BRITTEN-SHOSTAKOVICH FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA: PIKE; LATHAM-KOENIG : USHER HALL 22 SEPT 2019

Image result for britten-shostakovich festival orchestra

Jennifer Pike

“The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:Outstanding

The Usher Hall’s excellent series of Sunday afternoon concerts from orchestras all over the world commenced its 2019/20 season with an almost unsustainably high standard.  The newly formed Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, the brainchild of Artistic Director Jan Latham Koenig (a British conductor working in Moscow) and our Ambassador over there, Sir Laurie Bristow, with a membership of Russian and British members all auditioned for their posts, and formed to sustain the legacy of the 2019 Year of Music between Britain and Russia, as well as the close relationship between the eponymous composers, kicked off the proceedings.

Whilst not overtly political or peace promoting in concept (one thinks of the highly successful Barenboim/Said Divan Orchestra made up of Israelis and Palestinians) the combination of musician from both countries is not without political relevance in these troubled times and can be only a force for good.

With an itinerary ranging from Sochi to Basingstoke, the band hit Edinburgh towards the end of their tour and were well into their stride.

As with all the Usher Hall’s Sunday afternoon concerts, the programme was immediately recognisable, accessible and undemanding, but none the worse for that.  The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra, emotions were surely touched.

The programme started with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.  I was struck by the clarity of the strings, warm brass tones and relaxed cohesion of the band as a whole.

We were then treated to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and privileged to hear Jennifer Pike handle the violin solo. This young lady has blossomed since her arguably winning BBC Young Musician of the Year too young, and this, the second time I have heard her play it, was a more rounded, secure rendition that let the glorious music speak for itself, the sign of real artistry.  As a violinist of meagre ability myself, I first heard the work played by a school colleague in the Abbey of Dorchester on Thames in the 1960s who went on to be a professor of music at the Royal Academy. I have known it and loved it all my adult life and Jennifer really delivered. Moreover, the orchestra went untroubled into accompaniment mode rather than performing mode, effectively and subtly.

Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra was a delightful raucous romp showing the composer’s lighter side and sent us chuckling into the interval.

After refreshment, something more serious, Prokofiev’s Extracts from Romeo and Juliet.  Six extracts were chosen, starting with the proud “Montagues and Capulets”, later the searing agony of Death of Tybalt, ending with the serene, if troubled, The Death of Juliet.  In all six episodes the orchestra was more than equal to the task which they played with the right balance of restraint and emotion, never brassy nor vulgar, representing their fine musical training and technique.

Our finale was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Plenty of opportunities, but none taken, for brassiness or vulgarity here, but, again, a finely judged performance, in particular with a huge tuba, big bass drum amply representing cannon fire, and the triumphant tubular bells.  All credit to the incredibly versatile and unflustered percussionist, Uliana Scherbakova, and tubaist Grady Hassan.

One wonders why this excellent orchestra was not performing at the Proms, but of course it was not formed when the programme planning took place.  To get such an accomplished band up and running so quickly is a real achievement and shows the energy and vitality that is the international music scene today.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 22 September)

Visit the Usher Hall archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Slime (Pleasance @ Central Library: Aug 21 – 25 : 11:15: 1hr)

“A real heart-warming delight.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

Over the years I’ve been to most of the Fringe venues and have watched the major players spin off into new areas. The Pleasance now covers its traditional St Leonard’s location as well as the EICC and, so it seems, Edinburgh Central Library. Who knew?

So the youngest (two and a half) and I trooped off to the wonderfully named ‘Slime’ with little real clue of what to expect. We went because it was on and we were looking for something to do. What a treat we found!

The premise is simple but elegant. The children (and grown ups!) are welcomed into the garden to sit on stones in a foam garden to get a bug’s eye view of the action. The play revolves around two creepy crawlies: a slug and a caterpillar. Over the course of forty minutes or so these tiny beasties enjoy some fairly big adventures.

It starts with a nervous slug coming on stage, pleased to see a slime trail. She stumbles upon some slug pellets which hurt her. She fixes upon a leaf that is too far for her to reach. She needs help.

Then the caterpillar appears. Where slug is nervous, he is bold – in and amongst the audiences and, at points, taking selfies on his iPad. He dislikes slime. Dislikes slugs. But does want the leaf.

There’s lots of fun but little of the outright silliness that makes up many kids shows. When the caterpillar is sad, the slug tries to cheer him up with a sweet wrapper. At another point the caterpillar is mean to the slug. There is a kind-off dance off: why wouldn’t there be?

It an old story in many ways: an odd couple have some ups and downs but in the end just about become friends. Joy, tears, arguments. It is something everyone knows from the toddler in the audience to the grandparent sitting next to them.

Slug understands a little quicker than caterpillar that working together they might get their leaf to share – one to turn into a butterfly, one for grub. Caterpillar has other ideas. Will they get there in the end? There’s heartbreak too when slug realises she can’t turn into a butterfly.

It sounds simple. But it is magically put together. The children are utterly spellbound. A wonderful score supports very little dialogue (I think a grand total of 12 words which are also signed). The actors convey a huge range of emotions through facial expressions and body language. A real, heart-warming delight. They are a talented duo. The audience was utterly charmed. If there is a 2-5 year old in your life: go with them whilst you still can. If you don’t have one, offer to take a friend’s!

This is one of the very best kids shows at Fringe – the hour felt positively scant by curtain call. We both loved it. It is reasonably priced (unlike most children’s shows…) and you get to meet the stars at the end. More than that: the children got to play with slime for the last fifteen minutes – and which child doesn’t want to do that?

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer:  Rob Marrs  (Seen 19 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

“Modern Maori Quartet: Two Worlds” (Assembly George Square Studios, until AUG 26 : 15:50 : 60mins)

“Absolutely everyone is saying you should go see it and that’s because everyone should absolutely go see it.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

There was a time when people actually read the newspapers. No, no, it’s true. Every day they took a few coins out of their pocket which were exchanged for the latest headlines, insight, and opinion. It wasn’t a perfect system, fake news and churnalism are nothing new, but it ticked along merrily enough. Then globalism happened. Then digitisation happened. And it turned out that those who own and operate newspapers have about as much collected wisdom as the Creator bestowed on a stick of celery. Hōhonu kaki, pāpaku nana.

Back in the day, the longest-running year-round show in Edinburgh was the collapse of the North British Newspaper. The coming of a new Scottish Parliament and Government, the continuing health of Scotland’s professional and service sectors, the growing significance as well as size of the capital’s festival season, meant there was more raw news than ever. The masses came online and there were even more ways to consume and digest news content than ever.

And yet, somehow, as the cricket ball of destiny gently arced towards the green, the outstretched hands of the fielding news industry were allowed to slip into pockets of mediocrity. The ball struck head-on even as the note of nonchalant condescension whistling from the Scottish media’s main mouthpiece reached its shrillest. With shoulders still shrugged, the impact stunned, concussed, and obliterated the North British Newspaper’s faculties, reducing the once proud and active player to a drooling spectator convalescing cantankerously in the pavilion.

Still, every year, all but dead, and definitely decaying, the North British Newspaper is solemnly wheeled into the commentary box to provide its two penny’s worth of insight into EdFringe. Older producers (though rarely any actual punters) convince themselves that unlike everyone else on Earth, the denizens of Edinburgh actually give a tinker’s fart what their crippled local newspaper has to say about anything. EdFringe was (and is) no less of a local or an analogue experience than reading the North British Newspaper on the train into Waverley. And yet EdFringe has not only survived but thrived in the new cultural landscape.

For an insight into why, one need look no further than ‘Modern Maori Quartet: Two Worlds’ – this season’s must-see toast of the town. Absolutely everyone is saying you should go see it and that’s because everyone should absolutely go see it. Firstly, because the show is beautifully presented. Four great looking guys in matching suits which, even at this late stage, are so sharp and well pressed you might cut your finger on them. Koro, Big Bro, Uncle, and Bub take to the stage for an hour of storytelling at its finest.

In less ambitious or dexterous hands the show’s premise might have come out a smidge goofy. But the quiet charm, relaxed confidence, and unashamed boldness of four matching, but totally different performances leave no room for doubting the effectiveness of the narrative architecture. We are given a privileged insight into the soul of a distant nation coming to terms with the passing of the old and the rise of the new. The stories are centre on unrequited love, unending grief, unsettling self-denial and, finally, most poignantly of all, the unravelling of hope. 

The music is soulful. The dance routines are measured and graceful (I’ve got my promised haka). This is the closest I may get to seeing the badinage, banter, and rehearsed spontaneity of the Rat Pack on stage in my lifetime. Culturally nourishing, intellectually stimulating, and physically elating – how tragic for all humanity that this show is not a snack food product.

What this show is, is a testament to what soul searching can do for a person and for a people. No answers have been provided when the house lights come back up, but the underlying questions of life, the universe, and everything have been defined and refined – which isn’t bad considering it’s pretty much just four blokes singing songs for an hour.

Britain right now is in the midst of a seemingly endless period of schism and interregnal discord. The toxic vapours of the public’s angry nostalgia and self-pitying hubris are left to fester by the breakdown of the traditional cultural cloud lifters such as the North British Newspaper. How fortunate it is then that the global presence of EdFringe can deliver a reaffirming shot of cultural adrenaline, sourced from far away nation tormented by the past, troubled in the present, and uncertain of the future. It’s a damn pity that, with the archbishop incapacitated and irrelevant, there is no one around to crown Modern Maori Quartet: Two Worlds kings of the Fringe ‘19 and joyfully exclaim, “Tēnā koe Kïngi o te Kīngitanga.”

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 17 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Foil, Arms and Hog – Swines (Underbelly, Bristo Square: Aug 18-25 : 21:00: 1hr)

image of event

“A tremendously talented bunch who made hard comedy look easy.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I don’t think I’d ever been to see a Fringe show solo. I usually meet up with pals or drag my children. However, on Saturday, I thought I’d see what solo flying was like and trotted along to the McEwen Hall to see Foil, Arms and Hog.

My only experience of them had been via their cult YouTube clips being beamed into my social media feed from time to time – their ‘’Englishman plays Risk’’ and ‘’Brexit: Divorce’’ being the obvious examples. Beyond that I didn’t know too much about them: there were three of them. I didn’t understand the name. They were Irish. They went to University College Dublin. That was it. My lack of knowledge says more about me than them.

I suppose the old grey matter should have started zinging when I read the words ‘McEwen Hall’. This is one of the biggest venues at the Fringe. It was sold out. There must have been the best part of 1,000 people in the audience. Clearly these guys have a serious following and serious game.

Whilst many of you will have come across them via YouTube, they are a different proposition live and – in my view – a better proposition live. Go!

The first ten minutes were gloriously anarchic as the trio romped around the audience getting people involved in various ways: looking in people’s shopping bags, trying on coats, inspecting tickets etc.

It all looked very easy. As with everything, it clearly comes from months and years of practice. You only get that rapport with each other, the quickness of mind, the badinage, the ability to change things up and riff off each other through knowing each other inside out.

In crowd work, it is cheap and easy to mock the audience. Too many comedians do that. Some turn it into their entire act (and some reviewers lap it up. It is like giving the school bully an A grade). Foil, Arms and Hog have fun with their audience but try to make them co-stars of the show rather than the butt of a joke: that involves kindness, confidence and talent. Carmen and Rory – the two audience members who became stars – had a bit of gentle leg pulling but it was all done in the best of humours.

They then break into a series of sketches and songs all of which were clever, witty and laugh out loud funny.  Whilst I’ve bemoaned elsewhere the dreary politics of most comics at the Fringe their Brexit Song ‘’It’s hard to break free from a union’’ was both extremely funny and technically accomplished. If you are going to joke about politics at least try to do something different and witty: these guys certainly did. Their ‘’Guidelines’’ sketch had me in stitches. There was innuendo there but no smut. Again, that takes cleverness and a deft hand.

Each sketch worked well and covered a range of talents – musicianship, clever lyrics, extensive mime and more besides. The sketches ranged across many spheres: a gloriously hammy actor given a secret mission; Ludwig van Beethoven entering a talent show; a recurring stag do sketch; and a brilliant, almost indescribable mime show. My personal highlight was the sheer joy the three actors had particularly when they tried to corpse each other. I enjoyed them spinning off script and teasing each other throughout.

I liked all three of them enormously and did so even more when they bumped into the crowd on the way to the bar and shook everyone’s hand thanking them for coming along. They seemed to enjoy it as much as the fans. They are a tremendously talented bunch who made hard comedy look easy. This was the sort of humour that your teenage nephew would enjoy but also your mother-in-law. That, again, is quite something.

Whenever anyone views a sketch show they naturally begin to compare to the great sketch shows of the past and that terrifying word ‘’Python’’ begins to linger in one’s mind. Many shows are called Python-esque when they are really nothing of the sort. Foil, Arms and Hog are pythonesque in their inventiveness, their cleverness, their interplay and their use of so many different comic tools. I could have watched another hour. A must see.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 17 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

“Cirque Berserk!” (Pleasance at EICC : until AUG 25 : 13:30 18:30 : 60mins)

“There’s more room to manoeuvre in Elberel’s glass bottle, before the Mongolian contortionist has begun to emerge, than there is space left in Cirque Berserk’s running order.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

A duck walks into a bar and asks the barman for a pint of lager tops and a packet of sweet chilli and lemongrass crisps. “You’re a duck!” exclaims the barman, “And you can talk. That’s amazing.” “Yeah,” the duck says looking surprised, “I’ve just started work on the building site round the corner.” “Listen, friend,” muses the barman, “one of my regulars is a circus ringmaster. You need to talk to him. He is bound to have a job for you.” “Ringmaster of a circus,” considers the duck, stroking his bill, “with clowns and acrobats and the flying trapeze all in a big top made of canvas?” “That’s right,” says the bar encouragingly. The duck looks totally lost. “What would he need a plaster for?”

I was taught that one by an auld American EdFringe pal on the day I was formally inducted into the and International Patriarchy of Assorted Punsters, a secretive confraternity of dads dedicated to absolute control of global affairs and the telling of jokes that make you groan. “The trick,” my Yankee proposer assured me, “to telling the ‘duck walks into a pub’ story is to mess with the details. It’s never getting stale if you change the type of drink and the type of crisps to suit the occasion.” From that conversation, I took away a greater appreciation of how the American stand-up and storyteller went about his craft, about how only the truly great masters of their art can work to a formula without ever becoming formulaic.

Julius Green, Cirque Berserk’s Creative Director, as well as Martin Burton, the Founder and Producer, have cooked up a formula that always sells out without ever selling out. Cirque Berserk is an international amalgamation of talent. “A non-stop smorgasbord of more than thirty different circus skills,” according to the programme, featuring performers “from as far afield as Kenya, Cuba, Mongolia, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, and even the UK!” The aim is to, “combine the centuries-old skills and traditions of the touring circus troupe with a contemporary approach to staging.”

“Was that really only an hour?” I wonder in astonishment as we shuffle towards the exit, the slowest anyone has moved in in the Lennox Theatre in what seems like a lifetime. Of all the superhuman feats achieved packing that much into the preceding 60mins has to be one of the most remarkable. There’s more room to manoeuvre in Elberel’s glass bottle, before the Mongolian contortionist has begun to emerge, than there is space left in Cirque Berserk’s running order. And all of it is as much on target as the arrows she fires with her feet.

The Timbuktu Tumblers are definitely who you would call upon to help steal the world’s largest cubic zirconia from the Springfield Museum. For me, they represent the essence and the core of the Cirque Berserk experience.  Human pyramids, jumping through hoops, limbo with fire – Acrobatics is probably an art form as ancient as painting pictures of bison and woolly mammoths on cave walls. It has been a part of the human experience since before there were streets to perform in. And yet, The Timbuktu Tumblers – who also provide much of the staging sinews as the later acts come on and off – feel as immediate and authentic as a tumbler of mature single malt as they distil the history, skill, and precision required to make a measure of great art seem artless and straightforward.

The acts that follow are a showcase of talent and skill that put all else this EdFringe into the shade. There are Argentinian Bolas, the incredibly moving Four Hands & Two Wheels, strength, beauty, human catapults, knife throwing, aerial acrobatics, the best foot juggler in the world, a giant death robot, a tower of chairs and, to crown all, the extraordinary sound and fury of the Lucius Team with their motorcycles and Globe of Death – a coup de théâtre that has never been brought to a theatre before. And yet, there is a little something there that’s missing.

The most memorable revues are underpinned by an underlying narrative. A story that weaves the disparate elements together into a unified whole. The potential for such a narrative within Cirque Berserk is hinted at by the massive stage presence of Paulo dos Santos. The Brazillian native stands 3ft 6ins in his sneakers, but he dominates proceedings with his clowning, juggling, balancing, and crazy dangerous acrobatics. Together with the very lovely ladies of the Berserk Dancers & Aerial Ballet, he tells (without speaking) an over the rainbow tale of high ambition brought low. With a little bit more tweaking that (for me) essential element of traditional circus, the Ringmaster, could have been introduced while adding the very real bonus of delivering even more of the dos Santos magic. But that really is just me.

This is not a show that should be seen by dad’s of a nervous disposition, the kind who seem to spend their days strongly suggesting to preschoolers that they need to be more careful. It’s all I can do not to charge the stage, stand at the bottom to the 20-foot tower of chairs constructed by Fidel Silot and scream at the Cuban daredevil to, “get down from there this instant. Go perform the trick of sitting at the bottom of the stairs and thinking about what you’ve done.”

Daughter 1.0 (aged 4), by contrast, has entered a state of nirvana that Kung Fu Panda’s Master Oogway could only achieve by sitting alone in a cave for thirty years asking one question. It took Picasso four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. Oh! to be able to see Cirque Berserk through eyes that have no sense that what they are watching is not what the rest of the world is like. Of all our shared EdFringe ‘19 experiences, this has been the highlight. It’s not just that the memories will linger, most likely forever, but that the most essential lesson a parent can teach a child has been demonstrated beyond dispute. “Baby girl what is impossible? I whisper as Alan Pagnota stands behind Rafael Ferrerira’s wheelchair and the crowd goes wild for the duo. “Nothing is impossible,” she rejoins without a trace of doubt in her voice.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 17 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

How to Mend the World with a Student Play (TheSpace on the Mile: Aug 16-17, 19-24 : 21:55: 45 mins)

“Delivers on every comedic promise it makes.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad 

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of my time in the arts. From HSLC Stage School (Hi Karen!) to these years at Edinburgh49, it’s been at least a few hundred hours of devotion sunk into the discipline of playing pretend. And, like a new parent, whilst this longterm commitment has given me an unquenchable affection for the stage, it has also filled me with a deep, bitter disdain. Disdain for self-righteous, zeitgeist-y directing; disdain for “visionaries” who make a lot of noise yet do nothing new; and dark, roiling acidic disdain for shows made to be edgy for the sake of fashionability.

There are many, many reasons to like How To Mend The World With a Student Play. In the service of objectivity, I will go through all of them at gleeful length. But my greatest admiration of this play is entirely personal, and entirely biased: Hyde-like, it has given voice to my worst impulses, and done so beautifully.

The premise of the play is simple: four students try and put together a new, #groundbreaking production of The Crucible in the forty five minutes they have before a funding meeting. To say any more than that would ultimately be pointless: How To Mend The World is a masterclass in comedic farce. There is no great plot twist or consolatory ending. In truth, there’s barely even a plot at all. This is a show that relies entirely on the ability of its actors and the quality of its character writing to justify its existence, and does so in spades.

The show presents itself with gleeful scathingness from the moment its actors arrive onstage: characters Jonty (Francis Nunnery) Felicity (Matilda Price) and Christian (Liam Hurley) offer deliciously satirical yet lovingly realised portrayals of the variously smug, unstable and utterly pathological millieu of the student stage scene. This entire review could be a rote praise-list for the talent of these three actors. Price somehow combines pitch-perfect character work with machine gun delivery speed, bouncing from outburst to outburst like an anxious pinball. Hurley, a man very obviously at home in physical comedy, presents the emotionally unstable Christian as equal parts likable, pitiable, and utterly infuriating. And Nunnery, saddled with the hardest character to make standable, brings a precise yet cartoonish spark to Jonti Bailey-Higgins that somehow justifies every terrible, terrible thing he does.

Special praise must also be given to Ollie Tritton-Wheeler, portraying the piece’s straight man Ben Hackett. Foils in comedy walk a constant tightrope between obvious audience mouthpiece and smug know-it-all, yet Tritton-Wheeler is content doing cartwheels on the rope instead. He is aggressively relatable and damn funny in his own right, managing to take an essential part of the comedy formula and really make it his own.

There is a raw consistency present in How to Mend the World, which runs systematically through every component of production. Though its staging is simple and its theatrical techniques basic, they’re incorporated like gears in a pendulum clock. The intent behind even the smallest FX flourish is at once immediately apparent, and completely fulfilled. Every comedic swoop and dive, whether reliant on human or technical resources, stuck the landing. Despite appearances, this production is clearly one where the idea of theatre as craftsmanship has flourished.

With craftsmanship in mind, special dues must be given to the writing. Devised pieces are mercurial creatures, entirely made or broken in the rehearsal room and unfortunately prone to acute textual bloat. Here, not so. The script for this production is undeniably tight, unavoidably witty and – perhaps most importantly – unmistakeably written from a place of first hand knowledge. I’ve met every character in How to Mend the World in jaundiced dressing rooms and smoky back exits. The genuineness of director Joshua Silverlock’s work lends it a palpable solidity, and keeps the material fresh by nature. Creating work like that is hard enough to do alone, let alone by committee. And yet, it is so.

I savoured every moment of How to Mend the World with a Student Play. It is a precious thing: a theatrical product which delivers on every comedic promise it makes, and doesn’t stop until its subjects are wrung out husks. If that alone isn’t worth the price of admission, then I don’t know what is.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 14 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

The Showstoppers’ Kids Show (Pleasance Courtyard: Aug 15-18: 12:00 : 1hr)

” A polished, properly silly, properly funny children’s show”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

There are two sorts of shows that genuinely fascinate me. Magic shows and improvisation shows. I mean, every form of show has something interesting or funny or something to love, but those are the two that really get me thinking.

I think it is because deep down we all want to know how it is done. How does the magician saw the lady in half? Where is the bunny hidden in the hat? How do they make up songs about ‘’elderly children’ in London’s sewer system before being transported to a castle by way of a kiss from a unicorn on a pipe-smoking, gin-swilling child called Platypus? How do they not burst out laughing? How do they appear to make the difficult so ridiculously smooth?

With some of these thoughts in my mind (although I only met Platypus later), I set off with my dreadful duo (aged 5 and 2) for the lunchtime Showstoppers’ Kids Show. Neither of them had come across improv before so it was a bit of a suck it and see affair. Would they get the point of it all? Would they get involved? Would they spot the ice cream shop directly next to the buggy park and ask me about it relentlessly throughout the show?

Showstoppers are well-kent faces. They routinely sell-out here in Edinburgh and their show for grown-ups in the West End has won Olivier Awards. Many performers who appear year after year in Edinburgh become jaded or dial it in knowing that they’ll sell out regardless.

For the team in colourful dungarees nothing could be further from the truth – they were anarchic and buzzing from ten minutes before the show started! I walked in and saw them performing, assuming the show had started, and that somehow we’d managed to get the timings wrong. One of the Showstoppers gleefully revealed they were just playing to get into the mood before the show started but got the busy crowd going. This was clever: it got the kids used to the idea of getting involved. If any of the Showstoppers read this, I’d be keen to know who you thought was a better Renaissance painter than Caravaggio. 

The show was entirely constructed by the children. The Showstoppers built a series of songs and dances around the themes, plot ideas and names that were called out. The children did their best to corpse the stars. At one point we were asked to come up with three wishes for a genie to grant. The first two were generic enough. The third – wonderfully –  was ‘have a barbecue’ which just for a moment just about stumped them.

Arguably the stars of the show aren’t the five bouncing about endlessly on stage but the two musicians in the corner who are having to keep up with the hilarity and as you’d expect from West End stars, there are some jokes that fly above the heads of children but make the adults titter.

I spent much of my time mesmerised by the sheer talent of all it all. The cynics will say there are audience plants but I balk at that suggestion: just about every child suggested something after all. It has to be down to months and months of hard practice. It is all seamless and there are enough moments where it nearly spins out of control for you to really understand the hard work they are putting in: this is high-quality, funny stuff in real-time. Imagine how sick you’d be if you are a comic who spent hours trying to write gags and turned up to see an audience of children roaring along to this?

My kids enjoyed it and it was clear from seeing arms shoot up or things called out that other kids loved the outright silliness of it all. I’d guess the ideal ages are 4-9.

I came away with a new found respect for improvisation shows. I’d guess improv in front of adults is easier – it is easy to nod to a political theme or to rudeness or vulgarity. Children’s imaginations are much more fertile than our own and I’d guess the spectrum of possibilities is much wider.

Apropos of anything else, I’d note how generally lovely the Showstoppers were. From their getting us involved in their warm-up through to one of them asking at the end if my littlest one was ok (she’d got a little bit upset when she went up on stage with the other kids and I had to run on and grab her). They threw out large rolls of paper for all the kids to come up and colour in at the end of the show on the stage whilst going round handing out stickers to everyone. None of these things need to happen but it shows the stars know their audience. They don’t make the fundamentals of the show any better but all were appreciated.

This is a polished, properly silly, properly funny children’s show. I want to see the grown up one now.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 14 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

“Morgan & West: Unbelievable Science” (Assembly George Square – Gordon Aikman Theatre, AUG 14-20, 22-25 : 16:30 : 60mins)

“The production values on this show are higher than Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. in a hot air balloon … The production value for money is (if anything in the material universe could be so) incalculable.”

Editorial Rating: 7 Stars: Outstanding

“How did he do that???” Daughter 1.0, aged 4 but 5 next birthday (something she would want you to know), is managing to grin from ear to ear while she is also open-mouthed in astonishment. We are in the careful cup stage. “OK, both hands. Focus on what you’re doing.” Thrills and (just occasionally) spills. How on Earth has the dandy chap on stage managed to put a glass tumbler full water into a hoop, swing it round his head, and never spill a drop?

Gravity is unfair, unkind, and unreasoning with regard to preschoolers. Gravity is to blame when one has taken a wee tumble while running on the wet cobblestones of George Square – despite a strongly-worded suggestion not to. It’s gravity’s fault that one has bumped one’s head while skylarking with one’s little sister on the sofa, despite the Patriarchy having less time for skylarking on the sofa than the Hong Kong authorities have for protests at the airport. So it’s fair to say that Daughter 1.0 likes seeing gravity defied.

Only gravity isn’t being defied by the untumbling tumbler or water, it’s being demonstrated. Mr Morgan and Mr West are VERY clear about that. This is NOT a magic act. These are not tricks. These are scientific demonstrations. Gravity is a fundamental law of nature, applicable at all times and in all places. Mr Morgan and Mr West are tending the flame of Scientific Enlightenment and they are doing so on hallowed ground.

It is to be regretted that David Hume and Ben Franklin, walking together on those same George Square cobblestones in the age of Enlightenment, couldn’t have got slightly closer to a proof (one so irrefutable that Newton, Einstein, and Lieutenant Data combined couldn’t have improved on it), that some moral laws are similarly universal no matter the context. Such a proof might have saved us from the present age of Endarkenment. Fake news from faker demagogues pushing utterly false pretexts and promises.

The production values on this show are higher than Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. in a hot air balloon – a beautiful science lab set, properties with the property of not looking improvised, fine tailoring, great grooming, and an electrostatic generator that manages to sound even scarier than it looks. The cost in fresh cardboard boxes alone must be more than most shows spend on flyering. The production value for money is (if anything in the material universe could be so) incalculable. Mr Morgan and Mr West are the very best kind of teachers in that they don’t try to be your friend, they want to get you thinking. This show does many things, but pandering isn’t one of them.

There are belly laughs aplenty. The jokes are clever, often visual, always flawlessly delivered. Gyles Brandreth once asked me on the radio, an impressive feat because he was in the studio with the actual guests and I was listening at home with my feet up, what my least favourite word is. “Whacky” I replied. It’s been done. It’s been overdone. The ‘80s are over. Timmy Mallett’s off eating bush tucker. Whacky is what Grandad was worried about. Mad scientists in a Hammer horrorshow of a science lab, being silly, talking without ever saying anything.

Grandad is an EH10 Edinbugger of the old skool. He doesn’t like the Fringe and he’s only coming along because he’s studiously avoiding Granny’s book festival event featuring an auld collaborator who Grandad feels has sold out to become a **shudders** popular scientist. Grandad is a professor, an evolutionary geneticist at KB who Richard Dawkins considers a bit hardcore on the science over dogma spectrum. But Grandad really enjoys the show. Granddad loves watching his granddaughter loving the show and wondering at the Science. It’s the parabasis that crowns all and sets this show apart.*

*You’ll have to look up the definition of parabasis. It’s not often we history and classics students get to out jargon the boffins.

For the parabasis, Mr Morgan and Mr West shift their attention to the parents and carers in the audience. Their sleeves are already rolled up from the final demonstration. They pull no punches about what Science is, why Science matters, how Science is explored, and why Science doesn’t care what you or I think about it. “The Earth IS round,” loud and excited applause, “critical climate change IS real and… VACCINATE YOUR KIDS.” The applause dies down, the yummy mummies and super cool daddies who equate their B in Higher Biology with membership in the RCGP are stunned into silence. It’s one of the bravest things that the EdFringe has seen since Rudolf Bing stepped off the train at Waverly in ‘47.

52 weeks in the year minus 3 weeks for the Fringe equals Edinburgh49. Our little site exists to promote the year-round arts scene in Scotland’s capital with informed, and informative insight. Our ratings system seeks to balance the informative, objective, and subjective. Up to five stars for technical performance, with the option for the reviewer to add a “nae bad” or “outstanding” badge. It’s worked well up till now, but Mr Morgan and Mr West have tested our instruments to their limits with a show that delivers to the George Square Theatre what Dubai levels of luxury deliver to the hotel sector.

If John Reith, the Scottish broadcasting executive who established the tradition of independent public service broadcasting, were on hand and not simply dust in the Rothiemurchus wind, I would ask him to present Mr Morgan and Mr West with Edinburgh49’s first (and possibly only) ever seven-star outstanding review.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 14 October)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

One Duck Down (Pleasance Courtyard : Aug 5-19, 21-26 : 10:30 : 1hr)

“A magical, wholesome family show.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It is a not-generally-acknowledged truth that toddlers are jolly good at wrestling. You wouldn’t think, watching them sit shoving Pom Bears into their gob that – at any moment – they can turn into a match for Hulk Hogan.

Each has their own technique. Some favour ‘’The Mummy’’ were they tense every muscle in their body and go completely rigid. Others favour the opposite, and manage somehow to loosen every joint in their body making them impossible to carry. This is the jellyfish. My youngest, whilst not averse to either of these generally favours two similar techniques: either the octopus which sees her grappling around your limbs as you try to manhandle her into a buggy or Ikea high chair; or its close cousin the ‘’cat going to vets’ where she scraps like billy-o and grabs hold of nearby objects with a death grip.

A nightmare of every parent is having to fight any of the above in public. None of us come away from public wrangling looking like parent of the year. Most of us are just desperately trying not to swear.

I was worried about all this because I took my youngest to one of her first shows this morning. She’d been to stuff in previous years but she had – happily for the Marrs wallet – been a ‘’babe in arms’’. The problem with any show is that you just don’t know how they will react to being in a very different environment for an hour. So it was with a sense of trepidation I took my seat at One Duck Down. She looked at me. I looked at her. She promised to be a good girl. I handed over a packet of gingerbread men.

Happily the cast took any lingering worries away. One Duck Down had both of my youngsters entranced from the first moment. The story is one of the oldest in town brought bang up to date: a young man from a small-town fancies a woman who is a wrong ‘un. She sets him a series of challenges to win her heart from making seagulls sing the national anthem through to counting pebbles on a beach. Eventually she sets him the challenge which is the show: find me the 7,000 rubber ducks that have escaped from a shipping container and my heart is yours. Anyone who has seen Blue Planet will know that 7,000 rubber ducks actually did plop into the ocean a number of years ago, and have helped us understand the ocean currents as we see them wash up now and again.

The hero of the piece is the highly likeable Billy, who sets off in a bathtub to track the ducks down. As he does so he meets a series of colourful creatures – some seagulls who are besotted with an albatross who only has eyes for himself; a polar bear who loves rock and roll; some smelly crabs and some pirates in L-plates. He slowly but surely accumulates all but one.

The team behind the show manage manage to make it small-p political without becoming a party political broadcast: balancing important messages (the effects of global warming; plastic pollution; and what we can all do to make things better) with a fun story that the children enjoyed.

There was real cleverness here. Double-entendres, clever word-play, catchy (well-sung!) songs throughout and fun, well-crafted characters. Not many shows will have a bearded lady, a huge blue whale made out of plastic bags (a real highlight) and a sword fight on a carousel. More probably ought to! The cast put in a real shift changing role after role after role.

I enjoyed it all and not just because there were enough jokes pitched above the eyelines of the children to keep the adults amused.

I usually bemoan children’s shows being an hour as most of them could be a little tighter. A 50 minute show would probably lead to fewer casts having to battle with a kid having a meltdown. One Duck Down managed to keep most of the children’s attention for that time – no mean feat. My two were talking about it hours later. Both were bopping away to the songs, clapping at all the right points and enjoyed rocking along to Scozzie the Polar Bear.

Songs, clowning, puppetry and a lot of fun that keeps your kids spellbound for an hour. All in all, a real winner and a magical, wholesome family show.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 5 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!

Splash Test Dummies (Underbelly Circus Hub on the Meadows : Aug 3-11, 13-18, 20-24: 13:00 : 1hr)

“You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Reams of mum-blogs (dad-blogs too, but the mums are winning in terms of overwhelming numbers) will give chapter and verse on how parenthood changes you. Parenthood has certainly changed how I approach the Fringe. In the old days, I actively looked forward to the 5am finishes in clubs. Now I mostly worry whether or not the fireworks will wake the kids.

It also changes how you consume the Fringe. Gone, largely, are the late night comics. The earnest, right-on types making other earnest, right-on types laugh are a thing of the past (no great shame). The late night smut merchants are done too. I don’t care what anyone says: if you don’t laugh at rude songs you are doing life wrong.

But whilst some of the Festival no longer is for you, a whole new side opens up. So I took my nephew (9) and my eldest daughter (5) along to the Splash Test Dummies. I will confess that we did so because my daughter liked their poster.

What a choice. I may start getting her to pick my shows purely on this basis. Splash Test Dummies was quite brilliant. It was everything a good Festival show should be. It had a bit of everything: acrobatics, unicycles, Cirque du Soleil-style gymnastics, running gags, good ol’ fashioned clowning, magic, puppetry, and slapstick galore. I laughed until I was hoarse. My nephew at numerous points said he was ”dying with laughter”. I may as well have not bothered getting my daughter a seat as she spent much of it standing in front of it clapping or laughing with glee.

The actors don’t so much breach the fourth wall but obliterate it. At one point, in a hilarious moment based around the Baywatch theme song, one of the three actors climbed through the crowd, stood on my daughter’s chair and bounced up and down. Later a man nearby had a (very sweaty) Dummy on his lap being hugged.

The ‘Rubber Duckie’ song was glorious as was the sketch with ping pong balls. A relatively simple magic trick taken to a whole new level. It may have been puerile but that’s the whole dang point. I laughed like a drain, as did my young duo.

There are water pistols, noodles, skeleton fights, skipping on unicycles and bubbles pumping out over you. The Dummies fire ping pong balls at you. It is an assault on your senses from before you even enter the tent.

All of this sounds easy but being this funny, this physical under lights for an hour is hard yakka in anyone’s money. More than that it isn’t easy. It is hard and the three Dummies clearly had bucketloads of talent and skill.

The three actors may look like they are clowning around but they do some seriously difficult stuff. Synchronised swimming on unicycles took the breath away as did some work with large metal rings. To make it all look so effortless is quite a skill. To do it and infuse it with comedy… well, it deserves the applause it got.

Apparently in reviews you should always give something critical lest readers think you are some professional fluffer or on the payroll. My one minor quibble – and this is true of almost every kid’s show – is that anything marketed for 5+ probably would be super if it were 45 minutes/50 minutes rather than an hour. I’m not sure what could be cut down or cut out but a few kids did start getting a little restless. Mine didn’t but I did notice a few around me beginning to turn. That though is universal and shouldn’t be held against the three magnificent Dummies: as I looked around at the end, the audience was grinning. The sort of grinning we don’t have enough of in life.

The Dummies have thought hard about how to entertain us and, importantly, our children. Even more than that, they delivered relentlessly. You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe. My daughter spent the rest of the day pretending to be a Splash Test Dummy. If you’ve got kids, go. If you haven’t, borrow one from a friend. If you can’t do that, go along yourself. You’ll have a ball. I did as did my youngsters.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 3 August)

ALL our +3 (festivals) coverage? Click here!