Bedlam Theatre

Education, Education, Education

14/11/18

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

This quirky little play, originally devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble, is the perfect vehicle for the EUTC, offering a real opportunity for these talented students to show their acting chops.

It’s 1997, and it’s Tobias (Max Prentice)’s first day at Wordsworth Comprehensive, where he’ll be working as a German language assistant. But this is no normal day: Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister last night, and there’s a strange emotion pervading the staffroom. Could it be… hope? Might the ‘education. education, education’ mantra that’s propelled Blair to the top job actually translate into something real, like new textbooks, or permanent classrooms, or reduced class sizes?

Whatever. It’s still a school day. The bell still rings; there are still lunch duties and lesson covers – and the small matter of ‘muck-up day,’ as the Year 11s seize their opportunity to cause consequence-free chaos: they’re leaving this afternoon. And, amidst all this, there’s Lauren: troubled, angry, vulnerable Lauren (Lauren Robinson), who wants to go on a history trip to York, but who’s been told her past behaviour precludes her from such treats.

This is a lively, energetic production, with all actors (except Prentice) dual-rolling as staff members and pupils. Tobias’s outsider’s eye exposes the vagaries of our education system; he’s a positive, engaging character, a Brit-o-phile, more gently observant than sharply critical. The performances are all strong, but standouts include Fergus Head as ineffective head teacher, Hugh Mills, and Lauren Robinson as the self-destructive teen mentioned above. Robinson in particular excels at portraying a heartbreaking mix of fragility and bravado, the all-too-recognisable frustration of those who have too little autonomy.

The Brit-pop music provides a dynamic aural backdrop, and the high-octane dance moves and scene transitions all help this small cast to convince us we’re in a busy, bustling school. There are some sombre moments: Tobias’s flash-forward narrative reminds us that, although Blair did indeed inject a lot of much-needed money into the system, and things did improve considerably, this too has now passed: schools are academised and closing, begging parents for provisions, dropping ‘frivolous’ subjects from their timetables.

Don’t get me started. This one’s personal for me. I was a teacher for twenty-two years; I left because of what the job became. I’ve been a foreign language teaching assistant too (in Germany), so this play really speaks to me.

But even if your own experiences are vastly different from these, this is a piece well worth seeing. What happens in education affects us all.

And this is fun. So, you know – win, win.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

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She Can’t Half Talk

 

31/10/18

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s Hallowe’en, but we’ve already done the spooky stuff. We carved our Jack O’Lantern days ago (the pumpkin soup is just a memory now), and we saw Dracula at the King’s last night. So tonight we eschew the Cameo’s Rocky Horror costume party, and head instead to Bedlam, where a series of monologues awaits.

Writer/director Sally MacAlister might still be a student (she’s in her third year here at Edinburgh), but her scripts are lively and assured. They’re original and sprightly, funny and sad. We’re impressed: this young playwright clearly has a bright future ahead.

The play comprises five unlinked twenty-minute monologues: there’s a foetus gleaning all she can about her mother and the outside world; a sex worker contemplating her future; a drag queen facing Christmas without his children; a tough kid refusing to accept her ‘victim’ label; a middle-aged woman raging against her dwindling sex appeal. They’re varied pieces, both in content and tone, and we’re intrigued by every one.

The Foetus is the quirkiest piece, a whimsical idea played with charm and vivacity by Julia Weingartner, and The Drag Queen (Myles Westman) the saddest, a tale of hidden truths, infused with gentle melancholy. The Camera Girl is outrageous and funny, with Megan Lambie’s bold, engaging performance really drawing out the laughs. There’s some interesting direction in this piece too: I like the use of Liam Bradbury as the banker, mirroring the girl’s movements as she tells the story of their disastrous date.

Perhaps the least credible is The Cougar: Kelechi Hafstad can clearly act and conveys the character’s emotions well, but she’s much too young for the part, and the writing here is less convincing too: I don’t think a fifty-eight year old would describe herself as ‘elderly’ nor compare herself to Helen Mirren (who’s fifteen years older, at seventy-three). Still, there are some lovely ideas in the script, and the delivery is witty.

My favourite is The Victim, a raw account of a teenage girl drawn into a cycle of rape and abuse. Tilly Botsford’s performance is mesmerising, and she really knows how to work a pause (the silence after the innocuous line, ‘She fell off a horse’ is the most powerful moment of the night).

All in all, She Can’t Half Talk is an impressive piece, and Sally MacAlister is clearly a name to watch out for.

Take a blanket and a hot drink though. Bedlam Theatre is really cold.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Ken Cheng: Best Dad Ever

07/08/18

Bedlam

Ken Cheng is the standup comedian credited with the ‘joke of the Fringe award, 2017,’ as judged by comedy TV channel, Dave. This can either be regarded as an achievement or something he feels he’ll have to live up to in 2018. The joke? “I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.”

Which will give you an idea of how arbitrary the award is in the first place. Every year, we read the results with a general air of bemusement. Who picks the jokes? What qualifies any of them to be dubbed ‘the best?’ I suppose, as any comic will tell you, you needed to be there when it was actually said aloud. And I’ve no doubt that Cheng told it well.

As you might guess from his name, Ken Cheng is of Chinese descent – and much of the subject matter of this sly, erudite set is concerned with his ethnicity and the way it’s perceived by the various people he encounters. He’s very adept at nailing unconscious racism and hoisting the culprit by his or her own petard. His routine about the woman he meets at a party is nicely scathing, pointing out how everything she says is well-intentioned but misdirected. He also talks about his parents’ rather unusual marital arrangements; the fact that he was a bit of a child prodigy when it came to mathematics (and how much of a cliché this is); his giant collection of cuddly lambs – and, at one point, he even treats us to an extract from a science fiction novel he wrote when he was around seven years old, which demonstrates all too clearly what an unusual boy he must have been.

If it’s only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, it’s consistently chuckle-worthy and Cheng is an affable presence up on the stage of Bedlam, holding his audience’s attention and rarely allowing things to lag. A moment towards the end of his set when somebody has to go out to use the loo, just as he’s building up to his big finish, is handled with remarkable restraint. This is an enjoyable show from a real craftsman – and there are probably several punchlines in here that Dave might like to consider for 2018.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Cat Man Curse

21/08/17

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

Once in a while you encounter a show on the Fringe that is so off-the-wall bizarre, so downright inspired, so bat-shit crazy, that it develops its own momentum. The Cat Man Curse feels like just such a show. From its crazy coconut shy opening, through its clever spoof of a dumb 70s TV show, this is quite simply one of the funniest productions I’ve seen in a while.

The brainchild of three former Cambridge Footlites members, it tells the story of TV star Charles Heron (Guy Emanuel) famed for his portrayal of TV lawyer, Harry Hardtruth, constantly in competition with his wily onscreen nemesis, Libel (Sam Grabiner). When Charles is asked to star in the role of Cat Man, he thinks his future is assured – but then he learns about the terrible curse that has struck down every single actor that has previously played the part. Understandably anxious to get out of his contract, he engages the services of slick solicitor, Mark Swift (Jordan Mitchell) and the two men go undercover to try and find out who is behind the curse.

Described in those terms it all sounds fairly straightforward, right? But the story takes some very wild diversions along the way – a spot of French cookery aided by a very long-armed gibbon? You’ve got it. A roller-disco dance routine? Well, why not? Endlessly inventive and laugh out-loud-funny throughout, this is the kind of show that could easily spawn a hit television series. An ambitious producer should give these boys a call before somebody else snaps them up.

If you like a laugh riot, don’t miss this one.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Sofie Hagen: Dead Baby Frog

15/08/17

Bedlam Theatre, Bristo Place, Edinburgh

I’m looking forward to this. I first encountered Sofie Hagen via Richard Herring’s podcast, RHLSTP (RHLSTP!), and then through The Guilty Feminist. We saw Shimmer Shatter at the Liquid Rooms last year, and really enjoyed it. So I’m keen to see what she’s offering this time.

Dead Baby Frog is about (trigger warning) emotional abuse. Specifically, it’s about Sofie’s step-grandfather, with whom she lived as a child, and his cruel, controlling ways. He sounds awful – a narcissistic, bullying man, with a fragile ego and a short fuse – and his behaviour has clearly had a huge impact on Hagen’s life.

It’s horribly fascinating, and yet somehow Dead Baby Frog feels like something of a missed opportunity: there’s definitely a good show in there, but it’s not yet fully realised. It’s not bad exactly – this is Sofie Hagen, after all, and there’s no denying she’s a funny woman who knows how to get a crowd onside – but it never really grows beyond its anecdotal origins. She says, “It’s not about me; it’s about people like me,” but doesn’t extrapolate anything from her own story. Nor does she really mine the situation for maximum comedy (which, admittedly, would be hard to do); it’s as though she needs to dig a little deeper to make this into a finished show.

She’s at her most confident and amusing when she’s on familiar ground: the Westlife bit is easily the most engaging. And there are moments when she hints at the profundity that might be there to be unearthed: the crossed fingers, the baby frogs, the art.

I’d be interested to see where this show ends up, assuming she tours it. And I’ll still be watching to see what she does next.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Foxfinder

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07/08/15

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

Dawn King’s Foxfinder is a gem of a play: it’s serious and playful with an awful lot to say. Set in the near future, the Britain we see here is a dreadful place, a dystopia where people are ruled by fear, and where foxes are the enemy. Sam and Judith Covey, whose farm is underperforming after a difficult year, are visited by Foxfinder William Bloor, sent to ensure there are no foxes on their land. If any are found, the consequences will be dire.

Master of None’s Fringe production is a bit of a gem too. The opening, where Sam (Hugo Nicolson) and Judith (Verity Mullan Wilkinson) are waiting anxiously for the Foxfinder to arrive, is beautifully done: the set, costume and lighting cleverly hinting at a bygone time, making explicit the connection with the witchfinders of old. This is reinforced by the arrival of Bloor, whose silhouetted, hatted figure looms menacingly at the door. When the lights go up and the actors move, the more contemporary setting is revealed – and it’s a relief… until we realise what’s going on.

William Bloor is the most interesting character: he is young, idealistic – and troubled. He has too much power and too little insight; he’s not mature enough to realise the truth of what he does. Indoctrinated since the age of five, he is a vulnerable and dangerous man – and Alex Stutt performs the role with charm and subtlety. He is utterly convincing as the conflicted Foxfinder, confused and disgusted by his sexual desires, and unswerving in his hatred of the evil, cunning fox.

This is a multi-faceted play, where the simple plot belies the myriad allegories. Foxes here are scapegoats for all society’s ills – they represent witches and devils, but the way they are treated aligns them with the persecuted too. This young theatre company clearly relishes the complexity, and their performances lay bare the toll such propaganda takes. Zoe Zak is particularly engaging as neighbour Sarah Box, who is forced to confront the limits of her own morality: will she, Stasi-like, inform on her neighbours to protect herself?

The direction is strong, although there is perhaps a little too much stage traffic at times, with a few unnecessary entrances and exits, but, all in all, this is definitely one to watch.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield