Pleasance Courtyard

Skank

18/08/21

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

Skank is a surprise. I’m expecting a wry look at Millennial life, and – to some extent – that’s what I get. Clementine Bogg-Hargroves plays Kate, a young woman flitting from one temping job to the next, dreaming of being a writer but hardly ever actually writing anything. She won’t commit to a ‘proper’ job because the thought of it fills her with dread. She has nothing in common with her colleagues, but they seem to like her: she’s funny and sparky, and even has a crush on one of them. But Kate’s real life happens outside the office: in trendy coffee shops and pubs; in too much booze and one-night-stands; in knitting classes and doctor’s appointments.

Ah yes. Doctor’s appointments. Because this isn’t, it turns out, as light as it first seems. It’s a clever realisation of how people conceal their mental health problems. No one in the office can possibly have a clue about how anxious Kate is, all the time, of what her upbeat humour hides. As the play progresses, we see Kate unravel, all the while maintaining that same bubbly persona.

A smear test is the catalyst. An abnormality sends Kate spiralling, her tinnitus is out of control and she doesn’t know what to do. And why is it so bloody hard to recycle a baked beans tin around here?

Bogg-Hargroves truly inhabits the part, which makes sense, as it’s based on her own experience. She’s a charming, engaging performer, easily eliciting laughs from this afternoon’s audience. I cry too, because there is real heart here, and plenty of stuff that resonates. If at times it’s a little too close to home, a little difficult to bear, well, that’s the point, I think. That’s art, doing what art is meant to do.

There’s some lovely direction here (from Bogg-Hargroves and Zoey Barnes). The transformation of Kate’s desk into an examination table is simple and wonderfully offbeat, drawing a laugh all by itself. I like the little bit of puppetry too, and the pre-recorded offstage voices (sound tech by George Roberts) are a quirky and effective touch. (I do wonder, however, why the final voice is different from all the others; apart from this one, they’re all Bogg-Hargroves, who has an impressive range of accents and tones. Is this meant to signify something? If so, I don’t get it.)

Incidentally, the Pleasance Rear Courtyard is my favourite performance space so far this Fringe – the best example of a joyous outside/inside Covid-safe venue I’ve seen. And Skank is a delight too. Make time to see this. It’s a gem.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Bard in the Yard: The Scottish Play

18/08/21

Pleasance Courtyard, Rear Courtyard, Edinburgh

What is the Edinburgh Fringe without a little Shakespeare, I hear you ask? Good question.

At B & B we’re always on the lookout for fresh interpretations of the Bard’s classics and here’s an interesting offering, staged in the well-ventilated confines of the Pleasance’s rear courtyard. The Scottish Play is a lively monologue, in which William Shakespeare (Caroline Mathison) strides onstage and tells us all about his current predicament. He’s been sent to Scotland by James the First to write ‘a Scottish play’ and, if he doesn’t deliver the goods, he could well end up with his head on a spike.

What better incentive could a playwright have?

So far, Will only has one dodgy soliloquy in his notebook – something about a dagger that also includes the word ‘erection’ – so he enlists three members of the audience to help him with the piece. They must make notes of anything he says that seems useable and, hopefully, by the end, he’ll have something that might just work.

Mathison is a confident and energetic performer, who manages to zip between silly and emotive with ease, seizing on the similarities between the pandemic and the plague (which affected so much of Shakespeare’s life) and making much play of it. The bit where she drenches her hands in sanitiser while singing ‘Greensleeves’ is a particular delight and I also enjoy the spirited renderings of several of the better-known soliloquies This is a piece that celebrates Shakespeare’s work and isn’t afraid to take risks with the material

But, what initially promises to be an immersive experience doesn’t really deliver on that score. Those three enlistees don’t actually have very much to do and, when one of them announces that his name is Macbeth, it isn’t picked up on and developed. Overall, the piece never seems entirely sure about what it wants to be – part knockabout comedy, part anguished recollection (as Will recalls his brother Edmund who died of the plague), it veers from one approach to the other and never finds a consistent tone.

By the end, Mathison is cavorting merrily around the stage, accompanied by ‘We Will Rock You’ handclaps from the audience. It’s all very jolly and lots of fun, but, with a sharper script, it could easily be more than that. Great venue though – and what might just be the catchiest title on this year’s fringe.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Eugene

11/08/21

Pleasance Courtyard, Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Fringe thrives on good ideas and there’s a great one one at the heart of Eugene.

Set in the not-too-distant future, this show takes the form of a presentation by ‘Hugh'(Daniel Nicholas), the CEO of Hubris Industries. (Think of the grandiose, over-sincere product launches that Apple are so fond of and you’ll get the general idea.) Hugh is here to present his new invention, Eugene. The titular star of the show is the world’s first superhuman Artificial Intelligence and is represented by a glowing cube on a rostrum. Hugh assures us it’s capable of controlling the entire planet’s electricity supply, whilst simultaneously solving climate change. In his pocket, Hugh has the three er… floppy disks needed to make all that happen.

Hugh is blissfully unaware that Eugene has already introduced itself to the audience, using lines of text on a big screen – and also on our mobile phones, via an app called The Difference Engine. Thus it’s established from the outset that Eugene is a mischievous character with a mind of its own and a propensity for telling us more about its creator than he would like us to know.

Then out strides Hugh to present his TED talk. Hugh is a delightfully monstrous creation: smarmy, self-possessed and, not to put too fine a point on it, is so up himself he’s lost all sense of proportion. His every announcement is accompanied by an artless pose and an inane laugh, a kind of deathly chortle. As the presentation continues, more and more of Hugh’s darkest secrets come bubbling to the surface – and it’s evident that his plan to get Eugene up and running as quickly as possible is probably not going to end well.

On the day I view the show, there are a few glitches with the technology, which I think throw Nicholas off his stride a little – and the middle section consequently feels somewhat muddled. This is a shame, because the idea of combining integrated captioning with live action is something I haven’t seen before and there’s so much potential here, I’d like it to be developed even further – because the show is at its best when that pesky AI is inviting us to break all the rules.

Even with some gremlins in evidence, Eugene is an enjoyable way to spend an hour at the Fringe.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

One Duck Down

23/08/19

Pleasance Courtyard (Above), Edinburgh

Festival-goers with young children to entertain will find plenty to enjoy in FacePlant Theatre’s One Duck Down. This lively family show is a charming mix of comedy and music, with an ecological theme.

Billy (Owen Jenkins) is a seventeen year old paperboy, who has lost his heart to the – clearly rather horrible – Cecilia Sourbottom (Alice Bounce). She keeps setting him Herculean tasks, telling him that only when he has achieved every one of them will she return his affection. His latest mission? To relocate the seven-thousand rubber ducks accidentally dropped into the ocean in 1992 (an event famously featured in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series).

Intent on proving his devotion, Billy sets off in a little boat, with only his unfailing optimism and a couple of sandwiches to get him through. En route, he encounters a rock’n’ roll-obsessed polar bear (Maxwell Tyler), a batallion of plastic-worshipping crabs, and a fearless bearded lady (Lydia Hourihan), who soon proves to be a worthier contender for Billy’s affection than the odious Cecilia.

It’s all done with good-natured zeal and bags of ingenuity: a myopic whale is somehow conjured out of a couple of sheets of painted cardboard; a host of skittering crabs are created using nothing more than pairs of red mittens. The costumes are garbage – quite literally; they’re made from throwaway items rescued from the trash. On the ecology front, however, it might have been preferable to concentrate less on recyling and cleaning up detritus and more on preventing the creation of waste in the first place, but this does get the idea across to even the youngest members of the audience that we all need to take drastic action if the planet is to be saved.

As the story romps amiably along, we’re treated to a selection of catchy songs, which soon have the audience joining in on the choruses – and those who enjoy groan-inducing puns will have an absolute field day here. My particular favourite? That famous seafaring novel, Moby Duck.

There are just a few days left to enjoy this, so gather up the kids and get on down to The Pleasance Courtyard, where the quest begins.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Rhys James: Snitch

17/08/19

Pleasance Courtyard (Above), Edinburgh

One thing’s for sure: Rhys James is technically very good. There’s a full house tonight, and he has the audience in the palm of his hand. He’s confident, delivering his act at breakneck pace, never missing a beat. Structurally it’s masterful: the laughs keep coming, the callbacks are well-timed, and every – seemingly unrelated – strand is gathered together in a bravura finale.

And some of it is marvellous. I love the stuff about our peculiar atttitudes to serial killers – and the eerily accurate Tom Allen impression that accompanies it. There are some sharp observations about renting a flat, and the faux-advert-poetry is very droll indeed.

But, when the delivery is this impressive, it’s disappointing that some of the material is so mundane: lots of Peter Kay-style ‘do you remember that?’ material, and a long routine about bathing, which doesn’t really take us anywhere.

Maybe it doesn’t matter: certainly, tonight’s audience is roaring with laughter – and I’m joining in too. He’s funny. It’s just that I prefer my comedy a little more challenging, and James clearly has the ability to create something more memorable.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Sexy Lamp

14/08/19

Pleasance Courtyard (Baby Grand), Edinburgh

I know I’m going to like this show as soon as I enter the room, and am offered a rhubarb and custard boiled sweet. There’s a huge jar of them being passed around, while Katie Arnstein – the writer/performer responsible – sits on stage, dressed in a leopard-print dressing gown, with a lampshade on her head. A quirky, inclusive atmosphere is established even before we have begun.

In some ways, Sexy Lamp could be dismissed as – yawn – yet another monologue about an actor struggling to cope, which is certainly a popular theme at this year’s Fringe. But this piece is so charming and well-crafted that it’s impossible not to warm to it – and it’s outward-looking too. Arnstein doesn’t just tell us about how she‘s dealt with her problems: she opens up her outrage; this is a call to arms.

Arnstein is immensely likeable. As she sheds the lampshade, she expounds Kelly Sue DeConnick’s theory about movies and plays: if there’s a scene where a woman can be replaced with a sexy lamp without derailing the plot, this indicates that something is awry.

From here, we learn about Arnstein’s childhood dream to be an actor – or, more specifically, to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. That first young impulse stays with her, and leads her to drama school, then out into the world as an actor seeking work. And then, to her horror, exposes her to the unspeakable sexism rife in the industry.

To Arnstein’s credit, this never feels self-indulgent. Her indignation is real and justified, and presented with a clear understanding of how to win over an audience. Her feminism is expressed through witty songs (self-accompanied on the ukulele) and delivered with bags of natural charisma. As she struggles to assert herself, to define her own parameters, she sends a clear message to all of us: even in such a competitive industry, acquiescence is not always worth it; sometimes it’s better to say ‘no’ than it is to say ‘yes, and…’

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

With Child

08/08/19

Pleasance Courtyard (Cellar), Edinburgh

Clare Pointing’s With Child is a series of monologues, connected only by the fact that each of the protagonists is pregnant. But, in a sharp little twist, only one of the six ever mentions it.

The pregnancies are all visible, and I’m not just referring to the sizeable bump that Pointing sports. These women sit down gratefully, glad to take the weight off, or they rub their bellies absent-mindedly. They snack on weird food combinations; emotions are running high. They’re definitely with child, but it’s not the only thing they care about. They have other interests, other concerns.

Pointing is a chameleon. She eschews even token costume changes, relying instead on vocal and physical characteristics to define each role. It’s a remarkable performance: these diverse women are all utterly believable. (I’m disappointed when she doesn’t do the usual ‘If you liked it, tell your friends’ spiel at the end of the show, because I want to know which – if any – of the accents used is really hers. They’re all spot on.)

From the wealthy gym enthusiast, used to complaining loudly and getting her own way, to the granny’s girl who doesn’t really like her partner very much; from the doormat who finds freedom in zumba, to the transphobic nosy neighbour who thinks she ‘just gives too much’ – these are all quirky, original creations, not a cliché in sight.

The piece is beautifully structured: we spend the first thirty minutes laughing, and then the mood changes. The final piece is poignant and powerful, the perfect place to end.

With Child is a clever piece of writing, performed with real flair.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Endless Second

01/08/19

Pleasance Courtyard (Below), Edinburgh

Theo Toksvig-Stewart’s play about consent is an intense, emotionally demanding piece – and, my word, it’s impressive.

Directed by Camilla Gürtler, Endless Second chronicles the relationship between W (Madeleine Gray) and M (Toksvig-Stewart), two drama students who fall in love on the first day of their course. They’re devoted to one another; they’re sweet and supportive; they meet each other’s families; it’s perfect, idyllic. So when M rapes W one drunken night, it’s hard for her to process exactly what’s happened.

This is a beautifully nuanced piece, at once unflinching and disarming, almost forensic in its examination of the impact of M’s actions. The narrative structure is interesting, and both performances utterly compelling. I especially like the fact that M is never demonised: nice boys do this too, unless they’re taught about consent.

W’s inarticulacy following the rape is heartbreakingly convincing, a clear answer to those who question why women stay with violent men, or why rape victims don’t report immediately. She can’t admit to herself that he did that to her; not M, who’s so kind, so loving, so aware of all his privilege, who’d never hurt anyone. Facing up to what he’s done means shattering her life; no wonder she buries the knowledge deep inside; no wonder it haunts her and changes what they have.

I can’t say I enjoy this play exactly; I spend half of it weeping and am wrung out by the end. It’s clever and thought-provoking and, yes, important too.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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

 

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