The Flyboys: A Postmodern Swing Sensation (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 1-24th Aug: 22:30: 60 mins)

“The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There’s been a huge rise in popularity of hybrid vintage/modern acts in recent years, with electro-swing becoming cool, and bands such as Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox selling out tours and racking up millions of hits on YouTube. Enter the Flyboys at the Fringe on the back of this trend, mixing up modern songs with a vintage 30s/40s twist.

Taking to the stage in coordinating waistcoats and spats, The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun as they launch into their cool rendition of Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. With a swinging beat and smooth, intricate harmonies the foursome have a real likeability and set the tone for a fun evening of music with a twist. And what follows is a string of popular, up-tempo songs performed in the band’s trademark style.

These are four great singers, and while none of them possess a spine-tingling unique voice to dazzle as a soloist, the blend and balance of voices as a group is what makes each arrangement special and entertaining. And they make it look so easy and fun at the same time, beaming with smiles, busting some daring kicks and flicks, it’s amazing to witness the control and accuracy with which this group performs.

At times it verges a little too close to holiday park singing for me – with some very obvious, crowd-pleasing song choices, cheesy choreography and a few dad jokes in between ditties, but they are a really fun bunch and perform with pizzazz so such flaws seem unimportant on the great scale of what the night is. I’d certainly prefer more variety in the set list and more depth in the artistry – the group’s mash-ups in the second half of the set go some way to achieving this, and the painfully short a capella rendition of Etta James’ At Last shows that this group do have the potential to elevate themselves into a really classy band of musicians, rather than being about entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Overall, this is a good fun night with some fine singing, comedy and choreography, and even the sternest viewer will find it difficult not to indulge in at least a little toe-tapping. One to take your mum to.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die (theSpace @ Venue 45: 20-25th Aug: 15:40: 70 mins)

“The finest production I’ve seen this year”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Death and grief are difficult topics to get right in the theatre – even more so for a young company who are not likely to have experienced much of either. Lloyd Theatre Arts (most of whom are aged 14-17), however, demonstrate maturity and sensitivity well beyond their years in this powerful life lesson.

In January 2014, 16-year-old- Daniel Spargo-Mabbs died as a result of a drug overdose at an illegal rave. I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die is a verbatim response to that tragedy, using only the words of his friends and family to tell the story of what happened. Mark Wheeller’s script, which interweaves responses from those close to Daniel, is a galling and frank account of his final few days and their immediate aftermath. Grab the tissues.

What’s most moving about this show is the painful honesty of it: the script contains all the teenage awkwardness you would expect from verbatim responses, and to their credit, the company capture this in the integrity of their performance. Some perspectives indicate a knowledge of what happened that night, some a blissful naivety, and not everyone is shown in a positive light, making it an insightful and thorough, unglossed story.

The action is also interspersed with choreographic sequences to reflect or highlight specific feelings that words alone can’t convey. Counter-balance and counter-tension are common motifs to demonstrate how much the individuals in the story relied on each other to get through the days, and these are intelligent and polished moments which show a fantastic creative engagement with the piece, as well as an emotional one. Indeed, the slickness, energy and connection throughout this performance from the whole company are indicative of hours of hard work and dedication to their craft, and the result is absolutely astonishing.

The second half of this production (which focuses more on the perspective of his family and girlfriend covering the same events) does drag somewhat, as there is little in the way of new narrative content, making it feel quite repetitive and static. Further editing to combine the two halves would help make this a more cohesive and gripping piece, but even in this state, it’s the finest production I’ve seen so far this year.

The performance quality of this production from both the young people, and the actors playing Daniel’s parents, really is first class – I genuinely thought I was watching Daniel’s friends and family tell this emotive and important story themselves. Take your children. Take your parents. And take care of yourselves.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

RENT (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 16-26th Aug: 17:15: 2 hrs)

“A production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

RENT is a searing rock musical from the 1990s that was only recently knocked out of Broadway’s top 10 longest running musicals of all time by Wicked. It follows the story of a group of friends dealing with love and loss against a gritty New York backdrop, and is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème.

Local company Captivate Theatre’s version is a slick and minimalist endeavour, editing out many of the smaller roles and songs to focus more on the main characters themselves, rather than the community of artists they move within. Yet what’s lost in pulsing power in some of the bigger moments is made up for in subtle sensitivity and slickness elsewhere, making this a clean and refreshing take on a musical that’s been doing the rounds for decades. This stripped back approach also spawns some interesting interpretations in the musical numbers, such as Today 4 U, which is almost unrecognisable as a nigh-on a capella song, though somehow works within Director Tom Mullins’ overall vision.

Yet while the minimalist ideology of this production creates many unexpected delights, the main downfall of this show is the staging and use of space, which is far too small to effectively mount a musical of RENT’s epic stature – even with the cuts and styling carried out. Unfortunately, this results in too much awkwardness on stage too often, given how important movement and isolation are to several scenes. At times Mullins makes the action work well within the constraints – in Santa Fe and La Vie Boheme in particular, the scale of the choreography matches the music, space and overall mood, but more often than not, the overwhelming feeling is one of potential – how great this show could be in a venue where it could breathe and run free.

Despite this, this is a production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage. Megan Grace in particular delivers a real powerhouse performance in every scene and song as Joanne – not to mention nailing that riff in Seasons of Love. Alex Peters as Roger and Anna Macleod as Mimi combine to create some spine-tingling harmonies in their duet moments, and it’s a shame Grace Cowley doesn’t get more time to sparkle as Maureen after her raw and gutsy Over the Moon.

RENT will always be a fantastic show, and this slick and super-streamlined version is packed with highlights and the heart needed to make it soar. But I’d love to see it return with more depth and detail in a bigger venue to really be blown away.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Death is the New Porn (theSpace @ Venue 45: 13-18th Aug: 22:40: 60 mins)

“Another fine example of a gripping, character-driven play that Blazing Hyena really excel at”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Death is the New Porn tells the story of a trio of vigilantes who get their kicks from following, luring and killing local criminals – all in the name of service to their society. They brag about how crime rates have fallen since they began their campaign – not just from physically stopping the perpetrators, but by spreading fear to prevent those would-be bad guys from meeting the same end. It’s a tough-talking and electrifying opening that sets up the potential for a thrilling noir-drama.

Yet rather than being an action-packed adventure about the number or profile of bodies they stack up, or police investigations they dodge, the narrative evolves to be more personal, and by the end, becomes a deeply emotional unveiling of three people trying to make sense of their own broken lives. What has driven each one to become a killer, and just how strong are bonds of blood?

The opening half of this performance has a very filmic quality, with director Catherine Exposito using the large thrust stage cleverly to create interesting angles and sightlines, with musical interludes and quick changes of pace adding to a Tarantino-esque feel. It’s a little confusing to begin with given the choppiness, but as the meat of the play unfolds, the compelling narrative and relationships between each character become more prominent, and ultimately, engaging.

Imogen Reiter, Jack Elliot and Jack Jarvis Gouther each turn in gutsy and gritty performances as the three anti-hero vigilantes, but Rosie Milne in particular impresses as supporting character Sheila – the recently released from prison recovering addict attempting to get her life back together. There’s a raw delicacy to her performance of a woman just about holding herself together that is utterly captivating to watch.

Jack Elliot’s script is on the whole very clever in its structure and development – the dialogue is natural and the sense of tension and anticipation are always high – though it would be good to get a bit more background and levelling early on. Some characters seem more well-developed than others causing a few too many gaps for the audience to fill in. There’s also quite a lot of faffing with props (especially drinks and glass) throughout, but these are minor criticisms for a work that is, on the whole, made to a very high quality.

In short, Death is the New Porn is another fine example of a gripping, character-driven play that Blazing Hyena really excel at. Highly recommended as a late-night comedy alternative.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Understudies (Bedlam: 13-19th Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“Fantastic creativity under pressure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a very laid-back feel to The Understudies as they take to the stage dressed with a Breakfast Club vibe. Indeed, it’s quite a pleasing difference to the high octane energy of some other groups out there, and the introduction to the troupe and process of selecting a show title from audience suggestions is very personable, winning the audience over straight away.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to get up and improvise a show to a room full of strangers – moreso when there’s singing involved. The group opening number is a chance for each player to have their moment in creating a verse of the ditty on the spot, and it’s a positive start as to what to expect from the rest of the show – even though it’s disappointing this is one of precious few occasions that all players appear on stage together to demonstrate their prowess as a company.

Particularly amusing elements throughout the show are when two players are mid conversation in a scene, and MD Sam Coade just starts playing, forcing one of the players to begin a song about whatever they were talking about. Indeed, the strength of the Understudies is in the individual players themselves who display fantastic creativity under pressure and an ability to commit to their personal stories throughout.

In saying that, what holds this troupe back is their cohesion as a group – in this performance the players seemed to contradict each other or get too bogged down in their own storylines, which led to a lot of loose ends, changes in direction, and an almost competitive rather than collaborative feel. Indeed, at points there was a reticence from some players to jump on stage and save their counterparts at difficult moments, rather than relish in the opportunity to create more fun. There were some attempts at backing dancing and vocals to create more depth and variety in the numbers, and it’s a shame these never came to very much.

The Understudies is a good fun show packed with all the giggles you would expect from a completely improvised musical. It lacks the professional edge of some of the other companies out there doing similar things, but a good value show all the same – there are far worse things you could do with your afternoon.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

Visit the Bedlam archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Bristol Suspensions: Love Aca-tually (theSpace Triplex: 13-25 Aug: 16:00: 50 mins)

“A group at the top of their game”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Th Bristol Suspensions have been making waves on the a capella circuit in recent years, and having only formed four years ago, their rise to the top league has been remarkable. In Love Aca-tually they show us why.

Under Musical Director Eleanor Leaper’s leadership, the group display a stunning range of styles, mixing and layering, with their mashups being a real highlight in seamless blending from one song to another. The intricacy of their constantly-changing arrangements is something to behold as there’s always so much going on within one song to keep interest and wow-factor. There’s a quality and depth to these arrangements that really catches the ear.

In saying that, it feels like it takes the group a few songs to really get going performance-wise, and it’s only in Power (featuring breath-taking lead vocals by Leaper herself), that they really start to perform with the swagger and panache of a group at the top of their game. It would be great to see them truly ‘bring it’ from note one, song one.

For a show themed around the film Love Actually, the setlist is somewhat surprising – featuring interpretations of songs originally by artists such as Foo Fighters and Coheed & Cambria, as well as a Reggaeton medley and a rap medley. While I applaud the diversity of musical influences used to create this show (and indeed the creative arrangements in each case), a slightly more ‘on brand’ setlist would give a greater sense of completeness and cohesion to the performance.

What’s pleasing about this group, too, is the inventiveness and risks taken with choreography to create a visual drama that matches the stunning vocals. Rarely are the singers still for long and the performance as a whole feels like a fully staged show, making best use of the thrust stage, elevating the Bristol Suspensions above groups who are content with more simple staging.

As you’d expected from a much-plaudited group, it’s hard to spot a note wrong anywhere. There are moments, though, when lead vocals are overpowered by the backing singers, so perhaps there’s a little bit more balancing to be done, but in all other respects, this is a group that can clearly do it all with a fantastic display of range and dynamism. Aca-mazing.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Big Lie: (theSpace @ Jury’s Inn: 6-16 Aug: 12:35: 50 mins)

“A story of blockbuster proportions”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Every now and then you hear a story and wish the whole world could hear it too. The Big Lie is one of those. Based on the real life of an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee (and a survivor of Saddam Hussein’s genocide) who earns her place as an associate at one of Sweden’s top law firms, it tells of overcoming racism and several other barriers to achieve the unthinkable.

And the remarkable woman sharing her semi-autobiographical tale is the eminently watchable Shaniaz Hama Ali. Now an actor (though formerly the lawyer at the heart of the story), she beams with honesty, vulnerability and likeability throughout the performance, impressing with her grasp of comedy and subtlety in a language which isn’t her mother tongue.

Beginning with a snippet of a conversation which hints at the outcome of the tale, Hama Ali takes us back to where it all began, and her journey to the peak of her legal career. There’s a playful as aspect to the reflections on her childhood and the innocence of it, though a darkness develops as the parents of her new friends in her adopted country begin to stir up racism against her family.

There’s not long to dwell though, as Hama Ali deftly moves on to the positive aspects of her blossoming career in law, and the cases she gets to work on. At the climax is the offer from above to work on a case all her colleagues want a piece of, but which forces her to question her identity and moral compass – whether to assist a company in selling chemical weaponry to the Middle East, and potentially facilitate the kind of genocide she and her family escaped from just a few years before. This section in particular oozes with tension in consideration of the debate, and Hama Ali’s frankness here accentuates the humanity at the heart of the piece.

There’s a pleasing resolution that ties into the opening lines of the piece, but which could be made more obvious and epic to give a real wow-factor ending, and overall the story aches with more detail bursting to be told. It’s a shame this show is only 50 minutes long!

As a theatrical performance it’s basic, with little more than just Hama Ali herself on a tiny stage to tell it. It would be great to see slightly more investment in theatricality to help bring about the changes in mood, location and time, which would in turn elevate this show into award-winning territory. As it is though, The Big Lie is an urgent and captivating story, told by a voice the world needs to hear.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED