Underground Railroad Game (Traverse: 2-26 Aug: 22:00: 85 mins)

“Brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

It has been called transcendent, genius, one of the ‘25 Best American Plays in the last 25 years’ — but, to its credit, the unique shine to Underground Railroad Game does not fit a single simple category of ‘high quality theatre.’ What Ars Nova has put together, under the direction of Taibi Magar and through the blistering voices of writer/performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, is beyond quantification; to ‘decode’ it seems beside the point. Various cacophonous interactions between questions and understandings of race and sex are dragged out bloody and screaming into the light in this production, as it presents a vision of America that is both revelatory and maddeningly intractable. This show is disgusting, but very intentionally; for better or worse, I have never seen a piece of theatre like it, nor even conceived that it could be done. 

The ‘plot’ is frenetic and full of hairpin turns away from narrative logic. On one plane of existence, Kidwell and Sheppard are two grade school teachers who craft a convoluted classroom exercise called the Underground Railroad Game. In the game, students must recreate the networks that runaway slaves used to attempt escape from their white American owners in the South, with brown-painted dolls standing in for slaves and other classrooms standing in for free land, et cetera. To achieve this, the ‘class’ — the audience — is randomly divided into the Greys and the Blues (Confederacy and Union) and told to cheer for their side as the game ensues. In the end, there is not much audience interaction with the game itself, for instead, the show quickly pivots towards the personal lives and macrocosmic implications of Teacher Caroline (Kidwell), a black woman, and Teacher Stuart (Sheppard), a white man, as they present disparate, extremely controversial approaches to the sensitive material in the exercise – and woo each other in their personal time. 

Underground Railroad Game is at its best when it sadistically presents the two teachers swapping racially charged comments and just lets them ride this politically incorrect train to the end of the line. Teacher Stuart’s raucous white privilege and carelessness with his words, even as he fawns over Teacher Caroline, are tautly written and very effective; Teacher Caroline is played with fascinating honour and unpredictability by Kidwell, who is certainly one of the most memorable performers I have seen this Fringe — both her and Sheppard, in fact, have a gift for breakneck comic timing and riveting onstage energy, even when used for remarkably revolting encounters in the show’s later segments. 

The production is brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm in all its layers. These sharp, vicious parts ultimately combine to serve a true sense you are watching a dangerous piece of theatre – one that kicks the hornet’s nest with merciless rage, one meant to hurt more than to help. Which, in all likelihood, is exactly what a society with problems this complex needs. The play aims for disparate targets — to make one feel confused, hurt, disgusted… even angry, driven, and curious — and hits almost all of them.

I did not like what I saw, but I immediately felt sure that this piece is an essential product of long-standing racial disharmony, and in a sense, exactly what we deserve. Sure, it might be on the surface a distinctly scattershot experience, but the world, to our misfortune, probably needs to be so visually and thematically eviscerated such as the audiences of Underground Railroad Game find themselves; out of the disorientation, some form of budding reckoning is sure to flourish. 

Through all the possible profundities of the piece, whether they make you laugh or wretch, there is an overwhelming sense that you are witnessing living, breathing triggers, firecrackers, enflamers — conversations and topics so out of bounds that they earn some mystical quality just from their utterance and thorough dressing-down. These extend to Teachers Caroline and Stuart’s ribald parodies of hatred and interpersonal violence, on racial, intellectual, physical, and psychosexual grounds. Beyond, there is absurdist, surrealistic aberrations of logic and narrative, that erratically leap across time and space with little warning, an approach which pierces and deflates preconceptions of “difficult” racial and social discussions with breathtaking wit and take-no-prisoners abandon. Through and through, this show imbues its ‘relevant’ messaging with a riveting and primal sense of revolt and destruction — less a hold-hands-and-grow resolution than a burn-it-all-down caterwaul.

It shouldn’t work, and in certain ways it does not, but Underground Railroad Game succeeds in this hair-tearing rage through sheer energy and its vicious urge to show itself and all its twisted innards to the assembled crowd. It is one of the most impressive pieces of frenetic art I have ever seen come alive in a theatre, and reaches territory you may never see elsewhere onstage. If you are curious after all this, find a way to see it. But consider yourself warned.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Freeman (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Freeman is stuffed with brilliant ideas; it fires on all cylinders, incorporating hypnotic physical choreography with breathtaking performances and devastating portrayals of harrowing true stories. The performers of Strictly Arts Theatre Company produce deeply affecting characterisations and movements, breathing life into Camilla Whitehall’s tapestry of compelling episodes from history that truly deserve a closer look from today’s civilisation. The final result, as directed by Danièle Sanderson, is brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive, though its most affecting methods are so raucously intense, the outcome is more chilling than perhaps was intended.

The narrative is principally anchored in the mid-nineteenth century story of William Freeman, a New York man treated in horrifically unjust way by the ‘justice’ system he moved in, and whose story intertwines with both the histories of institutional racial prejudice and the varied legal interpretations of mental conditions. Through this story and five similarly gripping tales, this production raises a profound and chilling question: How do we shape narratives when we bring up mental health? When has it helped? When has it made things worse?

Strictly Arts has adopted a fascinating approach to exploring these themes: after a lengthy yet graceful physical sequence set to trance-like music, the show opens in a setting recalling purgatory. Six souls regard each other in confusion, yet seem to understand they need to ‘tell their story’ so that they can all move on to whatever lies beyond. And so each illustrates their tale, as the other company members provide gorgeously crafted support to each respective retelling. They contort and combine their bodies in various shapes and figures to augment the narratives, which are both impressive and thrillingly creative each time they appear. Their recreations of a horse for William Freeman to ride, and a car during the dramatisation of Sandra Bland’s arrest are particularly riveting — and yes, Sandra Bland’s story is in this show. The stories stretch as far as 1840s Scotland, 2015 Texas, 1949 Leeds, and 2016 London, which combine for a bone-chillingly convincing assertion: when it comes to racial injustice and the horrific unfairness that non-white individuals have to face — particularly when it comes to appreciating their mental health — “nothing has changed.”

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Freeman’s 60 minutes, however, is the as-yet unparalleled talent of this acting ensemble. They are a genuinely captivating bunch, and credit must go to both Sanderson and Strictly Arts Artistic Director Corey Campbell for instilling this cast with a monumental cohesion onstage. Campbell himself brings William Freeman to life in an unforgettable performance, and he is not let down in the slightest by the surrounding cast members. In particular, Marcel White as Nigerian immigrant David Oluwale and Kimisha Lewis as Bland provide breathtaking characterisations. White delivers a compelling and heartbreaking turn as he charts Oluwale’s descent from optimism and ambition into desperation and bewilderment, made all the more tragic as the darkness of his story directly follows a sudden and joyous dance interlude set to Little Richard. Lewis’ portrayal of Bland’s doomed encounter with a fascist Texas police officer is played as a truly horrifying sequence where the remaining cast evoke the terror and pain of the thousands of Black individuals mistreated by law enforcement — this is without a doubt the most heart-wrenching moment I have experienced at the 2018 Fringe Festival. 

Yet the immense impact of this sequence and moments like it result in disorientation from scene to scene. While the show seems frenetic to the point of being intentionally jarring to experience, this becomes at times unfortunately inconclusive, and certain twists and wrenches of the narrative evoke hopelessness and confusion perhaps more than they ought to. The dance sequence that introduces Oluwale’s segment, for example, is so rich that the brutal physical violence that follows it feels garish, and somewhat cheaply vicious. Of course, these are true stories that evoke genuine anguish, so this is less a criticism of the narrative than a comment on the chilling effect on the viewer — Freeman includes lighter moments where we are given a moment to catch our breath, but in an odd and perhaps slightly misjudged order, such as early in the production, when the story of Daniel M’naghten is interrupted for some cacophonous silliness. 

Understanding those oddities of the production, this is nevertheless a fabulous piece of theatre, with unique points to make. M’naghten’s scene, in fact, contains a profoundly venerable commentary, delivered beautifully by Campbell as Freeman himself. M’naghten, played commendably by Pip Barclay, was a Scottish white man and the first person defended in court by the insanity defence; when it is his turn to tell his story, he refuses to take the exercise seriously, and decides to play around instead, until Freeman explains that while he can mess around and not care about these stories of racial disharmony, as they did not affect him, the rest of the characters, all black, are required to listen to white stories like his in order to be given a platform to tell theirs. It is a graceful, nuanced moment for which Sanderson, Campbell, and the entire company deserve immense credit for crafting so beautifully. 

Keiren Amos and Aimee Powell also deliver layered, compelling turns, as tragically-fated Michael Bailey and uncomfortably recently deceased Sarah Reed, respectively, both of whom were treated incompetently by the British justice system due to their mental health conditions. Their chapters are more factual than artistic, mostly, yet they are valuable additions to the narrative, and both Amos and Powell deserve credit for their resonantly realistic performances. 

This show is deeply important, strangely complex, and disorienting at times. But it is a vibrant and graceful hour, with a commendable amount of nuance, structure, and deep intelligence. This deserves its standout status at this year’s Fringe, and I would highly recommend it, possibly above all others, as the show not to miss, despite the thousand-yard-stare you will most likely be left with. Bravo to Strictly Arts.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Daliso Chaponda: What The African Said (Gilded Balloon at the Museum: 19-26 Aug: 19:30: 60 mins)

“This is must-see standup.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

A hilarious, hilarious show. After rising to prominence on Britain’s Got Talent and touring various parts of the globe, Daliso Chaponda performs eight nights at Gilded Balloon’s Museum auditorium space, and take it from me, this is must-see standup. The comedy is clever and uproariously funny, the persona is both charming and caustic, and the hour is so packed with brilliant setups and payoffs that at only 60 minutes it feels altogether too short. 

Topics range from his road to standup, to his childhood, to his nationality, to newfound success, and other well-trodden ground for standup comedians — especially ones at the Fringe. Yet What The African Said never feels lazy or recycled; though these topics are not new subjects on the comedy stage, here they are spun with Chaponda’s unique charm and dexterity, so even an early-on Brexit joke provokes a much more appreciative giggle than 99% of the bone-tired political material bouncing around microphones all over the city.

Of course, he also ventures into fresh, intriguing territory, such as riveting takes on racism online and in person, European arrogance in education, and the hairpin tendencies of so many to take offence at so much. Some of his most delightful and arresting material takes aim at racial difference and touchiness, yet with exceeding grace and humility — it is telling that even as he acknowledged an upcoming one-liner caused (dubiously sensible) widespread offence and alarm, the audience felt prepared for a clever and commendable jab regardless of more sensitive reactions. Needless to say, the line in question is spectacularly funny and had me smiling hours after the performance; it boggles the mind that certain audiences did not feel the same. This is a man who knows how to write a joke.

Chaponda could be said to walk the fine line between probing race and racism and toying with it, yet he speaks and jokes with such confidence and wit that even his incisive commentaries are accompanied with a genuine laugh alongside them. On that topic, there is no shortage of incisive commentaries in this show; Chaponda’s comedy is matched with an impressive back catalogue of information and knowledge, which embeds his witticisms with a well-earned sense of genuine understanding, rather than flippant mockery. On top of that, the Malawi-born comedian includes some affectingly personal undercurrents to his material — not in the way so many other Fringe comedians work in an ‘emotional side’ to their standup, which has practically become clichéd by now — but again in a commendably honest and somehow quite fun aside to his more ribald suggestions.

Overall, this is a practically perfect hour of comedy, and one of the most enjoyable and rich standup performances I have experienced this year. Go and see it.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)

 

Athena Kugblenu: Follow the Leader (Underbelly Bristo Square: 1-26 Aug: 17:30: 60 mins)

“A standout voice in the Edinburgh comedy lineup.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

In Athena Kugblenu’s new hour, entitled Follow the Leader, the term ‘pregnant pause’ gains new meaning. To explain, not only is the witty and clever comedian currently with child, but her slick and punchy new hour of standup is frequently based on letting extended, exasperated silences serve as the punchlines themselves. This approach loses no hilarity, mind you, and in fact proves quite a clever move for Kugblenu, a standup presence so engaging and poised onstage that you know whatever she says next will either be witty or a genuinely good point, and frequently both. 

Kugblenu loosely bases this show on the notion of trusting and following leaders, and how that does and does not help our ultimate goals. She incorporates funny and knowledgeable examples of leaders we probably should not admire so fervently, and contrasts them well with societal tendencies and cultural expectations that should similarly be reevaluated. Not every punchline is quite risible enough to create a consistently side-splitting hour, but ultimately, Follow the Leader is a good deal of fun and a thoroughly enjoyable walk through Kugblenu’s outlook on life and people. 

Her material ranges from political loyalties and questionable leanings to amusing anecdotes about herself and how she gets by. She touches on some hilarious ideas, such as more evidence-based alternatives to unfair government policies, and the relative pressures of ‘positive racism’ and similarly strange treatment from white to Black people. Her musings on international food and her unborn child also hit high notes, and though perhaps her material on being drunk and having sex could use a bit more workshopping, overall, this is a charming and well-spent hour of standup, and a standout voice in the Edinburgh comedy lineup.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)

 

The Flyboys: A Postmodern Swing Sensation (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 1-24th Aug: 22:30: 60 mins)

“The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There’s been a huge rise in popularity of hybrid vintage/modern acts in recent years, with electro-swing becoming cool, and bands such as Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox selling out tours and racking up millions of hits on YouTube. Enter the Flyboys at the Fringe on the back of this trend, mixing up modern songs with a vintage 30s/40s twist.

Taking to the stage in coordinating waistcoats and spats, The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun as they launch into their cool rendition of Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. With a swinging beat and smooth, intricate harmonies the foursome have a real likeability and set the tone for a fun evening of music with a twist. And what follows is a string of popular, up-tempo songs performed in the band’s trademark style.

These are four great singers, and while none of them possess a spine-tingling unique voice to dazzle as a soloist, the blend and balance of voices as a group is what makes each arrangement special and entertaining. And they make it look so easy and fun at the same time, beaming with smiles, busting some daring kicks and flicks, it’s amazing to witness the control and accuracy with which this group performs.

At times it verges a little too close to holiday park singing for me – with some very obvious, crowd-pleasing song choices, cheesy choreography and a few dad jokes in between ditties, but they are a really fun bunch and perform with pizzazz so such flaws seem unimportant on the great scale of what the night is. I’d certainly prefer more variety in the set list and more depth in the artistry – the group’s mash-ups in the second half of the set go some way to achieving this, and the painfully short a capella rendition of Etta James’ At Last shows that this group do have the potential to elevate themselves into a really classy band of musicians, rather than being about entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Overall, this is a good fun night with some fine singing, comedy and choreography, and even the sternest viewer will find it difficult not to indulge in at least a little toe-tapping. One to take your mum to.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die (theSpace @ Venue 45: 20-25th Aug: 15:40: 70 mins)

“The finest production I’ve seen this year”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Death and grief are difficult topics to get right in the theatre – even more so for a young company who are not likely to have experienced much of either. Lloyd Theatre Arts (most of whom are aged 14-17), however, demonstrate maturity and sensitivity well beyond their years in this powerful life lesson.

In January 2014, 16-year-old- Daniel Spargo-Mabbs died as a result of a drug overdose at an illegal rave. I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die is a verbatim response to that tragedy, using only the words of his friends and family to tell the story of what happened. Mark Wheeller’s script, which interweaves responses from those close to Daniel, is a galling and frank account of his final few days and their immediate aftermath. Grab the tissues.

What’s most moving about this show is the painful honesty of it: the script contains all the teenage awkwardness you would expect from verbatim responses, and to their credit, the company capture this in the integrity of their performance. Some perspectives indicate a knowledge of what happened that night, some a blissful naivety, and not everyone is shown in a positive light, making it an insightful and thorough, unglossed story.

The action is also interspersed with choreographic sequences to reflect or highlight specific feelings that words alone can’t convey. Counter-balance and counter-tension are common motifs to demonstrate how much the individuals in the story relied on each other to get through the days, and these are intelligent and polished moments which show a fantastic creative engagement with the piece, as well as an emotional one. Indeed, the slickness, energy and connection throughout this performance from the whole company are indicative of hours of hard work and dedication to their craft, and the result is absolutely astonishing.

The second half of this production (which focuses more on the perspective of his family and girlfriend covering the same events) does drag somewhat, as there is little in the way of new narrative content, making it feel quite repetitive and static. Further editing to combine the two halves would help make this a more cohesive and gripping piece, but even in this state, it’s the finest production I’ve seen so far this year.

The performance quality of this production from both the young people, and the actors playing Daniel’s parents, really is first class – I genuinely thought I was watching Daniel’s friends and family tell this emotive and important story themselves. Take your children. Take your parents. And take care of yourselves.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Island (Just Festival at St. Johns: 3-25 Aug: 19:15/21:15: 60 mins)

“A masterful piece of literary theatre, brought to life commendably by perfectly cast performers.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There are plenty of captivating, harrowing setups and settings one can find at a theatre festival as dynamic and forward-thinking as the Fringe, yet perhaps the most compelling by measure for me thus far is the setting of this two-man tour de force, The Island. Though admittedly written in 1973, and staged in secret so the fascistic censorship laws of Apartheid South Africa overlooked its radical content, this play carries haunting and brilliant messages that carry weight and will move audience members even today. Onstage, the play’s performers, Siya Mayola and Luntu Masiza, are delightful leading men, and though the staging is not quite perfect, its quality and impact grows and grows on the viewer, so that by its climax, The Island proves itself a masterful piece of literary theatre, brought to life commendably by perfectly cast performers. 

Though the script itself, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, does not specifically mention the name Robben Island, this production’s publicity makes very clear that this is a condemnation of the conditions and severity of South Africa’s most notorious prison compound. The script paints a painful picture of prison life with a lengthy opening sequence set in a mimed quarry, where the play’s two characters, John and Winston, lift and shovel useless piles of sand and rock back and forth; this creates a palpable sense of meaningless work and maddening repetition, yet is so drawn out it comes across as perhaps too grating a point. Next, the prisoners return to their cell, and though their performances are genuinely realistic, having been subjected to hours of backbreaking labour, their delivery is so breathless and strained for the first third of the show that it results in a peculiarly incomprehensible stretch of dialogue. As they regain their composure, John and Winston begin to discuss the thematic hook of the play: they have been granted a slot to perform the Greek tragedy Antigone for the other prisoners. 

As John, the more optimistic, theatrically-inclined of the two, Siya Mayola is a charming, mellifluous presence. He both teases and uplifts Winston with his words and suggestions, and to Mayola’s credit, and the play’s as well, his character is imbued with the sense of literary intelligence and cultural dexterity early on, without any needless exposition — economic storytelling at its best. As Winston, the more reluctant and grave, yet intermittently boisterous prisoner, Luntu Masiza presents a fascinating subject; he has been imprisoned for life for the sickeningly unworthy crime of simply burning his Apartheid-issued passbook in front of police, and though he has decided to treat his inhumane sentence with brusque humour rather than agony, Masiza incorporates moments of genuine, tragic ruminations on what his fate truly means, which are truly affecting, and brilliantly acted. 

Christopher Weare’s direction is clever, and the appropriately bare space in which this production is performed ultimately complements the starkness of the men’s prison cell, though there are some odd choices in terms of sightlines and characters intermittently turning their backs to the audience. Thankfully, the actors’ voices carry so well that these are easy to overlook. The most striking element of the show is its rising intensity and increasingly fascinating twists and turns. The story weaves itself in compelling new directions late on, and in fact one of the central elements of the dynamic between the prisoners — regarding their respective sentences — is only introduced well past the halfway point of the show. When it is brought up, however, it is discussed with devastating clarity and emotion, and credit must go to Masiza for his captivating, brilliantly-measured monologue as he explains his future in comparison to John’s. Towards the end, the prisoners get to perform their Antigone, which proves yet another fascinating turn of the narrative, and Mayola in particular shines in this play-within-a-play. Not to mention, the narrative and political implications of this particular staging within the Robben Island context is a truly inspired comparison, and left me both sickened with its implications and deeply impressed with the craftiness of its ultimate point. 

The acting is captivating, the play itself is brilliant, and the message is affecting. There are a few issues towards the beginning that admittedly force the production to take a long time to get to the heart of the matter, but when it does, The Island is deeply resonant and impeccably crafted theatre. An excellent fit for St. Johns’ Just Festival, and a worthy staging by these clever theatremakers.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 20 August)