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)

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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)

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+3 Review: Pss Pss (Assembly Roxy: 4-29 Aug: 16.00: 1hr 5mins)

“Utterly charming”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There aren’t many times that I wish I could construct a review purely out of facial expressions and hand gestures, but for this piece whose only words are the occasional utter of “Pss Pss”, it seems only fitting. It’s part clown, part mime, part acrobatic display and almost completely beguiling.

The performance is quite a slow burner to start with, with a short sequence where the two performers comically fight over possession of an apple – which wouldn’t look out of place in a Punch and Judy show on Blackpool beach – but when the music starts the fun really gets going and a real treat of a show unfolds.

Pss Pss dances along that very fine line between slapstick and gymnastic artistry, with glimpses of physical prowess and control that would put most performers to shame. Throw in the fact that they are also very funny and play musical instruments and you have a very impressive show.

Yet while physically impressive (by the end of the performance I truly believed there was no end to the performers’ talents), structurally it was a little lacking, with odd teases of narrative and motif, but little to drive it along from section to section, giving quite a stilted flow. I would have liked to have seen more plot and character development from beginning to end rather than a series of seemingly unconnected skits.

For all the skill and composure on display, perhaps it’s somewhat telling that the loudest and most consistent laughs in this performance were from the five or so primary-aged children in front of me. Although not specifically billed as a children’s show (indeed, their online listing says otherwise), some of the stunts seemed slightly more tailored to the younger audience, so I would definitely recommend it as a family show. Not that it isn’t enjoyable for audiences of all ages, but those with open minds and who are at least young at heart will appreciate it the most.

If there were an award for best facial expressions, Pss Pss would certainly be my early favourite – the range and timing throughout were enough to set most of us giggling at some point. The overall style and feel of the piece is utterly charming, even if substance-wise it occasionally lacks a little depth.

Beware, there is a small amount of audience interaction…

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

LoopsEnd (Traverse, 2nd Feb ’16)

LoopsEnd

“A visual feast”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

I have seen many spectacular aerial displays over the years, from companies all over the world,  and with their latest work, LoopsEnd, Edinburgh and LA based Paper Doll Militia is definitely right up there with the best of them in terms of risk, precision and wow-factor. However, while technically the gymnastics were great, I was a bit disappointed by the overall cohesion of the work.

A performance in two parts, the first half, Ashes, was inspired by the tearing down of an industrial estate where the group used to rehearse. The main visual element of the piece was two long ropes hanging from the rigging, twisted and weighted down with bags of powder. Even watching the ropes untwist and retwist in the empty space was graceful and compelling, and when combined with George Tarbuck’s stunning lighting design and the trademark tricks and treats of a seasoned aerial company, this piece was, at times, nothing short of a visual feast.

Throughout the performance, white powder was used in various ways to represent the “ashes” – one performer literally had a pile on his shoulders in the opening sequence, while the closing image was of the two bags attached to the hanging ropes slowly emptying as the ropes swung in the space. These individual instances were very powerful visually, but it was difficult to see the link between these, and any sort of narrative or progression within the piece. Indeed, many of the “theatrical” devices seemed under-developed and incomplete: there were too many moments of clichéd wide-eyed wonder and writhing around in angst, and at one point one performer walked back and forward many times, overtly undecided about whether to touch the rope. Such basic and overused devices unfortunately offset the splendorous vision of the other sections.

In the second piece, Unhinged XY, projection was also used, which in some ways added another dimension to the visual smorgasbaord, but in others gave a seemingly unnecessary layer of complexity and confusion to the action – again, it often wasn’t clear how the costumes, music, acrobatics, projections and design all married up.

The aerial silk work in this piece, and the use of wind and fabric combined to make some stunning visuals and standout moments. When one performer walked up a hanging piece of silk, weighted at the bottom by another, while competing with gusts around her, I was awestruck by the strength and artistry on show.

It was a bit of a shame that both pieces relied quite so heavily on overpowering recorded sound and music. While at some points it was great in setting and supporting the overall tone of each section, its constant use meant the work was unable to establish a mood for itself, so I would have preferred a more selective and sensitive approach to the aural aspects of the performance.

Overall, there’s no denying the talent and visual creativity that have earned Paper Doll Militia their excellent reputation. However, LoopsEnd left me somewhat hanging in mid-air, rather than applauding with my feet flat on the ground.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 February)

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Wings in my Heart (Big Sexy Circus City : 7-30 Aug : 14.30 & 20.00 : 2hrs 30 mins)

“Visually and technically spectacular”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

On entering the Big Sexy Circus City compound one is greeted by acrobats just casually performing to the queue of punters, while a tightrope walker works his way backwards along a wire overhead, occasionally stopping to balance on one leg. You know, how a normal night starts. When you enter the big top, it only gets more impressive.

While the opening few minutes take a little adjusting to (there’s fire, there’s water and there are people parading around dressed as various fairground attractions for no particular reason), it soon turns into a circus spectacle with amazing acts, unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

We’re warmed into the spectacle with a wonderful solo tap routine, accompanied in part by a drummer. The dancer starts in a small circle of light, and makes fun of chasing the light as it moves to continue his routine. A few minutes later he’s filling the whole stage with energy and playing a very enjoyable call-and-response rhythmic game with the drummer. Straight after this, there’s a breathtaking counter-balance rope routine, with two performers supporting each other’s weight while performing daring swings and tumbles. Their artistry on the ropes was incredible, while how they supported and propelled each other seemed to defy all laws of science.

Perhaps my favourite sequence followed directly after this, which involved a lot of balls suspended from the ceiling which swung like pendulums across the stage, with an intricate contemporary dance routine performed in between swings. How the performers managed to dodge them with such apparent ease was again a cause for wonder.

Also worth noting is the performance’s closing act, which I won’t spoil but is absolutely worth holding out for. Control and patience are brought new meaning with one performer and her selection of sticks…

Throughout this show the costumes, sound and lighting are all stunning. Each adds more depth to an already very sensory performance, and go to show how much love, care and artistry have gone into developing it. I’ll admit I didn’t really understand everything that was going on (there wasn’t a clear narrative or sense of development), but with a show as visually and technically spectacular as this, you really don’t need to. You can just sit and be in awe of spectacle, scraping your jaw up off the floor at the end.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 12 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED