Pleasance Courtyard

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

 

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