Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids

12/08/18

Pleasance Dome (Queen), Edinburgh

Kafka? For kids? Really? It doesn’t sound like a goer, to be honest. But – it turns out – Kafka can indeed be repurposed for kids, and rendered funny and entertaining for adults too.

I’m vaguely familiar with Kafka’s work. I first encountered Die Verwandlung while studying for a degree in German literature, and then – during a second degree course, this time in theatre studies – met up with its English translation (Metamorphosis) via Berkoff’s infamous production. I’ve read The Trial, too, and The Castle, but not recently; in short, I know just about enough to be sure that Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids will have to pull something rather special out of the bag if it is to hit its mark. And does it? Oh yes, it really does.

The show is a delight from start to finish, the deceptive simplicity of the knockabout comedy concealing some clever structural stuff, and layered references to Kafka’s obsessions and stylistic tics. It’s all there: humanity-crushing bureaucracy, alienation, despair. There’s poverty too, and hope – and much absurdity. And, in Tom Parry (he of Pappy’s fame)’s script, it all comes together to make a genuinely funny and illustrative hour of fun – for all the family.

Parry stars in the show as well, as Karl, the hapless entertainer who’s inadvertently robbed a Royal Mail van, the contents of which serve as makeshift set and props. He’s joined by Will Adamsdale, who plays the troupe’s frustrated leader, Karter, and Heidi Niemi (Kat), who speaks Finnish throughout. The trio are interrupted, intermittently, by the marvellous Rose Robinson (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats in Great British Mysteries: 1599? earlier this week), who plays a series of officious bureaucrats, each one more demanding than the last.

We’re introduced to miserable tales, where Poseidon is crushed by the weight of his paperwork, where a bridge loses faith in its ability to connect. We’re drawn in, made accomplices; we tell lies to officials to protect the performers. The kids in the audience are utterly enthralled. We don’t have any kids with us, but we are entranced too.

It’s a rainy day, so numbers are down; it’s a shame to see so many empty seats when the material is as good as this. Any families out there looking for something quirky, something different – I urge you to give this a go.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

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Ishka

11/08/18

Morrison Street, Edinburgh

Four years ago today, we got married – so we take an evening off from reviewing so we can celebrate (we don’t see fewer shows, we just cram them in earlier) and take ourselves off to Ishka on nearby Morrison Street, where we order a bottle of New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and plan to take things very easy. There’s a card on our table wishing us a happy anniversary, which is a lovely touch, and sets the tone for the friendly service we receive all evening.

There are some interesting flourishes on the menu: the artisanal bread, for instance, comes with tomato butter, which sounds like something we’ll enjoy. Sadly, though, this is a bit of a let down – the butter is nice enough, but the bread has been sliced too thinly and clearly left out for a while, so that it’s dry and unappetising.

Still, we fare better with the rest of what we order. Philip has a pigeon breast to start, which comes with berry jam, a black pudding croquette, diced beetroot candy and a pistachio nut soil. It’s delicious: rich and strongly flavoured, and beautifully presented. I have asparagus and chicken, accompanied by a boiled egg and a lemon and flaked almond dressing; it’s as light and refreshing as it sounds, and I enjoy every mouthful.

Philip’s main course is lamb rump; the meat is very good, but the star of the show is the pearl barley and button mushroom cream broth it’s served on, a robust yet delicately flavoured base. I have Atlantic cod: the fish is perfectly cooked, and I even find myself enjoying the accompanying garlic and coriander poached fennel, although it’s not a vegetable I usually like. The ‘layer potato cake’ is a little dry, but all in all, it’s a decent plate.

The puddings sound more sumptuous on the menu than they are in reality; there’s nothing at all wrong with either Philip’s apple and chocolate (apple compôte, light sponge with crème pat and chocolate ice cream, caramel sauce and nut clusters) or my elderflower and raspberry (elderflower cheesecake, raspberry macaron, muesli soil, peach crisps and peach purée), but nor are they as lip-smackingly, groaningly wonderful as a good pud can be.

We eschew coffee, heading out to the pub instead, for a final drink and a cheers to us. Ishka is a friendly, stylish place, and we’ve enjoyed our evening.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Stardust

 

11/08/18

Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

Stardust is all about cocaine – its history, its usage, its properties. It’s about the way a tribal drug, used for thousands of years in religious ceremonies has been taken up by the Western world, exploited and commodified; how people are enslaved by it, murdered because of it and how casual users across the Western world, no matter how they might protest, now have blood on their hands. Make no mistake, this is a hard-hitting piece.

Our MC for this show is Miguel Hernando Torres Umba, a charismatic artist/performer making his debut at the Fringe. He uses many different techniques to get his story across. There are dreamy back projections, and ethereal music. For one section he adopts the persona of a game show host and gets the entire audience to interact with him. In another, he spoofs the famous scene from Scarface where Pacino takes all those bullets. Oh, and did I mention that he’s also an incredible dancer? One section where he depicts, through dance, the way that cocaine acts on the senses is a real highlight for me. He dances like he’s just inadvertently stepped on a 60,000 volt cable… leaping and scrambling around the stage until the inevitable comedown hits him and everything goes eerily into slow motion.

There are plenty of laughs scattered throughout this exciting multi-media show, but it clearly has a very serious message. Umba now lives in London, but was born in Colombia and is understandably sick of the way his nation is habitually depicted, how everybody in the West assumes that his countrymen are all drug dealers. He demonstrates very effectively how the people that grow coca are themselves victims of the organised crime that has grown up around the harvesting of the plant. There are the harrowing testimonies of people too scared not to grow it, people who have seen their relatives tortured and murdered in order to make them obey.

This is a powerful polemic delivered as a slice of entertainment, sharp enough and affecting enough to change hearts and minds. Go and see this and, whatever your views on cocaine, prepare to be enlightened.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Gulliver Returns

11/08/18

Underbelly (Big Belly), Cowgate, Edinburgh

Gulliver Returns, written and directed by Dan Coleman, is an interesting piece of work. We first meet Lil (Cathy Conneff), whose introduction warns us that her husband, Adam (Jack Bence), has recently started demanding that she call him Lemuel Gulliver, and that he identifies completely with the protagonist of Swift’s most famous book.

What follows is a clever interweaving of Gulliver’s Travels and Adam’s apparent breakdown, the novel serving as an allegory for Adam’s struggle to cope with bereavement, with loss. Lil humours him, supports him, helps him to tell his tall tales – because she loves him and she wants him to be well. As Gulliver, he moves ever further away from her; by joining in his stories, she tries to draw him back.

It’s serious stuff, with a lot to say about mental health as well as an analysis of a fine piece of literature. But it’s funny too – often laugh out loud – as Lil mediates Lemuel’s pomposity, punctures his self-aggrandisement and sets him right on a few things.

Both actors are first-rate, actually; we are drawn into the horror of their disintegrating marriage, fearing for them even as we laugh at their antics. And there’s some innovative use of puppetry, the Houyhnhnm in particular a curious spectacle. The set – three bookcases and a stool – is remarkably effective, conveying oceans as well as living rooms, simultaneously vast and stifling.

The only thing that lets this down is the venue: there’s water dripping on the bare concrete stairs that lead up to Big Belly, and it stinks in there of damp and mould. But still, it’s worth steeling yourself and putting up with the fetid air for this quirky, fascinating play.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

A Substitute For Life

11/08/18

Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

A Substitute For Life is an intriguing monologue, written by Simon Brett and performed by Tim Hardy. It’s the story of Francis Kenworthy, a man who has largely abandoned life in order to subsume himself in his greatest passion: books. When we enter the venue, we find him already seated at his desk, surrounded by his beloved tomes. The lights dim and, by candlelight, he tells us his story – about his passion for the work of Wilkie Collins, about his harsh upbringing at the hands of an uncaring father and a cruel governess. He tells us about his brother, who received all the attention, the one who was destined to be the heir, while Francis was merely the ‘spare.’ But of course, time has a habit of correcting the best-laid plans of controlling fathers and this is no exception.

There’s the feel of a Victorian ghost story about this production, though it doesn’t feature any supernatural happenings, unless of course, you include Hardy’s performance, which is absolutely spellbinding. As Kenworthy’s tale unfolds, the audience are drawn closer into his confidence and, despite the fact that he is not the most pleasant of characters, given to the kind of prejudices that were so prevalent at the time, still we fully empathise with his situation – which makes the story’s conclusion all the more powerful – and it would be unfair of me to reveal anything more than that.

Directed by Alison Skilbeck (Hardy’s wife, whose  Are There More of You? is showing in the same venue and with which this would make an excellent double bill), A Substitute For Life is an object lesson in how to deliver a monologue. It also leads me to remark on the way out, that it seems unfair to have so much talent in one family.

But talent there undoubtedly is, and you’ll find it in abundance at the Assembly Hall.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Aye, Elvis

10/08/18

Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

Joyce Falconer stars as Joanie in Morna Young’s engaging play. Joanie’s world is dreary and dull: she bickers daily with her housebound mum, and dreams of something more exciting than her supermarket checkout job. Singing karaoke at the local pub leads to an obsession with Elvis, and she sets herself up as a tribute act, drawn into the cameraderie of online chat groups dedicated to the King. Encouraged by Fat Bob, the pub landlord, she sets out on an ambitious project that is sure to change her life.

Aye, Elvis is a big hit with tonight’s (largely Scottish) audience, who are vocally appreciative throughout, joining in with the big numbers, clapping and laughing and generally enjoying what they see. It’s not hard to see why: this is entertaining, feelgood stuff: silly and poignant and hilarious throughout. Falconer clearly has a strong fan-base here; she has a twinkle in her eye, and seems to be relishing her time on this small stage. Karen Ramsey makes the most of some deliciously acerbic lines as Joanie’s crabby mum, and David McGowan’s Fat Bob is a charming, calming presence.

Dazzlingly costumed and played for laughs, this is a lot of fun, and definitely worth making a trip to see. It even gets a standing ovation from the crowd – the first we’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Garrett Millerick: Sunflower

10/08/08

The Tron, Edinburgh

Garrett Millerick is a bit of a favourite with Bouquets & Brickbats. Last year, with The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of, he seemed to be in a very dark place indeed, delivering a set that pulsed with anger and derision. It’s a happier, healthier looking man who steps onto the tiny stage of the Tron, to deliver his latest creation, Sunflower, a title that also seems to suggest we’re in for a brighter experience, this time around. Sure enough, within moments of his very first utterance, the audience is howling with laughter.

Which is ironic when you consider that later on, the show incorporates a moment of such intense personal pain that, for a few moments, we’re literally shocked into stunned silence. The way Millerick expertly reels us back towards the laughs is a testament to his skills as a raconteur. Few comedians can manage to walk such a slippery tightrope quite so effortlessly.

As Millerick is quick to point out, the titles of Fringe shows are decided on long before August – and indeed, it had been his intention to bring something happier this time around. But life has a way of intervening in people’s best-laid plans and Millerick has done a great job of snatching triumph from the jaws of adversity. What he presents instead is a kind of meta-comedy, laying bare the show’s construction, and inviting us to consider the nature of humour.

This show mixes elements of humour and despair with great aplomb. It also features a certain Chesney Hawkes song to great effect. You want to know how? You’ll find the answer at the Tron.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney