Summerhall

Edfest Bouquets 2022

The frenzy of the Fringe is over. It’s been beyond wonderful to see our city so vibrant again, after two quiet years. We’ve seen a startling range of exciting shows, covering many genres. We’re exhausted – but it’s not quite over yet. It’s time to award our virtual bouquets to the best performances we saw. The standard seemed higher than ever this time: has the break given writers and performers more time to sharpen their acts, or were we just lucky with the productions we chose? Either way, there were lots of contenders in each category, but we’ve narrowed them down to our favourite five.

So, without further ado, we present our choice of the best shows we saw at Edfest 2022.

THEATRE

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe (ZOO Playground)

An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe is the sort of play which exemplifies the Fringe at its best. Written by Benny Ainsworth and directed by Sally Paffett (Triptytch Theatre), this ingeniously constructed monologue features Michael Parker as the titular Stuart, delivering Ainsworth’s script with consummate skill.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Summerhall)

Based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez and adapted for the stage by Dan Colley, Manus Halligan and Genevieve Hulme Beaman, this is the tale of Elisenda and Palayo, two impoverished people who live in a rickety shack on the edge of a small town. Their tale is related by Elisenda (Karen McCartney) in a deliciously sinister style. She’s aided by Palayo (Manus Halligan), who barely utters a word, but moves humbly around the stage, using a curious mixture of handicrafts and high-tech devices to illustrate the story – a series of simplistic figurines, illuminated by tiny cameras and lights, take us into their miniature world.

Sap (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Rafaella Marcus has scripted a deliciously labyrinthine tale about sexual identity (specifically bi-invisibility), one that cleverly assimilates a Greek myth into its core. The maze-like structure is beautifully captured by Jessica Clark and Rebecca Banatvala’s hyper-physical performances, directed by Jessica Lazar and Jennifer Fletcher.

Hungry (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Chris Bush’s sharply written two-hander examines the relationship between Lori (Eleanor Sutton), a chef from a relatively privileged background, and Bex (Melissa Lowe), a waitress from the local estate. Hungry is a class act, so assured that, even amidst the host of treasures on offer at this year’s Roundabout, it dazzles like a precious gem. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Assembly Roxy)

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this. Flabbergast Theatre’s eight-strong cast reel around the stage, plastered in mud and raving and flailing around like demented beings. This is a play about the madness brought on by the seductive power of hubris, so it feels entirely appropriate. It explodes, it capers, it struts its fretful stuff upon the stage and signifies plenty…

COMEDY

Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Both Samuel Barnett and Marcelo Dos Santos deserve huge praise for what is undoubtedly one of the best collaborations between writer and performer that I’ve ever witnessed. The narrator is working me like a master magician, mesmerising me, misdirecting me, even scattering a trail of clues which I somehow manage to overlook. The result? When the piece reaches its conclusion, I feel as though I’ve been punched in the solar plexus.

Kylie Brakeman: Linda Hollywood’s Guide to Hollywood (Gilded Balloon Patterhoose)

Making her Edinburgh Fringe debut, Kylie Brakeman delivers her cleverly scripted lines with consummate skill, and the whip-smart, snarky one-liners flow like honey laced with vinegar. It’s more than just a series of laughs. It also nails the cynicism and hypocrisy of the movie industry with deadly precision. I leave convinced that Brakeman (already a major name online, with over sixty million views) is destined to play much bigger venues than this one. 

Emily Wilson: Fixed (Pleasance Courtyard)

Emily Wilson’s Fixed is part musical, part stand-up and part catharsis. She appeared on The X Factor USA back in 2011, as one half of the earnestly named duo, Ausem. “Because my best friend’s called Austin, and my name’s Emily, so together we’re Ausem!” She was 15 and thought she was destined to become a star. But then she hit a snag. The judges decided they liked Austin, but not Emily… What emerges is a thoughtful commentary on fame, ambition and exploitation, and it’s riveting.

Christopher Bliss: Captain Wordseye (Pleasance Courtyard)

Christopher Bliss (Rob Carter) is a new name to me and I can only regret that it’s taken me this long to encounter him. He’s that rarest of things, a brilliant character comedian… and a literary genius to boot. I can’t wait for his words of advice on poetry, which I have long considered my Achilles heel…

The Anniversary (Pleasance Dome)

Jim (Daniel Tobias) and Barb (Clare Bartholomew) are eagerly preparing for their 50th wedding anniversary but they’re not always in control of things and some of the items in the finger buffet might better be avoided. This handsomely mounted helping of slapstick from Australian company, Salvador Dinosaur, features no real dialogue, just gibberish and the occasional mention of each other’s names – but the soundtrack is far from silent. It’s essentially a piece about the indignities of ageing, replete with references to forgetfulness, dodgy bowels and the ill-advised over-application of both prescription drugs and prunes. It ought to be tragic but it’s somehow horribly funny.

SPECIAL MENTIONS

Fills Monkey: We Will Drum You (Pleasance Courtyard)

Sebastian Rambaud and Yann Coste are two brilliant percussionists, the kind of people you imagine could go through an entire day without ever breaking beat. They begin with conventional sets of drums, hammering out thrilling polyrhythms as the audience claps along. But they have an air of competitiveness about them and the stakes keep rising. It really helps that the two percussionists are also accomplished clowns. Working under the direction of Daniél Briere, they’ve devised a show that switches back and forth through a whole series of scenarios, never lingering too long in one place to ever feel repetitive. 

Manic Street Creature (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

Manic Street Creature, written and performed by Maimuna Memon, is an assured slice of gig theatre that focuses on the subject of mental health from a slightly different perspective – that of the carer. Memon tells the story through a sequence of songs being recorded in a studio session. She’s a confident, assured performer, with a thrilling vocal range, accompanying herself on acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards and shruti box. When everything’s in full flow, the story takes flight and I feel myself propelled along by its urgent, rhythmic pulse.

The Ofsted Massacre (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

Phil Porter’s script feels like it’s been torn from the inside of a stressed-out teacher’s head: a revenge fantasy, born of despair. It’s also a very funny play, drawing on Shakespeare, while lampooning staffroom stereotypes and exposing every cliché. This production, by Kingston Grammar School’s sixth form drama students, is a triumph. The young cast embrace their roles, eliciting gales of laughter from the audience with their well-timed punchlines and impressive slapstick.

Making a Murderer: The Musical (Underbelly Bristo Square)

Like millions of others across the UK, I was transfixed by the Netflix documentary, Making A Murderer – so when I spot a poster on the Royal Mile with the words ‘The Musical‘ tacked onto the end, I’m intrigued – and simultaneously doubtful. Isn’t that going to be… disrespectful? But, in the capable hands of writer Phil Mealey, MAMTM offers a compelling version of the familiar events, a fresh perspective on the story that never feels like a cheap shot. The songs are terrific throughout, ranging from spirited rockers to plaintive ballads. What’s more, the production supports (and is supported by) The Innocence Project.

The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera (Underbelly Bristo Square)

Describing an act as ‘unique’ is often considered a cop-out, and yet I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe The Tiger Lillies, three remarkable musicians currently strutting their inimitable stuff at The Cow Barn on Bristo Square. Originally formed way back in 1989, they’ve been through a number of personnel changes over the years, though the macabre compositions of singer-songwriter Martyn Jacques have remained a constant. They describe themselves as “Brechtian Punk Cabaret”, and who am I to argue with them?

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Intruder (Intruz)

25/08/22

Summerhall (Anatomy Lecture Theatre), Edinburgh

I’m sitting in a lecture theatre and a man is writing rude words on a chalkboard, pausing occasionally to give me a stern look whenever I get a fit of the giggles. I’m not exactly sure why this is so funny, but it really is. And then the lecturer begins to tell his story and it’s not funny any more.

His name is Remi and he moves from his native Poland to Glasgow in order to pursue his dream of being an actor. But one night, walking home, he is accosted by two men who rob him and beat him up. The attack affects him profoundly, stirring within him a sense of paranoia, that steadily gets worse until it threatens to overwhelm him.

Written and performed by Remi Rachuba and directed by Marcus Montgomery Roche, Intruder is a difficult play to get a handle on. Rachuba is a fearless actor, who expends so much energy during the show you feel he could run the National Grid all by himself. Arranged on the floor in front of him are pairs of shoes which he uses to signify the different characters and situations he’s talking about. (Was it Lawrence Olivier who famously always began with the shoes?) Remi changes roles as easily as he changes his footwear.

I love the repeated tics that he employs to denote his deteriorating frame of mind: those uneasy glances over his shoulder, the shuddering paroxysms when his dark thoughts overwhelm him. I also love the simple gleefulness of the dance routine he indulges in on one of the rare occasions when he feels happy.

But there are some issues here. I’m not always entirely sure where and when a particular scene is set. There’s much talk of Glasgow, but then I hear him mention places I know are in Edinburgh. Of course, this might be intentional, but it throws me occasionally. And, while it’s only right that some of the lines are delivered in Polish, this also adds to a sense of disorientation.

Rachuba is an extraordinary stage presence and it will be interesting to see where he goes next. Meanwhile, there are just two more chances to catch this intriguing show.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Tickbox

20/08/22

Summerhall (Tech Cube 0), Edinburgh

Lubna Kerr emigrated from Pakistan to Glasgow when she was just a child. Now, many years later, she looks back on her life, growing up as an outsider, marginalised and stereotyped, and she rails – softly – against the constrictions she has endured.

The first constriction we hear about is in her own arteries. She’s in A&E with what the doctor is insisting is a stress-related heart problem. “But I’m not stressed,” Lubna demurs. She’s happy, isn’t she? What has she got to be stressed about?

Considering this question takes Kerr down a rabbit hole of remembrance, and she recounts for us the experiences that have shaped her, and led her here: to the hospital and to this stage – to two different kinds of theatre.

Kerr’s narrative is gentle and meandering, a wry and often self-deprecating account. There is humour and affection in her tale, and she has a very amiable presence; it’s easy to warm to her. Hers is a middle-class background: her mother laments the lack of household help and bemoans the size of their Govan flat; it’s not as fancy as she was used to, back in Pakistan. Their new neighbours assume Lubna’s dad is a shopkeeper or a bus driver, because that’s what the other brown people they know do. But her father is a scientist: he’s doing a PhD; he teaches at Strathclyde university. But being educated, being relatively well-off, these aren’t enough to protect the family from casual racism. Even at Brownies, where everyone seems to mean well, Lubna’s popularity comes courtesy of a badge the others can earn for meeting someone from the Commonwealth…

This is an immensely likeable show (and not just because we’re all given a Tunnock’s teacake), although it does feel a little too polite at times, and I would like to see the stakes raised. The running race, for example, feels thrown away: the build up is nicely done, but then it peters out, with no climax. I’m also not convinced that it’s necessary to try to hide the act of drinking water; Kerr walks behind a sofa several times during the show and, with her back to us, takes a sip from her bottle. I think it would look more natural and be less intrusive if she were to incorporate this into the show – and this would also give her the opportunity to interact with the set more effectively. There’s quite a lot of paraphernalia here that doesn’t really get used; if she had a vintage jug and water glass to go with the 1970s TV, etc., she could sit on the sofa and pour herself a drink as part of the action.

Tickbox offers a fascinating insight into life as an immigrant – and we leave, talking about the issues raised, and tucking into our teacakes.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Boy

20/08/22

Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh

1966: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Twin babies Bruce and Brian Reimer are both diagnosed with phimosis. Circumcision is recommended. Their doctor chooses a new and unconventional method: electrocauterization. Bruce is up first.

And the procedure goes horribly, shockingly wrong. Bruce’s penis is damaged beyond repair.

Brian is spared. His phimosis is left to resolve itself naturally. Which it does.

The twins’ parents, Janet and Ron, are distraught. So when Harvard-educated psychologist John Money recommends gender reassignment, they are soon persuaded. ‘Brenda’ won’t remember being Bruce, Dr Money says; it’s a simple matter of surgery and hormones…

Writer/director Carly Wijs draws on this tragic true story to create a thoughtful drama, exploring the very topical subject of gender identity, illuminating the age-old nature/nurture debate. It’s sensitively done – socratic rather than didactic – and it’s impossible not to feel emotionally involved.

Actors Vanja Maria Godée and Jeroen van der Ven play Janet and Ron respectively, and also act as narrators, using a range of cuddly toys as stand-ins for the other characters. This technique is oddly affecting, highlighting the family’s innocence, while also suggesting that the very act of telling their story is ‘play therapy’ for the troubled pair. The set, by Stef Stessel, is wonderfully effective in its simplicity: a wheeled ‘wall’ draped with a light blue cloth, suggestive of a waterfall, spans almost the whole width of the stage, and there’s a stunning moment of revelation towards the end of the piece. Both Godée and van der Ven are immensely likeable performers; their gentleness and vulnerability ensure we’re on their side. Janet and Ron are victims of a man so caught up in his own theories that he’s stopped seeing the humanity of those he’s experimenting on.

Because Brenda is a very unhappy child. She doesn’t like the constrictions that come with being a girl; she doesn’t want to wear dresses or learn to sew; she wants to climb trees and fight and run with the boys. Is this because she is a boy, or would a cis-Brenda feel the same frustrations? We’ll never know. What we do know, unequivocally, is that it can’t be right for someone else to have made such a momentous decision for baby Bruce: to have compounded his initial mutilation with surgical castration, testosterone blockers and oestrogen – and to have concealed this fact from him. It’s his body; his choice. And the repercussions are devastating…

Despite its harrowing subject matter, Boy is a tender, poignant tale, told with real heart. This is experimental theatre-making at its best.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

We Were Promised Honey!

19/08/22

Roundabout at Summerhall, Edinburgh

This, storyteller Sam Ward tells us, is a choice. This: staying here, listening to what he has to say, engaging with his tale. There’s no happy ending, he says; he wants to be upfront about that. We’re free to refuse. To sit in silence for the allotted hour. It just needs one audience member to say, “I would like to begin.”

The risk is small (especially during Fringe, when more than half the audience are probably performers of some kind), but it feels real. I find myself wondering what it would be like if no one spoke. Would we really just sit? But there’s barely a hesitation. A confident voice rings out. And we begin.

This is a story on an epic scale, and the miserable outcome is existential rather than personal. Ward’s whimsical narration takes us on a journey billions of years into the future, when the planet dies, the universe collapses. Our fate is sealed. The question is, do we want to know what happens along the way? And the answer, of course, is yes.

Yesyesnono theatre company specialises in ‘democratic art’, and We Were Promised Honey! demonstrates clearly what this might look like, how it might work. Ward creates a friendly, open atmosphere, where people feel safe to join in, confident that he won’t make fools of them or push them to do things that make them uncomfortable. Apocalyptic subject matter notwithstanding, WWPH! is a joyous, hopeful kind of show, focusing on the small kindnesses and moments of happiness we find in our lives, despite our inevitable demise. We’re all like Richard Russell, the 29-year-old Sea-Tac baggage handler, who went joyriding – in a plane, even though he’d never flown before. Eventually, he crash-landed and died but, for a while, he flew…

This is a gentle, quirky piece of collaborative theatre, and I leave feeling strangely soothed, and ready to embrace the day.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

The Girl Who Was Very Good at Lying

13/08/22

Summerhall (Tech Cube 0), Edinburgh

Twenty-one year old Catriona (Rachael Rooney) doesn’t have much to occupy her. She lives with her mum in the house she grew up in, and spends each day trudging through the same grinding routine. She gets up; she showers; she eats breakfast; she goes to work in the local pub. Every evening, she comes home and sits down to dinner with her mum, answering the same list of questions, all while staring at a ‘live, laugh, love’ sign that seems designed to mock her. The only thing that ever changes is the breakfast, which ranges from porridge all the way to Coco Pops.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that, when an American tourist comes into the pub one day, she starts to fantasise. He’s the most exotic and exciting person who’s ever crossed the threshold. After all, there are only two hundred people living in her village; she knows them all.

And they know her. Her history.

With the American, Catriona is free to reinvent herself: to be his knowledgable tour-guide, his link to Northern Ireland’s past. After all, she’s very, very good at lying. Even to herself…

Rooney brings Eoin McAndrew’s compelling script to life with an intensity that is hard to describe. The room crackles with tension: this performance is a real tour de force. Fay Lomas’s electric direction – all jarring sound effects and choreographed scene changes that feel somehow like ruptures – ensures we’re every bit as stressed as Catriona; as she spirals out of control, we’re with her, every spin. It’s a powerful evocation of a mental health crisis – and an entertaining, mesmerising piece of theatre.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Ruckus

07/08/22

Cairns Lecture Theatre, Summerhall, Edinburgh

Louise is a confident, vivacious character: an ambitious young primary school teacher with a kick-ass attitude. But her best mate’s impending marriage spells the end of their flat-share, and Lou finds herself adrift. When she meets Ryan, he’s funny, sweet and considerate; he seems like the answer to all her problems. Sure, he’s a bit possessive, but that’s just because he’s insecure, and, yeah, it’s a shame he’s not more welcoming when her mum comes to visit, but he doesn’t get on with his own family, so it’s difficult for him. Lou shrugs off these early warning signs; she wants the relationship to work. And slowly, drip by inexorable drip, Ryan exerts his control…

A one-woman show, Ruckus, written and performed by Jenna Fincken, explores this horribly toxic relationship in unflinching detail. And when I say ‘horribly toxic’, I mean ‘depressingly familiar’ and ‘all too common’, because we’ve all at least known someone who’s experienced something like this; we’ve all shuddered at the red flags, even if we’ve been luckier in our own entanglements.

It’s a cleverly crafted piece: the writing is both bold and nuanced. We hear the story from Lou’s point of view, so even though we recognise that things aren’t right, it takes some time to realise just how bad they really are. Standout moments include the tragic irony of Lou supporting an at-risk child at school, then coming home to face a similar situation.

The change is gradual and unsettling; its unfolding is beautifully handled by director Georgia Green. By the end, there’s not much of Lou’s spark left; she’s a shadow, who has to ask permission to see her friends, who doesn’t have her own money or even her own door key.

The simple set comprises an empty white stage with a small raised platform, but it transforms into myriad places (a nightclub, a car, a house, a school), thanks to the sound and light design (by Tingying Dong and Simeon Miller respectively), which really help to create a disorienting and sometimes dangerous atmosphere.

If I have a quibble, it’s a very minor one, and it’s with the countdown clock. I like the idea of including the days, of building tension by letting us know how far we are from an unknown-but-definitely-scary climactic event, but the numbers are too big, and I find them hard to hold in my mind, which makes it difficult on occasion to know where I am in the timeline as it shuttles back and forth. I think it would be less confusing if, instead of 832 days, it said 2 years, 9 months and 3 days, for example, because it’s easier to keep track of that.

But that’s a small thing, and definitely not a game-changer.

Fincken’s performance is remarkable; she retains absolute control throughout, and the piece seems almost choreographed. She mimics rather than inhabits the minor characters, so that it’s always Lou’s impression of Whiny Briony, or Lou’s impression of her over-anxious mum. These impersonations are often funny, and provide welcome shafts of light, as well as reminding us of the life Lou could have had, who she still is inside.

Matthew Durkan voices Ryan (we hear him a lot, although we never see him). He has a gentle Mancunian voice; he always sounds reasonable, likeable, which is another clever touch.

Ruckus is a timely, artful piece of work, and Jenna Fincken is a name to watch.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Ultimate Pickle

06/08/22

Roundabout at Summerhall, Edinburgh

The Ultimate Pickle is our first show of Fringe ’22 (previews and showcases aside), and it’s a corker, albeit intended for an audience many decades our junior. Touring theatre company Paines Plough is dedicated to new writing and, as we’ve come to expect, this latest offering is a lively, imaginative and thought-provoking piece, played deftly and with precision.

This play, by Laura Lindow, is ostensibly for children, but there’s plenty here to keep us entertained. Princess Khumalo plays Dill Pickleton, an almost-eleven-year-old whose life is turned upside down when her granddad – or Gran-Ted – dies. Her mum (Sara Hazemi) goes to pieces and, before long, the duo are facing a financial crisis, necessitating a move from Gran-Ted’s beloved ‘lighthouse’ by the sea. For Dill, this also means a new school, and she struggles to keep a lid on her feelings. And then the wolf (Samuel Tracy) emerges from her story book, and Dill’s adventures really begin…

It’s a simple tale, and the metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but that doesn’t matter because it’s beautifully told. Paines Plough’s “pop-up, plug-and-play” theatre, Roundabout, is well-equipped with state of the art LED lighting (Rory Beaton) and surround sound (Roly Batha), and so the tech does a lot of the heavy lifting: there’s no set and very few props, but we always know exactly where we are, and the atmosphere is vibrant.

The three actors play the parts with sincerity and commitment: these are endearing performances that don’t trivialise Dill’s feelings. It’s too easy for children’s shows to talk down to their audiences; this one, directed by Eva Sampson, respects them, and I think any similarly-troubled young person watching it would feel understood rather than patronised.

The Ultimate Pickle is funny and moving – and perfectly-pitched for the whole family to enjoy. This trio of actors are also performing in two other (not-for-children) plays, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of their work.

A lovely reminder of the joy of Fringe, and of how much we’ve missed it for the past few years. What a way to herald a new beginning! Bravo.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

How to be Brave

24/08/19

Roundabout at Summerhall, Edinburgh

Katie (Laura Dalgliesh) isn’t in a good place. She’s moved back in with her mum, because she needs help looking after her littl’un. She’s clearly on a downward spiral, relying on her routine to keep her focused and on track. But today is different; today is difficult and new. Today she has to take the littl’un to the hospital, for heart surgery. Today Katie is scared.

And Katie doesn’t cope too well with fear.

Siân Owen’s one-woman play follows single-mum Katie as she flees a situation she can’t face, dashing impulsively out of the house and onto the streets of Newport, ricocheting from one panicked moment to the next. As she darts around the town she grew up in, she gets lost in childhood memories, the past and the present blurring into an incoherent howl.

It’s very funny. Dalgliesh’s energetic portrayal of a woman on the edge incorporates laugh-out-loud sequences, the breathless pace taking us along for the ride: we’re on that stolen BMX with her; the dread humiliation of her past failures fills us with shame as well. Katie is having a breakdown; we’re cringing even as we giggle. But still, it’s a positive piece, the kindness of strangers and, indeed, old enemies, a warming reminder that most people are actually pretty nice.

Catherine Paskell’s direction is spot-on, the small circular stage inventively utilised. Dalgliesh frequently darts towards the exits, seeking an escape, but she’s hemmed in (and supported) by the audience, hemmed in (and supported) by Newport and her past.

But will confronting her demons be enough to help her ‘find her brave’?

There’s only one more showing of Dirty Protest Theatre’s sparky Welsh play here in Edinburgh, but North Wales readers, take note. It’s coming to Theatr Clwyd at the start of September, and is well worth the trip to Mold.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

To Move in Time

19/08/19

Summerhall (Techcube 0), Edinburgh

To Move in Time is a prose-poem written by Tim Etchells and performed by Tyrone Huggins. In it, Huggins meditates on the various possibilities of what he might achieve if only he had the ability to travel backwards and forwards in time. The options range from the profound – preventing wars and plagues – to the more mundane – ensuring that Rick Astley never gets to record Never Gonna Give You Up.

As the piece developes, Huggins ties his brain (and consequently ours) into complex knots, as he struggles to keep control of all the loose ends that his meddling might create. And what if all his valiant struggles are in vain?

Though nicely performed and beautifully written, the piece is rather one-note in its approach and feels somewhat overstretched at an hour in duration. It would benefit, I think, from developing its subject matter onto different themes, but it stays resolutely on the same track and arrives pretty much at an inevitable conclusion.

The deep thinkers and philosophers out there might enjoy this piece rather more than I do. I’m afraid I belong to the ‘brain in knots’ cohort.

3 stars

Philip Caveney