My round-up of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Where to begin? The official stats say that Edinburgh’s summer festivals this year were their biggest ever, with Edinburgh International Festival selling 19% more tickets than last year, while Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows issued a whopping 2.3 million tickets between them, an increase of 5% on 2014.

At Edinburgh49, following the launch of our dedicated +3 page, we also saw a massive increase in popularity this August, with just shy of 9,000 visits (easily our best ever monthly figure), and a doubling of our followers in the same period.

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We’re really proud of that achievement, and I would personally like to thank our fantastic team: Dan Lentell, Alan Brown and Jacob Close for their contributions this festival season. Thanks also to our friends at Cult Espresso for their support, and to every one of you – the companies and punters who’ve come to us for informed reviews, and who’ve spread the word far and wide.

Several people have asked me what my favourite shows were from this year, and for me that’s always a difficult one to answer as it’s hard to compare shows across genres. What I learned from Johnny Bevan – a one-man show written and performed by Luke Wright – is definitely up there, as is Doris, Dolly and the Dressing Room Divas – a production conceived in Scotland that I sincerely hope gets the chance to be toured further afield. The Gin Chronicles, Jurassic Park and Promise and Promiscuity were all theatrical hits in my book, while La Meute (which I didn’t review) and Smother were my favourite dance/circus acts. In His Own Write and Aunty Donna certainly made me laugh the most, while Trans Scripts, To Kill A Machine and Out of The Blue’s emotional final show in their current line-up left me sobbing helplessly. Sexy, I know.

It’s certainly been a very different Festival experience for me this year, as my reviewing has taken me to many shows that I would not otherwise have considered, often with serendipitous results. And what with juggling a full-time job, working around the team’s schedules and needing to sleep once in a while, it is with a pang of regret that I must apologise to those companies who invited us to shows we were unfortunately unable to make. One of those, Guru Dudu, has extended its run until this weekend, and would very much welcome an audience – I’ve heard great things about it.

Now September’s here and Edinburgh slowly gets itself back to normal, I hand the reins back over to Alan, and I look forward to what delights will be shared in Edinburgh’s theatres for the next 49 weeks.

RENT (Paradise in St Augustine’s, 7 – 30 Aug : 18.00 : 2hrs 40 mins)

“Full of the life and passion that the ethos of this show embodies”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There’s always something really special about seeing the closing night of a particular show, as they can often trigger performers into giving everything they have left in their bodies to deliver the performance of their lives. That’s exactly what happened with Uncompromising Artistry’s Edinburgh Fringe production of RENT.

Opening chorus number Rent was bursting with energy and was a fantastic introduction to the desperation, hardship and grit of 90s New York, while being full of the life and passion that the ethos of this show embodies. The company filled the stage with their presence and the theatre with stunning vocals, and it was a truly wonderful sequence. It seems somewhat unfortunate that after setting the bar so high so early on, the remaining chorus numbers, although excellent, were not quite able to live up to that show-stopping standard.

There were however, some exhilarating solo performances. For me, Johnny Newcomb absolutely stole the show as Roger, bringing a wonderful fragility to the character, while nailing every note he sung. He was captivating to watch in every scene, and showed a huge emotional range, even in the chorus numbers when he wasn’t centre of attention.

Injoy Fountain was also incredibly engaging in each of her minor roles, bringing bags of vitality to every scene, as well as a truly knockout vocal performance, including that riff in Seasons of Love. Zia Roberts as Joanne and Janet Krupin as Maureen really came into their own during Take Me or Leave Me, which was spine-tinglingly delivered, while Jonathan Christopher’s performance as Collins in the funeral scene was emotional enough to bring everyone to tears.

What really made this show special though was engagement with the audience and the cast’s ability to really bring us into the performance. During every chorus number the performers made eye contact with various people in the audience, always in character and with purpose. Seasons of Love was deliberately performed right at the front of the stage in one line, giving a very inclusive and welcoming feel to the show.

However, while showcasing some truly phenomenal individual moments, at times some of the staging seemed a little clumsy and laboured, with a few too many moments that relied on stage crew to move various things around on stage. In addition some of the choreography, particularly the death motif, seemed a bit over the top. But in all other respects this really was a tremendous effort and a very emotionally charged performance from still such a young company. Vive la vie bohème.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 30 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

#Realiti (theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 24 – 29 Aug : 22.45 : 1 hr)

“The concept is great, and the thought behind it commendable”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

#Realiti is a new take on the television programme Big Brother, where we see five housemates get to know each other, while their every move is watched and tweeted about by the world. And of course, one by one they get voted out of the house.

What the actual “prize” is for the winner though, doesn’t become clear right until the end of the piece. On one hand this is frustrating because I spent most of this performance trying to work out what was going on, but on the other hand it was somewhat masterful, as many of the questions I had throughout were resolved in the final moments, and it does stay with you long after leaving the auditorium.

Slowly each character’s reason for being in the house is revealed, and it becomes clear that it isn’t your ordinary big brother house. While for some their backstories and motivations were very apparent, for others we didn’t learn very much at all, so it would have been good to have a structure that allowed for a more comprehensive introduction to each, and a greater sense of their relationship with each other. At no stage was it clear how long any of them had been in the house, or indeed what time period the performance itself covered, but perhaps this was unimportant if the purpose was to get the audience to focus more on the wider concept than the details. If so, unfortunately its subtleties were lost on me.

Indeed, one of the main downfalls of #Realiti is how complicated it is to grasp. A very wordy piece performed by an Italian company in Italian, naturally it is somewhat more difficult to access than it might be for a native audience. There are subtitles on the screen at the back which do help, and perhaps this would have been fine if the concept itself had not also been quite obtuse, but the two together made it quite a strain on the brain.

In saying all that, the acting isn’t bad: there’s a great range of emotion on display and in the sections where each character has a “solo” to camera at the front of the stage we do feel very drawn in to their world and are able to develop an emotional rapport with them. The tensions between some of the characters is palpable, while the final scene where the big reveal happens is also very moving.

The concept of this show is great, and the thought behind it commendable. However, the delivery of it needs much more work to make it accessible to an audience, and a clearer idea of what the audience is supposed to think or feel by the end would help navigate this piece out of obscurity.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 28 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Cleansed in Blood (Thistle King James Hotel: 20-25, 27-31Aug : 14:00 : 45mins)

“Minimalist in it’s set design but wonderfully baroque in it’s storytelling”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars  Nae Bad

In the grand scheme of generally unpleasant tales, the hierarchy usually runs thus: tales of moral downfall a-lá Citizen Kane, ones about the dangers of religious overzealousness, and stories about cancer. Put ‘em together and what have you got? Bippity-Boppity-Cleansed in Blood.

The brainchild of talented writer and actor Thom Jordan, “Cleansed in Blood” tells the story of cancer-survivor-turned-preacher Paul, and his trials and tribulations in his feverish pursuit of glory upon the sanctified stage. Pulling together Jordan’s own experience as the son of a minister and the real-life events surrounding the now infamous Michael Guglielmucci, Cleansed in Blood is a story of ambition, deception and redemption all packed into a dense 45-minute performance.

Presenting the show decked out in a nasal feed, Jordan’s stage gravitas is palpable. With minimal set and near non-existent tech, the show lived or died by his performance – and I was very glad to say it was very much kicking. There’s a very raw, unpleasant realism to Jordan’s performance which had me squirming in my seat for a large majority of the performance – a testament to his skill at inhabiting a character. As he strode around the small stage, you’d be forgiven for thinking Thom Jordan a simple pseudonym for charismatic and fervent Paul.

And that’s helped in large part by Jordan’s skill as a writer. His accolades are well-won: even without the considerable skill with which it’s executed, this is just a good story, with a twist which will leave you reeling in your chair. However, the structure of the play is less vertigo-inducing. Some plot points feel as if they come too late, and there are moments where certain story strands feel oddly wasted as Jordan rattles through to a nevertheless very satisfying ending.

Minimalist in it’s set design but wonderfully baroque in it’s storytelling, Cleansed in Blood makes for an oddly grim yet entertaining way to spend your afternoon. Forceful, provocative and thoughtful, it’s a compelling window into oddly rockstar world of high-profile preachers – and the dangers that lie with fame.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 26 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Melody (Clerk’s Bar, 8 Aug – 29 Aug : 16:45 : 50mins)

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“Foxtrot embodies the sensations of the everyday”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

One of my favourite things about poetry is the great dissonance you often get between the initial appearance of the poets, and the sheer power of their voices and minds. Watching Jemima Foxtrot perform is like watching a pistol shoot anti-tank bullets – there’s a very sincere and powerful energy to her work.

Taking the audience on an evocative journey through city streets “Melody” explores the memories they summon as Foxtrot wends her way between heartbreak to joy, with a warmth and oddly dreamy sort of lyricism that fits her imagery’s day-to-day beauty to a tee.

The biggest boon to this performance is how easily Foxtrot embodies the sensations of the everyday, and presents familiar emotions and thoughts in a way that makes them rough yet compelling. It’s not very often that a performer’s vocal skill and physicality mirror each-other so well, but as she bounces from piece to piece, she embodies each new feeling with vigour.

However, Foxtrot’s lack of pretense and startling sincerity in her work also forms a needed cover to the inevitable inertia when solo, unbacked vocal work pauses to become spoken word – but her energetic yet laid back style still suffered slightly in the sometimes jarring empty space. However, this hardly detracted, thanks in turn for the sheer power of her lyrics and honesty of her imagery.

This is definitely a free fringe find. Foxtrot’s presence onstage utterly transforms the familiar atmosphere of the Clerks Bar basement – no mean feat. As the 2015 Fringe starts to roll to a close, make sure you make your way to Jemima Foxtrot – “Melody” definitely impresses.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 25 August)

Visit the Other archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Calypso Nights: Juan, Two? (Assembly Roxy: 5 – 30 Aug : 21:30 : 1hr)

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As entertaining as he is inventive”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

It’s very hard to tell the flavours in a good condiment apart. It’s that phenomenon when two different kinds of thing come together to form something completely new, and often indescribable. Somewhat ironically to the themes of Barnie Duncan’s riotous show, “Calypso Nights: Juan, Two?” very much contributes to that phenomenon. It’s dance, music, laughter and ridiculousness all rolled up into something which resembles a surprisingly entertaining, cuba-libre flavoured fever dream.

Presented by high-powered DJ Juan Vesuvius (Duncan), Calypso Nights is a spicy blend of music, comedy and Caribbean-tinged factoids, tied together by his considerable powers as a mix DJ and seemingly never-ending cultural knowledge.

And the Caribbean couldn’t ask for a better ambassador, fictional or otherwise: with a pair of turntables and expertly used dry ice, Duncan dominated the small stage with such confidence that he managed to pull off the bizarro-world Elvis look.  And it was that very bravado that served to underscore the blurring between audience member and participant; it requires a special type of performer to turn an at first reticent audience into a flag-waving dance party – but DJ Juan Vesuvius has the knack.

The message of the benefit of mixtures was wholeheartedly present throughout the act: his DJ’ing skills had a surprising substance and quality quite unheralded by his pidgin english-spouting exterior. Mixing between seemingly dissonant bands and musical styles, Duncan creates something new and interesting nearly every time – although, his high energy weirdness threatens to send the unstable show into meltdown towards the end, where the comedy content is eaten up somewhat by a fusion cascade of sheer strangeness.

If you’re looking for a night of nigh-indescribable fun, Juan Vesuvius is your man. As entertaining as he is inventive, it’s hard to top this dose of musical chutney.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 26 August)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Charolais (Spotlites: 6 – 30 Aug.’15)

Photo: Sally Anne Kelly

Photo: Sally Anne Kelly

“Where l’amour freely transforms as l’amoooour’”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars

To invoke an admiring Scot, even though this is an all-Irish production, Charolais is ‘warm-reeking, rich!’ Approach the slurry pit with care and whatever happens do not call your good woman a ‘Silly moo’ or a ‘Daft cow’(and Burns didn’t either). She may not catch the affection in your voice, especially if she’s a pretty heifer.

Siobhan has had enough of coming second to boyfriend Jimmy’s gorgeous cow. Siobhan is heavily pregnant with their child but Jimmy seems only to have eyes for Charolais, whose bright yellow ID tags appear like ‘cheap gold rings’. Such jealousy might be at the extreme end of an hormonal rush but Siobhan is thinking murder. But how? A wild barley feed can result in alcohol poisoning or you could slice the cow in the squeeze chute. As if Charolais’s charms are not enough to contend with, there’s Jimmy’s seriously protective mother, Breda (72), who regards Siobhan as a shameless hussy. Maybe Breda could meet a power surge on the electric fencing?

So it’s a down-on-the-farm love and sex story with writer/actor Noni Stapleton as Siobhan and as Charolais. This is where l’amour freely transforms as l’amoooour’ and back again with a delightful swish of blond hair and a lolling lascivious tongue. The fact that prized Charolais cattle are creamy white and have well developed udders is to invite a cowpat but I hope not. Anyhow, performer and Bigger Picture Projects go further and provide this cow with a husky singing voice. Think Piaf in the byre rather than this reviewer in the mire, please.

It is a sweet treat of a script too, both affectionate and grounded, and steamy with activity in the cowshed and with Siobhan trying to get Jimmy away from his mother. She succeeds, dramatically – even tragically – but not in the way(s) she imagined. And for a townie there’s the added bonus of hearing of calving jacks and herd books and – from Charolais’s point of view – of the ‘indignity of the AI man with the syringe’.

Stapleton’s performance is really good. Yes, in many respects it is a humorous monologue – for woman and cow – but it is also wholesome and generous. For much of the time she’s Siobhan, seven months pregnant and in a bloody apron, but she’s proud and ardent too. I was especially taken by the way Stapleton makes her space her own and looks astonishingly ‘at home’ – in wellies –  just a few feet from her audience.

I have seen a few too many plays recently that put the urban precinct, IT, and the disembodied centre stage. ‘Charolais’ achieves the primary opposite. It’s all heart.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 28 August)

Go to Charolais and Bigger Picture Projects here.

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