A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

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

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

13/08/22

Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh

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. After three days of relentless rain, they are out killing crabs, which they believe are making their baby sick. And then they make an unusual find in their muddy courtyard. It’s… well, the clue’s in the title.

The ensuing events are related mostly 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.

The simplest techniques are often the most effective: a sweater pulled off and tucked into an elbow becomes a baby; a pair of black gloves and a frame transforms McCartney into a spider-woman. Handfuls of feathers are periodically blown around the stage by a strategically placed fan. While all this might sound underwhelming on paper, the result is genuinely enchanting and the magical atmosphere is heightened by haunting soundscapes, whispers, susurrations and chants, created on loop recordings by the performers as the action progresses.

Marquez’s subtext is that humanity rarely cherishes that which it does not understand. Elisenda and Pelayo treat the angel – for this is what we assume him to be – with cruelty, locking him up, earning money by allowing the people of the local town to pay to look at him, even branding him with a hot iron to make him their property. Somehow we feel genuine pity for a tiny figure made of wire and string.

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes this such a powerful and moving experience, but that’s exactly what it is – a spellbinding slice of storytelling, so brilliantly conceived and engineered that it makes the incredible seem real. You’ll believe a man can fly.

5 stars

Philip Caveney