Gilded Balloon

Edfest Bouquets 2022

The frenzy of the Fringe is over. It’s been beyond wonderful to see our city so vibrant again, after two quiet years. We’ve seen a startling range of exciting shows, covering many genres. We’re exhausted – but it’s not quite over yet. It’s time to award our virtual bouquets to the best performances we saw. The standard seemed higher than ever this time: has the break given writers and performers more time to sharpen their acts, or were we just lucky with the productions we chose? Either way, there were lots of contenders in each category, but we’ve narrowed them down to our favourite five.

So, without further ado, we present our choice of the best shows we saw at Edfest 2022.

THEATRE

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe (ZOO Playground)

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe is the sort of play which exemplifies the Fringe at its best. Written by Benny Ainsworth and directed by Sally Paffett (Triptytch Theatre), this ingeniously constructed monologue features Michael Parker as the titular Stuart, delivering Ainsworth’s script with consummate skill.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Summerhall)

Based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez and adapted for the stage by Dan Colley, Manus Halligan and Genevieve Hulme Beaman, this is the tale of Elisenda and Palayo, two impoverished people who live in a rickety shack on the edge of a small town. Their tale is related by Elisenda (Karen McCartney) in a deliciously sinister style. She’s aided by Palayo (Manus Halligan), who barely utters a word, but moves humbly around the stage, using a curious mixture of handicrafts and high-tech devices to illustrate the story – a series of simplistic figurines, illuminated by tiny cameras and lights, take us into their miniature world.

Sap (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Rafaella Marcus has scripted a deliciously labyrinthine tale about sexual identity (specifically bi-invisibility), one that cleverly assimilates a Greek myth into its core. The maze-like structure is beautifully captured by Jessica Clark and Rebecca Banatvala’s hyper-physical performances, directed by Jessica Lazar and Jennifer Fletcher.

Hungry (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Chris Bush’s 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. Hungry is a class act, so assured that, even amidst the host of treasures on offer at this year’s Roundabout, it dazzles like a precious gem. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Assembly Roxy)

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. Flabbergast Theatre’s eight-strong cast reel around the stage, plastered in mud and raving and flailing around like demented beings. This is a play about the madness brought on by the seductive power of hubris, so it feels entirely appropriate. It explodes, it capers, it struts its fretful stuff upon the stage and signifies plenty…

COMEDY

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

Both Samuel Barnett and Marcelo Dos Santos deserve huge praise for what is undoubtedly one of the best collaborations between writer and performer that I’ve ever witnessed. The narrator is working me like a master magician, mesmerising me, misdirecting me, even scattering a trail of clues which I somehow manage to overlook. The result? When the piece reaches its conclusion, I feel as though I’ve been punched in the solar plexus.

Kylie Brakeman: Linda Hollywood’s Guide to Hollywood (Gilded Balloon Patterhoose)

Making her Edinburgh Fringe debut, Kylie Brakeman delivers her cleverly scripted lines with consummate skill, and the whip-smart, snarky one-liners flow like honey laced with vinegar. It’s more than just a series of laughs. It also nails the cynicism and hypocrisy of the movie industry with deadly precision. I leave convinced that Brakeman (already a major name online, with over sixty million views) is destined to play much bigger venues than this one. 

Emily Wilson: Fixed (Pleasance Courtyard)

Emily Wilson’s Fixed is part musical, part stand-up and part catharsis. She appeared on The X Factor USA back in 2011, as one half of the earnestly named duo, Ausem. “Because my best friend’s called Austin, and my name’s Emily, so together we’re Ausem!” She was 15 and thought she was destined to become a star. But then she hit a snag. The judges decided they liked Austin, but not Emily… What emerges is a thoughtful commentary on fame, ambition and exploitation, and it’s riveting.

Christopher Bliss: Captain Wordseye (Pleasance Courtyard)

Christopher Bliss (Rob Carter) is a new name to me and I can only regret that it’s taken me this long to encounter him. He’s that rarest of things, a brilliant character comedian… and a literary genius to boot. I can’t wait for his words of advice on poetry, which I have long considered my Achilles heel…

The Anniversary (Pleasance Dome)

Jim (Daniel Tobias) and Barb (Clare Bartholomew) are eagerly preparing for their 50th wedding anniversary but they’re not always in control of things and some of the items in the finger buffet might better be avoided. This handsomely mounted helping of slapstick from Australian company, Salvador Dinosaur, features no real dialogue, just gibberish and the occasional mention of each other’s names – but the soundtrack is far from silent. It’s essentially a piece about the indignities of ageing, replete with references to forgetfulness, dodgy bowels and the ill-advised over-application of both prescription drugs and prunes. It ought to be tragic but it’s somehow horribly funny.

SPECIAL MENTIONS

Fills Monkey: We Will Drum You (Pleasance Courtyard)

Sebastian Rambaud and Yann Coste are two brilliant percussionists, the kind of people you imagine could go through an entire day without ever breaking beat. They begin with conventional sets of drums, hammering out thrilling polyrhythms as the audience claps along. But they have an air of competitiveness about them and the stakes keep rising. It really helps that the two percussionists are also accomplished clowns. Working under the direction of Daniél Briere, they’ve devised a show that switches back and forth through a whole series of scenarios, never lingering too long in one place to ever feel repetitive. 

Manic Street Creature (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Manic Street Creature, written and performed by Maimuna Memon, is an assured slice of gig theatre that focuses on the subject of mental health from a slightly different perspective – that of the carer. Memon tells the story through a sequence of songs being recorded in a studio session. She’s a confident, assured performer, with a thrilling vocal range, accompanying herself on acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards and shruti box. When everything’s in full flow, the story takes flight and I feel myself propelled along by its urgent, rhythmic pulse.

The Ofsted Massacre (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

Phil Porter’s script feels like it’s been torn from the inside of a stressed-out teacher’s head: a revenge fantasy, born of despair. It’s also a very funny play, drawing on Shakespeare, while lampooning staffroom stereotypes and exposing every cliché. This production, by Kingston Grammar School’s sixth form drama students, is a triumph. The young cast embrace their roles, eliciting gales of laughter from the audience with their well-timed punchlines and impressive slapstick.

Making a Murderer: The Musical (Underbelly Bristo Square)

Like millions of others across the UK, I was transfixed by the Netflix documentary, Making A Murderer – so when I spot a poster on the Royal Mile with the words ‘The Musical‘ tacked onto the end, I’m intrigued – and simultaneously doubtful. Isn’t that going to be… disrespectful? But, in the capable hands of writer Phil Mealey, MAMTM offers a compelling version of the familiar events, a fresh perspective on the story that never feels like a cheap shot. The songs are terrific throughout, ranging from spirited rockers to plaintive ballads. What’s more, the production supports (and is supported by) The Innocence Project.

The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera (Underbelly Bristo Square)

Describing an act as ‘unique’ is often considered a cop-out, and yet I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe The Tiger Lillies, three remarkable musicians currently strutting their inimitable stuff at The Cow Barn on Bristo Square. Originally formed way back in 1989, they’ve been through a number of personnel changes over the years, though the macabre compositions of singer-songwriter Martyn Jacques have remained a constant. They describe themselves as “Brechtian Punk Cabaret”, and who am I to argue with them?

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Louisa Fitzhardinge: Comma Sutra

07/08/19

Gilded Balloon Patter House (Nip), Edinburgh

Louisa Fitzhardinge is an engaging performer, her nerdy enthusiasm both infectious and entertaining. This is a show about language and pedantry, and about learning to embrace who you really are. Fitzhardinge opens with some grammar gripes, then sings us her autobiography, explaining how an early love of reading led to a modern languages degree.

I relate to Comma Sutra well. I too completed a BA in German, and – like Fitzhardinge – went on to study Theatre. I’m a stickler for proper punctuation, and a fan of the Oxford comma. Her subject matter appeals to me.

In places, Comma Sutra is very good; there’s a lot of sprightly wordplay, and the final multi-lingual number is particularly impressive. Fitzhardinge has a lovely voice, and the songs are witty and fun. Sometimes it feels a little superficial though, those gags about apostrophes and misplaced commas perhaps too easy and unchallenging. I don’t mind the dad jokes and the terrible puns – but  they’re not exactly demanding, and I find this section drags somewhat. I think I’d just like her to dig a bit deeper, to explore less charted territory.

Overall, though, I enjoy myself. It’s a pleasure to spend an hour in the company of this charming pedant, and I leave with a smile on my face as I think about ‘oak croissants’.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Shattered

06/08/19

Gilded Balloon Teviot (Balcony), Edinburgh

Shattered is an intense and bruising journey into Diana Varco’s psyche, as she details her struggle to piece herself together after facing several traumatic events. Her fragmentation is physicalised, the warring factions within her performed as distinct personae. Shame, for example, is a snivelling wretch, all malice and insinuation. Security means well, but is sometimes out of its depth, defensive when it lets her down. Truth is a nagging ‘actually…’and Denial a fixed fake grin. In all, some thirty-five traits are personified here; Varco’s performance is a real tour-de-force.

But it’s a difficult watch, and not just because of the disturbing subject matter. Maybe I’m just too British (or too old), but – if I’m honest – I find this level of self-analysis a little alienating. It’s a brave, soul-baring piece, but a bit too introspective for my taste.

Still, there’s no denying the quality of Varco’s acting, nor the strength of character required to emerge triumphant from such calamity.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood

05/08/19

Gilded Balloon Patter House (Doonstairs), Edinburgh

We last encountered Rebecca Perry back in 2015, when we saw her Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl. We enjoyed that show, but this latest offering – a celebration of four Old Hollywood greats – is an altogether grander and more ambitious affair.

The greats in question are Bette Davies, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton and Lucille Ball. Perry clearly idolises her chosen subjects and, through anecdote and song, reminds us why they still matter. It’s a compelling performance: her voice is powerful and her depictions engaging. She doesn’t exactly give us impersonations; instead, we get a flavour of each character, with a dash of old-style glamour thrown in. Perry’s admiration for the women shines through each and every song.

The venue is ideally suited to the piece, the architecture and décor both evoking the feel of an old cinema. The acoustics are good too, which matters a lot in a piece like this, where one showstopper after another is belted out across the auditorium.

If I have a criticism, it’s a very minor one. Because Perry introduces the women chronologically, the climactic emotional moment (her stunning rendition of Over the Rainbow) occurs somewhere around the mid-point of the show. I understand why she’s chosen to present the stories this way, but it does seem a shame not to end on that poignant note.

No matter, From Judy to Bette is a mighty fine show, and well worth going to see.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Leave a Message

04/08/19

Gilded Balloon (Patter Hoose), Edinburgh

Ed (Ed Coleman) arrives at the flat of his recently deceased father, Nicholas. He’s been saddled with the thankless task of clearing the place out. Luckily for him, he’s soon joined by his close friend, Sarah (Eleanor Fanyinka), who makes valiant attempts to jolly him through the process, but it’s no easy matter. Nicholas was a loner, who walked out on his marriage years ago, and has been estranged from his son ever since.

Poking through the paperwork, Ed discovers several references to Linda (Denise Stephenson) and begins to realise that there are things about his father he doesn’t know – and that the two of them might have more in common than he wants to accept. So he calls Linda and invites her over for a heart-to-heart.

Co-written by Coleman and James Mitchell,  Leave a Message positively crackles with taut, witty dialogue, coaxing plenty of laughs out of what could so easily be a maudlin tale of self-destruction. Indeed, the scene where Ed and Sarah cavort through the rubbish-strewn apartment to the strains of A-Ha’s Take On Me comes close to being downright joyful. The performances are uniformly engaging, the actors breathing real life into their respective characters. These feel suspiciously like real people.

If you’re looking for sharp insightful writing and assured acting, then this is a perfect place to look. Go, enjoy this and tell all your friends.

Leave a Message is a cracker.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Pat Hobby Stories

02/08/19

Gilded Balloon Teviot (Sportsmans), Edinburgh

Until today, I’d never heard F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories. I’ve read Gatsby, of course, and Tender is the Night, but these witty so-called ‘throw away’ tales are completely new to me.

And I like them. Pat Hobby is a dissolute writer (think Ed Reardon, but in 1930s Hollywood), clinging to the vestiges of a once illustrious career. His meagre writing skills have been rendered obsolete by the arrival of talkies, and the subsequent requirement for actual scripted dialogue. He hangs around the studio lots, blagging food and calling in favours, taking on odd bits of jobs to earn a buck or two. He’s a gift of a character: all bluster and envy, lurching perilously from scrape to scrape.

No wonder Fringe Management wanted to put him on the stage.

Paul Birchard brings the loveable rogue to life with consummate ease, telling the stories as written, describing Hobby’s actions in the third person, yet still embodying him convincingly. There’s real warmth in the performance, and personality; the grit behind the Hollywood glitz is revealed in this small room.

The room, however, does not do this production any favours. The soundproofing seems to be non-existent, and the show next door is some kind of rollicking romp, with loud music, mic’d performers, and lots of raucous laughter and applause. I have no idea how Birchard manages to concentrate, but he’s clearly a seasoned professional, ignoring it completely, not letting the disruption interrupt his flow. It doesn’t spoil the show exactly (I get used to the noise after a while), but it is annoying, and threatens the intimacy of this detailed portrayal. Hopefully (sorry Jacob Rees-Mogg), the venue will get this sorted for tomorrow, and Birchard will be able to perform in peace.

A clever, amusing show – this deserves to be seen.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Normaler Than Everyone

31/07/19

Gilded Balloon Teviot, Nightclub

The first show of the Fringe is always an uncertain affair. Audiences are still warming up, the performers are finding their feet and the ticketing system is going through the difficult process of ‘settling in.’ So it’s gratifying to start with something so good, and so ideally suited to a Fringe setting. It’s intimate, confessional and thought-provoking – everything you’d want in one handy package.

The lights dim and out strolls Brian Joseph, a tall affable American, clearly brimming with self-confidence. He picks up an acoustic guitar and plays in a style that evokes the great Don McLean, a whimsical song about how ‘normal’ he is, how he’s just an ordinary guy with nothing much to say. But don’t be fooled. He has plenty to tell us and it helps that he’s so versatile, delivering songs in a range of styles on a variety of stringed instruments and, at one point, even bashing out a jaunty Randy Newmanesque piece on an electric keyboard.

His set is regularly punctuated by his photographs – indeed, he takes a few pictures of the audience along the way and invites us to return the favour – and, as his story unfolds, it gradually begins to dawn on me that there is a darker subtext here, one that is finally revealed in a moment that actually hits me like a punch to the solar plexus. I won’t spoil it by revealing what it is, but prepare to be moved.

Joseph guides us expertly through his ‘based-on-real-experience’ story, manipulating his audience with real aplomb and somehow, after dragging my emotions over the coals, he still manages to send me out of the show, singing the chorus of his final song over and over. (Apologies to anyone unlucky enough to be in earshot.)

If this is a portent of what’s to come this year, then bring it on. But whatever the case, Normaler Than Everyone is well worth your attention.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2018

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Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Another year, another plethora of exciting theatre. We’ve been moved, motivated and mesmerised by so much of what we’ve seen. And here, in order of viewing, are our favourites of 2018.

The Belle’s Stratagem – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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This production looked ravishing, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Fast, furious and frenetic, this was a real crowd-pleaser.

Rhinoceros – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it was prescient. There were some great comic turns, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music added to the mood of transformation.

Creditors – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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We thought we’d seen all we wanted of Strindberg, but Creditors made us think again. Because this production was a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminated and animated the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas.

Sunshine on Leith – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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Sunshine On Leith was an absolute charmer. From the opening chords of the climactic I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the entire audience was delightedly clapping hands and stamping feet with a force that seemed to shake the beautiful old theatre to its very foundations.

Home, I’m Darling – Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

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A clever play, with a lot to say. Katherine Parkinson starred as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. Through her brittle fetishisation of the past, the script laid bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence and looked at the present with an eye that matched Judy’s gimlet cocktail.

Not in Our Neighbourhood – Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

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This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackled the difficult subject of domestic abuse and featured an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We saw some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this was singularly impressive.

Six the Musical – Udderbelly, Edinburgh

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An inventive and exuberant pop-opera, which felt like the most exciting, vibrant history lesson ever. The band and actors powered effortlessly through a whole range of different musical styles, from straight pop to power ballad, from soul to Germanic disco. The songs featured witty lyrics which related the women’s experiences in modern day terms – and we’ve been obsessed with them ever since.

The Swell Mob – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

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The most genuinely immersive theatrical experience we’ve ever been part of. We were free to wander the 1830s tap room, replete with a real bar, and mix with a whole host of extraordinary characters: a crooked American doctor, a fortune teller, a soldier, a card-player… The more we engaged, the more was revealed… Superb and truly innovative.

Macbeth – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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We were relieved and delighted that this touring production was so good. We knew that this interpretation of the play had been quite controversial, but it really worked for us. It captured the very essence of Macbeth and illuminated the themes and characters with great clarity.

The Unreturning – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them, simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. The haunting prose was augmented by incredible physicality as the actors ran, leapt, clambered and whirled around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves.

Beauty and the Beast – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, we were treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it was so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes had us roaring with laughter.

Mouthpiece – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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Powered by searing performances from Neve Macintosh and Lorn MacDonald, Mouthpiece was, quite simply, an astonishing play. Kieran Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brought the two protagonists head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

 

 

A Work in Progress

20/08/18

Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a good idea: if you’re a young actor and you’re not getting enough work, then why not write your own roles? And, if you’re really canny, why not go all meta, and write a play about a young actor who’s not getting enough work, and embarks on a mission to write her own roles?

And so A Work in Progress is born: Hannah Morton’s play about two friends, John and Jane, who – after a brief prelude, where we are shown the spirit-crushing nightmare of failing auditions – barricade themselves into John’s flat, determined not to leave until they’ve had their Ruth Jones/James Cordon epiphany, and penned a veritable hit.

Morton, who stars alongside director Daniel Cullen, is an engaging performer, and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments here, notably the Porpoises in Space routines, which are wonderfully daft. The playful bickering between the two is nicely drawn, and Cullen has an appealing cheekiness, which helps create the atmosphere.

It’s a shame that the script focuses so much on banter, I think; I know the relationship is central to the piece, but there’s so much badinage that it becomes a little repetitive. I’d have liked to have seen them trying harder to write their play, to have been shown more of their putative scripts – a range of genres, for example, would have made the piece more varied and interesting to watch. There’s a bit of corpsing too, which is a pity – although it can, of course, happen to anyone, and maybe today is a one off.

It’s good to see young creatives making their own opportunities, and this piece is certainly good fun.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Not in our Neighbourhood

12/08/18

Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

Not In Our Neighbourhood arrives in Edinburgh as part of the ‘New Zealand at the Fringe’ package. This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackles the difficult subject of domestic abuse and features an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We’ve already seen some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this might just be the most impressive yet.

Kopae plays young filmmaker, Maisey Mata, who is shooting a documentary at a Women’s Refuge. We first see her setting up a tripod to film her introduction – but, we can’t help noticing, there’s no camera on that tripod. In essence, the audience becomes the camera, watching as Kopae depicts several of the women that Mata meets at the Refuge. There’s motor-mouthed Sasha, the young mother of several children who just can’t help getting herself into hot water. There’s 51-year-old Cat, so worn down by years of systematic abuse by family members that she can hardly construct a sentence. There’s Moira, the bubbly and ever pragmatic woman who runs the refuge. And there’s Teresa, an outwardly successful businesswoman, who appears to have everything she needs, but has endured a violent marriage for twenty years and kept her grievances under wraps… until now.

Kopae switches effortlessly from character to character, inhabiting each role so expertly that we’re never in any doubt as to who is talking at any given moment. The term ‘tour de force’ is often used, but is rarely as deserved as it is here.

With acting this accomplished it would be all too easy to overlook the writing, but that too deserves our praise. The script nimbly avoids cliche and presents a completely credible exploration of its chosen subject. It may not be the kind of thing that draws big festival crowds but make no mistake, this is a fabulous piece of theatre that  deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Get yourselves down to the Rose Theatre with all haste, before this wonderful show heads back to NZ. It’ll be your loss.

5 stars

Philip Caveney