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)

Visit the Bedlam archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

EH16: Pyre (theSpace Triplex: 3-11 Aug: 20:40: 45 mins)

“Commendable artistry.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Edinburgh-based company Nevermore Theatre has crafted a varied, conceptually rich take on three haunting stories with EH16: Pyre. The stories are brutal and unsettling examples of institutional cruelty towards women, made all the more horrifying given that they are all true. Yes, Agnes Samson was immolated in a witch trial; Jessie King was indeed involved in a tragic infanticide business and hanged for it; Violet Foster was devastatingly treated and denied assistance to the point she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. The performances are deft, the subject matter is affecting, and the show certainly lives up to Nevermore’s description of it as a “post-modern, feminist horror.”

Maegan Hearons, Gillian Bain, and Megan Travers — respectively playing Samson, King, and Foster — deliver solid turns as each haunted woman. They all utilise their physicalities intriguingly, and display some commendable artistry as they move about in carefully choreographed ways to create scenes and visuals to assist the stories being told. Haerons particularly delivers an arresting performance as the chronologically oldest subject Agnes Samson, whose only crime was performing abortions for young North Berwick girls who had no other way of carrying on. The desperation and calamity evoked in Haerons’ performance stands out in the intentionally uncomfortable approach of the production.

Bain and Travers turn in commendable performances as well — Bain’s facial expressions are certainly arresting as she describes her horrifying practice, and the fragility of Turner’s performance is heartbreaking as she embodies Foster’s tragic demise — yet overall, the production is let down by constant interruptions of its own high-quality elements. The beginning of the show is a questionable rendition of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor,’ which comes across as hokey rather than haunting, and is accompanied by an overlong dance sequence that seems misplaced for the ultimate tone of the rest of the show. In fact, though a lot of the choreography is graceful, too often the movements become tediously wiggly and over-produced, resulting in numerous dances that would benefit from some cutting down. During the third or fourth musical interlude one begins to wonder why EH16: Pyre spends so little time on the women’s actual stories, which are certainly fascinating, yet unfortunately under-discussed in this play dedicated to them.

This show is an interesting one, with a solid idea and commendable performances all around, yet unfortunately not quite enough structure to leave a deep impact. With some editing, however, Nevermore could have a deeply intriguing production on their hands, and haunt viewers deeply. The talent is there – it just needs a few more steps for the haunting to really stick.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 9 August)

 

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

Definition of Man (Greenside @ Infirmary Street: 3-25 Aug: 11:25: 60 mins)

“Powerful and emotive”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Two performers enter the space, wearing rags and looking dishevelled. It appears they have been alone in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for some time – though for how long doesn’t seem important. What follows is a journey of how two people might survive (purely from a psychological perspective) in this situation.

Definition of Man is created by performers Jason Rosario and Nikki Muller, and could crudely be described as part Waiting for Godot, part DV8 physical theatre piece. After the initial wasteland scene, the performance darts back and forth between mini lectures about chemicals within the brain, personalised accounts of growing up as the child of an immigrant or ‘other’ in the USA, and much more besides. The level of detail in each section demonstrates impressive research and creativity, though comprehension is the main sticking point.

To begin with, there’s a bizarre jarring between the words in the script and the action on stage: the upbeat voices and physicality of the performers seem at odds with the sense of desperate survival implied by the words they say. Then the whistle-stop tour through all the other elements makes it hard to decipher just what, when, and who this show is about.

Only in the second half of the piece do the threads start to come together, and the crux of the relationship between the two characters comes to the forefront – just what happens to two lovers when they are left alone in the world for an inordinate amount of time? The final moments between Muller and Rosario are a powerful and emotive interpretation of this, though it’s a shame this depth comes so late on.

The action is punctuated throughout by some genuinely impressive lifts, balances and counter-tensions, which are an effective way to highlight apparent changes in power and focus between each character, and the emotions at play. When combined with colour design and subtle sound-scaping, moments within this performance really do shine.

To me, though, it feels like there are almost too many themes and ideas crammed into this piece, diluting what could be a compelling discussion into and presentation of the relationship between two people in an extreme environment. With so many different strands, it’s really difficult to get into and connect with the performance and work out what it is and where it’s going.

Overall, Definition of Man is an interesting and intense production that certainly gets the cogs whirring, but unfortunately, for me, it’s all a bit too confused and busy to have the impact it has the potential for.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Ladykiller (Pleasance Courtyard: 3-27 Aug: 13:00: 60 mins)

“Evokes the absolute best of bloodthirsty entertainment.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Why is it the darkest thoughts so often provide the funniest gags? From legendary one-liners (“I’m having an old friend for dinner”) to literary works (calling J. Swift) to entire theatrical movements (the Grand Guignol made this their bread and butter for over 60 years), the most twisted material has consistently charmed audiences throughout centuries of culture. Writer Madeline Gould, making her Fringe debut with one-woman show Ladykiller, appears to fully understand how fruitfully funny and fascinating the macabre can be, and has created a delightful exploration of a particularly bloodthirsty protagonist, played with captivating energy by Northern Irish actress Hannah MacClean. Director Madeleine Moore provides deft, minimalist direction, which provides some splendidly gripping moments and risible humour for the most part — with a slight tightening of the meanderings of the show, Gould’s piece could be a serious golden goose in the Gripping Female Monologues canon.

Ladykiller veers from the dramatic to the iconoclastic to the squeamishly depraved with breakneck speed, which results in both well-timed tone shifts and some narrative whiplash. The piece opens with a body on the floor — as so many excellent things do — and a wide-eyed hotel maid covered in a remarkable amount of viscera and trembling with disbelief and regret. She delivers a heartfelt, hopeless, victimised plea to the darkened audience, and perhaps to a higher judgement, insisting that she would never commit such a heinous act without provocation, and proceeds to desperately lay out how exactly she wound up holding the knife and the deceased wound up deceased. This opener soon slides towards the melodramatic, which ultimately serves Gould’s approach excellently, for MacClean cathartically reels it all back in to explain why we’re really sitting through an hour of this blood-splattered protagonist. For the maid is not at all as she appears, much less a gain-based killer, (simply killing to protect herself), but rather one of the myriad more complex and captivating types of murderer. Over the course of Ladykiller, the maid not only lays out her favourite and most revered killers and killer types, but explains various methods and methodologies in great, gruesome detail. 

In truth, though Ladykiller is frequently very funny — mainly owing to MacClean’s masterful grip on comic timing and goading of the audience — though its subject matter gets possibly too worshipful of the ‘art’ of murder to leave a nice taste. This ought not to be at the front of anyone’s mind going to see a show with quite such a blood-soaked poster, but the casual references to legendary serial killers and their unthinkable deeds start to drift from explanation to hagiography, yet without enough consistency to hold together quite right. The history lesson segments of the piece are at once both too brief to leave a firm impact (unless you too have memorised the gamut of notorious murderers so well you can recall their significance instantaneously) and too long-winded to convince a newcomer to jump aboard the murderer hype train. 

Of course, to a certain extent, the intricacies of murder psychology are reliably fascinating, and Gould has done well to document them so extensively; perhaps some more character work on the maid and her preferences within murder scholarship would make the piece seem less like a TED talk at times. That being said, MacClean is an enthralling presence onstage, with a fabulously personable way of engaging with words and tone. The way the words “students,” or “intellectual masturbation,” or “femininity” slither out of her grinning teeth evokes the absolute best of bloodthirsty entertainment, and rest assured, no matter the subject matter, MacClean’s delivery keeps the audience in good hands the whole way through.

The notion of femininity and its relation to all this is a fascinating undercurrent in Ladykiller, and Gould has included some excellent meditations on how the gender of the killer (or killed) affects understandings of power, victimhood, and responsibility. There are excellent points made concerning why female killers are automatically considered less crafty or intentional than male ones, and even whether these assumptions ultimately enable female murderers more than anything. These questions are excellent fodder for further consideration, and though Ladykiller has its uneven elements, if you are looking for some violent delights delivered by a knockout leading woman, look no further. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 6 August)

Visit the Pleasance archive.

 

Sob Story (theSpace on the Mile: 5-25 Aug (odd dates only): 16:00: 65 mins)

“Pretty Knickers Productions certainly can act”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

When six old school friends from a small town reunite in the hopes of winning Yorkshire’s Got Talent as a girl group, it soon dawns on them that in order to make it they’ll need more than talent to succeed – they’ll need a sob story to get the public on their side. As a dark and witty peak into reality tv talent shows and those who crave to participate in them, Sob Story hits the spot in just how far a slightly misguided group of girls might go to meet their goal. But there’s a twist…

Without giving away spoilers, the show definitely doesn’t go the way it might appear to – credit to writers Calum Ferguson & Lewis Lauder for the unexpected change of direction and thrilling climax – though unfortunately the dénouement’s power is slightly undermined by the lack of ground work in the first half of the show to make it effective. Character backgrounds and more details about the world they inhabit outside of the here and now are largely sacrificed for an unnecessary chunk of self-indulgent singing, so when relationships and loyalties between the girls are put under strain, it becomes difficult to connect and empathise given the precious little that has been shared about them in the run-up.

Director Donna Soto-Morettini does well to keep the pace going and tease out changes in mood to reflect the action, though has her work cut out to bring together the scraps of story into a cohesive and naturally flowing production. The company of Pretty Knickers Productions certainly can act, though – Mhairi McCall in particular shines and commands the stage as ringleader Sophie, while Lana Pheutan as Aimee is consistently hilarious with her gawkish physicality during the opening scenes. The a capella singing throughout is impressive, and there’s an ease with which the company works together that indicates a lot of untapped potential.

Sob Story is a powerfully performed and interesting show, but would definitely benefit from greater script workshopping to become the gripping thriller it deserves to be. The self-marketing as a comedy seems ill-fitting somehow – the dark humour misses more times than it hits – though maybe this will pick up further into the run. One to keep an eye on.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Elizabethan (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: 3-11 Aug: 12:05: 50 mins)

“A healthy serving of bawdy silliness “

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Elizabethans aren’t particularly well-known for their musical theatre prowess, so developing a one-man (is it fair to call it a juke-box?) musical comprising songs only from the turn of the 17th century sounds like a risky move, but a compelling concept for those of us who enjoy a bit of both history and musical theatre.

The resulting Elizabethan follows the loves and losses of one Tobias Bacon, who comes of age after his father dies in 1599. Yet though it’s billed as a musical, what’s delivered is much more like a comedy cabaret – a lot of chat and period puns, with the odd musical ditty thrown in – but with very little in the way of narrative or emotive development. Disappointing if you’re expecting to be wowed by a 17th century equivalent to Tell Me on a Sunday, but packed with laughs and merriment – especially if you’re a fan of historical wordplay.

Elizabethan is created and performed by David William Hughes, who accompanies himself on the lute for each song. This stripped back musical simplicity of man and lute certainly works for the more melancholic moments, while attempts to rock out and mix up the vocal styling do go some way to adding interest and excitement to the subtle nature of the music when required. Hughes is clearly a gifted musician, but more complex arrangements and variety in style would help keep the songs more engaging while maintaining the integrity of its renaissance roots.

Hughes also shows himself as a very competent improviser in relation to audience reactions, which is where perhaps the biggest risk of this production becomes apparent. Hughes requires several audience members to participate in this production (though – thankfully! – nobody is asked to sing or play the lute), and these contributions make up a good bulk of the comedy and tension within the performance. While willing subjects make the show fresh and funny, it does rely rather too heavily on their good grace and humour for my liking.

On the whole, Elizabethan is a healthy serving of bawdy silliness with a couple of nice (though fairly samey) songs thrown in. It’s good for a giggle, though somewhat lacking in depth.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED