Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist (Assembly George Square Gardens: Aug 19 – 25 : 21:00: 1hr)

“A gem of the surreal comedy scene.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

My consumption of Tom Lenk’s work, like many, is limited to his appearances on the small screen. His time as Andrew the reformed(ish) demon-maker-turned-sidekick in Buffy the Vampire Slayer definitely earned him a place in my heart, but that sells him short. He’s made appearances on the Broadway stage, is a playwright in his own right, and now (most importantly) the Edinburgh Fringe, in a show whose brief is impossible not to take a second look at.

Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is one of the most successfully surreal Fringe shows I’ve ever seen. The title both sums it up entirely, and fails spectacularly to capture anything of its substance at all. The premise itself sounds like the setup for a joke: a struggling, suicidal young man (writer Byron Lane) gets a knock on the door, and it’s Tilda Swinton. Everything unfolds from this single origin point, and blooms out in absurd fractals from there.

Don’t be fooled, though. From the moment Lenk arrives onstage as Swinton, that absurdity has justification. As the marketing may suggest, Lenk’s performance is the main event, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Lenk’s Swinton is so unconventionally charming that it’s hard to describe. It’s almost like the cubist version of charisma. Whether blowing in like a winter storm at a bag factory or whispering sweet nothings to an espresso machine, Lenk captivates a crowd like no other. It’s true spectacle, and well worth the price of admission.

This is not, however, a one man show. Walt, Swinton’s project and the main audience touchpoint, is a fine element of grounding in a show that could easily lose its feet. He does a very good job of playing constant foil to Lenk’s fifth-dimensional grandeur, and his puppydog appeal is undeniable – though, occasionally his delivery slipped from “sad and confused” to “disinterested”. Whilst in other shows this might slide, when playing on the same stage as a mad swan-lady from the nth dimension, it shows. As a writer, Lane should be incredibly proud not only of the task he’s undertaken, but the tightness of his script. The joke density is intimidatingly thick, and some sections feel as if the laughs are built in wall-to-wall.

Mark Jude Sullivan fits in perfectly to the heightened reality at both ends of the pole, pulling double duty as self-obsessed Bobby and Walt’s whitebread father. His quiet turmoil later in the show, oddly, is one of the most compelling emotive moments simply due to its relative silence. Opposite him is Jayne Entwhistle, whose portrayal of Walt’s mother is a pitch perfect rendition of the middle-American mom. However, I must particularly praise her as Wanda the line chef, a blink-and-you-miss-it character who (surprisingly) had some of the best lines and delivery of the entire show.

As a comedy, it’s hard to want more from Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist. Though (as is usual) a few jokes drag beyond their apex of funniness, it’s a tightly written and directed piece of absurdist theatre that knows exactly how to work its material. However, there’s an emotive undercurrent beneath the laughs, and it’s there that the show stumbles. Though by the end everything ties into a fairly satisfying pathos, the emotive content of the first half feels vestigial and undercooked compared to the piece’s stronger elements. Whilst certainly not a traditionally dramatic show by any means, it nevertheless lacked the emotional foundation needed to turn what is (admittedly) a great show into an outstanding one. That is perhaps the greatest frustration of director Tom Detrini’s work, which constantly teases at perfection but never holds it hard enough to stick.

Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is a gem of the surreal comedy scene, and very much one to catch while you can. Lenk is a tour-de-force as Swinton, and worth every since flouncing, strange moment. You might not be able to explain what you’ve seen afterwards, but I can guarantee you’ll feel positively about it.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 18 August)

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It’s True It’s True It’s True (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 16-25: 13:00: 1 hr)

“A deliriously engaging hour that combines essential social commentary, historical document, and top-notch courtroom drama.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

The Edinburgh Fringe offers many delightful kinds of attractions one could find in few other places; food, drink, venues, performances, people, et cetera. Perhaps the most exciting of them all, as I was reminded while watching Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, is ideas. This production, while also filled with outstanding craft from top to bottom, breathes life into one of the most singularly creative ideas this festival has to offer.

Directed by Billy Barrett, and ‘written’ by Barrett and Ellice Stevens, this show demands to be taken as an essential piece of theatre. I say ‘written,’ because the script is translated verbatim from the real-life transcripts of a 1612 trial in Rome. The trial in question concerned whether pompous socialite Agostino Tassi had raped budding painter Artemisia Gentileschi (who went on to garner wide praise, success, and notoriety later in her life), and here lies the first inspired idea within Barrett and Stevens’ project. The transcript, translated from Latin and Italian, is an utterly fascinating document, considering what it implies about the sensibilities of the time surrounding status, sexuality, truth, lies, legacy, misogyny, and more. Of course, without needing to labor the point at all, Breach Theatre’s piece makes it quite clear that the conversations spoken back then about consent, assault, and accusations of unacceptable male behavior are hauntingly similar to ones the modern world has faced with increasing frequency over the last few years. One may find it at times difficult to believe the verbatim transcripts could include parallels so blatant as the moments where Tassi, arrogant and dismissive of the proceedings through and through, directly echoes the word of infamously accused men: “she’s not my type,” “she was asking for it,” “she’s a wh*re anyway,” and so on.

To bring these disarming moments to life, Barrett has assembled a blisteringly talented trio of actors, all of whom multi-role as various judges and testifiers, and all of whom are remarkably capable of stealing a scene. Sophie Steer, as Artemisia herself, is captivating from start to finish; her Artemisia is withdrawn at times, aggressive in others, defensive when she needs to be and just the right amount of multifaceted. Kathryn Bond, who plays numerous roles but most notably the Gentileschi house’s maid Tuzia, has an electric way of performing, so that she achieves exciting, lightning-fast delivery while also mining both pathos and hilarity in the process. But it is Harriet Webb, playing Tassi with a frighteningly familiar swagger, who edges out the top spot among the three. The smarm, threat, and cunning Webb pours into her depiction of Tassi make for an uncomfortably amusing concoction; some ought to beware, however, the searing condemnation of a certain ‘yah’ accent that gets thoroughly skewered as a sonic ‘red flag.’ Overall, though Webb’s performance captivated me the most, all three performers deserve immense credit for giving this piece an electric energy and impressive momentum.

Certain choices sporadically let this momentum down, however. The show is intermittently interrupted by musical transitions, which move the story along through the seven-month trial. The first thing one might notice is that a few of these simply take so long that the pace drops noticeably; a confounding design considering the actors are clearly in place and ready to leap back into the fray, but stay still waiting for the roaring punk interludes to wrap up. The spirit of the musical choices is very understandable — Breach clearly means to imbue the show with the snarling ferocity of the mostly female punk bands they sample. However, these songs drag the viewer out of the 1612 setting perhaps a little too far, especially considering they often come after relatively tame developments in the story. Hearing Tuzia describe Artemisia’s painting habits does not quite build up the energy to warrant a face-melting scream directly afterwards, and the effect is considerably less compelling than the many brilliant elements working so well elsewhere onstage.

The other place that could use some rethinking is the ending; after the mortifying interrogation of Artemisia is finished, the play changes tack into some surreal territory which does not quite hold together with the story that proceeds it or indeed to the disjointed gig-theatre-esque grand finale. This finale, though rousing, seems rather forced, with neither the songs sung nor the visuals introduced feeling relevant to the play’s eminently laudable initial concept. 

And to reiterate, the concept is unquestionably laudable. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is a deliriously engaging hour that combines essential social commentary, a fascinating historical document, and the nail-biting tension of a top-notch courtroom drama. I was reminded repeatedly of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1960 film La vérité, a similarly fascinating dramatization of a similar trial, albeit with a multifaceted woman (played by Brigitte Bardot) on trial instead. Both have deeply nuanced and intelligent means of uncovering bitter truths about the way women are treated both by men and by the legal system, plus some tremendous female performances. La vérité shocks one today because its depiction of society feels unsettlingly relevant considering it was made 60 years ago; the effect of It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, then, considering its dialogue was initially spoken over 400 years ago, is downright infuriating. Credit to Breach Theatre for delivering such a play, for a second round at Fringe, with all the maddening ferocity this subject provokes, and then some. 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Don’t Mess with the Dummies (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 20-25 : 11:20 : 1hr)

“Done with skill, imagination and a real understanding of what kids love.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Having started out Fringe adventures with the Splash Test Dummies we thought we’d visit the other act from the Dummies Corp ‘’Don’t Mess with the Dummies’. My daughter had been asking to see the ‘’girl dummies’’ since we had left the first show so it was time… largely to keep the last vestiges of my parental sanity intact.

The show starts out with three young explorers in a jungle. Over the course of an hour they try to read a map, pitch a tent, get into sleeping bags and eat a banana. That makes it sound routine it is anything but.

It was impossible not to warm to them. Their interplay and comic timing were spot on. The characterisations were very good and in large parts extremely funny. There was essentially no dialogue – a few words here and there – and they mostly communicated in funny noises. That is no mean feat over an hour and it all made sense.

Dummies Corp productions are an assault to the senses which bring together clowning, acrobatics, slapstick and much more besides: skipping ropes, puppetry, hula hoops, silly string, juggling and log-rolling. My eldest had one of the Dummies come up to her and throw popcorn in her mouth (don’t ask) whilst both of them were up and dancing in the aisles at various points.

It really is wonderful watching these shows with children – at one point, the Dummies perform the old gag of one person hiding behind a screen to make it look like another person has an extremely long arm. Both my kids were asking how they did it, how the lady had such a long arm. Others around us were prodding their parents and asking the same question. I think the world is probably a better place believing in that sort of stuff.

My personal highlight was the ‘Lion Sleeps tonight’ sketch with the sleeping bags. It was both inspired and hysterical. Slightly jaded and underslept 37-year-olds probably aren’t the target market for the gag but it really was very funny. I loved how they were in amongst the crowd a lot trying to involve the children. I loved the references throughout: nowhere else in the Fringe will acts perform to Mozart and to 2Unlimited.

One thing I particularly liked was that it was three women doing it. All too often these sorts of shows are all-male or majority male. It was great for everyone in the audience to see three hilarious women doing it. My eldest daughter – who adored the Splash Test Dummies – said she preferred this show because it was girls doing the funny stuff. That’s not a small thing. Indeed, all things considered, it is a pretty big one. My youngest – who is probably at the very bottom end of sitting through an hour – loved it.

It is impossible to watch Dummy Corp acts without a smile on your face. It is just good ol’ fashioned family fun but done with skill, imagination and a real understanding of what kids love. More please.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 17 August)

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The First King of England in a Dress” (theSpaceTriplex, AUG 1-17, 19-24 : 50mins)

“Stuck in traffic on the A14, I’ll never look at East Anglia the same way again.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

At a rainy BBQ in Newcastle, en route to #EdFringe, I heard one auld pal explain where they lived, “it’s up the road from A. You know, down the way from B.” Up and down don’t enter the conversation much in the part of East Anglia I’m from. Not when it comes to directions. ‘Flat’ is the word. ‘Eels’ is another. The town of Ely is named for them. Dutch navigators, the digging ditches rather than the exploring East of Suez kind, put in the channel and loads which took care of the water but they didn’t get round to putting back the hills. I say putting back the hills because there were once hills in East Anglia, something I didn’t know until seeing ‘The First King of England in a Dress’.

We enter to find a wicker eel trap, eel spear and other assorted must-have items from the time when Saxons and Vikings lived in close disharmony a thousand or so years back. We are greeted by the actors, who put Daughter 1.0 (aged 4) and the other kids instantly at their ease. We are in for an hour of smashing storytelling set in a land divided and a country ready to be born.

Ethelred misses his mum. She was stolen from him by something worse than Vikings. So when a stranger asks his dad for a bed for the night, he is naturally nervous. But when the stranger and Ethelred start sharing stories of giants, frogs and magic, it isn’t long before they discover surprising secrets about each other…

Together actors Kate Madison, Chip Colquhoun, and Izzy Dawson craftily conjure a bygone age into something both comprehensible and real. Chip is the author of three books, one of which inspired the stage play. His writing style is hugely engaging, weaving big historical themes into material that is finely tailored to his young readership. The other two tomes are already Amazon Primed and on their way to Christmas stockings. A finicky reviewer, which I am, would suggest that the foreshortening required to fit EdFringe’s shorter timeslots could have been finer, but the kids didn’t seem to notice or care.

They were too busy being engrossed in making squelchy sounds to compliment characters walking through muddy bogs, and helping the cast out with their improvised make-up, mop wigs and hidden crowns. The kids are all having a great time, although some of the adults might have prefered fewer demands for their on-stage presence.

This adult, however, is extremely grateful to ‘The First King of England in a Dress’ for opening up the world of East Anglian folktales. It’s more than a little special to exit an EdFringe show considerably wiser than when you went in. Stuck in traffic on the A14, I’ll never look at East Anglia the same way again.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 13 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Edward Aczel: Artificial Intellect (Heroes @ Boteco, Aug 10-12, 14-25, 13:20: 1hr)

“A damn good time.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

If you’ve ever played Pac-Man, you’ll know that when you reach one extreme end of the maze, you come out the opposite side. I like that fact. It’s a useful metaphor for when something goes so far in one direction, it reverts back to its opposite starting point again. Jeff Goldblum is a good example of the Pac-Man effect: an actor who started out sexy, got weirder and weirder as time went on, then became so weird that he swung all the way back to sexy again.

Deadpan “anti-comedy” is very much the same thing. There is something so unspeakably absurd about good deadpan. When it’s done well, it’s the mark of a performer who understands mirth so well, they can appear utterly mirthless; or when the structure of a good joke is grasped well enough that it can be made to look like a bad joke. In that regard, Edward Aczel demonstrates the Pac-Man effect in spades.

There are many things to love about Artificial Intellect. If the high-energy atmosphere of Fringe is proving too much, Aczel may as well be a shot of Vicodin straight to the neck. Even audience participation seemed completely without pressure, because as Aczel reminds the crowd early and often: it doesn’t matter. There’s an almost calming nihilism to the whole prospect – Aczel appears as a man who is so given over to the dull reality of things, he’s like a Greggs-themed Siddhartha.

Aczel himself is compelling as a stage personality. His persona is somewhere between drunk librarian and divorced uncle, a combination which proves not only pleasing to watch, but unexpectedly charismatic. He when not leaning joylessly against the mic stand, he lazily floats around the stage like a stay dandelion seed, completely directionless inside and out. Better still, though, are brief moments in which he breaks character to laugh at an unexpected answer, and becomes the picture of mirth. There is something very rewarding about watching a performer whose love of their profession shines through, and even moreso if they can express it mostly through shrugging and talking about Dulux.

And the jokes – the jokes! Hard to talk about, even harder to pin down. Aczel is the Winchester Mystery House of comedy performers: there’s no telling whether you’re going to get a punchline or just fall off the face of the earth, and into another joke somewhere else. Deadpan comedy is a test of delivery and timing over pure content, and Aczel has it down to a tee. no hanging punchline ends with yearning or disappointment, because hey – nothing matters.

The usual defects with this species of set also apply here, though small in number: the laid back nature of audience participation meant that in certain sequences, Aczel almost got stuck into an infinite loop with unwitting members of the public, or jokes would trail ever so slightly over the line of outstaying their welcome. Though these moments of slowdown were easily accommodated into tone of the performance, but were nevertheless noticeable.

Artificial Intellect (which, at this late stage in the review, I must point out has literally nothing to do with AI or computers) is exactly what you need in the middle of the day. There is something freeing about Aczel’s approach to comedy, and when combined with his mastery of deadpan, it makes for a damn good time. Spectacle and high stakes are wonderful things, but sometimes all you need is a man slowly talking about nothing at all.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 7 August)

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Lucille and Cecilia (Assembly Powder Room, Aug 2-24, 13:25: 1hr)

“A successful hour of charming jokes and energetic tricks.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Lucille and Cecilia is a show about two sea lions whose names have the word ‘seal’ in them. Though of course this joke might make an ounce more sense if they were actually seals, the charming simplicity of the gag is still a tickler. So, thankfully, is the rest of this thoroughly amusing and enjoyably bonkers hour of high-energy clowning by Chloe Darke and Susanna Scott of Bang Average Theatre. 

The show takes a playfully scattershot approach to exploring Lucille and Cecilia’s lives and personalities. They perform circus tricks, describe their deep love of fish, and debate what could possibly lie beyond their watery home. Director Steve Brownlie does well to keep the action tightly blocked and includes a well-measured array of props and alternate costumes for the sea lions to bat around for the audience and wield at each other, while Darke and Scott are both charming and affective leading mammals. The only element of the show that resembles a narrative revolves around the two sea lions’ interactions with ‘Trevor the trainer,’ the amusingly-depicted custodian in charge of cleaning and preening the animals. One hates his touch, the other finds it sensuous and exciting, making for some very funny extended sequences where the two show Trevor how they feel, set to a perfectly-chosen rendition of “Ave Maria.” (Both this choice and the use of Air’s “Sexy Boy” show that Bang Average have splendid taste for musical accompaniment.) This and other chapters in the show are performed with pleasant verve and creativity, and both Darke and Scott prove wholeheartedly that they are more than capable clown performers. 

The potential drawbacks to their hour come mainly during the somewhat overlong bouts of character comedy that mainly strike repetitive notes, and do not quite match the showmanship or cleverness of their physical gags. Most of these physical feats are not only very amusing but rather impressive, and leave one wishing Darke and Scott had included a few more of these sharply executed sequences and toned down the Laurel and Hardy slapstick a tad, as these performers could certainly show off their talent for choreography quite a lot more. Thankfully, however, enough of the comedy strikes the right tone to make Lucille and Cecilia a successful hour of charming jokes and energetic tricks that leans right into the refreshingly pure entertainment of watching two human beings put their all into acting like sea lions.

For a uniquely weird, pleasantly escapist escapade, take the splash and see this show. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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Ian Smith: Half-Life (Underbelly Bristo Square : Aug 4-11, 13-25 : 17:15 : 1hr)

“Punchy and delightful.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

As far as conversation starters go, Chernobyl isn’t exactly a trip down gumdrop lane. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to talk about, but generally speaking you’re not gonna squeeze a lot of laughs out of decay rates and radiation sickness. There are, of course, exceptions which prove rules like that – and Ian Smith is one of them.

As with any stand-up, we start with what the audience first sees: the persona. Smith’s stage manner is at once very familiar, yet just odd and unexpected enough to differentiate him from the droves of high-energy, earnest comedians who crowd the clubs each Fringe. There is a real genuineness to Smith’s performance -whilst completely unafraid to throw himself into whatever the set demands, there is nevertheless a vulnerability to his delivery. A subtle-but-not-unwelcome shakiness as he dismounts a punchline, as if he can’t believe he’s doing stand up. It goes a long way to closing the gap between performer and audience, though in Underbelly’s “intimate” Buttercup venue, this gap is certainly more metaphorical than physical.

The set itself? Comedy uranium. If you thought the effects of radiation were unpredictable, Smith has something coming for you: it’s functionally impossible to tell exactly what the slant of the next joke will be, or where a setup is going to lead. You can try and guess what’s coming before wit hits the lips – but prepare thoroughly for disappointment.

It’s clear from the outset that Smith thrives in the limelight, his best material comes when the pressure’s off: skated in at the end of another joke, or a quick aside away from the mic. There’s an insistent wit bubbling under the lid of Half-Life, and adds an almost mischievous edge to a set whose main quality is sheer affability. It’s a quixotic, apolitical journey through the trials and tribulations of a man who, ultimately, just wants to get through to the other end with all his limbs attached. In a post-Carlin, post-Brexit comedy landscape, that’s rarer than might be hoped.

Watching Ian Smith onstage is like watching a man being interrupted by himself, and it’s where he’s strongest. When he’s pulling suddenly off the expected course, the exits are exhilarating. However, that also plays in the other direction: when a joke outstays its welcome, the performance really feels the drag. Smith sometimes seems hesitant to take his laughs and run, and that focus on bleeding every possible laugh has a palpable effect on his flow. Though consistently high energy, Half-Life wasn’t consistently high confidence, and that’s a genuine shame: his material is punchy and delightful, and far more endearing than even Smith himself seems to believe.

Even the use of powerpoint, an oft-loathed enemy of mine, was integrated with consistent quirk and surprising seamlessness. The reality created by Half-Life – full of pigeons doing weird things and OAP scrabble tournaments – is strongly cohesive and only extended by Smith’s clever use of tech. In all, it creates the sense of a complete show: the quintessential Fringe experience of disappearing into some alternate world for an hour, and emerging Alice-esque after what seems moments. Nothing which is not purposefully highlighted becomes visible, and it’s that kind of production sleight-of-hand which marks a certain amount of care behind the scenes.

The bottom line? Ian Smith is an archetypical Fringe performer with an atypical wit, and well worth your time. It might be named after a meltdown, but Half-Life glows.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 5 August)

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