Theatre

The Osmonds: A New Musical

22/09/22

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s late September, the theatres have been dark for the best part of a month, and we finally come back to… this. It’s probably fair to say that I’m not in the ideal demographic for The Osmonds: A New Musical but, looking down into the stalls of the Festival Theatre, it’s clear at a glance that a lot of women are here tonight, revisiting their teenage crushes – and they are having a great time. Some of them are even wearing the T shirts.

I was never an Osmonds fan. I was aware of them, of course, and – whichever way you look at it – they were a phenomenon, a seemingly unstoppable pop juggernaut. Originally a foursome of squeaky clean school kids, drilled to perfection by their army veteran father, George (Charlie Allen), and occasionally comforted by their Mom, Olive (Nicola Bryan), the boys were taught that family was everything and that it didn’t matter who was leader, as long as it was an Osmond. These were the kids who were ‘discovered’ in 1962 by family crooner Andy Williams, and who eventually signed a five-year contract for weekly appearances on his TV series. They consequently grew up in the unforgiving glare of a massive spotlight and, over the years, they sold over one hundred million records. Think about that for a moment.

One. Hundred. Million.

It really ought to be a fascinating tale but the clunky storytelling means it’s never really allowed to take flight; there’s far too much telling and not enough showing. Too often, we cut away from the more interesting stuff for a (very accurate) rendition of one of a long list of songs – although I can’t fault the performances, which nail with aplomb the brothers’ respective singing styles. 

The story is told from the perspective of Jay (Alex Lodge), the tall one who was usually positioned in the middle. It’s his spin on the tale – as transcribed by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison – that powers this version of events and it’s interesting to note that George’s relentless approach to childcare is barely criticised, and that there’s barely any mention of the family’s Mormon religion. Naturally, towards the end, there’s a bit where the other brothers acknowledge that Jay was right about everything and they should have listened to him. Of course there is.

Most of us know the trajectory of the group: how Donny (Joseph Peacock) and his kid sister, Marie (Georgia Lennon) became TV stars in their own rights, and how the other brothers were eventually relegated to backing band status, obliged to goof around in hokey costumes behind their younger siblings – and how, in the 1980s, the family’s attempt to set up their own production company back home in Utah resulted in devastating financial ruin, obliging them to tour the world for two years in order to pay back every cent they owed. 

The first half works well enough, moving slickly along like a well-oiled machine, as the boys rapidly ascend to stardom. The costumes are spot on, the choreography is inventive and the hits keep on coming. The second half, however, feels somehow rather inert, with the brothers quarrelling, suffering from emotional distress and trying to apportion blame for their predicament. Time after time, more songs are offered as fillers (though to see Peacock perform Puppy Love to hordes of screaming women is certainly something to behold). 

Sensibly, they hold Crazy Horses till the end. That uber-heavy riff that wouldn’t have disgraced Motörhead in their prime even has me jiggling in my seat.

As the curtain falls, there’s no doubting the excitement of those fans down in the stalls, who are up on their feet applauding. The Osmonds is an accomplished jukebox musical, but I’m left with the distinct conviction that, with a better script, it could be more than that.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

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

Intruder (Intruz)

25/08/22

Summerhall (Anatomy Lecture Theatre), Edinburgh

I’m sitting in a lecture theatre and a man is writing rude words on a chalkboard, pausing occasionally to give me a stern look whenever I get a fit of the giggles. I’m not exactly sure why this is so funny, but it really is. And then the lecturer begins to tell his story and it’s not funny any more.

His name is Remi and he moves from his native Poland to Glasgow in order to pursue his dream of being an actor. But one night, walking home, he is accosted by two men who rob him and beat him up. The attack affects him profoundly, stirring within him a sense of paranoia, that steadily gets worse until it threatens to overwhelm him.

Written and performed by Remi Rachuba and directed by Marcus Montgomery Roche, Intruder is a difficult play to get a handle on. Rachuba is a fearless actor, who expends so much energy during the show you feel he could run the National Grid all by himself. Arranged on the floor in front of him are pairs of shoes which he uses to signify the different characters and situations he’s talking about. (Was it Lawrence Olivier who famously always began with the shoes?) Remi changes roles as easily as he changes his footwear.

I love the repeated tics that he employs to denote his deteriorating frame of mind: those uneasy glances over his shoulder, the shuddering paroxysms when his dark thoughts overwhelm him. I also love the simple gleefulness of the dance routine he indulges in on one of the rare occasions when he feels happy.

But there are some issues here. I’m not always entirely sure where and when a particular scene is set. There’s much talk of Glasgow, but then I hear him mention places I know are in Edinburgh. Of course, this might be intentional, but it throws me occasionally. And, while it’s only right that some of the lines are delivered in Polish, this also adds to a sense of disorientation.

Rachuba is an extraordinary stage presence and it will be interesting to see where he goes next. Meanwhile, there are just two more chances to catch this intriguing show.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Ofsted Massacre

25/08/22

The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall (Grand Theatre), Edinburgh

In its opening stretches, The Ofsted Massacre feels horribly familiar, taking me back to my old job in secondary education. Head teacher Ros (Florence Chevallier) calls an emergency staff meeting, and tries to sound upbeat as she delivers the dread news to the staff of her FE college: “We’ve had The Call.” Anyone who’s worked in a school knows exactly what that means. An Ofsted inspection: a high-stakes obstacle course on an un-level playing field. The dice have been cast in advance, and the bouquets and brickbats are already inscribed – but still you have to drive yourselves onwards, just to survive. Phil Porter’s script feels like it’s been torn from the inside of a stressed-out teacher’s head: a revenge fantasy, born of despair.

It’s also a very funny play, drawing on Shakespeare, while lampooning staffroom stereotypes and exposing every cliché. Bullish head teacher with an inferiority complex? Tick. Ruthless business manager in a designer suit? Tick. Bumbling classics teacher, littering his speech with Latin? Tick. Ditsy RS teacher who doesn’t know what’s going on? Tick. Badger in the dining hall? Ti… wait; hang on a moment; what? They’re clever caricatures: instantly recognisable types, but imbued with enough humanity to add up to a lot more than that.

At first, the focus is on internal disputes and divisions. Business manager Liz (Lila Skeet) has a plan to game the system: send the ‘naughty’ kids on a trip with the weakest member of staff, and bring in super-teacher, Yvette (Amelie Scott), to plug the gap. Meanwhile, the janitor, Frank (Jake Francis), is dispatched to place a bug in the inspectors’ office, while nervous NQT Dylan (Lara Pilcher) is given the job of listening in…

But when lead inspector Mark (Toby Anderson) tells Ros that, despite her best efforts, failure and Special Measures loom, the staff finally unite – to form an army. And mayhem is unleashed…

This production, by Kingston Grammar School’s sixth form drama students, is a triumph. The young cast embrace their roles, eliciting gales of laughter from the audience with their well-timed punchlines and impressive slapstick. One standout moment is the revelation that drama teacher Joe (Fin James)’s relationship with his ex, Liane (Isabella Walsh-Whitfield) – now an inspector – failed because Joe just couldn’t let go of the past, couldn’t stop thinking about ‘him’, talking about ‘him’, focusing on… Michael Gove. Anouk Busset, as RS teacher Felicity, is a study in physical comedy, her heightened state of confusion a wonder to behold. Amelie Scott is also very funny indeed, her Little Miss Perfect act honed to, well, perfection.

The Grand Theatre can be an awkward space to perform in. Although it’s a big, airy room with a large stage, there are no wings, and so the backdrop is used for entrances and exits, which often looks clunky. KGS’s directors (Stu Crohill et al) show that it can be done: I think this is the first time I’ve seen a play here without being aware of this problem. Set changes and transitions are also elegant – despite the staffroom scenes requiring six large chairs – an object lesson in zero-fuss, well-orchestrated stage management (Phoebe Bowen et al). Camille Borrows and Meg Christmas deserve a shout-out for the costumes: they’re spot-on, and I’m impressed by the attention to detail as they deteriorate, along with the college’s chances of success.

There’s only one more opportunity to catch this show at this year’s Fringe. Don’t miss out – you’re in for a treat. Especially if you’ve ever dreamed of getting your own back on Ofsted…

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Making a Murderer: The Musical

24/08/22

Underbelly Bristo Square (Cowbarn), Edinburgh

Like millions of others across the UK, I was transfixed by the Netflix documentary, Making A Murderer – so when I spot a poster on the Royal Mile with the words ‘The Musical‘ tacked onto the end, I’m intrigued – and simultaneously doubtful. I mean, one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in recent years… with singing and dancing? Isn’t that going to be… disrespectful?

As it turns out, I needn’t worry. In the capable hands of writer Phil Mealey, MAMTM offers a compelling version of the familiar events, a fresh perspective on the story that never feels like a cheap shot. What’s more, the production supports (and is supported by) ‘The Innocence Project’.

We begin with a whistle-stop tour of the little town of Manitowoc, hosted by Betsy (Emma Norman), who at first tries to turn the attention of visitors away from the local lowlife ‘celebrity’, Steven Avery. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to Avery himself (Matt Bond), his Ma (Amanda Beveridge) and his nephew, Brendan Dassy (Dean Makowski-Clayton). I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you what happens to Steven and Brendan. It was a national obsession, after all.

The songs are terrific throughout, ranging from spirited rockers to plaintive ballads. (Apologies to the audience at the show I visit, but the person you can hear sobbing loudly during Ma Avery’s final number is almost certainly me.) Mealey puts in an appearance as the self-aggrandising prosecutor, Ken Kratz, and Nickie Filshie takes the role of Kathleen Zellner, the lawyer determined to get Avery and Dassy out of prison. This is an ensemble piece and the cast are all accomplished singers, but I particularly enjoy the vocals of Makowski-Clayton as the tragic and vulnerable, Brendan Dassy.

It’s shocking to think that the Netflix documentary first aired in the UK in December 2015. Seven years later, Avery and Dassy are still languishing in jail on no credible evidence whatsoever. I appreciate it’s very late in the day to give a shout out for this splendid production, but I’m shouting anyway.

See it while you still can; it’s important that we don’t forget.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Manic Street Creature

24/08/22

Roundabout at Summerhall, Edinburgh

Ria is a plain-talking young musician from Yorkshire, who makes her way up to London, determined to further her career. At one of her first gigs, she encounters Daniel – and takes an instant shine to him. It isn’t long before the two of them have moved into an apartment together and he’s a member of Ria’s band. She tells him she loves him – a huge step for her – but, for some reason, Daniel seems unable to say the same words back.

As their relationship deepens, Ria begins to notice how anxious Daniel is – and to suspect that he may be suffering from the same manic depression that afflicted her father back in the day, the father she is now completely estranged from…

Manic Street Creature, written and performed by Maimuna Memon, is an assured slice of gig theatre that focuses on the subject of mental health from a slightly different perspective – that of the carer. As Ria desperately tries to find help for Daniel, she begins to experience problems herself, ones that threaten to swamp her own musical ambitions. And, when she does finally locate a doctor prepared to prescribe medication, Daniel’s character seems to change completely.

Memon tells the story through a sequence of songs being recorded in a studio session. She’s a confident, assured performer, with a thrilling vocal range, accompanying herself on acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards and shruti box. Her music is also augmented by the cello playing of Rachel Barnes and Yusuf Memon’s drums and guitar. When everything’s in full flow, the story takes flight and I feel myself propelled along by its urgent, rhythmic pulse. Sometimes it cuts abruptly back to a gentle, heart-tugging ballad, with Memon’s voice soaring effortlessly above the melody.

At the show’s conclusion, Memon offers information about mental health charities and says she wishes she could do more. But she’s already done plenty, bringing an important issue into focus through a triumphant sequence of songs. Perhaps she needs reminding of the message she’s just so eloquently delivered – that it’s really not her responsibility? At any rate, I wish I’d seen this show earlier in its Fringe run so I could have recommended it to more people.

There are just a few more opportunities to catch this awesome show, before the festival is over for another year – so what are you waiting for?

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mrs Roosevelt Flies To London

23/08/22

Assembly, George Square, (Studio 5), Edinburgh

We’ve been devotees of Alison Skilbeck since 2017’s The Power Behind the Crone, so it’s a real pleasure to see her back at the Fringe after the uncertainty of the last couple of years. Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London is written and performed by Skilbeck, and directed by Lucy Skilbeck (no relation).

The title pretty much sums up what this monologue is about: the famous First Lady’s account of her dangerous journey to England’s capital in 1942. But the play opens twenty years after that, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Eleanor fast approaching the end of her life and asking herself if the world is about to end in nuclear annihilation. Has all her hard work been for nothing?

Then we are whisked back down the years to her preparations for the trip, and we’re given insights into the various characters who surround her: the famous husband she loved and who secretly betrayed her; his controlling mother; the female journalist who became her best friend (and, as the gossips of the time suggested, her lover).

And then she’s off on her whirlwind tour, where she encounters an assortment of different characters, all of whom the actor inhabits with absolute authority, switching from one to the next as effortlessly as she puts on and takes off Eleanor’s famous feathered hat. Her brief impersonation of Churchill is an object lesson. Many actors would venture into the realms of caricature, but Skilbeck nails it perfectly. She’s an associate teacher at RADA, and it’s easy to see why.

I leave the show feeling I’ve had insights into Eleanor Roosevelt’s life that I wouldn’t have got from simply reading a biography about her. But it never feels like a history lesson and it’s gratifying to note that, even early on a Tuesday morning, Skilbeck is performing to a sold out audience.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Birds

22/08/22

The Space at Symposium Hall (Annexe), Edinburgh

I’m a fan of Daphne du Maurier’s short story,The Birds. I like the set-up, the idea of a family under siege, their home slowly transforming into a prison, and the frustration the central character, Nat, feels, when his neighbours dismiss his fears that something is amiss. Conor McPherson’s 2016 stage script dilutes this somewhat, replacing Nat’s family with two women, strangers to him and to each other. The disparate threesome, all seeking somewhere safe from the birds, hole up together in an abandoned house, where they struggle to get along. Much is made of the women’s rivalry, because – of course – they’re both attracted to Nat, and what else do women do but catfight over men? Gah. Still, at least there’s no caged loved birds, so we can be thankful for that…

St Michael’s Players (from Chiswick) certainly give this all they’ve got. Things start off promisingly, with Diane (Arabella Harcourt-Cooze), who’s been managing just fine on her own, tending to the injured Nat (Neil Dickins), who has just stumbled in. The tension between the two is tangible, especially when he rants about his ex-wife having him sectioned, all while swinging a hammer. Harcourt-Cooze is mesmerising here, watchful and tense – and, when the moment passes, there’s a palpable sense of relief in the room. But Diane and Nat get along well, until Julia (Georgina Parren) arrives, driving a wedge between them, the younger woman displacing the older. Julia wields her fecundity like a weapon, but she shouldn’t underestimate Diane…

The four actors (David Burles plays Tierney, a small but crucial part) perform well, and commit fully to their roles. However, I don’t think enough is made of the existential threat. Initially, the birds’ presence is clear: there are recorded sound effects, as well as some off-stage flapping, which combine to create an atmosphere of dread. However, as the play progresses, the outside danger becomes less pressing, and we’re soon embroiled in a domestic drama, with only occasional reminders that the apocalypse is happening just the other side of the door. I think the stakes need raising here: we need to feel afraid of what the birds might do, to believe that they are growing in number and becoming ever more dangerous. The noises need to be louder and more incessant, and we could do something visual too, even just a simple lighting effect. Without these elements, the play essentially doesn’t fly.

Which is a shame because there’s much here to admire – particularly those committed performances.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Murder Club

22/08/22

The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh

Based on genuine historical characters and real life incidents, Steve Hennessy’s The Murder Club is set in 1922 and takes place in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Former actor Richard Prince (Ewan McInntosh) is in there for the murder of a more successful actor, William Terriss, outside the Adelphi Theatre in 1997. Prince has only evaded the death penalty by reason of temporary insanity and lately he’s more interested in conducting the resident orchestra than dwelling on his notorious past.

But the arrival of another murderer, the oleaginous Ronald True (Ryan Forrester), causes something of a stir. It turns out that the newcomer, a former drug addict, is adept at bending people to his will, including the crime-obsessed warder, Jane Coleman (Annalise McNichol). Ensuing events are watched by the spectre of True’s last victim, Olive Young (Phoebe Duncan), who wanders blood-splattered and desolate through Broadmoor, commenting on the action and pausing occasionally to speak directly to the audience.

This is an interesting tale, well researched and nicely acted (Duncan is a particular standout), but I do have some issues with the plot. It seems to me that True’s claims about the eponymous club – a supposed secret society of renowned killers – is a flimsy device, too readily taken as gospel by Prince. Would anyone be gullible enough to fall for it? Well, Prince does, though nothing we learn about the man suggests that he’s that credulous. And if I can’t accept the premise, I can’t believe the outcome.

Still, David Wotton’s direction, which has the characters slipping into tableaux whenever Olive Young speaks, is nicely handled and a genuine atmosphere of dread permeates the production. Just imagine, an actor killing another actor simply because his shows are doing better than yours. Better not let that notion spread around the Fringe….

3 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