Jekyll & Hyde (Church Hill Theatre: 22 – 25 Nov ’16)

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde) Photos: Erica Belton

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde)
Photos: Erica Belton

“The talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was part of an unfortunate, if very narrow, generation whose first encounter with Robert Louis Stephenson’s monstrous Mister Hyde was the opening of a terrible Hugh Jackman movie. As a result, questions of the duality of man, the nature of morality and the dangers of unrestrained passion didn’t really factor in for a while. It seems fitting therefore that EUSOG’s latest outing follows the pattern of contrast underscored by its source material: it’s a collection of both dizzying highs and curiously disappointing lows.

Jekyll & Hyde loosely follows Stephenson’s original work, with a few new emotional complications thrown in. It is a musical exploration of the ambition, suffering and fear associated not only with the fraught Henry Jekyll, but its effects on his friends, family and even the city of London itself. And to begin –  as usual – with the ability on display, it’s considerable. The singing talent in this show can’t be denied, ensemble included. Ellie Millar and Giselle Yonace in particular offer utterly breathtaking solos as Emma Carew and Lucy Harris, culminating in a duet that could shatter glass for precision.

And the talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast. Special props go to Kirsten Millar as the world’s most entertainingly jovial prostitute; and to Jana Bernard, whose rare mix of graceful flexibility and natural showmanship lead to an array of angles that’d make an architect weep. Despite the occasional desync in a dance, the ensemble did their job with gusto and skill.

But any praise would be incomplete without hailing new face Stephen Quinn as the titular duo. Powerful voice aside, I found myself extremely taken with his portrayal of Henry Jekyll: he balances ambition, humanity and (perhaps most importantly) a genuine vulnerability during his two hour tenure as the good doctor, and it certainly stuck. Often, mild-mannered Jekyll is the more under-realised of the two, and it was refreshingly welcome to see such care put into his characterisation.

The question then, I suppose, is why this show only has three stars – and why have I personally left it unrated?

Despite the considerable strength of the cast, there are distinct elements of this show that detract from the overall fabric of the performance. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the way in which they handle Edward Hyde. At its core, there simply wasn’t enough contrast or intensity: often, the only difference between the two selves seemed to be his ragged choice of jacket, rather than any significant change in manner. The visceral glee, passionate brutality and utterly malevolent hedonism which typifies Hyde seems to get lost somewhere in the mix – and this is certainly not helped by fight choreography which is so floaty and strangely force-less that it occasionally comes off as comical rather than dramatic. Sitting next to the fantastic choreography of song numbers such as ‘Bring on the Men’, it seems worlds apart.

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And, most unfortunately, that fundamental element of violence and rage, which seems to be missing from much of the production, runs deeply through its other elements. Without that relish of cruelty, many scenes feel strangely bland for want of a contrast which just isn’t there. Combine that with mics which popped in and out more often than a first year halls cleaning lady and with variable volume levels, which would put Brexit indecision to shame, even when the show was at its strongest, then it was unsurprising that at times I could not hear a damned – or virtuous – thing.

That said, if you’re looking for a collection of entertaining and ear-pleasing song numbers, you’ll like what you get. However, if you’re wanting an exploration of human nature, brutality and debauchery, and a spot or two of vanquishing, then …. No. Upfront this is a strong production but it is let down by its emotional backdrop. For those who aren’t as pedantically focused on its content as I am, it’s certainly not going to sour your night – but walking home through the cold Edinburgh air I couldn’t help but think that Mister Hyde just didn’t show up.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 22 November)

Go Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group

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+3 Review: Ameé Smith – Relax, it’s not about you (Underbelly Med Quad: Aug 3 – 29: 15.00 : 1hr)

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“Optimistic, off-the-wall and unapologetically human”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

I try my best not to judge shows before they’re done. But, finding the queue as lonely as a tarantula’s birdcage, I confess to some trepidation as I waited for Ameé Smith’s “Relax, it’s not about you”. Shows with sub-dozen audiences can be tense at the best of times, and given the very personal nature of Smith’s themes, comedy’s need for reactivity and my own creeping paranoia about audience interaction, it seemed a bespoke recipe for awkwardness.

But, for once, it appears the mantra of the 2* performer rings true: the reviewer was dead wrong.

Who exactly “Relax, it’s not about you” is about could make for an excellent piece of theatre analysis – could be Smith’s ex’s, could be Smith herself; and, perhaps overarchingly, it could be about every person watching. Complete with examinations of toxic relationship types, explorations of what makes something TMI and confessions of Smith’s own foibles, “Relax, it’s not about you” is a frenetic, laugh-filled odyssey through the minefield that is interhuman relations.

Whilst it all might sound a bit metaphysical, it’s certainly entertaining. It’s somewhere between hearing stories from a drunk aunt and hanging out with an unlucky-in-love best friend: sometimes rambling ,sometimes short and sharp, and always cringingly self-aware. And whilst the occasional semantic meander leads to a dead-end, Smith seems to be an expert at winding back her own train of thought. And rest assured, despite the heavy premise, it’s a set with its fair share of laughs. You’ll never look at ceramic owls the same way again, and that’s a promise.

For such a blurry and ill-defined subject, it’s impressive how consistent the show feels for its duration. Smith’s nervy, almost fractious energy is a wonderful constant, even when presented with an audience of two. Never before have I seen a performer approach a nearly-empty house with such vigor. In truth, my greatest disappointment with this performance is that I never got to see how Smith would play off a full house. She is (fittingly and obviously) the greatest asset this show has, having cracked the comedian’s riddle of creating an obvious gulf of wit between her and the audience, whilst simultaneously closing it with an almost tactical show of real honesty and vulnerability.

This is perhaps the only time I’ve ever regretted that the jokey offer of a pint after the show was not capitalised upon, so enthralled I was with the sheer openness with which Smith presents herself. Even her dodgy guitar skills, though they open the show on a slightly jerky note, have their significance later. This is feel-good theatre, despite being based on one of the worst parts of romance.

This is a show which deserves far, far more than what I saw it receive. Ameé Smith has crafted a difficult and beautiful thing: a comedy show which thrives on universal truths, yet doesn’t claim to have any answers. And despite a few momentary stumbles, “Relax, it’s not about you” is exactly the kind of show that typifies the Edinburgh Fringe: optimistic, off-the-wall and unapologetically human. Ameé Smith isn’t making a show about you – but that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t see it.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 25 August)

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+3 Review: The Other Guys – Well Sung (TheSpace@ Symposium Hall: Aug 16 – 20: 16.10 : 50 mins)

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 “Substantive, deep and intricate”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

I think the mark of a good group name is its capacity for inciting mild social chaos when you try and explain you’re going to see them. And whilst The Other Guys win points for being delightfully vague from the outset, their talent is nothing if not definite.

Formed in 2004, the St Andrews based acapella group has already received significant critical and celebrity accolade; and from the moment the voices start raising, it’s immediately clear why. Well Sung, despite the punderful name, is a set list with multifaceted focus: the quality of the vocals, tonal layers and overarching charmingness of the performance all come together to form what is certainly a spectacle worthy of spectation.

From the first note, what is immediately apparent is the sheer singing skill present throughout the group. The way in which many solo vocalists seemed to swoop and crest throughout their range was genuinely (and indeed, pleasantly) surprising, and it certainly makes for good acapella. It goes a long way to making the sentiments behind the songs seem genuine – for those of the patriotic persuasion, prepare for a performance of “Loch Lomond” that’ll make your knees shiver.

But even more than quality, what marks out The Other Guys is their rich tonality. Falling somewhere between glee club and old school barbershop, the harmonic layering of each vocalist during more group-orientated numbers is so rich and layered that it’s difficult to convey without hearing it. It’s the taste of red wine, or the smell of pine smoke – substantive, deep and intricate.

However, this interoperability is a fickle advantage: despite lending a definite veneer of quality to their songs, it comes at a cost: the more energetic numbers sometimes lacked the volumatic punch needed to fully capture the spirit of their original composition; and whilst tailor-made to show off that rich barber-shop-esque quality, the arrangements occasionally failed to show the same uniqueness which makes the vocals themselves so compelling.

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to deny the charm and talent of this group of young men. From acapella virgins to die-hard fans, this is a show that demands to be seen. Despite its shortcomings, Well Hung is a rare thing: a feast for the ears in which one can choose their portion. It’s very easy to get lost in the sheer vocal texture – but equally so to simply watch as the beauty unfolds.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 20 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: The Free Association – Jacuzzi (Pleasance: 4-21 Aug: 23.00 : 1hr)

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 “Wild, witty and wickedly funny”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

I always approach live improv shows with a degree of trepidation: though a lot of the fun lies in its often wild unpredictability, it’s easy for a forced joke or sudden case of comedian’s block to sour an entire set. However, from the moment the Free Association players arrived on stage, I felt as if the audience was in very safe hands.

Basing scenes from improvised monologues by “special guests”, it’s a streamlined one-two punch of comedy flavours. The changeover from stand-up style presentation to off-the-wall improv is smooth, sharp and very crisp, handily overcoming the transitional inertia that would threaten less cohesive groups. From start to finish, it’s this veneer of professionalism that really brings the Free Association together; very seldom is improv so akin to a well-oiled machine.

But far from it to say the comedy is mechanical: I’d almost recommend a helmet to protect against the ideas bouncing off the walls. From Blue Peter themed suicide pacts to rad skateboarding private-school bait-and-switches (it somehow made sense at the time), you’d be hard pressed to try and follow the cognitive bead of sense for more than ten minutes – and this show is all the better for it. Despite a few jokes which fell flat or dampened the usually excellent energy, when the material’s good, it’s hysterical.

This unpredictability was aided by the novel way in which the Free Association goes about its work. They tout themselves as being “based on the American style of long-form improv but with [their] own unique spin”, and the latter is pointedly true. Jacuzzi often blurs the line between short form and long form improv, with overarching plots and characters weaving in and out of the utter chaos on stage at breakneck pace.

For a more amateur company, this may have been a tall order, but the talent driving this show can’t be denied. Despite the extreme difficulty in discerning a favourite from such a strong cast,  Comedy MVP inevitably must go to Alison Thea-Skot: I’ve never seen such a wide comedic range – it’s a hard job to make an audience really believe they’re watching a heavily-scottish football coach who’s forcibly making their players fat to win games  – again, plenty of sense at the time – but I’ll be damned if I didn’t expect a true-life biopic about it to be in the works by the time the set ended.

The Free Association is certainly deserving of its acclaim. Wild, witty and wickedly funny, “Jacuzzi” is a classic example of improv comedy done right.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 17 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: The Accidentals – Tone Down For What (theSpace@ Symposium Hall: Aug 17-20, 22-27 : 18.20 : 50 mins)

” A nonstop vocal joyride”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Returning to a group you have vastly enjoyed at the Fringe previously is like releasing a paper airplane into a storm: there’s not much you can do but hope – and as I sat in the audience for the next instalment in The Accidentals’ success story, I could definitely hear the wind whispering at the stage door. For me, this Fringe has certainly raised the quality bar in terms of performances I’ve seen, and my worst nightmare was that my favourite a capella choir just wouldn’t be able to stand up to the wonder. My only advice to other prospective audience members would be this: fear not. The Accidentals aren’t just coasting on the wind, they’re soaring.

Running the variety gauntlet once again from traditional Scottish tunes to lip-battering beatbox performances, The Accidentals are a joy to watch from the moment they enter the stage. The sheer variety of voices they represent is staggering: expect the tooth-rattlingly low and the glass-breakingly high, all wrapped up in a nonstop vocal joyride.

Tone Down For What is not just a show of the same quality that audiences have come to expect from these returning Fringe champions: this year’s edition comes with bells and whistles, including the first successful audience participation exercise in a musical show which didn’t sound like a slowly deflating, middle class balloon. As someone who prefers to sit silently in the back like a rock with great taste in theatre, I’m deeply skeptical of audience participation at the best of times: but I’ll be damned if this wasn’t the only time I’ve been happy to be part of one of those wild experiments in awkward enthusiasm.

The evolution of The Accidentals this year seem to run deeper than superficiality: things have taken a wickedly feminist turn, and tonally, it couldn’t have been done better. It’s hard to address the inequality of perceived competency between male and female singing groups, especially without dragging what would otherwise be a lighthearted show into preachy seriousness, but The Accidentals pull it off flawlessly – it’s cheeky, it’s defiant and unapologetically mocking.

Of course, the preceding points would be moot without the vocals to back them up, and this show doesn’t disappoint. A personal shout-out goes to Ruth Kroch, whose rapping sans mic was both impressive and powerful, despite the looming possibility of being drowned out by the note-perfect vocals of her peers; and also to Steph Boyle – hearing the sheer brute force of the voice coming out of such a small woman is like watching a pea-shooter fire ICBMs. But I cannot stress enough that each and every performer in this group is one to watch. Tone Down for What is an ensemble piece in its purest and most brilliant form, even down to the tongue in cheek comedy. If you’re looking to get blown away by the power of the female voice, this would be the place to do it.

A few quite noticeable tech fumbles notwithstanding, I couldn’t see a misstep on stage. For an opening night, that’s really impressive. The only real criticism I could find with the show is that it reminded me how bitter I am about the fact their version of “Who Did That To You” isn’t available on Spotify.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 15 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Mark Watson – I’m Not Here (Pleasance, Aug 16-21, 23-28 : 21.00 : 1hr)

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“The definition of five-star comedy”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

What is there left to say about Mark Watson? Returning to the Edinburgh Fringe once again, this comedy veteran is ready to prove he’s still got plenty of comedy muscle to flex, even if his ego hasn’t quite caught up with his skill yet.

Lit by the neon glow of his own initials, “I’m Not Here” is a journey through identity, celebrity and self-deprecation, all presented in Watson’s fantastic Bristolian twang. The best part of this performance (well, perhaps apart from the jokes) is the sheer amount of tangents Watson manages to swing down during the course of a single anecdote. He’s the comedy equivalent of a rambling great-uncle, but in the best way possible. Two stories stretched out across an hour, but it was never dragged: various twists of wit far too delicious to spoil what may have been a run-of-the-mill comedy show into an utter experience for all in the room.

And at the centre of it lies Watson himself: a man for whom fame has not come easily nor, often, recognisably. Anecdotes about famous comedian friends abound, but Watson never comes across as bitter. The type of comedy he champions is a razor-walk, but there’s never so much as a faltering step: the energy and emotional charge of his jokes work with almost Olympic precision and speed. Despite his considerable success and talent, Watson has managed to remain the ever-scrappy underdog, bruised by outside forces but never quite blown away – a refreshing contrast to the many Carrs and McIntyres in the comedy industry. The self-deprecating English comedian is a trope by now, but Watson proves he is still the undisputed master of comedic self hatred.

And, of course, this is all wrapped up in fantastic gags. The sheer density of jokes is mind-boggling, especially when none of them feel rushed or wanting for space. Watson is clearly in his element on stage, and his special brand of nervously energetic comedy is just as strong as ever. It’s always a good sign when the man sat beside you must wipe tears of joy from a face which, until Watson came on stage, was akin to a bulldog licking bleach off a thistle.

“I’m Not Here” is one of the biggest comedy events at the Fringe, and it’s well earned. Mark Watson shows once again why he’s arguably the defining personality for his flavour of comedy, without missing a damned step. This is the definition of five-star comedy.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 Aug)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Rory O’Keeffe – Monoglot (Pleasance, Aug 16-29 : 16.45 : 1 hr)

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 “Monoglot? Perhaps. Monotonous? Certainly not.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Most comedy shows I attend sober don’t begin with a five minute monologue by the empty mic. But then again, Rory O’Keeffe is anything but conventional. Through a tightly packed hour, he mimes, gurns and grins his way through a wonderfully punny routine based on the vagaries of language.

O’Keeffe himself looks like he should be a comedian. His boyish charms and the energy of his movements reinforce his sheer youth, but the confidence and the jokes are of a far higher calibre than one might expect for such a young man. Each ridiculously cartoonish movement was comedically precise and utterly free of inhibition, which cannot be said for many of his compatriots. If nothing else, this show would get a star alone for the sheer fearlessness with which O’Keeffe seeks to make a happy fool of himself. Despite his considerable vocabulary, it appears “inhibition” is one he hasn’t learnt yet.

But, luckily for all of us, his jokes definitely keep up with his own frenetic pace. Make no mistake: this is a downright clever show. As someone who loathes seeing a punchline coming, I might as well have been blindfolded in the dark. From the broad launching point of “language”, O’Keeffe manages to wring out a surprising variety of jokes – and, when I attended, flexed some serious improv muscle when it came to hecklers. Some of the best gags of the show were created on the spot, and it’s a real hallmark of quality on O’Keeffe’s considerable wit.

However, sometimes even the most runaway wit must be reined. A very distinct section which rounded off the show, whilst extremely impressive, wended a little too long, as often did a few of the foreign language jokes. That is not to say that O’Keeffe doesn’t manage to make unknown tongues funny, and far from it – but despite his skill (at least, for a self-professed monoglot) it’s always trumped by his own inventive observations about our shared mother tongue.

As far as hidden gems go, Rory O’Keeffe is a comedy diamond. Tucked away behind labyrinthine Pleasance as he is, he’s worth more than price of admission and job of seeking him out. Monoglot? Perhaps. Monotonous? Certainly not.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 14 Aug)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED