Assembly George Square

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

 

 

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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

 

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