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

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

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

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

“Fantastic creativity under pressure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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

StarStarStarStar

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

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 August)

 

Model Behaviour (theSpace @ Jurys Inn: 3-11 Aug: 20:20: 50 mins)

“A dynamic, captivating winner of a show.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

It is rare a show can conjure so many forms of fascination and disbelief, yet still be so funny. Just some of the raw reactions one might experience during Issy Williams’ one-woman show Model Behaviour may include revulsion, shock, disgust, and most of all, genuine entertainment.  Williams, herself a former model, takes the audience on a no-holds-barred tour down the rabbit hole of the London modelling industry, which, needless to say, involves some disturbing body expectations, incisive judgement, and dubious morality. Yet Williams proves to be so much more than simply a guide speaking from experience; she embodies her character with a devil-may-care whistleblower’s confidence, who has seen the mortifying darkness of that life and is miraculously, thankfully, strong enough to laugh about it. With ambitious direction from Rachael Head, and a fiery, impressive script by Williams herself, their new company Marked Productions has a dynamic, captivating winner of a show on their hands.

Model Behaviour begins with Williams’ protagonist entering a suspiciously empty casting room, waiting for another shoot to begin, and from there, she walks the audience through how she came to be there, why that shoot in particular is so important, and the highs and lows of being involved in such a world. Williams is excellent in her role; she manages to balance deep sweetness, nimble humour, and some strikingly merciless quips as she weaves through anecdotes, impersonations and witty insights with ease and well-measured verve. Williams finds the funniest moments when she slows down, however, whether to simulate a particularly uncomfortable dating experience or re-live a brutally awkward moment between her and a homeless man she tries (and amusingly fails) to be of some assistance to. The humour is, in parts, so bleak (see: “It was the type of party where they served beautiful tiny canapés for everyone to throw up later”) that I would not blame those who might find it too much.

For the production does indeed ‘go there’ in terms of interpersonal, misogynistic abuse in the industry. A particularly nasty sequence towards the end is fascinatingly well-crafted; not only for the unsettling progression of the abusive events themselves, which at a certain point every audience member knows is going towards a terrible development, but also for its effect on the rest of the journey. The show therefore does its job very well, offering both an insight and a stark condemnation regarding the possibilities — both positive, negative and ambiguous — of the fashion industry.

With some fine-tuning, including perhaps a slight shortening of the elements relating to dating life and some more time about the mechanics of the industry, Model Behaviour could be a true standout in fashion-industry storytelling. Here’s hoping Williams continues to share her voice; I for one would be happy to see whatever she creates next. 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 August)

 

EH16: Pyre (theSpace Triplex: 3-11 Aug: 20:40: 45 mins)

“Commendable artistry.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Edinburgh-based company Nevermore Theatre has crafted a varied, conceptually rich take on three haunting stories with EH16: Pyre. The stories are brutal and unsettling examples of institutional cruelty towards women, made all the more horrifying given that they are all true. Yes, Agnes Samson was immolated in a witch trial; Jessie King was indeed involved in a tragic infanticide business and hanged for it; Violet Foster was devastatingly treated and denied assistance to the point she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. The performances are deft, the subject matter is affecting, and the show certainly lives up to Nevermore’s description of it as a “post-modern, feminist horror.”

Maegan Hearons, Gillian Bain, and Megan Travers — respectively playing Samson, King, and Foster — deliver solid turns as each haunted woman. They all utilise their physicalities intriguingly, and display some commendable artistry as they move about in carefully choreographed ways to create scenes and visuals to assist the stories being told. Haerons particularly delivers an arresting performance as the chronologically oldest subject Agnes Samson, whose only crime was performing abortions for young North Berwick girls who had no other way of carrying on. The desperation and calamity evoked in Haerons’ performance stands out in the intentionally uncomfortable approach of the production.

Bain and Travers turn in commendable performances as well — Bain’s facial expressions are certainly arresting as she describes her horrifying practice, and the fragility of Turner’s performance is heartbreaking as she embodies Foster’s tragic demise — yet overall, the production is let down by constant interruptions of its own high-quality elements. The beginning of the show is a questionable rendition of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor,’ which comes across as hokey rather than haunting, and is accompanied by an overlong dance sequence that seems misplaced for the ultimate tone of the rest of the show. In fact, though a lot of the choreography is graceful, too often the movements become tediously wiggly and over-produced, resulting in numerous dances that would benefit from some cutting down. During the third or fourth musical interlude one begins to wonder why EH16: Pyre spends so little time on the women’s actual stories, which are certainly fascinating, yet unfortunately under-discussed in this play dedicated to them.

This show is an interesting one, with a solid idea and commendable performances all around, yet unfortunately not quite enough structure to leave a deep impact. With some editing, however, Nevermore could have a deeply intriguing production on their hands, and haunt viewers deeply. The talent is there – it just needs a few more steps for the haunting to really stick.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 9 August)

 

The Big Lie: (theSpace @ Jury’s Inn: 6-16 Aug: 12:35: 50 mins)

“A story of blockbuster proportions”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Every now and then you hear a story and wish the whole world could hear it too. The Big Lie is one of those. Based on the real life of an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee (and a survivor of Saddam Hussein’s genocide) who earns her place as an associate at one of Sweden’s top law firms, it tells of overcoming racism and several other barriers to achieve the unthinkable.

And the remarkable woman sharing her semi-autobiographical tale is the eminently watchable Shaniaz Hama Ali. Now an actor (though formerly the lawyer at the heart of the story), she beams with honesty, vulnerability and likeability throughout the performance, impressing with her grasp of comedy and subtlety in a language which isn’t her mother tongue.

Beginning with a snippet of a conversation which hints at the outcome of the tale, Hama Ali takes us back to where it all began, and her journey to the peak of her legal career. There’s a playful as aspect to the reflections on her childhood and the innocence of it, though a darkness develops as the parents of her new friends in her adopted country begin to stir up racism against her family.

There’s not long to dwell though, as Hama Ali deftly moves on to the positive aspects of her blossoming career in law, and the cases she gets to work on. At the climax is the offer from above to work on a case all her colleagues want a piece of, but which forces her to question her identity and moral compass – whether to assist a company in selling chemical weaponry to the Middle East, and potentially facilitate the kind of genocide she and her family escaped from just a few years before. This section in particular oozes with tension in consideration of the debate, and Hama Ali’s frankness here accentuates the humanity at the heart of the piece.

There’s a pleasing resolution that ties into the opening lines of the piece, but which could be made more obvious and epic to give a real wow-factor ending, and overall the story aches with more detail bursting to be told. It’s a shame this show is only 50 minutes long!

As a theatrical performance it’s basic, with little more than just Hama Ali herself on a tiny stage to tell it. It would be great to see slightly more investment in theatricality to help bring about the changes in mood, location and time, which would in turn elevate this show into award-winning territory. As it is though, The Big Lie is an urgent and captivating story, told by a voice the world needs to hear.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED