Gilded Balloon

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

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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

 

 

 

Aye, Elvis

10/08/18

Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

Joyce Falconer stars as Joanie in Morna Young’s engaging play. Joanie’s world is dreary and dull: she bickers daily with her housebound mum, and dreams of something more exciting than her supermarket checkout job. Singing karaoke at the local pub leads to an obsession with Elvis, and she sets herself up as a tribute act, drawn into the cameraderie of online chat groups dedicated to the King. Encouraged by Fat Bob, the pub landlord, she sets out on an ambitious project that is sure to change her life.

Aye, Elvis is a big hit with tonight’s (largely Scottish) audience, who are vocally appreciative throughout, joining in with the big numbers, clapping and laughing and generally enjoying what they see. It’s not hard to see why: this is entertaining, feelgood stuff: silly and poignant and hilarious throughout. Falconer clearly has a strong fan-base here; she has a twinkle in her eye, and seems to be relishing her time on this small stage. Karen Ramsey makes the most of some deliciously acerbic lines as Joanie’s crabby mum, and David McGowan’s Fat Bob is a charming, calming presence.

Dazzlingly costumed and played for laughs, this is a lot of fun, and definitely worth making a trip to see. It even gets a standing ovation from the crowd – the first we’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Safe Place

21/08/17

Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place is the drama I’ve been waiting for: a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asks (and answers) many questions, and all within the framework of a genuinely good play with convincing, well-rounded characters. It’s nuanced and intelligent, and it’s entertaining too.

Martine (Jennifer Black) is a Germaine Greer-type figure: a well-respected academic with unimpeachable feminist credentials. But she’s out of touch when it comes to transgender issues, dismissive of the idea that one can ‘choose’ to become a woman. She is forced to confront her beliefs head-on when Rowan (Shane Convery) arrives at her door in the early hours of the morning, starving, homeless and begging for help. Because trans-woman Rowan, despite her desperate need for food and shelter, is uncompromising in her demand that she should be accepted for who she is: not as a lesser, ‘unreal’ kind of woman, but as an equal – different but every bit as valid.

If the conceit is a little contrived – and it is – then it doesn’t really matter. Because the conversation between the two women opens up an important debate. We need to listen to each other, young and old and in-between, to reach a mutual understanding. I leave this play better informed, having witnessed the interrogation of some of my own unwitting prejudices. I’m glad that Martine is given the chance to express her doubts, and that she’s treated with respect; she might be wrong, but she deserves to be part of the conversation.

But the starring role here, quite rightly, is Shane Convery’s: Rowan is a fascinating character, played with charm and subtlety by the young actor. She’s delicate but strong, wounded but still fighting. And she wins the day – because she’s clearly right. It’s a stunning performance.

This isn’t quite a two-hander: there’s a bit of light relief in the form of Martine’s agent, Nina (Shonagh Price), who helps illuminate Martine’s position, and slyly undermine it too.

This play, beautifully written by Clara Glynn, is an important piece of theatre. I’d love to see it taken into schools – not so much for students as for teachers, although I’m sure teenagers would gain from it too. But it’s my generation that most needs to learn this stuff and here is a ‘safe place’ for us to do just that. The only thing that could make it better would be a companion piece about trans-men.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Amy Howerska: Smashcat

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29/08/16

Gilded Balloon@The CountingHouse

Amy Howerska is on top form. It’s the final night of the Fringe, but she’s as lively and sparky as ever, and this is an excellent set. There’s less of a theme than last year’s Sasspot; but that doesn’t seem to matter. This year’s show is loosely based around the idea of growing up, of realising that behaviours that mark us out as funny and appealing when we’re young start to seem tragic as we get older.

She’s dressed as Freddie Mercury (from the I Want To Break Free video), complete with greasepaint moustache, and she totally manages to rock the look.

There’s a sense of scattershot  about the show as Howerska hops nimbly from one idea to the next, from David Bowie’s Labyrinth, to her sister’s similarity to Nessa from Gavin and Stacey, but it all flows effortlessly and it’s laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end. Haverska has oodles of charisma and a self-confidence that’s really very appealing indeed.

As we make our way outside, fireworks are lighting up the sky to mark the end of the Fringe, but, we decide, Amy’s show was a better place to be.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Ryan Cull: Brace Yourself

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18/08/16

Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh

Ryan Cull is Canadian and it’s soon evident that his homeland, and what happened to him in his childhood, has pretty much shaped the man he is today. As a youngster, he suffered from Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a condition which affects the hip and meant that he had to spend a couple of his formative years wearing leg braces. He supplies a large photograph of himself wearing them and asks if anybody in the audience has heard of the disease. There’s a doctor in the house, who says she knows about it. Amazingly, there’s also a man who is actually suffering with the condition himself, and a woman whose brother has it. Cull does a double take and claims this is the first time this has happened to him. He suggests that the four of them should go out for lunch.

Cull has an appealing personality and he’s good at talking to his audience and getting them to talk back to him. His best material is the stuff that deals with the childhood illness and the lifelong effect it’s had on him. Some of his other stuff (a riff about the people he dislikes on Facebook, for instance) suffers from over-familiarity while his views on what constitutes a ‘real man,’ seem faintly old fashioned.

But he’s a good storyteller and the tale about his youthful attempt to get rid of his freckles using a razor is (if you’ll forgive the pun) hair-raising. This is pleasant, likeable stuff, and well worth checking out.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

The Free Association Presents: The Wunderkammer

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12/08/16

Gilded Balloon @ The Counting House, Edinburgh

The Wunderkammer by Do Not Adjust Your Stage is an improv show with a difference. Rather than responding to audience suggestions – a formula we’re surely all accustomed to by now – the eight-strong team relies instead on invited guests speakers to provide them with inspiration.

It’s an interesting strategy, adding another dimension to the show and unleashing the potential for ideas to fly in all directions.

First up today we have magician Kevin Quantum. His tale of a half finished PhD and a discussion on the ethics of magic are both fascinating, if somewhat overshadowed by the impressive magic trick he performs at the end (how did he do that?), and pave the way for the troupe to develop some outlandish improvisations. Next up is Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, knighted for his role in cloning Dolly the sheep, who talks about gene selection and designer babies. It’s a more serious topic, perhaps too serious for the improvisations it sparks, which inevitably trivialise the scientific work that inspire them. There are some laughs though, not least when Matthew Stevens steps in, in role, to question the validity of the pseudo-science being spouted.

It’s a neat idea, with the benefit of built-in callbacks to ideas from the speeches, and, if it’s a little ramshackle, it’s endearingly so. These young performers aren’t quite as fluent as improv veterans such as Stu Murphy or Garry Dobson, but they’re entertaining nonetheless, and show a lot of promise. If you’ve a spare hour at lunchtime, you could do a lot worse than spend it here.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield