Assembly Roxy

It All

25/08/21

Assembly, Roxy

There are some shows on the Fringe that seem to defy description. But, I’m a writer, so I’ll give it my best shot.

I really don’t know what to expect from It All – and I’ll confess, when Cameron Cook strides onto the stage dressed as a mime, I fear the worst. Oh dear. Is it going to be one of those shows? You know what I’m talking about, the ones where a performer struts and frets for a weary hour, full of (no) sound and fury, signifying nothing…

Mr Cook launches into a piece of prose poetry, something about the human condition and I mentally prepare myself for something very po-faced. But then, quite without warning, he breaks off, glances at the silent musician in the corner of the stage and then begins to talk to an imaginary director. It doesn’t feel right, he says, the mood’s not there, he’s going to have to start over…

And the pomposity is instantly undercut. I’m chuckling at the absurdity of it. Cook begins again… and I find myself being pulled into his world.

And here’s the thing. The man is an extraordinary performer. He’s… well, the only word that really fits is ‘mesmerising.’ The eerie piece of performance art that unfolds is an extraordinary tour de force. Cook, it turns out, has many characters lurking within him and they have a tendency to hijack whatever he’s saying, wrenching him headlong from one outpouring to another. One instant he’s a sneering CEO explaining his brutal work ethic, how money is the key to everything in life. The next he’s a little girl talking with absolute adoration about her pet dog. In each case he’s utterly convincing, every mannerism, every gesture perfectly executed. A conversation between a little boy and his father is so brilliantly observed, I feel almost breathless as I watch the two disparate characters interacting with each other. And, it’s very funny. I find myself laughing at so many of these people, sometimes because I’m appalled by them, sometimes because there are qualities I recognise that strike too close to home.

The physicality of the performance is also astonishing – at times every muscle in Cook’s body seems to pulsate with energy as he encapsulates whoever is holding him hostage. He sings, he dances, he whirls and twists around the stage in paroxysms of rage and frustration. Sometimes, it feels as though the services of an exorcist might be required.

In the end, I decide that I’m never entirely sure what It All is about, but that it hardly matters, because what I’m being shown is the diversity of humanity, the many personae that lie beneath what an individual is prepared to show to the world – and, whatever Cook is trying to tell us, he does it with such intensity, such control, that the result is frankly riveting. The hour’s running time seems to flash by. As Cook and musician, Clare Parry, take their bows, the audience is mostly on its feet, applauding madly, but I’m sitting there stunned, still trying to assimilate everything I’ve just watched.

There are only three more opportunities to catch this and I’d advise you to grab some tickets while you still can.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Shell Shock

11/08/21

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

Shell Shock is an all-too familiar tale. As a society, we fail our military veterans at every turn. We pick them up, often at sixteen years of age (the UK is, apparently, the only country in Europe that routinely recruits under-eighteens), then thrust them into the most dreadful situations. What we ask of them is immense: to live apart from their families, to risk their own lives – and to kill others, should the need arise. And then, when we’re done with them, we just turn them out, expecting them to function without support in our cosy, civilian world. Surely we can do better than this?

Neil Watkin’s diaries, adapted and performed by Tim Marriott, offer us a glimpse into the troubled life of an ex-soldier. ‘Tommy’ has served in the army for thirty years, and he’s looking forward to a bit of normality, to renting a house with his girlfriend, Shell, and finding a new job. In the meantime, he’s staying with his mum and dad, and spending a lot of time at the job centre. Work is proving elusive, because he hasn’t got any qualifications, and his experience doesn’t seem to count. He’s angry all the time: if he could just get rid of the nightmares, get some sleep, maybe he’d be able to calm down? But he doesn’t want to take pills or talk to anyone, because he’s a real man, isn’t he, and real men cope…

This is an important story. If at times it feels a little stale, well maybe that’s the point. This is a commonplace situation; Tommy’s struggles are, sadly, far from rare. Still, it seems fair to say that the script might benefit from a little updating: in places, the references feel outmoded. Of course, as the piece is based on a real diary, this makes sense, but observational commentary about Big Brother and Friends falls flat, and the lengthy speech about IKEA is pretty hack. There are some genuinely affecting moments, not least at the very end, as Tommy’s suffering reaches its peak. The soundtrack is beautifully curated, and I like the use of mime alongside the sound effects: the level of understated detail Marriott achieves is impressive.

It’s good to see a decent-sized crowd in for this lunchtime show – and to be reminded that the Daparian Foundation exists, offering support to the thousands of Tommys out there.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Mediocre White Male

07/08/21

Assembly Roxy, Central

Mediocre White Male is a cunningly structured monologue, which starts with the protagonist (played by Will Close) performing a few lines in character as the resident ‘ghost’ in a stately home somewhere in Winchester. But it isn’t long before those melodramatic proclamations are abandoned and he’s climbed down off his plinth to chat informally with the audience. He confesses himself bewildered by the complexities of modern life, and by sexual politics in particular.

Why can’t he refer to his young female colleagues as ‘girls,’ he wonders? Why must be endure workshops on the subject of gender equality? He’s thirty years old, for goodness sake! Surely his experience must stand for something?

The nuanced script by Close and his co-writer, Joe von Malachowski, might have been better suited to a more intimate venue. In the lofty surroundings of the Assembly Roxy, the opening sections of this feel distanced, rather than just socially distanced – and it takes a while before the narrative really begins to hook me in. But hook me it eventually does, at first making me feel sorry for this much put-upon character, who seems horribly misunderstood by everyone who knows him. Sidelined by his friends, shunned by his colleagues, he nurtures a deep sense of regret for a relationship that went badly wrong, back in his youth. What happened ten years ago has changed his life. He’s now a loner, still working in the uninspiring job that was only meant to be a temporary position.

It’s only as his tale enters its later stretches that I begin to fully appreciate what this story is really about- that what’s actually being related here is a tale of toxic masculinity, one that deftly demonstrates how white male privilege can assert such a powerful grip. The full impact of the deception is cleverly held back until the final line of dialogue.

Okay, if I’m honest, I feel this would work better if the character were older – some of the ‘bewildering’ things our protagonist mentions ought to fit easily enough into the wheelhouse of your average thirty year old – and those early sections would benefit from a more humorous approach. If the audience began by laughing out loud, rather than just chuckling, the monologue’s latter stages would be all the more affecting.

But Close is nonetheless a compelling narrator and it’s an interesting – and thought-provoking – piece of theatre.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Long Pigs

06/08/19

Assembly Roxy, Central, Edinburgh

Welcome to the world of The Long Pigs – a dirty, degraded chamber where clowning has taken on a sinister and bizarre twist. The three pigs – Clare Bartholomew, Mozes and Nicci Wilks – have made a list and they’re checking it twice. They are working tirelessly to eradicate the world of all their competition, removing the noses of famous clowns and canning them, using a ramshackle device that would challenge the best inventions of Heath Robinson.

But their work is regularly interrupted when they are called upon to go through the motions of a ‘performance,’ shuffling grudgingly through over-rehearsed routines, scowling furiously at the audience as they do so, before breaking off and hurrying back to the task that clearly obsesses them. So many clowns out there; so much work to be done before they can rest.

The look of this piece is unremittingly squalid, but there is beauty here too in the soaring soundscape that accompanies the action and, while the full meaning of what we see is sometimes frustratingly opaque, it nevertheless generates plenty of after-show speculation. What is the meaning of that crucifixion scene? What does the gangling rag-doll on a rope signify? And as for that astonishing ending…

Well, I guess that’s the very essence of what this Australian physical comedy troupe is working to achieve. One thing’s for sure: this is a show the like of which I’ve never seen before and, if the Fringe has a raison d’être, then surely originality must count for a whole lot? So head down to the Assembly Roxy and take your thinking caps with you.

You’re going to need them.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

That Face

22/03/18

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

I have to say, I’m not a great fan of Polly Stenham’s debut play. Written when she was only nineteen, it certainly shows prodigious promise – there are some gloriously grotesque characters here – but it’s all just so much sound and fury, with a payoff that is curiously flat. That said, Edinburgh-based Anais Productions make a decent fist of it, with some strong performances. They’re playing to a packed house, with a younger, more vocally appreciative audience than we usually see, and successfully create the sense of claustrophobic isolation so central to the play.

We first meet Mia (Dora Davies-Evitt) at boarding school, where, along with classmate Izzy (Sara Harvey), she has drugged and tortured a younger student (Jane Link). This is a fascinating opening gambit, and I wish Stenham had given it more space within her play; instead, it’s just a springboard into Mia’s family, as she’s expelled, and has to return home.

And home is a strange place indeed. Her mother, Martha (Hannah Churchill), is an alcoholic, addicted to valium and manipulative in the extreme. She has no time for Mia, whose very presence she sees as an interruption, but is utterly devoted to her son, Henry (Barney Rule). Abandoned by her husband, Hugh (Michael Hajiantonis), Martha makes impossible demands of Henry, who is expected to take his father’s place as carer, protector and even lover. He drops out of school and focuses all his attention on his mother, whose warped expectations fuel a monstrous co-dependency.

Churchill and Rule perform these roles with real panache, clearly relishing the chance to explore such complex, twisted characters. Churchill is utterly engaging as Martha, her mirthless smirk particularly unnerving, and Rule brings such intensity to Henry’s suffering that we cannot help but empathise. They’re hampered only by the perennial problem of student productions, i.e. they’re all about the same age, so – if you didn’t know the play – it might take a while to realise that they’re mother and son, and some of the intergenerational oddity of the relationship is lost. (Similarly, Mia is a less sympathetic character than she might be if she were visibly younger, her vulnerability more apparent.)

The weak point is the final third, when Hugh arrives from Hong Kong to deal with his daughter’s expulsion. Michael Hajiantonis plays the part convincingly, but it’s a disappointingly ordinary denouement after all the high drama, and undermines the weirdness of all that has gone before. He seems to be the scapegoat, as if his leaving is the reason for Martha’s predatory ways. The play flounders here, and never really recovers.

Still, apart from some over-extended blackouts – which, for some reason, this particular audience sees as an opportunity for chat – this is a competent production, and a welcome chance to engage with a divisive, challenging play. Do take the opportunity to see it while you can.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Scribble

 

25/08/17

Assembly Roxy

We were attracted to this particular show because the premise sounded so intriguing. This play by Andy Gilmartin features a different performer every day, who reads through the script alongside mainstay, Ross (Alan MacKenzie). The guest performer has never seen the script before and is required to read all the sections highlighted in a certain colour. This, we are told, is an attempt to reflect the ever-changing nature of the nation’s mental health. On the day we attend, the guest actor is Kim Allan, who handles the situation with aplomb. She’s clearly been hand-picked, because she never puts a foot wrong.

Ross talks about cosmology and bran flakes and his partner, Fi,  who is working away in China. He asks the audience questions and gets them to applaud when the answer is ‘yes.’ But the questions are not particularly challenging. ‘Have you ever made a decision? Have you ever eaten bran flakes?’ Umm… okay, but… where is this going exactly?

McKenzie is a confident performer and he plays his character nicely… but… the play itself ultimately promises so much more than it actually delivers.

For all that it presents itself as an audacious, risk-taking project, the format is far too controlled to offer the guest performer anything interesting to do. There’s no room for improv here, they can only read the lines exactly as written. We’re told that the script continually develops, that this is actually the forty-ninth draught of it, but of course, as reviewers, we can only respond to what we witness and, for me at least, this is somewhat underwhelming. Potentially interesting subjects are mentioned in passing – mental health, compulsive obsessive disorder, the fear of experiencing unwanted desires, but these themes are never really developed and, at the play’s conclusion, I left feeling that I’ve seen two decent performances, but not much more than that.

A shame, because there’s probably a satisfying play in here somewhere – but this isn’t it.

2.3 stars

Philip Caveney

A Bench On The Road

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15/10/16

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

A Bench On The Road, is quite clearly a passion project for writer/director Laura Passetti – and how gratifying it must have be for her to see the Assembly Roxy packed (almost literally) to the rafters with tonight’s eager and appreciative audience. This is a slice of verbatim theatre, based on the testimonies of female immigrants who travelled from Italy to Scotland to begin new lives. Here are their stories plucked from different points in one hundred years of history – twenty five million Italians left their homeland between 1850 and 1950 and thousands of them chose to settle in Scotland – and yet, with what’s currently happening in the Mediterranean, this really could not be a more prescient production, examining exactly what it means to be a migrant, how it feels  to leave the land of your birth in search of a new life. As Passetti (an Italian immigrant herself) told me during the brief chat we had earlier this month, history has a habit of repeating itself.

Perhaps the play’s most effective sequences are those set during the Second World War when the rise of fascism under Mussolini impacted on those Italians who had already relocated to Scotland, where parents were forcibly separated from those children who had been born in their new homeland.

Simply but effectively staged, by Charioteer Theatre, the play features three Italian and three Scottish actors with accordian player, Caroline Anderson Hussey. Jaunty Italian dance songs are counterpointed by plaintive Scottish airs, cleverly underlining the clash of cultures. The performances are all exemplary and the harmonies as the six actors join together in song are sometimes exquisite. If there’s an occasional problem with catching lines of dialogue, it’s more to do with being perched right at the back of the sizable theatre space than with any shortcomings on the actor’s part. This is powerful stuff and my only regret is that we caught it at the very end of its short tour, instead of at the beginning, where we could have urged more people to see it..

The performance concludes to an ecstatic standing ovation and I can’t help feeling that this is a production that deserves a wider audience. Looking around at the delighted faces of tonight’s crowd, there’s every reason to believe that A Bench On The Road could just find it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Orchid and the Crow

Orchid-and-the-Crow-700x455

20/08/15

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

In a hard-to-categorise show, Australian musician and cancer survivor, Daniel Tobias offers a meditation on a variety of subjects: the Jewish Faith, Father Christmas, Lance Armstrong and testicular cancer. These may seem unlikely bed fellows but it’s all expertly stitched together and along the way we are offered songs in a variety of styles – some jaunty rock n roll, a cabaret-style piece with a guest appearance from God and most effective of all, an Italian aria about the loss of one of the artist’s testicles, accompanied by a short film. It’s a quirky collection of ideas, never less than entertaining and in several places, it’s surprisingly informative – did you know, for instance that the word ‘orchid’ and the word ‘testicle’ have the same etymology? No? Me neither.

This show was a winner at the Ottawa Fringe Festival and it’s not hard to see why. Tobias has a likeable stage presence, and a decent voice, while the illustrative songs, written with various collaborators are of a suitably high standard to please the pickiest of crowds. If you’re looking for something a bit different than the usual Fringe fare, this would be a good bet.

4 stars

Philip Caveney