Assembly Roxy

Theatre Bouquets 2022

After the slim pickings of the last two years, 2022 feels like a palpable return to form: finally, emphatically, theatre is back! We’ve relished the wide range of productions we’ve seen over the year. As ever, it was difficult to choose our particular favourites, but those listed below have really resonated with us.

Singin’ in the Rain (Festival Theatre, Edinburgh)

Singin’ in the Rain is a delight from start to finish. It never falters, never loses pace and manages to honour the great film that inspired it. One of the most supremely entertaining shows I’ve seen in a very long time. Slick, assured, technically brilliant – it never puts a hoof wrong.

Wuthering Heights (King’s Theatre, Edinburgh)

In this Wise Children production, Emma Rice strips Wuthering Heights down to its beating heart, illuminates its essence. This is a chaotic, frenzied telling, a stage so bursting with life and energy that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. It’s dazzling; it’s dizzying – and I adore it. 

Red Ellen (Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Red Ellen is a fascinating tale, ripped from the pages of political history. Wils Wilson’s propulsive direction has Ellen hurtling from one scene to the next, which keeps the pot bubbling furiously.

Prima Facie (NT Live, The Cameo, Edinburgh)

This is a call to action that walks the walk, directly supporting The Schools Consent Project, “educating and empowering young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault”. It’s also a powerful, tear-inducing play – and Jodie Cromer is a formidable talent.

Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

Samuel Barnett inhabits his role completely, spitting out a constant stream of pithy one liners and wry observations with apparent ease. Marcelo Dos Santos’ script is utterly compelling and Matthew Xia’s exemplary direction ensures that the pace is never allowed to flag.

Hungry (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

This sharply written two-hander examines the relationship between Lori (Eleanor Sutton), a chef from a relatively privileged background, and Bex (Melissa Lowe), a waitress from the local estate. This is a cleverly observed exploration of both class and race, brilliantly written and superbly acted. Hungry is a class act, so assured that, even amidst the host of treasures we saw at this year’s Roundabout, it dazzles like a precious gem.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh)

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes this such a powerful and moving experience, but that’s exactly what it is – a spellbinding slice of storytelling, so brilliantly conceived and engineered that it makes the incredible seem real. You’ll believe a man can fly.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh)

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this. This raucous, visceral reimagining of the story captures the essence of the piece more eloquently than pretty much any other production I’ve seen.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

This was Martin McDonagh’s debut piece and, while it might not have the assuredness of his later works, it nonetheless displays all the hallmarks of an exciting new talent flexing his muscles. The influence of Harold Pinter is surely there in the awkward pauses, the repetitions, the elevation of innocuous comments to a weird form of poetry – and the performances are exemplary.

Don’t. Make. Tea. (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Don’t. Make. Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Flo & Joan: Sweet Release


Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

Friday night at 8pm feels like the perfect time to see Flo & Joan. The crowd are up for a laugh: work is done for the week and the majority seem to be a few pints in, but no one’s obnoxiously pissed. This is an interlude in people’s nights, I guess: a fun hour to give the evening some shape, before the serious drinking starts. That’s how it feels, at any rate. And it’s none the worse for it.

Sisters Rosie and Nicola Dempsey are completely at ease: they’re natural performers, and their act is perfectly honed. Sweet Release is everything you’d expect it to be: clever lyrics, catchy tunes, assured musicianship, lovely voices and lots of funny chat. It’s light, but there’s an edge; it’s not all candyfloss. This show is rockier than the last one we saw (Before the Screaming Starts), with a punchy backing-track to occasionally augment the sound. There’s a full drum kit too, and this helps to make the show feel bigger, and well-suited to the packed out 250-seat venue (which is large, by Fringe standards).

I particularly like the disco dancing number: Rosie’s trademark deadpan expression clashes sublimely with the silly moves, and there’s an extended motif about parents’ ornaments, which seems to resonate with everyone. (Even as I snigger, I find myself wondering which of our trinkets my step-daughter shudders at – although I don’t think we’ve anything as spectacularly awful as the item Flo & Joan reveal.)

Of course, there are only two more chances to catch them here in Edinburgh, but the duo have a fairly extensive autumn tour scheduled, so why not treat yourself?

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Tragedy of Macbeth


Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

We first encountered Flabbergast Theatre at the Fringe in 2018 with their wonderfully immersive project, The Swell Mob, a site-specific evocation of a Victorian drinking den. Now the company returns to the Fringe to take on one of the bard’s most celebrated plays and we’re really excited to see what they do with it. Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this.

When we enter the venue, the eight-strong cast are already reeling around the stage, plastered in mud and raving and flailing around like demented beings. After all, this is a play about the madness brought on by the seductive power of hubris, so it feels entirely appropriate. The lights go down and, one by one, the players slip into their roles, switching effortlessly from character to character, but that sense of lunacy is always lurking at their sleeves, ready to take over at any moment.

I don’t need to relate the plot, because it’s ingrained into most people from high school onwards – but this raucous, visceral reimagining of the story captures the essence of the piece more eloquently than pretty much any other production I’ve seen.

It explodes, it capers, it struts its fretful stuff upon the stage and signifies plenty, while the austere stone arches of The Roxy provide the perfect setting for its excesses.

Simon Gleave gives a powerful performance in the lead role and Briony O’Callaghan’s Lady Macbeth is also extraordinary. But Flabbergast are essentially an ensemble troupe and every single member of the cast gives one hundred percent to this, with the volume dialled up to eleven. My initial fears that, with such ferocity, the piece could become one-note are neatly sidestepped, with a brilliantly clownish diversion from Dale Wild in the role of the Porter – and, after an explosive climax, there’s a delicate, musical a cappella song to bring everything gently back to earth.

The Tragedy of Macbeth ends with a heartfelt standing ovation from the crowd and it is fully deserved. Don’t miss this, it’s a wonder to behold.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

EUSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a real treat. I’m feeling a bit tired and grumpy before we set off for the theatre – a culmination of late nights and hayfever – but this sprightly production soon puts a spring in my step and, by the time I leave, I’m all smiles.

There’s something endearing about the audiences for these student productions: they’re always so vocal in their enthusiasm. It really helps to cement the whole ‘shared experience’ feeling of live performance, and debunks the idea that theatre only appeals to the middle-class and middle-aged. Their liveliness feeds the atmosphere, which is almost as charged off-stage as on. I love it.

Director Sara Cemin deftly braids the disparate strands of Shakespeare’s play. This is a vivacious, playful production, subtly updated with occasional asides (I mean, I don’t think “Fuck’s sake!” appears in the First Folio), which illuminate the jokes, sending laughter rippling through the auditorium.

The fever dream chaos is nicely realised: the four passionate youths, lost in the woods; the bumbling Mechanicals, desperately sincere in their desire to create something worthwhile; the mischievous faeries, unable to resist the impulse to play tricks. It’s a perfect storm.

The Mechanicals are the standouts. Some of this is down to Billy Bard himself, of course: there’s such a clever balance of scorn and tenderness in his rendering of them. But Cemin deserves credit for drawing this out, for resisting the urge to make them pantomime-ish figures, affording them instead the dignity of working people, striving to make something good (while still gently poking fun). Max Prentice (last seen by B&B in EUTC’s Education, Education, Education in 2018) is perfectly cast as Bottom: he’s clearly a natural comedian, and is instantly engaging. He’s definitely one to watch. But don’t underestimate those in the smaller roles either; this strand highlights the power of ensemble performance.

I do have a couple of minor gripes. First: the dry ice machine. “Fuck’s sake,” as Helena would say. It works well to set the scene when the faeries first appear, but – where cough-inducing smoke is concerned – less is more. Second (and this might just be me): the long interval. I know people need time to go to the loo and buy a drink, but anything longer than fifteen minutes disrupts the momentum, and all the tension that’s been so carefully built in the first act just starts to dissipate. Neither of these is a deal-breaker though.

I love Amelia Chinnock Schuman’s choreography, particularly in the fight scene, which is impressively visceral. The four lovers (Lucy Melrose, Archie Barrington, Isabelle Hodgson and Will Nye) approach this tussle with evident gusto, and the fear of injury seems very real (not least because of the rucked-up rug I keep thinking someone’s going to trip over. Yes, I am a laugh). The music is a satisfying addition too. It’s all original (by Joe Pratt and Mark Sandford), and I applaud the decision to have live musicians on stage. The songs are well-integrated into the production: enhancing rather than intrusive.

No review of AMND is complete without reference to Puck, and Priya Basra seems made for the role. She imbues the goblin with the necessary likability, so that we can witness his careless cruelty without abhorring him. She has eye-rolling down to a fine art.

All in all, then, this is an absolute delight. There’s only one night left. Buy a ticket – quickly!

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

It All


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


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


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


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


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




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