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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

15/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

In 2019, Black Panther was a genuine delight, a superhero movie that dared to challenge the preconceptions of the genre. What’s more, it was a film that made Black audiences, previously poorly represented in the world of spandex, flock to cinemas in their millions. Of course, after such phenomenal success, there was always going to be a sequel, but the tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman (who played the lead role of T’Challa) left writer/director Ryan Coogler with a real quandary. How could he hope to make another Black Panther without Boseman? Should he recast the role? Or might there be another way?

Wakanda Forever opens with T’ Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), desperately trying to engineer a cure for the ‘mysterious illness’ that has recently claimed her brother. But of course, it’s already too late and soon she and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) are presiding over an elaborate funeral service, full of dancing, drumming and joyous singing. This feels as much like the cast’s heartfelt farewell to Boseman, as it does part of the story. But a story there must be, so…

We begin with a raid by armed soldiers on one of Wakanda’s outreach posts, an attempt to steal some of the priceless vibranium that makes the African nation the most powerful in the world. But Wakanda’s battalions of fearsome female warriors are lying in wait and one of those 12A style punch-ups duly ensues – the kind where no blow quite lands and no deaths are too clearly signalled. To add to the confusion, it’s all filmed at night, employing a particularly muddy palette, so it’s not always clear exactly who’s not quite punching who. Not an auspicious start.

And then it transpires that somebody else in the world has vibranium! He’s Namor (Tenich Huerta), a sort of merman with winged feet, who commands the Meso American undersea kingdom of Talokan (he’s better known as The Sub-Mariner in the source comic books). Namor is looking to form an alliance with Wakanda and warns Queen Ramonda that, if she refuses his invitation, he’ll consider her an enemy and will declare war on her people. She’s adamant that she won’t accept his terms, so war it shall be.

It was never going to be an easy task to follow up Black Panther, but it’s disheartening to witness just how completely this attempt fails at almost every step. The mournful reality of what’s happened behind the scenes seems to have infected the whole project, reducing it to a collection of turgid conversations featuring people talking about very serious matters in gloomy chambers. Shuri, previously an enthusiastic bright spark of a character, a sort of Q to Boseman’s Bond, has grown up to be a seriously sombre young woman, weighted down by the realisation that she must take on her brother’s former responsibilities. Meanwhile Basset’s Queen Ramonda seems permanently angry about everything and spends most of her time alternately shouting and sneering at people. As T’ Challa’s former wife, Nakia, the excellent Lupita Nyong’o is given precious little to do and the same goes for Martin Freeman as Agent Everett Ross, who seems to have been handed the thankless task of being the ‘comic relief.’ Where the first film hurtled gleefully along, fuelled by its own sense of reinvention, Wakanda Forever trudges dejectedly from scene to scene. At times, I am dangerously close to falling asleep.

Okay, there’s an admittedly epic final battle between the Wakandans and Namor’s aquatic hordes (who, it must be said, look like they’ve wandered in from the set of Avatar) – and, for the more patient viewer, there’s a post-credit sequence that offers up a genuine surprise – but by then it’s far too late to save this project from the doldrums. Some may argue that Coogler has taken the franchise into even more uncharted territory, but unfortunately, Wakanda Forever takes me to places I really don’t want to visit.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Sister Radio

10/11/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Sister Radio is a rare beast: an intimate two-hander with an epic sweep. We open with some recorded sound: two childish voices, giddy and playful, welcoming an imaginary audience to the ‘Sister Radio’ of the title. And then we move forward in time and place: we’re in Edinburgh; it’s 2020; the pandemic has just landed on our shores. The girls have grown up; indeed, sisters Fatemeh (Lanna Joffrey) and Shirin (Nalân Burgess) have been sharing a tenement flat for more than forty years. But something is amiss. Why don’t they speak to each other?

Sara Shaarawi’s script flits nimbly between the past and the present. Suddenly it’s the late 1970s, and Shirin arrives, suitcase in hand, newly immigrated to the UK from Tehran. Fatemeh is older; she’s already established a life for herself here – but she’s excited to see her sister, happy to share her apartment. As we move back and forth in time, we begin to see both the macrocosmic events that have shaped the women’s lives, and the microcosmic ones that have silenced them.

Despite the constraints of a simple, fixed set (designed by Becky Minto) and minimal costume changes, we are never in any doubt as to when we are, thanks to the clever soundscape emanating from the radio. It’s a lovely device, reminding us of the close relationship the sisters used to enjoy, and also anchoring us in time, via popular music and news coverage of key events. There’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Chernobyl disaster, a royal wedding or two – and, of course, the Iranian revolution, the reason Fatemeh and Shirin have sought sanctuary in Scotland. Their personal conflict plays out against this background, and director Caitlin Skinner skilfully balances the two strands.

Both Joffrey and Burgess inhabit their characters, their performances convincing and compelling, illuminating Shaarawi’s subtle exploration of what it means to be an immigrant. Their voluble discussions about their imagined futures are fascinating – while Shirin wants to return to Tehran, Fatemeh sees Edinburgh as her home. Even the years of silence are engaging, thanks to movement director Saffy Setohy: the sisters almost dance their daily rituals, existing separately within the same space, side-stepping away, their eyes never meeting – not even when they’re swapping coffee cups, to read each other’s fortunes in the grounds.

The revelation, when it comes, is somewhat disappointing: it’s mundane and predictable, unlike the set up. But maybe that’s the point: whatever else is going on – even something as momentous as the toppling of a regime – it’s the little things that propel us. We’re never free of our own pettiness.

Sister Radio, co-produced by Pitlochry Theatre and Stellar Quines, is on at the Traverse until Saturday. It’s a quietly impressive piece, and all the more resonant because of the current protests in Iran.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Sen Viet Vegan Restaurant

28/10/22

Brougham Place, Edinburgh

For the first time in ages, we have a couple of visitors – and one of them is Our Favourite Vegan (TM), so it seems like the perfect opportunity to try out a relatively recent addition to Edinburgh’s dining scene. Sen Viet Vegan Restaurant occupies the premises where Passorn Thai Restaurant used to stand, and is now resplendent in a very bright – some might say too bright – shade of yellow. It’s early Friday evening and the place is already pretty full – so full, in fact, that we have to wait a good wee while for our pre-booked table to become available. But we’re not in a rush, so we don’t mind. When we’re finally seated, we waste no time in ordering some bottles of Vietnamese beer. Both North and South Vietnam are represented; I find myself favouring the South, although there’s not a lot in it. Both are clean tasting lagers that make the perfect companion to spicy food.

The friendly staff have already warned us that they only have one chef tonight and that there might be a bit of a delay, but we’re happy to sit and sip and chatter.

The appetisers prove to be exactly what we are hoping for. We’ve ordered two Khai Vị Đặc Biệt (sharing platters), which are generously heaped with a variety of appetisers. There are delightfully chewy chunks of salted and chilli-battered tofu, expertly deep-fried crispy spring rolls, piquant tofu summer rolls, vermicelli grilled betal leaves and Ha Long fried cakes (these are traditionally made using squid, but whatever’s in this vegan adaptation captures the fishy flavour perfectly). The appetisers are accompanied by three different dips, including a peanut-based sauce that is absolutely finger-licking tasty and this is a convenient way to sample a wide range of different flavours and textures.

There’s another wait for the main courses but, once again, when they arrive, they are exceptionally good.

I have chosen the Cà Ri Đậu Hũ  – a tofu coconut curry. While it’s really not much to look at, the dish contains chunks of dark tofu, with slow cooked mixed vegetables, tender pieces of potato and sweet potato, onion and garlic, all slow-cooked in coconut cream and lemongrass broth. It’s so good, I have to keep reminding myself not to eat it too quickly. There’s also a bowl of perfectly-cooked sticky rice, which is the ideal accompaniment.

Susan has gone for the Đậu Hũ Kho – a traditional dish that features tofu and mixed vegetables caramelised in a clay pot. Again, it’s absolutely sumptuous, thick and effusive, even though – again – the photos fail to do it justice. The bowls are licked thoroughly clean and we find ourselves too full for pudding.

Based on the food alone, Sen Viet is an unqualified delight – and we’ll certainly be back to see how it fares on nights when they have more than just one chef at work. All in all, Brougham Place – which also boasts Sora Lella Roman Restaurant and Black Rabbit Deli – is fast becoming the essential destination for hungry vegans.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

19/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m a huge fan of Martin McDonagh, both as a playwright and a film director. In Bruges may just qualify as my favourite movie of all time and, on one memorable occasion, I travelled from Manchester to London to catch his play, Hangmen, where I very nearly witnessed the accidental hanging of actor Johnny Flynn. But somehow, in all my years of reviewing, I’ve never managed to see a production of McDonagh’s debut play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Until now. To say that I’m excited about seeing it would be an understatement. So… no pressure, Rapture Theatre.

Maureen (Julie Hale) is forty years old, and living with her elderly mother, Mags (Nuala Walsh), in a grubby cottage in the wilds of Connemara. It’s a thankless existence, forever mashing up her Ma’s daily Complan and preparing bowls of lumpy porridge, while listening to the stream of malignant chatter the old woman spews out. Then one day, their obnoxious neighbour, Ray (Ian O’ Reilly), drops by with what passes for exciting news in these parts. Ray’s older brother, Pato (Paul Carroll), is coming over from London to attend a family celebration, and Maureen and Mags are invited along.

Maureen has long had a soft spot for Pato. Could his presence offer the possibility of romance she’s always dreamed of? Decked out in a brand new dress and some high heeled shoes, Maureen makes her play for Pato and it begins to look as though all her prayers might be answered. But then there’s the awkward question of what will happen to Mags, should Maureen decide to leave Leenane…

This is a debut piece and, while it might not have the assuredness of some of McDonagh’s later works, it nonetheless displays all the hallmarks of an exciting new talent flexing his muscles. The influence of Harold Pinter is surely there in the awkward pauses, the repetitions, the elevation of innocuous comments to a weird form of poetry – and McDonagh’s ear for the Irish vernacular is already finely tuned. As if setting out his territory for future exploration, there’s a shocking moment of violence that comes out of left field in unflinching detail.

There’s also a moment of revelation, which obliges me to go back and reconsider something I thought I already knew…

The performances here are exemplary and it’s perhaps unfair to single out one in particular, though I do relish Walsh’s personification of Mags: forever watchful, sly, and secretive, simultaneously Maureen’s warden and her tragic victim. This is an elegy about loneliness and subjugation, the perils that lie in wait for those who seek to escape – and a warning to be very, very careful what you wish for.

For me, The Beauty Queen of Leenane has been a long time coming, but it is well worth the wait.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

The Woman King

16/010/22

Cineworld IMAX, Edinburgh

It’s 1823, and in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, King Ghezo (John Boyega) rules over a tribe who are continually being oppressed by their neighbours, the Oyu, who repeatedly take captives and sell them as slaves to the Portuguese traders who have begun to infiltrate their territory. The Oyu have clearly decided that their best chance of survival is to join up with the invaders, but King Ghezo has a powerful weapon: the Agojie, a select group of warrior women, who are pledged to fight to the death to defend Dahomey. They are led by General Ninisca (an impressibly buff Viola Davis), supported by her veteran lieutenants, Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim).

New recruit Nawi (Thusu Mbedu) arrives after her father casts her out for refusing to marry the openly abusive elderly husband he’s lined up for her. She begins the rigorous process of learning the ways of the Agojie. If she is going to be accepted as a warrior she will have to prove her mettle – and the path to acceptance is a hard one.

Meanwhile, General Ninisca is always watching to find her weaknesses…

The Woman King is an epic adventure story with thrilling action set-pieces – but it’s more than just that. It’s also a commentary on the horrors of colonisation and the slavery that goes hand-in-hand with it. It’s a story about kinship and motherhood and it’s a handsomely mounted visualisation of a mostly forgotten era in the history of Africa – a time when women were encouraged to take a leading role in the protection of their people’s way of life.

Davis is always impressive, but she’s rarely been more convincing than she is here, as a hard as nails powerhouse, who stands ready to give her life to her cause. Both Lynch and Atim also offer standout performances in roles that are much more nuanced than you might expect in an action movie, and I’m quite sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mbedu in the not too distant future. Gina Prince-Bythewood handles the directorial honours with assurance and Terence Blanchard’s eclectic score is incredibly rousing, his battle anthems stirring enough to make you want to march beside the Agojie. This is definitely one to watch on the IMAX screen if you get the chance, because the world-building here is superbly done and benefits from the immersive qualities of a giant screen, particularly in those powerful battle scenes.

Ironically, before the film, there’s a trailer for upcoming Black Panther sequel, Wakanda Forever, which will be attempting some African world-building of its own on behalf of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though the society that Ryan Coogler and his team create will be entirely fictional).

No prizes for guessing which of the two films will draw the biggest crowds, and that’s a shame, because the events featured in The Woman King are (however loosely) based on history; and the paltry audience at Cineworld this Sunday afternoon are treated to a big, bold, beautiful slice of cinema, which deserves to be seen by millions.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Don’t. Make. Tea.

06/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Chris (Gillian Dean) is feeling understandably nervous. It’s the year 2030 and today she’s having her assessment. Chris has OPMD, which means that she is partially sighted, has trouble walking and is in constant pain. This rare condition is degenerative, so things are only going to get worse – but, under a recently implemented system, claimants are assessed ‘positively’, i.e. on what they can do rather than on what they can’t do.

The process will be depressingly familiar to those who have been through a PIP assessment. Points are awarded throughout the frustratingly opaque interview. If Chris scores five, she will be expected to take on part-time work. Score ten and she can go full-time! All Chris knows is that she has no money in her account and her electricity supply is set to switch itself off when the meter hits zero. She’s desperate. Meanwhile, her life is supervised by ‘Able’, an Alexa-like hub that offers a commentary on everything she says and does… and may just be capable of informing on her should she ever step out of line.

Enter Ralph (Aidan Scott), the sly, smirking interrogator who will determine Chris’s future. ‘We listened,’ he keeps telling her, and then proceeds to turn her words against her. His questions are cunningly designed to trip her up and he’s on to all the received wisdom that has served her up to now (‘be you on your worst day’; ‘don’t show them you can make a cup of tea’).

This clever and prescient piece from Birds of Paradise Theatre, written by Rob Drummond and directed by Robert Softly Gale, is designed to be as accessible as possible. Able’s irksome commentary acts as a kind of audio description, while on a huge TV screen that dominates one wall, Francis (the engagingly comic Emery Hunter) helpfully translates everything into sign language. An overhead video display also offers viewers the text. I’ve rarely seen audio-visual aids so skilfully integrated; indeed, they are characters in their own right.

It’s a show of two halves. The first is essentially a taut two-hander as Chris and Ralph go through the various hoops and hurdles of the assessment. The narrative becomes increasingly adversarial and the interview builds to a frantic conclusion. As the lights go down for the interval, I ask myself where this can possibly go next.

The second act is an entirely different kind of beast, a high-powered slice of farce as new figures appear, seemingly out of nowhere. It would be wrong to give too much away but there are some wildly funny moments here, though the piece never forgets that it has an important message about disability rights to get across – something it skilfully manages without thumping me over the head.

Don’t. Make.Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Smile

01/10/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Here’s that rarest of things, a horror movie that considers itself scary enough to actually warrant an 18 certificate. In the case of Smile, a confident debut from writer/director Parker Finn, it seems perfectly justified. It’s a long while since a movie unsettled me quite as effectively as this one – and all because of the simple solid gold truth: you can spend millions on fancy effects, but nothing is quite as terrifying as somebody grinning at you.

Indeed, perhaps Grin would have been a more accurate title.

Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is working long hours at an emergency psychiatric unit and, many years after the event, she’s still haunted by memories of her mother’s death from a drugs overdose. One day a young woman called Laura Weaver (Caitlin Sasey) is admitted to the unit, clearly terrified by a series of visions she’s having, in which characters from her past are visiting her.

The people don’t say anything – they just grin at her. Then, before Rose quite knows what’s happening, Laura has committed suicide, right in front of her.

Rose is urged to take time off to rest but, as you might imagine, that’s no easy matter, because now Rose is starting to experience visions of her own. Her partner, Trevor (Jessie T Usher), is decidedly unsympathetic, telling her he hasn’t got time for such nonsense, and her sister, Holly (Gillian Sinster) – who is also troubled by what happened in the past – soon has powerful reasons to be unsympathetic too, after Rose’s memorable visit to her young son’s birthday party. Only Rose’s ex -partner, Joel (Kyle Gadner), a cop, seems to be ready to offer any kind of help…

It would be a crime to give away any more about the plot. Suffice to say that Finn handles the gradually unfolding narrative with consummate skill, aided by strong performances from the cast and a brilliantly nerve-shredding soundtrack by Christobal Tapia de Veer. Jump-scares are often over-used in films like this, but Finn manages to catch me out time and time again. What’s more, while many horror movies stigmatise those suffering from mental illness, Finn manages to use the trope in a more respectful way, walking that tricky tightrope without ever overbalancing. The title is cunningly referenced again and again, and the idea that past events can keep coming back to haunt a person is effectively demonstrated. The result is a narrative that holds me in an icy grip for almost its entire duration.

It’s therefore sad to report that, in the last five minutes or so, the film stumbles slightly, offering a shonky effects sequence that feels like an unnecessary contrivance, and a conclusion that suggests that somebody already has an eye on turning Smile into a franchise. I really hope that doesn’t happen. With such an assured first outing under his belt, I’m interested to see what other ideas Finn has, because – ending aside – this is a superior slice of horror.

Meanwhile, those who like to be terrorised by what they’re watching should strap themselves in for a wild and traumatic experience. As I leave the auditorium, I notice that a member of staff is smiling at me…

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Prey

25/09/22

Disney+

In 1987, Predator was a palpable hit for Arnold Schwarzenegger, a sci-fi action adventure so stuffed full of testosterone it felt like it was going to explode off the screen. Its titular villain, an alien hunter sporting dreadlocks and a face like a shellfish casserole, was memorable enough to prompt a series of sequels, each one less satisfying than the last. Eventually, the creature was pitted against the villain from Alien, which really should have been the end of the story. It seems obvious: if you haven’t got anything new to add to a franchise, why bother?

And then writer/director Dan Trachtenberg has a great idea. What if the alien hunter has been around for a long time? What if he visits Earth in the 1700s? What if he has all those same hi-tech weapons at his disposal but his adversaries are native Americans, armed with nothing more deadly than knives, spears, bows and arrows?

It sounds like a brilliant premise and, from the moment I hear about it, I’m in. But annoyingly, Prey doesn’t get a cinematic release and is exclusively shown on Disney+. Which more or less explains how I wind up viewing it months after its initial release.

No matter, late is better than never, right?

This is the story of Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Commanche woman who cannot see why she is expected to stay in the tipi with her mother, Aruka (Michelle Thrush), cooking and being practical, while her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), gets to head off on hunts, killing rabbits and deer for the larder and even taking on the occasional larger animal, like the pesky mountain lion that’s been causing havoc amongst the tribe. Naru practises with her weapons at every opportunity, even devising a brilliant technique employing an axe on a length of home-made rope. She wants to be ready if Taabe ever grants her the opportunity to hunt alongside him.

Then one day she sees something in the sky, something she thinks is a vision of the Thunderbird. Of course, it really marks the arrival of the alien hunter, dropping by for another of his brutal safaris. Pretty soon, he’s attacking and killing everything that moves – and it’s only a matter of time before Naru and he are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival…

There’s so much to enjoy here – Midthunder is terrific in the central role (it will be interesting to see where she goes next) and Jeff Cutter’s sumptuous location cinematography sets the scene perfectly. The action sequences are brilliantly devised and filmed, but, unlike the original film, Prey has plenty to say about the nature of hunting, how different it is when people depend upon it in order to stay alive. This point is eloquently enforced when Naru chances on a whole field of skinned buffalo, the victims of a large group of French hunters, who we meet later in the film and who clearly embody the true nature of savagery. Furthermore, there’s a cleverly constructed plot here. Everything that happens to Naru is shown for reasons that will only become fully evident in the film’s final moments. Keep an eye out for Chekov’s quicksand!

Most critics have placed Prey as the second best film in the Predator franchise, but I’d go further than that. For my money, this effort leaves Arnold’s macho swagger in the dust.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

I Came By

02/09/22

Netflix

One thing you can’t say about I Came By is that it’s predictable. Indeed, Babek Anvari’s contemporary thriller seems to go out of its way to upend the conventions of its chosen genre. The average viewer is pretty unlikely to guess where everything is ultimately headed.

Toby (George MacKay) and his best friend, Jay (Percelle Ascot), are self-styled urban guerillas, who specialise in breaking into the homes of the rich and powerful and decorating their living room walls with that titular line of graffiti. We quickly realise that Toby is a bit of a hypocrite, coming from the kind of privilege he rails so vociferously against. His Mum, Lizzie (Kelly Macdonald), is a comfortably-off psychologist and the family home in London looks decidedly swish, even if Toby never bothers to wash the dishes.

When Jay discovers that his girlfriend, Naz (Varadu Sethu), is pregnant, he decides it’s time to clean up his act and promptly bales out of the double act, so Toby has to go it alone when he breaks into the house of former judge, Hector Blake (National Treasure Hugh Bonneville, for once playing a thoroughly bad egg). Toby discovers something rather horrible in the cellar but his attempts to call out the law to sort things out come to nothing. Blake is a regular squash partner of the Chief Constable, so he’s protected. Toby decides he’ll have to take matters into his own hands…

It would perhaps be unfair to reveal anything else about the plot and I rather admire Ansari’s (and co-writer Namsi Khan’s) dogged determination to resist anything too clichéd. What’s more, I Came By has some interesting points to make about race and privilege. But there are real problems here, chiefly in the storytelling, where no figure is really allowed to come to prominence – the four main stars all seem to be playing bit parts in a pointlessly complicated narrative. There are sizeable time shifts that are not well signalled and some of the occurrences should be filed in the ‘rather unlikely’ category. My eyebrows are raised at several points.

Still, those who like to be constantly surprised may want to give this one a go. It’s arguably worth clicking the Netflix button just to watch dear old Hugh doing some really unpleasant things.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Edfest Bouquets 2022

The frenzy of the Fringe is over. It’s been beyond wonderful to see our city so vibrant again, after two quiet years. We’ve seen a startling range of exciting shows, covering many genres. We’re exhausted – but it’s not quite over yet. It’s time to award our virtual bouquets to the best performances we saw. The standard seemed higher than ever this time: has the break given writers and performers more time to sharpen their acts, or were we just lucky with the productions we chose? Either way, there were lots of contenders in each category, but we’ve narrowed them down to our favourite five.

So, without further ado, we present our choice of the best shows we saw at Edfest 2022.

THEATRE

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe (ZOO Playground)

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe is the sort of play which exemplifies the Fringe at its best. Written by Benny Ainsworth and directed by Sally Paffett (Triptytch Theatre), this ingeniously constructed monologue features Michael Parker as the titular Stuart, delivering Ainsworth’s script with consummate skill.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Summerhall)

Based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez and adapted for the stage by Dan Colley, Manus Halligan and Genevieve Hulme Beaman, this is the tale of Elisenda and Palayo, two impoverished people who live in a rickety shack on the edge of a small town. Their tale is related by Elisenda (Karen McCartney) in a deliciously sinister style. She’s aided by Palayo (Manus Halligan), who barely utters a word, but moves humbly around the stage, using a curious mixture of handicrafts and high-tech devices to illustrate the story – a series of simplistic figurines, illuminated by tiny cameras and lights, take us into their miniature world.

Sap (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Rafaella Marcus has scripted a deliciously labyrinthine tale about sexual identity (specifically bi-invisibility), one that cleverly assimilates a Greek myth into its core. The maze-like structure is beautifully captured by Jessica Clark and Rebecca Banatvala’s hyper-physical performances, directed by Jessica Lazar and Jennifer Fletcher.

Hungry (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Chris Bush’s sharply written two-hander examines the relationship between Lori (Eleanor Sutton), a chef from a relatively privileged background, and Bex (Melissa Lowe), a waitress from the local estate. Hungry is a class act, so assured that, even amidst the host of treasures on offer at this year’s Roundabout, it dazzles like a precious gem. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Assembly Roxy)

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this. Flabbergast Theatre’s eight-strong cast reel around the stage, plastered in mud and raving and flailing around like demented beings. This is a play about the madness brought on by the seductive power of hubris, so it feels entirely appropriate. It explodes, it capers, it struts its fretful stuff upon the stage and signifies plenty…

COMEDY

Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Both Samuel Barnett and Marcelo Dos Santos deserve huge praise for what is undoubtedly one of the best collaborations between writer and performer that I’ve ever witnessed. The narrator is working me like a master magician, mesmerising me, misdirecting me, even scattering a trail of clues which I somehow manage to overlook. The result? When the piece reaches its conclusion, I feel as though I’ve been punched in the solar plexus.

Kylie Brakeman: Linda Hollywood’s Guide to Hollywood (Gilded Balloon Patterhoose)

Making her Edinburgh Fringe debut, Kylie Brakeman delivers her cleverly scripted lines with consummate skill, and the whip-smart, snarky one-liners flow like honey laced with vinegar. It’s more than just a series of laughs. It also nails the cynicism and hypocrisy of the movie industry with deadly precision. I leave convinced that Brakeman (already a major name online, with over sixty million views) is destined to play much bigger venues than this one. 

Emily Wilson: Fixed (Pleasance Courtyard)

Emily Wilson’s Fixed is part musical, part stand-up and part catharsis. She appeared on The X Factor USA back in 2011, as one half of the earnestly named duo, Ausem. “Because my best friend’s called Austin, and my name’s Emily, so together we’re Ausem!” She was 15 and thought she was destined to become a star. But then she hit a snag. The judges decided they liked Austin, but not Emily… What emerges is a thoughtful commentary on fame, ambition and exploitation, and it’s riveting.

Christopher Bliss: Captain Wordseye (Pleasance Courtyard)

Christopher Bliss (Rob Carter) is a new name to me and I can only regret that it’s taken me this long to encounter him. He’s that rarest of things, a brilliant character comedian… and a literary genius to boot. I can’t wait for his words of advice on poetry, which I have long considered my Achilles heel…

The Anniversary (Pleasance Dome)

Jim (Daniel Tobias) and Barb (Clare Bartholomew) are eagerly preparing for their 50th wedding anniversary but they’re not always in control of things and some of the items in the finger buffet might better be avoided. This handsomely mounted helping of slapstick from Australian company, Salvador Dinosaur, features no real dialogue, just gibberish and the occasional mention of each other’s names – but the soundtrack is far from silent. It’s essentially a piece about the indignities of ageing, replete with references to forgetfulness, dodgy bowels and the ill-advised over-application of both prescription drugs and prunes. It ought to be tragic but it’s somehow horribly funny.

SPECIAL MENTIONS

Fills Monkey: We Will Drum You (Pleasance Courtyard)

Sebastian Rambaud and Yann Coste are two brilliant percussionists, the kind of people you imagine could go through an entire day without ever breaking beat. They begin with conventional sets of drums, hammering out thrilling polyrhythms as the audience claps along. But they have an air of competitiveness about them and the stakes keep rising. It really helps that the two percussionists are also accomplished clowns. Working under the direction of Daniél Briere, they’ve devised a show that switches back and forth through a whole series of scenarios, never lingering too long in one place to ever feel repetitive. 

Manic Street Creature (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

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. 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. When everything’s in full flow, the story takes flight and I feel myself propelled along by its urgent, rhythmic pulse.

The Ofsted Massacre (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

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. 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.

Making a Murderer: The Musical (Underbelly Bristo Square)

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. Isn’t that going to be… disrespectful? But, 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. The songs are terrific throughout, ranging from spirited rockers to plaintive ballads. What’s more, the production supports (and is supported by) The Innocence Project.

The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera (Underbelly Bristo Square)

Describing an act as ‘unique’ is often considered a cop-out, and yet I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe The Tiger Lillies, three remarkable musicians currently strutting their inimitable stuff at The Cow Barn on Bristo Square. Originally formed way back in 1989, they’ve been through a number of personnel changes over the years, though the macabre compositions of singer-songwriter Martyn Jacques have remained a constant. They describe themselves as “Brechtian Punk Cabaret”, and who am I to argue with them?

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney