Theatre

Louise Reay: Hard Mode

16/08/17

The Stand 4, Edinburgh

When we enter the venue, three young people in boiler suits are leaping energetically about to music, which is definitely not what I am expecting. Hard Mode, I’ve been toldis all about censorship and surveillance. It imagines a future where the BBC has been purchased by the Chinese and everybody is told exactly what to do and think. Pretty soon, the three dancers disappear but soon return wearing Trestle masks and start to act in a threatening manner. Reay, who is dressed in a leotard, wig and a gold biker jacket (apparently in an attempt to look like Michael Jackson) starts talking, referencing some work she’s done with the artist Ai Weiwei. We are shown a jokey video clip where he is played by a man in a cardboard moustache. Every so often, Reay returns to the other theme of her show, which is her recent breakup with her husband, which seems completely at odds with the other material and too raw for comfort. (She even shows us some video footage from the wedding.)

There’s no denying the enthusiasm and energy that Reay puts into this show, but it’s also painfully apparent that she isn’t really in command up on that stage and Hard Mode feels more like a work-in-progress than something that is ready to show at the Fringe. To be fair to her, others in the small crowd seem to get this a lot more than I do, laughing at her comments, but it really isn’t working for me. The subject of life under an authoritarian regime is undeniably an important one, but it surely deserves something more coherent than this. At one point, the presenters try to impress the horror of living in such a society upon me by making me go and stand in the corner for five minutes.

Which probably says it all. This is neither a biting commentary nor a successful stand-up show. Instead, it exists in an uncertain hinterland somewhere between the two.

2.3 stars

Philip Caveney

To Hell in a Handbag

16/08/17

Assembly, George Street

Subtitled The Secret Lives of Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism, this nifty little two-hander examines events in the lives of a couple of subsidiary characters in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It hinges upon some of the wheelings and dealings going in in the background of that story. Beautifully played by Jonathan White and Helen Norton, it’s also written by the actors, who, to their absolute credit, have perfectly captured Wilde’s arch, flamboyant writing style – high praise indeed.

Like the better-known characters in the original play (which many people have suggested was a metaphor for Wilde’s secret homosexuality), Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble have their own secrets: she is rather too fond of a drop of sherry for her own good and clearly puts her survival above all other matters, while he doubles as an agony aunt for the Woman’s Weekly and also once found himself in a compromising position in a house of ill-repute – not the best place for a man of the cloth.

The Wilde aficionados in the audience are clearly well on board with this, laughing delightedly throughout and applauding enthusiastically at the play’s conclusion. I find it enjoyable – if polite – entertainment. While I should add that you don’t have to be a fan of the divine Mr W to enjoy this show, there’s no denying the fact that it certainly helps. And if TIOBE is up there amongst your favourite plays, then this is definitely one to seek out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Seagulls

15/08/17

The Leith Volcano, Constitution Street, Leith, Edinburgh

Wow. Seriously: wow. This is the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre I have seen in a long time. It’s truly exciting: challenging, uncompromising and very, very good.

It’s The Seagull, kind of, although Chekhov probably wouldn’t recognise it, and goodness knows what Stanislavski the naturalist would make of it all. And that’s the point, I think: just as Treplev and Trigorin represent the experimental versus the establishment, so the two theatre greats, who were in their time avant-garde, now represent the traditional –  new performance styles are emerging all the time. And South Wales based ‘responsive arts group’ Volcano Theatre are surely at the forefront of this.

I love a bit of site-specific theatre, especially when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this: we’re in an abandoned church, the rear of which has been flooded with forty-five tons of water – certainly a unique way to portray Sorin’s lake. It’s breath-taking: all scaffolding and wooden boards; we’re on the makeshift stage that’s been built for Treplev’s play. As we enter, the actors are hanging above us on wires; as the show begins, they descend, one by one, and the riotous, irreverent production is soon in full swing. There are acrobatics and there’s nudity; there’s a dance routine and a suitcase fight. There’s expressive movement juxtaposed with bawdy belly-laughs; this is a wild, tumultuous production, twisting and tumbling in so many directions that it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on. It doesn’t matter; I can’t pretend to understand it all, but I’m utterly entranced, and I can’t stop thinking about it for hours afterwards.

It’s not perfect. We find ourselves sitting at the back for the second half of the play, and can’t see over the heads of the people in front of us. By this point, the actors are in the lake, further away than they were before, so the acoustics aren’t so good and we can’t hear everything. But when a play is this electrifying, such details seem like mere quibbles. This is an absolute must-see.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Over the Garden Fence

14/08/17

Greensides, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh

Over the Garden Fence is a tender two-hander charting the life-story of ‘Dolly,’ her tragic descent into dementia and the impact on her family. It’s charmingly told – if a little earnest – and it’s clear to see how it meets Haylo Theatre’s aim of using theatre to “highlight key issues within the areas of health, social care and the elderly.”

Louise Evans handles the role of Dolly with grace and generosity: this is an affectionate portrayal of a well-realised character. Hayley Riley takes on the less showy role of Annabelle, Dolly’s granddaughter, who is upset (and sometimes irritated) by the old woman’s behaviour, frustrated that her Gran keeps making odd mistakes. Both actors also play a host of other parts: the neighbours, the husband, the best friend, etc.

They make the most of the black-box space, with a few carefully-chosen props and some interesting techniques. A standout is the slo-mo ‘happy birthday’ sequence, with the happy recollection of a turning nine years-old juxtaposed beautifully with awful memories from later on in life.

It’s not all misery: there is humour here, and moments of happiness. Indeed, the ending is so bittersweet it makes me dewy-eyed.

Okay, so there a few minor quibbles – how many working-class northerners were eating salsa in the 1950s, for example? – but, overall, this is a decent, thought-provoking little play that well deserves an audience.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Wil Greenway: These Trees the Autumn Leaves Alone

13/08/17

Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

What is is about Australians and the art of storytelling?

Wil Greenway was one of our best discoveries at last year’s Fringe. This red-headed, bearded, vaguely hippie-ish guy presented a show called The Way the City Ate the Stars and we thought it was one of the most magical acts we’d ever seen. So of course we want to see him again! But the main question at the back of my mind is this: can he do it a second time? Can he honestly hope to reproduce the same levels of delight that he gave us last year? The answer to that, as it turns out, is a resounding yes. TTALA is every bit as good – maybe even better.

This year’s story is all about Ernie, a lonely guy in Melbourne, struggling with his weight, struggling with his loneliness, struggling to find a job. It’s about his lucky shirt, and a girl he met at a party years ago. It’s about a hungry cat and it’s about rain. Apparently, when it rains in Melbourne, it really rains…

If this doesn’t sound enticing, well, don’t be misled. The way Greenway tells a story is right up there with his compatriot, Sarah Kendall. He manages to weave this wonderful spell as he talks, aided and abetted by the marvellous vocals and guitar of his cohorts Kathryn Langshaw and Will Galloway, so that the most mundane things are made to sound quite beautiful (hell, in this show, Greenway describes a character throwing up and somehow manages to turn it into one of the most elegant pieces of prose I’ve ever heard).

This is wonderful stuff, powerful enough to transport you into the world of Greenway’s imagination, which let me assure, is a splendid place to pass an hour. If you see only one act by a red-headed, bearded, vaguely hippie-ish guy at this year’s Fringe, then this should be it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Last Queen of Scotland

12/08/17

Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh

This powerful production by Stellar Quines Theatre Company, commissioned and supported by the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep, is written by Jaimini Jethwa, and based on her personal experience. It tells the story of the Ugandan Asians, expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. With just ninety days’ notice, they were robbed of everything they owned and despatched to whoever would give them a home. Jethwa’s family ended up in Dundee. Her story is told by Cara (Rehanna MacDonald), a character who has grown up in Scotland but who is still slowly coming to terms with what happened to her family when she was a baby.

MacDonald delivers an incendiary performance, pacing restlessly back and forth across the stage as she recalls her childhood memories, her teenage years running wild on the streets of Dundee and her recent trip back to Uganda to revisit the family home. She’s ably supported by Patricia Panther, who adds some resonant songs to the mix, providing a constant onstage presence, mostly watching in silence as the events unfold. (In truth, I would have liked to have heard a little more from her, but I guess you can’t have everything.)

This is a fascinating slice of history, brilliantly recounted and economically directed by Jemima Levick. Lovers of good theatre shouldn’t miss this one.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Blank Tiles

11/08/17

Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

Some shows grab hold of you instantly – others take a little time to establish themselves. Blank Tiles is definitely a slow burn affair. At first I find myself thinking, ‘Who is this guy? Why is he so repetitive? And why does he keep recording every little utterance he makes?’ And then it begins to dawn on me just where writer/performer Dylan Cole is going with this… and the story becomes more affecting, more tragic, and ultimately heartbreaking.

Austin Michaels is a World Scrabble champion, a man who has memorised over 200,000 words in order to win his world title. As he recounts his story, he constantly refers to a large scrabble board on an easel beside him, using various combinations of the same letters to spell out key points in his life story. But Austin is gradually falling prey to a terrible condition, one that will ultimately rob him of the most important thing in his life – his ability to remember.

This is a powerful monologue, nicely performed by Cole (who, it turns out, is Australian, though you’d never guess it from his Northern Brit accent) and it holds the audience enraptured until its tragic conclusion. Amidst a whole plethora of one-person shows at this year’s Fringe, it’s definitely one you shouldn’t miss. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Scrabble aficionado to appreciate this compelling story.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney