The Half (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-26 Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“A superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

This new play from Danielle Ward is a bleak yet richly rewarding hour; it picks many scabs and asks many fascinating questions of audiences — not only audiences of this show in particular, but audiences of comedy acts in general. Anna Crilly and Margaret Cabourn-Smith make up the onstage presence, as former members of a popular comedy double act, Anderson and West, a duo that achieved some success until their goals became too distanced from each others’. Over the course of this frequently hilarious hour, Ward explores how such formerly good friends and fruitful collaborators could fall so far out of amicability, and has some damning implications for the demands of show business itself. 

West (Crilly) opens the show as she prepares for a live charity event in which is she is to be forcibly reunited with her former comedy partner Anderson (Cabourn-Smith). The two have not spoken in ten years, for specific, shocking reasons that Ward wisely conceals until the play’s remarkable concluding moments. Crilly is grounded and sympathetic as the ostensibly weaker, more shameful West, opposite Cabourn-Smith’s dissimilar Anderson, whose comedy career has been skyrocketing for years. As they meet again, pleasantries are quickly swiped aside in favor of vicious indictments of each other’s characters — made all the more incisive by their cool, collected deliveries and artfully verbose wordings. Anderson in particular is given some excellent lines and jabs that she capably stabs in West’s direction, from mocking her brief career as a vacuum-cleaner spokeswoman to bemusedly grimacing past the failed comedian’s explanation of her lamentable new interest in podcasting.

Beyond the lines, The Half features some laudable aesthetic and technical choices, such as frequent flashbacks that prove affecting both in form and content. These flashbacks, which ultimately retell the story of how the two comedians met, are carefully crafted, so that both actresses effectively sound and appear younger and conspicuously less world-weary, which is achieved with great success. Cabourn-Smith in particular changes her characterisation with commendable grace; to be fair, for reasons that might spoil the show’s excellent ending, it is understandable why Crilly leaves more of West’s characteristics constant through the time-jumping progression. Formally, there is a similarly intelligent choice made in how the flashbacks occur: the ‘modern day’ story, of the two women awaiting this reunion show in a dressing room, is intermittently frozen by a recollection of an old memory, and each time, Anderson moves downstage right and waits for West to dutifully fetch the costumes and props necessary to perform the recollection in question. Crilly’s expressions are excellently measured for these moments, as she imbues West with both a morbid interest in reliving what happened all those years ago, and a marked agony in having to accept that she was destined to be the underachiever between them. 

Yet, to its credit, The Half makes the viewer question whether terms like ‘underachiever’ or ‘success’ in show business ought to mean at all. There are excellent ruminations on resistance, resilience, dignity, and concession in the arts, particularly for female artists, which build with growing intensity for a conclusion that is on par with the most dramatic offerings this Fringe has to offer. Accompanied by a haunting repeated musical cue, the ultimate climax and denouement of The Half are horrifyingly effective, almost to a fault, for the downward spiral is so all-encompassing that all the admittedly razor-sharp comedy of the previous minutes feels unwelcome in one’s memory — such is the effect of the chosen ending for Ward’s narrative.

Overall, however, though the tone leaves the viewer on some possibly too-sudden misery, the ride as a whole is well worth the high drama; this is a superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander that deserves a wide audience.

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

A Dangerous Woman (theSpace @ Jurys Inn: 6-15th Aug: 21:25: 60 mins)

“An electric hour of cathartic criminal exuberance.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

In a luxury suite in a Manchester Hilton sits a delightful collection of unexpected combinations: a silver tray holds strawberries and cocaine, a wrinkled Sainsburys bag is full of money, a thirty-something wife who but two years earlier felt her personality slipping away strokes her hefty handgun and plans to fly to an extradition-free country thousands of miles away. Such is the setup of Renny Krupinski’s A Dangerous Woman, a one-woman show acted thrillingly by Louise Nulty, laced of twists and twisted humor worthy of its fiery protagonist’s crazed expressions. While the script gets lost occasionally in its own wordiness, Nulty is deftly in command of her character’s story, and delivers an electric hour of cathartic criminal exuberance. 

Monica Sims, Nulty’s protagonist, is at the end of a tragicomic adventure when we first see her. She turns on a camcorder and aims it at a plush corner of her glamorous suite. The show plays out as Sims ‘confesses’ to her crimes, and in the process tells the winding story of how it all came to be. The narrative is certainly winding, but mostly quite compelling, helped along greatly by Nulty’s sharp comedic timing and breakneck pace of delivery. She expounds on her parents’ sham of a marriage, she paints a sweet picture of her romance with charming Colin, and recounts the tragedy of Colin’s ALS diagnosis and progression into vegetative state. These descents are craftily juxtaposed, in a clever move by Krupinski, by Sims’ growing interest in thievery and taking for the sake of taking. 

From swiping some product here and there from her perfume counter job to plotting more brazen robberies, Sims’ criminal preferences are deliciously explored by Nulty and Krupinski over the course of this show. Her recounting of her first serious robbery, of a Halifax, armed with a gun and a carrier bag, is a highlight, both for Nulty’s emboldened physicality and the hilariously dramatic robbery announcement speech she came up with. In moments like these, the cinematic influence of the freedom of criminality is very well incorporated into her rise to larceny; “Pulp Fiction, Dirty Harry… Shrek. It was all in there, my entire movie-going history” she quips.  

The beauty of A Dangerous Woman lies mainly in Sims’ relatable musings and method of liberation. Not that many of us have gone so far as to turn to crime to regain some spark from life, but the desire to become noticed, notorious, and even dangerous, is presented remarkably simply, so as to imply we all have had it in some way or another. On the other hand, some of the assertions Krupinski has inserted into the monologue are perhaps too much of a stretch to fit in with the rest of Sims’ characterization, such as the deeply morose trajectory of her husband’s story. However, in fairness, a central element of the realism of her character is that Sims is not straightforward or easily classifiable, and Nulty is such a dynamic performer that the more puzzling elements of her speech are easy to overlook. 

Credit must also go to the fascinating setup of the ‘confession.’ Sims ostensibly speaks to the ‘camera’ for the entirety of the monologue, a clever sidestep of the inherent strangeness of the one-person show — namely, that there is a crowd full of people sitting in darkness watching an individual ‘speak’ to them — because it roots her delivery in a specific subject. Yet this subject also recalls a wider form of confessional method: the all-seeing eye of digital media and the channels of personal expression it offers. This device adds an entirely new dimension to Sims’ explanation, as she can be seen as both proudly recounting her accomplishments as a housewife escaped from monotony to a life of excitement, and in another interpretation, an individual essentially afraid of letting her achievements go unappreciated. She is both owning her story and definitively preserving it; the audience is left to decide whether her confession is pathetic, or empowering.

Ultimately, though some lines and tangents feel somewhat too ferocious, the lion’s share of A Dangerous Woman is riveting and charming, bleak yet boisterous. Krupinski, winner of the Fringe First award in 2010 for Bare, has crafted another winning character, and Nulty has done a fabulous job of bringing this dangerous, complicated woman to life. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 14 August)

 

Hitchcock’s The Lodger (artSpace @ St. Marks: 11 & 18 Aug: 22:15: 75 mins)

“A charming endeavour.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

If you’re a fan of silent films, Alfred Hitchcock, live music, and/or charming evenings of local talent, head down to St. Marks’ Church on Castle Terrace for this rewarding event. Instrumental group Gladstone’s Bag have returned for another year of live-scored entertainment, this time soundtracking Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 production The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog before your very eyes. The musical talent is impressive, the film is captivating, for what it is, and the artistry is a fine match and a pleasant alternative to crammed sweaty venues of the numerous Fringe acts one might find elsewhere.

There are only two performances of this live orchestration, reportedly so that each one is rehearsed to a T and the best it can be before showtime. This was apparent — the band was excellent and the instrumentation as entertaining as the film itself. The makeup of Gladstone’s Bag is a six-piece ensemble of piano, two violins, a flute, a clarinet, and a trumpet, and a theremin to boot. The pieces of music played were varied, with some classical compositions, some generic pieces from the 1920s era, and some from more recognisable composers such as Stravinsky — as explained in a helpful introduction, film music was not specifically meant for any particular film until well after The Lodger premiered, so the eclectic variety of the pieces that Gladstone’s Bag performed is reminiscent of how a 1927 screening may actually have sounded. Certain pieces held names as amusing as “Intensely Dramatic Scene”, which did the pulpy intrigue of Hitchcock’s serial killer story justice.

The film itself is very Hitchcock, and though at times it drags slightly, it is imbued for the most part with the same charm, wit, and technical skill he became famous for. As the bodies pile up and the protagonists twist and turn around each other in his signature fashion; it makes perfect sense why Alfred himself, though The Lodger was his third feature film, considered it the first “Hitchcock movie” of his career. 

Overall, this is a charming endeavour, with a pleasant setting and a moving orchestra, and a unique take on a Fringe Saturday night experience. It is not for everyone, but I am sure everyone would find something to appreciate, if not in the silent-film-era aesthetic then in Gladstone’s Bag’s gripping musical skill. See it for the film, for the orchestra, or even just to hear that theremin sing. 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 August)

 

Model Behaviour (theSpace @ Jurys Inn: 3-11 Aug: 20:20: 50 mins)

“A dynamic, captivating winner of a show.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

It is rare a show can conjure so many forms of fascination and disbelief, yet still be so funny. Just some of the raw reactions one might experience during Issy Williams’ one-woman show Model Behaviour may include revulsion, shock, disgust, and most of all, genuine entertainment.  Williams, herself a former model, takes the audience on a no-holds-barred tour down the rabbit hole of the London modelling industry, which, needless to say, involves some disturbing body expectations, incisive judgement, and dubious morality. Yet Williams proves to be so much more than simply a guide speaking from experience; she embodies her character with a devil-may-care whistleblower’s confidence, who has seen the mortifying darkness of that life and is miraculously, thankfully, strong enough to laugh about it. With ambitious direction from Rachael Head, and a fiery, impressive script by Williams herself, their new company Marked Productions has a dynamic, captivating winner of a show on their hands.

Model Behaviour begins with Williams’ protagonist entering a suspiciously empty casting room, waiting for another shoot to begin, and from there, she walks the audience through how she came to be there, why that shoot in particular is so important, and the highs and lows of being involved in such a world. Williams is excellent in her role; she manages to balance deep sweetness, nimble humour, and some strikingly merciless quips as she weaves through anecdotes, impersonations and witty insights with ease and well-measured verve. Williams finds the funniest moments when she slows down, however, whether to simulate a particularly uncomfortable dating experience or re-live a brutally awkward moment between her and a homeless man she tries (and amusingly fails) to be of some assistance to. The humour is, in parts, so bleak (see: “It was the type of party where they served beautiful tiny canapés for everyone to throw up later”) that I would not blame those who might find it too much.

For the production does indeed ‘go there’ in terms of interpersonal, misogynistic abuse in the industry. A particularly nasty sequence towards the end is fascinatingly well-crafted; not only for the unsettling progression of the abusive events themselves, which at a certain point every audience member knows is going towards a terrible development, but also for its effect on the rest of the journey. The show therefore does its job very well, offering both an insight and a stark condemnation regarding the possibilities — both positive, negative and ambiguous — of the fashion industry.

With some fine-tuning, including perhaps a slight shortening of the elements relating to dating life and some more time about the mechanics of the industry, Model Behaviour could be a true standout in fashion-industry storytelling. Here’s hoping Williams continues to share her voice; I for one would be happy to see whatever she creates next. 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 August)

 

EH16: Pyre (theSpace Triplex: 3-11 Aug: 20:40: 45 mins)

“Commendable artistry.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Edinburgh-based company Nevermore Theatre has crafted a varied, conceptually rich take on three haunting stories with EH16: Pyre. The stories are brutal and unsettling examples of institutional cruelty towards women, made all the more horrifying given that they are all true. Yes, Agnes Samson was immolated in a witch trial; Jessie King was indeed involved in a tragic infanticide business and hanged for it; Violet Foster was devastatingly treated and denied assistance to the point she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. The performances are deft, the subject matter is affecting, and the show certainly lives up to Nevermore’s description of it as a “post-modern, feminist horror.”

Maegan Hearons, Gillian Bain, and Megan Travers — respectively playing Samson, King, and Foster — deliver solid turns as each haunted woman. They all utilise their physicalities intriguingly, and display some commendable artistry as they move about in carefully choreographed ways to create scenes and visuals to assist the stories being told. Haerons particularly delivers an arresting performance as the chronologically oldest subject Agnes Samson, whose only crime was performing abortions for young North Berwick girls who had no other way of carrying on. The desperation and calamity evoked in Haerons’ performance stands out in the intentionally uncomfortable approach of the production.

Bain and Travers turn in commendable performances as well — Bain’s facial expressions are certainly arresting as she describes her horrifying practice, and the fragility of Turner’s performance is heartbreaking as she embodies Foster’s tragic demise — yet overall, the production is let down by constant interruptions of its own high-quality elements. The beginning of the show is a questionable rendition of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor,’ which comes across as hokey rather than haunting, and is accompanied by an overlong dance sequence that seems misplaced for the ultimate tone of the rest of the show. In fact, though a lot of the choreography is graceful, too often the movements become tediously wiggly and over-produced, resulting in numerous dances that would benefit from some cutting down. During the third or fourth musical interlude one begins to wonder why EH16: Pyre spends so little time on the women’s actual stories, which are certainly fascinating, yet unfortunately under-discussed in this play dedicated to them.

This show is an interesting one, with a solid idea and commendable performances all around, yet unfortunately not quite enough structure to leave a deep impact. With some editing, however, Nevermore could have a deeply intriguing production on their hands, and haunt viewers deeply. The talent is there – it just needs a few more steps for the haunting to really stick.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 9 August)

 

An Evening With Miss Wong (Assembly Rooms: 2-26 Aug: 12:40: 60 mins)

“A pleasant, informative escape into a stylish world with an intriguing guide.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

“You know I’m dead?” begins Michelle Yim, as she finishes her opening number. This new one-woman show from Grist to the Mill Productions continues in this vein of playful, entertaining documentary-theatre with a light touch and a pleasant appreciation for Old Hollywood charm. And there is plenty of this charm in this show: a tribute to and revitalisation of the story of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first (and essentially only) Chinese-American actress of the silent era. The show is calm and straightforward, with dashes of the glamorous here and there and a sweet sense of humour, which provides a pleasant, informative escape into a stylish world with an intriguing guide. 

Yim plays Wong with talent, vivacity, and an exceedingly agreeable lightness, which is at times somewhat repetitive, but with a story this unique it does not really detract. The narrative, scripted by Ross Ericson, is interesting, but not quite enthralling, although the marriage of visuals and clips that augment the history on a slideshow in the background is a very good choice. The moments when Yim refers to a film or a play Wong performed in are much more gripping when there is a visual of the piece in question, and in the moments where there is none, it feels a bit distant and undercooked as a presentation.

However, for the most part, the narrative features some thought-provoking questions about race and success in America, such as whether a star like Wong let herself be distanced from her culture, or intentionally decided to craft her life her own way. The best moments of this show come when these heavier questions are asked, or when Hollywood politics are prodded at directly, such as the Motion Picture Code’s racial laws forbidding cross-racial kisses, or the possibilities of foreign landscapes such as Berlin and London offering diverse performers chances to succeed in new, more creative ways.

There are also tragic elements to Wong’s story that land well, such as her relegation to repetitively uninteresting roles or her uneven relationship with her family. Other aspects of her personality, however, such as her possible bisexuality and burgeoning self-centeredness are only hinted at in passing, without enough depth to make either of these crucial elements of Wong’s character seem important to Ericson’s view of her. This omission feels somewhat cheap and misguided, but thankfully Yim embodies Wong with enough verve that there is not much room to dislike what An Evening With Miss Wong puts forward. 

The most arresting element of this production is its recreation of Wong’s musical talent. Pearl Yim’s arrangements of a few Old Hollywood songs are all lovely, though again somewhat light and brisk; that is, until the finale of the show, a soulful, heartening rendition of “These Foolish Things,” a gorgeous classic actually written about Miss Wong herself, that deserves ovation all by itself. Between this finale, Yim’s charming Old Hollywood personification, and the noble approach in general of reminding modern audiences of this long-gone legend, An Evening With Miss Wong is a Fringe project well worthy of your time.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 9 August)

 

The Fishermen (Assembly Studios: 2-27 Aug: 13:20: 70 mins)

“Features two of the most hypnotically talented performances of this kind of theatre that one can imagine.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There might not be a more dynamic duo performing a play this year than Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga. As Nigerian brothers Ben and Obembe, these two gifted actors weave a complicated and enthralling yarn over 70 minutes, so intricate and poetic that it comes as no surprise the story is adapted from a Man Booker-nominated novel. The Fishermen follows the beats of many a heavy narrative, with foreshadowing, doomed individuals, unreliable narrators and a circular, multi-layered structure — despite an occasional sense of the melodramatic, this play is a seriously impressive offering. 

The plot, adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan from the book by Chigozie Obioma, is ostensibly about a Nigerian family who endure devastating tragedies and possibly supernatural intervention, but through the eyes of the two youngest sons looking back on their childhoods. Ben and Obembe are two of four brothers; meeting again after an initially unspecified time apart, they take delight in comparing their impersonations of their siblings and parents, which eventually smooths out into a full retelling of the story of their family’s disintegration. As Ajao and Olukoga swap impressions and voices, they also don various physicalities of the myriad characters, resulting in some dazzlingly nimble portrayals of multiple characters. The choreography of all these personalities is constantly stunning, as is the pleasantly simplistic set, consisting only of a few sandbags and metal poles which are brandished, tossed, hid behind, run through, and smacked to drive home a point or two. 

The entire production, in fact, relies on the multifaceted usability of various miscellanea, from the poles to the colours and intensities of lighting to the sometimes captivating sometimes haunting musical score, to the performers themselves. It is no understatement to say The Fishermen features two of the most hypnotically talented performances of this kind of theatre that one can imagine — Ajao and Olukoga are capable of jumping from character to character with such passion and specificity you will believe there is an entire ensemble onstage. They traverse ages, one second a young boy, the next an old maid; they flip personalities, from a maddened mother to a corrupt policeman and back again in a flash; once or twice even across species, as the fishermen suddenly embody the fish. 

The production’s breakneck speed is both deeply impressive for its performers’ dexterity and quite disturbing, for its surprisingly horrifying subject matter. One particularly intriguing element of this frenetic multi-roling is the eventual shift from playful impersonation to darker realms verging on the schizophrenic or untethered — though endlessly impressive, this device becomes somewhat overplayed from time to time. The surreal is introduced about halfway through, in a device both haunting and seemingly out of another production altogether; Ajao must be given credit for his disarming portrayal of a possibly possessed madman, which is one of the more viscerally affecting visual moments of the show. Moments like this, however, result in a disorienting effect: though not necessarily a negative aspect, the fact that Ajao plays both the madman and the youngest brother who is so terrified by the madman’s words, and the forlorn mother, and about a hundred other souls is an exhausting experience, and comes to feel at odds with the depth and dourness of the narrative.

Ultimately, however, this novelistic piece of theatre is one of the more mature and compelling shows at Fringe, and well worthy of a large and engaged audience. The story is book-ended quite affectingly with a reunion, which is a splendid choice for such an otherwise complex, frenetic story. The show may be sad, but the central performers will wow you, without a doubt. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 8 August)