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

“Brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

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

“This is must-see standup.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

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

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

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

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

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

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)

 

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

“The finest production I’ve seen this year”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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

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

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

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

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

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

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

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

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 20 August)

 

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

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Dangerous Woman (theSpace @ Jurys Inn: 6-15th Aug: 21:25: 60 mins)

“An electric hour of cathartic criminal exuberance.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

In a luxury suite in a Manchester Hilton sits a delightful collection of unexpected combinations: a silver tray holds strawberries and cocaine, a wrinkled Sainsburys bag is full of money, a thirty-something wife who but two years earlier felt her personality slipping away strokes her hefty handgun and plans to fly to an extradition-free country thousands of miles away. Such is the setup of Renny Krupinski’s A Dangerous Woman, a one-woman show acted thrillingly by Louise Nulty, laced of twists and twisted humor worthy of its fiery protagonist’s crazed expressions. While the script gets lost occasionally in its own wordiness, Nulty is deftly in command of her character’s story, and delivers an electric hour of cathartic criminal exuberance. 

Monica Sims, Nulty’s protagonist, is at the end of a tragicomic adventure when we first see her. She turns on a camcorder and aims it at a plush corner of her glamorous suite. The show plays out as Sims ‘confesses’ to her crimes, and in the process tells the winding story of how it all came to be. The narrative is certainly winding, but mostly quite compelling, helped along greatly by Nulty’s sharp comedic timing and breakneck pace of delivery. She expounds on her parents’ sham of a marriage, she paints a sweet picture of her romance with charming Colin, and recounts the tragedy of Colin’s ALS diagnosis and progression into vegetative state. These descents are craftily juxtaposed, in a clever move by Krupinski, by Sims’ growing interest in thievery and taking for the sake of taking. 

From swiping some product here and there from her perfume counter job to plotting more brazen robberies, Sims’ criminal preferences are deliciously explored by Nulty and Krupinski over the course of this show. Her recounting of her first serious robbery, of a Halifax, armed with a gun and a carrier bag, is a highlight, both for Nulty’s emboldened physicality and the hilariously dramatic robbery announcement speech she came up with. In moments like these, the cinematic influence of the freedom of criminality is very well incorporated into her rise to larceny; “Pulp Fiction, Dirty Harry… Shrek. It was all in there, my entire movie-going history” she quips.  

The beauty of A Dangerous Woman lies mainly in Sims’ relatable musings and method of liberation. Not that many of us have gone so far as to turn to crime to regain some spark from life, but the desire to become noticed, notorious, and even dangerous, is presented remarkably simply, so as to imply we all have had it in some way or another. On the other hand, some of the assertions Krupinski has inserted into the monologue are perhaps too much of a stretch to fit in with the rest of Sims’ characterization, such as the deeply morose trajectory of her husband’s story. However, in fairness, a central element of the realism of her character is that Sims is not straightforward or easily classifiable, and Nulty is such a dynamic performer that the more puzzling elements of her speech are easy to overlook. 

Credit must also go to the fascinating setup of the ‘confession.’ Sims ostensibly speaks to the ‘camera’ for the entirety of the monologue, a clever sidestep of the inherent strangeness of the one-person show — namely, that there is a crowd full of people sitting in darkness watching an individual ‘speak’ to them — because it roots her delivery in a specific subject. Yet this subject also recalls a wider form of confessional method: the all-seeing eye of digital media and the channels of personal expression it offers. This device adds an entirely new dimension to Sims’ explanation, as she can be seen as both proudly recounting her accomplishments as a housewife escaped from monotony to a life of excitement, and in another interpretation, an individual essentially afraid of letting her achievements go unappreciated. She is both owning her story and definitively preserving it; the audience is left to decide whether her confession is pathetic, or empowering.

Ultimately, though some lines and tangents feel somewhat too ferocious, the lion’s share of A Dangerous Woman is riveting and charming, bleak yet boisterous. Krupinski, winner of the Fringe First award in 2010 for Bare, has crafted another winning character, and Nulty has done a fabulous job of bringing this dangerous, complicated woman to life. 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 14 August)

 

Hitchcock’s The Lodger (artSpace @ St. Marks: 11 & 18 Aug: 22:15: 75 mins)

“A charming endeavour.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

If you’re a fan of silent films, Alfred Hitchcock, live music, and/or charming evenings of local talent, head down to St. Marks’ Church on Castle Terrace for this rewarding event. Instrumental group Gladstone’s Bag have returned for another year of live-scored entertainment, this time soundtracking Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 production The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog before your very eyes. The musical talent is impressive, the film is captivating, for what it is, and the artistry is a fine match and a pleasant alternative to crammed sweaty venues of the numerous Fringe acts one might find elsewhere.

There are only two performances of this live orchestration, reportedly so that each one is rehearsed to a T and the best it can be before showtime. This was apparent — the band was excellent and the instrumentation as entertaining as the film itself. The makeup of Gladstone’s Bag is a six-piece ensemble of piano, two violins, a flute, a clarinet, and a trumpet, and a theremin to boot. The pieces of music played were varied, with some classical compositions, some generic pieces from the 1920s era, and some from more recognisable composers such as Stravinsky — as explained in a helpful introduction, film music was not specifically meant for any particular film until well after The Lodger premiered, so the eclectic variety of the pieces that Gladstone’s Bag performed is reminiscent of how a 1927 screening may actually have sounded. Certain pieces held names as amusing as “Intensely Dramatic Scene”, which did the pulpy intrigue of Hitchcock’s serial killer story justice.

The film itself is very Hitchcock, and though at times it drags slightly, it is imbued for the most part with the same charm, wit, and technical skill he became famous for. As the bodies pile up and the protagonists twist and turn around each other in his signature fashion; it makes perfect sense why Alfred himself, though The Lodger was his third feature film, considered it the first “Hitchcock movie” of his career. 

Overall, this is a charming endeavour, with a pleasant setting and a moving orchestra, and a unique take on a Fringe Saturday night experience. It is not for everyone, but I am sure everyone would find something to appreciate, if not in the silent-film-era aesthetic then in Gladstone’s Bag’s gripping musical skill. See it for the film, for the orchestra, or even just to hear that theremin sing. 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 August)