The Island (Just Festival at St. Johns: 3-25 Aug: 19:15/21:15: 60 mins)

“A masterful piece of literary theatre, brought to life commendably by perfectly cast performers.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There are plenty of captivating, harrowing setups and settings one can find at a theatre festival as dynamic and forward-thinking as the Fringe, yet perhaps the most compelling by measure for me thus far is the setting of this two-man tour de force, The Island. Though admittedly written in 1973, and staged in secret so the fascistic censorship laws of Apartheid South Africa overlooked its radical content, this play carries haunting and brilliant messages that carry weight and will move audience members even today. Onstage, the play’s performers, Siya Mayola and Luntu Masiza, are delightful leading men, and though the staging is not quite perfect, its quality and impact grows and grows on the viewer, so that by its climax, The Island proves itself a masterful piece of literary theatre, brought to life commendably by perfectly cast performers. 

Though the script itself, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, does not specifically mention the name Robben Island, this production’s publicity makes very clear that this is a condemnation of the conditions and severity of South Africa’s most notorious prison compound. The script paints a painful picture of prison life with a lengthy opening sequence set in a mimed quarry, where the play’s two characters, John and Winston, lift and shovel useless piles of sand and rock back and forth; this creates a palpable sense of meaningless work and maddening repetition, yet is so drawn out it comes across as perhaps too grating a point. Next, the prisoners return to their cell, and though their performances are genuinely realistic, having been subjected to hours of backbreaking labour, their delivery is so breathless and strained for the first third of the show that it results in a peculiarly incomprehensible stretch of dialogue. As they regain their composure, John and Winston begin to discuss the thematic hook of the play: they have been granted a slot to perform the Greek tragedy Antigone for the other prisoners. 

As John, the more optimistic, theatrically-inclined of the two, Siya Mayola is a charming, mellifluous presence. He both teases and uplifts Winston with his words and suggestions, and to Mayola’s credit, and the play’s as well, his character is imbued with the sense of literary intelligence and cultural dexterity early on, without any needless exposition — economic storytelling at its best. As Winston, the more reluctant and grave, yet intermittently boisterous prisoner, Luntu Masiza presents a fascinating subject; he has been imprisoned for life for the sickeningly unworthy crime of simply burning his Apartheid-issued passbook in front of police, and though he has decided to treat his inhumane sentence with brusque humour rather than agony, Masiza incorporates moments of genuine, tragic ruminations on what his fate truly means, which are truly affecting, and brilliantly acted. 

Christopher Weare’s direction is clever, and the appropriately bare space in which this production is performed ultimately complements the starkness of the men’s prison cell, though there are some odd choices in terms of sightlines and characters intermittently turning their backs to the audience. Thankfully, the actors’ voices carry so well that these are easy to overlook. The most striking element of the show is its rising intensity and increasingly fascinating twists and turns. The story weaves itself in compelling new directions late on, and in fact one of the central elements of the dynamic between the prisoners — regarding their respective sentences — is only introduced well past the halfway point of the show. When it is brought up, however, it is discussed with devastating clarity and emotion, and credit must go to Masiza for his captivating, brilliantly-measured monologue as he explains his future in comparison to John’s. Towards the end, the prisoners get to perform their Antigone, which proves yet another fascinating turn of the narrative, and Mayola in particular shines in this play-within-a-play. Not to mention, the narrative and political implications of this particular staging within the Robben Island context is a truly inspired comparison, and left me both sickened with its implications and deeply impressed with the craftiness of its ultimate point. 

The acting is captivating, the play itself is brilliant, and the message is affecting. There are a few issues towards the beginning that admittedly force the production to take a long time to get to the heart of the matter, but when it does, The Island is deeply resonant and impeccably crafted theatre. An excellent fit for St. Johns’ Just Festival, and a worthy staging by these clever theatremakers.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 20 August)

 

Signals (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 13:10: 50 mins)

“A mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Until we know for sure, which might never be the case, the extraterrestrial is endlessly fascinating. One some level, the entirety of human existence is hinged on this question: is there anyone, anything else out there? Footprint Theatre’s engaging two-woman show Signals asks this question with an intelligent script, grounded performances, and an excellent climax, and while it is not exactly pulse-pounding, this production is a mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.

Eve Cowley and Immie Davies play two data analysts on the night shift at a facility dedicated to scanning the cosmos for alien contact. For the majority of the play, they simply sit and swap comments about their co-workers, life in general, and whether their job is completely meaningless. The set is commendably simple yet effective; with only two desks and a rat king of wires and plugs, the feeling of a dingy office is created very well. Cowley and Davies’ performances are also well-suited to the piece; all their interactions, from casual chats to fiery arguments, are enjoyable to listen to and cleverly written. 

Overall, however, the show itself cannot quite muster any significant feeling other than ‘enjoyable’ for the first two thirds. While the stillness of the show is nicely reminiscent of naturalistic theatre trends, its interludes where nothing happens are overlong considering the theme of the show. Thankfully, the portion of the events when alien contact is actually realised is fabulously crafted, and genuinely thrilling — especially the two workers’ disparate reactions to the possibility that we might actually answer the ultimate existential question. This is, without a doubt, the best part of the show, and I can confidently say the final third is an excellent piece of theatre.

The rest, however, does not do the ending justice, and while the technical and performative aspects are solid, the runtime is not as well-measured as it could be. If the establishing segments of Signals took a few more notes from its ending, this still, gradual approach could have come across with a bit more verve than it currently does. This is a well-made production, but it could be much sharper, and with an injection of just a bit more energy it could be a seriously impressive two-hander. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Solarplexus: An Alternative Energy Play (ZOO Charteris: 3-27 Aug: 19:35: 60 mins)

“Affectingly haunting musings.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Oddly, there are more shows than ever this year where I personally have felt a performer is too good for the show they are starring in. This is particularly true of Melissa Mahoney and Solarplexus: An Alternative Energy Play. The show, written by Michael Galligan, deals with a near-future where solar fires are plaguing Earth and a mega-corporation known as Syzygy has proffered a ‘solution’ to the problem by creating a giant space station that will bathe the world in constant daylight. A genius inventor/farmer/tin-foil-hat wearer (played by Gilligan), however, has made an energy-producing bike named Mercury Daniels, that can somehow stop all of this and save the world. His daughter, Ellen (Mahoney), contacts him and tries to help stop the plot, while his son Frank (Sam Metzger) has started working for the corporation and its evil boss (Justin Picado), leading to a frenetic mission and intergalactic madness.

There are standout elements of this show that really shine. Mahoney, first and foremost, delivers a strong performance and an excellent onstage presence; she holds the show together in more ways than one. Another stellar presence in the production is Justin Picado, multi-roling as the maddened Syzygy CEO, a messenger from the Sun, and a few other surreal presences; Picado has very clever comic timing and physicality, and similarly to Mahoney, could and should really knock it out of the park if given more compelling lines to perform. Also onstage but in the corner is composer Robert Fernandez, who live-scores the show with remarkably fun musical motifs and sounds. Credit to director Jaye Hunt for placing him in view of the audience, for most of the entertainment in the show can be derived from watching him work.

The rest of the production is unfortunately a let-down. The plot dissolves into flat, unconvincing absurdity, which could be entertainingly surreal if it was not constantly interrupted by uninteresting arguments and character moments. The constant bickering between Ellen and Frank, as siblings who took very different paths in life, possibly due to their father’s treatment, is so overplayed it becomes simply irritating to listen to. The same jabs and judgements are repeated over and over and over, never improving in form or content; the interjections from their father, also played by Galligan, do not particularly help, possibly because his characterisation seems straight out of the notoriously neglectful Rick from Justin Roiland’s Rick And Morty. Some lines and concepts are fascinating, yet most are delivered during the intermittent cacophonies of the characters simply talking over each other, so they have little impact. The jokes, of which there are surprisingly few, are also quite unmemorable; thankfully, Mahoney and Picado are quite good at stepping in to save the moment when certain punchlines fall conspicuously flat.

Solarplexus is an odd watch, and contains some affectingly haunting musings on what could result in the end of the world: corporate greed, public disinterest, and personal irresponsibility. Yet though these concepts are raised, the show is not particularly risible to an audience, and perhaps could do with a slight rewrite and a more dynamic second half. 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room (theSpace on North Bridge: 13-18 Aug: 12:05: 50 mins)

“Admirably boisterous, with plenty of breathless comedy flowing from every scene.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Reading University Drama Society has made a delirious, heartily amusing comedy out of a sharp and clever setup. The show revolves around the four members of Hitch’s Los Angeles writers’ room in 1961: the well-dressed socialite Kevin (Thomas Sparrow), the mousy, prim Lila (Rebecca Penn), the stringy jittery Scott (Conor Field), and the snarky, forward Maya (Jess Davies). A hapless rookie detective (Luke Cox) introduces the show, blustering through some exposition about a former member of the writers’ room who has turned up disfigured and murdered in the L.A. river. From there, the detective hides — in one of the show’s funniest running jokes — just behind a sofa and barely out of view as the writers go about their business. As they share their ideas of new scripts, the four of them act each out, donning wigs and swapping accents with reckless abandon and generally putting on a flamboyantly silly show of it all. Needless to say, there are Hitchcockian jokes and references aplenty, and it is certainly recommended to have seen more than a few of the films in question if you want to laugh along with the lion’s share of these parodic sequences.

Writers Ades Singh and Cameron Gill clearly take great pleasure in their cinematic references and endlessly silly humour, which to their credit, are both exceedingly well-suited to the Fringe atmosphere. In his role as director, Gill has commendably let the performers have oodles of fun with and the performers, who in turn each give a high-energy performance.

Indeed, there’s plenty of boisterousness all round, with breathless comedy flowing from every scene. Unfortunately, though many of the character moments are well set-up for big laughs, even the performances cannot save some of the lazier impulses of this show. Some of the earlier jokes are clever — such as Davies’ scene-stealing personification of a haunting mother character who is totally not a rip-off from Psycho, or Sparrow’s charming, standout smugness as he explains his own ‘brilliance’ — the play eventually just has the same punchlines over and over: the script seemingly intentionally falls apart into improvisations, repetitive shrugs about why what is happening is happening, and the apparent hilarity of just saying the word “bitch.” In addition, the amount of fourth-wall-breaking becomes tiresome after the first joke of its kind, not to mention to fifth. Thankfully, this is possible to overlook in favour of appreciating the fanciful character comedy on display, such as Cox’s amusing John-Candy-esque slapstick, or Penn’s clipped and funny diary scene, or Field’s admittedly hilarious impression of a pigeon.

It should also be noted that, the three-sided venue Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room is staged in makes more than half of the play and its gags completely invisible to anyone not in the front row of the centre of the room, not to mention anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the eyeline of one of the blindingly bright, oddly low-hung lights. Choose your seat wisely.

Overall, this is a clever setup with a disappointing payoff, that could be helped with a little tightening of the actual story and a few more jokes that aren’t just naughty-word-humour. Credit where credit is due, however, the ensemble — Thomas Sparrow and Jess Davies in particular — turn in such vivacious performances that this reviewer would be curious to see what this team does next. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 17 August)

 

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)