“The Monstrous Heart” (Traverse Theatre, 22 Oct – 2 Nov : 19:30 : 1hr 15mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” Elegant and attentive direction”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

An obvious symbol lies on a table at the centre of the stage.

A dead beast as the first actor of an analogy game that unfolds itself like a Russian nesting doll – the monstrous, the wild, the Other, the Mother, the Daughter. A metaphor and, ultimately, a show that rushed like hot blood within a febrile body: hastily.

During a storm in the Canadian mountains, the prodigal daughter visits her mother after a long time to seek answers and amend past decisions.

The attempted analysis of the human passions and post-freudian determinism (which of course condemns women first) with clear romantic allegories (Frankestein, connection between nature and sentiments through sound and light design) fails along the way. A good idea, but unfortunately without resolution.

Director Gareth Nicoll’s taste for Shakespearean, abrupt violence and the delicate language of gestures are as easily seen in this production as his others. But even elegant and attentive direction and fairly competent acting cannot save a flat plot and circumspect script.

A neatly conducted rhythm at the first part of the dialogue becomes a self-explanatory, polarised monologue. Rather than raise drama or empathy, the self indulgent storytelling leaves one wondering if one character is listening to the story or the actress is simply waiting to say her speech.

There’s a lack of tension all the way through the script: the position of power remains always the same, embodied by the daughter, whose acting is quite hectic and leaves no room for audience expectancy at the beginning. Nevertheless, her physical characterisation is superb. The restraint of the mother was sometimes staggered by little details (dramatic hand tics in particular), but the character blossoms once she downs a dram and the actress allows herself to relax.

In short, this is a strong initial concept that craves revision. I hope that it’s returned to, for the simple reason that the idea, the discourse, the creative team’s work and the cast have so much to offer – but, unfortunately, cannot be cured from the restraints of the substandard playwriting.

Maybe the magnificence of a living bear cannot be portrayed if the insides are not beating guts, but soft stuffing.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 23 October)

Little Shop of Horrors (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: Aug 19 – 24 : 17:45: 1hr)

“A faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

I’ve always had a weakness for Little Shop. Call me puerile, but there’s a lot of musicals that’d benefit from a giant, bloodthirsty jazz plant. Fiddler on the Roof is an amazing show, but imagine Sunrise, Sunset with Levi Stubbs scatting in the background. It was with glee, then, that I saw a production was to be brought my doorstep.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Little Shop of Horrors is classic black comedy: a nerdy schmuck finds an alien plant that changes his life for the better – the only catch being that Audrey II demands human blood in exchange for continued success. Think Faust, if Faust was a rock opera set mostly in a flower shop.

Bob Hope Theatre stays true to this narrative whilst squeezing the original work into a tight hour – and, in that respect, it’s a real success. As someone who is shamefully familiar with its predecessors, places where material was cut and fused for time was surprisingly seamless, incorporating the dramatic flow into the changes with masterful attention to inter-scene connection. Though a few scenes (especially those reliant on emotional revelations) felt a little pressed for space, it’s a necessary evil of the Fringe business.

Performances are strong across the board, with every player slipping into Little Shop’s caricature cut-out roles with aplomb. Whilst not doing anything particularly new with the roles, there was no place where the demands of the characters were not met. Richard Cooper is wonderfully nebbish as Seymour, in stark contrast to Sarah Leanne-Howe’s Audrey – straight out of the pages of a 1950s Good Housekeeping. Kris Webb’s murderous Audrey II, whilst lacking the booming presence of his predecessors, brought a pointedly creepy smoothness to his role. Managing to look vaguely threatening in a big frond costume is tough, but honest to God it happens.

MVP of the production must go to Andy Moore, with his standout performance as Orin Scrivello. Energetic, gleefully sadistic and uncomfortably charismatic, Moore keenly captures not only the essential energy of the play, but also the essence of what makes his character such a joy to watch. Praise for energy also goes to Paul Stone as Mushnik. Though his accent takes certain peaks and troughs during the performance, he immediately lights up the stage with each appearance.

However, Little Shop demands more than theatrical chops. Rock Opera is a hard beast to wrangle, especially on the small stage. And don’t think for a moment that the singing performances in this show are not incredibly worthy – they are, especially in the case of Chiffon, Crystal & Ronette. However, technical mastery is just one facet of this kind of performance, and unfortunately, the necessary punch and energy required to really hammer home the intensity and spectacle of a rock opera simply wasn’t there. The songs had heart, but (apart from a select few) nothing every really comes in for the killing blow. Tension doesn’t range high enough, sorrow cannot go low enough. This is a cast with the potential to hit the audience like a sledgehammer, and it’s disappointing to see it miss.

It’s deceptively hard to pull off an established show, especially with a smaller budget and Fringetastic time constraints. The performance by Bob Hope Theatre, whilst not bombastic, is nevertheless a faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Will Gompertz: Double Art History – The Sequel (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 19 – 25 : 15:35: 1hr)

“A fun hour.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It’s a fairly uncontroversial opinion to say I like art. Art is pretty neat. Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Monet have pride of place in my apartment, but as far as really knowing anything about art goes, I’m basically like if someone put a dog in a high school class. Will Gompertz, of Tate and Guardian fame, assures me that he can change that in an hour.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a straightforwardly constructed piece: a humorous lecture wherein Gompertz teaches the fundamentals to a crowd of mostly drunk Fringe goers, with a ‘big exam’ as the dramatic raison d’être. There aren’t many shows where I find myself holding a tiny pencil, wondering if a joke is going to be on the test – though, it’s not as distracting as one might think.

And, overall, it works. It works better than one might expect, and that’s not simply down to the demureness of Edinburgh’s day drinkers. Gompertz proves to be a compelling core for a one man show, and brings an energy that’s seldom seen on the Fringe stage. It’s difficult to describe: somewhere south of nervousness, east of smug, and altogether interpersonally compelling. Evidence of his knowledgeability is widely documented, and this show merely adds to the pile. The way he handles the material, the genuinely loving lilt of his voice when describing a form of expression he clearly holds dear to his heart. Whether or not you even like art, Will Gompertz probably likes it enough for the both of you.

And, to his credit, I like art a little more after Double Art History. There’s a wealth of material presented in the short hour, and it’s presented well. Gompertz’ approach is highly accessible, aided by the bare smattering of tech, and almost lulls you into a false sense of ignorant security. If you’re irritatingly curious like I am, you’re guaranteed to have your attention held.

However, this is a show that leans harder on the “lecture” side of its composition, as opposed to the “Fringe show” side. The theatrical elements feel more like artifice than fully integrated parts of the production, and whilst lectures are by no means bad, that visible separation sometimes proves genuinely jarring. Key moments of audience interaction felt as if they had no reason to be happening, other than a misplaced sense of theatrical convention. Whilst playing up the cartoonish theatricality of the whole thing is a boon for marketing, I often found myself wishing I could have just listened to Gompertz talk shop for an hour, rather than listen to setups involving an art teacher who doesn’t exist.

That’s not to say the show isn’t charming. It is, and aggressively so. Gompertz and his crew create an atmosphere where, whilst everything doesn’t go right, it’s not for lack of earnestness. There is a fundamental joy about art at the heart of this show, and it shines clearly.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a fun hour, sitting in the presence of someone who knows their field inside out. Whilst it’s not likely to get your pulse pounding, you might come away with a better appreciation for what it means to make art.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist (Assembly George Square Gardens: Aug 19 – 25 : 21:00: 1hr)

“A gem of the surreal comedy scene.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

My consumption of Tom Lenk’s work, like many, is limited to his appearances on the small screen. His time as Andrew the reformed(ish) demon-maker-turned-sidekick in Buffy the Vampire Slayer definitely earned him a place in my heart, but that sells him short. He’s made appearances on the Broadway stage, is a playwright in his own right, and now (most importantly) the Edinburgh Fringe, in a show whose brief is impossible not to take a second look at.

Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is one of the most successfully surreal Fringe shows I’ve ever seen. The title both sums it up entirely, and fails spectacularly to capture anything of its substance at all. The premise itself sounds like the setup for a joke: a struggling, suicidal young man (writer Byron Lane) gets a knock on the door, and it’s Tilda Swinton. Everything unfolds from this single origin point, and blooms out in absurd fractals from there.

Don’t be fooled, though. From the moment Lenk arrives onstage as Swinton, that absurdity has justification. As the marketing may suggest, Lenk’s performance is the main event, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Lenk’s Swinton is so unconventionally charming that it’s hard to describe. It’s almost like the cubist version of charisma. Whether blowing in like a winter storm at a bag factory or whispering sweet nothings to an espresso machine, Lenk captivates a crowd like no other. It’s true spectacle, and well worth the price of admission.

This is not, however, a one man show. Walt, Swinton’s project and the main audience touchpoint, is a fine element of grounding in a show that could easily lose its feet. He does a very good job of playing constant foil to Lenk’s fifth-dimensional grandeur, and his puppydog appeal is undeniable – though, occasionally his delivery slipped from “sad and confused” to “disinterested”. Whilst in other shows this might slide, when playing on the same stage as a mad swan-lady from the nth dimension, it shows. As a writer, Lane should be incredibly proud not only of the task he’s undertaken, but the tightness of his script. The joke density is intimidatingly thick, and some sections feel as if the laughs are built in wall-to-wall.

Mark Jude Sullivan fits in perfectly to the heightened reality at both ends of the pole, pulling double duty as self-obsessed Bobby and Walt’s whitebread father. His quiet turmoil later in the show, oddly, is one of the most compelling emotive moments simply due to its relative silence. Opposite him is Jayne Entwhistle, whose portrayal of Walt’s mother is a pitch perfect rendition of the middle-American mom. However, I must particularly praise her as Wanda the line chef, a blink-and-you-miss-it character who (surprisingly) had some of the best lines and delivery of the entire show.

As a comedy, it’s hard to want more from Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist. Though (as is usual) a few jokes drag beyond their apex of funniness, it’s a tightly written and directed piece of absurdist theatre that knows exactly how to work its material. However, there’s an emotive undercurrent beneath the laughs, and it’s there that the show stumbles. Though by the end everything ties into a fairly satisfying pathos, the emotive content of the first half feels vestigial and undercooked compared to the piece’s stronger elements. Whilst certainly not a traditionally dramatic show by any means, it nevertheless lacked the emotional foundation needed to turn what is (admittedly) a great show into an outstanding one. That is perhaps the greatest frustration of director Tom Detrini’s work, which constantly teases at perfection but never holds it hard enough to stick.

Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is a gem of the surreal comedy scene, and very much one to catch while you can. Lenk is a tour-de-force as Swinton, and worth every since flouncing, strange moment. You might not be able to explain what you’ve seen afterwards, but I can guarantee you’ll feel positively about it.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 18 August)

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How to Mend the World with a Student Play (TheSpace on the Mile: Aug 16-17, 19-24 : 21:55: 45 mins)

“Delivers on every comedic promise it makes.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad 

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of my time in the arts. From HSLC Stage School (Hi Karen!) to these years at Edinburgh49, it’s been at least a few hundred hours of devotion sunk into the discipline of playing pretend. And, like a new parent, whilst this longterm commitment has given me an unquenchable affection for the stage, it has also filled me with a deep, bitter disdain. Disdain for self-righteous, zeitgeist-y directing; disdain for “visionaries” who make a lot of noise yet do nothing new; and dark, roiling acidic disdain for shows made to be edgy for the sake of fashionability.

There are many, many reasons to like How To Mend The World With a Student Play. In the service of objectivity, I will go through all of them at gleeful length. But my greatest admiration of this play is entirely personal, and entirely biased: Hyde-like, it has given voice to my worst impulses, and done so beautifully.

The premise of the play is simple: four students try and put together a new, #groundbreaking production of The Crucible in the forty five minutes they have before a funding meeting. To say any more than that would ultimately be pointless: How To Mend The World is a masterclass in comedic farce. There is no great plot twist or consolatory ending. In truth, there’s barely even a plot at all. This is a show that relies entirely on the ability of its actors and the quality of its character writing to justify its existence, and does so in spades.

The show presents itself with gleeful scathingness from the moment its actors arrive onstage: characters Jonty (Francis Nunnery) Felicity (Matilda Price) and Christian (Liam Hurley) offer deliciously satirical yet lovingly realised portrayals of the variously smug, unstable and utterly pathological millieu of the student stage scene. This entire review could be a rote praise-list for the talent of these three actors. Price somehow combines pitch-perfect character work with machine gun delivery speed, bouncing from outburst to outburst like an anxious pinball. Hurley, a man very obviously at home in physical comedy, presents the emotionally unstable Christian as equal parts likable, pitiable, and utterly infuriating. And Nunnery, saddled with the hardest character to make standable, brings a precise yet cartoonish spark to Jonti Bailey-Higgins that somehow justifies every terrible, terrible thing he does.

Special praise must also be given to Ollie Tritton-Wheeler, portraying the piece’s straight man Ben Hackett. Foils in comedy walk a constant tightrope between obvious audience mouthpiece and smug know-it-all, yet Tritton-Wheeler is content doing cartwheels on the rope instead. He is aggressively relatable and damn funny in his own right, managing to take an essential part of the comedy formula and really make it his own.

There is a raw consistency present in How to Mend the World, which runs systematically through every component of production. Though its staging is simple and its theatrical techniques basic, they’re incorporated like gears in a pendulum clock. The intent behind even the smallest FX flourish is at once immediately apparent, and completely fulfilled. Every comedic swoop and dive, whether reliant on human or technical resources, stuck the landing. Despite appearances, this production is clearly one where the idea of theatre as craftsmanship has flourished.

With craftsmanship in mind, special dues must be given to the writing. Devised pieces are mercurial creatures, entirely made or broken in the rehearsal room and unfortunately prone to acute textual bloat. Here, not so. The script for this production is undeniably tight, unavoidably witty and – perhaps most importantly – unmistakeably written from a place of first hand knowledge. I’ve met every character in How to Mend the World in jaundiced dressing rooms and smoky back exits. The genuineness of director Joshua Silverlock’s work lends it a palpable solidity, and keeps the material fresh by nature. Creating work like that is hard enough to do alone, let alone by committee. And yet, it is so.

I savoured every moment of How to Mend the World with a Student Play. It is a precious thing: a theatrical product which delivers on every comedic promise it makes, and doesn’t stop until its subjects are wrung out husks. If that alone isn’t worth the price of admission, then I don’t know what is.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 14 August)

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The First King of England in a Dress” (theSpaceTriplex, AUG 1-17, 19-24 : 50mins)

“Stuck in traffic on the A14, I’ll never look at East Anglia the same way again.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

At a rainy BBQ in Newcastle, en route to #EdFringe, I heard one auld pal explain where they lived, “it’s up the road from A. You know, down the way from B.” Up and down don’t enter the conversation much in the part of East Anglia I’m from. Not when it comes to directions. ‘Flat’ is the word. ‘Eels’ is another. The town of Ely is named for them. Dutch navigators, the digging ditches rather than the exploring East of Suez kind, put in the channel and loads which took care of the water but they didn’t get round to putting back the hills. I say putting back the hills because there were once hills in East Anglia, something I didn’t know until seeing ‘The First King of England in a Dress’.

We enter to find a wicker eel trap, eel spear and other assorted must-have items from the time when Saxons and Vikings lived in close disharmony a thousand or so years back. We are greeted by the actors, who put Daughter 1.0 (aged 4) and the other kids instantly at their ease. We are in for an hour of smashing storytelling set in a land divided and a country ready to be born.

Ethelred misses his mum. She was stolen from him by something worse than Vikings. So when a stranger asks his dad for a bed for the night, he is naturally nervous. But when the stranger and Ethelred start sharing stories of giants, frogs and magic, it isn’t long before they discover surprising secrets about each other…

Together actors Kate Madison, Chip Colquhoun, and Izzy Dawson craftily conjure a bygone age into something both comprehensible and real. Chip is the author of three books, one of which inspired the stage play. His writing style is hugely engaging, weaving big historical themes into material that is finely tailored to his young readership. The other two tomes are already Amazon Primed and on their way to Christmas stockings. A finicky reviewer, which I am, would suggest that the foreshortening required to fit EdFringe’s shorter timeslots could have been finer, but the kids didn’t seem to notice or care.

They were too busy being engrossed in making squelchy sounds to compliment characters walking through muddy bogs, and helping the cast out with their improvised make-up, mop wigs and hidden crowns. The kids are all having a great time, although some of the adults might have prefered fewer demands for their on-stage presence.

This adult, however, is extremely grateful to ‘The First King of England in a Dress’ for opening up the world of East Anglian folktales. It’s more than a little special to exit an EdFringe show considerably wiser than when you went in. Stuck in traffic on the A14, I’ll never look at East Anglia the same way again.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 13 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Edward Aczel: Artificial Intellect (Heroes @ Boteco, Aug 10-12, 14-25, 13:20: 1hr)

“A damn good time.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

If you’ve ever played Pac-Man, you’ll know that when you reach one extreme end of the maze, you come out the opposite side. I like that fact. It’s a useful metaphor for when something goes so far in one direction, it reverts back to its opposite starting point again. Jeff Goldblum is a good example of the Pac-Man effect: an actor who started out sexy, got weirder and weirder as time went on, then became so weird that he swung all the way back to sexy again.

Deadpan “anti-comedy” is very much the same thing. There is something so unspeakably absurd about good deadpan. When it’s done well, it’s the mark of a performer who understands mirth so well, they can appear utterly mirthless; or when the structure of a good joke is grasped well enough that it can be made to look like a bad joke. In that regard, Edward Aczel demonstrates the Pac-Man effect in spades.

There are many things to love about Artificial Intellect. If the high-energy atmosphere of Fringe is proving too much, Aczel may as well be a shot of Vicodin straight to the neck. Even audience participation seemed completely without pressure, because as Aczel reminds the crowd early and often: it doesn’t matter. There’s an almost calming nihilism to the whole prospect – Aczel appears as a man who is so given over to the dull reality of things, he’s like a Greggs-themed Siddhartha.

Aczel himself is compelling as a stage personality. His persona is somewhere between drunk librarian and divorced uncle, a combination which proves not only pleasing to watch, but unexpectedly charismatic. He when not leaning joylessly against the mic stand, he lazily floats around the stage like a stay dandelion seed, completely directionless inside and out. Better still, though, are brief moments in which he breaks character to laugh at an unexpected answer, and becomes the picture of mirth. There is something very rewarding about watching a performer whose love of their profession shines through, and even moreso if they can express it mostly through shrugging and talking about Dulux.

And the jokes – the jokes! Hard to talk about, even harder to pin down. Aczel is the Winchester Mystery House of comedy performers: there’s no telling whether you’re going to get a punchline or just fall off the face of the earth, and into another joke somewhere else. Deadpan comedy is a test of delivery and timing over pure content, and Aczel has it down to a tee. no hanging punchline ends with yearning or disappointment, because hey – nothing matters.

The usual defects with this species of set also apply here, though small in number: the laid back nature of audience participation meant that in certain sequences, Aczel almost got stuck into an infinite loop with unwitting members of the public, or jokes would trail ever so slightly over the line of outstaying their welcome. Though these moments of slowdown were easily accommodated into tone of the performance, but were nevertheless noticeable.

Artificial Intellect (which, at this late stage in the review, I must point out has literally nothing to do with AI or computers) is exactly what you need in the middle of the day. There is something freeing about Aczel’s approach to comedy, and when combined with his mastery of deadpan, it makes for a damn good time. Spectacle and high stakes are wonderful things, but sometimes all you need is a man slowly talking about nothing at all.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 7 August)

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