9 to 5 (Pleasance: 5-9 Feb.’19)

“A damn good show .. poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad 

 

l-r: Anna Sheen as Violet, Jemma Lowcock as Judy, & Alice Hoult as Doralee.
Images: Andrew Perry

Dolly, Dolly, Dolly. What is there to say about the undisputed Queen of Country that hasn’t already been said? Other than the fact it’s what I blast during weightlifting 80% of the time (so now if you see me, congrats, you know!), it’s hard to come up with praise that hasn’t been done to death. I thought I’d get lucky when I got to talk about something Parton-adjacent, but unfortunately for me and very fortunately for everyone else in the audience, the praise vocabulary has a lot of overlap.

9 to 5 tells the story of Violet (Anna Steen), Judy (Gemma Lowcock) and Doralee (Alice Hoult): three embattled women struggling to stay strong in a world designed to keep them down. That world is typified by their boss, Franklin Heart Jr, neatly summed up as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. After a chance encounter with the devil’s lettuce, the three heroines find themselves in far deeper than they intended, but with a chance to change both their lives, and the lives of their co-workers, for the better.

From the outset, I need to make it clear: this is a damn good show, with damn good performers. If the star rating wasn’t enough to tip you off, Footlights’ production of 9 to 5 is one to be proud of. The lynchpin of that success was the central trio of Hoult, Lowcock, and Steen. It’s not often that I get to see talent on the student stage that would fit seamlessly into a professional production, but then again, it’s also not often that you see not one but three vocalists who can not only sing to character, hit notes right in their centre zone and (as my opera teacher used to say) throw their voices out so hard you could hammer a nail with them. Even better is the obvious talent at play outside the soundtrack: Steen balanced great comedic sensibilities with an unexpectedly genuine reflection of the struggles faced by powerful women; Lowcock threw levels of vulnerability and hidden nerve into what could’ve easily been a cookie-cutter “beaten down protagonist in a musical” role; and Hoult could basically get a job as a Dolly Parton impersonator – sometimes it was genuinely difficult to tell the difference from sound alone.

‘Around Here’

And that’s even more satisfying when supported by a keenly talented secondary cast. Daniel Stansfield’s Franklin is a wonderfully grotesque, gurning gargoyle of a man, whose revelry in his own personal toxicity is almost a treat (almost); Mhairi Goodwin’s fawning office drone Roz was not only a brilliantly half-sympathetic secondary antagonist, but probably had my favourite performance in the entire production (you’ll know it when you see it); and special props go to Brett McCarthy Harropin a stunningly chameleonic performance as both a dancer, and the show’s sleeper comedy MVP, Josh. Honestly, most of this review could just be praise for the acting. Even if you are not mentioned here, please rest assured: I noticed you, and you were glorious.

Of course, what’s an actor without blocking? And although certain productions on the Pleasance Stage have erred towards A-Level Drama sensibilities in the past, this is certainly a welcome break. I was unable to find a fully-titled choreographer, but whoever in this production created the movement should be very proud of their work: the dancework has the precision of a watch movement. Every part of the stage had its own novel and interesting motions, fully cohesive to the overall pitch and wave of the beat. Darn good to watch, especially the opening number.

To round off the positives, many that there are: this is a musical. Not just a musical, but a Musical. If you’ve watched one or two, you’ll be very familiar with the emotional beats, levels and general plot. But parts of this show felt like I was seeing the familiar tropes for the very first time. When this production gets going and finds its stride, it’s poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress.

Doralee enjoys a Cowgirl’s Revenge

However, this gem is not without flaws. These seem most glaring behind the scenes: whoever was on sound needs to review their operations. The levels between the band and singers were usually abysmal for the first half of most songs, which makes it feel as if whoever was on script watch was distracted. In between the constant volume switching, and a feedback boom in the first half that could have blown fillings out, it ultimately came off as sloppy and far less than what a production like this should be capable of. Although fixed by due diligence, it was disappointing that such a big feature was handled so poorly.

That said, my one large criticism of what I was seeing directly onstage was that the opening number didn’t set my expectations high. I can’t tell if it’s a comparative lack of rehearsal or some mistake on the night, but the all-important 9 to 5 number sounded off key, off time and sluggish for maybe half of the time. Luckily the show recovered soon after, but I distinctly recall being viscerally afraid the rest would be much like it.

I wish I could’ve given the show an ‘Outstanding’, but these two issues  – mostly the former – marred it enough that the entire experience didn’t reach the heights I knew it could have, given the rest of its parts.

However, the above flaws should be fixable, and even if not, I would still recommend this show. The sheer spectacle of a good musical is really hard both to organise and act in, but the levels of talent at play here are exactly what Edinburgh’s come to expect from the university’s Footlights in recent years. Despite the factors holding it back, 9 to 5 is a credit to the cast and team that have brought it to Pleasance, and it deserves every seat sold. In a world that’s all takin’ and no giving, this production definitely bucks the trend.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 February)

Go to 9 to 5 at the Edinburgh University Footlights

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RENT (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 16-26th Aug: 17:15: 2 hrs)

“A production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

RENT is a searing rock musical from the 1990s that was only recently knocked out of Broadway’s top 10 longest running musicals of all time by Wicked. It follows the story of a group of friends dealing with love and loss against a gritty New York backdrop, and is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème.

Local company Captivate Theatre’s version is a slick and minimalist endeavour, editing out many of the smaller roles and songs to focus more on the main characters themselves, rather than the community of artists they move within. Yet what’s lost in pulsing power in some of the bigger moments is made up for in subtle sensitivity and slickness elsewhere, making this a clean and refreshing take on a musical that’s been doing the rounds for decades. This stripped back approach also spawns some interesting interpretations in the musical numbers, such as Today 4 U, which is almost unrecognisable as a nigh-on a capella song, though somehow works within Director Tom Mullins’ overall vision.

Yet while the minimalist ideology of this production creates many unexpected delights, the main downfall of this show is the staging and use of space, which is far too small to effectively mount a musical of RENT’s epic stature – even with the cuts and styling carried out. Unfortunately, this results in too much awkwardness on stage too often, given how important movement and isolation are to several scenes. At times Mullins makes the action work well within the constraints – in Santa Fe and La Vie Boheme in particular, the scale of the choreography matches the music, space and overall mood, but more often than not, the overwhelming feeling is one of potential – how great this show could be in a venue where it could breathe and run free.

Despite this, this is a production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage. Megan Grace in particular delivers a real powerhouse performance in every scene and song as Joanne – not to mention nailing that riff in Seasons of Love. Alex Peters as Roger and Anna Macleod as Mimi combine to create some spine-tingling harmonies in their duet moments, and it’s a shame Grace Cowley doesn’t get more time to sparkle as Maureen after her raw and gutsy Over the Moon.

RENT will always be a fantastic show, and this slick and super-streamlined version is packed with highlights and the heart needed to make it soar. But I’d love to see it return with more depth and detail in a bigger venue to really be blown away.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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

A Very Brexit Musical (La Belle Angele: 2-26 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson impresses with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

It’s no surprise to see many Brexit-themed shows at the Fringe this year, and A Very Brexit Musical is a newly developed work from students at Robinson College, Cambridge. While for any student group it’s a tremendous achievement to start from scratch to compose, write, produce and bring to Edinburgh an hour-long musical, the end result in this case, leaves a little to be desired.

To begin with, the narrative of this show is about as convincing as the argument for Brexit itself – painfully thin. Journalist at the Maily Dail, Peter (Rory Russell), is caught between wanting to please his editor, Roland (Will Debnam), and office crush, Jen (Emily Webster), by producing pro-brexit propaganda articles, while staying true to his own values – and potentially losing his job and lover in the process. As a set-up it’s a pleasing way into the political argument, but in reality, the development of this storyline (and characters within it) is so limited and lost in amongst the other stage capers that it almost becomes worthless.

Many of the key political figures surrounding the vote are characterised and given scenes and ditties, though few of these add anything to the artistic merit of the piece, other than being somewhat amusing. Figel Narage and Joris Bohnson (no points for guessing which real-life people these characters are based on) seem to be constantly trying to meet on the down-low to sing bad-guy songs, Cavid Dameron bemoans not knowing what to do, and Mheresa Tay positions herself as the sexy bad girl perfectly placed to take over as the leader of the party. Were this production a Brexit cabaret, such interpretations and stand-alone songs would make for witty entertainment, but in the context of a narrative musical, it’s all very disjointed and seemingly thrown-together for the sake of it.

Overall the score is pretty good – there’s some nice variety from tune to tune, though lyrics could pack more punch and help drive the narrative. There are also some impressive attempts at choreography, including an unexpected tap routine, and while not everyone in the cast is a natural dancer, movement sequences are delivered with enough panache to be enjoyable.

In terms of performance it’s Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson who impresses most, with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence. Jessica Philips turns in a sassy and controlled performance as Mheresa Tay, while Will Debnam also elicits several chuckles as Maily Dail editor, Roland.

Overall, this is quite a fun show if you’re not expecting anything too deep or intelligent from it, but given its lack of convincing narrative, purpose or call to action, unfortunately, for me, it’s uninspiring.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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

Hamilton (Lewis) (Assembly George Square: 1-26 Aug: 21:30: 60 mins)

“A good fun show”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

How does a bastardised musical, shown in a hall in Scotland, drop in the story of a driver and take top spot with the audiences in Edinburgh?

For me, London’s King’s Head Theatre easily take pole position with this compelling concept for a show – telling Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton’s life story in the style of hit (and very current) musical Hamilton. There are many crossovers to be made, and how figures within the driver’s life seem to fit into Hamilton’s character list is almost uncanny, making it an intelligent move with some decent thought behind it. The opening rap number introducing the main man is an impressive homage to the original, setting up a potentially thrilling and funny performance.

Yet what follows unfortunately feels quite rushed and clompy, lacking the narrative arc required to make it feel like a complete piece – the ending in particular feels like the writers just ran out of ideas and decided to quit while they were ahead.

In saying that, there are plenty of references to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit throughout, with lyrics, characters, and musical motifs (that die-hard Hamilton fans will appreciate) woven in seamlessly. The bulk of the music, however, more closely resembles run-of-the-mill musical theatre, and it’s a shame there isn’t more stylistic overlap with the original. Perhaps erring on the side of caution of not getting sued for copyright reasons comes into play here, but it’s a shame a few more risks aren’t taken to draw more parallels.

The cast are a talented bunch, and well suited to the roles they take on. They each make the most of the comedy inherent within the production and pleasingly don’t take themselves too seriously given the overall feel of the piece. It’s a big ask for four actors to bring the energy and power required to create the sense of epic storytelling Hamilton excels at, and occasionally the action falls a little flat between musical numbers, making it hard to stick with it.

What doesn’t help with the plodding nature of the piece is the very simple staging, and lack of interaction with the set and props decorating the space. The direction (like the script) feels very rushed just to get the show on, and more creativity with the space and better integration of performance and design would help give the piece a more professional feel.

This is a good fun show, but just feels unfinished.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Sorcerer, EUSOG (Pleasance: 27 – 31 March ’18)

Photos. Erica Belton

” A hoot from start to finish”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad

 

As one who grew up when the D’Oyly Carte closed shop was in full swing this writer was perhaps somewhat of a trailblazer in being one of the first to take part in an independent production in 1962 while at prep school (the copyright on Gilbert’s words having expired in 1961). I was the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance, probably the one and only time this Bass part has been sung by a Treble. It was thus with almost a sense of ownership that I went along to see the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s presentation of the relatively unknown Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Sorcerer, set  in 1969’s Summer of Love. (Well, that was ’67 if you went to San Francisco, Ed.)

There is a long history of The Savoy Opera Group introducing topical elements into the songs and dialogue. However a “modern dress” production (albeit from the 60s) is rarer, more common in Shakespeare or Grand Opera, perhaps like the new production of Cosi Fan Tutte premiering at the Met in New York this very Saturday that is set in Coney Island ten years earlier.

So. A relatively unknown work. A hippy production (I show my age).  A student company. In a word, a risk. Did it work?

The costumes paid only a passing reference to 60’s fashion: the occasional mini skirt, Aline’s dress, floral crowns for the female company and the occasional floral shirt and scarf for the men. Not a single hipster bellbottom or Zapata moustache in sight. But actually none of this really mattered and was presumably a way of keeping down wardrobe costs. After all, this was essentially pantomime. And it was a hoot from start to finish.

The Sorcerer made its debut in 1877 and was the first Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration in which the two had complete control of the production. It was highly successful for its time, which encouraged the author and composer to continue working together and expanding the possibilities of satiric operetta. The Sorcerer introduced the comic duet, the patter song, the contrapuntal double chorus, the tenor and soprano love duet and the soprano showpiece aria that became staples of all the G & S productions that followed.

The Sorcerer also introduced W. S. Gilbert’s passion for satirizing the excessive focus of the English on class differences with a plot that turns the entire social order upside down. As the operetta begins, the villagers of Ploverleigh are celebrating the betrothal of Alexis, son and heir of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre, to the only maiden of suitable rank in the neighbourhood, Aline, daughter of Lady Sangazure. Alexis and Aline sign the marriage contract, but it appears that Alexis, despite the fact that he loves Aline, does not share his father’s outmoded notions that only men and women of equivalent rank should marry, without regard to such nonsense as romantic inclination.

Alexis has, in fact, hired a sorcerer, John Wellington Wells, to test his theories. Wells casts a spell and creates a love potion that is administered to all the villagers through tea poured from a large teapot during the banquet following the betrothal. All who drink it immediately fall asleep, just as Wells has predicted. When they awaken, he promises, each will fall madly in love with the first person he or she sees (shades, obvs, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and why not of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club too?). Those who are already married are conveniently immune.

As we might anticipate, when the villagers awaken at midnight, chaos ensues. Sir Marmaduke himself, much to his son’s displeasure, falls in love with the lowly and elderly Mrs. Partlet, the pew opener. Lady Sangazure falls in love with the sorcerer himself, who spends most of the second act trying to elude her grasp. Even Alexis’ own betrothed, the lovely Aline, drinks the potion and falls out of love with Alexis and in love with the vicar of the village. Order can be restored only by the sacrifice of either Alexis or Mr. Wells …… But does it work out OK? Well, go and find out for yourself, but you can probably guess.

Did the players bring it off? Yes they did. Right from the start the opening ensemble inspired one in their confident, loud singing and homogeneity. I thought they were all miked up, such was the pleasing volume level, but, no, that was only the Principals. The chorus sang and acted enthusiastically, convincingly and were thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, particularly when the yummy potion took effect.

As for the Principals, I do question the choice of a female playing Alexis and dressed ambiguously with fitted shirt, trousers and cravat – again token costuming –  and Tilly Botsford handled the lower register singing only adequately, but acted convincingly. The finest singing came from Julia Weingartner’s Lady Sangazure with some hilariously over the top potion-induced amorous attention paid to the wickedly well played John Wellington-Wells (Angus Bhattaharya). The other Principals, Olivia Wollaston (a suitably pure Aline), Gordon Home (a well portrayed Pointdextre), Georgia Maria Rodgers (a frustrated adolescent Constance), Ewan Bruce (a suitably troubled and decent Dr Daly) and Niamh Higgins (a scream as Mrs Partlet) all drew us into the performance and had us rooting for them.

This was an evening of huge entertainment. Great singing, convincing acting, and tremendous fun. Everybody from Producer to orchestra member should take a bow.

 

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

 

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

Go to EUSOG, the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group

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