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

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

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

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

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

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

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

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

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Signals (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 13:10: 50 mins)

“A mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Until we know for sure, which might never be the case, the extraterrestrial is endlessly fascinating. One some level, the entirety of human existence is hinged on this question: is there anyone, anything else out there? Footprint Theatre’s engaging two-woman show Signals asks this question with an intelligent script, grounded performances, and an excellent climax, and while it is not exactly pulse-pounding, this production is a mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.

Eve Cowley and Immie Davies play two data analysts on the night shift at a facility dedicated to scanning the cosmos for alien contact. For the majority of the play, they simply sit and swap comments about their co-workers, life in general, and whether their job is completely meaningless. The set is commendably simple yet effective; with only two desks and a rat king of wires and plugs, the feeling of a dingy office is created very well. Cowley and Davies’ performances are also well-suited to the piece; all their interactions, from casual chats to fiery arguments, are enjoyable to listen to and cleverly written. 

Overall, however, the show itself cannot quite muster any significant feeling other than ‘enjoyable’ for the first two thirds. While the stillness of the show is nicely reminiscent of naturalistic theatre trends, its interludes where nothing happens are overlong considering the theme of the show. Thankfully, the portion of the events when alien contact is actually realised is fabulously crafted, and genuinely thrilling — especially the two workers’ disparate reactions to the possibility that we might actually answer the ultimate existential question. This is, without a doubt, the best part of the show, and I can confidently say the final third is an excellent piece of theatre.

The rest, however, does not do the ending justice, and while the technical and performative aspects are solid, the runtime is not as well-measured as it could be. If the establishing segments of Signals took a few more notes from its ending, this still, gradual approach could have come across with a bit more verve than it currently does. This is a well-made production, but it could be much sharper, and with an injection of just a bit more energy it could be a seriously impressive two-hander. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Death is the New Porn (theSpace @ Venue 45: 13-18th Aug: 22:40: 60 mins)

“Another fine example of a gripping, character-driven play that Blazing Hyena really excel at”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Death is the New Porn tells the story of a trio of vigilantes who get their kicks from following, luring and killing local criminals – all in the name of service to their society. They brag about how crime rates have fallen since they began their campaign – not just from physically stopping the perpetrators, but by spreading fear to prevent those would-be bad guys from meeting the same end. It’s a tough-talking and electrifying opening that sets up the potential for a thrilling noir-drama.

Yet rather than being an action-packed adventure about the number or profile of bodies they stack up, or police investigations they dodge, the narrative evolves to be more personal, and by the end, becomes a deeply emotional unveiling of three people trying to make sense of their own broken lives. What has driven each one to become a killer, and just how strong are bonds of blood?

The opening half of this performance has a very filmic quality, with director Catherine Exposito using the large thrust stage cleverly to create interesting angles and sightlines, with musical interludes and quick changes of pace adding to a Tarantino-esque feel. It’s a little confusing to begin with given the choppiness, but as the meat of the play unfolds, the compelling narrative and relationships between each character become more prominent, and ultimately, engaging.

Imogen Reiter, Jack Elliot and Jack Jarvis Gouther each turn in gutsy and gritty performances as the three anti-hero vigilantes, but Rosie Milne in particular impresses as supporting character Sheila – the recently released from prison recovering addict attempting to get her life back together. There’s a raw delicacy to her performance of a woman just about holding herself together that is utterly captivating to watch.

Jack Elliot’s script is on the whole very clever in its structure and development – the dialogue is natural and the sense of tension and anticipation are always high – though it would be good to get a bit more background and levelling early on. Some characters seem more well-developed than others causing a few too many gaps for the audience to fill in. There’s also quite a lot of faffing with props (especially drinks and glass) throughout, but these are minor criticisms for a work that is, on the whole, made to a very high quality.

In short, Death is the New Porn is another fine example of a gripping, character-driven play that Blazing Hyena really excel at. Highly recommended as a late-night comedy alternative.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Solarplexus: An Alternative Energy Play (ZOO Charteris: 3-27 Aug: 19:35: 60 mins)

“Affectingly haunting musings.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Oddly, there are more shows than ever this year where I personally have felt a performer is too good for the show they are starring in. This is particularly true of Melissa Mahoney and Solarplexus: An Alternative Energy Play. The show, written by Michael Galligan, deals with a near-future where solar fires are plaguing Earth and a mega-corporation known as Syzygy has proffered a ‘solution’ to the problem by creating a giant space station that will bathe the world in constant daylight. A genius inventor/farmer/tin-foil-hat wearer (played by Gilligan), however, has made an energy-producing bike named Mercury Daniels, that can somehow stop all of this and save the world. His daughter, Ellen (Mahoney), contacts him and tries to help stop the plot, while his son Frank (Sam Metzger) has started working for the corporation and its evil boss (Justin Picado), leading to a frenetic mission and intergalactic madness.

There are standout elements of this show that really shine. Mahoney, first and foremost, delivers a strong performance and an excellent onstage presence; she holds the show together in more ways than one. Another stellar presence in the production is Justin Picado, multi-roling as the maddened Syzygy CEO, a messenger from the Sun, and a few other surreal presences; Picado has very clever comic timing and physicality, and similarly to Mahoney, could and should really knock it out of the park if given more compelling lines to perform. Also onstage but in the corner is composer Robert Fernandez, who live-scores the show with remarkably fun musical motifs and sounds. Credit to director Jaye Hunt for placing him in view of the audience, for most of the entertainment in the show can be derived from watching him work.

The rest of the production is unfortunately a let-down. The plot dissolves into flat, unconvincing absurdity, which could be entertainingly surreal if it was not constantly interrupted by uninteresting arguments and character moments. The constant bickering between Ellen and Frank, as siblings who took very different paths in life, possibly due to their father’s treatment, is so overplayed it becomes simply irritating to listen to. The same jabs and judgements are repeated over and over and over, never improving in form or content; the interjections from their father, also played by Galligan, do not particularly help, possibly because his characterisation seems straight out of the notoriously neglectful Rick from Justin Roiland’s Rick And Morty. Some lines and concepts are fascinating, yet most are delivered during the intermittent cacophonies of the characters simply talking over each other, so they have little impact. The jokes, of which there are surprisingly few, are also quite unmemorable; thankfully, Mahoney and Picado are quite good at stepping in to save the moment when certain punchlines fall conspicuously flat.

Solarplexus is an odd watch, and contains some affectingly haunting musings on what could result in the end of the world: corporate greed, public disinterest, and personal irresponsibility. Yet though these concepts are raised, the show is not particularly risible to an audience, and perhaps could do with a slight rewrite and a more dynamic second half. 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room (theSpace on North Bridge: 13-18 Aug: 12:05: 50 mins)

“Admirably boisterous, with plenty of breathless comedy flowing from every scene.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Reading University Drama Society has made a delirious, heartily amusing comedy out of a sharp and clever setup. The show revolves around the four members of Hitch’s Los Angeles writers’ room in 1961: the well-dressed socialite Kevin (Thomas Sparrow), the mousy, prim Lila (Rebecca Penn), the stringy jittery Scott (Conor Field), and the snarky, forward Maya (Jess Davies). A hapless rookie detective (Luke Cox) introduces the show, blustering through some exposition about a former member of the writers’ room who has turned up disfigured and murdered in the L.A. river. From there, the detective hides — in one of the show’s funniest running jokes — just behind a sofa and barely out of view as the writers go about their business. As they share their ideas of new scripts, the four of them act each out, donning wigs and swapping accents with reckless abandon and generally putting on a flamboyantly silly show of it all. Needless to say, there are Hitchcockian jokes and references aplenty, and it is certainly recommended to have seen more than a few of the films in question if you want to laugh along with the lion’s share of these parodic sequences.

Writers Ades Singh and Cameron Gill clearly take great pleasure in their cinematic references and endlessly silly humour, which to their credit, are both exceedingly well-suited to the Fringe atmosphere. In his role as director, Gill has commendably let the performers have oodles of fun with and the performers, who in turn each give a high-energy performance.

Indeed, there’s plenty of boisterousness all round, with breathless comedy flowing from every scene. Unfortunately, though many of the character moments are well set-up for big laughs, even the performances cannot save some of the lazier impulses of this show. Some of the earlier jokes are clever — such as Davies’ scene-stealing personification of a haunting mother character who is totally not a rip-off from Psycho, or Sparrow’s charming, standout smugness as he explains his own ‘brilliance’ — the play eventually just has the same punchlines over and over: the script seemingly intentionally falls apart into improvisations, repetitive shrugs about why what is happening is happening, and the apparent hilarity of just saying the word “bitch.” In addition, the amount of fourth-wall-breaking becomes tiresome after the first joke of its kind, not to mention to fifth. Thankfully, this is possible to overlook in favour of appreciating the fanciful character comedy on display, such as Cox’s amusing John-Candy-esque slapstick, or Penn’s clipped and funny diary scene, or Field’s admittedly hilarious impression of a pigeon.

It should also be noted that, the three-sided venue Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room is staged in makes more than half of the play and its gags completely invisible to anyone not in the front row of the centre of the room, not to mention anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the eyeline of one of the blindingly bright, oddly low-hung lights. Choose your seat wisely.

Overall, this is a clever setup with a disappointing payoff, that could be helped with a little tightening of the actual story and a few more jokes that aren’t just naughty-word-humour. Credit where credit is due, however, the ensemble — Thomas Sparrow and Jess Davies in particular — turn in such vivacious performances that this reviewer would be curious to see what this team does next. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 17 August)

 

The Half (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-26 Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“A superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

This new play from Danielle Ward is a bleak yet richly rewarding hour; it picks many scabs and asks many fascinating questions of audiences — not only audiences of this show in particular, but audiences of comedy acts in general. Anna Crilly and Margaret Cabourn-Smith make up the onstage presence, as former members of a popular comedy double act, Anderson and West, a duo that achieved some success until their goals became too distanced from each others’. Over the course of this frequently hilarious hour, Ward explores how such formerly good friends and fruitful collaborators could fall so far out of amicability, and has some damning implications for the demands of show business itself. 

West (Crilly) opens the show as she prepares for a live charity event in which is she is to be forcibly reunited with her former comedy partner Anderson (Cabourn-Smith). The two have not spoken in ten years, for specific, shocking reasons that Ward wisely conceals until the play’s remarkable concluding moments. Crilly is grounded and sympathetic as the ostensibly weaker, more shameful West, opposite Cabourn-Smith’s dissimilar Anderson, whose comedy career has been skyrocketing for years. As they meet again, pleasantries are quickly swiped aside in favor of vicious indictments of each other’s characters — made all the more incisive by their cool, collected deliveries and artfully verbose wordings. Anderson in particular is given some excellent lines and jabs that she capably stabs in West’s direction, from mocking her brief career as a vacuum-cleaner spokeswoman to bemusedly grimacing past the failed comedian’s explanation of her lamentable new interest in podcasting.

Beyond the lines, The Half features some laudable aesthetic and technical choices, such as frequent flashbacks that prove affecting both in form and content. These flashbacks, which ultimately retell the story of how the two comedians met, are carefully crafted, so that both actresses effectively sound and appear younger and conspicuously less world-weary, which is achieved with great success. Cabourn-Smith in particular changes her characterisation with commendable grace; to be fair, for reasons that might spoil the show’s excellent ending, it is understandable why Crilly leaves more of West’s characteristics constant through the time-jumping progression. Formally, there is a similarly intelligent choice made in how the flashbacks occur: the ‘modern day’ story, of the two women awaiting this reunion show in a dressing room, is intermittently frozen by a recollection of an old memory, and each time, Anderson moves downstage right and waits for West to dutifully fetch the costumes and props necessary to perform the recollection in question. Crilly’s expressions are excellently measured for these moments, as she imbues West with both a morbid interest in reliving what happened all those years ago, and a marked agony in having to accept that she was destined to be the underachiever between them. 

Yet, to its credit, The Half makes the viewer question whether terms like ‘underachiever’ or ‘success’ in show business ought to mean at all. There are excellent ruminations on resistance, resilience, dignity, and concession in the arts, particularly for female artists, which build with growing intensity for a conclusion that is on par with the most dramatic offerings this Fringe has to offer. Accompanied by a haunting repeated musical cue, the ultimate climax and denouement of The Half are horrifyingly effective, almost to a fault, for the downward spiral is so all-encompassing that all the admittedly razor-sharp comedy of the previous minutes feels unwelcome in one’s memory — such is the effect of the chosen ending for Ward’s narrative.

Overall, however, though the tone leaves the viewer on some possibly too-sudden misery, the ride as a whole is well worth the high drama; this is a superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander that deserves a wide audience.

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

The Understudies (Bedlam: 13-19th Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“Fantastic creativity under pressure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a very laid-back feel to The Understudies as they take to the stage dressed with a Breakfast Club vibe. Indeed, it’s quite a pleasing difference to the high octane energy of some other groups out there, and the introduction to the troupe and process of selecting a show title from audience suggestions is very personable, winning the audience over straight away.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to get up and improvise a show to a room full of strangers – moreso when there’s singing involved. The group opening number is a chance for each player to have their moment in creating a verse of the ditty on the spot, and it’s a positive start as to what to expect from the rest of the show – even though it’s disappointing this is one of precious few occasions that all players appear on stage together to demonstrate their prowess as a company.

Particularly amusing elements throughout the show are when two players are mid conversation in a scene, and MD Sam Coade just starts playing, forcing one of the players to begin a song about whatever they were talking about. Indeed, the strength of the Understudies is in the individual players themselves who display fantastic creativity under pressure and an ability to commit to their personal stories throughout.

In saying that, what holds this troupe back is their cohesion as a group – in this performance the players seemed to contradict each other or get too bogged down in their own storylines, which led to a lot of loose ends, changes in direction, and an almost competitive rather than collaborative feel. Indeed, at points there was a reticence from some players to jump on stage and save their counterparts at difficult moments, rather than relish in the opportunity to create more fun. There were some attempts at backing dancing and vocals to create more depth and variety in the numbers, and it’s a shame these never came to very much.

The Understudies is a good fun show packed with all the giggles you would expect from a completely improvised musical. It lacks the professional edge of some of the other companies out there doing similar things, but a good value show all the same – there are far worse things you could do with your afternoon.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED