toxic relationship in unflinching detail. And when I say ‘horribly toxic’, I mean ‘depressingly familiar’ and ‘all too common’, because we’ve all at least known someone who’s experienced something like this; we’ve all shuddered at the red flags, even if we’ve been luckier in our own entanglements.

It’s a cleverly crafted piece: the writing is both bold and nuanced. We hear the story from Lou’s point of view, so even though we recognise that things aren’t right, it takes some time to realise just how bad they really are. Standout moments include the tragic irony of Lou supporting an at-risk child at school, then coming home to face a similar situation.

The change is gradual and unsettling; its unfolding is beautifully handled by director Georgia Green. By the end, there’s not much of Lou’s spark left; she’s a shadow, who has to ask permission to see her friends, who doesn’t have her own money or even her own door key.

The simple set comprises an empty white stage with a small raised platform, but it transforms into myriad places (a nightclub, a car, a house, a school), thanks to the sound and light design (by Tingying Dong and Simeon Miller respectively), which really help to create a disorienting and sometimes dangerous atmosphere.

If I have a quibble, it’s a very minor one, and it’s with the countdown clock. I like the idea of including the days, of building tension by letting us know how far we are from an unknown-but-definitely-scary climactic event, but the numbers are too big, and I find them hard to hold in my mind, which makes it difficult on occasion to know where I am in the timeline as it shuttles back and forth. I think it would be less confusing if, instead of 832 days, it said 2 years, 9 months and 3 days, for example, because it’s easier to keep track of that.

But that’s a small thing, and definitely not a game-changer.

Fincken’s performance is remarkable; she retains absolute control throughout, and the piece seems almost choreographed. She mimics rather than inhabits the minor characters, so that it’s always Lou’s impression of Whiny Briony, or Lou’s impression of her over-anxious mum. These impersonations are often funny, and provide welcome shafts of light, as well as reminding us of the life Lou could have had, who she still is inside.

Matthew Durkan voices Ryan (we hear him a lot, although we never see him). He has a gentle Mancunian voice; he always sounds reasonable, likeable, which is another clever touch.

Ruckus is a timely, artful piece of work, and Jenna Fincken is a name to watch.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Tragedy of Macbeth

07/08/22

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

We first encountered Flabbergast Theatre at the Fringe in 2018 with their wonderfully immersive project, The Swell Mob, a site-specific evocation of a Victorian drinking den. Now the company returns to the Fringe to take on one of the bard’s most celebrated plays and we’re really excited to see what they do with it. Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this.

When we enter the venue, the eight-strong cast are already reeling around the stage, plastered in mud and raving and flailing around like demented beings. After all, this is a play about the madness brought on by the seductive power of hubris, so it feels entirely appropriate. The lights go down and, one by one, the players slip into their roles, switching effortlessly from character to character, but that sense of lunacy is always lurking at their sleeves, ready to take over at any moment.

I don’t need to relate the plot, because it’s ingrained into most people from high school onwards – but this raucous, visceral reimagining of the story captures the essence of the piece more eloquently than pretty much any other production I’ve seen.

It explodes, it capers, it struts its fretful stuff upon the stage and signifies plenty, while the austere stone arches of The Roxy provide the perfect setting for its excesses.

Simon Gleave gives a powerful performance in the lead role and Briony O’Callaghan’s Lady Macbeth is also extraordinary. But Flabbergast are essentially an ensemble troupe and every single member of the cast gives one hundred percent to this, with the volume dialled up to eleven. My initial fears that, with such ferocity, the piece could become one-note are neatly sidestepped, with a brilliantly clownish diversion from Dale Wild in the role of the Porter – and, after an explosive climax, there’s a delicate, musical a cappella song to bring everything gently back to earth.

The Tragedy of Macbeth ends with a heartfelt standing ovation from the crowd and it is fully deserved. Don’t miss this, it’s a wonder to behold.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

Jake Cornell and Marcia Belsky: Man and Woman

06/08/22

Assembly George Square Studios (Studio 4), Edinburgh

Jake Cornell and Marcia Belsky play “Jake” and “Marcia”, two narcissistic actors determined to change the world. Jake’s certain he’s written a masterpiece, finally giving women the voice they’ve been denied for so long, and Marcia is thrilled she’s got the chance to showcase her skills. In an introductory speech, Jake mansplains what women need, while Marcia gamely smiles and tries to elbow her way in to the conversation. It’s very funny.

And then we get to the show-within-a-show, a histrionic tale of doomed love and misery – with lots of blood and shouting. The characters are called Man and Woman because, you know, they represent the whole of humanity. The hubris is delightfully drawn, and Jake in particular is a wonderful creation: we all know a Jake (although, thankfully, we don’t all have to work with him).

Cornell and Belsky are both effortlessly droll, and I find myself laughing a lot at the silliness and audacity of Jake’s ambition, and the way it’s always undermined by his lack of profundity. Marcia’s no feminist saviour either: she’s just paying lip-service to Jake’s professed ideals because she wants to be a star, and doesn’t realise until it’s too late just how doomed the project is.

For me, this piece works best when we’re with “Jake” and “Marcia”, so I’d like to see more of this and less of Jake’s creation, entertaining though it is.

This is an engaging and likeable show, poking fun at wannabe radicals as well as worn theatrical tropes.

3.8 stars

Susan SIngfield