skirt (Royal Scots Club: 6-11 Aug: 18:30: 90 mins)

“Current and compelling”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Becs is leader of the opposition party in Scotland, and first choice of its head honchos to take over as party leader at Westminster (with a good chance of becoming Prime Minister at the next general election). But when opportunity knocks, she’s got to act quickly, and what unfolds is the story of how Becs reaches her decision to follow her dream to lead the country – or not. She must consider her mother’s degenerative disease, her children (one of which is fostered), her best friend’s family breakdown, and the fact that she’s single – wouldn’t having a partner make her so much more electable?

The themes and issues presented in skirt are very current, and it’s compelling to see how the various conflicting interests might be resolved in today’s social climate. The overt opinions of her political colleagues elicit their fair share of gasps and giggles, though her personal politics and views are barely mentioned – that’s not what’s important here. Indeed, the wider discussion of the piece is about choice and the power we (especially women) have over our own destiny.

While Becs’s is the primary storyline within the play, the main scene (which makes up the bulk of the 90 minutes running time) is a birthday party for one of her friends, attended by a host of characters who all share their personal woes. Throughout this scene it’s quite challenging to keep on top of who everybody is, how they are related, and how their story connects to the main narrative. Some interesting scenarios and tensions are shared, but as the characters leave one by one, it feels like there are many loose ends still to be tied up.

Indeed, what’s most frustrating about this performance is how many extraneous branches and avenues Claire Wood’s script attempts to sidle along simultaneously – for me there are simply too many characters and threads running through the piece detracting from the most important one, which could be expanded to give more depth and tension to the dilemma faced by the central character. There’s a lot of excess chat, meaning that important decisions and revelations come about far too quickly to be wholly believable.

From a performance perspective, it’s a tough ask for Helen Goldie as the leading lady to cut through the very busy scenes – especially early on – but in the quieter moments and political meetings she comes across as very natural and personable, carefully balancing sensitivity with authority. In addition, Leanne Bell impresses as moody teenager Bea, Gregor Haddow brings a pleasing calmness to proceedings as Toby, while Dan Sutton is wonderfully repugnant as politician TM.

Overall, it’s really encouraging to see a new piece of feminist writing on this topic being developed in Edinburgh, and while this version isn’t perfect, there is so so much potential for it to become a powerful piece worthy of large audiences. I hope this isn’t the last we see of it.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Finding Peter (Gilded Balloon Teviot – Wine Bar: 12, 14-27 Aug: 10:00: 45 mins)

“The pacing is perfect. Just as one starts to wonder if the energy is ebbing, a fresh riptide of song and participation rolls in.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Wendy, John, and Michael are all in pajamas, but the siblings aren’t going to bed. Not just yet. They’re telling stories to one another on familiar themes. Pirates, native folk, the Lost Boys, sword fights, and (of course) Peter Pan. Enter the fairy Tinkerbell, so small we can only detect her presence via the sound effect of a bell ringing. Peter’s in trouble, held prisoner by a mutinous deserter from The Jolly Roger, and her captain, James Hook. Wendy announces that she will go alone to save the day, despite the brothers’ whines and protests.

Upstage centre is a mess of boxes and fabric behind which costume changes and bell ringing occur. The height is perfectly judged, forcing the players to come down to the level of the wide eyes gazing back at them. The costumes are basic, student night attire occasionally highlighted with something from the dressing up box. I wanted more, but the show isn’t for me as Granny / Mother-Out-Law censoriously reminds me afterwards.

While the set, lighting, and sound are minimal (perhaps even too minimal), the performances are turbocharged and ultra engaging. From the moment we enter, the smiles are set to max. If bubbly cheeriness were a communicable ailment, we’d all be in quarantine for a month. Jenny Witford, as Wendy, leads the trio. She’s the voice of reason and authority, the Atlas holding up worlds within worlds. Think Graham Chapman in a Monty Python classic, surrounded by an unending pageant of colourful minor characters. Jessica Arden and James Tobin take turns inhabiting (with varying levels of success) each of the personalities Wendy encounters on her journey to find Peter.

The pacing is perfect. Just as one starts to wonder if the energy is ebbing, a fresh riptide of song and participation rolls in. Frankie Meredith jam packs the hour like one of these Facebook videos explaining how if you roll up all your clothes and put your toothbrush in an old water bottle you’ll only need carry on for your 6-8 month around the world adventure. Pace and performance – they’ve got to be done right and Finding Peter gives a masterclass on how to get them right.

Meredith’s script seems to exist on three dramatic planes. The first is the siblings’ collective imagination, their dressing up and acting out. The second is the actors’ interactions through the fourth wall, audience interaction and knowing winks – “Well of course I want you two to come too” Wendy tells her brothers, “but then who would play all the other characters?” The third dramatic plane is Neverland, where most of the action occurs. Perhaps the lines between the planes could have been sharper, the internal logic more rigorous – but, again, who am I to argue when Daughter 1.0 (3 years old) is having such a blast?

This show is for her and it delivers. JM Barry’s familiar themes are delivered even without the “Art budget? Was there an art budget? I thought we had an unending ocean of cash.” advantage of the 2003 movie. Daughter 1.0 comes out of the show buzzing as though she really has been sprinkled with fairy dust. She could fly off at any moment her thoughts are that happy.

The Teviot Wine Bar is a tough space to convincingly fill, especially as this show isn’t getting the audiences it deserves, half a dozen in when we were there. You can do this very talented company and yourself a favour by getting out, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, to see this rollickingly gentle tribute to a classic family favourite.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 August 2018)

Visit the Assembly Roxy Bedlam Church Hill Theatre Festival Theatre King’s Theatre Other Pleasance, Potterrow & Teviot Summerhall The Lyceum The Stand Traverse archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Paddington Bear’s First Concert (Underbelly, Bristo Square – Cowbarn: 12, 14-26 Aug: 11:20: 60 mins)

“There’s balloons, inflatable fruit, Hungarian folk dancing, sing-alongs, and more than a bit of mayhem.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Beloved bear. Slick marketing. Fabulous venue. Great timeslot. This was always going to be a formula that would bring in the punters. The queue stretches round the block. My heart sinks a little. Nothing this popular can possibly be any good. That’s the rule. Except of course that our Paddington Bear breaks all the rules.

We’re at the famous London railway terminus. An orchestra rushes through the audience trying (unsuccessfully) to catch their train. Their unscheduled delay provides a window of opportunity to tell the story of a stowaway bear, the family he adopts, the people he meets, and his first ever concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Along the way we meet the members of the orchestra, learn about how to conduct them, and how to make them go faster, and faster, and faster. There’s balloons, inflatable fruit, Hungarian folk dancing, sing-alongs, and more than a bit of mayhem. If you are planning on seeing a live action show replete with actual bear (or becostumed stand in) you will leave this show disappointed. If, on the other hand, you are even a little bit curious, easily excited, and unashamedly thrilled by people who can do something amazing (like playing musical instruments really, really, really well) then you will leave Paddington Bear’s First Concert more than a little happy.

A quick glance at the critical reactions to Paddington Bear’s First Concert and it’s clear that the underpaid, under-informed, overworked misery-gutses are out in force. This isn’t (shock-horror) a show aimed at a world weary 20 something reviewing 15 shows a day irrespective of genre or personal preference. It is however the real deal. Paddington’s creator Michael Bond and musical godfather Herbert Chappell wrote this adaptation in 1984. Perhaps this joyful and jovial revival ought to make more of its authenticity amid all that slick advertising?

Paddington Bear’s First Concert really is a concert. A group young musicians play a range of strings, woodwind, and brass instruments under the watchful eye of their conductor who is also our storyteller. Her performance is pitch perfect. Beside me Daughter 1.0 (aged 3) is entranced, it’s not hard to see how that stuff with that piper in Hamelin went down so easily.

Bond and Chappell’s genius, or perhaps sleight of hand, was to create a show which quietly makes the introduction – “children meet classical music, classical music meet children” – without fanfare or condescension. There is an unhealthy notion abroad in Britain that high art should be taken and endured like bad tasting medicine. Paddington Bear’s First Concert remains a guaranteed cure against all such silly, self-defeating cynicism.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 August 2018)

Visit the Assembly Roxy Bedlam Church Hill Theatre Festival Theatre King’s Theatre Other Pleasance, Potterrow & Teviot Summerhall The Lyceum The Stand Traverse archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Definition of Man (Greenside @ Infirmary Street: 3-25 Aug: 11:25: 60 mins)

“Powerful and emotive”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Two performers enter the space, wearing rags and looking dishevelled. It appears they have been alone in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for some time – though for how long doesn’t seem important. What follows is a journey of how two people might survive (purely from a psychological perspective) in this situation.

Definition of Man is created by performers Jason Rosario and Nikki Muller, and could crudely be described as part Waiting for Godot, part DV8 physical theatre piece. After the initial wasteland scene, the performance darts back and forth between mini lectures about chemicals within the brain, personalised accounts of growing up as the child of an immigrant or ‘other’ in the USA, and much more besides. The level of detail in each section demonstrates impressive research and creativity, though comprehension is the main sticking point.

To begin with, there’s a bizarre jarring between the words in the script and the action on stage: the upbeat voices and physicality of the performers seem at odds with the sense of desperate survival implied by the words they say. Then the whistle-stop tour through all the other elements makes it hard to decipher just what, when, and who this show is about.

Only in the second half of the piece do the threads start to come together, and the crux of the relationship between the two characters comes to the forefront – just what happens to two lovers when they are left alone in the world for an inordinate amount of time? The final moments between Muller and Rosario are a powerful and emotive interpretation of this, though it’s a shame this depth comes so late on.

The action is punctuated throughout by some genuinely impressive lifts, balances and counter-tensions, which are an effective way to highlight apparent changes in power and focus between each character, and the emotions at play. When combined with colour design and subtle sound-scaping, moments within this performance really do shine.

To me, though, it feels like there are almost too many themes and ideas crammed into this piece, diluting what could be a compelling discussion into and presentation of the relationship between two people in an extreme environment. With so many different strands, it’s really difficult to get into and connect with the performance and work out what it is and where it’s going.

Overall, Definition of Man is an interesting and intense production that certainly gets the cogs whirring, but unfortunately, for me, it’s all a bit too confused and busy to have the impact it has the potential for.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Formation Festival: Straight Outta Saughton (7-8 July)

“Charming”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Straight Outta Saughton presents the unlikely but intriguing scenario of two recently released inmates (and cellmates) from HMP Edinburgh banding together to perform as drag queens, having struggled to find other employment. The senior, and more confident of the two, Peter (Callum Thomson) is old hat and knows his way around a wig and a pair of heels, but his younger (and very vocally heterosexual) counterpart Dave (Greg Sives) is most certainly not in his comfort zone, setting up a potentially juicy 45 minutes of real-time action before the two must take to the stage and lip-synch for their living.

Katy Nixon’s script is charming throughout, setting up a very believable situation, peppered with relevant and laugh-out-loud witticisms. It teases out revelations about each character at a good pace, setting up a fair amount of twists and turns to maintain interest.

What’s missing though is a real sense of narrative drive and urgency to keep the action moving and create more dynamics within the piece. While director Deborah Whyte does well to make the most of the small performance space and create different levels throughout, it does sometimes feel a little flat and laboured. The action often comes across as very “blocked” and unnatural, while it’s disappointing not to see more made of the make-up makeover, which feels a bit rushed and underutilised, both artistically and metaphorically.

It’s the actors who really make this piece shine though. Thomson is a natural on the stage, and commanding in his portrayal of the flamboyant Peter. He also shows great emotional range when opening up about his more personal life and demonstrates great dexterity throughout. Sives is more subtle as the reluctant Dave, but every inch believable in his frustrations and discomfort about the situation he finds himself in. The pair have great chemistry together and I could easily watch them for longer.

There’s definitely something here, that with a bit more workshopping could become a really gripping play. Still, it’s a very enjoyable production as it is, and I hope we see more of it in the future.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 July)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

EIFF: “In Darkness” (28 June ’18)

“A daringly twisty, commendably unpredictable erotic thriller with much more to it than meets the eye.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

If and when you watch In Darkness, you will think a lot of thoughts. Many of them might go something like “What just happened?” or “What am I watching?” or “Is this all the same movie?” but suffice it to say that this daringly twisty, commendably unpredictable erotic thriller has much, much more to it than meets the eye. That is not always a good thing, as the film spends most of its runtime running off the rails of its supposed ‘plot,’ but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t an entertaining trip.

The film was written by real-life partners Anthony Byrne and Natalie Dormer; Byrne directs, Dormer stars. If you are fan of Ms. Dormer’s, possibly from her star turns in Game of Thrones or the Hunger Games franchise, then you will enjoy this film. It is a star-vehicle through and through, with nearly every shot focusing on some part of Dormer, whether her striking face or nimble physicality. Notably, Dormer proves her mettle as a very capable lead actress, and this film makes a solid case for more female-led stories written by the actresses themselves; Dormer’s character, Sofia, is a well-rounded and trustworthy focal point of the story, flitting through classy and dangerous scenarios with grace and thrilling movement. 

If only the story was as well-rounded and trustworthy. Heavens, what a license Dormer and Byrne’s story takes with the audience’s suspension of disbelief! After a striking, standout title sequence (which sets the stage excellently for a slick, exciting thriller to come), we are introduced to Sofia, a blind musician who glides around London with remarkable street smarts and style. The first 20-25 minutes continue like this, with a rich aesthetic palette and a fun, knife-edge sense of building danger. Her upstairs neighbor Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) is clearly wrapped up in some nasty business, and when she turns up dead on the pavement outside their building, the plot thickens with Hitchcockian craftiness. Who killed her and why are the setup for the rest of the film’s twists and turns, but without spoiling anything, let me forewarn you that Veronique quickly becomes old news in favor of a much scummier, more complicated spider’s web of crime and revenge. 

For the first leg of In Darkness, the film makes a truly riveting imitation of classic Hitchcock and Wait Until Dark-esque blind-character craftwork — especially in a tense, nail-biting scene where assassin Marc (Ed Skrein) intends to kill Sofia for what she has seen, but notices her blindness and decides to follow her around her apartment in silence. Scenes like these are so fun and well crafted that the later dramatic shifts in tone and focus are more unfortunate than thrilling — there is a notable shift from Hitchcock to Jason Bourne all of a sudden that undoes a great deal of the film’s accomplishments with head-scratching intensity. 

Ultimately, that is the central problem of In Darkness — it has so many fetching elements to it, from the compelling star to the vintage first chapter to the stupendous use of music (again, only up until the tone change), yet it keeps undoing all that commendable work with silly plot twists. Twists, plural, mind you — each of which edge the film closer to completely undoing itself. As a fan of twists myself, I commend Dormer and Byrne’s ballsiness in their final few reveals, but I came out of the theatre feeling played for a fool, rather than hoodwinked by a clever storyteller. 

In Darkness is amusing genre excitement, and has potential as a twist-film highlight among those who enjoy just being confused, but it will mostly remind you how much better a straight-shooting classic crime thriller treats its own plot. Credit belongs to Natalie Dormer, however, for rooting it all in a fascinating lead — I can honestly say I would watch whatever she writes and stars in next. 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 28 June)

Go to In Darkness at the EIFF

EIFF: “Humor Me” (28 June ’18)

Image courtesy of LA Film Festival

“Explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A warning to all who see this film: you will be telling and re-telling all the giddily awful jokes and one-liners within it to yourself and whoever will listen for days to come. Sam Hoffman’s Humor Me is a mixed bag of thin plotting, some uneven performances, and a few touching moments, but its elaborate jests are a laudable standout. As a relatively well-crafted, harmless dramedy, it satisfies.

The film stars New Zealand comedy goldmine Jemaine Clement as Nate, a self-doubting playwright, who hits rock bottom all at once and must move in to a retirement home community with his father Bob, played by the legendary Elliott Gould. Lowbrow yet brilliant jokes are Bob’s stock and trade, and Hoffman must be commended for the reverent way he realizes the elaborate scenarios the setups describe. Humor Me opens in striking monochrome, with vintage music and sound, all amusingly presented as if it is meant for a different film entirely, until Gould’s voiceover begins and it becomes clear this is all leading towards an elaborate punchline. These visuals return every time a particularly long-winded joke is delivered, and the effect is far and away the most memorable and creative aspect Humor Me has to offer. Not to imply that the film is otherwise dithering, far from it, yet nothing quite fits together as well as these scenes.

Clement is a pleasant lead, albeit with a slightly strangled delivery here and there, which can be forgiven as his American accent is not his natural lilt. Gould is certainly a standout for his layered portrayal of the aging jokester, especially in later scenes of conflict; two quite moving examples can be found in moments where Nate questions how Bob has moved on after his wife’s passing, for one, and most notably when they re-watch a VHS of Nate’s first play, which includes, and indicts, an all-too-familiar joking father who seems to ignore pressing problems within his own family. In scenes like these, the film explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace. 

However, the weaker sides of the film are unfortunately hard to overlook. While the monochrome joke-telling segments are delightful, most of the rest of the comedic lines are just not all that funny. To paraphrase an ‘SNL’ (NBC’s Saturday Night Live) zinger, the lines are funny, but not “ha-ha” funny. The whole script is reminiscent of the kind of neurotic-chic off-Broadway play that Nate himself works on within the film, yet it is unclear whether Hoffman finds this style laughable or laudable. The title of Nate’s first play, A Crack In the Clouds, and the way he speaks about theatre in general, are so pretentious that one would think Hoffman is making a joke about derivative, self-important writing, yet the film itself has lines and scenarios just as irritatingly overwrought as the plays he seems to be mocking. One montage in particular, set to the song “Be Ok” by Ingrid Michaelson (who plays supporting love interest Allison fairly well) is just so twee I thought I would implode. Michaelson’s character, and the character of Nate’s ex-wife (played by Maria Dizzia), are also low points in the script; with the exception of some very amusing old ladies, most of the female characters are complete afterthoughts or stereotypes, particularly the ‘heartless ex-wife’ schtick, personified in a character so unbelievably cold and uncaring that one might reasonably think Hoffman has a serious hang-up about ex-wives. 

Hoffman, previous to his filmmaking career, was well-known as the creator of popular podcast Old Jews Telling Jokes, which is everything it says on the tin. It comes as no surprise then that this, his feature debut, is basically Old Jews Telling Jokes: The Movie, but if that sounds up your street, then by all means give the overall pleasant Humor Me a go. 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 28 June)

Go to Humor Me at the EIFF