Edinburgh 2014

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

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Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh 17/02/15

This is one of those productions that makes me want to bottle its essence, and use it when – in my day job as a drama teacher – I am introducing a class of students to Brecht and his ideas. There’s a danger, sometimes, of presenting him as too difficult or serious (he is, of course, both – it’s the ‘too’ that’s the problem), and of the alienation effect coming to mean something quite different within the confines of the classroom.

But this production was so enchanting and funny and lively and, yes, engaging (sorry) that no one in the audience could fail to feel its impact. From the moment we entered the theatre, we were made witness to events. The stage was huge and cluttered, with all curtains removed and the wings exposed; costumes hung on rails, and actors moved around the stage, gossiping, going over lines, checking their props. After a while, a couple of actors came down into the audience and chatted. ‘D’youse know much about Brecht?’ one of them asked the woman next to me. ‘Nothing at all,’ she replied, and the actor hunched down on the floor beside her, and gave a quick précis of the ideas behind epic theatre. This deliberate negation of any notion of naturalism or realism was only made more stark by the opulent beauty of the late 19th century Lyceum theatre, with its proscenium arch and ornate boxes. This was no black box of a space, where experimental theatre is par for the course; it was a studied and deliberate clash of theatrical styles, and it worked – big time.

The production was overtly musical, with a glorious performance by Sarah Swire as the singer/narrator, acting as a kind of rock-chick Greek chorus to keep up the momentum. The pace never flagged: this was an energetic ensemble piece, whose fourteen actors contrived to create the sense that they were many more. John Kielty was another standout, in a variety of roles, but most notably as the Governer’s snobbish wife; he clearly revelled in the drag and campery. Christopher Fairbank (as Adzak, among others) also made his mark, not least for his impressive rendition of a wide variety of accents.

The direction (by Mark Thomson) was stunning. It’s hard to single out particular moments in such a seamless production, but I did love the depiction of the rickety bridge, with an enormous fan blowing a paper blizzard, while three wooden planks were moved in front of Grusha (Amy Manson), their wobbling placement creating a real sense of the crevasse she was crossing and the danger she faced. The puppet used to represent Michael was another delight, skillfully manipulated by Adam Bennett, who breathed life into the (polystyrene?) head, forcing us to confront the very real dilemmas Grusha had to resolve.

All in all, this was a fabulous and celebratory piece of theatre: dazzling, spectacular, and – above all – thought-provoking. It’s on until the 14th March. Go and see it if you can.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Nathan Penlington’s Choose Your Own Documentary

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19/08/14 Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh

I kind of know Nathan Penlington – or, at least,  there’s a tenuous connection. We come from the same home town. My brother was friends with his brother for a while, and – when I started my very first teaching job in North Wales – Nathan was in the sixth form. I didn’t teach him, but he wasn’t a kid you could fail to notice: long hair, a penchant for tartan, and a regular performer of magic tricks and poetry. I still have a CD of his poems somewhere, sold at the end of a school event. So, when we saw Choose Your Own Documentary advertised, I was interested to see what he’d ended up doing. And ‘making rather good documentaries’ seems to be at least part of the answer, alongside ‘writing books’ and ‘reflecting on the past.’

Choose Your Own Documentary is an innovative blend of film and spoken word, with a twist of audience participation. Nathan, it transpires, is a long-time fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and the documentary tells us of the bulk purchase he made of second-hand copies. Inside the books were the twenty-year old private scribblings of a troubled young boy, whose fragments of diary haunted Penlington, and pre-empted the film: he decided to track down the boy and see what sort of man he had become. For many film-makers, that would be enough.

But Penlington is trickier than that: he doesn’t reveal the whole story. We, the audience, have to decide which parts we want to see. We are given little remote controls, and we have to vote for what comes next. We are inside the frustrating world of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, knowing that there are other – maybe better – permutations. If we want to see those, we have to attend the show again (I think I would, if it weren’t at the Fringe, and there weren’t so many other things I want to catch). It’s clever, it’s original, and it’s also strangely moving. Luckily, there’s a book (The Boy in the Book by Nathan Penlington, published by Headline), which contains the whole story. So we buy that, and leave content.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Scott Capurro

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19/08/14

Assembly Rooms, George Street

Scott Capurro strolls onto the stage at the Assembly Rooms, looking like Kevin Bacon’s half-brother. He takes one look at the (rather sparse) audience and then he’s off and running. His sly, strangely endearing, but openly bitchy persona comes equipped with an excoriating tongue and a recklessness that means no subject is beyond the range of his scorn – race, religion, sexuality, politics… you name it; each subject is set up and summarily chopped down with a series of wicked one-liners. In short, this man doesn’t care who he offends and indeed, appears to revel in it. It’s saying something when a brief allusion to Robin Williams leaves him momentarily misty-eyed and after the vitriolic tirade that has preceded it, it’s this moment that seems shockingly perverse. 

Capurro achieves a powerful rapport with his audience even as he is ripping them to pieces. A guy to my left, despite being accompanied by his girlfriend is ‘secretly gay’ – and so Capurro flirts with him throughout the rest of the act. A married couple across the room, out to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, are depicted as a pair of inbred knuckle draggers. And when he discovers that Susan and I have been married for exactly one week and two days, we soon find ourselves the butt of his scorn… but we’re laughing and cringing in equal measure. Capurro isn’t going to win any awards for sensitivity but this show is as funny as it is outrageous and clearly deserves a bigger audience than it had tonight. Excellent stuff.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Rob Newman’s New Theory of Evolution

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19/08/14

Stand On The Square, Edinburgh

Back in the 1980’s, as part of influential TV comedy troop The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Rob Newman became a household name. Shortly thereafter, with his partner David Badiel, he was one of the first comedians to play stadium-sized gigs around the UK. But then something went wrong and he dropped out of sight for quite some time. Now, after an absence of seven years, he’s back in Edinburgh, with this slice of anthropologically-inspired comedy.

The first thing to say is that it’s very original material and Newman approaches stand-up like no other comedian I’ve ever seen. It’s probably also fair to say that the results aren’t wildly funny, yielding smirks and knowing sniggers, rather than big laughs. This is clever stuff, perhaps too clever for tonight’s festival crowd, who’ve clearly come out fuelled by a couple of drinks, expecting something rather more accessible than what they’re given.

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Newman seems decidedly ill at ease with his audience. He stalks up and down the small stage, putting everything he has into his delivery, the effort requiring him to mop at his perspiring face with a handkerchief, but he fails to establish any real rapport and that’s a problem. His wide-ranging talk is actually closer to a lecture than a comedy routine and it’s punctuated by a couple of songs, inexpertly bashed out on a ukelele, that fail to make any impact whatsoever. Perhaps in a more sober environment, this might have managed to generate more sparks, but tonight it comes across as something of a missed opportunity. Shame, because there’s a real intellect at work here, that fails to make a proper connection with its intended audience.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

John Lloyd’s Museum of Curiosities Live

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18/08/14

Underbelly, Bristo Square, Edinburgh

Radio 4 listeners will already be familiar with the format of this intriguing show, led by near legendary producer  and self-styled Professor of Ignorance, John Lloyd. This is simply a live performance of the same format but with a few visual aids thrown in. Here Lloyd is assisted by his ‘curator’ (Daniel Schrieber) and three guest speakers – author Frank Cotteral Boyce, QI researcher, Andy Murray (not THAT Andy Murray!) and ‘too many roles to list’ Clive Anderson.

The idea is that each guest suggests something that might be placed into the Museum and they discuss their choices in detail. Boyce chose a printed year-by-year edition of everything that’s on the internet (one hell of a big volume),  Anderson wanted the real King Macbeth (much unlike his Shakespearian equivalent, it seems) and Murray chose leeches, who he maintains, have a totally undeserved bad press. As ever, the show is witty, surprisingly informative and a very pleasant way to spend an hour. The earth didn’t move but after a series of loud frenetic shows, this was a nice relaxing slice of entertainment.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Woyzeck

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17/08/14

Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh

Splendid Productions’ version of Woyzeck is a real triumph. I have a head full of superlatives, and don’t know where to start.

Well, unlike Splendid, I’ll start at the beginning. The actors are on stage, not in-role, and interacting with the audience. They greet us, make sure we’re comfortable, ask someone to hold a mirror while they finish their make-up. They explain what they are doing (“We’re setting it up so that we can make a tonal change in a minute”), and there is such wit and warm-heartedness in the approach that it’s impossible not to smile.

And then they go to the end. The murder scene. There’s a numbered caption board telling us that this is scene 23, and what happens in it, and there are three actors and there’s a stage full of props. Sound effects are produced on stage in front of us. Costume changes too. The caption cards change with every scene, and the chronology is all over the place. There’s music and singing, and audience participation. We are made to feel complicit in the killing and in Woyzeck’s destruction; why don’t we intervene and stop it? And it’s marvellous, all of it. Brechtian brilliance. Fourth wall ripped away. Lively, confrontational, exciting and joyous. The best thing I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

Thank you, Splendid. I’ll be coming to see this again when you go on tour.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Holly Walsh – Never Had It

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18/08/14

Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

Holly Walsh likes to paint herself as a bit of a nerd – back as a teenager, when all her mates were riding a maelstrom of illegal drugs and enjoying all kinds of sexual encounters, she was the one collecting her Duke of Edinburgh award. This pleasingly intimate performance is supported by her canny use of PowerPoint – a much neglected comedy aid. Some of her selected images have us laughing out loud, particularly her use of marginalia from medieval manuscripts (trust me, it’s much funnier than it sounds).

There’s also plenty of lively interplay with her audience, some cleverly improvised verbal exchanges and the performance never loses sight of its initial concept, that of the perennial ‘uncool’ individual beset by those who actually ‘have it.’ A sequence about a shaming event in a tapas bar was a particular highlight for me but, to be honest, the laughter never flags throughout the hour long set. Walsh may not be the coolest comedian on the block but, on the evidence of this show, she’s well on her way to being one of the funniest.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Just Like That – The Tommy Cooper Show

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18/08/14

Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh

Tommy Cooper was a legendary comedian and it’s no surprise that in any given year at the Fringe, you’ll find a couple of tribute shows devoted to him. ‘Just Like That,’ featuring Lincolnshire-based John Hewer, comes with the blessing of the Cooper estate – and little wonder. While he doesn’t really resemble the late comedian, he nonetheless inhabits the man’s persona to an uncanny degree, offering a note-perfect set compiled from some of Cooper’s lesser known cabaret routines.

Cooper was one of those rare comedians who was just innately funny. His act, a ragbag collection of terrible puns and amateurish magic would have foundered and sunk in the hands of any other comedian. But Hewer knows exactly how do deliver the goods. Within minutes of his entrance, the audience are laughing hysterically and it never falters throughout the hour long show. Okay, so there are no surprises here – you get exactly what it says on the can. An impersonation of a comedy genius. But as a lifelong Cooper fan, I was transported by this show. Go along expecting nothing but a good, hearty laugh and you won’t be disappointed.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Austen

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16/08/14

The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh

I’ll be honest; this one started at a disadvantage: I don’t really like musicals very much. It’s not a blanket prejudice (I think Matilda is delightful, Little Shop a lot of fun and Cabaret bloody brilliant) but it’s not my favourite theatrical genre. I’m also aware that a small Fringe production can’t be expected to have the same impact as those big-budget West End shows I’ve mentioned above, and yet… It could so easily have been much more than it was.

We saw a musical two-hander last year (I Need a Doctor), which was lively and charming and used its size to its advantage. Austen, with four actors, always felt too small.

The conceit has potential: two students researching Austen discover that the spinster author had a love life of her own. The action cuts between the students in the present day, and moments depicting Jane’s relationships in the past. Sadly, it doesn’t really work. The songs all sound the same as one another, with no shift in tone for the modern day. A single piano is used for each of the bland ballads, and the lyrics are oddly anachronistic (most of the dialogue is faux-Austen in style, but there’s a song which repeats the very modern refrain ‘You’re so special’ so often that it’s utterly nauseating, and makes you long for Radiohead to complete the idea). 

And the story itself is weak. It might surprise the two students to discover that Jane Austen had relationships, but it surely doesn’t surprise anyone who’s read her books or even looked her up on Wikipedia. She did live in the real world and enjoy some social interaction. And, in truth, her putative affairs weren’t really very interesting: a flirtation, a friendship and a rejected proposal. So what? Why do they care? What do they think it says to them?

There are spurious links made between the people Austen encountered and the characters in her books. We are not allowed to make these connections for ourselves, but have them pointed out to us in some clunky exposition: “Oh, he must be the inspiration for Wickham!” Mrs Austen is conflated with Mrs Bennett; it’s all just too pat and convenient.

It wasn’t all terrible; the actors did their best with the turgid script, and they could all sing rather well. The scene with the royal librarian was funny and engaging. But, all in all, this is one to miss.

0.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Product

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Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

14/08/14

When it premiered at the Traverse Theatre in 2005, Mark Ravenhill’s Product starred the playwright himself as a desperate Hollywood producer, pitching a dreadful script to an actor who is clearly never going to take the part. I missed that version, but was delighted to have the opportunity to see director Robert Shaw’s revival of this sharp satire, this time with Olivia Poulet (Leah) delivering the monologue.

Poulet is perfectly cast; she oozes flattery and fake sincerity, skewering a character who believes that – if she just keeps talking, if she just keeps pretending – she will somehow manage to save her career and convince the actor to take the part. But the actor is us – the audience – and we can see through Leah’s posturing; indeed, the humour derives almost as much from Leah’s lack of self-awareness as it does from the increasingly ridiculous details she reveals from the script.

And how deliciously ridiculous those details are: the script emerges as a sexually explicit rom-com about Al Qaeda (improbably named Mohammed and Me), and there are laughs a-plenty as Leah attempts to make the prospect tempting. She focuses on the costume (Versace), the accommodation (a Docklands flat) – as if the actor will be as beguiled as Leah herself by the promise of such vicarious luxury.

I love this piece: I love its humour, its bite and – ultimately – its simplicity. I love the way that Ravenhill has somehow managed to construct a wonderfully written play mainly by writing an appalling film, and I love the vulnerability that Poulet brings to what is essentially an unsympathetic role.  I’ve seen (and enjoyed) a lot of student productions during this year’s Fringe, but sometimes it’s good to see what a seasoned professional can do. Sterling stuff.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield