Comedy

Tim Minchin: BACK

23/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The tagline for BACK promises “old songs, new songs and fuck you songs” – and that’s exactly what we get. It’s great to see Minchin ‘back’ on the stage, albeit – for today – via the medium of screen. I loved Matilda, and am truly sorry his animated movie was so cruelly canned, but I did miss Tim-the-performer while he was working on those other projects, and BACK is a triumphant return.

I admire his resilience. Whatever private tears were shed over the Hollywood let-down, his public self is irrepressible. And I imagine live performances as popular as these provide quite the tonic for a bruised ego.

BACK is wide-ranging – both topically and musically. There’s an ode to cheese, a rant about progressives’ infighting and a plaintive memorial to a lost loved one; there’s a capella, solo piano and an accomplished eight-piece band. This makes sense: after all, the show is loosely constructed as a memoir, looking back at almost thirty years of an unusual career.

Three hours seem to fly by. Minchin’s ebullience makes him fascinating to watch, as well as listen to: this is as much a spectacle as it is an evening of song. As if his trademark bare feet, big hair and eyeliner weren’t arresting enough, he’s rarely still, jumping on and off the piano, doing backward rolls off the stool, and even sweeping broken glass off the stage (his own glass, I should add; the crowd is on his side).

Standout moments include If I Didn’t Have You, for it’s cheeky observations, and I’ll Take Lonely Tonight, for its wistful honesty, but the whole show works well. I find myself impressed anew by Minchin’s witty lyrics and musical dexterity, and I’m also engaged by his attempt to confront the thorny issue of ‘cancel culture’ from a liberal standpoint, highlighting the hypocrisy of promoting empathy via rage.

The tour is over, but this recording remains, and – if you get the chance to see it – do. Minchin is a joy.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

20/10/22

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a real treat to revisit writer/director Isobel McArthur’s rambunctious retelling of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel. Since we last saw it in January 2020, a lot has happened – and I’m not referring to the pandemic. Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) has wowed the West End and bagged itself a well-deserved Olivier award. McArthur must be buzzing.

This adaptation is actually pretty faithful to the original. The set-up is intact: we have the Bennett family facing financial ruin, and Mrs Bennett (McArthur) desperately trying to marry off her five daughters. And the central romance is intact too: we have sparky, reckless Lizzy (Leah Jamieson), determined to marry for love or not at all – consequences be damned – and we have Darcy (McArthur again). Her portrayal of the enigmatic, uptight ‘hero’ is as exquisite as I remember. She nails his inarticulacy, highlighting his inability to express himself, rendering him sympathetic, despite his brusque manner.

The difference lies in the telling. The conceit is that five servants are dressing up, playing, showing us what they’ve observed in the houses where they work. Thus class barriers are broken down, and so is the gap between the 19th century gentry and the theatre-goers of the 21st. McArthur’s talent lies in unveiling the jokes, so that Austen’s satire – hidden from a modern audience behind bonnets and mannered language – is exposed to the light. Via karaoke and biting sarcasm.

Hannah Jarrett-Scott almost steals the show: she’s a natural clown, clearly relishing the twin roles of Caroline and Charles Bingley, but also flashing her acting chops in a nuanced depiction of Charlotte Lucas, repressing her feelings for Lizzy. Christina Gordon (as Jane, Wickham and Lady Catherine) and Tori Burgess (as Lydia, Mary and Mr Collins) are both excellent too. I’ve nothing negative to say.

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is at the Lyceum until November 5th, which seems appropriate for such a dazzling firecracker of a show.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Jack Absolute Flies Again

18/10/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Daytime cinema always feels like playing hooky. A sign that – for today – fun has priority. And NT Live screenings have the same ‘getting away with something’ vibe. I’m watching a play in London, but – shhh, whisper it – I haven’t left Edinburgh. So this afternoon’s indulgence, Jack Absolute Flies Again, is the double whammy: a National Theatre production at lunch time on a Tuesday! And in our favourite picture house too…

Based on Sheridan’s The Rivals, Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s production exemplifies ‘rollicking’. It’s a silly, frothy, feelgood piece of theatre – and I absolutely love it.

The action has moved from the late 18th century to the early 20th – specifically to World War 2 – and Malaprop Mansion has been requisitioned by the RAF. The titular Jack (Laurie Davidson) is a pilot, stationed in the grounds. He’s in love with fellow pilot, Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson), who just happens to live in the mansion with her aunt, Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin). Lydia, however, is infatuated with northern mechanic, Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher), who, in turn, has a thing for Lydia’s maid, Lucy (Kerry Howard). Throw in a couple of other pilots vying for Lydia’s attention, a jealous fiancé and the ever-present spectre of death (these are military people, after all), not to mention Mrs Malaprop’s attraction to Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), and you’ve got quite the heady mix…

This comedy of errors is beautifully handled, all knowing nods to the audience, and perfectly executed groan-out-loud jokes. Sure, we can see the punchlines coming from cruising height, but that’s the point: the laughs are garnered in the gap, the moment when we know what’s coming before it lands. Quentin is particularly funny, clearly relishing the Malapropisms that litter her speech. They are so plentiful they make Sheridan look positively restrained, but their abundance works, again prompting us to pre-empt what she might say (Chekhov’s clematis, if you will). Howard also proves to have that comic edge, and I like her character’s frequent references to the theatricality of the piece, reminding the audience of the genre and what they ought to expect.

The set is delightful: all bucolic beauty and architectural elegance. Its chocolate box design suits the tone of the piece, and I especially like the doll’s house effect, when the mansion opens to reveal the rooms within. Ironically, the only things that don’t translate well to the cinema are, well, the cinematic sequences. I’m sure they’re impactful in the vast Olivier auditorium, but they are diminished by the live-screening process.

The ending is something of a shock, deliberately jarring. I won’t go into any detail (no spoilers here), but – on reflection – I think it works. It’s a brave choice, but probably the only one that makes sense, given the context. It feels tonally different from the rest of the piece, but I guess that’s the point. We all plod along, don’t we, dealing with the minutiae while the big stuff happens around us. Until…

There are a few more ‘encore’ screenings of Jack Absolute over the next month or so. If you’re in need of a laugh, take advantage of NT Live and give your local cinema a much-needed boost at the same time. You won’t regret it.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Headcase

27/08/22

The Pleasance Courtyard (Beside), Edinburgh

Edfringe 2022 is gradually coming to a halt. Technically, there are still a few more days to go, but for us, sadly, this is where it ends. There are other places we need to be. As ever, after the buzz of watching and reviewing fifty-plus productions, we’re exhausted and looking forward to a rest.

But there’s still one last show to see.

Headcase is a memoir of sorts, written and performed by Kristin McIlquham (she’s quick to tell us that nobody ever knows how to pronounce her surname). On our way in, we’re provided with little red notebooks, because this is a show all about making lists. She’s been doing it for much of her life. ‘To do’ lists, mostly. You know the kind of thing. ‘Get a decent boyfriend, buy a flat in London.’ And now, fast approaching forty, she makes a new one. ‘Write a play about what happened to my dad. And get a brain scan.’

When she was six years old, Kristin’s father suffered a brain aneurysm. He was in a coma for some time and, when he finally emerged from sleep, he no longer recognised his own family and had to learn how to do things that should have been second nature to him. And he had to come to terms with what had happened to him. Now it’s Kristin’s turn to do the same. That title was his suggestion, by the way, based upon his favourite joke. He’s gone now, but Kristin’s passion to tell his story remains.

Headcase is an interesting piece, both funny and poignant. The stage is stacked with transparent packing boxes, filled with hundreds of notebooks, no doubt symbolising the emotional baggage Kristin has accumulated over the years. Every so often, she takes items from those boxes or from the leather tool belt around her waist, items that prompt certain memories. Musical cues tell us exactly where we are in the story. Along the way, Kristin fields awkward phone calls from her mother and is constantly interrupted by the voice of her therapist (Juliet Garricks) and, at key points, her father (Nicholas Karimi), a garrulous Glaswegian, with a habit of saying the wrong thing.

Nicely paced, the story switches from incident to incident, never losing momentum. I would like to see the notebooks we are given – and the things we’re asked to write in them – more convincingly integrated into the piece but, nonetheless, this is engaging stuff, designed by Zoë Hurwitz and directed by Laura Keefe. It’s a satisfying way to finish off what’s been an exciting and talent-packed Edinburgh Fringe.

And on that note, good night and goodbye, Edfringe 2022. We’re already looking forward to seeing you again in August 2023.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Flo & Joan: Sweet Release

26/08/22

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

Friday night at 8pm feels like the perfect time to see Flo & Joan. The crowd are up for a laugh: work is done for the week and the majority seem to be a few pints in, but no one’s obnoxiously pissed. This is an interlude in people’s nights, I guess: a fun hour to give the evening some shape, before the serious drinking starts. That’s how it feels, at any rate. And it’s none the worse for it.

Sisters Rosie and Nicola Dempsey are completely at ease: they’re natural performers, and their act is perfectly honed. Sweet Release is everything you’d expect it to be: clever lyrics, catchy tunes, assured musicianship, lovely voices and lots of funny chat. It’s light, but there’s an edge; it’s not all candyfloss. This show is rockier than the last one we saw (Before the Screaming Starts), with a punchy backing-track to occasionally augment the sound. There’s a full drum kit too, and this helps to make the show feel bigger, and well-suited to the packed out 250-seat venue (which is large, by Fringe standards).

I particularly like the disco dancing number: Rosie’s trademark deadpan expression clashes sublimely with the silly moves, and there’s an extended motif about parents’ ornaments, which seems to resonate with everyone. (Even as I snigger, I find myself wondering which of our trinkets my step-daughter shudders at – although I don’t think we’ve anything as spectacularly awful as the item Flo & Joan reveal.)

Of course, there are only two more chances to catch them here in Edinburgh, but the duo have a fairly extensive autumn tour scheduled, so why not treat yourself?

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Ben Miller’s Stand-Up Science

24/08/22

Laughing Horse @ The Three Sisters (The Wee Room), Edinburgh

You know when they say there’s not enough room to swing a cat? Here in The Three Sisters’ Wee Room, you’d be hard pressed to squeeze in a photo of a cat. The first joke of the gig appears to be the venue. It’s literally a cupboard. From September to July, it’s no doubt used for storing toilet rolls. I know it’s a trope of the Fringe: every available space will be pressed into service. But I’ve been to most venues, and this is a new low. There are twenty-three of us crammed inside an airless box. I find myself being a lot more churlish than usual. “You can’t keep selling tickets,” I say to the guy at the door, as venue staff bring along another small bench and attempt to direct two more punters inside. “The room fits twenty-five,” one of the bench-movers says, nicely. And proves her point by using the bench to prop open the door, and inviting the couple to sit facing the corridor.

I feel bad when I realise the guy at the door is actually Ben Miller (not that one), because I don’t want to make things difficult for him. It’s not his fault, after all. I’m sure he’d like a bigger room. Or, you know, an actual room.

Still, Miller (not that one) doesn’t seem fazed. Maybe he’s used to it by now. He introduces himself, and establishes the concept: we’re in a science lesson. And, despite his nervous supply-teacher vibe, he’s in perfect control. He asks a bit about people’s experiences of school, and reassures us that this lesson will be interesting, so long as we like to learn. And it is: in particular, the science behind his timid-looking stance. He has pectus excavatum, which means he has a concave chest, and that his heart and lungs are all squashed up inside (not to labour a point, but I know how they feel). The set is structured exactly like a lesson: there is some lecturing, a PowerPoint, a Q&A, and even a pop quiz, to check that we’ve been paying attention. It’s funny too. Miller (not that one) is adept at using his low-status persona to maintain a calm, gently humorous tone, even in the face of some very esoteric heckling, clearly intended to test his science credentials. This is stand-up-disguised-as-science, rather than Robin Ince-style science-disguised-as-stand-up, and I laugh a lot. I never knew I had a favourite element until now…

Miller (not that one) is also playing an evening slot at ZOO Playground, so – if you’re claustrophobic – maybe try to catch him there instead. If cheek-by-jowl doesn’t bother you, then head to The Three Sisters. Either way, this is definitely the most enjoyable science lesson I’ve ever attended.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

JD Shapiro: I’m With Stupid

22/08/22

Gilded Balloon, Teviot (Billiard Room), Edinburgh

It’s a Monday night on the Fringe and it’s raining, which no doubt explains why the audience in the Billiard Room is best described as ‘modest’. No matter. JD Shapiro takes the small number in his stride and comes out with all guns blazing, ready to dish the dirt on his adventures in the screen trade. He warns us right up front he’s going to be dropping a lot of names tonight, but clearly has no fucks to give on that score. Drop them he does, in large quantities.

Shapiro is the kid from New Jersey, who arrived in LA with one hundred bucks in his pocket and a crazy dream in his head – a dream of making it big in Hollywood. He’s the guy who wrote a silly movie called Robin Hood: Men in Tights (on spec) and managed to get it into the hands of Mel Brooks, via the dentist that they both used. He’s also the guy who, when offered a first chance to direct a movie, turned down Dude, Where’s My Car? (yeah, I know, but it made a ton of money) in favour of a little thing called Battlefield Earth, starring John Travolta, which now rejoices under the title of the ‘worst film ever made’.

Shapiro is refreshingly open about it. He agrees that Battlefield Earth is terrible and tells us he spent some time trying to get his name removed from the project before it ever came out. Because, of course, the finished movie wasn’t what he’d envisaged at all… but you know, too many cooks and all that.

Shapiro is a likeable character with a real twinkle in his eye, a raconteur who interacts easily with us, offering us a series of projected illustrations from various points in his career, and his opinions on all manner of things. He talks about the time he took Michael Jackson for a ride in his jeep, the crazy projects he tried to launch with Marlon Brando (who actually seemed more interested in making cookies), and the fifteen years he spent working alongside his closest pal, Stan Lee. With names like this to drop, who wouldn’t go for it?

This show is part stand-up, part memoir, and it’s a splendid way to pass an hour on the Fringe.

I leave feeling strangely upbeat, thinking that I must have another look at the screen adaptation I made of one of my novels. I wonder if my dentist has any contacts? You never know…

Meanwhile, why not take the opportunity to nip down to the Billiard Room and experience for yourself the ups and downs of the film industry?

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

There’s Nothing Quite Like Spaghetti Bolognese!

22/08/22

The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: we are very definitely NOT this show’s target audience. It’s billed as suitable for 3+, which I’d say is about right – and the other adults here are accompanying wains. We’re not. We don’t have any. We wouldn’t usually come along to something designed for those so many years our junior, but we met Chloe Din (who stars as Penny) last week, while queuing for another show, and she talked us into it. What can we say? Her enthusiasm convinced us.

So here we are, and it’s a pleasure. Din and her co-star Dominic Myers have an easy rapport with their young audience, hitting just the right levels of pep and silliness. This play, adapted from a story by Ian Dunn (who also directs), is a cautionary tale, all about… pasta and sauce. Penny’s mum works for the NHS. She’s been doing lots of overtime, so she’s tired, and Penny’s dad is busy too, faced with the dual task of working from home and trying to find where his mischievous daughter has hidden his iPad. Unable to face another takeaway, Penny decides to help out – by cooking her mum’s favourite dinner, spaghetti bolognese. It’ll be a surprise she thinks.

And it is.

A very big surprise.

Because, after all her careful preparation, Penny’s dinner doesn’t just sit in the pan like dinners usually do, waiting to be served. Instead, it leaps out, and introduces itself as ‘Spag Bol.’ Penny is delighted with her new friend, and the pair embark on a series of adventures…

There’s Nothing Quite Like Spaghetti Bolognese! is an engaging and likeable piece of theatre. There is some audience interaction (we are split into three groups to provide the sound effects for the cooking scene, for example), but I think they would do well to include more of this. There are some repeated rhymes, which go down a storm with this young audience, and lots of lively songs, which also work well, despite a ‘ukelele malfunction’ when a string breaks about half way through, meaning that rather more of them are a cappella than I imagine is intended. No matter: Din and Myers forge on with gusto, and I doubt the children even notice.

Spag Bol’s costume deserves a mention of its own: it is a fantastic creation, imaginatively crafted from wool, and weirdly convincing.

The ending is a bit chaotic, and I’m not really sure why. It feels as if something has gone awry, because it finishes uncertainly with no clear signal that we’re done. The applause at first is tentative, and everyone looks confused. This is a shame, because it sends us out on the wrong note, wondering what happened rather than humming the final tune.

Still, if you’re in Edinburgh with small children and want to keep them entertained, this is sure to do the trick. If nothing else, it’ll serve as a warning not to play with their food…

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Tessa Coates: Get Your Tessa Coates, You’ve Pulled

21/08/22

Pleasance Courtyard (Beside), Edinburgh

Whether Tessa Coates really is as ditsy and posh as the persona she creates seems almost immaterial: I’m hooked. From the moment she stumbles onto the stage, all swishy hair and giggles, I’m completely disarmed. I like her. I’m not sure why. I don’t think we’d have much in common. But she’s so lively and engaging, it’s impossible not to warm to her.

Coates has, she tells us, recently been diagnosed with ADHD. “No,” she corrects herself. “Just ADD. Without the H.” Hmm. She might not be clinically hyperactive, but she’s certainly excitable. And very, very easily distracted. At least, the on-stage version is. If the real-life Tessa is the same, then I guess we have someone else to thank for organising this Fringe run, and getting her to the show on time.

I like the way Coates leans into and acknowledges her privilege, mocking her own pony-riding past, and likening herself to an Enid Blyton character. Even if it is Anne. “The shit one.”

The show itself is a fairly straightforward “here are some silly things I’ve done” affair, detailing the scrapes Coates has tumbled headlong into, mainly because she doesn’t think things through. She leads us through a series of minor calamities: from high school embarrassments to dressage problems; from awkward elevator moments in LA to the Brighton half-marathon. It’s all delivered in the same vibrant, upbeat, appealing way, as ludicrous-but-ace as the pink ride-on electric kids’ car that dominates the stage.

Coates bought it on impulse, not realising it’d be both too small and too big. “It’ll be fine,” she tells us.

And it is.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Tickbox

20/08/22

Summerhall (Tech Cube 0), Edinburgh

Lubna Kerr emigrated from Pakistan to Glasgow when she was just a child. Now, many years later, she looks back on her life, growing up as an outsider, marginalised and stereotyped, and she rails – softly – against the constrictions she has endured.

The first constriction we hear about is in her own arteries. She’s in A&E with what the doctor is insisting is a stress-related heart problem. “But I’m not stressed,” Lubna demurs. She’s happy, isn’t she? What has she got to be stressed about?

Considering this question takes Kerr down a rabbit hole of remembrance, and she recounts for us the experiences that have shaped her, and led her here: to the hospital and to this stage – to two different kinds of theatre.

Kerr’s narrative is gentle and meandering, a wry and often self-deprecating account. There is humour and affection in her tale, and she has a very amiable presence; it’s easy to warm to her. Hers is a middle-class background: her mother laments the lack of household help and bemoans the size of their Govan flat; it’s not as fancy as she was used to, back in Pakistan. Their new neighbours assume Lubna’s dad is a shopkeeper or a bus driver, because that’s what the other brown people they know do. But her father is a scientist: he’s doing a PhD; he teaches at Strathclyde university. But being educated, being relatively well-off, these aren’t enough to protect the family from casual racism. Even at Brownies, where everyone seems to mean well, Lubna’s popularity comes courtesy of a badge the others can earn for meeting someone from the Commonwealth…

This is an immensely likeable show (and not just because we’re all given a Tunnock’s teacake), although it does feel a little too polite at times, and I would like to see the stakes raised. The running race, for example, feels thrown away: the build up is nicely done, but then it peters out, with no climax. I’m also not convinced that it’s necessary to try to hide the act of drinking water; Kerr walks behind a sofa several times during the show and, with her back to us, takes a sip from her bottle. I think it would look more natural and be less intrusive if she were to incorporate this into the show – and this would also give her the opportunity to interact with the set more effectively. There’s quite a lot of paraphernalia here that doesn’t really get used; if she had a vintage jug and water glass to go with the 1970s TV, etc., she could sit on the sofa and pour herself a drink as part of the action.

Tickbox offers a fascinating insight into life as an immigrant – and we leave, talking about the issues raised, and tucking into our teacakes.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield