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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Ian Smith: Half-Life (Underbelly Bristo Square : Aug 4-11, 13-25 : 17:15 : 1hr)

“Punchy and delightful.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

As far as conversation starters go, Chernobyl isn’t exactly a trip down gumdrop lane. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to talk about, but generally speaking you’re not gonna squeeze a lot of laughs out of decay rates and radiation sickness. There are, of course, exceptions which prove rules like that – and Ian Smith is one of them.

As with any stand-up, we start with what the audience first sees: the persona. Smith’s stage manner is at once very familiar, yet just odd and unexpected enough to differentiate him from the droves of high-energy, earnest comedians who crowd the clubs each Fringe. There is a real genuineness to Smith’s performance -whilst completely unafraid to throw himself into whatever the set demands, there is nevertheless a vulnerability to his delivery. A subtle-but-not-unwelcome shakiness as he dismounts a punchline, as if he can’t believe he’s doing stand up. It goes a long way to closing the gap between performer and audience, though in Underbelly’s “intimate” Buttercup venue, this gap is certainly more metaphorical than physical.

The set itself? Comedy uranium. If you thought the effects of radiation were unpredictable, Smith has something coming for you: it’s functionally impossible to tell exactly what the slant of the next joke will be, or where a setup is going to lead. You can try and guess what’s coming before wit hits the lips – but prepare thoroughly for disappointment.

It’s clear from the outset that Smith thrives in the limelight, his best material comes when the pressure’s off: skated in at the end of another joke, or a quick aside away from the mic. There’s an insistent wit bubbling under the lid of Half-Life, and adds an almost mischievous edge to a set whose main quality is sheer affability. It’s a quixotic, apolitical journey through the trials and tribulations of a man who, ultimately, just wants to get through to the other end with all his limbs attached. In a post-Carlin, post-Brexit comedy landscape, that’s rarer than might be hoped.

Watching Ian Smith onstage is like watching a man being interrupted by himself, and it’s where he’s strongest. When he’s pulling suddenly off the expected course, the exits are exhilarating. However, that also plays in the other direction: when a joke outstays its welcome, the performance really feels the drag. Smith sometimes seems hesitant to take his laughs and run, and that focus on bleeding every possible laugh has a palpable effect on his flow. Though consistently high energy, Half-Life wasn’t consistently high confidence, and that’s a genuine shame: his material is punchy and delightful, and far more endearing than even Smith himself seems to believe.

Even the use of powerpoint, an oft-loathed enemy of mine, was integrated with consistent quirk and surprising seamlessness. The reality created by Half-Life – full of pigeons doing weird things and OAP scrabble tournaments – is strongly cohesive and only extended by Smith’s clever use of tech. In all, it creates the sense of a complete show: the quintessential Fringe experience of disappearing into some alternate world for an hour, and emerging Alice-esque after what seems moments. Nothing which is not purposefully highlighted becomes visible, and it’s that kind of production sleight-of-hand which marks a certain amount of care behind the scenes.

The bottom line? Ian Smith is an archetypical Fringe performer with an atypical wit, and well worth your time. It might be named after a meltdown, but Half-Life glows.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 5 August)

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Chris Washington: Raconteur (Baby Grand, Pleasance : Aug 5-25 : 20:15 : 1hr)

“His delivery is absolutely superb.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars : Nae Bad

It was a big weekend in Wigan. The local football club had run a competition to design a new mascot. The winning entry was the glorious: Crusty the Pie. Better still, over 50% of the entrants suggested that the new mascot be a pie.

If you have a soul, at this point in reading the review you will be warming to Wigan. Perhaps even thinking of a summer holiday there. Who wouldn’t want to spend a week or so in a place so devout in its worship of pies?

Chris Washington is from Wigan. But he isn’t just from Wigan: he clearly loves and is of the place. It is hard to dislike him. You immediately warm to him – and to warm to him is to warm to the pie capital of the world.

Before the show starts there is a board on the stage which says something along the lines of “if Washington took more risks he would be on his way to the big time”. Later, it is replaced with “#leastriskycomicinthebiz”.

As he puts it, and having recently learned what the word means, he is a raconteur. His show is him telling a series of stories about things that have happened to him over the last year: getting engaged, going to Australia and the culture shock he experienced; his favourite kebab house getting a zero rating for hygiene; his fondness for garden centres and late night petrol stations.

To say he was laid back would be an understatement. He rightly – in my view – mocks other comics who take themselves two seriously pointing out that he has three GCSE’s one of which is in Food Technology. He asks why would anyone want to know his thoughts on Brexit? Why would anyone want any stand-up comic’s view on Brexit? Well quite so. We wouldn’t ask Mark Carney to crack gags so I’m never really sure why comedians feel the need to rant about political issues (especially if everyone in the crowd agrees with them anyway). He then delivers probably the best Brexit joke of the Fringe almost as a throw-away line.

Washington exudes charm. He may lack ambition, but this is a man who used to be a postman. He knows treading the boards is better than tramping the streets. He knows about life, and that there are more difficult things to do than telling jokes. He is acutely aware what a privilege it is to go round the world telling jokes and stories and have the audience laughing along. This is a man who loves his job. It is difficult to be so casual, almost conversational with an audience, but the best comics can do just that – and Washington does so with ease.

There were stronger sections than others. I found an extended tale about go-karting perhaps a little longer than it needed to be but his jokes about mindfulness made me laugh and wince in equal measure. His adventures in Australia were very funny. Rarely has a man cared so deeply about his local kebab shop but all of this – grounded in the local, the mundane – was where he really shone.

His riffing at the start of the show off the audience was top-notch and he clearly has the brain and wit to do more of that if he wished. His gentle mocking of a late comer was done with care and warmth rather than than the sneer and snort elsewhere.

It is easy to see a Northern comic who tells stories of every day life and think of Peter Kay. Washington veers away from ‘remember when’ but isn’t a million miles away from Kay. His jokes about his dad’s jet lag had me guffawing mightily as did his trip to a wedding fare. His accidental views on cyclists brought proper belly laughs from most in the room. An insight into everyday life is never a bad thing.

With a bit of tightening this show could easily go from a 4 to a 5. His delivery is absolutely superb, for the most part. At other points some of the stories ramble or don’t quite hit how he’d like to. I don’t think he needs to be edgier or riskier. He may need to be a little more brutal with what he cuts and what he keeps but that is minor stuff. He even inspired me to get a kebab on the way home.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Rob Marrs  (Seen 3 August)

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Ray Badran: Everybody loves Ray, Man (The Cellar, Pleasance : Aug 5-11, 13-25 : 21:45 : 1hr)

“His highest heights are high indeed.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars : Nae Bad 

I had spent the day watching the world’s superlative sporting battle. No, not Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest – compulsive though it is – but England versus Australia for the latest installment in the immortal tussle for the Ashes. Nails bitten to the quick, beers had been drunk, nerves were shredded. It would be fair to say that my disposition towards our friends from the Antipodes was not imbued with the spirit of friendship which usually binds the Commonwealth.

Of course that old tart, Fate, likes to throw down the odd googly every once in a while to keep us on our tippy toes. So when I booked a last minute show at the Pleasance, I was brought face to face with the old enemy. The thought, however, of Ray Badran secreting sandpaper about his person was unthinkable. Indeed, seeing as at various points he took all of his clothes off I was visibly reassured he was on the level.

But what of his show?

The show was intimate  – maybe 50 people watching – which is probably to Badran’s strength. His self-deprecating humour lends itself to a tight venue, as does his crowd interaction.

It was a curate’s egg of a show. His ‘emergency joke’ was not a show saver as he joked but a showstopper. If it wasn’t so outrageous it would be a contender for gag of the Fringe. I just can’t see the Metro publishing bestiality. More is the pity.

His highest heights are high indeed. A hilarious tale about pretending to be disabled to fool his brother with inevitable results; a good riff on why so few things are measured in inches (I’ll never look at a Subway sandwich the same way again); using a YouTube clip to try and get an NI card; and a misplaced Deliveroo order were all genuinely funny. If he could have kept up that quality throughout we’d have a serious star on our hands and, perhaps, one day we will.

Other moments, though, weren’t quite there. His group work wasn’t as good as it might be. I suspect that he would be much stronger on home turf where he has the cultural references, the jokes about the town are obvious, the links clearer. After all, Australians can struggle in an English summer – or at least, here’s hoping.

Ultimately there’s little point asking where someone in the front row is from if you can’t spin it into a few gags. Given the young lady he picked on was from Aberdeen it wasn’t as though he was short of potential material but the section petered out. There were other moments when a joke didn’t work and he ended up joking about the failure. This is a good save so far as it goes but something you can really only do once per show. More than that and it serves a reminder to the audience that there is trouble at mill. A few of the longer stories fell flat. It really was a bag of revels.

That said, he’s clearly dedicated to the craft and confident enough to tell you what he is doing, telling the audience the stagecraft, and still get the laughs. Whilst the show lacked  a theme, being more a series of riffs, Badran’s final gag brought the show together – and drew both laughter and astonished applause.

It takes a lot in an Ashes summer to get a full-blooded Englishman willing an Ozzie on.  But I did. I liked him enormously and I think the rest of the crowd agreed
In cricketing terms, an Usman Khawaja rather than a Steve Smith. Moments of genuine brilliance amid some baffling choices which make you shake your head. You want to see more of him, you know how good he can be, and you look past the faults simply because you remember the perfect moment earlier on. Certainly – I’m very thankful to say – not a David Warner.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Rob Marrs  (Seen 3 August)

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EIFF: “She’s Missing”

“A captivating tale.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The American southwest clearly possesses an almost mystical charm that has again and again proven magnificently well-suited to the film medium. From Wim Wenders to David Lynch to Tarantino and beyond, filmmakers have been venturing down south and to the left to capture the inimitable feeling of the region for many years, to fabulous results. Now, with She’s Missing, Alexandra McGuinness adds another entry into the southwest canon, with a film that pays dutiful tribute to this tradition while spinning a rather captivating tale in the process. 

One might expect, from the bluntness of the title, a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery that rests more on its leading performances rather than its writing. The missing-woman narrative has not only been done countless times before, but is indeed a theme in a number of the films in this very festival, and promises few exciting possibilities without something particularly inventive thrown in. Thankfully, McGuinness does have a wild card to play, in her selection of leads; Lucy Fry, as the shy wallflower Heidi, and Eisa González (instantly memorable from her standout turn in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) as the much bolder, more ambitious, and more striking Jane. 

It becomes rather clear early on that while the narrative of She’s Missing begins trawling in unfortunately low-energy subject matter, the leading actresses are simply too good to let the film slip into mediocrity. González does very well in only a few initial scenes to establish her character’s magnetism, unpredictability, and indisputable dominance over the more accommodating Heidi, while Fry imbues Heidi with a curious devotion to Jane that oscillates between gentle, amicable affection and outright servitude. McGuinness, who wrote and directed the film, intelligently sets up their dynamics with a series of impressive show-don’t-tell choices, principally within scenes in which Heidi defers to Jane obediently, while Jane sees herself as generously guiding Heidi through a dangerous world. The opening shot, in particular, really tells us all we need to know, as Jane regally rides through the New Mexico desert astride a tall horse, and Heidi walks on foot beside them, leading the horse and doing most of the work, both seeming content with Heidi filling the more submissive role. In a prepared statement issued before the film, McGuinness suggested that to her, the film explores the complexities and toxicities of female relationships, and on that front, She’s Missing certainly accomplishes just that. 

Well, it does until the plot kicks in. As the title so unsubtly suggests, one of these ladies goes missing. It is not hard to spot early on which one it will be, and which will devotedly take it upon herself to drop everything and find her friend. When the investigation gets underway, however, the film becomes unfortunately stagnant and unfocused, with various intriguing but irrelevant subplots popping up and disappearing without much justification. One in particular, in which a somewhat suspicious cowboy type (Christian Camargo) romances Heidi with a mixture of pushiness and genuine charm, is certainly layered and results in some solid observations, yet fades away without having much to contribute to the established storyline beyond pithy insights into the complexities of the American southwest and southern male masculinity.

In this regard, notably, McGuinness deserves credit for portraying this American tale without lazy finger-pointing and condemnations; various Americana is portrayed with a refreshing nuance, as McGuinness’ camera explores local rodeos, gun stores, attitudes towards the Mexican border, southern music, and the ever-present mysticism of the desert with aplomb. To be clear, the cowboy adds a commendable layer of detail to the portrayal of the region, but nevertheless seems added in to let McGuinness make a legitimate but somewhat superfluous series of points given the film’s prevailing narrative. 

The major issue, again, comes when the aesthetics cannot make up for a rather limp plotline. Nothing really comes of the central story after the midway point, except some unearned leaps in narrative that introduce some quirky characters (including an entertaining turn from Josh Hartnett) but nothing particularly memorable or inventive. She’s Missing becomes rather easily divisible into three parts; the first, rich in aesthetic and narrative craft, the second, still striking a well-crafted mood but becoming less compelling, and the third, slipping away into the unshakeable feeling that McGuinness didn’t know how to end her ultimately unremarkable storyline. 

Perhaps the film’s original title, Highway, would set us up for a more realistic expectation of what the film offers: a sense of a region and set of characters in transit and transition, with interesting oddities flashing by but never lingering on any to great effect. Thankfully, Fry and González are with us for most of the film, so the ride is enjoyable essentially from start to finish, even if the attractions become conspicuously less inspired down the road. 

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller