Pleasance Courtyard

Impact

25/08/18

Pleasance Courtyard (This), Edinburgh

As we take our seats in Pleasance This, our narrator, played by Richard Henderson, invites us to choose from a rack of envelopes set out in front of us, to read their contents and discuss them amongst ourselves. He’ll ‘be back soon,’ he assures us. The envelopes contain various victim impact statements, all relating to the same terrible tragedy – but the details of the incident are nebulous enough to keep us guessing. (A note to the producers: maybe think about printing out the letters in a larger font. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who have trouble reading them in the subdued light.)

The narrator returns and begins his story. He is an office worker, an average guy searching for something more in his life. A chance encounter on a train leads him to visit a group of animal rights activists, an group with whom he becomes more and more involved. As the story progresses, it begins to dawn on us that this narrator is not a very nice person at all… and we eventually learn how far this man will go in order to achieve his aims.

Henderson is compelling in a very difficult role, holding our attention even as he makes us begin to despise the narrator and all he stands for. The juxtaposition of his warm smile and gentle voice with the monstrous nature he gradually reveals is subtle but most effective.

The narrative sags a little in the middle, and it’s disappointing to see some of the most enticing set-ups fizzle into not-very-much, but the denouement is genuinely climactic and ultimately justifies what’s gone before.

4 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

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The Fetch Wilson

25/08/18

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

This curiously titled monologue, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Edwin Mullane, is a clever and compelling shaggy dog story. We’re told by the makers that it’s inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, but I’d say there’s more than a dash of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in there and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

This is all about Liam Wilson, a young Dubliner addicted to gambling. He’s looking back over his life and the complex series of events that has brought him to his current predicament. It’s also about the ‘other’ Liam Wilson, a boy at his school with the same name, somebody he is initially suspicious of, but whom he is fated to meet up with at various key points during his life. Is the other Liam the friend he appears to be – or something rather more sinister?

Mullane is a charismatic and likeable narrator – and the play’s simple staging, which uses oversized playing cards to represent key characters in the story, is nicely done. If the eventual revelation doesn’t exactly come as the greatest surprise, well, no matter, because there are things in here that I really haven’t anticipated, and it’s fun just watching the expert way in which Mullane reels his audience deeper and deeper into the narrative.

Assuming you’re reading this on the 26th, you have only one more chance to catch this intriguing production , so why not give it a whirl?

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Flies

14/08/18

Pleasance Two, Edinburgh

Flies, by Oliver Lansley, is a story of overpowering obsession. Dennis (George Readshaw) has a phobia of flies, one so all-consuming that he has taken to sealing up the doors and windows of his flat, even putting tape over the plug holes in the bathroom every night. Driven almost to distraction by his fears of the little buzzers, he decides to look for an insect-free environment in which to live. An internet search informs him that his best bet is Antartica, so he promptly sells all his belongings and books a flight. But, on the journey over there, things start to go spectacularly awry.

You see, it’s not easy to get such matters out of your mind when you’re being followed by one fly in particular, a white tuxedoed lounge lizard who looks and talks uncannily like a young Kenneth Branagh, striding about and telling the audience, with great relish, how he’s going to defecate into their food and then vomit it all up again. In the role of the fly (not to mention, Dennis’s psychiatrist, Dr Rickman and occasionally, a polar bear) Piers Hampton has an absolute field day. And then there’s the third member of the cast, Harry Humberstone, a tall, gangly all-rounder, who plays a range of smaller roles, provides various sound effects and bashes out a bit of rock guitar.

Throw in some ramshackle special effects, a programme note that assures us that this is a sustainable show and ‘all cling film is recycled’ and you might begin to get the measure of this spectacularly loopy production. It’s quite clear from the large and enthusiastic crowd at Pleasance Two that what we have here is a palpable Fringe hit and one that fully deserves all the attention it’s getting.

Go and lap this up, but be sure to keep a close eye on the plate of food you eat in the Pleasance Courtyard afterwards. You never know what might be in there…

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Velvet

10/08/18

Pleasance Courtyard (That), Edinburgh

Tom Ratcliffe’s Velvet is a fascinating piece,  an I-can’t-bear-it-but-I-can’t-look-away depiction of a young actor’s downfall, as unscrupulous industry moguls prey on his vulnerability.

He plays Tom (the name is a nod to the fact that the play, which he has written, while not autobiographical, draws on his own experiences), a recent drama school graduate, ambitious and hopeful, determined to realise his dream. He is working, just not as much as he wants, and – like most actors – he has to take on temping jobs so that he can pay his bills. His banker boyfriend, Matthew, doesn’t really understand; he thinks Tom should pursue other career options, find something more stable, but Tom has a vocation and he needs to follow his star. His mum isn’t much better; she’s over-critical and unsupportive. Tom has no one to turn to when things start to unravel.

And unravel they do, pretty much from the start, when a casting director makes a pass and Tom refuses. It’s all terribly polite, but the ramifications are life-changing. The calls dry up. He’s desperate. And, of course, there are always vultures out there, ready to take advantage of despair.

This is a bravura performance, captivating and engrossing; I’m utterly beguiled. There is a disarming authenticity to the piece, which draws us deep into Tom’s world. It’s a clear example, too, of why the #MeToo movement matters: there are people with too much power, abusing their positions to control the powerless. Of course Tom makes foolish decisions; he doesn’t know what else to do. The establishment have closed ranks, barred him; he hasn’t danced to their tune and now he must be punished.

It’s painful to watch, and all too convincing. Ratcliffe performs with real openness, so that Tom’s humiliation makes us hurt with him, and I find myself blinking away tears. The play’s structure is interesting, a non-linear depiction of events, with simple light and sound effects jolting us in and out of key moments. I like the image of the casting couch too, the velvet chaise longue that remains onstage throughout, a permanent reminder of what this is about.

This is a triumph, actually – and deserves a bigger audience than the one we were part of today.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Kwame Asante: Teenage Heartblob

07/08/18

Pleasance Courtyard (Cellar), Edinburgh

Kwame Asante’s latest show, Teenage Heartblob, purports to focus on his experiences as an overweight child and obese teenager, as well as how he now responds to other people’s obesity in his day job as an NHS doctor. And it does, kind of, although not in much detail.

He’s a likeable character; his stage persona is warm and affable, friendly and relatable. He’s impressive too: still only twenty-eight, and already enjoying success in two difficult careers. He clearly has huge affection for his family, and his openness is quite disarming. When he shows a photograph of his mother, for example, there’s an audible ‘aaah…’ from the audience. His charm is indisputable.

The most interesting sections of the show are those relating to his younger days, especially the stories of summers spent visiting Ghana, his frustration at feeling first-generation immigrant guilt, at not quite fitting in, either there or in London.

It’s not ROFL stuff, but it’s not meant to be: there’s a contemplative air to Asante’s set; he’d be a great after-dinner speaker, I think. Sometimes I wish he’d mine his ideas further – there is a tendency to draw back that means we don’t go deep enough; he skims over losing weight, the impact this must have had, how he really feels about obesity as a doctor, etc. This would be a stronger show if he could make that extra push.

Still, there are far worse ways to spend an hour than in the company of this accomplished and entertaining man.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Brexit

06/08/18

Pleasance Beyond, Edinburgh

The Pleasance Beyond is packed: the cast’s pedigree or the subject matter or a combination of the two mean that the three-hundred-plus seats have all been sold. Which is great, obviously, but also… hot. It’s a muggy day, so we thank our lucky stars we remembered to bring bottles of cold water, and hope the play is worth it.

It is. Hurrah! I’m not sure at first: there’s an air conditioning unit running, and it’s swallowing the sound a bit, so I have to strain to hear, and it’s a wordy piece, so it matters; I need to catch the nuances. But I get used to it, and am soon drawn in, enjoying the intrigue and barbed repartee.

We’re in the near future – a year or two hence – and Adam Masters (Timothy Bentinck) has just been elected as our new Prime Minister. He’s inherited the Brexit stalemate, trying to tread a line between opposing factions in his cabinet, his main aim being to do nothing, to ride out the status quo. Adam’s best friend and advisor, Paul Connell (Mike McShane), slyly suggests allocating key roles in the negotiations to arch rivals Simon Cavendish (Hal Cruttenden) and Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans), forcing them to work together, appeasing both the right and left wing commentariat. Chief EU negotiator Helena Brandt (Jo Caulfield) looks on in disbelief as the British government ties itself in knots, kiboshing every idea Adam presents with acerbic ripostes.

Adam’s strategy – using his inaction to force others to act – is bound to end in disaster. And as the inevitable betrayal approaches, he becomes increasingly desperate.

Although Brexit is billed as a comedy – and there are plenty of laughs along the way – it’s actually quite a serious piece. It’s a smart move to cast comedians in the supporting roles – so that Adam is isolated, alone, facing an onslaught of expertly timed quips and snide putdowns. The performances are uniformly strong – Jo Caulfield is a real revelation, and we love her middle-European accent, which is subtle enough to avoid parody.

The staging is simple: a fixed set representing a series of offices, some neat cross-cutting highlighting the cut-throat nature of events. I feel for the actors in their three piece suits and formal dresses (especially Mike McShane, who seems to be wearing clothes he’s borrowed from a much larger man – or perhaps they were his, several sizes ago); luckily, the characters are supposed to be stressed and sweaty, so their shiny faces don’t seem out of place.

Sadly, the story is just too prescient; I can believe every word of it. It’s Shakespearean in its exposure of human frailty and brutality – and sobering in the extreme. Still, it’s definitely one to watch. Et tu, Boris?

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Great British Mysteries: 1599?

06/08/18

Pleasance Courtyard

Great British Mysteries: 1599? is one of those shows that seems tailor-made for the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s deceptively simple but highly effective. Two actors in slightly dodgy Tudor costumes? Check! An absurdly convoluted story about a search for a mysterious witch? Check! And a collection of truly terrible jokes delivered with such verve and aplomb that they somehow transcend their humble origins to become laugh-out-loud funny? Double check! Thanks to the talents of Will Close and Rose Robinson, who (don’t take this the wrong way, you two) have expressive faces that were just made for comedy, this is probably one of the most enjoyable hours you’ll spend on this year’s Fringe.

Thomas Tyrell and Olive Bacon encounter each other on the streets of London in er… well, 1599 (obviously) and, recognising that they have many things in common, decide to embark upon careers as detectives. Thomas is extremely fond of recounting his years as a sailor alongside Sir Walter Raleigh, while Olive is a mistress of disguise, who spends much of her time trying to teach the (decidedly thick) Thomas how to deliver a punchline. There are artfully placed running gags about bear baiting and the six wives of Henry the Eighth, while a large screen behind the duo offers us a succession of amusing images to help propel the story along. Oh yes, there’s also a mysterious priest who delivers his sermons in the form of contemporary song lyrics, a pig who seems to be  permanently fertile, and the added delight of watching Thomas and Olive dance the occasional fleet-footed gavotte. What’s not to like?

Students of history will learn precisely nothing from this production, but those who like to chortle, snigger and even let out the occasional hoot of hilarity will certainly enjoy their visit to the year 1599.

4 stars

Philip Caveney