Valhalla (Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art: 11 – 22 Dec.’18)

“I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.”

Editorial Rating:  2 Stars

Do politicians reach Valhalla, that great hall of slain warriors? No, they don’t, and Ronan Jennings’ valiant play shows why. You need to be dead, mighty, and Norse. Jennings’ principal candidate has led a bloody revolution, for sure, but he has a French name and is stuck behind a desk. Still, Joy Division’s Candidate plays on from 1979 and provides the sombre mood music.

Twelve Twelve Theatre’s production is in the Wee Red Bar in the College of Art. It is a handy space but with no stage as such and with only a minimal set it is unfortunately not equipped to suggest the final overthrow of the Imperials by a people’s army.

Four characters find their way through unseen rubble to the seat of power, the old imperial palace that has its vodka store miraculously intact. Guillaume (resolute and deluded by Andrew Johns Cameron) may have won the war but he is plainly rubbish at making peace. ‘His’ city, Belogard, is without water and riots are around every corner. His bright idea to arm the citizenry is not working out as he hoped.

Three women would oppose this megalomaniac, each one – in my book – worthy of a place in Folkvangr, the other Valhalla, presided over by Freyja. Eloise (Hana Mackenzie) is trapped between loyalty to the Leader and a winning humanity; Ingrid (Debi Pirie) has the best lines when she rounds on Guillaume, the born-again fascist; and Zaitsev (Christina Kostopoulou), a cool emissary from a neighbouring state who is there to seize a favourable trade deal from a country in ruins. Surely an available Brexit analogy here?

Forget lofty mythology and Imperial Stormtroopers; the whole idea is too big, too self-important. It helps if you scale Valhalla down, away from chemical weapons and child soldiers, down to comic strip frames. There’s a nasty Colonel Boris in Herge’s child-satirical King Ottokar’s Sceptre and that’s where I see this piece, in 1938, where a plot to overthrow a good ruler is discovered and thwarted (by Tintin and his wee dog). Guillaume, like Hitler, has penned his own Memoirs of the Common Man.

The best is in determined acting, the brutality of a couple of confrontations, and Guillaume’s laughable ignorance of what-to-do-next. Economics is not a minefield that he’s happy in. The worst is in the reduction of history to pop pistols and bombast like ‘tackling a wolf in single combat is the way to high office’, even though Odin would applaud. Regardless, I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

Go to Education, Education, Education at Bedlam theatre

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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

 

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

EIFF: “The Most Assassinated Woman in the World” (25 June ’18)

“Captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Behind the most elaborate facades, there must lie an even more fascinating true story — or so director Franck Ribière must believe. In this case, the first-time French writer/director takes on the larger-than-life tale of the Grand Guignol, and specifically its captivating real-life star, Paula Maxa, who is estimated to have been ‘murdered’ onstage more than 10,000 times in her two-decade career. Fortunately, Ribière seems to understand the sinister yet irresistible allure of the horrific goings-on within the infamous Parisian theatre, which specialized in naturalistic body-horror pieces which shocked and revolted adoring audiences. His film is chock full of gory, tasteless grisliness worthy of the Guignol stage through and through. Unfortunately, where the onstage gore ends and the ‘real-life’ fictionalized plot of The Most Assassinated Woman in the World begins, it all just becomes a big mess. 

The film is set in 1932 Paris, at the height of the Grand Guignol’s notoriety. While protestors scream until they are blue in the face with evangelical rage at the sinful delights going on inside, the detractors are overshadowed by the almost sycophantic devotees of the theatre, particularly the men so enraptured by Paula Maxa (Anna Mouglalis) that they wait outside the theatre just to hear her scream. While the film certainly talks a big game at how many mortals long to fall at Maxa’s feet every night, there is more telling than showing in this regard, and Maxa is, more often than not, seen gliding about alone. That is, until plucky reporter Jean (Niels Schneider) decides to get involved with ‘helping’ her, initially for a story but eventually as a partner. As a real-life murderer begins savaging women across the city — all of whom look suspiciously reminiscent of Maxa’s general aesthetic — Maxa and Jean engage in varying methods of self-preservation and digging down to the truth. 

This film has a lot going for it. Underneath all the eyesore viscera, the oddly 80s-like pulsing score (which is a great score, don’t get me wrong), and the somewhat staid cinematography, there is a bona fide neo-noir begging to be let out. Mouglalis is quite good as the mysterious, capable, yet troubled Paula, and supporting cast members such as Eric Godon, Michel Fau, and Constance Dollé imbue their moments onscreen with palpable emotion, while the story itself could approach some genre classics with its haunting twists and turns. But Ribière seems to have skipped a lot of steps when plotting, and for the last hour the story is one long meander, needlessly twisty — not helped by the fact that a good number of the actors look exactly the same under all those shadows. 

Not to mention – and gosh I had not realized how much this device irritates me until I saw this film! — it can be hard at times, when watching The Most Assassinated Woman in the World, to properly deduce who is an apparition, and who is not. There are so many hallucinated people in rooms, meant to denote a haunting memory, or even a spectral suggestion, that the effect just gets maddening with its repetitiveness. Suddenly all sorts of deceased loved ones are appearing in bathtubs and behind closet doors to remind the audience that the hallucinator is ‘troubled,’ but they add nothing after the first couple of times. Overall, Ribière’s film has some captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting, yet one wishes the content was leaner, clearer, and simply more fun by the final curtain.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to The Most Assassinated Woman in the World at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Calibre” (Cineworld, 22 June ’18)

Image: British Council.

“Notable style.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Writer-director Matt Palmer’s depiction of a rural Highland town and its inhabitants is not doing the Scottish tourism board any favours. His new film, Calibre, out on Netflix in a week, walks the line between outright horror and pulse-pounding masculine drama with notable style, and gives rising star Jack Lowden some seriously grisly meat to chew on. Overall, however, this tidy, affecting morality play with an impressive cast and excellent sound work cannot escape some garishly ill-devised plotting, a tiresome amount of doom and gloom, and a seriously terrible haircut. 

The fun begins in Edinburgh, as Vaughn (Lowden), kisses his pregnant wife goodbye for a weekend hunting in the Highlands with his lifelong friend Marcus (Martin McCann). Upon their arrival in the rural town, they cross paths with aggressive locals, dangerous women, and some surprisingly friendly contacts. Palmer builds a commendably unnerving sense of dread as every craggy corner in this middle-of-nowhere locale seems to possess some unseen malice, and the director’s horror influences are well-established early on. At times one expects some glowing eyes or demonic cackle to make an appearance but Palmer’s film avoids the supernatural in favor of the more horrifying type of evil: the one within man himself.

If that last line struck you as a bit much, take it as a test. If that sort of melodramatic meditation on evil! and honor! and truth! and shame! strikes you as a fun time, maybe you’d love Calibre. If the line “This can only be paid for in blood” doesn’t strike you as laughable, by all means get on Netflix on June 29th and stream this thing. 

Otherwise, take my word for it, this film is poorly measured. Lowden turns in another commendable performance as Vaughn, who commits a horrendous act completely by accident, which is so genuinely shocking that I won’t dare ruin the surprise when it comes. McCann is impressive as the cunning and duplicitous Marcus, who is unnervingly good at covering their tracks after the act, which implicates both of them in heinous wrongdoing and will completely destroy both their lives if discovered. Also delivering the goods is Tony Curran, a reliable presence on screen, who gives great depth to local leader Logan, who keeps the most brick-headed townsfolk from tearing the city boys to shreds just for being outsiders. 

Indeed, though most of the narrative follows the young men as they try to evade discovery, Calibre also has a lot to say about the relationship between rural and urban, rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, strong and weak. Yet as the tension rises and the plot twists and yanks itself around, most of these ‘insights’ are either screamed at a frenzy worthy of Nicolas Cage’s choicest meltdowns, or growled with such Straw Dogs-esque menace, turned up to 11, that it comes off as silly rather than terrifying. This all culminates in a climactic setup so dour, so tastelessly brutal, that one cannot help but feel like they are watching Saw: Highlands Edition rather than the Hitchcockian crime thriller it packages itself as. Calibre does not ultimately earn its dourness, but rather just piles it on, in the hopes that grisliness will make up for lack of direction. (Not to mention, it is hard to have much sympathy for Vaughn when all his weeping and moaning is done while sporting such a revolting hairdo. But that might just be me.)

Palmer clearly has a nice grasp on how to build tension, and he is particularly impressive in his use of sound to set a scene. But Calibre would be vastly better if it knew how to release that tension in its final act without lazing into tasteless impulses. Skip it, I reckon.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 21 June)

Go to Edinburgh International Film Festival here

(Calibre is showing today, Saturday 23 June & on Saturday 30 June. See EIFF programme for venues.)

 

The Lover (Lyceum: 20 Jan-3 Feb ’18)

“Glimpses of brilliance”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Margerite Duras’s sensational autobiographical novel about an affair between a 15-year-old girl from a poor family and a Chinese millionaire almost twice her age is certainly potent stuff for stage adaptation, and presenting this spoken word/dance interpretation on the backdrop of #MeToo and #ItsTime is a brave choice for co-collaborators The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Stellar Quines and Scottish Dance Theatre, which will be sure to attract interest. Unfortunately, given the finished product, it probably won’t be the level of interest hoped for.

The performance is narrated throughout by The Woman (Susan Vidler), who looks back on how her affair began, developed and ended. Jemima Levick’s and Fleur Darkin’s adaptation is somewhat lazy in its construction, with too many unnecessary accounts of (mimed!) dialogue and a plodding monotony which Vidler’s voice does little to enliven, leaving the other performers often stranded in the middle. Indeed, the confluence between text and movement seems at odds throughout, feeling not unlike a playground grapple for territory.

 

Darkin’s choreography at times gives glimpses of brilliance – from the awkward intimacy between the lovers to the playful fights between Paulo and Pierre – and the production’s moments of stillness (particularly towards the end) and subtle gestures often convey far more than the tedious narration. Yet, in saying that, the choreography also too often lapses into writhing around on the floor and clumsy movement of furniture which instantly breaks any of the mysticism and poetry previously built. It’s a genuine shame not to see lengthier dance sequences to tell the story at the sacrifice of some of the narration, while simplifying and minimising some of the on-stage antics would also ease comprehension.

In The Lover’s defence, Emma Jones’s lighting design and Torben Lars Sylvest’s soundtrack do pleasingly act as mediators throughout, dragging the other disparate elements into a clear time, place and mood. Yet the overriding impression this performance leaves – much like the subject matter of the show itself – is one of misfit: an attempt to bring together two different hearts for glorious joy, yet which ends up flat and, somehow, unfinished. What could have been.

In my book, this is a production that should have worked – it has enough of the right cards (including three great collaborating companies and a fantastic base text) to play a good hand – yet it dithers and dallies its way into such a mediocre result that my only constructive criticism would be to start again from scratch. A commendable concept, poorly executed.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 23 January)

Visit the The Lyceum archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Two Sides of the Curtain (theSpace on the Mile: 14-19th Aug: 19.05: 50 mins)

“Emotive and gripping”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars:

Two Sides of the Curtain follows the struggle of Ada and Erich – lovers on either side of the “curtain”, who long to be together, but, for whatever reason, can’t. At least that’s what I think it’s about. I’ll admit I’m no expert on the history and politics surrounding the Cold War and the specific reasons why people were and weren’t permitted access to certain places, but even by the end of the performance I didn’t feel much the wiser.

Erich seems to have a job that gives him quite a lot of political and practical clout, including the freedom to travel around the country (presumably Germany) as he chooses, while much of Ada’s reluctance to run away with him seems to come from lack of will rather than fear of being caught in the process, though it’s never particularly clear why she makes the decisions she does. Indeed, it’s quite frustrating how little we get to learn about both characters throughout the piece, making it hard to empathise with them at any given moment.

Shifts in time and place are also difficult to comprehend – I spent much of the show trying to work out when and where the action was taking place, with very few clues – in either the script, direction or design – to assist. Token pieces of props or set – had there been any – may have helped to some extent, but it’s the lack of detail in the script which is the main problem. If writer Jack Kelly aims to create a thick fog of mystery surrounding the piece he certainly succeeds, but more detail up front would definitely help laymen like me wade through it with him, rather than being left languishing in an ignorant abyss.

In saying that, the play does have commendable ideas: the struggle of two lovers on either side of a dangerous line is emotive and gripping, as are the twists that develop in the closing couple of scenes – it’s a shame this all comes so late on. The performances are solid: Rachael Naylor as Ada is very natural and easy to watch, while Andrew Crouch as Erich shows great emotional range and charisma. There is potential here to make a really gripping show.

Overall this is a good effort from Sussex University Drama Society, but the flaws and holes in the script just make it too difficult to fully engage with. If you like a show where you have to do a lot of guessing and detective work to piece together what’s going on, or perhaps are a lot more clued up on what it’s like to live in Cold War Berlin than me on any given Saturday evening, this show might be for you. But I’m still trying to work out who, where and when I am.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED