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 Bubble Show” (Assembly George Square Gardens 10:40, AUG 15-26 : 10:40 : 60mins)

“Bubbleland is a real place, according to Mr Bubbles, a real place peopled by bubbles.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

There are two certain ways to get kids to disengage from whatever they are doing and excitedly focus on the novelty. The first is to enter the room and announce in a loud, clear voice, “Go Jetters to your stations.” Alternatively, one can enter singing “Go! Go! Go! Octonauts!” The outrage is real. The conclusion that you are the kind of halfwit who can’t even be trusted not to mix up the words to songs, is immediately, irreversibly drawn. The second method to get kids to stop whatever they are doing is more universal and has been since Cain, Abel and Seth were in pull-ups: bubbles.

Dr Johnson famously remarked that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Less well known are the words that followed, “and if he be tired of bubbles why is a coxcomb knave whose very soul is decayed, possibly beyond remedy save only by the immediate and direct intercession of his personal redeemer.” Bubbles, in short, are brill.

Mr Bubbles enters to a crowd of all ages. Daughter 1.0, aged 4, is somewhere in the upper, lower middle of the range. The staging is simple. Only the set necessary to facilitate the magic that is to come. Mr Bubbles tells his life story. Born. falls in love with bubbles. Made to join the army. Gets out of army. Back to bubbles.

And what bubbles they are. BIG bubbles. Small bubbles. Fire bubbles (really). Helium bubbles. Steam-powered bubbles. Frothy bubbles. Smokey bubbles. Bubbles inside other bubbles. Treasures and artefacts brought (Parthenon Marbles style) back by Mr Bubbles from his journey to Bubbleland. Bubbleland is a real place, according to Mr Bubbles, a real place peopled by bubbles.

Mr Bubbles, is of a similar size and build to Justin Fletcher – although his army days have kept him somewhat trimmer, as Granny is quick to point out. He is young and his show feels like it will ripen with age. The truly high notes are yet to come. But the globetrotting graft that has gone in, makes for a flawless performance. He is not one of those hyperactive performers who think it their business to rile the kiddies up into a state of frenzy. His connection is personal and personable. The kids who join him on stage are confident and happy (although he could make more effort to select kids from further back).

The show is in two distinct halves. There’s the lively, jolly, a bit sciencey first half. Then there’s the sensory light and sound second half. The latter is when the very young ones fully engage. The whisps of squally discontentment lift life a helium bubble on its way to meet the houselights. Daughter 2.0 (19 months) would have loved the second half, although I think I would have had a job to keep her settled through the first. 

This is not a show that will blow your mind, but it’s gentle humour and obvious passion will lift your spirits. Daughter 1.0 leaves with a spring in her step and her face. Mr Bubbles (B.Ed.) has entrusted her and all the rest with the secret knowledge that life is better with bubbles. That was good sharing Mr Bubbles. Good sharing.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 12 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Lucille and Cecilia (Assembly Powder Room, Aug 2-24, 13:25: 1hr)

“A successful hour of charming jokes and energetic tricks.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Lucille and Cecilia is a show about two sea lions whose names have the word ‘seal’ in them. Though of course this joke might make an ounce more sense if they were actually seals, the charming simplicity of the gag is still a tickler. So, thankfully, is the rest of this thoroughly amusing and enjoyably bonkers hour of high-energy clowning by Chloe Darke and Susanna Scott of Bang Average Theatre. 

The show takes a playfully scattershot approach to exploring Lucille and Cecilia’s lives and personalities. They perform circus tricks, describe their deep love of fish, and debate what could possibly lie beyond their watery home. Director Steve Brownlie does well to keep the action tightly blocked and includes a well-measured array of props and alternate costumes for the sea lions to bat around for the audience and wield at each other, while Darke and Scott are both charming and affective leading mammals. The only element of the show that resembles a narrative revolves around the two sea lions’ interactions with ‘Trevor the trainer,’ the amusingly-depicted custodian in charge of cleaning and preening the animals. One hates his touch, the other finds it sensuous and exciting, making for some very funny extended sequences where the two show Trevor how they feel, set to a perfectly-chosen rendition of “Ave Maria.” (Both this choice and the use of Air’s “Sexy Boy” show that Bang Average have splendid taste for musical accompaniment.) This and other chapters in the show are performed with pleasant verve and creativity, and both Darke and Scott prove wholeheartedly that they are more than capable clown performers. 

The potential drawbacks to their hour come mainly during the somewhat overlong bouts of character comedy that mainly strike repetitive notes, and do not quite match the showmanship or cleverness of their physical gags. Most of these physical feats are not only very amusing but rather impressive, and leave one wishing Darke and Scott had included a few more of these sharply executed sequences and toned down the Laurel and Hardy slapstick a tad, as these performers could certainly show off their talent for choreography quite a lot more. Thankfully, however, enough of the comedy strikes the right tone to make Lucille and Cecilia a successful hour of charming jokes and energetic tricks that leans right into the refreshingly pure entertainment of watching two human beings put their all into acting like sea lions.

For a uniquely weird, pleasantly escapist escapade, take the splash and see this show. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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The Seven Second Theory (TheSpace on North Bridge : Aug 8-10, 12-17: 12:30 : 1hr)

“A highly creative and well acted piece.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad 

Outside of automobile tragedies and prom night, there’s not a huge amount you can do in seven seconds. You can run until you’re nearby rather than right here, and if you’re fast you can even stretch it to just over there. You can half unbutton a coat, and, if you’re anything like me, you can get 1/75 of the way towards choosing which brand of soda to buy.

Or, if you’re rapidly leaving the breathing population, you can relive all the mistakes you’ve made. So that’s a comforting thought.

The Seven Second Theory is an interesting but fairly self-explanatory premise: a man named John Doe (Theo Antonov) is about to have his life support switched off, and goes on a journey through his own memories in the brief seven seconds before brain death. His memories include those of his best friends Aaron (Joe Davidson) the infuriatingly spelt Jenni (Megan Good), as well as the love of his life, Katherine (Sophie Hill).

The main cast are undoubtedly talented performers. Antonov makes the feat of being onstage for the show’s duration look (almost) effortless, and his machine-gun delivery adds a facet of charm and vitality to his John Doe. Good, pulling double duty as writer and actress, creates a highly empathetic and relatably charming stage presence as Jenni, layering a good heart with a layer of acid which is hard not to be charmed by. Sophie Hill, despite the occasional lull in physical engagement with the scene, does an excellent job at portraying the struggles of success, embodying the constantly-working Russel Group brainchild to a tee. My standout, however, is Davidson: constantly empathetic, always reacting in the background, and all-around a rippingly strong portrayal of a character who is stung by despair amidst joy.

Supporting characters rotated amongst a chorus (Sabrina Miller, Emma Rogerson and Charlie Graff), who were simply delightful. Despite a few quick character vignettes which, forgivably, seemed underdeveloped, they make a wonderful team. Many of the show’s best lines come from their corner of the acting ring, and their range is something to be respected.

With the above in mind, I remind you that The Seven Second Theory is a comedy. Blacker than black, but comedy nonetheless – and for the most part, the show quite handily succeeds in that regard. Most of the jokes are dropped with precise and well-rehearsed timing, with just enough punch behind them to punctuate the scene. The material isn’t particularly groundbreaking stuff as far as the general regrets of mortality are concerned, but it’s certainly enough keep you waiting for the next one liner. Antonov in particular is sharp as a pin, though every cast member shines.

As for the narrative, without giving too much away, it’s the same story as the above. The framing device is dramatically succinct, the banter and conversations sounds realistic and endearing, and each scene beat feels exactly in its place. However, don’t come in looking for surprises: much like its comedic material, the messages and narrative themes (whilst undoubtedly well executed and well conceived) remain fairly pedestrian. The Seven Second Theory has some really interesting stuff to say about the foibles of human want, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect to hear.

And whilst its separate components of comedy and tragedy work well enough on their own, The Seven Second Theory seems to have real difficulty in the switch-between. In trying to cram so many different emotional beats into what is a fairly modest runtime, what emerges is a kind of tonal soup. There is no spared moment to settle into the despair, to come down from the laughs. This is a show that would greatly benefit from slowing itself down, and learning not to fear silence.

The great tragedy of these tonal problems is that, coupled with an unfortunate case of “shouting means drama” syndrome, when emotional pay-off arrives it can come off as mawkish or forced. As a production that relies so much on the internal lives of its main characters, this seriously undercuts the comedy’s dramatic counterweight.

To end positively, though, a place where The Seven Second Theory shines (literally) is in its stage design. I am enamoured with it: dramatic, effective and imaginative. The use of lanterns both as a light source and guiding prop is inspired, and goes a long way in giving the minimalist set design a real feeling of boundary and weight. Their use and presentation in the show elevates the sense of magical-realism which is always gnawing at the sides of the narrative, and lends it an appropriately dream-like atmosphere.

The Seven Second Theory is a highly creative and well acted piece, held back by elements of its direction and themes. For better and for worse, it’s a show that leaves you wanting more. Is it worth your time? Entirely, but it won’t change your life. The process of staging new writing is constantly transformative, and this is no exception – with revisions, Megan Good’s work could be something truly special.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 August)

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One Duck Down (Pleasance Courtyard : Aug 5-19, 21-26 : 10:30 : 1hr)

“A magical, wholesome family show.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It is a not-generally-acknowledged truth that toddlers are jolly good at wrestling. You wouldn’t think, watching them sit shoving Pom Bears into their gob that – at any moment – they can turn into a match for Hulk Hogan.

Each has their own technique. Some favour ‘’The Mummy’’ were they tense every muscle in their body and go completely rigid. Others favour the opposite, and manage somehow to loosen every joint in their body making them impossible to carry. This is the jellyfish. My youngest, whilst not averse to either of these generally favours two similar techniques: either the octopus which sees her grappling around your limbs as you try to manhandle her into a buggy or Ikea high chair; or its close cousin the ‘’cat going to vets’ where she scraps like billy-o and grabs hold of nearby objects with a death grip.

A nightmare of every parent is having to fight any of the above in public. None of us come away from public wrangling looking like parent of the year. Most of us are just desperately trying not to swear.

I was worried about all this because I took my youngest to one of her first shows this morning. She’d been to stuff in previous years but she had – happily for the Marrs wallet – been a ‘’babe in arms’’. The problem with any show is that you just don’t know how they will react to being in a very different environment for an hour. So it was with a sense of trepidation I took my seat at One Duck Down. She looked at me. I looked at her. She promised to be a good girl. I handed over a packet of gingerbread men.

Happily the cast took any lingering worries away. One Duck Down had both of my youngsters entranced from the first moment. The story is one of the oldest in town brought bang up to date: a young man from a small-town fancies a woman who is a wrong ‘un. She sets him a series of challenges to win her heart from making seagulls sing the national anthem through to counting pebbles on a beach. Eventually she sets him the challenge which is the show: find me the 7,000 rubber ducks that have escaped from a shipping container and my heart is yours. Anyone who has seen Blue Planet will know that 7,000 rubber ducks actually did plop into the ocean a number of years ago, and have helped us understand the ocean currents as we see them wash up now and again.

The hero of the piece is the highly likeable Billy, who sets off in a bathtub to track the ducks down. As he does so he meets a series of colourful creatures – some seagulls who are besotted with an albatross who only has eyes for himself; a polar bear who loves rock and roll; some smelly crabs and some pirates in L-plates. He slowly but surely accumulates all but one.

The team behind the show manage manage to make it small-p political without becoming a party political broadcast: balancing important messages (the effects of global warming; plastic pollution; and what we can all do to make things better) with a fun story that the children enjoyed.

There was real cleverness here. Double-entendres, clever word-play, catchy (well-sung!) songs throughout and fun, well-crafted characters. Not many shows will have a bearded lady, a huge blue whale made out of plastic bags (a real highlight) and a sword fight on a carousel. More probably ought to! The cast put in a real shift changing role after role after role.

I enjoyed it all and not just because there were enough jokes pitched above the eyelines of the children to keep the adults amused.

I usually bemoan children’s shows being an hour as most of them could be a little tighter. A 50 minute show would probably lead to fewer casts having to battle with a kid having a meltdown. One Duck Down managed to keep most of the children’s attention for that time – no mean feat. My two were talking about it hours later. Both were bopping away to the songs, clapping at all the right points and enjoyed rocking along to Scozzie the Polar Bear.

Songs, clowning, puppetry and a lot of fun that keeps your kids spellbound for an hour. All in all, a real winner and a magical, wholesome family show.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 5 August)

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Splash Test Dummies (Underbelly Circus Hub on the Meadows : Aug 3-11, 13-18, 20-24: 13:00 : 1hr)

“You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Reams of mum-blogs (dad-blogs too, but the mums are winning in terms of overwhelming numbers) will give chapter and verse on how parenthood changes you. Parenthood has certainly changed how I approach the Fringe. In the old days, I actively looked forward to the 5am finishes in clubs. Now I mostly worry whether or not the fireworks will wake the kids.

It also changes how you consume the Fringe. Gone, largely, are the late night comics. The earnest, right-on types making other earnest, right-on types laugh are a thing of the past (no great shame). The late night smut merchants are done too. I don’t care what anyone says: if you don’t laugh at rude songs you are doing life wrong.

But whilst some of the Festival no longer is for you, a whole new side opens up. So I took my nephew (9) and my eldest daughter (5) along to the Splash Test Dummies. I will confess that we did so because my daughter liked their poster.

What a choice. I may start getting her to pick my shows purely on this basis. Splash Test Dummies was quite brilliant. It was everything a good Festival show should be. It had a bit of everything: acrobatics, unicycles, Cirque du Soleil-style gymnastics, running gags, good ol’ fashioned clowning, magic, puppetry, and slapstick galore. I laughed until I was hoarse. My nephew at numerous points said he was ”dying with laughter”. I may as well have not bothered getting my daughter a seat as she spent much of it standing in front of it clapping or laughing with glee.

The actors don’t so much breach the fourth wall but obliterate it. At one point, in a hilarious moment based around the Baywatch theme song, one of the three actors climbed through the crowd, stood on my daughter’s chair and bounced up and down. Later a man nearby had a (very sweaty) Dummy on his lap being hugged.

The ‘Rubber Duckie’ song was glorious as was the sketch with ping pong balls. A relatively simple magic trick taken to a whole new level. It may have been puerile but that’s the whole dang point. I laughed like a drain, as did my young duo.

There are water pistols, noodles, skeleton fights, skipping on unicycles and bubbles pumping out over you. The Dummies fire ping pong balls at you. It is an assault on your senses from before you even enter the tent.

All of this sounds easy but being this funny, this physical under lights for an hour is hard yakka in anyone’s money. More than that it isn’t easy. It is hard and the three Dummies clearly had bucketloads of talent and skill.

The three actors may look like they are clowning around but they do some seriously difficult stuff. Synchronised swimming on unicycles took the breath away as did some work with large metal rings. To make it all look so effortless is quite a skill. To do it and infuse it with comedy… well, it deserves the applause it got.

Apparently in reviews you should always give something critical lest readers think you are some professional fluffer or on the payroll. My one minor quibble – and this is true of almost every kid’s show – is that anything marketed for 5+ probably would be super if it were 45 minutes/50 minutes rather than an hour. I’m not sure what could be cut down or cut out but a few kids did start getting a little restless. Mine didn’t but I did notice a few around me beginning to turn. That though is universal and shouldn’t be held against the three magnificent Dummies: as I looked around at the end, the audience was grinning. The sort of grinning we don’t have enough of in life.

The Dummies have thought hard about how to entertain us and, importantly, our children. Even more than that, they delivered relentlessly. You won’t see a funnier, more joyous, more riotous, or more uplifting show this Fringe. My daughter spent the rest of the day pretending to be a Splash Test Dummy. If you’ve got kids, go. If you haven’t, borrow one from a friend. If you can’t do that, go along yourself. You’ll have a ball. I did as did my youngsters.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

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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