The Great Ridolphi (Underbelly Cowgate: 3-27 Aug: 13.25: 55mins)

“Steve Turner delivers a real tour-de-force”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Great Ridolphi follows the story of Victor O’Meara, only son of the now deceased (or is he?) eponymous grand illusionist, as he seeks to unravel the hidden messages his father left him to find a missing painting: the inheritance he thought he would never get. Following an unexpected visit from a scrupulous investigator, Victor must solve the clues to uncover the mystery before anyone else can get there.

It’s a rather rollicking adventure from the quill of Chris Isaacs (not unlike a stage version of an episode of TinTin), as Victor chases across countries and meets some rather exotic characters to reach his goal. While the pace is great and the 50 or so minutes of the show absolutely fly by, it is at the expense of some of the mystery and suspense – revelations, deductions and beautiful moments are often over before they’ve barely been set up and it feels like a little bit of the joy of the story is squeezed out too soon. For an ordinary man, Victor is miraculously very good at solving puzzles, riddles, and taking risks without much thought and it is disappointing not to see more of his struggle in this regard.

The tension is helped along, however, by a couple of clever sub-plots: calls from his wife, escalating in desperation the longer he’s away; and his deteriorating health – we start to wonder whether he might drop dead himself before finding what he’s looking for. Both bring a genuine human element to the story, often missing from adventure tales, so it’s pleasing that these details are included – it helps the production feel more grounded in the here and now. There’s also the omnipresent investigator tracking Victor wherever he goes, though it’s never quite made clear whether he’s meant to be trusted or not. It seems to make little difference given the rather rushed ending, so this device feels rather wasted, and greater development of this character would add to the sense of foreboding throughout.

Victor (and indeed every character present on stage) is played by one of the piece’s co-creators Steve Turner, who delivers a real tour-de-force throughout. His performance is confident, clear and honest, never feeling like it’s all one big showman superhero act, but a man simply following his calling and interacting with whatever crosses his path. He shows great dexterity in the swift changes of scene and character, though for me he could go further to explore and expand on some of these to create more drama and individuality.

This is a witty and warming (if a little wild) performance, charming to the last second. One for the shortlist.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Sister Act (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: 14-20 Aug: 16.10: 1hr 45mins)

“Energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

In my experience, condensed versions of musicals generally go one of two ways: they either trim the fat from the full version and present a slick and sizzling highlights reel (as in EUSOG’s Spring Awakening last year), or they come across as a slightly misshapen patchwork quilt of musical moments. Unfortunately, Edinburgh University Footlights’ production of Sister Act falls into the latter camp. However, some of its musical moments are really rather magical.

We all know the story of the show: aspiring and audacious nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier has to hide away with a group of nuns for her own protection, and in so doing transforms their choir into a team of sensational songstresses. Sarah Couper certainly gives it her all as Deloris, with hugely likeable sass and personality, which is more than capably offset by Tayla Steinberg’s harsh but witty Mother Superior.

It’s Alice Hoult as the timid Sister Mary Robert who vocally steals the show though, with a flawless rendition of the rousing The Life I Never Led. A masterclass in control, it’s a shame some of the other numbers lack the overall quality and power of this one: it really stands out as something special.

Yet when this production hits the sweet spot, it really does soar. The Raise Your Voice scene in particular is energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies. Caili Crow’s choreography is stylish, intricate and very deftly delivered, and for a few minutes here and there the performance really sparkles.

The main strength of this production overall is comedic characterisation, and director Ansley Clark has done a great job in bringing the best out of each individual throughout the performance. Nicola Frier is a revelation as the excitable Sister Mary Patrick, delivering laughs aplenty with every utterance; Adam Makepeace is a wonderfully dorky TJ; and Mhairi Goodwin brings a whole new level of vibrancy to Sister Mary Lazarus that I didn’t think was possible.

This production is quite hit and miss though, making it difficult to stay fully engaged with it throughout. While I won’t go into details of the technical issues which unfortunately blighted this production, other factors such as the (at times) awkward staging, the very choppy nature of lots of different quick scenes, and lack of palpable tension in the big moments all detract from what has the potential to be a really outstanding show. It all feels a little rushed and a bit too rough around the edges.

This a very commendable effort from the cast and company, but perhaps slightly too ambitious too pull off.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Auditions (Sweet Grassmarket: 3-13 Aug: 3.30: 65 mins)

“Fun and upbeat”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

An interesting concept for a musical, Auditions presents a series of vignettes from those who have been doing the rounds for a long time, sharing their highs, lows and learnings after years in “the business”. While many musicals seem to feature – and be aimed at – younger and lither casts, it’s nice to hear the voice of experience or a change, especially when there’s something there we can all learn.

The content covers everything you would expect of such a show, with a range of stories from type-casting, competition, nervousness, over-confidence, and sexually predatory producers, and each one, while brief, is a pleasant insight to the side of being a performer that’s not often put on stage.

My main problem with this show though is how bland it is, which perhaps suitably fits the theme: being about the almosts, maybes, and not-quite-good-enoughs. The songs are nice, with a consistent pop/musical theatre feel and tried-and tested structure and chord progressions, though there’s nothing musically or lyrically to make them stand out: I felt like I had heard each one a hundred times before. There’s a very touching moment late on covering a sensitive subject which brings some much-needed variation to the overall mood, but it’s almost too little too late to save the show from mediocrity.

The same can be said of the cast. Each of the four members have good voices – they capably hold their own – but don’t expect to be blown away by any powerhouse vocals. Perhaps the lack of radio mics means they are forced to keep something back to protect themselves, but for seasoned pros I was still expecting a bit more wow-factor.

While there is generally a good mix of songs in terms of subject matter, they are full of lyrical clichés and heard-it-all-before melodies. I lost track of how many references there were to skies of blue or the importance of staying true to oneself. Indeed, much of the staging and choreography is also very dated, with raised hands and dropped heads being very common features. Again, perhaps a hark back to yesteryear for how things used to be, but more originality and creativity would help make this show feel like something special.

However, what this show lacks in originality it makes up for in positivity: the numbers on the whole are fun and upbeat, with plenty of toe-tapping to be done. It’s a harmless hour of fun, which could make a very pleasant retreat from some of the more challenging work out there this August.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Company (Paradise in St Augustine’s: 4-12 Aug: 21.30: 2hrs 15mins)

“Rarely do you see this level of talent from an amateur group on a Fringe stage.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

Sondheim’s multi-award-winning Company burst onto Broadway in 1970, flying in the face of popular narrative-led musicals and instead presenting a series of vignettes around Bobby, a thirty-something man, happily single, but surrounded by couples who all want to see him get hitched. While the celebration of being happily unmarried may have caused quite a stir at the time, for today’s Tinder generation the themes still have great relevance, and Company comically dissects what being in a couple is really like.

And it’s the comic element of the show that EUSOG have really mastered with their interpretation. The sneaky looks, the perfect timing, the inflections and staging all contribute to the feeling of satire the whole musical embodies, and director Grace Dickson has done a marvellous job in weaving together one consistent style through what is really quite a fragmented production.

Of course, having the right cast helps, and this one is just oozing with talent and personality. Bella Rogers is a delight as airhead April, and Ellie Millar is on point as prudish housewife Jenny, whose attempts to swear while being stoned for the first time had me in stitches. But comically it’s Kathryn Salmond as Amy who steals Act 1 with a sensational rendition of the notoriously difficult patter song Getting Married Today. It’s fast, it’s controlled, completely in character and worth buying a ticket for for those few minutes alone.

Yet while I could really pick any number of songs as stand-out highlights of this performance, it’s Esme Cook’s The Ladies who Lunch that launches this show into the stratosphere. With depth, sensitivity and a killer belt, demonstrating maturity well beyond her years, Cook delivers a goosebump-inducing class act that deserves to be witnessed far and wide. Rarely do you see this level of talent from an amateur group on a Fringe stage.

And then of course there’s the main man, Ethan Baird who brings a subtle and amusingly awkward approach to central character, Bobby. His natural charisma and swagger make him instantly likeable, and he balances the role of observer and participant in the action with ease. His Being Alive builds and teases, much like the structure of the song itself, and the rousing final chorus is delivered with aplomb – a fitting finale to a powerhouse performance throughout.

The musical style and structure of Company isn’t for everyone, and at well over two hours (with interval) it’s quite a slog. At times the choreography lacks a little polish and pizzazz, and the sound levels could do with a bit more balancing out to allow some of the vocals to really soar, but weighing all that against the sheer heart of this performance, you’d really be mad to miss it. Go alone or go with company. Just go and see Company.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Penetrator (C Cubed: 3-12 Aug: 18.25: 75mins)

“Flickers of brilliant storytelling”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Anthony Neilson’s Penetrator covers the topics of masculinity, friendship, and how far a man will go for his mate. Max and Alan are friends and flatmates (with differing viewpoints on tidiness and laziness), when old friend of Max, Tadge, arrives unexpectedly, having been discharged from the army. Bringing a vast set of issues none in the group can comprehend we find out how much each of them is able to put up with.

Bizarrely, for a play that’s been produced at the Traverse, the Finborough and Royal Court (upstairs), it’s Neilson’s script which is really the weak link in this production, giving away frustratingly little about the backgrounds and motivations of each character. Conversation between Max and Alan frequently just dies and restarts again on a different topic for no reason, while any sort of tension and narrative drive appear only quite late on. Perhaps it’s all one over-burdened point by Neilson about men’s ability to communicate about emotion or anything of any depth, but even that wears thin as the chatter ploughs on about girls, haircuts, cards and cups of tea without feeling genuine.

The final fifteen minutes of drama are certainly attention-grabbing and tense, even if the motivation behind it feels rather flimsy with very little to establish it. Tadge’s accounts of the penetrators and his father never quite ring true, as the non-plussed reactions of the others smack of disbelief without enough intelligent dissection of the issues to draw the audience in. I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

In saying all that, the cast do a fairly good job with the material – Chris Duffy is very relaxed and natural as Max, Matt Roberts suitably frustrated as Alan, and Tom White is the most convincing and compelling of the group as the war-affected Tadge. While the tense moments towards the end the production do get a little bit too shouty, the more emotional and thoughtful interchanges – particularly when recalling teenage incidents – are very well-delivered and stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of emotional honesty as flickers of brilliant storytelling.

Given the amount of talent on display at moments during this performance, it’s clear that Fear No Colours as a company have the potential to produce great theatre, but unfortunately this production falls short in too many areas to show them in their best light.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Gossip (Zoo Southside: 4-15 Aug: 20.30: 75 mins)

“A chocolate box of visual delights”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Gossip is a subject we can all relate too, and in a world of hearsay and “fake news”, the theme of Lenka Vagnerova & Company’s latest production is achingly relevant. Yet for a topic so closely associated with words, how does a dance piece explore its intricacies? On the whole, with zeal.

The action begins at a party, as guests arrive and go through the rigmarole of introductions and drinking. The movement is jarring and robotic – a cutting reflection of the forced politeness many of us display in social circumstances – and the skill and dexterity of each dancer’s exaggerated stilted reactions is really wonderful to watch. Tensions soon arise as gossip spreads, and then the real fun begins.

The whole piece follows different characters’ reactions to being gossiped about, joked with (or worse), with creative interpretations of what that experience feels like. From dancers being puppets on an evening out and inadvertently ending up in bed together, to another being physically swamped in a cape made up of all the things she doesn’t say about her husband, the whole performance is energetic, stylish and performed with the swagger one might expect of one of Czech Republic’s most lauded companies.

Yet while gossip is the overall theme, the undertones of the piece are much darker than you might expect – the taunts and fights are at times frightening, and the dramatic ending may be a lesson to us all in keeping our mouths shut and thinking about others before we act. It’s scintillating and dramatic, yet at times very funny, as facial expressions and stylised reactions add a slapstick feel at choice moments, giving the overall performance depth and balance.

The artistry, choreography and control are all stunning, with solos, duos, and ensemble moments, blurring the lines between dance and theatre. Daring lifts, throws and balancing acts will keep you on the edge of your seat and the clever use of changes in dynamic and music keep the performance moving and engaging throughout. This is a company that feels very natural on-stage, with all the creative elements and personalities working together to present of chocolate-box of visual delights.

For me the only disappointing aspect is the lack of clarity of through-line (dare I use the word “narrative”?) throughout the piece. At times it feels like a stream of ideas and explorations following no particular order or structure, and while some loose ends are tied up at the climax where the opening party scene is revisited, I would have liked for the piece to feel like it had more cohesion and completeness.

Overall, Gossip is a very high-quality performance with something for everyone. It certainly deserves to be talked about.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Shows to watch at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017

With less than two weeks to go until the Edinburgh Festival Fringe officially kicks off, we at Edinburgh49 have put our heads together to present our pick of shows we think are well worth a watch this year, including a few that may not have been picked up by the mainstream media – yet! Our list features lots of new work, returning work, personal favourites and ones to watch out for in the future. Enjoy!

Bright Young Things

Over the years we’ve seen some wonderful performances from young companies and performers, and it’s great to see them continuing to develop and produce work. I can’t start this section without first mentioning Stiff and Kitsch’s By All Accounts Two Normal Girls, so named after a comment I made about them in my 4* review of their debut show last year. I really enjoyed that production and have an inkling their second outing will be even better. Similarly, 201 Dance company, who we championed after seeing their blistering 5* Smother two years ago, are back with new work Skin, which looks set to be another powerful piece charting one boy’s journey through gender transition.

My joint-favourite show of the Fringe in 2015 was Luke Wright’s debut verse play What I Learned From Johnny Bevan (which went on to win A LOT of awards), and this very talented young man is bringing both that and his second, Frankie Vah, to this year’s Fringe. We expect these to be very hot tickets so grab them while you can!

Back, for good!

My other joint-favourite show of 2015 was Doris, Dolly, and the Dressing Room Divas, which is also making a very welcome return to the Fringe this year after its previous sell-out success. Another 5* favourite of ours from 2015 was The BookBinder by New Zealand company Trick of the Light and it’s great to see them back again this year with their enchanting family piece The Road That Wasn’t There.

My personal favourite show from 2014 is also returning: Thrill Me is a gripping musical based on the true story of the infamous Leopold and Loeb, and has a fresh new cast for 2017’s Edinburgh run. Its previous stars have since become leading west end names, so this could be a very good chance to have a “we saw them before they were famous” moment.

Local talent

As an Edinburgh-based publication, we know the local arts scene very well, and we’re looking forward to some great home-grown work. We’ve never seen a bad show by Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group (their 5* production of Spring Awakening in 2016 was really special), and they’re back again this year with the Sondheim classic Company. Disclosure Group, headed up by Robert Lucas, have been bubbling away for a wee while and are finally about to unleash not one but three world premiere musicals this Fringe. Expect catchy tunes and challenging points of view in Porn, Suicide and X.

A special mention also to Edinburgh People’s Theatre, who are celebrating their 60th consecutive Fringe with comedy Wedding Fever, which if their recent production of The Diary of Anne Frank is anything to go by, will be produced to a very high quality.

Just good theatre

Eleanor’s Story is a fascinating staged memoir about an American girl in Hitler’s Germany, and, sticking to the WW2 theme, Chamberlain: Peace in Our Time is an exploration of the man who led us into it. The artists amongst you will no doubt appreciate The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (directed by Emma Rice), while fans of Ol’ Blue Eyes will be sure to enjoy Sinatra and Me – Again!, featuring the award-winning Richard Shelton.

There’s plenty of Shakespeare on offer (as always) though we think the highlight of these is the glorious return of the award-winning Richard III (A One-Woman Show) from the all-female pairing of director Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir and actor Emily Carding. Another all-female success story returning to the Fringe this year is Lucy Porter’s The Fair Intellectual Club, which I very much enjoyed in 2012; while Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken’s debut verbatim piece, Jane Doe, covering the subject of rape on US college campuses is also one to look out for.

For the little ones

There’s been something of an explosion in popularity in recent years of shows for families, some of which we’ve covered already. However for younger children, we think the best of the bunch include: perennial Fringe favourite The Amazing Bubble Man; a charming interpretation of David Walliams’ The First Hippo on the Moon; a magical, musical adaptation of the classic picture book The Gruffalo’s Child, and the imitable Hairy Maclary.

An international flavour

The Fringe is renowned for bringing artists from around the world to share their work here, and we’re always excited to be entertained and educated by those from far-flung places. Chill Habibi is a laid-back cabaret combining Middle Eastern and Scottish Voices, China Goes Pop! is set to be a visual feast of circus and physical theatre from (you guessed it) China, while Un Pojo Royo looks set to be a dazzling showcase of Argentinian contemporary dance. Oleg Denisov will be providing some alternative Russian comedy with a unique take on Putin’s leadership, while Otto and Astrid’s Eurosmash! looks set to encompass all our favourite things about Berlin in a rather mad hour of pop tunes.

And for something a little bit different…

We love the Fringe as there’s always something mad just around the corner, or voices you can hear that you wouldn’t normally come across. Our selection for those looking for something a little bit different this year includes: Breaking Black by Njambi McGrath, which explores mixed-race identity in post-Brexit Britain; The OS Map Fan Club (what’s not to love about a play about maps?); Guardians of Imperfection, which sees two disabled Dutch comedians discuss the need to be “perfect”; and The Gardener, which explores partner loss combined with the joys of gardening. Alternatively, how about an insight into an Absurdist Belgian Fleamarket or taking part in a 250-hour tabletop role-playing game?

There’s so much to experience at the Fringe, we hope you get to enjoy as much of it as we do!