Assembly George Square

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

 

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Zoo

05/08/18

Assembly, George Square

Zoo is a charming and extremely likeable play, inspired by real events and sensitively acted by Lily Bevan and Lorna Beckett. Its greatest strength lies in the characterisations of two very different people, who both harbour incidents in their pasts that have shaped the women they have become.

Bonnie (Bevan, who also wrote the script) is the ever-smiling, ever-optimistic keeper at a wildlife centre in Miami. As Hurricane Hector bears inexorably down on the sanctuary where she’s based, she works frantically to keep her animal friends safe from harm, whilst simultaneously attempting to record an interview with CNN. Meanwhile, in North Yorkshire, dour and practical Carol (Beckett) dutifully guides school children around the bat sanctuary that is closest to her heart.

The women are unlikely friends – they met when they were both on a course at Chester Zoo and have stayed in contact ever since. Clearly they have recognised something in each other, something unspoken that makes them form a bond. Each of them prefers the company of animals to humans – and both will be touched by tragedy as the hurricane approaches. If the flashback sequences in the final third slow things down a tad,  there’s nonetheless, a heartfelt conclusion that sends you away with a smile.

Directed by Hamish MacDougall, and simply staged, this is a poignant yet often amusing tale about heroism and the power of friendship.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Dominoes

04/08/18

Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh

Phoebe McIntosh’s monologue, Dominoes, is a thought-provoking, engaging piece of work, a prime example of how this particular form lends itself so well to the Fringe. It tells the tale of Layla McKinnon, a young history teacher whose fiancé shares her surname, a quirk of fate that first amuses them but soon threatens their relationship. Layla is mixed race, ‘in the middle’, not particularly interested in racial politics. But revelations about her ancestry force her to consider how the past shapes the present, to make decisions about who she is and how she wants to live.

It’s a weighty subject, but it’s handled here with wit and warmth; McIntosh is a charismatic performer, and there are laughs a-plenty alongside the serious stuff. This is not a judgemental piece; all of the characters in Layla’s story are given space to air their disparate views, which effectively gives us – the audience – permission to interrogate our own identities, our own preconceptions, our own ideas of who we want to be.

The direction, by Stephen Wrentmore, is sprightly; there’s a real lightness of touch. Layla’s wedding dress, for example, dangling from a coat hanger, serves as a reminder throughout of what’s at stake, almost like the ghost of a character, Layla’s potential future self.

An intimate play for an intimate venue; McIntosh deserves to play to a full house every day. Take the opportunity to check this one out. It’s really very good.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Theatre Bouquets 2017

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Once again we have been wowed by some fantastic theatre this year. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of 2017.

The Winter’s Tale – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter's Tale

This thrilling, modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play was dynamic and audacious – with the whole fourth act recast in Scots. We loved every minute of it, especially Maureen Beattie’s performance as Paulina.

Chess: The Musical  – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Chess

The students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland thrilled the audience with a skilful display of all things theatrical. We loved the sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras) and choral singing that sent chills down our spines.

Nell Gwyn – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwyn\

This superb production of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy was a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through to the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this was fabulous to behold.

Death of a Salesman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Death of a Salesman

It was the direction that made this production so good: Abigail Graham did a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. And Nicholas Woodeson was perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality.

The Toxic Avenger – Pleasance One, Edinburgh

The Toxic Avenger

A musical in the same vein that made Little Shop of Horrors such a pleasure, The Toxic Avenger was an unqualified delight, romping happily along powered by its own exuberance and the efforts of a stellar cast, who gave this everything they had – and then some.

The Power Behind the Crone – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone

This was a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. Alison Skilbeck had absolute control of the material and created an impressive range of distinct, believable characters.

Seagulls – The Leith Volcano, Edinburgh

Volcano Theatre SEagulls at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This was the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre we saw this year. Site-specific productions – when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this (we were in an abandoned church, which had been flooded with forty-five tons of water) – can be truly exciting, and this one had a lot to offer.

Safe Place – Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place

Safe Place provided a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asked (and answered) many questions, all within the framework of a nuanced and intelligent play.

Angels in America: NT Live – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Angels In America

Clocking in at just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s play offered us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic. A truly iconic piece of theatre.

Twelfth Night/Romeo & Juliet – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Twelfth Night

Romeo & Juliet

Merely Theatre gave us some ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare, performing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep. The plays featured only five actors and the casting was gender-blind. It all made for an interesting dynamic and prompted us to re-examine familiar scenes.

Cockpit – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Cockpit

Cockpit was a witty, clever play, which saw the Lyceum transformed into a truly immersive space.  Director Wils Wilson served up a fascinating piece of theatre: arresting, thought-provoking, provocative and demanding – and it kept us talking for hours afterwards.

Cinderella – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Cinderella

We never thought a pantomime would feature in any ‘best of’ list of ours but, for the second year running, the King’s Theatre’s stalwarts managed to wow us. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott knew exactly how to work their audience, and the special effects were truly spectacular.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Shappi Khorsandi: Mistress and Misfit

19/08/17

Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh

‘I don’t think you should be allowed to review a prostitute until you’ve seen her – live – at least three times,’ says Shappi, near the top of her show. Pause. ‘Or a comedian.’ So maybe I shouldn’t be writing this at all, as Mistress and Misfit is my first foray into her live work, although of course I’m well aware of her, having seen and heard her on countless TV and radio shows, as well as comedy podcasts. I’ve enjoyed these, but I concede her point: the Shappi we see here, with a full sixty minutes to flex her comedy muscles, and without the constraints of a TV format, is far superior. Sometimes you think you know what you’re going to get, and then you realise there’s so much more. (I’m sure the same applied to 18th century sex-workers too.)

As the Fringe wears on, I’m becoming increasingly drawn to comedy with a distinctive theme or arc, and growing impatient with shows comprising random bits cobbled together in a bid to make up an hour. It’s so much more satisfying to see something that utilises the form: a carefully crafted piece that fits the time and space. Shows like this, where the skill and effort are apparent, deserve a decent audience. And, I’m glad to say, Ms Khorsandi has a full house tonight.

Her show is about Lady Emma Hamilton: model, actress, prostitute and mistress, most famously George Romney’s muse and Lord Nelson’s lover. It’s about Shappi herself. And it’s about how women and sex are perceived more generally: in the modern world, in history, in different societies. Oddly, wonderfully, it’s also kind of celebratory: despite the horrors Emma endured, she’s remembered here as a strong, spirited woman, wronged but ultimately, at last, admired. I’m glad Shappi put the work in: Emma Hamilton was worth the hours of research.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Blank Tiles

11/08/17

Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

Some shows grab hold of you instantly – others take a little time to establish themselves. Blank Tiles is definitely a slow burn affair. At first I find myself thinking, ‘Who is this guy? Why is he so repetitive? And why does he keep recording every little utterance he makes?’ And then it begins to dawn on me just where writer/performer Dylan Cole is going with this… and the story becomes more affecting, more tragic, and ultimately heartbreaking.

Austin Michaels is a World Scrabble champion, a man who has memorised over 200,000 words in order to win his world title. As he recounts his story, he constantly refers to a large scrabble board on an easel beside him, using various combinations of the same letters to spell out key points in his life story. But Austin is gradually falling prey to a terrible condition, one that will ultimately rob him of the most important thing in his life – his ability to remember.

This is a powerful monologue, nicely performed by Cole (who, it turns out, is Australian, though you’d never guess it from his Northern Brit accent) and it holds the audience enraptured until its tragic conclusion. Amidst a whole plethora of one-person shows at this year’s Fringe, it’s definitely one you shouldn’t miss. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Scrabble aficionado to appreciate this compelling story.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Power Behind the Crone

11/07/17

Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone is a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: perfectly suited to its space and time-slot, beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. In case I haven’t made myself clear: I liked it. A lot.

Alison Skilbeck plays Professor Artemis Turret, a Shakespearean scholar, delivering a lecture to a group of mature students (that’s us). The topic is a refutation of the dictum,’There are no good parts in Shakespeare for older women’ and the big draw is Artemis’s old friend, Dame Bunti Smart, an internationally acclaimed actress, who is supposed to be performing the illustrative speeches. But, not for the first time it seems, Bunti lets Artemis down, and the Professor is forced to play the parts herself. Reluctant at first, she throws herself into the performances, unearthing her own talent in the process.

Skilbeck’s delivery is flawless. From the Grenfell-like humour of the Professor to the pride of Paulina, from the bitterness of Queen Margaret to the bawdiness of Mistress Quickly, Skilbeck has absolute control of the material and creates distinct, believable characters. It’s fascinating: the fictional lecture serves the same function as an actual lecture, albeit the most engaging one I’ve ever sat through. I’m learning as I watch; plays I know well are re-positioned, the older women highlighted.

It’s genuinely illuminating.

5 stars

Susan Singfield