Slime (Pleasance @ Central Library: Aug 21 – 25 : 11:15: 1hr)

“A real heart-warming delight.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

Over the years I’ve been to most of the Fringe venues and have watched the major players spin off into new areas. The Pleasance now covers its traditional St Leonard’s location as well as the EICC and, so it seems, Edinburgh Central Library. Who knew?

So the youngest (two and a half) and I trooped off to the wonderfully named ‘Slime’ with little real clue of what to expect. We went because it was on and we were looking for something to do. What a treat we found!

The premise is simple but elegant. The children (and grown ups!) are welcomed into the garden to sit on stones in a foam garden to get a bug’s eye view of the action. The play revolves around two creepy crawlies: a slug and a caterpillar. Over the course of forty minutes or so these tiny beasties enjoy some fairly big adventures.

It starts with a nervous slug coming on stage, pleased to see a slime trail. She stumbles upon some slug pellets which hurt her. She fixes upon a leaf that is too far for her to reach. She needs help.

Then the caterpillar appears. Where slug is nervous, he is bold – in and amongst the audiences and, at points, taking selfies on his iPad. He dislikes slime. Dislikes slugs. But does want the leaf.

There’s lots of fun but little of the outright silliness that makes up many kids shows. When the caterpillar is sad, the slug tries to cheer him up with a sweet wrapper. At another point the caterpillar is mean to the slug. There is a kind-off dance off: why wouldn’t there be?

It an old story in many ways: an odd couple have some ups and downs but in the end just about become friends. Joy, tears, arguments. It is something everyone knows from the toddler in the audience to the grandparent sitting next to them.

Slug understands a little quicker than caterpillar that working together they might get their leaf to share – one to turn into a butterfly, one for grub. Caterpillar has other ideas. Will they get there in the end? There’s heartbreak too when slug realises she can’t turn into a butterfly.

It sounds simple. But it is magically put together. The children are utterly spellbound. A wonderful score supports very little dialogue (I think a grand total of 12 words which are also signed). The actors convey a huge range of emotions through facial expressions and body language. A real, heart-warming delight. They are a talented duo. The audience was utterly charmed. If there is a 2-5 year old in your life: go with them whilst you still can. If you don’t have one, offer to take a friend’s!

This is one of the very best kids shows at Fringe – the hour felt positively scant by curtain call. We both loved it. It is reasonably priced (unlike most children’s shows…) and you get to meet the stars at the end. More than that: the children got to play with slime for the last fifteen minutes – and which child doesn’t want to do that?

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer:  Rob Marrs  (Seen 19 August)

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Foil, Arms and Hog – Swines (Underbelly, Bristo Square: Aug 18-25 : 21:00: 1hr)

image of event

“A tremendously talented bunch who made hard comedy look easy.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I don’t think I’d ever been to see a Fringe show solo. I usually meet up with pals or drag my children. However, on Saturday, I thought I’d see what solo flying was like and trotted along to the McEwen Hall to see Foil, Arms and Hog.

My only experience of them had been via their cult YouTube clips being beamed into my social media feed from time to time – their ‘’Englishman plays Risk’’ and ‘’Brexit: Divorce’’ being the obvious examples. Beyond that I didn’t know too much about them: there were three of them. I didn’t understand the name. They were Irish. They went to University College Dublin. That was it. My lack of knowledge says more about me than them.

I suppose the old grey matter should have started zinging when I read the words ‘McEwen Hall’. This is one of the biggest venues at the Fringe. It was sold out. There must have been the best part of 1,000 people in the audience. Clearly these guys have a serious following and serious game.

Whilst many of you will have come across them via YouTube, they are a different proposition live and – in my view – a better proposition live. Go!

The first ten minutes were gloriously anarchic as the trio romped around the audience getting people involved in various ways: looking in people’s shopping bags, trying on coats, inspecting tickets etc.

It all looked very easy. As with everything, it clearly comes from months and years of practice. You only get that rapport with each other, the quickness of mind, the badinage, the ability to change things up and riff off each other through knowing each other inside out.

In crowd work, it is cheap and easy to mock the audience. Too many comedians do that. Some turn it into their entire act (and some reviewers lap it up. It is like giving the school bully an A grade). Foil, Arms and Hog have fun with their audience but try to make them co-stars of the show rather than the butt of a joke: that involves kindness, confidence and talent. Carmen and Rory – the two audience members who became stars – had a bit of gentle leg pulling but it was all done in the best of humours.

They then break into a series of sketches and songs all of which were clever, witty and laugh out loud funny.  Whilst I’ve bemoaned elsewhere the dreary politics of most comics at the Fringe their Brexit Song ‘’It’s hard to break free from a union’’ was both extremely funny and technically accomplished. If you are going to joke about politics at least try to do something different and witty: these guys certainly did. Their ‘’Guidelines’’ sketch had me in stitches. There was innuendo there but no smut. Again, that takes cleverness and a deft hand.

Each sketch worked well and covered a range of talents – musicianship, clever lyrics, extensive mime and more besides. The sketches ranged across many spheres: a gloriously hammy actor given a secret mission; Ludwig van Beethoven entering a talent show; a recurring stag do sketch; and a brilliant, almost indescribable mime show. My personal highlight was the sheer joy the three actors had particularly when they tried to corpse each other. I enjoyed them spinning off script and teasing each other throughout.

I liked all three of them enormously and did so even more when they bumped into the crowd on the way to the bar and shook everyone’s hand thanking them for coming along. They seemed to enjoy it as much as the fans. They are a tremendously talented bunch who made hard comedy look easy. This was the sort of humour that your teenage nephew would enjoy but also your mother-in-law. That, again, is quite something.

Whenever anyone views a sketch show they naturally begin to compare to the great sketch shows of the past and that terrifying word ‘’Python’’ begins to linger in one’s mind. Many shows are called Python-esque when they are really nothing of the sort. Foil, Arms and Hog are pythonesque in their inventiveness, their cleverness, their interplay and their use of so many different comic tools. I could have watched another hour. A must see.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 17 August)

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Don’t Mess with the Dummies (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 20-25 : 11:20 : 1hr)

“Done with skill, imagination and a real understanding of what kids love.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Having started out Fringe adventures with the Splash Test Dummies we thought we’d visit the other act from the Dummies Corp ‘’Don’t Mess with the Dummies’. My daughter had been asking to see the ‘’girl dummies’’ since we had left the first show so it was time… largely to keep the last vestiges of my parental sanity intact.

The show starts out with three young explorers in a jungle. Over the course of an hour they try to read a map, pitch a tent, get into sleeping bags and eat a banana. That makes it sound routine it is anything but.

It was impossible not to warm to them. Their interplay and comic timing were spot on. The characterisations were very good and in large parts extremely funny. There was essentially no dialogue – a few words here and there – and they mostly communicated in funny noises. That is no mean feat over an hour and it all made sense.

Dummies Corp productions are an assault to the senses which bring together clowning, acrobatics, slapstick and much more besides: skipping ropes, puppetry, hula hoops, silly string, juggling and log-rolling. My eldest had one of the Dummies come up to her and throw popcorn in her mouth (don’t ask) whilst both of them were up and dancing in the aisles at various points.

It really is wonderful watching these shows with children – at one point, the Dummies perform the old gag of one person hiding behind a screen to make it look like another person has an extremely long arm. Both my kids were asking how they did it, how the lady had such a long arm. Others around us were prodding their parents and asking the same question. I think the world is probably a better place believing in that sort of stuff.

My personal highlight was the ‘Lion Sleeps tonight’ sketch with the sleeping bags. It was both inspired and hysterical. Slightly jaded and underslept 37-year-olds probably aren’t the target market for the gag but it really was very funny. I loved how they were in amongst the crowd a lot trying to involve the children. I loved the references throughout: nowhere else in the Fringe will acts perform to Mozart and to 2Unlimited.

One thing I particularly liked was that it was three women doing it. All too often these sorts of shows are all-male or majority male. It was great for everyone in the audience to see three hilarious women doing it. My eldest daughter – who adored the Splash Test Dummies – said she preferred this show because it was girls doing the funny stuff. That’s not a small thing. Indeed, all things considered, it is a pretty big one. My youngest – who is probably at the very bottom end of sitting through an hour – loved it.

It is impossible to watch Dummy Corp acts without a smile on your face. It is just good ol’ fashioned family fun but done with skill, imagination and a real understanding of what kids love. More please.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 17 August)

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The Showstoppers’ Kids Show (Pleasance Courtyard: Aug 15-18: 12:00 : 1hr)

” A polished, properly silly, properly funny children’s show”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

There are two sorts of shows that genuinely fascinate me. Magic shows and improvisation shows. I mean, every form of show has something interesting or funny or something to love, but those are the two that really get me thinking.

I think it is because deep down we all want to know how it is done. How does the magician saw the lady in half? Where is the bunny hidden in the hat? How do they make up songs about ‘’elderly children’ in London’s sewer system before being transported to a castle by way of a kiss from a unicorn on a pipe-smoking, gin-swilling child called Platypus? How do they not burst out laughing? How do they appear to make the difficult so ridiculously smooth?

With some of these thoughts in my mind (although I only met Platypus later), I set off with my dreadful duo (aged 5 and 2) for the lunchtime Showstoppers’ Kids Show. Neither of them had come across improv before so it was a bit of a suck it and see affair. Would they get the point of it all? Would they get involved? Would they spot the ice cream shop directly next to the buggy park and ask me about it relentlessly throughout the show?

Showstoppers are well-kent faces. They routinely sell-out here in Edinburgh and their show for grown-ups in the West End has won Olivier Awards. Many performers who appear year after year in Edinburgh become jaded or dial it in knowing that they’ll sell out regardless.

For the team in colourful dungarees nothing could be further from the truth – they were anarchic and buzzing from ten minutes before the show started! I walked in and saw them performing, assuming the show had started, and that somehow we’d managed to get the timings wrong. One of the Showstoppers gleefully revealed they were just playing to get into the mood before the show started but got the busy crowd going. This was clever: it got the kids used to the idea of getting involved. If any of the Showstoppers read this, I’d be keen to know who you thought was a better Renaissance painter than Caravaggio. 

The show was entirely constructed by the children. The Showstoppers built a series of songs and dances around the themes, plot ideas and names that were called out. The children did their best to corpse the stars. At one point we were asked to come up with three wishes for a genie to grant. The first two were generic enough. The third – wonderfully –  was ‘have a barbecue’ which just for a moment just about stumped them.

Arguably the stars of the show aren’t the five bouncing about endlessly on stage but the two musicians in the corner who are having to keep up with the hilarity and as you’d expect from West End stars, there are some jokes that fly above the heads of children but make the adults titter.

I spent much of my time mesmerised by the sheer talent of all it all. The cynics will say there are audience plants but I balk at that suggestion: just about every child suggested something after all. It has to be down to months and months of hard practice. It is all seamless and there are enough moments where it nearly spins out of control for you to really understand the hard work they are putting in: this is high-quality, funny stuff in real-time. Imagine how sick you’d be if you are a comic who spent hours trying to write gags and turned up to see an audience of children roaring along to this?

My kids enjoyed it and it was clear from seeing arms shoot up or things called out that other kids loved the outright silliness of it all. I’d guess the ideal ages are 4-9.

I came away with a new found respect for improvisation shows. I’d guess improv in front of adults is easier – it is easy to nod to a political theme or to rudeness or vulgarity. Children’s imaginations are much more fertile than our own and I’d guess the spectrum of possibilities is much wider.

Apropos of anything else, I’d note how generally lovely the Showstoppers were. From their getting us involved in their warm-up through to one of them asking at the end if my littlest one was ok (she’d got a little bit upset when she went up on stage with the other kids and I had to run on and grab her). They threw out large rolls of paper for all the kids to come up and colour in at the end of the show on the stage whilst going round handing out stickers to everyone. None of these things need to happen but it shows the stars know their audience. They don’t make the fundamentals of the show any better but all were appreciated.

This is a polished, properly silly, properly funny children’s show. I want to see the grown up one now.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 14 August)

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One Duck Down (Pleasance Courtyard : Aug 5-19, 21-26 : 10:30 : 1hr)

“A magical, wholesome family show.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It is a not-generally-acknowledged truth that toddlers are jolly good at wrestling. You wouldn’t think, watching them sit shoving Pom Bears into their gob that – at any moment – they can turn into a match for Hulk Hogan.

Each has their own technique. Some favour ‘’The Mummy’’ were they tense every muscle in their body and go completely rigid. Others favour the opposite, and manage somehow to loosen every joint in their body making them impossible to carry. This is the jellyfish. My youngest, whilst not averse to either of these generally favours two similar techniques: either the octopus which sees her grappling around your limbs as you try to manhandle her into a buggy or Ikea high chair; or its close cousin the ‘’cat going to vets’ where she scraps like billy-o and grabs hold of nearby objects with a death grip.

A nightmare of every parent is having to fight any of the above in public. None of us come away from public wrangling looking like parent of the year. Most of us are just desperately trying not to swear.

I was worried about all this because I took my youngest to one of her first shows this morning. She’d been to stuff in previous years but she had – happily for the Marrs wallet – been a ‘’babe in arms’’. The problem with any show is that you just don’t know how they will react to being in a very different environment for an hour. So it was with a sense of trepidation I took my seat at One Duck Down. She looked at me. I looked at her. She promised to be a good girl. I handed over a packet of gingerbread men.

Happily the cast took any lingering worries away. One Duck Down had both of my youngsters entranced from the first moment. The story is one of the oldest in town brought bang up to date: a young man from a small-town fancies a woman who is a wrong ‘un. She sets him a series of challenges to win her heart from making seagulls sing the national anthem through to counting pebbles on a beach. Eventually she sets him the challenge which is the show: find me the 7,000 rubber ducks that have escaped from a shipping container and my heart is yours. Anyone who has seen Blue Planet will know that 7,000 rubber ducks actually did plop into the ocean a number of years ago, and have helped us understand the ocean currents as we see them wash up now and again.

The hero of the piece is the highly likeable Billy, who sets off in a bathtub to track the ducks down. As he does so he meets a series of colourful creatures – some seagulls who are besotted with an albatross who only has eyes for himself; a polar bear who loves rock and roll; some smelly crabs and some pirates in L-plates. He slowly but surely accumulates all but one.

The team behind the show manage manage to make it small-p political without becoming a party political broadcast: balancing important messages (the effects of global warming; plastic pollution; and what we can all do to make things better) with a fun story that the children enjoyed.

There was real cleverness here. Double-entendres, clever word-play, catchy (well-sung!) songs throughout and fun, well-crafted characters. Not many shows will have a bearded lady, a huge blue whale made out of plastic bags (a real highlight) and a sword fight on a carousel. More probably ought to! The cast put in a real shift changing role after role after role.

I enjoyed it all and not just because there were enough jokes pitched above the eyelines of the children to keep the adults amused.

I usually bemoan children’s shows being an hour as most of them could be a little tighter. A 50 minute show would probably lead to fewer casts having to battle with a kid having a meltdown. One Duck Down managed to keep most of the children’s attention for that time – no mean feat. My two were talking about it hours later. Both were bopping away to the songs, clapping at all the right points and enjoyed rocking along to Scozzie the Polar Bear.

Songs, clowning, puppetry and a lot of fun that keeps your kids spellbound for an hour. All in all, a real winner and a magical, wholesome family show.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 5 August)

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Splash Test Dummies (Underbelly Circus Hub on the Meadows : Aug 3-11, 13-18, 20-24: 13:00 : 1hr)

“You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Reams of mum-blogs (dad-blogs too, but the mums are winning in terms of overwhelming numbers) will give chapter and verse on how parenthood changes you. Parenthood has certainly changed how I approach the Fringe. In the old days, I actively looked forward to the 5am finishes in clubs. Now I mostly worry whether or not the fireworks will wake the kids.

It also changes how you consume the Fringe. Gone, largely, are the late night comics. The earnest, right-on types making other earnest, right-on types laugh are a thing of the past (no great shame). The late night smut merchants are done too. I don’t care what anyone says: if you don’t laugh at rude songs you are doing life wrong.

But whilst some of the Festival no longer is for you, a whole new side opens up. So I took my nephew (9) and my eldest daughter (5) along to the Splash Test Dummies. I will confess that we did so because my daughter liked their poster.

What a choice. I may start getting her to pick my shows purely on this basis. Splash Test Dummies was quite brilliant. It was everything a good Festival show should be. It had a bit of everything: acrobatics, unicycles, Cirque du Soleil-style gymnastics, running gags, good ol’ fashioned clowning, magic, puppetry, and slapstick galore. I laughed until I was hoarse. My nephew at numerous points said he was ”dying with laughter”. I may as well have not bothered getting my daughter a seat as she spent much of it standing in front of it clapping or laughing with glee.

The actors don’t so much breach the fourth wall but obliterate it. At one point, in a hilarious moment based around the Baywatch theme song, one of the three actors climbed through the crowd, stood on my daughter’s chair and bounced up and down. Later a man nearby had a (very sweaty) Dummy on his lap being hugged.

The ‘Rubber Duckie’ song was glorious as was the sketch with ping pong balls. A relatively simple magic trick taken to a whole new level. It may have been puerile but that’s the whole dang point. I laughed like a drain, as did my young duo.

There are water pistols, noodles, skeleton fights, skipping on unicycles and bubbles pumping out over you. The Dummies fire ping pong balls at you. It is an assault on your senses from before you even enter the tent.

All of this sounds easy but being this funny, this physical under lights for an hour is hard yakka in anyone’s money. More than that it isn’t easy. It is hard and the three Dummies clearly had bucketloads of talent and skill.

The three actors may look like they are clowning around but they do some seriously difficult stuff. Synchronised swimming on unicycles took the breath away as did some work with large metal rings. To make it all look so effortless is quite a skill. To do it and infuse it with comedy… well, it deserves the applause it got.

Apparently in reviews you should always give something critical lest readers think you are some professional fluffer or on the payroll. My one minor quibble – and this is true of almost every kid’s show – is that anything marketed for 5+ probably would be super if it were 45 minutes/50 minutes rather than an hour. I’m not sure what could be cut down or cut out but a few kids did start getting a little restless. Mine didn’t but I did notice a few around me beginning to turn. That though is universal and shouldn’t be held against the three magnificent Dummies: as I looked around at the end, the audience was grinning. The sort of grinning we don’t have enough of in life.

The Dummies have thought hard about how to entertain us and, importantly, our children. Even more than that, they delivered relentlessly. You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe. My daughter spent the rest of the day pretending to be a Splash Test Dummy. If you’ve got kids, go. If you haven’t, borrow one from a friend. If you can’t do that, go along yourself. You’ll have a ball. I did as did my youngsters.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 3 August)

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Chris Washington: Raconteur (Baby Grand, Pleasance : Aug 5-25 : 20:15 : 1hr)

“His delivery is absolutely superb.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars : Nae Bad

It was a big weekend in Wigan. The local football club had run a competition to design a new mascot. The winning entry was the glorious: Crusty the Pie. Better still, over 50% of the entrants suggested that the new mascot be a pie.

If you have a soul, at this point in reading the review you will be warming to Wigan. Perhaps even thinking of a summer holiday there. Who wouldn’t want to spend a week or so in a place so devout in its worship of pies?

Chris Washington is from Wigan. But he isn’t just from Wigan: he clearly loves and is of the place. It is hard to dislike him. You immediately warm to him – and to warm to him is to warm to the pie capital of the world.

Before the show starts there is a board on the stage which says something along the lines of “if Washington took more risks he would be on his way to the big time”. Later, it is replaced with “#leastriskycomicinthebiz”.

As he puts it, and having recently learned what the word means, he is a raconteur. His show is him telling a series of stories about things that have happened to him over the last year: getting engaged, going to Australia and the culture shock he experienced; his favourite kebab house getting a zero rating for hygiene; his fondness for garden centres and late night petrol stations.

To say he was laid back would be an understatement. He rightly – in my view – mocks other comics who take themselves two seriously pointing out that he has three GCSE’s one of which is in Food Technology. He asks why would anyone want to know his thoughts on Brexit? Why would anyone want any stand-up comic’s view on Brexit? Well quite so. We wouldn’t ask Mark Carney to crack gags so I’m never really sure why comedians feel the need to rant about political issues (especially if everyone in the crowd agrees with them anyway). He then delivers probably the best Brexit joke of the Fringe almost as a throw-away line.

Washington exudes charm. He may lack ambition, but this is a man who used to be a postman. He knows treading the boards is better than tramping the streets. He knows about life, and that there are more difficult things to do than telling jokes. He is acutely aware what a privilege it is to go round the world telling jokes and stories and have the audience laughing along. This is a man who loves his job. It is difficult to be so casual, almost conversational with an audience, but the best comics can do just that – and Washington does so with ease.

There were stronger sections than others. I found an extended tale about go-karting perhaps a little longer than it needed to be but his jokes about mindfulness made me laugh and wince in equal measure. His adventures in Australia were very funny. Rarely has a man cared so deeply about his local kebab shop but all of this – grounded in the local, the mundane – was where he really shone.

His riffing at the start of the show off the audience was top-notch and he clearly has the brain and wit to do more of that if he wished. His gentle mocking of a late comer was done with care and warmth rather than than the sneer and snort elsewhere.

It is easy to see a Northern comic who tells stories of every day life and think of Peter Kay. Washington veers away from ‘remember when’ but isn’t a million miles away from Kay. His jokes about his dad’s jet lag had me guffawing mightily as did his trip to a wedding fare. His accidental views on cyclists brought proper belly laughs from most in the room. An insight into everyday life is never a bad thing.

With a bit of tightening this show could easily go from a 4 to a 5. His delivery is absolutely superb, for the most part. At other points some of the stories ramble or don’t quite hit how he’d like to. I don’t think he needs to be edgier or riskier. He may need to be a little more brutal with what he cuts and what he keeps but that is minor stuff. He even inspired me to get a kebab on the way home.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Rob Marrs  (Seen 3 August)

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