Theatre

Wil Greenway: The Ocean After All

17/08/19

Underbelly Bristo Square (Dexter), Edinburgh

There are certain artists you see at the Fringe, who seem to define it so totally that the thought of not seeing them the following year is somehow unthinkable. Wil Greenway is just such an artist. Not only is he arguably the nicest chap you’d ever hope to meet (and a man with a constantly changing beard), he’s also kind of unique. Not exactly a comedian, not quite a storyteller, he inhabits a world somewhere in between these two disciplines.

The Ocean After All is another of his delightful shaggy-dog tales, a simple story about a man who drives off a jetty, lands in a boat and drifts across the ocean until he finally finds himself marooned on a tiny island with nothing but seagulls and bananas for company – except, of course, it’s not about that at all. His stories feel like richly embroidered tapestries, where what’s described in those lyrical, sumptuous lines of his aren’t necessarily what meets the eye. Somehow, he always manages to pull together the various strands of his narrative and tie them up in a gloriously satisfying bow.

This year, he’s without his familiar onstage musician Will Galloway, who always seems to be such an integral part of his act. Kathryn Langshaw is still there with some atmospheric recorded music, but I have to admit, I miss the duo’s live contribution. Nevertheless, this is a delightful and engaging performance, and the two friends we bring along with us to see Wil for the first time are suitably enchanted. I feel almost jealous of them, remembering back to 2016 and The Way the City Ate the Stars, my own introduction to the charms of this Australian dreamweaver.

I write nice things about Greenway every year in the certain knowledge that he’ll remain oblivious to them. He told me, the first time we spoke, that he never reads his reviews. But, if you’re reading this, do yourself a favour. Grab a ticket for one of Wil Greenway’s last few shows before he heads back to Oz.

You won’t regret it.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

Advertisements

Jammy Dodgers

17/08/19

theSpace on the Mile, Edinburgh

Jammy Dodgers is a prime example of a student play: the sort of chorally spoken, minimally-propped, sentence-sharing ensemble work that you only ever really see in drama exams – or at the Fringe. This is not to denigrate it. I love this style of theatre: it requires precision and focus and a well-drilled team.

Performed by members of the UCL Drama Society, the story is simple, with an Animal Farm-style message about how humans – always, inevitably – fuck up. We’re in an all-too-imaginable dystopian near future: the world’s population has exploded and the housing crisis has escalated to monstrous proportions. But salvation may be at hand, as another planet has been colonised, and volunteers are required to people this brave new world.

Writer/director Amy Tickner offers a host of reasons individuals may choose to leave all they know behind: they’re either running to, she says, powered by idealism, or they’re running from, driven by the belief that it’s worth the risk, unlikely to be worse than the life they’re living now.

Young optimist Si (Will Bennett) fits firmly into the former camp. He’s nervous but excited, hopeful that this new society won’t replicate the same mistakes. Aleece (Zsuzsa Magyar), on the other hand, is cynical. She trusts no one, not even Si, not even after he lets her eat his smuggled jammy dodgers. She rolls her eyes at The System’s rules, but doesn’t join The People’s protests. She remains an outsider, her vision unclouded by dreams.

I like the direction of this piece, with its staccato scene changes and stylised movement. The synchronised, robotically sing-song speech of the two women representing The System (Ishaa Mane and Jade Armstrong) is chilling, and the ensemble (James Armitage, Klara Grapci-Germizaj, Suzy Palmer, Alice Popadopoulou and Kathryn Ravey) create a convincing populace for the new colony.

It’s a pessimistic piece,  for sure – but pessimism is, sadly, an apt response to our times.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Tokyo Rose

16/08/19

Underbelly Cowgate (Iron Belly), Edinburgh

This lively, 40s themed musical tells the true story of Iva Toguri d’Aquino. Never heard of her? Well, hers is an intriguing story.

Of Japanese descent, Iva was born and raised in California but, in 1941, was asked by her mother to go to Japan to  help her ailing aunt recover from illness. While Iva was there, Pearl Harbour was attacked and America and Japan were suddenly at war with each other. She tried to leave the country but, because the State Department had failed to arrange a passport for her visit, she was prevented from returning to her homeland. Pressured to renounce her American citizenship, she refused.

Against her will, Iva was recruited by The Zero Hour, a radio programme designed to demoralise the American troops that tuned in to listen to it – though the show’s director, Major Charles Cousins, could only persuade her to join by insisting that he had cunning methods to ensure that no anti-American propaganda would ever go out. Iva’s contributions were minimal (she did occasional broadcasts calling herself Little Orphan Anne) but, in 1949, when the war ended, she returned to America, only to find herself accused of treason, identified as the mythical Tokyo Rose.

The story is told through song and movement and it’s beautifully put together, Hannah Benson’s direction ensuring that it moves smoothly from scene to scene using a few well chosen props. Maya Britto is adorable as Iva, her expressions registering her helpless astonishment as her defence crumbles beneath the racially-motivated slurs of the prosecution. Lucy Park, Yuki Sutton, Cara Baldwin and Hannah Benson play a host of supporting roles, flitting effortlessly from character to character – and because this is a complicated tale, the large captioning screen at the side of the stage is helpful even for those of us without a hearing impairment. If I have a nitpick, I’d like to see dialogue spoken rather than sung, just to offer something in the way of contrast – but it’s not a deal-breaker.

Playing to a packed house and sending audiences out on a high, Tokyo Rose is a delight. It also illuminates a fascinating (and little known) story from the Second World War.

Grab a ticket if you can, and strap yourselves in for a bumpy ride.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Sugar

15/08/19

Sweet Novotel (Novotel 2), Edinburgh

Sugar tells the tale of flatmates Steph (Kate Wilson) and Rhona (Ellie Squires), fed up with their dead-end jobs and dead-end lives. They’d just like to be able to pay the bills without borrowing from Rhona’s boyfriend, Mark (Matthew Ogden), again. When they realise – via Steph’s listless trawling of Tinder – that there are men who will pay quite handsomely for a pair of… used tights… they set aside their qualms, nylon up and set up a small business. Surely nothing can go wrong?

The script, wittily penned by Catrin Evans, is Sugar‘s greatest strength. It’s a quirky, original idea, and the writing is sprightly and lively. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud funny lines, but also some serious points being made – about poorly paid jobs, for example, and the fact that even full-time workers can’t pay their modest bills. I would like a bit more detail about their workplace, though: they are dressed as if they work in retail, but their talk of HR, etc. makes it sound more like they are based in an office. It’s a small thing, but I find myself wondering about it, which is somewhat distracting.

The direction by Evans and Robbie Crow is generally good, allowing dynamic movement in a tiny space, although I do find myself a little irritated by the pointless exits and entrances, where characters leave the stage, only to return five seconds later to exactly the same position. A simple lighting change would be far more effective here, and would look less clumsy.

Although funny and engaging throughout, the acting is a little uneven, with some of the cast playing up the humour to the detriment of credible characterisation. Squires stands out, convincing even when Rhona’s behaviour is utterly ridiculous.

This, though, is partly what the Fringe is for: giving creatives the space to try out new ideas. And this one, I think, has (nylon covered) legs.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Ripped

15/08/19

Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Laugh), Edinburgh

‘Jack’ has an all-consuming mission – to turn himself into a ‘real’ man. You know what I mean by that… bulging biceps, a rock-hard six-pack, the ability to face down any adversary and come out on top.

With this is mind, he’s spending a lot of time down the gym, lifting weights, doing push-ups. He models himself on Rambo (‘don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe’), and he dreams about having the authority to make other men step aside. At the gym, he meets Max, a weightlifter, and the two of them hit it off. Pretty soon, Jack is running with his new friend’s gang, drinking Stella, snorting lines of coke and immersing himself in a foetid stew of toxic masculinity. But, as the story unfolds, we begin to realise that something bad has happened to Jack, back when he was just some skinny kid called Jamie – something that, try as he might, he cannot banish from his mind. Something that haunts him. Something that is destroying him.

Ripped is a monologue, written and performed by Alex Gwyther and direct by Max Lindsay. It’s a play that tackles a subject that few dramatists are prepared to take on, because the subject is so taboo. But here male rape is confronted head on, and laid bare in all its unspeakable horror.

Not only is this a beautifully written piece, one that walks a perilous tightrope between dark comedy and outright shock, but it also features a performance so powerful and compelling that I find myself riveted by it. I’m clearly not alone. Gwyther receives an impassioned standing ovation at the play’s conclusion.

I cannot promise that you’ll enjoy this play, but it positively demands to be seen. And I have just one more word to add to this review.

Wow.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Sexy Lamp

14/08/19

Pleasance Courtyard (Baby Grand), Edinburgh

I know I’m going to like this show as soon as I enter the room, and am offered a rhubarb and custard boiled sweet. There’s a huge jar of them being passed around, while Katie Arnstein – the writer/performer responsible – sits on stage, dressed in a leopard-print dressing gown, with a lampshade on her head. A quirky, inclusive atmosphere is established even before we have begun.

In some ways, Sexy Lamp could be dismissed as – yawn – yet another monologue about an actor struggling to cope, which is certainly a popular theme at this year’s Fringe. But this piece is so charming and well-crafted that it’s impossible not to warm to it – and it’s outward-looking too. Arnstein doesn’t just tell us about how she‘s dealt with her problems: she opens up her outrage; this is a call to arms.

Arnstein is immensely likeable. As she sheds the lampshade, she expounds Kelly Sue DeConnick’s theory about movies and plays: if there’s a scene where a woman can be replaced with a sexy lamp without derailing the plot, this indicates that something is awry.

From here, we learn about Arnstein’s childhood dream to be an actor – or, more specifically, to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. That first young impulse stays with her, and leads her to drama school, then out into the world as an actor seeking work. And then, to her horror, exposes her to the unspeakable sexism rife in the industry.

To Arnstein’s credit, this never feels self-indulgent. Her indignation is real and justified, and presented with a clear understanding of how to win over an audience. Her feminism is expressed through witty songs (self-accompanied on the ukulele) and delivered with bags of natural charisma. As she struggles to assert herself, to define her own parameters, she sends a clear message to all of us: even in such a competitive industry, acquiescence is not always worth it; sometimes it’s better to say ‘no’ than it is to say ‘yes, and…’

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

The First King of England in a Dress

14/08/19

theSpace Triplex (Studio), Edinburgh

Epic Tales give a likeable performance in The First King of England in a Dress, a story of Vikings and English folk – and, of course, good ol’ King Canute. Between them, Kate Madison, Chip Colquhoun and Izzy Dawson portray a raft of characters, holding the audience’s attention with ease.

It’s not perfect. For starters, it’s crying out for a soundtrack to help convey both mood and location. And I’m not sure why the audience participation is limited to reluctant adults; it seems to me it would make more sense to take enthusiastic child volunteers. Sure, they’re less predictable and might derail the story a little, but I think the cast should take that risk. The piece could benefit from the silliness that may ensue, and it’d be easy enough for these seasoned storytellers to get things back on track.

The biggest issue for me though is the gender stereotyping, which seems a little out of step with current thinking. Of course, the story demands that girls are disguised as boys to escape the evil woman-hunting monks, but the narrative could surely acknowledge that’s not how we do things now, that signifiers such as dresses and long hair are no longer important.

Still, it’s an enjoyable fifty minutes, and these three performers certainly know how to tell a tale. The props are detailed and interesting, creating a real sense of the time and place. Young performer Izzy Dawson has a truly lovely singing voice, and I like the use of the lyre to accompany her. A rain stick is also utilised to great effect.

These three actors have an easy rapport with the kids in the audience, and have created an enjoyable little show.

3 stars

Susan Singfield