Pleasance

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

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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

 

The Taming of the Shrew

 

13/03/19

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew. I know the play, of course (I’ve even written essays about it), and I’ve been entertained by a number of intriguing reinterpretations in various forms: Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl. But I’ve never seen it staged. Maybe because it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most contentious play – although The Merchant of Venice certainly has its issues too – and difficult to reconcile with modern sensibilities.

For those readers who need a quick reminder, the ‘shrew’ of the title is Kate, a wayward young woman, whose volatility deters any would-be beaux. Her father – based on some labyrinthine reasoning – imposes a bizarre rule: her sweet-natured sister, Bianca, cannot marry before Kate. But Bianca is a popular girl, and her suitors do not want to wait. Enter Petruchio, with a plan to break the older girl’s spirit. He bullies, half starves, gaslights and manipulates her into submission. In a modern play, this would be the midway point; we’d see Kate regain her equilibrium and Petruchio punished. But here, this is the denouement. It’s most uncomfortable.

And it’s not just the gender politics that make TTOTS problematic. The plot is convoluted and over-contrived, the humour weirdly at odds with the central relationship. It’s a tough call for any theatre company, let alone one so young as the EUSC.

But, under Tilly Botsford’s direction, this is a marked success. We’re never in any doubt that Petruchio (played with chilling self-righteousness by Michael Hajiantonis) is an awful man: he treats his servants with the same foul aggression as his wife. I applaud the decision to cast women as the servants too, emphasising the power of the patriarchal structure, and underscoring the theme of domestic violence.

Sally MacAlister is marvellous as Grumio. She clearly relishes the role, and imbues the much put-upon servant with humour and brio. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller also stands out as Vincentio: he inhabits this small role with a natural ease that is very impressive.

Of course, Anna Swinton has the hardest job: she’s Kate, and it’s a tough part to play. Perhaps, in some earlier scenes, her body language could be less languid and more combative, but this is a small point. Because her often mute response to Pertuchio’s bullying is nuanced as well as unequivocal, and – in that final moment – when she delivers her speech about why a wife should submit to her husband – the desperation of this broken woman is heartbreaking to witness.

This EUSC production shows then that it is perfectly possible to deliver this controversial play exactly as it stands, without compromising our changed values. A difficult undertaking, but most worthwhile.

4 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

 

Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids

12/08/18

Pleasance Dome (Queen), Edinburgh

Kafka? For kids? Really? It doesn’t sound like a goer, to be honest. But – it turns out – Kafka can indeed be repurposed for kids, and rendered funny and entertaining for adults too.

I’m vaguely familiar with Kafka’s work. I first encountered Die Verwandlung while studying for a degree in German literature, and then – during a second degree course, this time in theatre studies – met up with its English translation (Metamorphosis) via Berkoff’s infamous production. I’ve read The Trial, too, and The Castle, but not recently; in short, I know just about enough to be sure that Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids will have to pull something rather special out of the bag if it is to hit its mark. And does it? Oh yes, it really does.

The show is a delight from start to finish, the deceptive simplicity of the knockabout comedy concealing some clever structural stuff, and layered references to Kafka’s obsessions and stylistic tics. It’s all there: humanity-crushing bureaucracy, alienation, despair. There’s poverty too, and hope – and much absurdity. And, in Tom Parry (he of Pappy’s fame)’s script, it all comes together to make a genuinely funny and illustrative hour of fun – for all the family.

Parry stars in the show as well, as Karl, the hapless entertainer who’s inadvertently robbed a Royal Mail van, the contents of which serve as makeshift set and props. He’s joined by Will Adamsdale, who plays the troupe’s frustrated leader, Karter, and Heidi Niemi (Kat), who speaks Finnish throughout. The trio are interrupted, intermittently, by the marvellous Rose Robinson (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats in Great British Mysteries: 1599? earlier this week), who plays a series of officious bureaucrats, each one more demanding than the last.

We’re introduced to miserable tales, where Poseidon is crushed by the weight of his paperwork, where a bridge loses faith in its ability to connect. We’re drawn in, made accomplices; we tell lies to officials to protect the performers. The kids in the audience are utterly enthralled. We don’t have any kids with us, but we are entranced too.

It’s a rainy day, so numbers are down; it’s a shame to see so many empty seats when the material is as good as this. Any families out there looking for something quirky, something different – I urge you to give this a go.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

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