Pleasance

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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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

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

Theatre Bouquets 2017

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Once again we have been wowed by some fantastic theatre this year. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of 2017.

The Winter’s Tale – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter's Tale

This thrilling, modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play was dynamic and audacious – with the whole fourth act recast in Scots. We loved every minute of it, especially Maureen Beattie’s performance as Paulina.

Chess: The Musical  – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Chess

The students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland thrilled the audience with a skilful display of all things theatrical. We loved the sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras) and choral singing that sent chills down our spines.

Nell Gwyn – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwyn\

This superb production of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy was a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through to the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this was fabulous to behold.

Death of a Salesman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Death of a Salesman

It was the direction that made this production so good: Abigail Graham did a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. And Nicholas Woodeson was perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality.

The Toxic Avenger – Pleasance One, Edinburgh

The Toxic Avenger

A musical in the same vein that made Little Shop of Horrors such a pleasure, The Toxic Avenger was an unqualified delight, romping happily along powered by its own exuberance and the efforts of a stellar cast, who gave this everything they had – and then some.

The Power Behind the Crone – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone

This was a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. Alison Skilbeck had absolute control of the material and created an impressive range of distinct, believable characters.

Seagulls – The Leith Volcano, Edinburgh

Volcano Theatre SEagulls at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This was the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre we saw this year. Site-specific productions – when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this (we were in an abandoned church, which had been flooded with forty-five tons of water) – can be truly exciting, and this one had a lot to offer.

Safe Place – Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place

Safe Place provided a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asked (and answered) many questions, all within the framework of a nuanced and intelligent play.

Angels in America: NT Live – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Angels In America

Clocking in at just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s play offered us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic. A truly iconic piece of theatre.

Twelfth Night/Romeo & Juliet – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Twelfth Night

Romeo & Juliet

Merely Theatre gave us some ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare, performing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep. The plays featured only five actors and the casting was gender-blind. It all made for an interesting dynamic and prompted us to re-examine familiar scenes.

Cockpit – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Cockpit

Cockpit was a witty, clever play, which saw the Lyceum transformed into a truly immersive space.  Director Wils Wilson served up a fascinating piece of theatre: arresting, thought-provoking, provocative and demanding – and it kept us talking for hours afterwards.

Cinderella – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Cinderella

We never thought a pantomime would feature in any ‘best of’ list of ours but, for the second year running, the King’s Theatre’s stalwarts managed to wow us. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott knew exactly how to work their audience, and the special effects were truly spectacular.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Butt Kapinski

 

03/08/17

Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

Butt Kapinski is a strange man. Called upon to investigate a series of murders, he embodies every  cliché of film noir: he stands beneath his portable streetlamp, pulls his trenchcoat around him, mimes an obligatory cigar – before regaling us with tales of life as an NY PI. The brainchild and alter-ego of American performer Deanna Fleysher, he is an oddly engaging creation, and the audience joins in willingly with this funny, interactive show.

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t dig as deeply as it could – several thought-provoking ideas are introduced and then left hanging – and the narrative, such as it is, could do with a more convincing pay-off. But it’s gutsy and it’s fun, and Fleysher works wonders with what the audience gives her. The character-exaggeration is pushed to extremes (those vocal contortions!) and has us laughing all the time. I can’t say more here without giving too much away, but this is a fascinating and unusual performance, well worth catching if you can. And don’t worry about being ‘picked on’ – the audience participation here is entirely voluntary, and Fleysher has perfected the skill of homing in on those who want to get involved.

4 stars

Susan Singfield