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.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

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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.

 

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

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

A Very Brexit Musical (La Belle Angele: 2-26 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson impresses with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

It’s no surprise to see many Brexit-themed shows at the Fringe this year, and A Very Brexit Musical is a newly developed work from students at Robinson College, Cambridge. While for any student group it’s a tremendous achievement to start from scratch to compose, write, produce and bring to Edinburgh an hour-long musical, the end result in this case, leaves a little to be desired.

To begin with, the narrative of this show is about as convincing as the argument for Brexit itself – painfully thin. Journalist at the Maily Dail, Peter (Rory Russell), is caught between wanting to please his editor, Roland (Will Debnam), and office crush, Jen (Emily Webster), by producing pro-brexit propaganda articles, while staying true to his own values – and potentially losing his job and lover in the process. As a set-up it’s a pleasing way into the political argument, but in reality, the development of this storyline (and characters within it) is so limited and lost in amongst the other stage capers that it almost becomes worthless.

Many of the key political figures surrounding the vote are characterised and given scenes and ditties, though few of these add anything to the artistic merit of the piece, other than being somewhat amusing. Figel Narage and Joris Bohnson (no points for guessing which real-life people these characters are based on) seem to be constantly trying to meet on the down-low to sing bad-guy songs, Cavid Dameron bemoans not knowing what to do, and Mheresa Tay positions herself as the sexy bad girl perfectly placed to take over as the leader of the party. Were this production a Brexit cabaret, such interpretations and stand-alone songs would make for witty entertainment, but in the context of a narrative musical, it’s all very disjointed and seemingly thrown-together for the sake of it.

Overall the score is pretty good – there’s some nice variety from tune to tune, though lyrics could pack more punch and help drive the narrative. There are also some impressive attempts at choreography, including an unexpected tap routine, and while not everyone in the cast is a natural dancer, movement sequences are delivered with enough panache to be enjoyable.

In terms of performance it’s Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson who impresses most, with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence. Jessica Philips turns in a sassy and controlled performance as Mheresa Tay, while Will Debnam also elicits several chuckles as Maily Dail editor, Roland.

Overall, this is quite a fun show if you’re not expecting anything too deep or intelligent from it, but given its lack of convincing narrative, purpose or call to action, unfortunately, for me, it’s uninspiring.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

One-Man Pride and Prejudice (Assembly Studios: 2-12 Aug (even dates only): 15:50: 60 mins)

“Intelligent, funny… solicit this production for your next dance”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

It takes real bravery to present an hour-long version of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice – condensing the numerous scenes and chapters into a cohesive highlights reel – yet even more to do so as a one-man show. Madness, perhaps? Fortunately, in this instance it’s a stoke of genius. Perennial Fringe favourite Charles Ross (best known for his One-Man Star Wars™ Trilogy in recent years), is at the helm with this adaptation based on Andrew Davies’ 1995 television series.

The script for this venture has been developed by Ross and his wife Lisa Hebden, and while early on it feels rather too whistle-stop in how quickly the story is told, the final result feels like a fair overview, keeping all the major plot points, with a pocketful of laughs scattered along the way. One can only imagine how much editing went in to ensuring this rip-rollicking performance lasts exactly one hour, but credit to both for achieving it.

As well as being a proficient dramaturg, Ross shows himself as an adept performer in taking on almost every character in the book without ever venturing into farce, or needing props and costume. The whole piece pleasingly embodies a fitting controlled and restrained Georgian air, though a few modern quips are very well received. Odd moments of improvisation are handled with verve, and internal monologues and animalistic interpretations of some of the smaller characters bring much merriment. Overall, this production just oozes confidence in the base material and mastery in performance.

The only slight downfall is that you’ll need to be fairly familiar with either the book or televised adaptation to really appreciate the many witticisms and character interpretations on display – it won’t be particularly accessible for any ignorant plus-one you might want to drag along, even though the craftmanship of the performance itself would still be impressive to an Austen novice. With some scenes reduced to just a line or two and so many characters to follow, there’s a lot to keep up with, but for those in the know this really is a treat.

This is an intelligent, funny, and professionally delivered show that scores top marks with me. Take the opportunity while you can of soliciting this production, reader, for your next dance.

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

skirt (Royal Scots Club: 6-11 Aug: 18:30: 90 mins)

“Current and compelling”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Becs is leader of the opposition party in Scotland, and first choice of its head honchos to take over as party leader at Westminster (with a good chance of becoming Prime Minister at the next general election). But when opportunity knocks, she’s got to act quickly, and what unfolds is the story of how Becs reaches her decision to follow her dream to lead the country – or not. She must consider her mother’s degenerative disease, her children (one of which is fostered), her best friend’s family breakdown, and the fact that she’s single – wouldn’t having a partner make her so much more electable?

The themes and issues presented in skirt are very current, and it’s compelling to see how the various conflicting interests might be resolved in today’s social climate. The overt opinions of her political colleagues elicit their fair share of gasps and giggles, though her personal politics and views are barely mentioned – that’s not what’s important here. Indeed, the wider discussion of the piece is about choice and the power we (especially women) have over our own destiny.

While Becs’s is the primary storyline within the play, the main scene (which makes up the bulk of the 90 minutes running time) is a birthday party for one of her friends, attended by a host of characters who all share their personal woes. Throughout this scene it’s quite challenging to keep on top of who everybody is, how they are related, and how their story connects to the main narrative. Some interesting scenarios and tensions are shared, but as the characters leave one by one, it feels like there are many loose ends still to be tied up.

Indeed, what’s most frustrating about this performance is how many extraneous branches and avenues Claire Wood’s script attempts to sidle along simultaneously – for me there are simply too many characters and threads running through the piece detracting from the most important one, which could be expanded to give more depth and tension to the dilemma faced by the central character. There’s a lot of excess chat, meaning that important decisions and revelations come about far too quickly to be wholly believable.

From a performance perspective, it’s a tough ask for Helen Goldie as the leading lady to cut through the very busy scenes – especially early on – but in the quieter moments and political meetings she comes across as very natural and personable, carefully balancing sensitivity with authority. In addition, Leanne Bell impresses as moody teenager Bea, Gregor Haddow brings a pleasing calmness to proceedings as Toby, while Dan Sutton is wonderfully repugnant as politician TM.

Overall, it’s really encouraging to see a new piece of feminist writing on this topic being developed in Edinburgh, and while this version isn’t perfect, there is so so much potential for it to become a powerful piece worthy of large audiences. I hope this isn’t the last we see of it.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George (theSpace @ Surgeons’ Hall: 3-11 Aug: 16:35: 45 mins)

“Sings with the integrity of a story that comes from the heart”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

“Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George” – those immortal lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V – where the title character rouses his troops into the defence of what they hold dear. And what an apt title for this play – which sees a group of eight British Muslim school girls in East London attempt to mount a production of the bard’s classic saga, while defending their right to do so. Yes, this is a politically charged play.

In the opening scenes the group struggle with normal teenage girl problems of agreeing with each other and putting aside their petty quibbles to get the show performance-ready – all of which comes with the irreverent comedy young people so unashamedly excel at. The glimpses of ego and creative differences begin to tease out the individual characters in the company, though it’s a shame these aren’t developed further.

Then the bombshell drops. Letters are distributed to Muslim households in the neighbourhood, informing them all to prepare for the vicious ‘Punish a Muslim Day’. With the content of these letters taken directly from the abusive vitriol spewed during that fateful event just a few months ago, it’s a poignant and sobering moment to hear the threats read aloud and immediately responded to.

Naturally, the tension within the performance goes up several notches, as families start to keep the girls home from rehearsal, their personal safety is put at risk, and, of course, the performance date draws closer. What follows is a touching display of leadership and courage where the girls somehow find the strength to continue despite all the barriers. Not only is this production an example of a disenfranchised group of people overcoming a huge danger to stand up for who they are and their basic human right to exist, but also of young women banding together and putting aside their differences to achieve that end – so on both counts it is heartening and uplifting. It’s also performed with all the confidence and pride one would expect from the company who devised this show themselves, and it sings with the integrity of a story that comes from the heart.

Yes, the script is a little fudged and, at times, twee – the ending in particular lacks the killer punch to make it truly outstanding – and yes, subtlety and depth of acting is sometimes lacking, but considering the oldest of these girls is just 17, what they present is an impressive feat. This is a vital and urgent production that deserves to be developed further and toured widely. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of it.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED