Ophelia Is Also Dead


theSpace at Niddry Street, Edinburgh

Ophelia is also Dead is – as you might infer from the title – Ophelia’s story, given more weight than Shakespeare ever intended. Here, the sketchy image of the deranged drowned girl is developed into a fully-rounded character, with a disctinctive voice.

The script, by Aliya Gilmore, is insightful and inventive, almost a forensic study of Hamlet and Ophelia’s function within it. Dripping with water in a ravaged wedding dress, Ophelia tells us who she really is.

Fionna Monk’s performance is impressive: all anger and anguish, determined to be seen. I like the meta-theatricality, particularly the notion that she is all Ophelias in all productions, facing a never-ending raft of badly-interpreted Hamlets.  She has been Ophelia for four-hundred years; she’s seen herself portayed in many ways.

However, for all its quirky originality, this Durham University play somehow feels a bit too essay-ish, like a student trying to demonstrate everything they know about Shakespeare. And I really think it needs to be a monologue; the rest of the cast are under-used, serving only as a distraction, interrupting Ophelia’s flow. The intensity of Monk’s interpretation is undermined by these pointless cameos.

Still, this offers a new and interesting perspective on a criminally overlooked character.

3 stars

Susan Singfield




theSpace on North Bridge, Edinburgh

Grey Cardinal Studios’ production of Mojo is well worth a look. These graduates (and students) of the East 15 Acting School have got a little gem on their hands.

Of course, Jez Butterworth’s script is a gift to any actor worth their salt, but that doesn’t make it an an easy choice. This hard-hitting tale of 1950s gangsters – reeling after their night-club owning boss is killed – requires real grit and, with its depiction of virulent masculinity, might seem out of step with our times. But that’s where Grey Cardinal Studios’ inventiveness steps in: here, Sweets (Ameleah Wilson), Skinny (Natalie Sproston) and Silver Johnny (Ceili Lang) are all played by women. Apart from the pronouns, they don’t change the script at all, and it works – adding an extra layer to the story, bringing it bang up to date. I’m particularly impressed to learn that this change was made with Butterworth’s approval, that the young company engaged with him and made sure he was on board.

The acting is uniformly strong, although Evan Barker (as Baby) stands out, clearly relishing his part, exuding a particularly menacing and capricious air. He’s genuinely scary, and Skinny’s fear of him seems all-too valid a response.

Director Ashley Mapley-Brittle clearly knows what she is doing; the staging is dynamic, the relationships and pecking order established by proxemics and body language as well as dialogue. It’s technical stuff, but it all looks natural and unforced. The pace, while never dropping, still allows the script to breathe, the actors weighting the words so that we can appreciate them. I’m not convinced the spangly backdrop, awkwardly manoeuvred from behind the curtains, is necessary, but even this potentially clumsy scene-change is nicely covered by Silver Johnny’s singing.

Grey Cardinal Studios’ two founders Lewis Macey (Potts) and Charles Hollingworth (Mickey) should be really proud of themselves. They’ve made something rather special happen here.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield



Jammy Dodgers


theSpace on the Mile, Edinburgh

Jammy Dodgers is a prime example of a student play: the sort of chorally spoken, minimally-propped, sentence-sharing ensemble work that you only ever really see in drama exams – or at the Fringe. This is not to denigrate it. I love this style of theatre: it requires precision and focus and a well-drilled team.

Performed by members of the UCL Drama Society, the story is simple, with an Animal Farm-style message about how humans – always, inevitably – fuck up. We’re in an all-too-imaginable dystopian near future: the world’s population has exploded and the housing crisis has escalated to monstrous proportions. But salvation may be at hand, as another planet has been colonised, and volunteers are required to people this brave new world.

Writer/director Amy Tickner offers a host of reasons individuals may choose to leave all they know behind: they’re either running to, she says, powered by idealism, or they’re running from, driven by the belief that it’s worth the risk, unlikely to be worse than the life they’re living now.

Young optimist Si (Will Bennett) fits firmly into the former camp. He’s nervous but excited, hopeful that this new society won’t replicate the same mistakes. Aleece (Zsuzsa Magyar), on the other hand, is cynical. She trusts no one, not even Si, not even after he lets her eat his smuggled jammy dodgers. She rolls her eyes at The System’s rules, but doesn’t join The People’s protests. She remains an outsider, her vision unclouded by dreams.

I like the direction of this piece, with its staccato scene changes and stylised movement. The synchronised, robotically sing-song speech of the two women representing The System (Ishaa Mane and Jade Armstrong) is chilling, and the ensemble (James Armitage, Klara Grapci-Germizaj, Suzy Palmer, Alice Popadopoulou and Kathryn Ravey) create a convincing populace for the new colony.

It’s a pessimistic piece,  for sure – but pessimism is, sadly, an apt response to our times.

4 stars

Susan Singfield


The First King of England in a Dress


theSpace Triplex (Studio), Edinburgh

Epic Tales give a likeable performance in The First King of England in a Dress, a story of Vikings and English folk – and, of course, good ol’ King Canute. Between them, Kate Madison, Chip Colquhoun and Izzy Dawson portray a raft of characters, holding the audience’s attention with ease.

It’s not perfect. For starters, it’s crying out for a soundtrack to help convey both mood and location. And I’m not sure why the audience participation is limited to reluctant adults; it seems to me it would make more sense to take enthusiastic child volunteers. Sure, they’re less predictable and might derail the story a little, but I think the cast should take that risk. The piece could benefit from the silliness that may ensue, and it’d be easy enough for these seasoned storytellers to get things back on track.

The biggest issue for me though is the gender stereotyping, which seems a little out of step with current thinking. Of course, the story demands that girls are disguised as boys to escape the evil woman-hunting monks, but the narrative could surely acknowledge that’s not how we do things now, that signifiers such as dresses and long hair are no longer important.

Still, it’s an enjoyable fifty minutes, and these three performers certainly know how to tell a tale. The props are detailed and interesting, creating a real sense of the time and place. Young performer Izzy Dawson has a truly lovely singing voice, and I like the use of the lyre to accompany her. A rain stick is also utilised to great effect.

These three actors have an easy rapport with the kids in the audience, and have created an enjoyable little show.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

In PurSUEt


theSpace at Niddry Street (Lower Theatre), Edinburgh

I’m drawn to this show by the vibrant poster; I quite like Ms Perkins, and the tale of a quirky superfan (apparently based on a true story) is appealing to me. In reality, Eleanor Higgins’ In PurSUEt  isn’t so much about the titular Sue, as it is about the protagonist’s struggle with alcoholism.

It’s not really In PurSUEt’s fault that I’ve seen a few too many introspective shows at this year’s fringe – there are, for some reason, lots of micro-dramas about personal issues. As I tend to prefer more outward-looking work (I like intimacy in drama, but find it more interesting if there’s something more universal in the mix), I guess I’m just not this production’s target audience.

I have a few issues with the story too: I get very little sense of the character’s life outside of booze-and-Sue (she must have one; how else is she funding her impulsive trips in pursuit of her heroine?). And why doesn’t Sue recognise her after so many odd encounters? I’m not even sure what it is about Perkins that attracts Higgins in the first place, because she never says what it is she finds so appealing about the Bake-Off star.

Still, there’s no denying that Higgins is an engaging performer, and there are some funny sequences here and quite a few cutting one-liners. She also, as it turns out, has a lovely singing voice. And, in the end, her redemption feels earned.

3 stars

Susan Singfield



theSpace at Surgeon’s Hall (Fleming), Edinburgh

Tess (of the d’Urbervilles) might not seem like an obvious choice for a late night Fringe show, but Ondervinden and G & T Productions’ rumbustious interpretation is perfectly suited to its time slot: a lively ‘pint-in-hand’ production, with live folk music and gutsy performances.

The three-hander, written and directed by Elske Waite, is a sprightly affair, illuminating  the core of Hardy’s novel. It’s the same plot (impoverished country girl raped by entitled rich man then spurned by society), but this version is a lot less dour than its progenitor, and there’s a welcome dose of feminism thrown into the mix. The music (courtesy of Jonathan Ip, Tenzin Stephen and Isla Ratcliff) makes a perfect accompaniment for this rollicking adaptation.

Polly Waldron plays Tess, imbuing her with such childish innocence that only a stone-hearted person could fail to be moved by the abuse she suffers. But she’s not silent, and I like that: she knows she is being cruelly wronged, and she stands up for herself. Emily Windham and Colette McNulty play all the other characters, with token costume additions to symbolise a change of role. It’s nicely done: McNulty excels at the comic stuff, while Windham is perfect as Angel Clare, his chilling self-righteousness horribly exposed.

The set design (by Khadija Raza) is simple but witty; I especially like the cow, made from a sawhorse and a rubber glove, and the quirky humour of a tiny piece of astroturf.

So don’t be put off by the idea of Thomas Hardy as an evening out. This Tess knows how to party.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield



theSpace on North Bridge (Perth), Edinburgh

I love Frankenstein. I’ve read the novel so many times it’s as familiar as a friend. I love the story behind it too, and never fail to marvel at the nineteen-year-old girl who could produce such a masterpiece. Of course, I’m not alone. This slim volume has inspired all manner of creatives to explore its possibilities in other forms, and now it’s Birmingham-based Blue Orange Theatre’s turn to have a go. What can they add to the mix?

Frankenstein is played here as a three-hander, focusing on The Creature’s story, with Taresh Solanki delivering an impressive performance as the protagonist. He’s all tension and sinew: a feral, frightened beast. Once in the proximity of humans, he begins to emulate their behaviour, and Solanki’s movements change accordingly: he grows more upright, his language skills develop. The physicality of the transformation is arresting.

James Nicholas and Emma Cooper embody all the other roles, taking turns to narrate the story as the action unfolds. I like the way the narration switches from third person to first as The Creature learns to speak, and the way all three performers inhabit the small stage. Between them, they do the novel proud.

Frankenstein, told this way, is an ideal piece for the Fringe, where a few simple props, some wooden crates and a white sheet can evoke an entire world.

4 stars

Susan Singfield



Dream of a King


theSpaceTriplex (Studio), Edinburgh

Christopher Tajah’s Dream of a King is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr, possibly the world’s most beloved civil rights activist, whose dedication to peaceful protest rightly earned him a Nobel Prize. King effected many changes in his life, not just to the law but also to the hearts and minds of many stirred by his speeches. It seems fitting, fifty years later, with racism on the rise, to be reminded why his words mattered. And Christopher Tajah’s impassioned performance is perfectly pitched to do just that.

We’re with King in his motel room on the night of his assassination, the tragedy foreshadowed at the start of the play. He doesn’t know what’s in store for him; he’s tired, anxious, determined to find a way to temper the more violently-inclined protesters allied to his cause. The FBI are following him, he’s sure; he has enemies everywhere. But he knows that his fight is crucial, and he cannot give it up.

He reminisces; gives us snippets of his famous speeches; flinches every time the phone rings. We learn not just about the famous leader, but about the man and all his flaws. The monologue is interspersed with moving spirituals, sung with poise and elegance by Paulette Tajah.

If at times the script is a little expositional, I think this can be overlooked, because here we have an informed piece of theatre, delivered with real skill and heart.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

A Librarian


The Space on North Bridge, Edinburgh

NKP Theatre Company’s A Librarian is proof indeed that it’s often worth deviating from the beaten track when selecting which Fringe shows to see. The sheer volume of what’s on offer can be overwhelming, and it’s not hard to understand why so many people stick to the familiar, to what they know. When time (and money) is short, taking a risk is unappealing. But then you see what an amateur company can bring to a small venue for a limited run – and remember what the Fringe is all about.

The success of this piece owes a lot to an impressive central performance by Ruth Cattell: she brings lonely librarian Anne Poole convincingly to life, ensuring our sympathy for the unlucky woman, whose life is changed irrevocably when she witnesses a minor car accident. The characterisation here is excellent – a fully realised depiction of a vulnerable person.

In fact, this might actually work better as a monologue: although the supporting actors are all perfectly good, there isn’t much for them to do, and using the split in the backdrop for entrances and exits makes the stage traffic a little messy. There’s also perhaps too much exposition in the denouement: there’s a neat twist here, but it’s over-explained, and thus loses some of its initial impact.

But these are quibbles: this is an engaging, idiosyncratic play, and most enjoyable to watch. Definitely worth forty-five minutes of anybody’s time.

4 stars

Susan Singfield