Theatre

Showmanship

18/08/18

C Royale, Edinburgh

In the American dust bowl of the 1930s, a travelling carnival is pluckily plying its trade, still managing to part the locals from what little money they have left. Myra Collins is their resident fortune teller, a woman who happily admits to having no supernatural gifts whatsoever, just an ability to look the part and say all the right things. Sure, it’s dishonest, but a woman’s got to make a living, right? It’s only Showmanship.

In this monologue, written and performed by Lucy Roslyn, Myra tells us how she came to be here – about her former life as a showgirl, about her vulnerable mother and the hard drinking man she became entangled with – and she explains how, even in the depths of the darkest depression the world has ever experienced, people are still willing to pay up front for a little shot of hope. And hope is what Myra offers them, dangling it just out of their reach, keeping them hooked so she can slowly reel them in.

Roslyn is a charismatic performer, giving Myra a sly, knowing demeanour and spitting out sarcastic lines that are often laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps there’s not quite enough incident in her story to sustain the piece for a full hour, but I enjoy the performance and the atmosphere she creates – and I particularly love the clever ending, which sends the audience out in a state of wonderment.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Kit Finnie: Mabel & Mickey

18/08/18

Underbelly (Belly Dancer), Edinburgh

While not exactly what you’d call a crowdpleaser, there’s always room on the Fringe for a show like Mabel & Mickey, an ambitious and quirky look at a story from the early days of Hollywood. Mabel Normand was one of the greatest stars of the silent era and something of an innovator at a time when few women were able to make inroads in the film industry. Many would say that not much has changed since then…

In 1915, Normand produced, directed and starred in a very successful movie called Mickey, which she made for Mack Sennet’s studio, Keystone. But her career was subsequently tainted, both by her association with fellow actor Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and his infamous rape trial – and by her mysterious relationship with film director William Desmond Taylor. The latter was murdered in 1922, just after he’d announced that he was to marry another woman. Normand was one of the key suspects and, though she was eventually acquitted, her career never recovered.

In this inventive monologue, Kit Finnie plays Mabel, who, when we first encounter her, is being interviewed by the police about Desmond’s murder. She occasionally breaks the illusion to talk with her tech person, reverting to her own accent and pointing out that she’s forgotten certain lines or that she needs to try something again – this is jarring, but then, it’s clearly meant to be. There’s also some nifty use of an OHP (retro tech equipment seems to be one of the recurring tropes of this year’s Fringe) used in conjunction with simple paper cutouts. Finnie even offers us the occasional bit of  poetry, which keeps winging its way onto the stage in the form of paper aeroplanes. Oh yes, and there’s quite a lot about pigeons too.

This is esoteric stuff that demands concentration, mostly because Normand’s story has largely slipped into the mists of time. Interested parties should seek out Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast You Must Remember This, which devotes a whole episode to Mabel Normand and makes a useful companion piece to this show.

This is an interesting attempt to do something a little bit different and really, that’s exactly what the Edinburgh Fringe is for.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Six the Musical

16/08/18

Udderbelly, Edinburgh

The infamous purple cow is rammed to capacity tonight and, as the performers walk on, the audience response is loud and enthusiastic. The cast of Six set about giving it all they’ve got and, from the first bars of the opening song, it’s clear that they have the crowd in the palms of their hands. Every Fringe seems to yield a runaway hit and this year, Six seems to be the hottest ticket around.

It’s always gratifying when a show this successful turns out to be so good – trust me, it isn’t always the case. Six is an inventive and exuberant pop-opera, which focuses on the wives of Henry VIII. As one character points out, we’ve only heard of them because they had the misfortune to marry the same man, so they are here to set a few things straight. We are throughly entertained by this show, but we are also informed at the same time, learning things about these women that we really didn’t know. Just think of it as at the most vibrant history lesson you’ve ever experienced and you’ve pretty much got the measure of it.

The six women are augmented by a superb four piece female band. Things kick off with an ensemble song that features a killer hook of a chorus and then, each of the wives in turn submits a solo piece, all of them vying to be voted ‘the best’ of the Queens. They are all exceptionally talented performers (far too good to single out a particular favourite) but, for the record, they are: Jameia Richard-Noel (Katherine of Aragon), Millie O’ Connell (Anne Boleyn), Natalie Paris (Jane Seymour), Alexia McIntosh (Anna of Cleves), Aimie Atkinson (Katherine Howard) and Maiya Quansah-Breed (Catherine Parr).

The excellent band powers effortlessly through a whole range of different musical styles, from straight pop to power ballad, from soul to Germanic disco. The songs, by Lucy Moss and Tony Marlowe, feature witty lyrics which relate the women’s experiences in modern day terms. There’s much talk of Snapchat and profile pictures (the latter painted by Hans Holbein, of course) and, by the time the performers hit their final crescendo, the entire crowd is clapping and stamping along in a frenzy.

I fully expect to see this expanded and transformed into a West End smash. (If it doesn’t happen, somebody’s missing a trick.) I just hope nobody spoils it by bringing in Henry himself. This is a staunchly feminist piece and should be allowed to remain so. And anyway, we all know for too much about the King.

For the time being, if you can buy, beg, borrow or steal a ticket for this wonderful show, then do so.

It really is that good.

5 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

Big Aftermath of a Small Disclosure

14/08/18

Summerhall, Edinburgh

What I love most about the Fringe is the sheer variety of what’s on offer. Two weeks into a rigorous viewing timetable, patterns start to emerge (for example, table lamps and portable cassette recorders are popular props this year); I start to think maybe I’ve seen it all. And then I find myself in Summerhall, watching ATC’s Big Aftermath of a Small Disclosure and am reassured that theatre still offers endless possibilities, that I can still be surprised.

We start with a bare stage and two characters, Jon (Abhin Galeya) and Louise (Wendy Kweh). They cross, meet in the middle, and Jon tells Louise he is thinking of leaving town. Their dialogue comes in short, staccato bursts, spare and unrevealing. It’s an intriguing opening, the bare bones of an idea. When Johan (Sam Callis) and Sjon (Mark Weinman) join them, the stylised he-said-she-said repetition is both funny and strangely alienating – but slowly, slyly, the power dynamics are revealed, and we see the characters pacing, circling, approaching and retreating, vying for control and understanding of the crisis created by Jon’s simple announcement.

This is choreography as much as direction: the moves become more complex as the drama is fleshed out, and it’s beautifully crafted by Alice Malin. Layer by layer, we learn about the group: who they are, what they mean to each other, what Jon’s leaving really signifies. The set grows with each round of revelations too: now we have grass, now chairs, now beer bottles and other props. The whole piece is an illumination of the storytelling process, how we start knowing nothing and are fed details piecemeal.

Magne van den Berg’s script, translated by Purni Morell, is oddly ethereal; the characters’ speech patterns are slightly jarring – it has a disorienting effect. I like it: it’s the opposite of naturalism; nobody speaks like this, with such precision and control. And yet, even in its strangeness, it’s all very recognisable: the unuttered agendas, the circling around real issues.

A thought-provoking, unusual piece – and one I highly recommend.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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