The Pleasance

Oliver!

 

29/11/17

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

Ah, Oliver! Beloved by schools and youth groups, its jaunty sing-a-long-a-songs and larger-than-life characters mean that we often forget what it’s really about, the squalor and violence of Dickens’ London romanticised beyond recognition: all cute kids and bright handkerchiefs, the focus on the (frankly dubious) rags to riches element of the tale.

EUSOG’S version, directed by Erica Belton, works hard to avoid this trap. Of course, this being a student production, there are no sweet little eight-year-old performers who might need protecting from the grim realities of Victorian poverty, and so we’re free to see the savagery of the poorhouse in an electrifying opening scene, where the desperate inmates swarm through the auditorium towards their meagre meal, a starving horde reduced to zombies, caring solely about sustenance, and fighting for their share. Little wonder that Oliver (Yann Davies) asks for more: even his tiny helping of gruel has been snatched and devoured by others; he’s starving and has nothing to lose. His recklessness makes sense in this context – he’s not new to the workhouse; he knows his request will not be welcome – but this is a moment of rebellion born of deprivation.

I don’t need to outline the story – the musical’s ubiquity means there can be no surprises with the plot – but there are new interpretations of some of the characters. Fagin, for example, is played with wit and empathy by Kathryn Salmond. She shows the softer side of the avaricious old leech, ensuring we see that he is also a victim of a cruelly unfair society.   Reviewing the Situation is an absolute triumph, revealing much about the man.

Ashleigh More’s Artful Dodger is also interesting. More is an arresting performer: cheeky and lively and engaging as can be. Dodger’s heartbreak over Nancy’s death is beautifully bleak.

Grace Dickson (Nancy) also deserves a mention. She strikes just the right balance between strength and vulnerability, making us believe in and understand her doomed relationship with the evil Bill Sykes (Saul Garrett). I’m crying when she sings As Long As He Needs Me: willing her to leave, although of course I know she won’t; wishing she lived in a world where there was somewhere else for her to go.

Not everything about this production is perfect: perhaps more could have been made of the Sowerberrys’ scene, and of the stark contrast  between Oliver’s life so far and the luxury and opulence Mr Brownlow represents. Then there’s the inherent problem of a story where the hero is the least interesting person in it, almost a cypher, on whom we can project our own emotions and through whose eyes we see events unfold; this works well in Dickens’ novel, but is less successful on the stage.

Still, none of this prevents it from being a resounding success; it’s a lively, thought-provoking interpretation, with strong performances throughout. The choreography is very good indeed, and the orchestra plays beautifully (the violins are particularly memorable). This is definitely a show worth seeing, and it’s on until Saturday, so get yourself a ticket and go along. A note of caution though: take an extra sweater. The temperature in the Pleasance is positively Dickensian.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

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That’s the Way, A-ha, A-ha, Joe Lycett

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09/08/15

Cabaret Bar, Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

The Cabaret Bar is sold out, and that’s the way (a-ha, a-ha) Joe likes it. He’s on good form this evening, positively oozing with wit and mischief; he makes stand-up look easy and the audience is on his side.

I’ve seen him performing a short set quite recently at a charity event, so I’ve already heard some of this material, but that doesn’t matter. It’s interesting to see how the routines develop and how they fit in to a broader context. There’s a theme of sorts (living in Birmingham), but it’s very loose; it’s more ‘what Joe’s been doing recently’ than anything else. And, honestly, what he’s actually been doing is pretty mundane: going on a stag night, having breakfast at a coffee shop, and messing around on social media. But, of course, it’s all in the telling, and the telling here is very good. Joe Lycett is seriously talented, I think; he engages effortlessly with the audience, and looks like he is having fun.

OK, so it’s a gentle form of comedy. There’s a moment – when he starts to talk about Fox News’s erroneous description of Birmingham as “100% Muslim” – when I think we might be heading towards something more challenging; he begins to question why Fox News presume – if this were true – it would be negative, and goes on to explore the idea of how the language we employ colours our views. But he doesn’t take this very far, soon wandering back into more comfortable territory, such as Cheryl Fernandez-Versini’s social media posts. Personally, I’d like to see more of the demanding stuff, but I’m sure Lycett knows his audience, and tonight’s punters seem more than happy with their lot.

Worth seeing, then – but you’ll need to be quick. The tickets for this one are selling fast.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Paul Merton’s Impro Chums

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11/08/14

Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh

Paul Merton has been bringing this show to Edinburgh for quite some time and its lineage stretches further back to the days of the Comedy Store Players. We last saw it three years ago, with exactly the same format and pretty much the same comedians. It’s like slipping into a favourite cardigan or a comfy pair of slippers. You know you’ll always have a good time, even if you’re not remotely challenged by what you see. The format will be familiar to anyone who has seen Who’s Line Is It Anyway? The four presenters improvise their way through a series of suggestions thrown at them by the (packed and enthusiastic) audience. As ever with this kind of thing, there are moments of absolute hilarity, interspersed with episodes of mild amusement. Sometimes, the team chances onto something with ‘legs,’ something that will allow them to take it further. Other ideas just kind of peter out, but with so many years of comedy experience behind them, Merton and his chums know exactly when to call a halt and ask for a new suggestion. It’s all good, if rather old-fashioned fun and long may it continue.

 4 stars

Philip Caveney

Red Bastard

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07/08/2014

Pleasance Forth, Edinburgh

Another Fringe phenomenon, Red Bastard (or Eric Davis as his friends hopefully call him) was one of the biggest hits of 2013 and he’s back with a reputation strong enough to lure 300 punters at a time into one of the bigger venues at the Pleasance. We’d been warned to expect to be outraged. ‘Whatever you do, don’t put your hand up!’ And the posters for the show boasted that ‘something interesting will happen every 10 seconds.’ In the event, it didn’t, but maybe I’m quibbling.

Red Bastard is a skinny gentleman in a weirdly distended leotard, who bounds onstage and starts bullying the audience. It’s like an elaborate game of Simon Says. ‘All change places with each other!’ he barks. We all do. ‘Raise your mobile phones in the air!’ We all do as he says. His command over the audience is undeniable and it’s clear that many of the avid crowd have worshipped at this altar before, but… it’s hardly groundbreaking material. And then, he starts in with the self-help stuff and suddenly we’re into a different kind of show entirely. We are led to believe it is all about empowerment, about facing your fears, about realising that you are amazing and you have to stand up for yourselves. Which is frankly like the trite nonsense that people paste over pictures of dolphins on Facebook, to show the world how ‘sensitive’ they are. I suppose that Davis sees himself as ‘the fool who speaks the truth,’ but to me it’s more of a case of ‘the fool who talks like a novelty fridge-magnet.’ I cannot deny the show’s evident success, but this left me cold. On the way out, I overheard people enthusing about how brilliant it had all been; all I could think was that was an hour and twenty minutes I’ll never get back.

1.8 stars

Philip Caveney