Assembly George Square

Myra’s Story

26/08/21

Palais du Variete, Assembly, George Square Gardens, Edinburgh

Myra’s Story is a compelling play, and Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley is perfectly cast, delivering the ninety-minute monologue with wit and aplomb.

Myra’s story is a commonplace tragedy: she’s an alcoholic on the streets of Dublin, drinking to numb herself, to mask her problems. But, in the words of John Irving (and, later, Voice of the Beehive), ‘sorrow floats’ – and Myra soon discovers that she can’t drown her emotions in vodka. Instead, her troubles multiply, and she finds herself homeless, stumbling from hostel to park bench and back again. She’s the woman on the street from whom we avert our collective gaze, but here, in Brian Foster’s play, we are forced to look. To listen. To learn about the person behind the bottle. To see that she is just like us.

Hewitt-Twamley’s performance is flawless; she has a particular gift for eliciting empathy, as well as for delivering an impressive range of other voices. Foster’s writing is strong, and the story matters (it’s wonderful to see that the production has two Edinburgh homelessness charities as partners, namely Social Bite and Steps to Hope).

There’s only one problem here, and it’s the venue.

This is an intimate but popular play, which always poses a conundrum: it’s difficult to find a space that can accommodate a large audience as well as allowing the personal, confidential nature of the material to shine. Some compromise is needed. However, the Palais du Variete is not a compromise: it’s just wrong. It’s a huge brash place, gorgeously mirrored and with a large bar area, perfect for a late night variety show, and utterly wrong for a lunchtime monologue. There’s a party-vibe that seems at odds with the play; this is surely a piece that demands our full attention, but most people are clearly out for a laugh, knocking back pints of beer or glasses of wine, and there are loads of latecomers, trooping past us again and again, obscuring our view. Then there’s the endless trips to the bar and the toilet, causing further disruption, so we keep missing little moments and nuances.

I’m also irritated, I have to admit, by the fact that there are is no mention (beyond a pre-recorded line that everyone talks over) of the fact that masks are still a legal requirement here in Scotland, and that – apart from when people are actually drinking – they should be worn throughout the performance. Almost every other Fringe venue (including other Assembly sites) has someone on the door politely reminding people, and the vast majority comply. Here, it’s ignored, and the audience take their cue from that. It doesn’t feel particularly safe.

So there’s a disconnect between the quality of the play and the quality of the experience. The star rating below is for an excellent script, delivered with consummate skill. But I won’t be going back to the Palais du Variete.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Styx

14/08/21

Assembly Speigeltent, George Square, Edinburgh

Styx was a palpable hit at the Fringe in 2019, when it featured eight musicians performing in a medium-sized venue. For obvious reasons, this reprise of the show has been severely stripped back and now there’s just singer/ songwriter Max Barton and multi instrumentalist, Jethro Cooke, performing the piece in the much more spacious Spiegeltent. The duo have used low lighting to try and give a cosier feel but, inevitably, there’s a distancing effect for something that requires so much intimacy and, though the production mostly manages to take flight, it occasionally loses impetus and falters.

There are various strands to this elaborate piece of gig theatre: perhaps too many, because they don’t all gel. On the plus side there’s the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (hence the title), which Barton occasionally relates using a voice synthesiser. There’s also the story of his grandmother, Flora, stricken by Alzheimer’s after losing her musician husband, years ago, to the same illness.The recordings of her voice provide some of the production’s most tender and affecting moments.

Less successfully, there are Barton’s memories of a fruitless attempt to track down his grandparents’ old haunt, The Orpheus Club, and also Cooke’s observations about the nature of memory (and the ways in which different parts of the brain store and synthesise it), which feel as though they’ve been lifted directly from a medical textbook.

Luckily, we have Barton’s lyrical, plaintive songs, nicely augmented by Cooke’s pulsing synthesisers and percussion. I’d enjoy them even more if they weren’t punctuated by the sounds of a louder, brasher show drifting in from another venue on George Square.

In the end Styx feels like the curate’s egg – good in parts – and I still have the over-riding conviction that, in a more intimate venue, it would be even better. As if to bear this out, I chat with a barman at the Cameo afterwards who remembers being knocked out by the show in its original incarnation. ‘I remember it,’ he says. ‘It was brilliant. All those musicians onstage, there was hardly room to move.’ Ah well.

The pandemic has enforced many changes, and Styx appears to be another of its victims.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Flo & Joan: Before the Screaming Starts

25/08/19

Assembly George Square Gardens (Piccolo), Edinburgh

Our penultimate Edinburgh show is chosen simply by virtue of its convenenient time slot, rather than for the act itself. The truth is, I know very little of Flo and Joan’s work, other than the quirky advertisements for the Nationwide that first brought them to wider attention. They are clearly having a very good Fringe. The Piccolo tent is completely sold out and, when comedy luminaries like Hannah Gadsby and Alan Davies are sitting in the audience, it’s evident they’re doing something right.

Flo and Joan (real names Nicola and Rosie Dempsy) are an eccentric sister-act who specialise in amusing songs about everyday experiences – waiting for a parcel delivery, for instance, is something we’re all much too familiar with, but they manage to take the song into unexpected, fantastical realms. They have a sharper edge too. The song addressed to anti-vaxxers doesn’t take any prisoners.

There’s something very endearing about this duo. I love the silent, accusatory stares they direct at a few hapless latecomers. ‘The show loses momentum when we talk,’ says Flo. It doesn’t, but I feel almost contractually obliged to say it does, after their references to what other critics have said about them. Actually, I enjoy their deadpan patter.

The theme of this (if there is one) is siblings who sing together. The Osmonds, The Bee Gees, Bros, etc. That title, of course, is a reference to the recent so-bad-it’s-good  documentary about the Brothers Goss. But really, this is just a series of amusing ditties, skilfully played and nicely sung; when the sister’s harmonise, it’s clear that their voices were made for each other. If I were to make a comparison with any other comedian, it would be with the late great Victoria Wood. Flo and Joan seem to share her delicious sense of the ridiculous, her flair for amusing one liners.

At any rate, this is their last night in Edinburgh, so if you’re planning to catch them, it will have to be somewhere else. Wherever you encounter them, you’re likely to enjoy the experience.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Post-Mortem

05/08/19

Assembly George Square (Studio Five), Edinburgh

Post-Mortem is the story of Nancy (Essie Barrow) and Alex (Iskandaar R Sharazuddin)’s teenage relationship, and the awkwardness of meeting as adults, ten years after splitting up. They have some serious unresolved issues, but is their best friends’ wedding really the appropriate place to finally confront these demons?

Both Barrow and Sharazuddin are deeply focused performers, with a physical intensity that suits this intimate play. Sharazuddin also wrote the piece, and he deploys some exquisite (and sometimes deliberately cringey) wordplay; the language is spare but poetic, the characters’ emotions deftly drawn. Nancy and Alex are not always likeable; they’re difficult and flawed – and that’s what makes this work.

The non-chronological structure is complex, but handled so well that we’re never in any doubt as to where and when we are. The show slips in time, and it slips in tone too: one moment laugh-out-loud funny, the next poignant and sad. These changing moods are as expertly choreographed as the dance sequences that punctuate the play.

Under Jessica Rose McVay’s assured direction, this is an impressive piece of work.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Sarah Kendall: Paper Planes

02/08/19

Assembly George Square (Studio 2), Edinburgh

The Fringe is a yearly delight for us, a great big box of chocolates with next to no labelling, so we never really know what to expect. We’re always on the lookout for fresh, exciting new acts, but there are also a few stalwarts we return to again and again, mostly I suppose, because they represent the nearest we’ll ever get to a guarantee of quality.

Sarah Kendall is one of those stalwarts. We first saw her in 2015 with the quietly devastating A Day in October and we’ve gone back to drink at the same well every year since. If Paper Planes doesn’t quite achieve the heights of her finest work, it nonetheless features her unique blend of ascerbic comedy and intriguing storytelling and I can think of few better ways to spend an hour than in her excellent company.

A story told in four chapters, topped and tailed by a prologue and an epilogue, the latest show is an apparently scattershot narrative that takes in a whole series of diverse experiences: Sarah telling bedtime stories to her daughter, telling lies to her agent and being generally appalled by the things her (weirdly voiced) mother says on the phone. She spends time in American hotels as she travels to LA touting for work, all the while trying to motivate herself to write the book for which she’s accepted a large advance. As she goes, she reflects on world events, commenting on the dangerous lurch to the right that seems to be happening in the Western world and worrying that she should be doing something to address the situation.

It’s a wide-ranging piece but – with unerring skill – she manages to find the funny in all of her subjects, nailing them one-by-one with her rapier wit. She even manages to tie all those supposedly loose threads together to achieve a satisfying and genuinely heartwarming conclusion.

If you haven’t experienced Sarah Kendall yet, then this is surely the perfect year to address that situation. Go and see her for yourself. You’ll be engaged, surprised and entertained, but the one thing you won’t be is disappointed.

4.6 stars 

Philip Caveney

Beep Boop

02/08/19

Assembly, George Square (Blue Room), Edinburgh

Physical comedy is one of the hardest things to pull off successfully. Because its practitioners sometimes make it look ridiculously easy, we’re sometimes fooled into thinking that it actually is; but it only takes a few moments in the company of a gifted mime artist to appreciate how rigorously they have trained themselves to reach such levels of perfection. New York-based performer Richard Saudek is a brilliant exponent of the form. And today, in a very hot enclosed space on the Edinburgh Fringe, it certainly doesn’t look easy. The sweat is literally raining from him as he manipulates his face and body into a whole range of frantic contortions.

In Beep Boop, Saudek plays a man addicted to his own technology: his phone, his tablet, his laptop; he cannot seem to tear himself away from them. Locked up in his apartment, he appears to have lost the skill of maintaining a genuine friendship. A knock on the door is treated with open hostility. The voice of a woman offering beauty tips online is the closest he ever gets to a conversation. He cannot even make a meal without photographing it, sharing it online and then dumping it in the bin.

This is a hard act to review, simply because every move, every gesture, tells us something new about this man’s tortured character. Aided only by a series of sound effects -provided by a po-faced female assistant – Saudek flings himself through a series of manic vaudevillian twists as his beloved devices subsume him, affect him and ultimately attempt to destroy him. And if I’m in danger of making the whole thing sound a bit on the grim side, don’t be misled. This is brilliantly, howlingly funny stuff. Saudek’s range of facial expressions alone are enough to have me in stitches.

Weirdly, for me, much of the humour comes from recognising myself in this weird mix. Saudek’s character exhibits traits that are uncomfortably familiar – and in a way, that’s the real strength of what he accomplishes here. It’s like looking at yourself in a funfair mirror.

If you like mime and physical theatre, then don’t miss this show. You’ll be in for a treat.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2018

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Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Another year, another plethora of exciting theatre. We’ve been moved, motivated and mesmerised by so much of what we’ve seen. And here, in order of viewing, are our favourites of 2018.

The Belle’s Stratagem – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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This production looked ravishing, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Fast, furious and frenetic, this was a real crowd-pleaser.

Rhinoceros – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it was prescient. There were some great comic turns, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music added to the mood of transformation.

Creditors – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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We thought we’d seen all we wanted of Strindberg, but Creditors made us think again. Because this production was a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminated and animated the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas.

Sunshine on Leith – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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Sunshine On Leith was an absolute charmer. From the opening chords of the climactic I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the entire audience was delightedly clapping hands and stamping feet with a force that seemed to shake the beautiful old theatre to its very foundations.

Home, I’m Darling – Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

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A clever play, with a lot to say. Katherine Parkinson starred as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. Through her brittle fetishisation of the past, the script laid bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence and looked at the present with an eye that matched Judy’s gimlet cocktail.

Not in Our Neighbourhood – Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

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This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackled the difficult subject of domestic abuse and featured an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We saw some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this was singularly impressive.

Six the Musical – Udderbelly, Edinburgh

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An inventive and exuberant pop-opera, which felt like the most exciting, vibrant history lesson ever. The band and actors powered effortlessly through a whole range of different musical styles, from straight pop to power ballad, from soul to Germanic disco. The songs featured witty lyrics which related the women’s experiences in modern day terms – and we’ve been obsessed with them ever since.

The Swell Mob – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

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The most genuinely immersive theatrical experience we’ve ever been part of. We were free to wander the 1830s tap room, replete with a real bar, and mix with a whole host of extraordinary characters: a crooked American doctor, a fortune teller, a soldier, a card-player… The more we engaged, the more was revealed… Superb and truly innovative.

Macbeth – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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We were relieved and delighted that this touring production was so good. We knew that this interpretation of the play had been quite controversial, but it really worked for us. It captured the very essence of Macbeth and illuminated the themes and characters with great clarity.

The Unreturning – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them, simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. The haunting prose was augmented by incredible physicality as the actors ran, leapt, clambered and whirled around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves.

Beauty and the Beast – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, we were treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it was so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes had us roaring with laughter.

Mouthpiece – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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Powered by searing performances from Neve Macintosh and Lorn MacDonald, Mouthpiece was, quite simply, an astonishing play. Kieran Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brought the two protagonists head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

 

 

Chris Dugdale: Up Close!

26/08/18

Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

The three week blitz that is the Edinburgh Fringe is finally, tragically, coming to a close. On George Street, workers are already taking down the helter skelter and dismantling the outdoor bars. We can’t help feeling a twinge of sadness. For us, this is the busiest time of year, but also the most exciting. In all likelihood, the next show we see will be the last one of Edfringe 2018.

With this in mind, we’re not taking any chances. We want to be sure that our final show will be something that will amaze and delight us. We need a shot of something magical – and Chris Dugdale is a pretty safe bet to deliver the goods. Born in France, based in New York and a regular visitor to the Fringe, his shows combine dazzling sleight of hand, with mind bending manipulation and a slick, polished delivery. We love his droll delivery, his winning way with the people he brings onto the stage.

OK, so this year’s show incorporates many of the elements from last year’s – there are those complex card tricks, performed mere inches from disbelieving onlookers. There’s that little tin that somehow magically refills itself with different contents. There’s that thing he does with a Rubik’s cube… I mean, how? Somebody tell me how! And for 2018, he’s added a brand new illusion called ‘The Triangle,’ in which he manages to manipulate three people picked from the sell-out audience into arriving at the same conclusion.

It’s a phenomenally entertaining hour, so packed with incident that it sprints by like an athlete at full stretch. We gasp, we shake our heads, we applaud. And I tell myself that this year, there’s no way he’s going to make me put the tips of my index fingers together… no way at all. And once again, he makes me do it.

It’s already too late for me to urge you to go and see this show – but I’m looking forward to Edinburgh 2019.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Swell Mob

 

 

24/08/18

Assembly Underground, Edinburgh

Down in an underground car park just off George Square, something spectacular awaits. It’s here that Flabbergast Theatre have recreated an 1830s tap room, replete with a real bar (beer and wine is served in pewter tankards for extra authenticity, although they do accept decidedly non-Victorian contactless payment). The place is inhabited by a whole host  of extraordinary characters: a crooked American doctor, a fortune teller, a soldier, a card-player… the list goes on.

The result is the most genuinely immersive theatrical experience I’ve ever been part of. Unlike some immersive shows, where audiences are led from one scenario to the next, here I am free to wander amidst the crowd, spending the bundle of fake pound notes I am given on arrival. I can use them to buy services, to find the answers to questions I might have, even – in my case – to bribe my way into a bare-knuckle boxing match in the adjoining room.

This kind of thing is tailor-made for the adventurous viewer. The more you put into it, the more you’ll enjoy the experience – and I’m sure it’s safe to say that you could visit this show again and again and never have the same experience twice. Highlights of my visit are the aforementioned boxing match (I actually win some money!), a rousing routine, where I am invited to dance and sing along with members of the cast and a spirited altercation between a young bible-lover and her tormentor, where I feel I should step in and referee.

I love this! It’s one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. It’s just a shame that I have waited until the Fringe was nearly over to go and see it. With just a couple of chances left to grab a ticket, I would urge any jaded festival-goers to get down to the Assembly and wallow in the delights of this atmospheric production.

And, if you can work out exactly why everybody flinches when that bell rings, please let me know!

5 stars

Philip Caveney

John Hegley

09/08/18

Assembly Studios, George Square

Standing in the queue for this show, I can’t help noting that, almost unbelievably, 2018 marks John Hegley’s 30th anniversary as a performer. My mind inevitably flashes back to the first time I saw him, at a working men’s club somewhere on the outskirts of Manchester. It was the late 1980s and a friend had dragged me along, assuring me that I was going to see something ‘pretty special.’ There was a raffle, I remember, and a cataclysmically unfunny compere… and my expectations were on a level with a crocodile’s belly.

And then, on strode John Hegley. He opened with a poem about a farting dog and I remember laughing so hard I  almost pulled a muscle. Happy days.

And here we are, all these years later, and Hegley really hasn’t changed that much. Not that I want him to. His gigs really are rather unique, giving the impression of a  ramshackle happening, when in reality, of course, his years of experience have taught him exactly how to handle any audience. On he trots with the demeanour of a grumpy school teacher, not even trying to hide his disappointment at today’s rather meagre gathering. He puts on a shiny hat and launches into a song about Guillemots (which let’s face it are seriously underrepresented at the Fringe), issuing us with complicated hand movements to accompany each line. He pauses periodically to draw our attention to any latecomers as they try to quietly sneak in, making them part of the show, telling them off and yet, somehow, drawing them to his side.

On the face of it, it’s very straightforward stuff. There are short poems from different points of his career, some songs, which we are invited… no, commanded to join in with and, because he has the use of a very large stage, he even throws in a bit of dancing, bringing people up from the crowd so he can instruct them in some half-remembered routine. It doesn’t lead anywhere, but hey, he has to use that big stage somehow, right?

And just when you think it’s all going to be lightweight stuff, he throws in a poem about his parents which is genuinely poignant, before leading us into a spirited singalong about the estate in Luton where he grew up. (He assigns us really difficult accompanying parts to sing on the chorus. Of course he does.)

This is affable and entertaining stuff. It won’t change your life or make the earth move, but you’ll have a really nice time and you’ll laugh a lot. Which is not to be underestimated.

I hope Hegley is around for many years to come, doing what he does so well.

4 stars

Philip Caveney