Good Dog (Traverse: 14-16 Feb.’19)

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“Noble intentions.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Stories of life, growth and perseverance in dour and desperate neighbourhoods are undoubtedly worth telling. The nooks and crannies of experiences otherwise overlooked by mainstream culture are often rich with opportunities for pathos, expression, and diversity, and as citizens we all ought to champion stories of the oppressed and disregarded. Arinzé Kene’s Good Dog (2017) is certainly one of these stories. It is not, unfortunately, a compelling or engaging piece of theatre, and for all its noble intentions, the flaws in design and execution are too great to overlook. 

The play is a one-hander, with a runtime of two and a half hours. In the Traverse Theatre’s staging, directed by Natalie Ibu, actor Kwaku Mills portrays Boy, the sole character onstage, who narrates this sprawling, multi-year tale as he grows from a young, bullied child to an older, disillusioned and distraught teen. The story focuses on a dreary street in Tottenham, north London, on which despondent drunks and anxious shop owners face off against violent youths and, from time to time, the long arm of the law. Boy observes these disparate characters with intrigued attention and with the help of various voiceovers his narration layers the street with detail. The twists and turns of Kene’s script cover myriad subjects of life in this place and in his time, from South Asian immigrants trying to live up to their forebears’ expectations, to local infidelity, to racially problematic beauty standards, to concepts of nonviolence and protest, to undiagnosed dyslexia in impoverished youths, to 90s-centric toys and technology. The visuals are mostly dark, harsh shadows, enveloping Amelia Jane Hankin’s stark set: a blunt, grey cube in the center of the stage that resembles nothing so much as a kid’s (tower) block , but evokes the air of unpleasant, grungy decay that seems to envelop the whole place, at least in Boy’s eyes.

As Kene writes him, and Mills plays him, Boy is the center of all the world’s woes. He is mercilessly bullied in school. His mother both cannot afford to and seems uninterested in buying him the amenities he desperately craves. He seems to have no friends, no confidence, and in everyone’s eyes but his own, not much of a future. When the audience first meets Boy, he is an outspokenly optimistic kid, who believes that if he does good, ‘good’ will circle back to him later in life, and so he willingly undergoes derision and torment at the hands of local bullies, and others, because the more he forgives them, the better his life must eventually become. It does not take long, however, for the cruelties of life in this area to drag him so far into crippling misery and senseless pain that the fable of ‘good things coming to those who wait’ starts to ring completely hollow for Boy, and he realizes that letting the onslaught of life beat him down is never going to liberate him. It was only going to make things worse.

Midway through Good Dog, the audience may feel the same. Not only because the central metaphor of Kene’s script (a pair of dogs Boy observes clashing with each other over many years) is so obvious that its eventual payoff could have come 90 minutes earlier without any meaning lost, but mainly since this production is long, exhausting, and clunky. The sound design, by Helen Skiera, is cacophonous, grating, and more inane than affecting. The choreography of Boy’s solo performance, whose movement was directed by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, is disorienting (see Boy inexplicably leaping on and off the grey block while he walks around, which happens a lot). Mills’ accent, assisted by dialect coach Joel Trill, was noticeably strained and inconsistent, so that Boy sounded like he was warming-up in rehearsal, well way from the street and . Technical elements smack of artifice and there’s that uncanny smugness that much of contemporary British theatre seems to be slipping into.

It is remarkable that Mills was able to learn two and a half hours worth of lines and movement and perform them onstage on tour. One wishes, however, that the lines and movements were not as derivative and staid as these. The character seemed a strange fit for Mills’ talents and overall his performance was wasted. 

This is understandable, however, given Kene’s script, as that is the weakest element of the production. The tone and content of Good Dog are suffocatingly bleak, and lack both a sense of humour and an ounce of self-awareness. The phraseology Kene employs is labyrinthine and more irritating than anything else. A few thin jokes about naughties nostalgia got a snicker here and there, but the one genuinely hilarious and surprising moment came when a supporting character dies in such an improbable and horrifying manner that the show’s claims to authority or seriousness were dashed in full there and then. The death in itself is, of course, not intentionally funny, but brutally tragic, and yet as this piece is written, each scene seems hellbent on topping the last one with even more misery and suffering, and the showy depravity of this character’s final moments can do nothing but amuse.

Good Dog is coated in emotional squalor – a poor and baffling choice. Most of Kene’s narrative seems more interested in simply shocking an audience into stupefied submission with ‘Look how sad this can get’ antics than telling a story in a creative or engaging manner. It is telling, and rather depressing, that this script has been picked up and praised by critics. From my point of view – and, ok, I don’t know London’s meaner streets – it sounded very contrived and ends up with the most incompetent portrayal of a marginalized voice that I have seen. 

Which is a shame, because again, stories such as these frequently offer important perspectives, which others should listen to. But Good Dog ends up taking all the worst elements of ‘important’ dramas and shamelessly repeating their most self-serious moral mantras so that they come off as painfully obvious by the time Boy utters them. Of course, much of the subject matter the show deals with is hugely important but nearly all of it has been handled more intelligently and dynamically in narratives like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Strictly Arts Theatre’s outstanding Freeman (2018), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). This last connection is especially relevant, as Kene chooses to include a riot sequence at the end of Good Dog so reminiscent of Lee’s Do the Right Thing climax that it seriously threatens to overstep the bounds of homage. 

Good Dog ends with an affirmation of accepting conflict and learning how best to fight back against the ‘bigger dogs’ of this world, even if it means being ‘put down’ in the process. The metaphor is overly wordy, unclear, and could do with some further consideration of just what it is trying to say. In that manner, it suits the larger production perfectly.

 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller 

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The Unreturning (Traverse: 24-27 October ’18)

“The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The effect of armed conflict on the already fragile male psyche is a deeply fascinating subject. Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning takes a timelessly important issue — the return of the soldier from war — and creatively explores touching and interesting variations on what these returns mean and have meant through time. Told through three constantly overlapping and intersecting storylines, the play paints a gripping and tragic picture of the collision of memory, trauma, and men who will never exist the same way again — for whom a true ‘return’ is impossible. Performers Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan, and Kieton Saunders-Browne take on the production with intense spirit, and compellingly elevate Jordan’s impactful choice of subject matter. One will truly feel moved by the real-life implications of the play’s content, such as meditations on the legacy of war crimes, the role of friends, family, and average people in the return of discharged members of the military, and how truly detached so many of us are from the experience of war. 

This play is produced by Frantic Assembly, a group both admired and infamous for the wall-to-wall physicality of their shows. The Unreturning plays to their strengths in many respects; the extensive and balletic movement all four performers put themselves through over the course of the three stories are a marvel to watch, and embed the stories with clever visual connections. The structure of the show is at its best when the three stories overlap in direct parallel to each other, such as a sequence near the beginning when all three board or initiate their respective transports ‘home’ — home in each case being Scarborough. George (Garfield), boards a train; Frankie (Layton) sits in a cramped plane next to sunburnt tourists; Nat (Riordan) barters with Norwegian boatmen to smuggle him into a war-torn United Kingdom. The parallel is revisited in a breathtaking setpiece following the three men as they wander around the area, each distraught for their own reasons, and deliriously visit Scarborough monuments and landmarks; they stand next to each other onstage, separated by time but alike in their disconnection from what is meant to be their home. George, you see, is returning home after armistice in 1918; Frankie has been discharged for committing a hate crime in Afghanistan in 2013; Nat is searching a bombed-out Scarborough for his brother in 2026. 

Yes, 2026. The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell. For all the immense emotional intelligence at work in The Unreturning, this aspect of Jordan’s script, along with director Neil Bettles’ over-reliance on the overcomplicated revolving set, render a great deal of the actual stage time irritatingly silly. For although the subject matter is compelling, the tone and pace of the Frantic Assembly approach are a poor match. The breakneck energy, high-bravado set-changes and head-spinning multi-roling repeatedly jar against the profundities of the story, producing deeply unfortunate moments like a floating hat and dress cartoonishly symbolizing George’s lovestruck wife, or the discordant wiggling the company members return to over and over when George experiences haunting flashbacks or Frankie succumbs to substance abuse. 

The show has a lot of wiggling. This is not always a bad thing, of course, though it seems to be Frantic Assembly’s bread and butter. To evoke a shaky memory, the actors wiggle. To show the passage of time or space, the actors wiggle. To recreate a pub or a discotheque, the actors wiggle drunkenly. All this wiggling is finely choreographed and expertly executed, but the main result of it all is a simple: why? Why take so much focus away from the intriguing narrative elements to just move around like spaced out dancers? It is pleasant, impressive movement, but mostly has very little to do with the gravity of the situation — like if a bunch of mourners started breakdancing at a wake. Sure, it’s impressive, but is now the time?

When the wiggles pause, and moments of achingly tender performance are allowed to play out, the talent is notable. Garfield, in particular, imbues George with a brilliantly measured depth, wherein he visibly wrestles with both his wartime experience and anxiously rethinks every aspect of the rest of his life. Jordan’s script detracts from itself, especially early on, by piling far too many profound statements on top of each other in nearly every line, yet Garfield turns most of them into affecting ruminations rather than fortune-cookie-esque dictums — his parable about the Christmas day truce near the middle of the show is the performative high point of the piece, without a doubt. Layton is also an electric performer, who displays expert timing and delivery every time he is onstage; while Frankie has much less multi-dimensionality than George (the supposed ambiguity of his character’s racial crimes are a weaker element of the script), Layton nevertheless leaves a lasting impression as a versatile actor. This is not as true for Riordan, who is outmatched by his fellow actors; the 2026 storyline he leads is, again, incongruously silly, and Riordan deserves credit for the desperation and consistency of his take on Nat’s miserable trajectory, but overall he does not bring enough verve to a storyline already lacking justification. Saunders-Browne, playing various supporting parts, does a solid job bouncing around so many characters and time periods, and in his case, the future-set monologue he delivers late in the show is thankfully not so opaque as the rest of that storyline to overshadow his well-measured delivery. 

Overall, The Unreturning is a curious example of a potentially mismatched writer and company. Yet, aside from the more incongruous choices onstage, the performances are memorable and affecting, the treatment of the subject matter is mostly excellent, and one can easily overlook the weaker elements in favor of a truly noble intention.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 October)

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Arctic Oil (Traverse: 9-20 Oct.’18)

Photo: Roberto Ricciuti

“An intelligent piece from an ambitious team.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In the genre of ‘home drama’ (call it neo-kitchen sink realism), blood relatives screaming devastating jabs and hurling haunting revelations back and forth feels oddly natural; what kind of play would deny an audience their fair share of soul-baring conflict and painful familial reconciliation when there is literally a functioning washbasin onstage? Claire Duffy’s new play Arctic Oil both soars and drops as it follows this particular approach to dramatic storytelling. It goes high, with its airtight atmosphere and its dialogue’s sweeping scope, and achieves a good deal. 

However, Duffy’s script, while clever and relevant by all means, flaps a few times too often, mixing stale melodrama into its more striking twists, and thereby takes the air out from under it. Not much harm comes of this, for actors Neshla Caplan and Jennifer Black are very capable of holding the audience’s attention and heartstrings as necessary, and imbue their respective characters with internal torments and desires. 

Caplan is Ella, an activist and young mother struggling with existential guilt for staying at home to raise her baby, Sam, rather than fight the forces of capitalism alongside her more daredevil comrades. Black is Margaret, Ella’s entirely different-minded mother — or so it initially appears — a woman so concerned that her daughter’s activism will cause irreversible damage to herself and her son that she takes her worry to uncomfortably strict lengths. Set on “a remote Scottish island,” it’s all contained within a pristine bathroom, in which Margaret has chosen to lock Ella and herself so that Ella does not pursue what might be a fatal mission protesting an oil rig. As with any home drama worth its salt, while the characters spar and try to explain their side, accusations of abandonment, betrayal, and shoddy parenting fly, harrowing family secrets are uncovered, and certain thematic topics are eventually revealed to have been proxies for familial resentments and personal demons. Climate change gets a number of notable and nod-worthy statements, but the political discussions melt away fairly quickly into allegories for generational divide and reconciliation with past wrongdoing between mother and child. The effect is literary, but rather loses the environmental focus of the first half.

Director Gareth Nicholls builds the rage and personal angst but once the initial shock of the play’s claustrophobic setting has worn off, and apart from one or two sharper later moments, a sense of what is important goes missing. In particular, one ill-measured fakeout sequence near the middle is so hammed up that whatever energy the play had been coasting on is visibly squashed for no discernible reason, other than melodrama.

Visually, Nicholls does well to trap the viewer in this oppressive box of anger and anxiety, with considerable credit due to his and Kevin McCallum’s cleverly imposing set design, a warped construction of a modern bathroom that looms over both the characters and audience to morbid effect. Duffy’s script also generously offers moments of levity that land well, most memorably in the head-turning line: “The truth? You wouldn’t know the truth if it farted in your face.”

Less successful is the uneven and unnecessary musical underscoring. The soundtrack mostly consists of glum electronic hums and whirs, which does set the tone at the beginning, layering the fateful onto the domestic surfaces. Frustratingly, these sounds are brought back again and again and again, undercutting some interesting dialogue and generally siphoning the clarity out of the show . The use of music seemed like a safeguard against the audience possibly not understanding that a conversation was ‘Important’, but in reality, Duffy’s characters and the skilled performances are capable enough on their own without the heavy-handed signaling. 

Arctic Oil uses mother and daughter in conflict to cut through to political topics of current consequence. Its conversations are difficult and compelling but do force inconsistencies into the drama.  It is, regardless, an intelligent piece from an ambitious team.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 October)

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Underground Railroad Game (Traverse: 2-26 Aug: 22:00: 85 mins)

“Brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

It has been called transcendent, genius, one of the ‘25 Best American Plays in the last 25 years’ — but, to its credit, the unique shine to Underground Railroad Game does not fit a single simple category of ‘high quality theatre.’ What Ars Nova has put together, under the direction of Taibi Magar and through the blistering voices of writer/performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, is beyond quantification; to ‘decode’ it seems beside the point. Various cacophonous interactions between questions and understandings of race and sex are dragged out bloody and screaming into the light in this production, as it presents a vision of America that is both revelatory and maddeningly intractable. This show is disgusting, but very intentionally; for better or worse, I have never seen a piece of theatre like it, nor even conceived that it could be done. 

The ‘plot’ is frenetic and full of hairpin turns away from narrative logic. On one plane of existence, Kidwell and Sheppard are two grade school teachers who craft a convoluted classroom exercise called the Underground Railroad Game. In the game, students must recreate the networks that runaway slaves used to attempt escape from their white American owners in the South, with brown-painted dolls standing in for slaves and other classrooms standing in for free land, et cetera. To achieve this, the ‘class’ — the audience — is randomly divided into the Greys and the Blues (Confederacy and Union) and told to cheer for their side as the game ensues. In the end, there is not much audience interaction with the game itself, for instead, the show quickly pivots towards the personal lives and macrocosmic implications of Teacher Caroline (Kidwell), a black woman, and Teacher Stuart (Sheppard), a white man, as they present disparate, extremely controversial approaches to the sensitive material in the exercise – and woo each other in their personal time. 

Underground Railroad Game is at its best when it sadistically presents the two teachers swapping racially charged comments and just lets them ride this politically incorrect train to the end of the line. Teacher Stuart’s raucous white privilege and carelessness with his words, even as he fawns over Teacher Caroline, are tautly written and very effective; Teacher Caroline is played with fascinating honour and unpredictability by Kidwell, who is certainly one of the most memorable performers I have seen this Fringe — both her and Sheppard, in fact, have a gift for breakneck comic timing and riveting onstage energy, even when used for remarkably revolting encounters in the show’s later segments. 

The production is brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm in all its layers. These sharp, vicious parts ultimately combine to serve a true sense you are watching a dangerous piece of theatre – one that kicks the hornet’s nest with merciless rage, one meant to hurt more than to help. Which, in all likelihood, is exactly what a society with problems this complex needs. The play aims for disparate targets — to make one feel confused, hurt, disgusted… even angry, driven, and curious — and hits almost all of them.

I did not like what I saw, but I immediately felt sure that this piece is an essential product of long-standing racial disharmony, and in a sense, exactly what we deserve. Sure, it might be on the surface a distinctly scattershot experience, but the world, to our misfortune, probably needs to be so visually and thematically eviscerated such as the audiences of Underground Railroad Game find themselves; out of the disorientation, some form of budding reckoning is sure to flourish. 

Through all the possible profundities of the piece, whether they make you laugh or wretch, there is an overwhelming sense that you are witnessing living, breathing triggers, firecrackers, enflamers — conversations and topics so out of bounds that they earn some mystical quality just from their utterance and thorough dressing-down. These extend to Teachers Caroline and Stuart’s ribald parodies of hatred and interpersonal violence, on racial, intellectual, physical, and psychosexual grounds. Beyond, there is absurdist, surrealistic aberrations of logic and narrative, that erratically leap across time and space with little warning, an approach which pierces and deflates preconceptions of “difficult” racial and social discussions with breathtaking wit and take-no-prisoners abandon. Through and through, this show imbues its ‘relevant’ messaging with a riveting and primal sense of revolt and destruction — less a hold-hands-and-grow resolution than a burn-it-all-down caterwaul.

It shouldn’t work, and in certain ways it does not, but Underground Railroad Game succeeds in this hair-tearing rage through sheer energy and its vicious urge to show itself and all its twisted innards to the assembled crowd. It is one of the most impressive pieces of frenetic art I have ever seen come alive in a theatre, and reaches territory you may never see elsewhere onstage. If you are curious after all this, find a way to see it. But consider yourself warned.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Freeman (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Freeman is stuffed with brilliant ideas; it fires on all cylinders, incorporating hypnotic physical choreography with breathtaking performances and devastating portrayals of harrowing true stories. The performers of Strictly Arts Theatre Company produce deeply affecting characterisations and movements, breathing life into Camilla Whitehall’s tapestry of compelling episodes from history that truly deserve a closer look from today’s civilisation. The final result, as directed by Danièle Sanderson, is brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive, though its most affecting methods are so raucously intense, the outcome is more chilling than perhaps was intended.

The narrative is principally anchored in the mid-nineteenth century story of William Freeman, a New York man treated in horrifically unjust way by the ‘justice’ system he moved in, and whose story intertwines with both the histories of institutional racial prejudice and the varied legal interpretations of mental conditions. Through this story and five similarly gripping tales, this production raises a profound and chilling question: How do we shape narratives when we bring up mental health? When has it helped? When has it made things worse?

Strictly Arts has adopted a fascinating approach to exploring these themes: after a lengthy yet graceful physical sequence set to trance-like music, the show opens in a setting recalling purgatory. Six souls regard each other in confusion, yet seem to understand they need to ‘tell their story’ so that they can all move on to whatever lies beyond. And so each illustrates their tale, as the other company members provide gorgeously crafted support to each respective retelling. They contort and combine their bodies in various shapes and figures to augment the narratives, which are both impressive and thrillingly creative each time they appear. Their recreations of a horse for William Freeman to ride, and a car during the dramatisation of Sandra Bland’s arrest are particularly riveting — and yes, Sandra Bland’s story is in this show. The stories stretch as far as 1840s Scotland, 2015 Texas, 1949 Leeds, and 2016 London, which combine for a bone-chillingly convincing assertion: when it comes to racial injustice and the horrific unfairness that non-white individuals have to face — particularly when it comes to appreciating their mental health — “nothing has changed.”

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Freeman’s 60 minutes, however, is the as-yet unparalleled talent of this acting ensemble. They are a genuinely captivating bunch, and credit must go to both Sanderson and Strictly Arts Artistic Director Corey Campbell for instilling this cast with a monumental cohesion onstage. Campbell himself brings William Freeman to life in an unforgettable performance, and he is not let down in the slightest by the surrounding cast members. In particular, Marcel White as Nigerian immigrant David Oluwale and Kimisha Lewis as Bland provide breathtaking characterisations. White delivers a compelling and heartbreaking turn as he charts Oluwale’s descent from optimism and ambition into desperation and bewilderment, made all the more tragic as the darkness of his story directly follows a sudden and joyous dance interlude set to Little Richard. Lewis’ portrayal of Bland’s doomed encounter with a fascist Texas police officer is played as a truly horrifying sequence where the remaining cast evoke the terror and pain of the thousands of Black individuals mistreated by law enforcement — this is without a doubt the most heart-wrenching moment I have experienced at the 2018 Fringe Festival. 

Yet the immense impact of this sequence and moments like it result in disorientation from scene to scene. While the show seems frenetic to the point of being intentionally jarring to experience, this becomes at times unfortunately inconclusive, and certain twists and wrenches of the narrative evoke hopelessness and confusion perhaps more than they ought to. The dance sequence that introduces Oluwale’s segment, for example, is so rich that the brutal physical violence that follows it feels garish, and somewhat cheaply vicious. Of course, these are true stories that evoke genuine anguish, so this is less a criticism of the narrative than a comment on the chilling effect on the viewer — Freeman includes lighter moments where we are given a moment to catch our breath, but in an odd and perhaps slightly misjudged order, such as early in the production, when the story of Daniel M’naghten is interrupted for some cacophonous silliness. 

Understanding those oddities of the production, this is nevertheless a fabulous piece of theatre, with unique points to make. M’naghten’s scene, in fact, contains a profoundly venerable commentary, delivered beautifully by Campbell as Freeman himself. M’naghten, played commendably by Pip Barclay, was a Scottish white man and the first person defended in court by the insanity defence; when it is his turn to tell his story, he refuses to take the exercise seriously, and decides to play around instead, until Freeman explains that while he can mess around and not care about these stories of racial disharmony, as they did not affect him, the rest of the characters, all black, are required to listen to white stories like his in order to be given a platform to tell theirs. It is a graceful, nuanced moment for which Sanderson, Campbell, and the entire company deserve immense credit for crafting so beautifully. 

Keiren Amos and Aimee Powell also deliver layered, compelling turns, as tragically-fated Michael Bailey and uncomfortably recently deceased Sarah Reed, respectively, both of whom were treated incompetently by the British justice system due to their mental health conditions. Their chapters are more factual than artistic, mostly, yet they are valuable additions to the narrative, and both Amos and Powell deserve credit for their resonantly realistic performances. 

This show is deeply important, strangely complex, and disorienting at times. But it is a vibrant and graceful hour, with a commendable amount of nuance, structure, and deep intelligence. This deserves its standout status at this year’s Fringe, and I would highly recommend it, possibly above all others, as the show not to miss, despite the thousand-yard-stare you will most likely be left with. Bravo to Strictly Arts.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Daliso Chaponda: What The African Said (Gilded Balloon at the Museum: 19-26 Aug: 19:30: 60 mins)

“This is must-see standup.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

A hilarious, hilarious show. After rising to prominence on Britain’s Got Talent and touring various parts of the globe, Daliso Chaponda performs eight nights at Gilded Balloon’s Museum auditorium space, and take it from me, this is must-see standup. The comedy is clever and uproariously funny, the persona is both charming and caustic, and the hour is so packed with brilliant setups and payoffs that at only 60 minutes it feels altogether too short. 

Topics range from his road to standup, to his childhood, to his nationality, to newfound success, and other well-trodden ground for standup comedians — especially ones at the Fringe. Yet What The African Said never feels lazy or recycled; though these topics are not new subjects on the comedy stage, here they are spun with Chaponda’s unique charm and dexterity, so even an early-on Brexit joke provokes a much more appreciative giggle than 99% of the bone-tired political material bouncing around microphones all over the city.

Of course, he also ventures into fresh, intriguing territory, such as riveting takes on racism online and in person, European arrogance in education, and the hairpin tendencies of so many to take offence at so much. Some of his most delightful and arresting material takes aim at racial difference and touchiness, yet with exceeding grace and humility — it is telling that even as he acknowledged an upcoming one-liner caused (dubiously sensible) widespread offence and alarm, the audience felt prepared for a clever and commendable jab regardless of more sensitive reactions. Needless to say, the line in question is spectacularly funny and had me smiling hours after the performance; it boggles the mind that certain audiences did not feel the same. This is a man who knows how to write a joke.

Chaponda could be said to walk the fine line between probing race and racism and toying with it, yet he speaks and jokes with such confidence and wit that even his incisive commentaries are accompanied with a genuine laugh alongside them. On that topic, there is no shortage of incisive commentaries in this show; Chaponda’s comedy is matched with an impressive back catalogue of information and knowledge, which embeds his witticisms with a well-earned sense of genuine understanding, rather than flippant mockery. On top of that, the Malawi-born comedian includes some affectingly personal undercurrents to his material — not in the way so many other Fringe comedians work in an ‘emotional side’ to their standup, which has practically become clichéd by now — but again in a commendably honest and somehow quite fun aside to his more ribald suggestions.

Overall, this is a practically perfect hour of comedy, and one of the most enjoyable and rich standup performances I have experienced this year. Go and see it.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)

 

Athena Kugblenu: Follow the Leader (Underbelly Bristo Square: 1-26 Aug: 17:30: 60 mins)

“A standout voice in the Edinburgh comedy lineup.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

In Athena Kugblenu’s new hour, entitled Follow the Leader, the term ‘pregnant pause’ gains new meaning. To explain, not only is the witty and clever comedian currently with child, but her slick and punchy new hour of standup is frequently based on letting extended, exasperated silences serve as the punchlines themselves. This approach loses no hilarity, mind you, and in fact proves quite a clever move for Kugblenu, a standup presence so engaging and poised onstage that you know whatever she says next will either be witty or a genuinely good point, and frequently both. 

Kugblenu loosely bases this show on the notion of trusting and following leaders, and how that does and does not help our ultimate goals. She incorporates funny and knowledgeable examples of leaders we probably should not admire so fervently, and contrasts them well with societal tendencies and cultural expectations that should similarly be reevaluated. Not every punchline is quite risible enough to create a consistently side-splitting hour, but ultimately, Follow the Leader is a good deal of fun and a thoroughly enjoyable walk through Kugblenu’s outlook on life and people. 

Her material ranges from political loyalties and questionable leanings to amusing anecdotes about herself and how she gets by. She touches on some hilarious ideas, such as more evidence-based alternatives to unfair government policies, and the relative pressures of ‘positive racism’ and similarly strange treatment from white to Black people. Her musings on international food and her unborn child also hit high notes, and though perhaps her material on being drunk and having sex could use a bit more workshopping, overall, this is a charming and well-spent hour of standup, and a standout voice in the Edinburgh comedy lineup.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)