A Girl and a Gun (Summerhall: 2-27 Aug: 18.00: 60mins)

“A greatly rewarding hour of insight and grace for cinephiles, feminists, and iconoclasts everywhere.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Louise Orwin is one savvy film buff and her one-woman show, A Girl and a Gun (the title of which is derived from Jean-Luc Godard’s notorious quote “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun”) is sixty minutes of finely crafted satire/tribute/criticism/fun on that very notion. For cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike, A Girl and a Gun offers laughs, thrills, and intimate insights into some of popular culture’s most beloved genres and setups within film, while asserting a masterfully subversive message.

Orwin is an electric performer, constantly keeping the audience guessing and engaged as she flits from scenario to scenario as “Her,” representing the interchangeable, lazily written female in so many Hollywood films. She is accompanied onstage by an unspecific male counterpart, as “Him,” a random actor who had responded to the show’s online call for male performers, and who is a different person every night. “Him” reads his lines from a teleprompter, and is, charmingly, just as surprised, shocked, amused, and impressed at the show’s content as the audience is at every turn. For Orwin has created an amalgam of sorts, of every misogynistic and abusive male-female dynamic presented in male-ego-centered films, to prove how toxic and destructive masculinity in popular culture can be.

“Him” is scripted to seduce, kiss, betray, bully, abuse, physically hit, and generally mistreat “Her” in carefully structured ways, so that sometimes he has free reign to strut around and take advantage of the audience and damsel in front of him, and other times he has no real choice but to act like a heel. Her commentary is strikingly simple, as she uncovers the terrible unfairness and cruelties beneath many a male/female action hero/damsel dynamics.

What is most impressive and reassuring about the show’s approach is the level of research evident behind the faithful recreations of the films it satirises. It is presented in a format all Tarantino fans will recognise; divided into chapters with pseudo-poetic titles like “Cherry Picker” or “Why You Don’t Have to be American to have an American Dream,” which is a particularly impactful one. Taglines, catchphrases and devices from lots of Tarantino’s writing are featured, including dances reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and Death Proof, and the opening theme from Kill Bill – indeed the piece is chock-full of cinematic observations and criticisms that are spot-on if you are a fan of the retro-worshipping, Western-esque American odysseys Orwin comes after. There is a particularly impressive and hilarious sequence in which Orwin and the male actor recite all the typical names of “Him” and “Her” in these films, like Charlie, Bobby, Big Charlie, Big Bobby, Tommy, Tony, Big Tommy, Big Tony; Suzie, Jenny, Little Suzie, Little Jenny, et cetera.

Points like these are also, in a larger sense, what makes Orwin’s show so clever and incisive; there are no individual films or even individual scenes that are criticised on their own. Rather, A Girl and a Gun takes aim at the sheer repetitiveness and laziness of re-used, tired tropes, with great success. One of the most memorable sequences comes near the ‘end’ of the experience, when “Him” has forsaken “Her” and she must, as she does in so many films, die. Orwin’s “Her” dies at least ten times in a row, in various gruesome fashions, from being shot with numerous types of firearms to being tied to a train track and run over. Her point lands with a surprising amount of grace, as we recall so many female characters who have been extinguished simply to prove the male protagonist’s point, and it is the sheer quantity of such deaths that packs the greatest punch.

The attention to detail in this show is also commendable, from the use of projection and subtitling to recall a movie being written and filmed, and on-screen directions for “Him” to don various costumes, play with numerous prop firearms and “act like he is in an action movie”. This device in particular leaves a meaningful impression, presenting both “Him” and “Her” as pawns of the written scripts, and suggesting it is not necessarily inherent to a man’s composition that he acts so cruelly — he is written that way, much as many men may have learned their behaviour from movies where that very same behaviour got the girl and saved the day.

A Girl and a Gun presents an ingenious deconstruction of male ego, cinematic influence, and the truth beneath the beauty of so many of society’s favourite films. It is a greatly rewarding hour of insight and grace, plus a goldmine for cinephiles, feminists, and iconoclasts everywhere.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

 

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Two Sides of the Curtain (theSpace on the Mile: 14-19th Aug: 19.05: 50 mins)

“Emotive and gripping”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars:

Two Sides of the Curtain follows the struggle of Ada and Erich – lovers on either side of the “curtain”, who long to be together, but, for whatever reason, can’t. At least that’s what I think it’s about. I’ll admit I’m no expert on the history and politics surrounding the Cold War and the specific reasons why people were and weren’t permitted access to certain places, but even by the end of the performance I didn’t feel much the wiser.

Erich seems to have a job that gives him quite a lot of political and practical clout, including the freedom to travel around the country (presumably Germany) as he chooses, while much of Ada’s reluctance to run away with him seems to come from lack of will rather than fear of being caught in the process, though it’s never particularly clear why she makes the decisions she does. Indeed, it’s quite frustrating how little we get to learn about both characters throughout the piece, making it hard to empathise with them at any given moment.

Shifts in time and place are also difficult to comprehend – I spent much of the show trying to work out when and where the action was taking place, with very few clues – in either the script, direction or design – to assist. Token pieces of props or set – had there been any – may have helped to some extent, but it’s the lack of detail in the script which is the main problem. If writer Jack Kelly aims to create a thick fog of mystery surrounding the piece he certainly succeeds, but more detail up front would definitely help laymen like me wade through it with him, rather than being left languishing in an ignorant abyss.

In saying that, the play does have commendable ideas: the struggle of two lovers on either side of a dangerous line is emotive and gripping, as are the twists that develop in the closing couple of scenes – it’s a shame this all comes so late on. The performances are solid: Rachael Naylor as Ada is very natural and easy to watch, while Andrew Crouch as Erich shows great emotional range and charisma. There is potential here to make a really gripping show.

Overall this is a good effort from Sussex University Drama Society, but the flaws and holes in the script just make it too difficult to fully engage with. If you like a show where you have to do a lot of guessing and detective work to piece together what’s going on, or perhaps are a lot more clued up on what it’s like to live in Cold War Berlin than me on any given Saturday evening, this show might be for you. But I’m still trying to work out who, where and when I am.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Stiff & Kitsch: By All Accounts Two Normal Girls (C Royale: 14-28th Aug: 16.40: 60mins)

“Two extremely talented comedians who deserve to be playing to full houses”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

There’s something to be said for taking a label someone gives you and owning it, turning it into a badge of honour. It takes guts and good humour. And that’s exactly what Rhiannon Neads and Sally O’Leary display by the bucketload in their latest outing as Stiff & Kitsch in By All Accounts Two Normal Girls – a show so named after a quote from my review of them last year.

The premise of the show is a discussion and self-help guide on how to achieve the level of “normality” the two girls have (according to, erm, me) by taking a comedic look at different aspects of their lives from jobs, to health, wealth and everything in between. Opening quip “things are about to get normal” sets the tone for a witty, honest and accessible hour of fun.

Each section is punctuated with a trademark musical number, which work really well to summarise and highlight their main comments, with choruses including repeated lines as blunt as “Keep your bullshit to yourself” (in reference to seemingly narcissistic social media use by their peers), and “I haven’t a fucking clue”, which we’ve all felt about one thing or another. What pleases most about this duo is their slick back and forth – in both the songs and general banter – the whole performance maintains a beautifully unrehearsed aura, like they’ve put it together especially for you in that moment.

The professionalism and confidence from Stiff and Kitsch have pleasingly stepped up a notch from last year – there is a bit more a swagger and presence within their performance, not un-aided by the life-size cardboard cut-outs of themselves that adorn the back of the stage. Yet with this growth as performers what they haven’t lost is their likeability: the sense that they are still one (or two) of us with the same flaws and insecurities as everyone else. What they do really well is to make each one into something to laugh about, and there are certainly plenty of laughs to be had in this show.

While my main criticism of their show last year is still largely accurate – the variety and creativity within the musical numbers is somewhat lacking – it is the only blemish on an otherwise polished and very funny show. I didn’t stop smiling once throughout the whole hour.

It’s not always easy to admit that you were wrong, but this time I’m glad to: Stiff & Kitsch aren’t two normal girls: they’re two extremely talented comedians who deserve to be playing to full houses. And if they call their next show that, I am retiring.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Gun Show (Space Triplex: 4-26 Aug: 19.40: 60mins)

“Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Of all the takeaways from E.M. Lewis’s one-actor project The Gun Show, there is none clearer than this: lead actor Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe. As the sole actor, his voice, mannerisms, physicality, and humor are magnetic, charming, and immensely human; he could be talking about throw pillows or breakfast cereal for an hour and it would probably still warrant a standing ovation.

But in this play Shambry talks about guns. He talks about them over five stories, which are delivered with grace and rhythm, but written with a somewhat vague sense of pace and subject matter. From a charming opening anecdote comparing the blood-soaked climax of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to modern gun-filled headlines, the tone is set as one of culturally relevant iconoclasm. The plot overall weaves personal stories – such as a retelling of a harrowing  robbery at gunpoint – and very public true ones, including a shocking reenactment of professional lunatic Alex Jones defending the Second Amendment days after the Sandy Hook massacre. Shambry’s performance throughout is engrossing and electric, with clever audience interaction that entertains and commands the room.

The play at first seeks a deceptively simple point about guns in America: that the conversation has devolved into two sides that insult and deride each other without helping anyone. Lewis writes of the Whole Foods-shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening left, and the gun-toting, NRA card-carrying right, lamenting that the vastly larger middle ground opinions are drowned out or ignored. Stories of the responsible, sensible use of guns are convincing, as are cautionary tales and assertions about how guns can be used for true destruction and terror. Points raised later in the play are strikingly personal, and to director Shawn Lee’s credit, masterfully withdrawn.

There is a moral stickiness to elements of the overall approach, however, that one cannot shake. Shambry performs specifically as Lewis, whose identity and backstory are revealed slowly and subtly throughout the performance, and there is a vague sense of a plot-twist as it becomes apparent that Shambry is not playing himself, but speaking of experiences from people of differing genders, race, age, and background. The Gun Show exists on at least three planes in this sense. Firstly, there is Shambry delivering a powerful spoken essay on gun violence and the complexity of personal firearms. Secondly, there is Lewis, writing as a woman who has intentionally chosen a vessel very unlike herself to deliver these statements. Thirdly, there is a back and forth actor/writer dialogue, at times literally shining a light on Lewis, who is present in the audience, with recognisable moments of mutual understanding that he is playing her, and she is writing for him, yet as herself. This aspect of the performance is both disorienting and brilliantly simple.

The stickiness, however, comes from the misleading qualities of the advertising and format. On the poster, Shambry’s face, as a Black man, juxtaposed against an American flag with the tagline “What the hell is happening in America?” seems geared towards a specific set of issues that will be discussed, specifically race-related gun violence. Yet The Gun Show never once addresses the innumerable and unnecessary deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, instead favouring a much more general take on the gun conversation, written specifically by a white woman. While the play itself does not necessarily suffer for it, this bait-and-switch from a topic as devastating and unjust as racial inequity can’t help but feel slightly distasteful, as if these stories are teased but minimised in favour of a separate issue. That’s acceptable, given Lewis’s admittedly gripping stories, but The Gun Show will leave a sense of unease in your stomach if you expected something else.

This show commendably begins the conversation of just what the hell is happening in America, and – for Americans and non-Americans alike – proves the conversation is well worth having. The writing could be sharper, and the points broader, but when you’re hearing them from someone like Vin Shambry, it’s simply unmissable.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Great Ridolphi (Underbelly Cowgate: 3-27 Aug: 13.25: 55mins)

“Steve Turner delivers a real tour-de-force”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Great Ridolphi follows the story of Victor O’Meara, only son of the now deceased (or is he?) eponymous grand illusionist, as he seeks to unravel the hidden messages his father left him to find a missing painting: the inheritance he thought he would never get. Following an unexpected visit from a scrupulous investigator, Victor must solve the clues to uncover the mystery before anyone else can get there.

It’s a rather rollicking adventure from the quill of Chris Isaacs (not unlike a stage version of an episode of TinTin), as Victor chases across countries and meets some rather exotic characters to reach his goal. While the pace is great and the 50 or so minutes of the show absolutely fly by, it is at the expense of some of the mystery and suspense – revelations, deductions and beautiful moments are often over before they’ve barely been set up and it feels like a little bit of the joy of the story is squeezed out too soon. For an ordinary man, Victor is miraculously very good at solving puzzles, riddles, and taking risks without much thought and it is disappointing not to see more of his struggle in this regard.

The tension is helped along, however, by a couple of clever sub-plots: calls from his wife, escalating in desperation the longer he’s away; and his deteriorating health – we start to wonder whether he might drop dead himself before finding what he’s looking for. Both bring a genuine human element to the story, often missing from adventure tales, so it’s pleasing that these details are included – it helps the production feel more grounded in the here and now. There’s also the omnipresent investigator tracking Victor wherever he goes, though it’s never quite made clear whether he’s meant to be trusted or not. It seems to make little difference given the rather rushed ending, so this device feels rather wasted, and greater development of this character would add to the sense of foreboding throughout.

Victor (and indeed every character present on stage) is played by one of the piece’s co-creators Steve Turner, who delivers a real tour-de-force throughout. His performance is confident, clear and honest, never feeling like it’s all one big showman superhero act, but a man simply following his calling and interacting with whatever crosses his path. He shows great dexterity in the swift changes of scene and character, though for me he could go further to explore and expand on some of these to create more drama and individuality.

This is a witty and warming (if a little wild) performance, charming to the last second. One for the shortlist.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Sister Act (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: 14-20 Aug: 16.10: 1hr 45mins)

“Energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

In my experience, condensed versions of musicals generally go one of two ways: they either trim the fat from the full version and present a slick and sizzling highlights reel (as in EUSOG’s Spring Awakening last year), or they come across as a slightly misshapen patchwork quilt of musical moments. Unfortunately, Edinburgh University Footlights’ production of Sister Act falls into the latter camp. However, some of its musical moments are really rather magical.

We all know the story of the show: aspiring and audacious nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier has to hide away with a group of nuns for her own protection, and in so doing transforms their choir into a team of sensational songstresses. Sarah Couper certainly gives it her all as Deloris, with hugely likeable sass and personality, which is more than capably offset by Tayla Steinberg’s harsh but witty Mother Superior.

It’s Alice Hoult as the timid Sister Mary Robert who vocally steals the show though, with a flawless rendition of the rousing The Life I Never Led. A masterclass in control, it’s a shame some of the other numbers lack the overall quality and power of this one: it really stands out as something special.

Yet when this production hits the sweet spot, it really does soar. The Raise Your Voice scene in particular is energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies. Caili Crow’s choreography is stylish, intricate and very deftly delivered, and for a few minutes here and there the performance really sparkles.

The main strength of this production overall is comedic characterisation, and director Ansley Clark has done a great job in bringing the best out of each individual throughout the performance. Nicola Frier is a revelation as the excitable Sister Mary Patrick, delivering laughs aplenty with every utterance; Adam Makepeace is a wonderfully dorky TJ; and Mhairi Goodwin brings a whole new level of vibrancy to Sister Mary Lazarus that I didn’t think was possible.

This production is quite hit and miss though, making it difficult to stay fully engaged with it throughout. While I won’t go into details of the technical issues which unfortunately blighted this production, other factors such as the (at times) awkward staging, the very choppy nature of lots of different quick scenes, and lack of palpable tension in the big moments all detract from what has the potential to be a really outstanding show. It all feels a little rushed and a bit too rough around the edges.

This a very commendable effort from the cast and company, but perhaps slightly too ambitious too pull off.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Louise Reay: Hard Mode (The Stand Four: 3-27 Aug: 17.55: 60mins)

“A unique and insightful project perfect for Fringe audiences”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

This is a very clever show. Through a healthy mixture of character work, pre-recorded videos, impressive knowledge of modern Chinese society, and truly human moments, Louise Reay has crafted a unique and insightful project perfect for Fringe audiences. Some fine tuning of the details and the flow of the show would be useful to make its 60 minutes shine brighter, but overall Hard Mode is a worthy offering.

The show’s title derives from the idea that in modern China, life is lived as if in ‘hard mode.’ Reay takes care to share a genuine taste of what that kind of life means, from tampering intrusively with audience members to stationing masked cronies around the room to watch and possibly punish the viewers at all times. She uses clever techniques like distributing identical napkins for all audience members to wear (to recall authoritarian homogeneity), and leading the room in hive-mind chants in between musings on what having a free society means now and what losing it could mean later. The masked guards do stay unsettlingly in character the whole time, even banishing non-compliant individuals who dare to remove the napkin to the ‘jail,’ which is the corner of the room. Though some of the points on surveillance are presented somewhat simplistically, the dark sense of forced enjoyment is done well. This show, to its credit given its subject matter, is effectively unpleasant.

Reay bases this societal reenactment on her lived experiences in China, thankfully. A few lines and jokes would seem like sweeping (and potentially offensive) generalisations if she hadn’t proven her extensive knowledge of Chinese culture, from the language to the media to the in-jokes. On the comedy end, the highlights of the show are her stagings of a possible future where the Chinese government has bought and hawkishly runs the BBC. Her David Attenborough-centered skits are hilarious, and her all-Chinese rendition of ‘Far-EastEnders’ is impressive for her sheer capability with the language, as a native English speaker.

On the dramatic side, and yes, there is a somewhat unexpected dramatic side, Reay mixes in her own real life in ways that teeter on the edge of too much. Without giving anything away, the sense of ‘hard mode’ in a societal sense is re-purposed in a personal sense, which at times is truly affecting, and at others feels like retreading and backtracking on points that have already been made.

Reay’s use of an actor to portray Chinese artist and social activist Ai Weiwei in a pre-recorded video conversation Reay apparently had with him feels strikingly off-kilter with the rest of the piece, and not only because it is never truly verified that Weiwei actually said any of the statements in the video. The actor’s timing is jarring, the delivery is confusing and flat, and points are muddled and indistinguishable — under what is admittedly fabulously intricate facial hair. For me, these filmed asides are revisited too often, and though most of Reay’s recurring jokes are quite funny and/or poignant (special nod to the unforgettable Loneliest Newsreader in the World), the Weiwei scenes feel poorly executed.

Overall, if you are looking for a bizarre yet poignant hour at the Fringe, and happen to be in the relatively far away lands that house the Stand Four, Louise Reay’s Hard Mode might be for you. Just be sure to set your expectations to Weird Mode.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED