Comedy

A Work in Progress

20/08/18

Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a good idea: if you’re a young actor and you’re not getting enough work, then why not write your own roles? And, if you’re really canny, why not go all meta, and write a play about a young actor who’s not getting enough work, and embarks on a mission to write her own roles?

And so A Work in Progress is born: Hannah Morton’s play about two friends, John and Jane, who – after a brief prelude, where we are shown the spirit-crushing nightmare of failing auditions – barricade themselves into John’s flat, determined not to leave until they’ve had their Ruth Jones/James Cordon epiphany, and penned a veritable hit.

Morton, who stars alongside director Daniel Cullen, is an engaging performer, and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments here, notably the Porpoises in Space routines, which are wonderfully daft. The playful bickering between the two is nicely drawn, and Cullen has an appealing cheekiness, which helps create the atmosphere.

It’s a shame that the script focuses so much on banter, I think; I know the relationship is central to the piece, but there’s so much badinage that it becomes a little repetitive. I’d have liked to have seen them trying harder to write their play, to have been shown more of their putative scripts – a range of genres, for example, would have made the piece more varied and interesting to watch. There’s a bit of corpsing too, which is a pity – although it can, of course, happen to anyone, and maybe today is a one off.

It’s good to see young creatives making their own opportunities, and this piece is certainly good fun.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

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A Serious Play about World War II

19/08/118

Underbelly, Cowgate, Edinburgh

As you’ve probably already guessed, Willis & Vere’s A Serious Play about World War II is anything but serious. At the outset, however, it suggests that it fully intends to be. The play we are about to watch, we are gravely informed, is based on the life of Holocaust survivor, Hirshel Gunzberg. Not only that, he’s here tonight, sitting in the front row, an elderly bearded man in a yarmulke.

What follows is the theatrical equivalent of farting in a lift – wrong on so many levels. We watch a turgid attempt to portray Gunzberg’s youth, replete with slo-mo action sequences, inept racial stereotypes and lines of cringe-inducing dialogue, all interspersed with dramatic blackouts. It’s irreverently funny, and I find myself laughing out loud at incidents that really shouldn’t be suitable subjects for humour; I just can’t help myself. But I’m soon wondering how award-winning comics Adam Willis and George Vere are going to sustain this idea for a full hour.

The answer is, of course, that they don’t try. A sudden interruption from the audience (it seems that Mr Gunzberg is far from happy with the way he’s being depicted) sends the whole vehicle careering off the rails and into the realms of full-blown farce. As the two leads, and their hapless straight-faced sidekick, Ian Coulter, run around like headless chickens trying to defuse a desperate situation, incident piles upon incident, ramping up the potential disaster to almost unbearable levels. The sudden appearance of two police officers, sent to investigate ‘a disturbance,’ adds an extra layer to the mayhem. We are made complicit in the deception, repeatedly warned not to tell anyone what we’ve seen.

We are subsequently treated to a whole series of unexpected events: gunshot wounds, murder, dismemberment, nudity, super glue, handcuffs, power tools… it’s quite a list and, happily, no opportunity to up the stakes is left unplundered.

The result is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe. A serious play? They’re ‘avin’ a larf. And so, I believe, will you.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Nick Hall: Spencer

19/08/18

Underbelly, Bristo Square, Edinburgh

If anybody has heard  the name Spencer Perceval before, they are likely to know only one thing about him – that he has the dubious distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever to have been murdered while in office. (Of course, there are several others we might like to see  murdered, but that’s an entirely different matter.) Interestingly, Perceval was not killed in a crime of passion or even as a result of great political upheaval. He was shot by a merchant who felt that the government owed him a sum money and decided to make his feelings known in no uncertain terms.

Stand up comedian Nick Hall is also a former history graduate and has decided that the world (or at least the Edinburgh Fringe) needs to know a bit more about the man who was affectionally dubbed ‘Little P’ because of his short stature. Perceval had wanted to be Prime Minister since childhood and, once in that position, did his level best to eradicate British involvement in slavery. Unfortunately, this made him very unpopular with those who were making vast amounts of money from it and might have accounted for the cheers of delight that were heard when his death was announced.

This is a gentle, whimsical show, that manages to inform and entertain in equal measure. Hall is an engaging host, full of witty one liners and wry observations. I particularly like his ‘time in reverse’ scenario, where many of history’s greatest tragedies are cleverly set to rights and turned into triumphs. Towards the end, he even does a kind of recap, just to make sure we’ve all been paying attention. Happily, we have. We pass the Perceval test.

I leave the Underbelly Clover room knowing  a lot more about the man than I did when I arrived – and having had a thoroughly good laugh into the bargain.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Zach & Viggo & Thumpasaurus: Where Does the Love Go?

15/08/18

Underbelly (Belly Button), Cowgate, Edinburgh

‘Where Does the Love Go?’ asks the most memorable song from this show and it’s evident from the kick-off that there’s plenty of it in evidence in the dank surroundings of Belly Button. It’s all directed at Zach Zucker, Viggo Venn and LA-based funk-punk band Thumpasaurus in this riotous, rickety sci-fi punk opera, which is basically a comic attack on Jeff Bezos and his Amazon empire.

Alexo (Zucker) is Amazon’s newest product, an AI that’s a big step up from Alexa. It can do a lot more than set an alarm and turn up the volume on your stereo. Created by Gepetto (Venn), Alexo experiences emotions that go way beyond the usual AI. He thinks of Gepetto as his father, so he’s devastated to learn that he actually belongs to Bezos (Jonny Wooley), who intends to assert his absolute authority over the creation he has funded. It’s clearly not going to end well.

By all the usual standards, this is ropey stuff that really shouldn’t fly – and yet, it’s done with such warm hearted zeal, such brio, that you somehow can’t help but go with it. This show has ‘cult’ written all over it. It’s evident that much of tonight’s enthusiastic crowd have already watched this more than once, reacting to ‘in’ jokes and clearly having a whale of time. In a nod to a repeated joke, Thumpasaurus really do create ‘a great vibe’ and Zucker’s continual nods and winks to his devotees, which ought to be irritating, somehow add to the show’s appeal. Venn too, is howlingly funny, in a shambling, ‘don’t give a toss’ kind of way, while Wooley’s performance as Bezos is just downright hilarious. His speech at the launch of his latest product has me in stitches.

You’ll leave singing that titular song over and over. Resistance is futile. Round up a bunch of friends and go and enjoy this show. It’s as rough as the proverbial bear’s backside, but an absolute hoot just the same.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Lampoons: House on Haunted Hill

14/08/18

Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

No visit to the Edinburgh Fringe is complete without at least one late-night, mad-as-a-box-of-frogs comedy event. The Lampoons: House on Haunted Hill fits the bill perfectly. Based loosely (very loosely indeed) on William Castle’s 1959 schlock horror movie of the same name, this is a production where audience members are issued with loaded water pistols and ping pong balls as they enter the venue. We are then encouraged to use said water pistols and ping pong balls at certain cue moments during the story, though – this being a late-night, alcohol-fuelled crowd – few people stick closely to the rules. (Although I’d like to point out that, as dedicated critics, we are steadfastly sober.)

Rich weirdo Frederick Loren (Vincent Price, played at one point by all four members of the cast, simultaneously) invites four guests to stay one night in a notorious haunted mansion. If they manage to survive until morning they will each receive 10,000 dollars. That’s about as much as you need to know plot-wise but, suffice to say, much fun is manufactured from running in and out of doors, the donning of fright masks, hilariously odd shadow projections, the eating of pickles (both dill and Branston), the wearing of false moustaches and, in one memorable sequence,  the full frontal ordering of pizzas. There’s more, but you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

The Lampoons comprise writer/actor Oliver Malam, Josh Harvey,  Christina Baston and Adam Elliott. It’s all gloriously ramshackle and exceedingly silly and I guess that’s exactly the point. If at times there’s the suspicion that this could all be a little bit tighter, a little more controlled and that, if the cast approached their roles in absolute seriousness, this might be funnier still, such notions quickly disappear under a deluge of water and the aforementioned projectiles. The cast are clearly having a lot of fun and, happily, so are the audience.

As we join in with that well known anthem, We Are Vincent Price, it occurs to me that I probably won’t remember much about this in the morning… but I’m wrong. I remember every deranged detail. I’ve even got a false moustache as a souvenir.

Full frontal pizza, anyone?

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Flies

14/08/18

Pleasance Two, Edinburgh

Flies, by Oliver Lansley, is a story of overpowering obsession. Dennis (George Readshaw) has a phobia of flies, one so all-consuming that he has taken to sealing up the doors and windows of his flat, even putting tape over the plug holes in the bathroom every night. Driven almost to distraction by his fears of the little buzzers, he decides to look for an insect-free environment in which to live. An internet search informs him that his best bet is Antartica, so he promptly sells all his belongings and books a flight. But, on the journey over there, things start to go spectacularly awry.

You see, it’s not easy to get such matters out of your mind when you’re being followed by one fly in particular, a white tuxedoed lounge lizard who looks and talks uncannily like a young Kenneth Branagh, striding about and telling the audience, with great relish, how he’s going to defecate into their food and then vomit it all up again. In the role of the fly (not to mention, Dennis’s psychiatrist, Dr Rickman and occasionally, a polar bear) Piers Hampton has an absolute field day. And then there’s the third member of the cast, Harry Humberstone, a tall, gangly all-rounder, who plays a range of smaller roles, provides various sound effects and bashes out a bit of rock guitar.

Throw in some ramshackle special effects, a programme note that assures us that this is a sustainable show and ‘all cling film is recycled’ and you might begin to get the measure of this spectacularly loopy production. It’s quite clear from the large and enthusiastic crowd at Pleasance Two that what we have here is a palpable Fringe hit and one that fully deserves all the attention it’s getting.

Go and lap this up, but be sure to keep a close eye on the plate of food you eat in the Pleasance Courtyard afterwards. You never know what might be in there…

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids

12/08/18

Pleasance Dome (Queen), Edinburgh

Kafka? For kids? Really? It doesn’t sound like a goer, to be honest. But – it turns out – Kafka can indeed be repurposed for kids, and rendered funny and entertaining for adults too.

I’m vaguely familiar with Kafka’s work. I first encountered Die Verwandlung while studying for a degree in German literature, and then – during a second degree course, this time in theatre studies – met up with its English translation (Metamorphosis) via Berkoff’s infamous production. I’ve read The Trial, too, and The Castle, but not recently; in short, I know just about enough to be sure that Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids will have to pull something rather special out of the bag if it is to hit its mark. And does it? Oh yes, it really does.

The show is a delight from start to finish, the deceptive simplicity of the knockabout comedy concealing some clever structural stuff, and layered references to Kafka’s obsessions and stylistic tics. It’s all there: humanity-crushing bureaucracy, alienation, despair. There’s poverty too, and hope – and much absurdity. And, in Tom Parry (he of Pappy’s fame)’s script, it all comes together to make a genuinely funny and illustrative hour of fun – for all the family.

Parry stars in the show as well, as Karl, the hapless entertainer who’s inadvertently robbed a Royal Mail van, the contents of which serve as makeshift set and props. He’s joined by Will Adamsdale, who plays the troupe’s frustrated leader, Karter, and Heidi Niemi (Kat), who speaks Finnish throughout. The trio are interrupted, intermittently, by the marvellous Rose Robinson (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats in Great British Mysteries: 1599? earlier this week), who plays a series of officious bureaucrats, each one more demanding than the last.

We’re introduced to miserable tales, where Poseidon is crushed by the weight of his paperwork, where a bridge loses faith in its ability to connect. We’re drawn in, made accomplices; we tell lies to officials to protect the performers. The kids in the audience are utterly enthralled. We don’t have any kids with us, but we are entranced too.

It’s a rainy day, so numbers are down; it’s a shame to see so many empty seats when the material is as good as this. Any families out there looking for something quirky, something different – I urge you to give this a go.

5 stars

Susan Singfield