Underbelly Med Quad

Nick Hall: Spencer


Underbelly, Bristo Square, Edinburgh

If anybody has heard  the name Spencer Perceval before, they are likely to know only one thing about him – that he has the dubious distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever to have been murdered while in office. (Of course, there are several others we might like to see  murdered, but that’s an entirely different matter.) Interestingly, Perceval was not killed in a crime of passion or even as a result of great political upheaval. He was shot by a merchant who felt that the government owed him a sum money and decided to make his feelings known in no uncertain terms.

Stand up comedian Nick Hall is also a former history graduate and has decided that the world (or at least the Edinburgh Fringe) needs to know a bit more about the man who was affectionally dubbed ‘Little P’ because of his short stature. Perceval had wanted to be Prime Minister since childhood and, once in that position, did his level best to eradicate British involvement in slavery. Unfortunately, this made him very unpopular with those who were making vast amounts of money from it and might have accounted for the cheers of delight that were heard when his death was announced.

This is a gentle, whimsical show, that manages to inform and entertain in equal measure. Hall is an engaging host, full of witty one liners and wry observations. I particularly like his ‘time in reverse’ scenario, where many of history’s greatest tragedies are cleverly set to rights and turned into triumphs. Towards the end, he even does a kind of recap, just to make sure we’ve all been paying attention. Happily, we have. We pass the Perceval test.

I leave the Underbelly Clover room knowing  a lot more about the man than I did when I arrived – and having had a thoroughly good laugh into the bargain.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Stupid Cupid


Underbelly, Med Quad

Stupid Cupid marks Canadian Liz McMullan’s first show on the Fringe, a one woman monologue written by Kerianne Cameron and Miguel Eichelberger. McMullan plays the titular wannabe cupid, who has come along to the venue to take her ‘cupidity test.’ She hopes to be awarded an official set of wings, at which point she will be allowed to go forth and wreak havoc on an unsupecting world with her little bow and arrow

But an administrative error has left several other bows stored in the room where she’s taking her exam. These are the infamous Bows of Destiny, belonging to her illustrious predecessors, and she has been warned not to go near them. But, when she inadvertently spikes herself with a love arrow, she cannot help but pick up each bow in turn, to try it out for herself…

I’ll confess that my first impressions of this are not promising. The concept feels a little too sacharine for my taste and I’m fully expecting not to enjoy it – but McMullen soon wins me over with her assured and confident performance, interracting expertly with the audience and displaying not one ounce of inhibition as she careers through all aspects of love from prim and correct to downright saucy. (A gentle word of warning. This may not be suitable for children.)

Love, we learn, is a complicated process – and McMullen is the perfect guide to help us steer a path through the potential pitfalls.

Charming and thoroughly enjoyable stuff. Those of a romantic disposition, should pop along for further instructions – and it seems, there’s even hope for grumpy old devils like me.

4 stars

Philip Caveney


Maddy Anholt: Herselves


Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

Amidst the plethora of standups at the Fringe, character comedy is rather thinner on the ground, but it’s there if you take the trouble to look for it. Maddy Anholt can be found every afternoon at the Underbelly Med Quad, flying the flag for her preferred area of comedy and doing a great job of it. She bounds confidently onto the stage in character as Shazza, a reality TV wannabe, who is totally convinced of her own innate qualities of super-stardom. She presses fan photographs (which she’s had laminated to make them easier to wipe-off!) into the hands of people in the front row and tells us all about her quest to be famous. Shazza is, of course, only the first in a succession of oddball characters Anholt has created for this show; wisely, she doesn’t spend too long in each role, but skips merrily along to the next and the next and the next – with barely a pause for breath.

She’s very good at working the audience. At one point I find myself called up (maybe ordered up, would be more accurate) to perform the role of her husband; I’m made to brush her hair and, let’s face it, that’s not something I get to say in many reviews! Anholt is good at snapping in and out of the various roles she takes on. The standouts are the weirdly aggressive monobrowed zoo keeper, who ends up performing the mating dance of a peacock, and the weird moment when another character channels her ‘inner child,’ morphing into a pouting, giggling little girl – this performance is eerily convincing.

It’s endearingly silly stuff, frivolous and nonsensical, a delightful way to spend an hour at the Fringe.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Wil Greenway: These Trees the Autumn Leaves Alone


Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

What is is about Australians and the art of storytelling?

Wil Greenway was one of our best discoveries at last year’s Fringe. This red-headed, bearded, vaguely hippie-ish guy presented a show called The Way the City Ate the Stars and we thought it was one of the most magical acts we’d ever seen. So of course we want to see him again! But the main question at the back of my mind is this: can he do it a second time? Can he honestly hope to reproduce the same levels of delight that he gave us last year? The answer to that, as it turns out, is a resounding yes. TTALA is every bit as good – maybe even better.

This year’s story is all about Ernie, a lonely guy in Melbourne, struggling with his weight, struggling with his loneliness, struggling to find a job. It’s about his lucky shirt, and a girl he met at a party years ago. It’s about a hungry cat and it’s about rain. Apparently, when it rains in Melbourne, it really rains…

If this doesn’t sound enticing, well, don’t be misled. The way Greenway tells a story is right up there with his compatriot, Sarah Kendall. He manages to weave this wonderful spell as he talks, aided and abetted by the marvellous vocals and guitar of his cohorts Kathryn Langshaw and Will Galloway, so that the most mundane things are made to sound quite beautiful (hell, in this show, Greenway describes a character throwing up and somehow manages to turn it into one of the most elegant pieces of prose I’ve ever heard).

This is wonderful stuff, powerful enough to transport you into the world of Greenway’s imagination, which let me assure, is a splendid place to pass an hour. If you see only one act by a red-headed, bearded, vaguely hippie-ish guy at this year’s Fringe, then this should be it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Dear Home Office



Underbelly  Med Quad, Edinburgh

Theatre is a diverse art form that serves many purposes, but few of its incarnations are as affecting and important as a project like Dear Home Office.

It’s the story of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the UK, and it’s performed with touching vulnerability by eight refugee boys from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Albania. And it’s hard to watch.

The play tells us about ‘Tariq’, whose story is an amalgamation of the performers’ own experiences, blended with fictional accounts, all developed in devising workshops. It’s cleverly structured, so that the actors’ inexperience doesn’t matter; their artless performances make the piece utterly compelling. This is not about polished delivery or exquisite drama skills; it’s a raw and truthful exposé – and it’s a vital piece of work.

We hear of desperate parents, who believe that their children’s survival depends on sending them away; of young boys crossing continents as fugitives, fighting to survive in an unforgiving world. Children who have experienced more horrors than most adults ever will, being questioned and disbelieved. These kids have endured so much – and they’re the lucky ones. Because they have the support of Kate Duffy and the Afghan Association Paiwand, who mentor unaccompanied minors and assist them into education, housing, etc., as well as advocating for them. And they have Phosphoros Theatre, who have helped them share their stories with a wider audience.

I cried most of the way through this play. But my tears don’t help anyone at all. I need to do something, because this really matters. There are thousands of children in the same situation, and we can’t stand by and let them suffer.

“Donate, volunteer, lobby, talk… Challenge preconceptions.” That’s what I intend to do.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Wil Greenway: The Way The City Ate The Stars



Underbelly, Med Quad, Edinburgh

What a curious and delightful confection this is – one of the most original productions we’ve seen at this year’s fringe. Wil Greenway’s show is a delightful blend of storytelling and music (the latter supplied by Will Galloway and Kathryn Langshaw). It’s set in Melbourne Australia and proves to be the perfect antidote for a cold, rainy afternoon in Edinburgh.

Greenway spins a magical yarn that blurs the lines between prose and poetry. It begins with a chance encounter between Greenway and Margaret, a mysterious woman he meets in a Melbourne bar. It then speeds effortlessly forward in time to the impending birth of Margaret’s child and there’s a series of coincidences that send three men speeding along the same remote road to an encounter with fate.

Greenway’s dazzling words and the haunting harmonies of his musical collaborators combine to create something quite extraordinary. The packed crowd at the event we attended would seem to suggest that good word of mouth about this show is already spreading fast. Our advice? Grab a ticket for this while you still can. Only those made of stone will be able to resist its charms.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Paper Hearts : the Musical



Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

Paper Hearts is the story of Atticus Smith (Adam Small), a lowly bookshop assistant who, in his spare time, is banging away on the keys of a manual typewriter, trying to write a bestselling novel. His life takes an interesting turn when he meets and promptly falls in love with Lilly Sprockett (Gabriella Margulies), who, it transpires is working for (and having a relationship with) Atticus’s villainous Dad, Roger (David Mullen), the head honcho at mega-publishers, Random Books. Atticus and Roger have been estranged for years. When Atticus learns that his father intends to buy the bookshop – probably with the intention of turning it into luxury apartments – he starts to think that his life is ruined. But then he hears about a book competition offering a huge cash prize… a competition that is funded by Random Books.

Anybody hoping for a realistic exposé of the publishing business should look elsewhere. The plot is quite ridiculous; no publishing house in the world has ever carried on in such an unprofessional fashion. If, on the other hand, you have a liking for plaintive songs, brilliant musicianship and a shot of good old-fashioned romance, then this just might be the show for you. I sat there entranced as the ten-strong cast moved effortlessly around a stage with the general dimensions of a postage-stamp, singing, playing instruments, swapping costumes and switching roles with consummate skill. This production could have been designed purely to illustrate the meaning of the word ‘ensemble.’ Choreographer Lindsay McAllister deserves a lot of praise for making this flow so effortlessly.

I like the way the story cuts back and forth between Atticus’s own story and Angel Star, the Dr Zhivago-esque novel that he’s working so feverishly on. I loved the concept of a literary face-off between rival members of the cast and the suggestion (so true) that writers use their fiction to put right the things that never go well for them in real life. Like most others attending this packed performance, I left with a big smile on my face, humming the closing number. Which, for a show like this, is exactly as it should be.

If you like books and you like musicals, then there’s every chance that you’ll enjoy Paper Hearts just as much as I did.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney (ahem… novelist)

Tom Neenan: Vaudeville



Underbelly, Med Quad

Tom Neenan is a brilliant raconteur. At last year’s festival he beguiled us with his riff on the Professor Quatermass stories of Nigel Kneale. This year, his influences seem to have come from the Amicus portmanteau films of the 60s and 70s.

We are seated in near darkness when Neenan, dressed as a security guard, enters by torch light. We quickly learn that it’s his birthday and he sits down to enjoy a celebratory Lucozade – then does a wonderful double take as he realises he’s not alone.

He tells us that we are in an old theatre and that there are many stories associated with it. He goes on to regale us with three dark tales in which, as ever, he plays every character, switching effortlessly from role to role. We’re told about a lovelorn magician and his evil ventriloquist’s dummy, Mr Nibbles (shades of Cavalcanti’s Dead of Night, here) then there’s the story of a celebrated Shakespearian actor and his deadly rivalry with a critic (Theatre of Blood?) and finally the tale of an ambitious teenage ballet dancer prepared to give everything in order to win a regional prize. As is customary in such constructions, there’s a final, brilliant twist in the tale, one that ingeniously makes us, the audience, part of the show. It’s brilliant stuff. I read recently that Neenan started off in a double act with Nish Kumar and I would be fascinated to see how that worked, since I can’t think of two more diverse performers.

Vaudeville  was sold out the afternoon we saw it and fully deserved to be. If you can get a ticket for this, do so. You won’t be disappointed.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Holly Burn: I Am Special



Underbelly, Med Quad, Edinburgh

Shirley Bassey is bellowing My Life as Holly Burn slinks onto the stage, clad in a red jumpsuit. She’s clutching a stuffed parrot and exudes enough confidence to light up the Royal Mile. Back in the 80s, growing up in Newcastle, she was told by just about everybody she knew that she was ‘special.’ But now it’s 2016 and she’s finding it difficult to admit that things haven’t worked out as well as she might have hoped. This show is essentially about the yawning chasm that lies between our childhood ambitions and what most of us have to settle for as grown ups.

Holly sings a bit of Barbara Streisand (very well, I might add) and she interacts effortlessly with her audience. I am dubbed ‘Spaghetti Phil’ (largely because of what I had to eat before attending the show) while three young girls off to one side of the performance space are adopted as Holly’s posse. There are some genuinely funny lines here. ‘What do you want to do with your life, Holly?’ ‘I want everything but I don’t want to do anything to get it. I just want to faff around until somebody notices me.’

Well, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?

She cuts back and forth between scenes from her childhood and some of the outlandish fantasies she indulged in back then. An extended sequence that has her riding a scooter naked through Sienna is a highlight. Occasionally the piece loses its focus, and she has to work hard to get the audience back again, but she largely succeeds. It’s a diverting hour spent in her company and while it may not be the most memorable performance we’ve seen, it’s nonetheless enjoyable. Hearing Holly sing makes me wonder if that’s a part of the show she might want to develop more in the future.

I for one would be interested to see where she takes this next.

3.6 stars

(Spaghetti) Philip Caveney