Jonny Awsum: Honey, I Promised the Kid

18/08/17

Just the Tonic at the Caves, Edinburgh

When Jonny Awsum rashly promised his infant daughter that one day he’d play live at the 20,000 seater O2 Arena, little did he suspect that he was embarking on an epic quest to try and make it happen – one that would lead him in some unexpected directions.

This amiable one-man show, staged in what must be the Caves’ most salubrious room, is funny and heartwarming stuff, particularly as it’s all based on a true story and even features recorded interjections from the daughter herself (now aged six). Awsum is an engaging performer, who soon has the entire audience singing along and clapping their hands. His witty songs and amusing PowerPoint illustrations help to stitch the whole thing together,

After watching a lot of standup it’s really heartening to see a comedy performance this well-constructed and thoroughly thought-through. You’ll laugh in all the right places and marvel at the man’s evident brio. As to whether Awsum manages to deliver on that promise… well, I’m afraid you’ll have to watch the show to find out.

Suffice to say you’ll doubtless leave as I did – with a great big smile on my face.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Chris Dugdale: Up Close

17/08/17

Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

There’s no other explanation: Chris Dugdale is actually a sorcerer. He’s not a performer who’s learned a load of tricks; he can’t be, because some of what he’s doing is simply impossible. Okay, so he’s a showman and he plays along with the schtick, delivering a few crowd-pleasers that we’ve seen elsewhere and can conceive of what the trickery might be (although we still don’t know how, but we can’t have everything), but there are elements here that simply don’t make any sense – unless we accept that he’s a wizard of some sort.

I mean, I don’t know how he does that stuff with the Rubik’s cubes, but I can go along with the idea that it’s a relatively simple blend of maths or dexterity – or, indeed, trick cubes of some sort. But the tiny tin of Altoids that never leaves the table… I won’t give any spoilers, but THERE’S NO WAY A MERE HUMAN CAN ACHIEVE WHAT HE DOES HERE! 

This is the third time we’ve seen Dugdale perform, and he gets better every time (or maybe he’s just making us think that with his mind control techniques?). This year’s show, Up Close, is much more dazzling and show-bizzy; there’s an energy and pace that has us buzzing from the start. He’s clearly enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm is infectious: the crowd is lapping up his act.

If you’ve had a busy day and are feeling tired or lethargic, get yourself along to the Assembly Rooms and see Chris Dugdale if you can. He’ll have you pepped up and grinning within a few minutes – although he may leave you doubting everything you think you know…

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Amy Howerska: Goddess… *Unless Tired or Hungry

 

16/08/17

The Counting House, Edinburgh

Amy Howerska has become a regular fixture for us at the Fringe and, this time, we are determined to slot her in to our schedule earlier than before. She’s in her usual confident form as she strides out onto the tiny stage at The Counting House and begins to chat up members of the audience – she can do more with a facial expression than most other comics can manage with their entire bodies, milking us for laughs with evident ease. Then she announces she’d better get on with the actual show…

Goddess takes a scattergun approach to a variety of topics and it quickly becomes apparent that this is less thematically assured than last year’s show, Smashcat. She covers some of the terrible jobs she’s had to endure before becoming a full- time comic; discusses her new boyfriend (who is Irish) and his weird family; outlines her hatred of ‘mansplaining’ and her thoughts on the possibilities of motherhood… she segues back and forth through the topics and, if they seem unconnected, it’s because they actually are.  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of laughs to be had along the way, but there’s also the suspicion that she’s coasting a little here and maybe needs to put together a more focused hour, one that has a more cohesive theme. I have no doubt whatsoever that’s she’s entirely capable of doing that.

She ends with the usual plea to put some cash in a bucket (this is on the ‘free’ Fringe but, as she points out, it’s still costing her around two grand to be here, so please give generously), and then an assistant brings out an adorable puppy for her to hold (emotional blackmail?) and the show is over. Howerska is a gifted comic and, even if this isn’t her best show, it’s nonetheless a glorious way to spend an hour at the Fringe. Go and see it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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

Sofie Hagen: Dead Baby Frog

15/08/17

Bedlam Theatre, Bristo Place, Edinburgh

I’m looking forward to this. I first encountered Sofie Hagen via Richard Herring’s podcast, RHLSTP (RHLSTP!), and then through The Guilty Feminist. We saw Shimmer Shatter at the Liquid Rooms last year, and really enjoyed it. So I’m keen to see what she’s offering this time.

Dead Baby Frog is about (trigger warning) emotional abuse. Specifically, it’s about Sofie’s step-grandfather, with whom she lived as a child, and his cruel, controlling ways. He sounds awful – a narcissistic, bullying man, with a fragile ego and a short fuse – and his behaviour has clearly had a huge impact on Hagen’s life.

It’s horribly fascinating, and yet somehow Dead Baby Frog feels like something of a missed opportunity: there’s definitely a good show in there, but it’s not yet fully realised. It’s not bad exactly – this is Sofie Hagen, after all, and there’s no denying she’s a funny woman who knows how to get a crowd onside – but it never really grows beyond its anecdotal origins. She says, “It’s not about me; it’s about people like me,” but doesn’t extrapolate anything from her own story. Nor does she really mine the situation for maximum comedy (which, admittedly, would be hard to do); it’s as though she needs to dig a little deeper to make this into a finished show.

She’s at her most confident and amusing when she’s on familiar ground: the Westlife bit is easily the most engaging. And there are moments when she hints at the profundity that might be there to be unearthed: the crossed fingers, the baby frogs, the art.

I’d be interested to see where this show ends up, assuming she tours it. And I’ll still be watching to see what she does next.

3 stars

Susan Singfield