+3 Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (Assembly Roxy, 5 Aug – 29 Aug : 13.55 : 1hr 30mins)

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“Consistently raw, emotional and human”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Nae Bad

For many years, Tennessee Williams’ immortal “A Streetcar Named Desire” conjured up two shared memories: the off-yellow, stained tooth colour of chipboard desks; and the strange, (and in hindsight, quite sad) familiarity with which my divorced, middle-aged English teacher spoke about the dangers of hiding in fantasies.Now, thanks to the Tumanishvilli Film Actor’s Company and director Keti Dolidze, it’s far easier to think of quiet intricacy, and the heartfelt ebb of Georgian on a smoke-filled stage.

From the get-go, it clear this is a production which has been undertaken with care. The monotone stamp of poverty is imprinted surprisingly well on the set. Had it not been lit up on the Assembly Roxy stage, I would have had no trouble believing it had all just been sitting in the French Quarter. But what was most admirable about the set was its clever use of shadow. Translucent material and a little light transformed what in any other production would have simply been a rearward wall into a very entertaining transition tool: whilst set is moved around, the audience is treated to dancing shadows, or the silhouette of a saxophonist. And whilst occasionally these transitory segments went on a little too long, they were nevertheless welcome. Combined with excellent, well-timed soundscaping, it was clear the overall audiovisual design had received the care it deserved.

However, the background paled in comparison to the string of strong performances. It would be difficult to place the strongest actor in what is obviously a very seasoned cast. Even sans translation, this was a show which was consistently raw, emotional and human. Nineli Chankvetadze’s Blanche in particular showed almost uncanny emotional range, bringing depth to every smile and frightened sob even when the emotions in between were few. Kudos also to Imeda Arabuli as Stanley Kowalski, who lent an almost frightening hypermasculine, bestial quality to a character who is so easily made trite by a lesser actor.

With the aforementioned strengths, then, you could be forgiven for wondering why I’ve given this show a surprisingly low rating. And whilst, clearly, many of its component parts merit celebration, it is unfortunate then that this production was completely and utterly failed by its translation. Whilst subtitling a foreign language work is a fine idea, its execution onstage was risible.

From half a line being completely cut off (which happened often), to the subtitles stalling or – even more frustratingly, skipping back and forth in an obvious effort to re-find the dialogue – and the surprisingly low quality of what should have been a simple transcription of Williams’ original transcript (Prize contenders include the immortal phrase: “I’ll never forget the colour of his yes!”), the translation of this show was consistently frustrating. Even worse, the form and punctuation of character dialogue was not so much confused as nonexistent, leaving much of the second half reading as if Blanche was having the most spectacular breakdown ever seen on stage.

But even worse was the fact that, as an audience member, I often found myself between Scylla and Charybdis: either losing myself in the wonderful performances on show and having no idea what was being said, or half-understanding the dialogue whilst being unable to see the show itself as I craned my vision to the extreme top left of the stage. Had the subtitling quality been better this may have been less of a problem, but given the internal problem-solving required to make the subtitles coherent, it was like I had simply stepped outside for half the play. I shudder at the prospect of having seen this work without first being familiar with the plot beyond cultural osmosis, as a surprising number of people are. Given that the importance that the language plays in Streetcar, I was legitimately shocked at the poor quality of its execution.

In terms of its actual materiality, Keti Dolidze has crafted a fine show indeed. And, if you’re fluent enough to understand Georgian on the stage, I’m sure it would make for an afternoon to remember. Had it been simply billed as a foreign language play, even an English speaker would be able to understand, at least, the raw emotional content from performance alone. But, as it stands, the almost fantastically poor quality of translation packaged with this show made engaging with it a chore by the final half hour. With some simple tweaks, A Streetcar Named Desire could have quite handily added two more stars. But, as it stands, perhaps the kindness of strangers is less important than the kindness of transcribers.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 5 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Lords of Strut: Late Night TV Talk Show (Assembly Roxy: 5-28 Aug: 19.00: 1hr)

“Crams so much ridiculousness into an hour that you can’t help but laugh at something”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Sometimes you have to see a DJ dressed as a bunny, a man pretending to be a rock and a Michael Flatley tribute to really feel like you’ve experienced the Fringe properly. This show crams all that and so much more ridiculousness into an hour that you can’t help but laugh at something.

It’s very full-on and upbeat, if a little chaotic, and the energy of our hosts Sean and Seamus is infectious – striking that perfect balance between confidence and self-deprecation to form an instant connection with the audience. We join them in their attempt to put on their own late-night tv talk show, and we are their live studio audience. Of course it doesn’t go at all to plan and they have to make various fudges to keep things running – and that’s when the hilarity ensues.

As with any chat show the format is a serious of skits and characters making guest appearances, the funniest of these being the appearance of the hosts’ mother as a last-minute stand-in – a plus-sized, randy cougar who of course makes her rounds in the audience to find a man. I won’t spoil the surprise, but let’s just say I (along with various other male members of the audience) was invited to do something I have categorically NEVER done before, and something which caused much hilarity (and a little disbelief) among the crowd. To those with a delicate disposition, look the other way and run, fast!

In saying that, what is pleasantly surprising about this show is how talented the Lords are: early on we are treated to a no-holds barred dance routine to one of Queen’s greatest hits, with various acrobatic tricks thrown in for good measure, and both gentleman are genuinely funny and creative in their costume designs and skit ideas. The “rough around the edges” and slightly improvised feel adds to its charm, if not to my personal taste.

With stand-up, storytelling, dance breaks, weird and wonderful characters, fight sequences, and of course, a healthy dab of audience interaction this show does have something for everyone, but having a drink or two before going to see it might be advisable…

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Bonita & Billie Holiday (Assembly Roxy: 4-28 Aug: 21.50: 1hr 10mins)

“An alluring performance that I couldn’t take my eyes off”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I wanted so much to be blown away by this performance – a tribute to one of my favourite singers, by an actor coming to Edinburgh with a very good reputation and bags of experience in the States. Unfortunately, this opening night was somewhat nervy, and while it was difficult to tell how much of that was the actor and how much was the character, either way it left me with a sense of unease that stayed with me throughout the performance.

Bonita Brisker clearly has bucketloads of talent, even though in this performance it took her a while to find her feet. She seemed to struggle with range a little bit in the opening couple of numbers, but by Good Morning Heartache she really hit her stride, with the high notes floating with all the ease of Billie in her heyday and an alluring performance that I couldn’t take my eyes off.

Bonita also beautifully captured the mood and personality of Lady Day in the spoken sections in between each number, and the script enabled her to show different sides of the singer from her career to her relationship with her family, her drug habit and time in prison. We also see her irreverent disregard for the FBI and a very touching portrayal of her relationship with drinking and her views on racial inequality, which was rife during the 1950s. Indeed, signature song Strange Fruit, which I didn’t realise had such personal and political meaning, is a standout moment of the performance, accompanied by horrifying projections of public hangings and mutilations. It is heartfelt and very powerful.

Structurally I found this show a bit peculiar, with a short opening section in Billie’s dressing room, before the bulk of the show is delivered cabaret style as Billie on stage, and then another section in the dressing room with a bizarre twist that almost subverts everything that went before. Suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, I don’t think it has quite worked out whether it is a cabaret or a theatre piece so I think there is still some work to be done to give it a real sense of completeness.

This does have the potential to be a really special show, but the performance I saw unfortunately didn’t quite live up to that potential. Look out for it over the next couple of weeks, I believe it could be a real grower.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Pss Pss (Assembly Roxy: 4-29 Aug: 16.00: 1hr 5mins)

“Utterly charming”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There aren’t many times that I wish I could construct a review purely out of facial expressions and hand gestures, but for this piece whose only words are the occasional utter of “Pss Pss”, it seems only fitting. It’s part clown, part mime, part acrobatic display and almost completely beguiling.

The performance is quite a slow burner to start with, with a short sequence where the two performers comically fight over possession of an apple – which wouldn’t look out of place in a Punch and Judy show on Blackpool beach – but when the music starts the fun really gets going and a real treat of a show unfolds.

Pss Pss dances along that very fine line between slapstick and gymnastic artistry, with glimpses of physical prowess and control that would put most performers to shame. Throw in the fact that they are also very funny and play musical instruments and you have a very impressive show.

Yet while physically impressive (by the end of the performance I truly believed there was no end to the performers’ talents), structurally it was a little lacking, with odd teases of narrative and motif, but little to drive it along from section to section, giving quite a stilted flow. I would have liked to have seen more plot and character development from beginning to end rather than a series of seemingly unconnected skits.

For all the skill and composure on display, perhaps it’s somewhat telling that the loudest and most consistent laughs in this performance were from the five or so primary-aged children in front of me. Although not specifically billed as a children’s show (indeed, their online listing says otherwise), some of the stunts seemed slightly more tailored to the younger audience, so I would definitely recommend it as a family show. Not that it isn’t enjoyable for audiences of all ages, but those with open minds and who are at least young at heart will appreciate it the most.

If there were an award for best facial expressions, Pss Pss would certainly be my early favourite – the range and timing throughout were enough to set most of us giggling at some point. The overall style and feel of the piece is utterly charming, even if substance-wise it occasionally lacks a little depth.

Beware, there is a small amount of audience interaction…

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Carmen (Assembly Roxy, 23-27 Feb. ’16)

Anna Keenan and Robert Forrest

Anna Keenan and Robert Forrest

“For such a young company to produce a work of such masterful quality… sometimes you just have to be in awe.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

I’ll admit that I’m not exactly an opera buff and I wasn’t particularly familiar with Carmen before entering the theatre last night, so despite the accessibility of the English libretto in this production, there were times during Act 1 when even I wished Bizet et al had been a little less self-indulgent with their lyricism and more efficient with the quill. In saying that, the magnitude of this production never appeared to be too daunting or a stretch too far for the company, who did their level-best to keep the performance alive and engaging throughout. And for me, it is the stars of the show who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for that.

Anna Keenan is an absolute delight as Carmen, oozing sexiness and style, with a voice full of richness, warmth and subtlety to portray important changes in tone during the performance. Her stage presence and demeanour command attention and it is difficult not to be drawn to her throughout. Robert Forrest as Don Jose is similarly impressive, demonstrating fantastic strength and vocal and emotional range in a role that is very demanding. And considering both leads are still students, one wonders just what heights they may achieve in the future given the talent both displayed in this performance – remember those names. Monica Toll also dazzled as Micaela with gorgeous tones and depth to her voice, particularly in Micaelea’s Aria which was very moving.

Early on I was worried that this production lacked the fierceness and melodrama required to really sell an opera, as the opening couple of chorus numbers were a little flat and pedestrian. At times the stage seemed very full, with chorus members appearing a little lost when not singing. Yet, with each act the energy seemed to be turned up a notch, so by the rousing What A Bargain! in the final act, my earlier thoughts were dispelled as the pomp and gusto had lifted to breath-taking levels with great characterisation, action and a spine tingling sound.

What I particularly enjoyed about this production was how creatively the space was used. Often the performers would enter or exit through the audience, engaging us in the action, while the orchestra (who were magnificent throughout) were placed within the first few rows, which added to that sense of involvement, rather than traditional separation. And as this production is set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, I feel these touches really helped achieve a sense of comradeship with the chorus in their plight, so the whole show became more of an experience than a spectacle – certainly a commendable feat.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this production before seeing it, but I am certainly more than pleasantly surprised by the experience. For such a young company to produce a work of such masterful quality, with just as much energy and vocal strength at the end of the show as the beginning, sometimes you just have to be in awe. Bravo.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Balladynas and Romances (Assembly Roxy: 9 -10 November ’15)

Aphrodite. Photos from Teatr Pinokio, Lodz.

Aphrodite.
Photos from Teatr Pinokio, Lodz.

“The clucking immortality that is forever C-3PO.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars  Nae Bad

My namesake, Alan, has had his own school of motoring in Edinburgh since 1979. He also advertises that a Polish instructor is available, Lekcje nauki jazdy w języku polskim. That would have been handy, off-road, for Balladynny i Romanse. But then in these fluent days the President of the European Council and former Prime Minister of Poland is a Donald, so what the hell …

… which brings me to the Roxy where – appropriate for an old church – heaven and hell congregate on earth in director Konrad Dworakowski’s immersive staging of the Ignacy Karpowicz novel. It is long at 135 minutes but is disciplined and expert. Go to the excellent Polish Book Institute for a useful synopsis of the book and be drawn to Karpowicz’s other work, not least ‘Uncool’ (2006); all still waiting for publication in English.

What we get in Balladynas and Romances on stage is, however, eminently translatable as it’s a classic ‘What If …?’  What if the gods drop in while we’re about our ordinary, sometimes tacky lives, in and out of Poundland (the cute Polish equivalent is Biedronka or ‘Ladybird’ ), in and out of each other – warning: puppets perform sex acts – and what if Athena, Aphrodite, Jesus, and the rest, are a bit cheap and maybe past their sell-by date? The answers are not hard to come by, as the gods are very visible and like talking about themselves, but it is tricky to see if Olga, Janek, Artur and Kama notice that their tawdry domesticity is being messed with. ‘A remote god [may] be a redundant one’ but it has long been our Fate – aka. the Occasional Narrator – not to realize that Eros or Lucifer happens to be in the front room.

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The little mortals are puppets and the gods are dressed in primary black and white, in bathrobes and shades for example. It provides for effective contrast(s), not least when Nike, god of Victory, tenderly cradles the tiny body of a bomb blast victim. Olga, Catholic, fifty something and living alone, undresses and takes a bath and her credulous faith is somehow all the more touching for being manipulated into being. It is the showy gods, though, who demand attention, dwelling as they do on their genealogy – which is a nightmare for Gender theorists – and selfish loves. Eros and Lucifer stand apart, interestingly, each musing on their lot; whilst Osiris’ slender shrouded form and huge eyes recalled the clucking immortality that is forever C-3PO.

Smart lighting and electronic music often snapped the piece back from self-indulgent space and without those puppets the drama would have died, which may well have been the point.

I missed Poland. Eros ruefully mentioned his adopted country at the end of the first half and there were, I’m sure, far more references available than I understood. I googled one Erika Steinbach when I got home and grasped why Old Nick, from Lodz, is a fan. Clearly Balladyna is important but her literary profile receded as, languorous yet scheming, she acted out her bridging role as demi-god fixer and apologist for the ills of the world. At one point, in marvellous conversation with an opinionated Chinese Fortune Cookie, she convinced me that Pinocchio Theatre really know what they are about.

Director: Konrad Dworakowski
Set designer: Marika Wojciechowska
Music: Piotr Klimek
Choreographer: Jacek Owczarek
Lighting director: Bary

Cast: Hanna Matusiak, Ewa Wróblewska, Żaneta Małkowska, Małgorzata Krawczenko, Mariusz Olbiński, Łukasz Bzura, Łukasz Batko, Natalia Wieciech, Anna Makowska.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 9 November)

Go to ‘Balladynas and Romances’ at the Polish Cultural Institute & to Pinocchio Theatre, Lodz.

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Calypso Nights: Juan, Two? (Assembly Roxy: 5 – 30 Aug : 21:30 : 1hr)

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As entertaining as he is inventive”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

It’s very hard to tell the flavours in a good condiment apart. It’s that phenomenon when two different kinds of thing come together to form something completely new, and often indescribable. Somewhat ironically to the themes of Barnie Duncan’s riotous show, “Calypso Nights: Juan, Two?” very much contributes to that phenomenon. It’s dance, music, laughter and ridiculousness all rolled up into something which resembles a surprisingly entertaining, cuba-libre flavoured fever dream.

Presented by high-powered DJ Juan Vesuvius (Duncan), Calypso Nights is a spicy blend of music, comedy and Caribbean-tinged factoids, tied together by his considerable powers as a mix DJ and seemingly never-ending cultural knowledge.

And the Caribbean couldn’t ask for a better ambassador, fictional or otherwise: with a pair of turntables and expertly used dry ice, Duncan dominated the small stage with such confidence that he managed to pull off the bizarro-world Elvis look.  And it was that very bravado that served to underscore the blurring between audience member and participant; it requires a special type of performer to turn an at first reticent audience into a flag-waving dance party – but DJ Juan Vesuvius has the knack.

The message of the benefit of mixtures was wholeheartedly present throughout the act: his DJ’ing skills had a surprising substance and quality quite unheralded by his pidgin english-spouting exterior. Mixing between seemingly dissonant bands and musical styles, Duncan creates something new and interesting nearly every time – although, his high energy weirdness threatens to send the unstable show into meltdown towards the end, where the comedy content is eaten up somewhat by a fusion cascade of sheer strangeness.

If you’re looking for a night of nigh-indescribable fun, Juan Vesuvius is your man. As entertaining as he is inventive, it’s hard to top this dose of musical chutney.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 26 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED