Formation Festival: Cowards Anonymous (10-12 July)

“Leaves you feeling pleasantly contemplative”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Cowards Anonymous – a support group for shy people who don’t like to make tough decisions. Hosted by some very colourful characters (who begin wearing masks), the welcome given feels more like you’re about to participate in a bizarre shared event, rather than sit back in the shadows to merely observe. And a shared event it becomes, as audience members are picked on at frequent intervals to give their views on a variety of topics and questions.

For many, the term ‘audience participation’ is the stuff of nightmares – the thought of being dragged up on stage, laughed at, or even just spoken to from the comfort of your seat by a performer with a big personality and a microphone – can send shudders down one’s spine and bring on the cold sweats alarmingly quickly. And while one of the aims of Cowards Anonymous is to create a sense of discomfort and awakening to some rather sticky issues, it is mediated in a relaxed and comedic way that nurtures a safe space in order to openly discuss difficult topics – mainly moral choices and philosophical debates.

Indeed, the main strength of this production is the pace and personality driven through it by performers Izzy Hourihane and Eilidh Albert-Recht who do the bulk of the direct addresses to the audience. They bounce off each other well and successfully navigate the tightrope between likeability and authority throughout. Their performance also gives the frequent sense of having gone completely off-book, adding to that feeling of awakening through nigh-on cringeworthy uncertainty of what happens next. Gripping stuff.

Josh Overton’s script dissects the notion of what it means to be a coward, and indeed what it means to be oneself – given the acting up we all do in different situations to please those around us. Posing several thought-provoking scenarios and more than a fair whack of comedy, it leaves you feeling pleasantly contemplative, even if the killer punch of the piece is somewhat lacking. Many excellent ideas are presented, but none quite strongly enough to elicit purposeful action.

Director Tyler Mortimer does well to highlight the comedic and playful aspects of the production, yet while the pacing is generally quite rip-rollicking and upbeat, some more variation in tone and timbre might help emphasise the points being made by this piece.

For many reasons, this show is likely to be divisive, yet for those open to something new, it’s an enlightening way to spend an hour. For me, this production just needs to shake off some of its scrappy and unpolished edges, embrace its direct and intelligent confrontational approach and go full steam ahead. It’s refreshing to have one’s mind challenged in this thoughtful way, and I’d encourage more people to do the same.

 

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 July)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Formation Festival: Conspiracy (11-12 July)

“A sterling effort”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Loring Mandel’s Conspiracy, which many may know from the 2001 HBO film starring Kenneth Branagh, dramatises the 1942 Wannsee conference in Nazi Germany – where several powerful members of various agencies and government departments met to discuss and agree upon a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”. Undoubtedly one of the major turning points in global history, it is almost sickening now to witness the frank discussions from these men of how best to be rid of millions – millions – of Jews. Strap in.

Upon entering Assembly Roxy’s large Central space, you get a feeling something big is going to happen: the impressive design encompasses a crescent shaped 15-seat conference table – complete with place names, glasses and cigarettes – while a full-on buffet spread is arranged behind it. This is a production that doesn’t shy away from details, as the excellent vintage costuming also pertains to.

Stylistically, Mandel’s script doesn’t quite have the wow-factor of some of its comparable contemporaries: the dialogue doesn’t sing as much as in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, while it lacks some of the narrative drive of Reginal Rose’s 12 Angry Men. What it does have, though, is a gut-wrenching sense of inevitability as the decision is reached with a pitiful defence of humanity, and it’s this short journey which makes it a powerful ensemble piece – achingly relevant to the political landscape unfolding in America now.

Director Robin Osman gives himself a mammoth task in pulling off this production, and a real strength is managing the cast of 16 at all points to maintain interest and relevant focus. Indeed the down-time moments of the meeting are almost more impressive than the lengthy debate, which often seems at odds with itself when it comes to levels of tension, frustration and power with each character. The overall presentation comes across as slick and well-rehearsed, though some cast members are somewhat guilty of overacting their smaller parts, creating a bizarre sense of imbalance to those with a more subtle approach.

For me, the standout performers are: Alexander Gray as Dr Wilhelm Stuckart, who navigates the most complex emotional journey throughout the piece; Chris Pearson as Dr Wilhelm Kritzinger, for exuding a natural quiet authority; and Ben Blow for his compelling and convincing turn as Otto Hoffman.

Overall, this is a sterling effort for an amateur production of this challenging play. It’s a bit of a slog to sit through, but well worth it for the vital history lesson, if nothing else.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 June)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Formation Festival: Mr & Mrs She (7-8 July)

“Pleasingly disquieting”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

It’s not often I’m lost for words when coming out of the theatre, but Mr & Mrs She is one of the most bizarre plays I’ve ever seen. Yet, while its incomprehensibility may be perceived as a negative, there’s something to be said for a play whose questions stay with you for many hours – even days – afterwards.

The show opens with what appears to be a fairly stereotypical wealthy couple enjoying a generous amount of their favourite tipple and getting rather merry. Cue the entry their very eager-to-please staff, a comment about enjoying oneself too much before breakfast, and suddenly the play takes a much darker turn.

Hollie Glossop’s script may well be abstract, but there’s something gripping about the subversion of power from these seemingly stock characters that becomes pleasingly disquieting. The level of detail and pace at which the action develops is masterful, and while I would prefer a greater sense of grounding and cohesion to be able to connect more with the action, Glossop has created a world that begs to be explored further.

Sofia Nakou’s direction embraces and extends the quirkiness with intelligent physicality and proxemics, making the most of the large performance area to highlight the power struggle between each character and the vast emptiness each one is in. As the action creeps closer to the audience, the level of discomfort rises on all fronts and it’s impossible to predict what will happen next, or how you should feel about it.

Kudos to all of the young company performing this work, embracing its weirdness and committing to their roles in it. David Llewellyn in particular demonstrates fantastic range and risk-taking throughout his demise, while Grant Jamieson is suitably sinister as his butler.

It would be fantastic to see this show developed further – it has the makings of a truly memorable piece of theatre. That being said, it seems somewhat unfair to attribute a star-rating to a piece like this, which might easily alienate some audiences while titillating others. Either way, if you’re on the lookout for something different that will leave you with many unanswered questions to debate afterwards, this may well be for you.

 

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 July)

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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.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 July)

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Hansel and Gretel (Roxy: 9-11 November ’17)

“A futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

One of the many charms of fairy tales is their enduring relevance, and the Grimm Brother’s Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In their production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairly short opera of the same name, Le Petit Verre attempt to present a futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story, which, while daring and creative, often gets a bit lost in its own figurative forest.

Given its simple set-up and small cast it’s a wise choice of show for this new student company to flex their imagination and demonstrate their talent, and they certainly go all out with intricate theming and design of almost every aspect of the production.

Yet while some of the company’s artistic choices bring a pleasingly modern and relevant twist to proceedings (Hansel’s choreography and overall styling as a street-wise teenager, for example), unfortunately most of the creative elements suffer from a lack of congruence resulting in a rather disjointed production.

The programme notes and opening lyrics of the piece place the action firmly in a modern (potentially post-nuclear war) poverty-stricken household with no food, and where children are left alone to do chores for hours on end. It’s somewhat confusing, then, to see the all performers in glittery costumes with elaborate hair and make-up – and it’s never clear how these two themes are reconciled. The ad hoc appearance of a robotic masked chorus certainly doesn’t ease any of the comprehension.

Musically though, the assembled 40-piece orchestra makes an impressive sound and the singing on the whole is well-matched to the instrumentation, though it’s a shame the lack of microphones prevent the vocals from really being able to soar throughout the production. Patrick Dodd impresses most as the Father with his rich, warming baritone voice, while the rare duet moments between Hansel (Claire Lumsden) and Gretel (Alexandra Elvidge) are delightful to listen to. Hebe James is charming as the Gingerbread Witch and Deborah Holborn brings great characterisation to the role of the Mother.

Underneath all the gloss and glitter of this production there are lots of lovely things going on, and it’s great to see young companies coming through and taking risks with their work. While this one is a little too rough and unready, there are plenty of positives to take away from this debut production, and I look forward to Le Petit Verre’s next show.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 November)

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The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign (Assembly Roxy: Until 28 Aug: 11.30: 70 mins)

“Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

We enter to the strains of Arthur Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By. The mood is glamorously sombre. On stage is the top half of the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign. Onto it steps a figure in black dressed as though for a funeral. How did she get here? What (and who) have pushed her to this?

The story which writer and performer Joanne Hartstone has to tell is eerily familiar. Evelyn Margaret Edwards (or Evie Edwards, to use her stage name), is a naive young lady seeking to change her rags into riches through the magic of the Hollywood limelight. She has dreamed of becoming a star all through the Great Depression, from the stock market crash, via a Hooverville, and the unending grind of a hand-to-mouth existence. But without a fairy godmother her dreams are outshone by the stark realities of the entertainment industry.

A few days back I was interviewing the star of an American Civil Rights drama. With tongue firmly in cheek I asked if she was grateful to President Trump for helping to keep the issues she tackles relevant. “We’ll he’s great for my ticket sales!” she replied with a sad grin. We reflected on the truth that tragedy and suffering are the Fringe writer’s bread and butter – no one ever paid to see a play about contented people happily pottering through an uneventful life.

The good writer tells a tragic story in its time and place. The brilliant do that too, but they also say something universal about the human experience at all times and in all places. Hartstone has written a piece that falls squarely into the latter category. Her script is at once an insider’s tour of Hollywood’s Golden era (for ‘insider’ read, ‘black and white movie nerd’). It is also a profound reflection on the use and abuse of women – their ambitions, their independence, their bodies and souls.

The delivery is paced, but pacy – never lagging or getting ahead of itself. The story unwinds like a spool of luxury cloth under an exacting tailor’s expert eye. Though this is a one-woman show Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra while Richard Burton played at being Mark Anthony.

Hartstone is also possessed of a fine, evocative voice which conjures up the spirit of the age in sparkling speech and song. The movement is minimalist, the set perfectly scaled to allow Hartstone to ascend and descend from the ‘H’ with a minimum of fuss. You can honestly imagine that this is the staging Evie Edwards would have designed to best tell her story from.

The Girl Who Jumped off the Hollywood Sign is Fringe theatre at its best – profound without being maudlin, sassy, smart, and above all edgy. This is an iron fist of a script nestling in a velvet glove.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 24 August)

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EUSOG, HMS Pinafore (Assembly Roxy, 21 – 25 March ’17)

Photos. EUSOG.

“Every member of the cast should be pleased with their committed, lively, fun and engaging performance that made for a great night out”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

It is a moot point whether the restraint of trade as practised, for example in the Middle Ages by the City of London Livery Companies, and more recently by some trades union through the closed shop, protects the integrity of the brand through quality control, or acts merely as an effective way of cornering the market, but the arrangement between Arthur Sullivan and W S Gilbert with Richard D’Oyly Carte, whereby the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company held exclusive performance rights to their entire operettic oeuvre for 90 years must be one of the most spectacular coups de theatre in the history of the genre. Of course, it was all about the money, including staging at the Savoy Theatre, and served both parties well.

The D’Oyly Carte licence expired in 1961 and unleashed a torrent of enthusiastic amateur productions while the D’Oyly Carte Company managed to maintain brand leadership amongst the professional shows. The relative ease of the music to play and sing, along with its catchy tunes (alas, poor Arthur Sullivan with his longing to be a serious composer: he actually wrote some quite good serious stuff)) gave the works a new lease of life. In 1962 this writer played the Sergeant of Police in a prep school production of the Pirates of Penzance, other G&S triumphs followed …..

So it would be some surprise to Gilbert and Sullivan that the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group would exist at all. However I am sure they would have been delighted, as was I, with the spirited and enthusiastic performance they are currently giving of HMS Pinafore at the Assembly Roxy.

Director Holly Marsden’s interpretation aims to criticise the British class system and to question what it is to be British through setting it in the modern era aboard a cruise ship. As she rightly claims, this mimics Gilbert and Sullivan’s original intentions, for they were ruthless satirists, but had such a light touch that their politically immune audiences considered it merely “poking fun”. Conceptually the production can bring nothing other than the enduring relevance of  “Englishness” and class, but that’s powerful stuff in a Scotland (re)considering independence and/or Brexit.  ‘Class’ may be an Edinburgh thing but it seems pretty resplendent around my way. Yet, and again to the director’s credit and in the spirit of the original, this was not some heavy handed student left wing rant, but a joyous fun filled romp played for laughs which came aplenty.

The orchestra struck up the familiar overture sounding small in number but large in enthusiasm, perhaps rather too like a ship’s orchestra before they settled in, and then the “ship’s company” took us through the opening ensemble “We sail the ocean blue” and we set off on a cruise of musical merriment that lasted the entire evening without a drop. The liveliness of the cast was engaging, honourable mentions going to Angus Bhattacharya’s wonderfully effete and arrogant Sir Joseph Porter, complete – naturally – with pelvic thrust, and to Talya Stenberg’s Buttercup, whose Californian accent was delightfully incongruous before she got under way. The most musical voice on stage that night belonged to Biomedical Sciences student Livi Wollaston, who should seriously consider switching to a degree in Vocal Studies at the Conservatoire.

The mentioning of a few should not disappoint the many who made such an effective contribution to the show.  Every member of the cast, and creative team,  should be pleased with their committed, lively, fun and engaging performance that made for a great night out.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 March)

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