Assembly Rooms

The Professor


Assembly Rooms (Drawing Room), George Street, Edinburgh

The audience files politely into the theatre and we take our seats. The lights dim and in comes our speaker for the day, who assigns us the roles of university students, here to attend his latest lecture. None of us feels inclined to argue the point. He immediately announces that today’s talk will take a break from the advertised subject and will instead make a few unexpected detours. Written by Brian Parks and performed by David Calvitto, The Professor depicts a man on the verge of a change – and moreover, not one he’s making by choice.

So we are offered a scattershot lecture on the joys of mathematics, the history of theatre and a snarling put down of the limitations of dance. Calvitto steers his way expertly through the very witty and hyper-verbose script, occasionally delivering dazzling one-liners and even pausing at one point to perform some lines in verse (because poetry that doesn’t rhyme is worthless, right?), accompanying himself on a mandolin. What’s clever here is that this professor cannot resist thrusting large chunks of his own prejudices and foibles into what ought to be a dispassionate account. He also believes that cats (and racoons) can read books. Don’t ask. And all of this, really, is just an elaborate set up for what must be the most protracted fart gag in history.

This is a slight but pleasing piece that starts and ends strongly enough, but feels a little unfocused in the middle.

Those who have worked in the world of academia will doubtless recognise a lot of what goes on here. The rest of us will just be too busy giggling about that fart joke.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Chris Dugdale: Down To One


Assembly Rooms, (Drawing Room), Edinburgh

What is the mysterious hold that Chris Dugdale has over us? We first saw him back in 2015, where we awarded his show maximum stars and one of our first Edinburgh Bouquets. We’ve been back for more every year since. Are we simply suffering from an acute case of FOMO? Or did he somehow manage to hypnotise us?

Whatever the case, here we are again in the front row of Down To One, watching in slack-jawed amazement as he runs an enthusiastic crowd through his latest set of bewildering, bamboozling and downright heart-stopping magic. The evening is regularly punctuated with gasps of astonishment and bursts of applause.

This year is mostly about numbers and predictions. Seemingly impossible feats of mathematics and memory are thrown out with consummate ease. An audience member, chosen by a series of random events, suddenly appears to be able to speak foreign languages without breaking a sweat. There’s close up card trickery, the magician’s hands shown live on a giant screen behind him, so we’ve every opportunity to spot that cunnng sleight of hand… but, of course we don’t, because this is so faultlessly executed it’s little wonder that Chris is banned from playing in many casinos in America. His generous offer to meet members of the audience for a hand of poker afterwards go unanswered.

Look, when it comes to superlatives, we’ve pretty much used them all up when talking about Mr Dugdale. All I can say is, if you’re a lover of magic shows (and there are plenty of them on the Fringe this year), this is the one you really mustn’t miss. Get in early and watch his hands very carefully.

And I’m thinking, this year we might be slightly less generous with those stars… maybe we’ll just give him… ah, no. Can’t do it.

Looks like we really are under his spell.

5 stars

Philip Caveney




Assembly Rooms, Front Room

Of all the movie genres that are regularly spoofed for comic effect, the Western is perhaps the one that’s most ripe with potential. Gun is a comedy monologue, written and performed by Will Hartley, formally one quarter of the Clever Peter sketch troupe, in which he gamely takes on twenty-five characters, with little more than a battered Stetson and some extremely ropey scenery to back him up. 

There’s an amiable, ramshackle quality to this piece, that only serves to add to the general hilarity. When Hartley manages to inadvertently knock over some of the aforementioned cardboard scenery, the moment is gleefully incorporated into the narrative – and when, in a later scene, there’s a four way shootout to enact, Hartley rises magnificently to the occasion, snapping from one character to the next, ensuring that we’re never in any doubt as to who is shooting whom – and why.

Meanwhile, Western buffs will have a field day spotting the various cinematic references – with an Ennio Morricone-style music cue here and a Clint Eastwood cliché there. There’s little point in going into the convoluted storyline; suffice to say there are few Western tropes left undisturbed. Hartley cleverly works the titles of scores of iconic movies into his script and, as the story unfolds, I find myself ticking them off in an imaginary box in my head. A climactic sequence, where Hartley is obliged to enact a torrid sex scene with himself, is a particular delight.

While it’s not designed to linger long in the memory, Gun is an ideal vehicle for those audiences looking for a good old belly laugh. Why not mosey on down to the Assembly Rooms and grab yourself a fist full of giggles?

4 stars

Philip Caveney


Skin a Cat


Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

Vaginismus. It’s not an obvious topic for a play. But that’s exactly the point of Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat: despite affecting an estimated 1 in 200 women, vaginismus is rarely talked about. In an age where we can casually acknowledge scores of lovers, where we can – at last – be open about our sexual orientation and gender identity,  vaginismus is one of the last remaining taboos.

So what is it? In short, vaginismus is an involuntary contraction of the muscles around the opening of the vagina, which makes sexual intercourse painful or impossible. And, in Alana (Lydia Larson)’s case, as she gets into bed with a boy at a party, this results in a panic attack that leaves her short of oxygen and fitting. Not the most auspicious way to start off her sex life.

Despite – and sometimes because of – the awkwardness of the subject matter, this is a very funny piece, engagingly performed by a trio of actors. Lydia Larson, in the central role, is mesmerising, actually: uneasy and vulnerable, yet lively and confident; clever and articulate, but unable to give voice to her deepest concern. This is a nuanced performance, as naked and raw as the flesh-coloured costume that leaves her secrets exposed. It’s impossible not to care.

Larson is joined on stage by Joe Eyre and Libby Rodliffe, who play all of the supporting roles: Alana’s boyfriends and lovers; her mother, friends – and gynaecologist. They slip effortlessly between characters, bringing Alana’s sexual odyssey to life, adding light to the shade and ensuring this piece is entertaining as well as enlightening.

Blythe Stewart’s direction works well. The bed looms large, centre stage throughout – an unavoidable presence marking Alana’s every experience or encounter. Rodliffe and Eyre are positioned either side of it, subtle shadows of angel/devil emerging as they speak through microphones. The sex scenes – and there are a lot of them – are nicely done, excruciating for Alana, of course, but not for the audience: graphic but never gratuitous.

This is an interesting, intimate depiction of an important subject, and definitely worth taking the time to see.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Chris Dugdale: Up Close


Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

There’s no other explanation: Chris Dugdale is actually a sorcerer. He’s not a performer who’s learned a load of tricks; he can’t be, because some of what he’s doing is simply impossible. Okay, so he’s a showman and he plays along with the schtick, delivering a few crowd-pleasers that we’ve seen elsewhere and can conceive of what the trickery might be (although we still don’t know how, but we can’t have everything), but there are elements here that simply don’t make any sense – unless we accept that he’s a wizard of some sort.

I mean, I don’t know how he does that stuff with the Rubik’s cubes, but I can go along with the idea that it’s a relatively simple blend of maths or dexterity – or, indeed, trick cubes of some sort. But the tiny tin of Altoids that never leaves the table… I won’t give any spoilers, but THERE’S NO WAY A MERE HUMAN CAN ACHIEVE WHAT HE DOES HERE! 

This is the third time we’ve seen Dugdale perform, and he gets better every time (or maybe he’s just making us think that with his mind control techniques?). This year’s show, Up Close, is much more dazzling and show-bizzy; there’s an energy and pace that has us buzzing from the start. He’s clearly enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm is infectious: the crowd is lapping up his act.

If you’ve had a busy day and are feeling tired or lethargic, get yourself along to the Assembly Rooms and see Chris Dugdale if you can. He’ll have you pepped up and grinning within a few minutes – although he may leave you doubting everything you think you know…

5 stars

Susan Singfield


To Hell in a Handbag


Assembly, George Street

Subtitled The Secret Lives of Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism, this nifty little two-hander examines events in the lives of a couple of subsidiary characters in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It hinges upon some of the wheelings and dealings going in in the background of that story. Beautifully played by Jonathan White and Helen Norton, it’s also written by the actors, who, to their absolute credit, have perfectly captured Wilde’s arch, flamboyant writing style – high praise indeed.

Like the better-known characters in the original play (which many people have suggested was a metaphor for Wilde’s secret homosexuality), Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble have their own secrets: she is rather too fond of a drop of sherry for her own good and clearly puts her survival above all other matters, while he doubles as an agony aunt for the Woman’s Weekly and also once found himself in a compromising position in a house of ill-repute – not the best place for a man of the cloth.

The Wilde aficionados in the audience are clearly well on board with this, laughing delightedly throughout and applauding enthusiastically at the play’s conclusion. I find it enjoyable – if polite – entertainment. While I should add that you don’t have to be a fan of the divine Mr W to enjoy this show, there’s no denying the fact that it certainly helps. And if TIOBE is up there amongst your favourite plays, then this is definitely one to seek out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Catherine and Anita


Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

With so many different Fringe spaces incorporating the words ‘Assembly’ and ‘George’ it’s important to make sure you’ve got the right one. Catherine and Anita is performed in – or rather outside – the imposing Assembly Rooms on George Street in the New Town – a good twenty-minute walk away from the Assembly venues on George Square. We live in Edinburgh so we’re not caught out by this, but the people sweating and panting in the queue behind us have had to run for it, and are only just in time for the show. So – be aware! Make sure you know exactly where you’re headed before you set off.

Anyway: to the show. Catherine and Anita is not the two-hander I’d assumed from the title, but a monologue, performed with absolute commitment by Sarah Roy as the eponymous Catherine. She is Catherine through-the-ages: an adult, a child, a married woman, a widow. It’s a strong performance, drawing out all the nuances of a difficult character, played with a stark intensity. The standout is the restaurant scene, where Catherine’s anxiety is funny and disturbing in equal measure.

This is a tricky piece to review without giving spoiler alerts; suffice to say, the opening scenes have an awkwardness to them that only makes sense once certain facts are revealed. I can see what playwright Derek Ahonen’s intention is here, but I don’t think it quite works. The childhood scene, for example, renders me unconvinced and, even though it’s later explained, it’s curiously alienating as it stands. The play hits its stride in the second half, once we know more, and have a greater understanding of Catherine and her behaviour  – and the hysteria is dialled down.

All in all, this is an interesting – if flawed – piece, with a powerful performance at its centre.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Sarah Jane Morris



Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

Soul, R n’ B and jazz singer, Sarah Jane Morris is a veteran of the music scene and she’s here in Edinburgh to play selections from her latest album, Bloody Rain. The album itself is a collaborative piece, comprising live recordings with a host of musicians including Seckou Keita, Courtney Pine and the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Today, Sarah Jane is is performing ‘unplugged’ with acoustic guitarists Tony Remy and Tim Cansfield and they make a skilful trio, all musically talented, so the sound is superb. It has to be said we like them best when they’re performing covers: a slow soulful version of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms is a thing of beauty and Sarah Jane’s voice is at its best on soul standard Little Piece of My Heart.

Some of the original material though, doesn’t quite hit the mark. Songs about honour killings and the Boko Haram kidnappings are clearly well-intentioned but the lyrics are a bit too sixth form and simplistic to really have much effect.

A few of the Soweto-style numbers were absolutely crying out for a drummer, but overall the undoubted musical ability of the trio meant that most of the songs had the necessary heft. To get the full effect though, you’ll certainly need to check out the album.

3 stars

Philip Caveney and Susan Singfield

Stewart Lee: A Room With a Stew



Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

“No one is equipped to review me,” says Stewart Lee – and I doubt I’m the first reviewer to feel compelled to include the line in my review. And he’s right, in a way; he’s fiercely intellectual, this comedian, and I’m sure he could shoot down in flames any criticism I might make.

It’s fortunate, then, that I don’t have much to criticise; we’re already fans; we went to this show secure in the knowledge we would like it. It’s our wedding anniversary, after all (we got married a year ago, while at the Fringe), so of course we chose a show we knew we’d relish; we wanted to enjoy the day.

We’ve seen this show before, or, at least, we’ve seen a show with the same title and a few of the same routines. That was back in March at the Lowry in Salford, where – although the material was as deft and challenging as you might expect – the room was too big, and the whole thing felt a little too remote.

Not that Lee is aiming for ‘engaging’ or ‘crowd-pleasing;’ he references Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and it’s certainly a technique he likes to employ, simultaneously haranguing his audience for being “the wrong sort” and appealing to the vanity in all of us when he says those wrong ’uns are “not like my core audience: those of you who understand what it is I do.” We all want to be in Stewart’s gang; we all want to be clever enough to be in on the joke.

The second half of the show is my favourite: Lee’s quest to mine the “lucrative Islamophobic observational comedy market,” along with his trademark meta-commentary on the very idea of jokes, is just breath-taking, really: it’s rigorous, uncomfortable, demanding – and very funny.

It’s Stewart Lee; of course it is.

5 stars

Susan Singfield