Underbelly Cowgate

Ellie MacPherson: Happy Birthday, Mr. President!


Underbelly Cowgate (Big Belly), Edinburgh

Ellie MacPherson is a new name to me but, from the moment she saunters onto the stage, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, to deliver the titular song, I’m sold. She has a cheery personality and and a grin radiant enough to light up even the dingy, malodorous setting of Big Belly – one of the Fringe’s less inviting venues. She’s accompanied by a three-piece band, all dressed like CIA goons, complete with dark glasses – a nice touch.

Happy Birthday, Mr President! is a mash up: part history lesson, part stand-up, part cabaret set – and the fact that all the pieces fit so perfectly together, is testament to MacPherson’s evident skills. In one hour, she skips merrily through the forty-five American presidents (thus far), lingering here and there on more interesting aspects of their personalities.

I’m surprised (and slightly embarrassed) to learn how many of them I’ve never even heard of and I’m amazed to learn that so many of them had… issues. A president who couldn’t read or write? How does that work? One who liked to swim naked every day. Erm, sure, why not? And one who took a little girl as his ward and married her just as soon as she was old enough? Ewww. The song McPherson chooses to illustrate this story has never sounded quite so disturbing.

It helps that MacPherson has a terrific voice and a genuinely thrilling vocal range. My initial doubts that she can comfortably cram all those disparate characters into one hour are quickly dispelled. This is a terrific show: absorbing, informative and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Catch it if you can.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Rocket Girl


Underbelly, Cowgate (Iron Belly), Edinburgh

Parents seeking a quality family show at this year’s Fringe should get themselves down to the Cowgate without further delay, for Ditto Theatre’s delightful Rocket Girl. This charming blend of puppetry and theatre has a poignant story at its heart.

It’s 1969 and NASA has just put the first man on the moon. Young Maisie Robinson (voiced by Polly Byecroft Brown) lives with her father (Aaron Baker) and is obsessed with the idea of being an astronaut. The two of them have a daily ritual where they train Maisie for the special mission she plans to undertake when she grows up: to be the first woman to walk on the moon. But Maisie’s father works as a coal miner – and, when he is overtaken by serious illness, it’s clear that things are about to change for Maisie – and not necessarily for the better.

‘Maisie’ herself isn’t played by an actor but by a puppet – one that is so convincingly manipulated by her human co-stars that I soon start to think of her as a real person. Six actors embody a whole host of roles, ingeniously using simple props, physical theatre and lighting effects to help them tell the story. And what a delightful story it is, heartwarming, empowering and, moreover, it covers some pretty emotive themes with absolute confidence. The youngsters at the show we attend are spellbound by what’s happening onstage. And so am I.

There are just a few more opportunities left to see this play in Edinburgh. Don’t let them slip away. The countdown to the end of Edfringe 2019 has already begun…

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney


When the Birds Come


Underbelly Cowgate (White Belly), Edinburgh

Thirteen-year-old Margaret (Phoebe Vigor) lives with her eight year old brother, Stanley (Zak Douglas), and their troubled parents in a tiny Yupik community in the wilds of Alaska. Global warming is gradually destroying their traditional way of life. The melting tundra threatens to plunge the family’s modest home into the ever rising river – and, because of a landslide that coincided with his birth, Stanley has always thought himself responsible for this catastrophic change.

The goverment has plans to rehouse them further inland but Margaret repeatedly tells Stanley that, when summer comes and the geese return, the two of them will run away to Anchorage, the nearest city of any size, where they will enjoy all the comforts of capitalism: Starbucks coffee, central heating, cinemas and unlimited wi fi…

But, as we learn in a beautifully judged flash-forward, things don’t always turn out as expected. And Margaret’s anticipated pleasures come at a terrible cost.

This delightful, enviromentally-conscious two-hander by Tallulah Brown, tells a poignant story, yet also manages to give a stark warning about the impending disaster that awaits our planet. The two adult actors skilfully embody their young characters (Douglas in particular has a face that uncannily belies his years) and the poignant scene where the two of them meet up years later is genuinely heartbreaking.  I previously knew nothing about the indigenous communities of Alaska but, after watching this, I intend to find out more.

Meanwhile, this charming play provides a heartfelt introduction to their plight.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney



Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Laugh), Edinburgh

‘Jack’ has an all-consuming mission – to turn himself into a ‘real’ man. You know what I mean by that… bulging biceps, a rock-hard six-pack, the ability to face down any adversary and come out on top.

With this is mind, he’s spending a lot of time down the gym, lifting weights, doing push-ups. He models himself on Rambo (‘don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe’), and he dreams about having the authority to make other men step aside. At the gym, he meets Max, a weightlifter, and the two of them hit it off. Pretty soon, Jack is running with his new friend’s gang, drinking Stella, snorting lines of coke and immersing himself in a foetid stew of toxic masculinity. But, as the story unfolds, we begin to realise that something bad has happened to Jack, back when he was just some skinny kid called Jamie – something that, try as he might, he cannot banish from his mind. Something that haunts him. Something that is destroying him.

Ripped is a monologue, written and performed by Alex Gwyther and direct by Max Lindsay. It’s a play that tackles a subject that few dramatists are prepared to take on, because the subject is so taboo. But here male rape is confronted head on, and laid bare in all its unspeakable horror.

Not only is this a beautifully written piece, one that walks a perilous tightrope between dark comedy and outright shock, but it also features a performance so powerful and compelling that I find myself riveted by it. I’m clearly not alone. Gwyther receives an impassioned standing ovation at the play’s conclusion.

I cannot promise that you’ll enjoy this play, but it positively demands to be seen. And I have just one more word to add to this review.


5 stars

Philip Caveney



AJ Holmes: Yeah, but Not Right Now


Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Dancer), Edinburgh

There’s something charmingly anachronistic about AJ Holmes. Those lovely melodic flourishes on the keyboard are decidely old-school and the voice, as you might expect from the former star of The Book of Mormon, is a constant delight, soft and plaintive in the lower ranges and suprisingly powerful when he hits the high notes.

But the choice of subject matter is more unusual than you might expect. I mean, who else do I know, who’s happy to belt out a tender melody about the trials and tribulations of having a poo? Moreover, one who can effortlessly coax a roomful of people into singing the chorus along with him, resulting in me leaving the venue with the weirdest earworm EVER.

Holmes also displays an easy rapport with his audience, addressing a soulful ballad to a (clearly delighted) woman in the front row and kindling plenty of laughter with his observations about his mother and the overpowering loneliness of touring in a major production. He also experiments with a recording machine, overlaying riffs on various instruments and then multi-tracking his voice to create an angelic-sonding chorus. (Don’t worry, this is far more engaging than it sounds!)

The end result is thoroughly entertaining, and a rewarding way to spend an hour. Catch him down at the Underbelly before he packs up his keyboard and heads back to the USA.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney


Kit Finnie: Mabel & Mickey


Underbelly (Belly Dancer), Edinburgh

While not exactly what you’d call a crowdpleaser, there’s always room on the Fringe for a show like Mabel & Mickey, an ambitious and quirky look at a story from the early days of Hollywood. Mabel Normand was one of the greatest stars of the silent era and something of an innovator at a time when few women were able to make inroads in the film industry. Many would say that not much has changed since then…

In 1915, Normand produced, directed and starred in a very successful movie called Mickey, which she made for Mack Sennet’s studio, Keystone. But her career was subsequently tainted, both by her association with fellow actor Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and his infamous rape trial – and by her mysterious relationship with film director William Desmond Taylor. The latter was murdered in 1922, just after he’d announced that he was to marry another woman. Normand was one of the key suspects and, though she was eventually acquitted, her career never recovered.

In this inventive monologue, Kit Finnie plays Mabel, who, when we first encounter her, is being interviewed by the police about Desmond’s murder. She occasionally breaks the illusion to talk with her tech person, reverting to her own accent and pointing out that she’s forgotten certain lines or that she needs to try something again – this is jarring, but then, it’s clearly meant to be. There’s also some nifty use of an OHP (retro tech equipment seems to be one of the recurring tropes of this year’s Fringe) used in conjunction with simple paper cutouts. Finnie even offers us the occasional bit of  poetry, which keeps winging its way onto the stage in the form of paper aeroplanes. Oh yes, and there’s quite a lot about pigeons too.

This is esoteric stuff that demands concentration, mostly because Normand’s story has largely slipped into the mists of time. Interested parties should seek out Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast You Must Remember This, which devotes a whole episode to Mabel Normand and makes a useful companion piece to this show.

This is an interesting attempt to do something a little bit different and really, that’s exactly what the Edinburgh Fringe is for.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Zach & Viggo & Thumpasaurus: Where Does the Love Go?


Underbelly (Belly Button), Cowgate, Edinburgh

‘Where Does the Love Go?’ asks the most memorable song from this show and it’s evident from the kick-off that there’s plenty of it in evidence in the dank surroundings of Belly Button. It’s all directed at Zach Zucker, Viggo Venn and LA-based funk-punk band Thumpasaurus in this riotous, rickety sci-fi punk opera, which is basically a comic attack on Jeff Bezos and his Amazon empire.

Alexo (Zucker) is Amazon’s newest product, an AI that’s a big step up from Alexa. It can do a lot more than set an alarm and turn up the volume on your stereo. Created by Gepetto (Venn), Alexo experiences emotions that go way beyond the usual AI. He thinks of Gepetto as his father, so he’s devastated to learn that he actually belongs to Bezos (Jonny Wooley), who intends to assert his absolute authority over the creation he has funded. It’s clearly not going to end well.

By all the usual standards, this is ropey stuff that really shouldn’t fly – and yet, it’s done with such warm hearted zeal, such brio, that you somehow can’t help but go with it. This show has ‘cult’ written all over it. It’s evident that much of tonight’s enthusiastic crowd have already watched this more than once, reacting to ‘in’ jokes and clearly having a whale of time. In a nod to a repeated joke, Thumpasaurus really do create ‘a great vibe’ and Zucker’s continual nods and winks to his devotees, which ought to be irritating, somehow add to the show’s appeal. Venn too, is howlingly funny, in a shambling, ‘don’t give a toss’ kind of way, while Wooley’s performance as Bezos is just downright hilarious. His speech at the launch of his latest product has me in stitches.

You’ll leave singing that titular song over and over. Resistance is futile. Round up a bunch of friends and go and enjoy this show. It’s as rough as the proverbial bear’s backside, but an absolute hoot just the same.

4 stars

Philip Caveney




Underbelly, Cowgate

We first became aware of writer Max Dickins’ work at last year’s fringe when we happened upon his brilliant monologue, The Man on the Moor, and marked him as a name to watch out for in the future. With Kin, he steps away from the performance side of things, but the power of his writing is evident in every line of this excellent drama, which concentrates on the story of two estranged sisters, brought together by the imminent death of their equally estranged father.

The action occurs in a single room of the father’s American home. Lily (Kate Alderton) is already there, dutifully preparing for his demise, when Sarah (Abigail Burdess) arrives, jet-lagged and cranky, to lend a hand. The father remains an off-stage presence, only intermittently heard via a strategically placed baby alarm – but his belongings litter the stage and help to draw a picture of the man. It quickly becomes clear that the two sisters do not really get on: they haven’t seen each other for two decades; something happened back in their teenage years to drive a wedge between them. Lily is married, a stay-at-home mother with two children; Sarah is a fierce loner who has devoted her life to her career. They are worlds apart, and yet they shared so much when they were young. As the hours pass, we learn about the events that have driven them apart, about the bitter rivalries that time has failed to erase –  and our first impressions of the two women are cleverly undermined. We come to understand that what we think we know about them may not be as straightforward as we initially suppose.

The script crackles and spits with dark invective – Sarah’s dialogue in particular is unflinchingly brutal and hilarious in its insistence on making no compromises, taking no prisoners. The performances of both actors are first rate and, by the play’s highly emotive conclusion, it’s clear that the tears being shed onstage go far beyond mere acting.

If you enjoy powerful theatre about family dynamics, get yourselves to the Underbelly with all haste and catch this one.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Demi Lardner: Look What You Made Me Do


Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh

We’re in the dank and dingy Dehli Belly for Demi Lardner’s show, but we’re not aware of our insalubrious surroundings for long. Because as soon as Lardner bursts onto the stage, we’re transported to a surreal world, that’s equal parts man-cave and subconcious.

Lardner is Gavin, a forty-six year old man, deserted by his wife and trapped in his basement, with only the disembodied voice of telemarketer Sandra (Michelle Braiser) to keep him company. It’s a deliberately ropey characterisation: Gavin, like Lardner, looks younger than twenty-three, and appears to be dressed as a sporty schoolboy. Lardner affects a gruff voice (at times) and a swaggering physicality – it’s peculiar and it’s very funny indeed.

It’s a difficult show to pin down in a review: the appeal is in the shonkiness. It’s essentially a series of quirky vignettes loosely tied together to form the narrative. Lardner is utterly engaging, and some of the best moments are those when she breaks character to giggle or berate the audience. The jokes are goofy and daft with no great meaningful reveal, and there has to be a place for humour such as this.

If the show runs out of steam a little at the end – and it does – I think we can forgive it that. Because we’ve had a fun fifty minutes in Demi Lardner’s silly company.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Last Queen of Scotland



Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh

This powerful production by Stellar Quines Theatre Company, commissioned and supported by the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep, is written by Jaimini Jethwa, and based on her personal experience. It tells the story of the Ugandan Asians, expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. With just ninety days’ notice, they were robbed of everything they owned and despatched to whoever would give them a home. Jethwa’s family ended up in Dundee. Her story is told by an unnamed young woman (Rehanna MacDonald), a character who has grown up in Scotland but who is still slowly coming to terms with what happened to her family when she was a baby.

MacDonald delivers an incendiary performance, pacing restlessly back and forth across the stage as she recalls her childhood memories, her teenage years running wild on the streets of Dundee and her recent trip back to Uganda to revisit the family home. She’s ably supported by Patricia Panther, who adds some resonant songs to the mix, providing a constant onstage presence, mostly watching in silence as the events unfold. (In truth, I would have liked to have heard a little more from her, but I guess you can’t have everything.)

This is a fascinating slice of history, brilliantly recounted and economically directed by Jemima Levick. Lovers of good theatre shouldn’t miss this one.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney