Assembly George Square

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

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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

 

Snap

08/08/17

Assembly Theatre, George Square

Let’s face it, it wouldn’t really be the Fringe without a bit of magic, would it? And it certainly wouldn’t be the Fringe without clowns. Korea-based company, Snap, have had the brilliant idea of splicing the two traditions together to create something unique: a delicious blend of traditional magic, slapstick and state-of-the-art lighting effects that really is enchanting in the truest sense of the word.

Three clowns lead us through a mysterious doorway that takes us to four totally different acts –  and they are each, in their own way, truly accomplished. There’s The Florist who does the most amazing sleight-of-hand card tricks; The Achemist, who does things with sand that you really won’t believe; The Oddball, a juggler (and if that sounds underwhelming, don’t be fooled) and finally, The Dreamer, who… well, words fail me. You’ll really need to see that one for yourself. Suffice to say that, unless you’re the grumpiest person on the planet, you’ll be as thrilled as we are.

It’s all performed to music so there are no language barriers to get through, the material is anodyne enough to make it suitable for family audiences, and it’s precision-planned down to the last detail. If you only see one magic act at this year’s Fringe, this may be the one to go for, especially if you have youngsters in tow.

Oh, by the way, that sound you keep hearing? It’s people gasping in disbelief. Enjoy.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Sally Phillips & Lily Bevan: Talking To Strangers

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16/08/16

Assembly, George Square, Edinburgh

Sally Phillips and Lily Bevan are here for one week only and their impeccably delineated character sketch show is sold out tonight, so it might be a tough one to get tickets for.

Before the show starts, we’re informed that Phillips has broken her foot (by jumping on – or off – a table…?) but that she’ll be performing anyway, just “I might be a bit still!” Testament to her professionalism is the fact that it doesn’t impede the show in any way. Yeah, she’s got a bandage on her foot and she limps uncomfortably on and off stage during each scene change, but, once in position and in character, it makes no difference.

This is a sort-of-sketch-show, a series of monologues, where the two actors alternate different roles. And it’s really rather good.

Standouts include a miserable research scientist who’s spent forty years studying ‘numerosity in lions’ (only to be overwhelmed by the sudden realisation of the pointlessness of her life’s work), a terrified tour guide pressured into performing the role of Catherine of Aragon (whose brave attempts to render a Spanish accent provide the biggest laughs of the night), and an extended – and slightly bonkers – routine about Bette Midler and her phone calls to a cancer support group.

These women are seasoned comedians and their performances are precise and polished. If it’s a little safe, then that’s okay – not everything has to be edgy and provocative. I would have liked to have seen them perform at least one duologue, but overall this was a marvellous show.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Mervyn Stutter’s Silver Jubilee Charity Gala

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Assembly Theatre, George Square, Edinburgh

15/08/16

If the Edinburgh Fringe has anything resembling royalty then Mervyn Stutter is arguably first in line to the throne (now that Richard Herring seems to have abdicated). Amazingly, Mervyn has been running his Pick of the Fringe show for twenty-five years and this special gala has been arranged to celebrate the occasion and to raise money for charity. Think of an old-school variety show, offering short selections of comedy, theatre and music, and you’ve pretty much got the idea. As well as helping those in need, it’s doubtless a great way of alerting the public to performers they might enjoy in more depth – fliers for all the featured acts are available on the way out.

On comes Mervyn in his trademark pink suit, and treats us to a few of his risqué ditties from down the years, before introducing the first act, Tom Binns, in his role as ‘Hospital DJ,’ Ivan Brackenbury. It’s a great start to the show. Binns’ comedy comes from the ineptness of his character, who makes a series of clumsy announcements and then compounds them with selection a toe-curlingly inappropriate songs. It’s a great comic premise and Binns delivers on it, big time. You’ll find his show at The Assembly George Square.

The next act, I Am Rhythm, features a lively troop of eight South African men who perform a couple of frenetic traditional dances from Soweto, which involves them slapping, clapping and chanting in a dazzling display of syncopation. Fans of this kind of music (and there are many) will find their show at Dance Base (Venue 22).

It’s always a pleasure to see comedian Jo Caulfield, even if the short selection she offers here is already familiar to us from earlier shows. No matter, her tales of a louche Londoner adapting to a new life in Edinburgh are cannily observed and very, very funny. You’ll find her at (where else?) The Stand Comedy Club.

Circa are difficult to describe. This four piece contemporary circus troop offer a short extract from their current show, Closer, which is all about relationships and combines incredible balancing with a series of bodily contortions that will astonish you. They are currently appearing at Edinburgh’s infamous cow-shaped venue, Udderbelly.

Angel, a play by Henry Naylor is set in Kobane, Northern Syria and is the true-life tale of an acclaimed female sniper, credited with over one hundred kills. Lead actor Fillipa Braganca treats us to a short extract and I find myself wishing that she’d been granted more time. Naylor’s last play, Echoes, won him the 2015 Fringe First Award and this one is also garnering great reviews. You’ll find Angel at the Gilded Balloon, Teviot.

 Next up is Sarah Louise Young (who we have already seen and loved in Royal Vauxhall). Here she’s in her Cabaret Whore role as La Poule Plombée, a French chanteuse in the vein of Edith Piaf, but played (expertly) for laughs. She sings about baggage (pronounced to rhyme with Farage) and milks the song for every bit of humour. She’s accompanied on the piano by Michael Roulston and, just in case you think she’s not working hard enough, you can also catch the duo in their show Songs For Lovers (and Other Idiots) at Maggie’s Chamber on Cowgate. La Poule Plombé, on the other hand, can be seen at The Voodoo Rooms.

In an extended set, the cast of Showstopper: The Improvised Musical stroll onstage and create songs inspired by suggestions shouted out randomly by members of the audience. They settle on a show set in 10 Downing Street, starring Theresa May and her cleaning lady. It’s quite uncanny how they do it, but there they are, producing lyrics that actually make sense and rhyme, working in the style of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This Olivier award winning show is at The Pleasance Courtyard twice a day. Go along and marvel.

Rory Bremner is a name that surely needs no introduction, but he gets one anyway. He wanders onstage, tells us about his long relationship with Mr Stutter (they’ve been bumping into each other at the fringe for quarter of a century) and then he throws in a few of his brilliant impersonations. (His Barack Obama is quite something.) His show, Rory Bremner meets… is at The Gilded Balloon at the Museum.

Last but not least, we are treated to a couple of songs by The Jive Aces – purveyors of old time swing. Dressed to the nines in their yellow outfits, they soon have everybody clapping along to their song, before leading the crowd in a chorus of Happy Birthday, as somebody brings out a special cake to mark Mervyn’s anniversary. The Jive Aces are at Assembly George Square Gardens – and Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe is at The Gilded Ballloon, Teviot every day at 13.00, with a fresh set of acts each time.

4 stars

Philip Caveney