Fag/Stag (Underbelly, Cowgate: 3-27th Aug: 16.00: 60mins)

“A triumph… top marks”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

When it comes to producing good theatre, sometimes the most simple ideas are the most effective. Fag/Stag is a case in point. It follows the lives of two best friends (Corgan and Jimmy) in the run up to a mutual friend (and former crush)’s wedding and is staged with just two actors – each playing one of the friends – and two stools, plus a couple of token props to help set specific scenes. What unravels is an absolute masterclass in story-telling, from both the written and performed perspective.

While structured as two interweaving monologues, the script contains clever overlaps allowing both characters to present their respective accounts of specific incidents: often to humorous effect, (tempering self-indulgent exaggerations) yet sometimes to fill in poignant details the other may have been too ashamed of (or drunk) to share.

And therein lies the power of this piece – the frankness of story-telling. We get to see the full picture of both characters’ insecurities and weaknesses, either from their own mouth or from the mouth of their friend, which means we get to know and empathise with them very quickly. It’s both comfortable and compelling to watch.

What’s most touching about this performance is how it beautifully and understatedly presents a relationship not often seen on stage – a straight man, Corgan (Chris Isaacs), and his gay best friend Jimmy (Jeffrey Jay Fowler). Theirs is evidently a true and caring friendship, with late night emergency calls to rescue each other from sticky situations, an ease with they can talk about really personal issues, and a bluntness in dealing with each others’ misdemeanours head on-on. Their differing perspectives on specific situations is often amusing, but what comes across most emphatically is the importance of sticking up for your buddy, whoever they are.

The plot itself sees Jimmy try and come to terms with his break-up with his long-term partner, and Corgan’s attempt to deal with the fact his former love is marrying another man. It’s fairly emotive in parts, with longer monologues drilling down into details and feelings, yet performed with the vibrancy and sensitivity required to keep it captivating throughout. There are also plenty of laughs to be had, most notably regarding a certain scent of air freshener referred to on multiple occasions

By keeping the design and direction very simple throughout this piece, The Last Great Hunt allow the story and quality of acting to really shine through. This really is a triumph in getting the basics of a show absolutely right, and many other companies can learn from this production. Top marks.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Columns (theSpace on the Mile: 14-26th Aug: 10.55: 60 mins)

“A really joyous production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

If there were an award for theatre company I most want to be friends with, The Wax House (formed by Laura Day and Alexander Hartley) would win it hands-down. Their smiles, personalities and passion for what they do is infectious, and that’s what’s most resounding about this performance of new work Columns. It feels more like you’ve popped round to a mate’s house for fun story time than a converted hotel function room on the Royal Mile, and the atmosphere of the piece really does transport you to a happy place.

The story follows two main characters: Sophie (Day), a personal trainer with an estranged mother and rather volatile relationship with her father; and Joe (Hartley), a pot-plant enthusiast whose parents upped and disappeared without a word almost two years ago. At its heart is a theme of reconciliation and helping others come to terms with loss.

The mainstay of the story is Sophie’s quest to help Joe deal with his parents’ unexplained disappearance, and the questionable moral choices (such as impersonating his mother in a voicemail message) she makes along the way in so doing. It’s a simple and effective approach to create tension and drive the piece along, as we do follow her thought process and qualms at each step, though it’s a shame how easily it all turns out in the end: some of the journey and struggle is cut short, cheating the audience of a full feeling of satisfaction.

Indeed, what is rather frustrating about Columns overall is the number of loose ends and glossings over of facts that are rather central to the story: proof of a certain phone call, and Sophie’s motivation to undertake her first piece of exploration being key examples. Yet what is there is performed with such warmth and vivre that these flaws are almost forgotten by the end.

The company make clever use of carboard boxes as their set and props throughout, each painted with different patterns and images on each side, and which are then variously arranged to create different scenes. This action adds to the playful, happy nature of the piece, as do the audio interludes accompanying each scene change, seemingly capturing unplanned snippets of Day and Hartley in discussion about the show.

The performance I saw was a relaxed one, adapted specifically to suit those who find the traditional theatre environment too formal to sit still and quiet in for an hour. Day and Hartley certainly make the space welcoming and friendly one to be in, encouraging us all to be ourselves and respond however we felt comfortable to. I’d never been to a relaxed performance before, but would absolutely recommend it for those who might face barriers to access theatre normally.

Overall this is a really joyous production, but needs more work on the script and details of the story to take it to the next level.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign (Assembly Roxy: Until 28 Aug: 11.30: 70 mins)

“Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

We enter to the strains of Arthur Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By. The mood is glamorously sombre. On stage is the top half of the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign. Onto it steps a figure in black dressed as though for a funeral. How did she get here? What (and who) have pushed her to this?

The story which writer and performer Joanne Hartstone has to tell is eerily familiar. Evelyn Margaret Edwards (or Evie Edwards, to use her stage name), is a naive young lady seeking to change her rags into riches through the magic of the Hollywood limelight. She has dreamed of becoming a star all through the Great Depression, from the stock market crash, via a Hooverville, and the unending grind of a hand-to-mouth existence. But without a fairy godmother her dreams are outshone by the stark realities of the entertainment industry.

A few days back I was interviewing the star of an American Civil Rights drama. With tongue firmly in cheek I asked if she was grateful to President Trump for helping to keep the issues she tackles relevant. “We’ll he’s great for my ticket sales!” she replied with a sad grin. We reflected on the truth that tragedy and suffering are the Fringe writer’s bread and butter – no one ever paid to see a play about contented people happily pottering through an uneventful life.

The good writer tells a tragic story in its time and place. The brilliant do that too, but they also say something universal about the human experience at all times and in all places. Hartstone has written a piece that falls squarely into the latter category. Her script is at once an insider’s tour of Hollywood’s Golden era (for ‘insider’ read, ‘black and white movie nerd’). It is also a profound reflection on the use and abuse of women – their ambitions, their independence, their bodies and souls.

The delivery is paced, but pacy – never lagging or getting ahead of itself. The story unwinds like a spool of luxury cloth under an exacting tailor’s expert eye. Though this is a one-woman show Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra while Richard Burton played at being Mark Anthony.

Hartstone is also possessed of a fine, evocative voice which conjures up the spirit of the age in sparkling speech and song. The movement is minimalist, the set perfectly scaled to allow Hartstone to ascend and descend from the ‘H’ with a minimum of fuss. You can honestly imagine that this is the staging Evie Edwards would have designed to best tell her story from.

The Girl Who Jumped off the Hollywood Sign is Fringe theatre at its best – profound without being maudlin, sassy, smart, and above all edgy. This is an iron fist of a script nestling in a velvet glove.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 24 August)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

#JeSuis (Zoo Southside: 16-26th Aug: 20.30: 45 mins)

“Hugely powerful…all this show needs is an audience”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

#JeSuis isn’t just a stunning piece of contemporary dance from Aakash Odedra Company. It’s a galling political movement in response to the global media disparity in coverage of the growing number of displaced people worldwide. And what hits hardest in this performance is the sheer determination and resilience of a group desperate to have their voice heard.

On a basic level #JeSuis presents the hopeless waiting, the loneliness, danger, shaming and stigma of being a refugee, through a series cleverly woven scenes and images that are at once beautiful and brutal. The piece starts slow, as we see the performers wait for something, anything to happen, and when a grizzly authority figure enters and the phone rings, desperation boils over and violence erupts. The use of structural and architectural lighting in this section reflects the harsh rules and boundaries displaced people often find themselves within, adding an extra layer of discomfort as dancers are enclosed within small spaces of light, thrown away from the light, or have a spotlight shone directly in their faces.

The movements are frantic and jagged – as if each limb is under remote control of a six-year-old child on speed – and the quality signifies the alarming lack of control the individuals have over their situation. The imagery created is stark: we see dancers desperately attempt to move freely, to being physically wrapped in layers of cling film while they continue to fight, to the more aggressive restraining of an individual who reaches for the ever-present microphone to one side of the stage. But perhaps most powerful in the early part of the performance is an apparent sexual assault conducted by the authority figure, leaving his victim broken while the others can only look on.

Yet it’s not all darkness and depression – a sense of comradery builds between the group to over-throw their oppressor towards the second half, with rousing unison sequences and a role-reversal as they hold back the authority figure from achieving his own goals. The token use of sung and spoken word are a perfect complement to all the other ways the dancers attempt to express themselves throughout the piece, and it’s evident that something has to give. Yet even as the next chapter emerges at the show’s climax, it’s with a distinctly bitter-sweet sentiment, as the rigid unison once again feels like overbearing control of a different kind.

This performance of #JeSuis is a work in progress, with further development scheduled for the second half of the year, though from here it’s hard to see how much better it can get. From a theatrical perspective seeing some of the individual characters and journeys developed would help build a greater empathetic connection with their stories, otherwise all this show needs is an audience. Even as a work in progress this is a hugely powerful piece of contemporary dance, perhaps made all the more poignant given the fact it is unfinished, like many of the struggles faced by those it represents.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Oskar’s Amazing Adventure (Gilded Balloon Teviot: Until 27 Aug: 11.50: 40min)

“The highest praise I can think of is to jump up and down in my seat squealing ‘Again! Again!'”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It’s the middle of a hard winter in Switzerland. The little house on the top of the mountain is snowbound. Oppressed with cabin fever, fun loving puppy Oskar runs off in search of new friends to play with.

The show is based on the picture book by celebrated children’s author Colin Granger. Colin is of course a part owner of Komedia Brighton, and (once upon a time) was the author of the Heinemann English Grammar (which is yet to be dramatised for the stage). All the original characters are present, including Oskar, his friend the Marmot, the hungry Fox, Grandma, the chickens, the other puppies. The only exception is Mrs Goat who lost her seat on the tour bus to Colin.

We enter to find an alpine backdrop hung from rustic timbers. In front is a canvas pyramid with three of the four sides painted with a particular scene from the narrative that is about to unfold. With the occasional turn of this pyramid by performer Natasha Granger, Oskar’s story is revealed. Not since the Pharaoh Khufu walked out of Dunbar and Sons onto Morningside Road, having just purchased the ultra deluxe funerary care package, has a pyramid been put to such effective use.

This production is a grace and flavour mansion giving Colin Granger’s charming narrative a home away from home. The grace is delivered by his daughter Natasha whose fluid movement melts in and out of the liquid lighting and soundscape. The flavour is unmistakably alpine – crisp, simple, elegant. The interplay of stagecraft and performance is balanced and nuanced. The puppetry (including some shadow play on one side of the pyramid) empowers rather than overpowers. The effect is hugely satisfying, whether this is your first ever show or simply your latest.

It’s a safe bet that the Children’s section of the Fringe guide is the growth area to watch and shows like Oskar’s are in the vanguard. A glance at the reviews on EdFringe.com reveals where that vanguard will encounter the sharpest slings and arrows. Audiences love this show (as they should). The “professionals” are noticeably less excited. Why would they be? It’s fairly obvious that they weren’t accompanied by a reliable preschooler.

You might have noticed that it’s really quite expensive to come to Edinburgh in August and this is true for pundits as well as for producers and punters. Bringing a kid along too (without the support of local grandparents in residence) is a big ask, but it must be better answered. As the children’s section of the Fringe guide grows, reviewers and their publishers need to be much better at reflecting the artistry and talent that shows intended for younger audiences are already delivering.

This was my own preschooler’s first ever live show and I am so massively grateful to Theatre Fideri Fidera for making it such a positive and memorable experience for us both. Oskar’s Adventure may not strike a jaded 20-something as particularly amazing, but for preschoolers first noticing the big wide world (and for those of us privileged to attend them on their journey) the perspective offered is just right. The highest praise I can think of is to jump up and down in my seat squealing “Again! Again!”

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 23 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Fragile Man (theSpace on the Mile: 10-26th Aug: 11.50: 50mins)

“The structure and story are a stroke of genius”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Suicide is a topic that’s difficult to talk about on all fronts. It is the biggest killer of men in the UK under the age of 50, and this alarming trend doesn’t appear to be fading away any time soon. It’s refreshing, then, that some shows at the Fringe this year approach the issue in a sensitive, accessible way, and Fragile Man is one of them.

Set on a remote hilltop at dusk we meet two men, one apparently on the verge of committing suicide and one who steps in just in time to save him. It seems like a fairly predictable set-up, yet what unfolds is an attempt at reconciling a frank discussion into the hard-hitting issue of male suicide with a thrilling dramatic play. The two sound like they shouldn’t work together, but they almost do. Almost.

While several elements of David Martin’s script are quite clunky and cliched, the overall structure and story Fragile Man follows are a stroke of genius, cleverly peeling away at the layers of the two characters to reveal a gripping and thought-provoking heart. Only in the last few minutes does it all “click” into place, and with some polishing in the sticky areas, the writing could be the basis of a really intelligent piece of theatre.

As an emotive and challenging two-man show, with a hefty amount of multi-roling, it’s a big ask from actors David Martin and Richard Miltiadis to sustain the tension for a whole hour. They make a commendable effort and absolutely give it their all, but at times both seem a bit out of their depth with the magnitude of the piece, often resorting to overly emotional responses and exchanges, when at times a more withdrawn and subtle approach would help create more contrast and power. Though for new company performing a debut piece, I should perhaps cut a little slack.

When it comes to Jacqs Graham’s direction, the physical nature and more stylised elements of the performance, while creative, sometimes feel disingenuous, not aided by the quite choppy scenes and dominating set the actors variously crawl in and out of during the transitions. For me, a simpler approach to both the direction and design would be more effective to maintain a consistent and honest feel throughout. In saying that, some of the cutaways from the main story – including the confession scene and direct address in the lecture – do work very well, flowing seamlessly and maintaining the integrity of the set-up, and it’s a shame the whole piece isn’t performed at this level.

This is an important and interesting play, which, if not quite worth shouting about, should, like the subject it addresses, at least be talked about far and wide.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Woke (Gilded Balloon Teviot: 4-28 Aug: 14.00: 60mins)

“Quite possibly the best presentation of the nuances of race relations from the unjustly-treated point of view one can experience today.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Given the many difficulties faced by millions of people around the world in our current climate, every civil rights-focused spotlight is worthy of attention. Apphia Campbell’s Woke, however, is not just another “worthy” civil rights-focused show decrying injustice for being injustice — it cuts deeply into the structures, limits, hypocrisies, and evils that allow racism, injustice, disorder, and oppression to continue and continue and continue. If you have ever claimed or had the urge to claim that the current racial climate is “not that bad,” please let Woke wake you up.

These issues are never simple. Many pop culture statements have garnered great praise, and some rightful ire, for presenting race relations too simply. From Zootopia/Zootropolis to Crash, mainstream outlets seem to eat up stories that are easy to swallow, that present problems as apparently easy to fix. Campbell’s play soars above simplicity by presenting the sometimes charming, sometimes harrowing stories of two black women, one speaking from 2014 onwards, the other speaking from the Black Panther Party of the seventies. She masters not only the nuances of storytelling but of stagecraft as well, as lighting, sound effects, props, and choreography are all of the highest creative quality.

The audio introduction repaints the mental pictures of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, and from there Campbell segues into an absorbing rendition of Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues.” The transition, spanning decades yet recalling the same geographical location, Missouri, offers foreshadowing for the overarching structure and central observation of the show — just how far have we come since the ‘Civil Rights Era?’ According to Campbell, certainly not far enough.

What is most striking about the plotting of Woke, is that both characters Campbell breathes life into are not only vividly characterised, with engrossing nuances (credit to director Caitlin Skinner) but also experience a noticeably, tragically similar hardening. Ambrosia, who speaks of 2014, initially believes in the righteousness of the police and questions the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement in her Washington University classes. Yet over time, she experiences so many abusive, prejudiced cruelties at the hands of police officers and the law writ large that she, and the audience, have no choice but to accept that society still fails to treat people like her as equal citizens. The pacing of these developments is gradual, yet her hellish experiences continue and worsen with a palpable, sickening sense of inevitability. Campbell’s writing does well to put the audience in the shoes of Black citizens’ everyday anxieties, from questioning one’s trust in the police to fearing for one’s safety where other citizens would never.

The other character Campbell focuses on is a well-known figure, Assata Shakur, who was convicted of the murder of a state trooper in 1973, and fled to Cuba after escaping prison. The legitimacy of this conviction is dismantled with brilliant progression, as she establishes Shakur’s positivity, righteousness, and honour, before displaying her growing terror as establishment forces seek to slander and imprison her.

The genius of Woke is in its building unease, the sure feeling that something terrible is at play. The steps of injustice are on full display, so the audience can understand it is never just one slight or careless comment that perpetuates racism, but a seemingly impenetrable societal structure. This approach encapsulates the fear at the heart of being “woke” — defined, in my opinion, as learning about, following and speaking out on the injustices faced by disenfranchised members of society. The fear is that one might uncover too much to comfortably continue as a member of society anymore; that understanding the truth of the horrors that white-dominated civilization has inflicted on non-white individuals, it will be too hard to ignore their lasting effects.

In my opinion, Campbell’s production is quite possibly the best presentation of the nuances of race relations from the unjustly-treated point of view one can experience today. Theatrically, it is worth a run of standing ovations. Thematically, it is a revelation. Societally, it is required viewing. Ultimately, Woke is a statement that deserves to be lauded in every way.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

 

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED