Princess Party (Gilded Balloon, Aug 3-11, 13-18, 20-26 : 22:30 : 1hr)

“Required watching for anyone who wants to be in a comedy duo”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

It’s 4pm on a Saturday. The sun is beating down through the window and drowning my laptop screen, but it doesn’t matter. After a half hour, I’ve got nothing to show for all my squinting and sighing except for unanswered questions: how do you talk about the incredible comedic restraint in a show that starts out with everybody being flashed? What kind of production simultaneously respects and ridicules its audience? How do you even begin to describe Princess Party?

The synopsis is simple enough: it’s a duo comedy presented by comedians Lauren Howard Hayes and Hannah Pilkes, about a rich kid’s birthday party that goes horribly wrong. The audience are the children, and sometimes the parents. You get to hold a cool flashlight. Telling you any more than that would be revealing far too much, and give Hayes and Pilkes too little credit.

Princess Party is a lot of things. It’s the best party you’ve ever been to, wrapped in the worst party you’ve ever been to. It’s like going to Disneyland, if Disneyland let in people who’d been drunk for three days. But most importantly, Princess Party is a masterclass in how to properly implement artistic restraint and make hard comedy look easy.

From the outset, the basic mechanics of the piece are excellent. With an impressive pile of acting, writing and comedy credits between them, Hayes and Pilkes are very visibly comfortable in their craft. Punchlines are crisp and well execution; physical clowning elements have complete follow-through; and everything is presented with a confidence and polish that can only come from collaborators who know how to fit into their genre like water in a glass.

And make no mistake, Hannah Pilkes and Lauren Howard Hayes are the show. It’s hard to nail down exactly what each brings to the table, but only because they jump from role to defined role like it’s child’s play. Pilkes plays the perfect dope, but her sense of comedic timing and verbal dynamics would make a razor weep. Hayes, who so effortlessly channels a living cartoon from the moment she’s on stage, can go acid queen in a single wig change. But what’s so truly excellent about this show, oddly enough, is invisible. To define it, we’ve gotta talk about nudity.

I have a lot of thoughts on comedic nudity. It’s not hard to pull off (you’re welcome), but damn hard to actually do well. Audiences have a level of shock fatigue, and if it’s not incorporated enough or relied on too heavily, it can come off as crass and lazy. Even worse, it can pull an audience out of the flow entirely. But in Princess Party, it’s funny as hell – It’s not played for too long, or too hard, and is so at home in its setting that you can only think “well of course this is happening”. Beyond the visible, it’s an incredibly impressive display of artists who know the relationship between shock and restraint.

So why is that important? Because it applies to every other joke and theme in the show. Controversial jokes and setups only stick around insofar as they’re funny, and never push themselves into bad taste. Do they toe the line? Pilkes and Hayes have basically built a big mansion on the line. But God knows they never cross it. It’s a testament to how tight and well crafted their material is, and a joy to watch.

The same goes for the multimedia portions of the performance. Despite a few visible command boxes, it’s seamless and ultimately serves its purpose without ever sticking out or dragging. As a cover for costume changes, its brevity only becomes more impressive.

Does everything in the show work? No. Because of the creative talent on display in other portions of the performance, certain skits (particularly the balloon artist sketch) seemed sluggish by comparison. Although these pockets of slowdown seldom lasted long, and were usually ended with some crackling improv, they were nevertheless noticeable in amongst the otherwise flawless wallpaper.

Princess Party is, if nothing else, a wonderfully crafted piece of entertainment. When I one day ascend to power and rule with neither pity nor mercy, it will be required watching for anyone who wants to be in a comedy duo, and/or anyone who thinks lavish parties for children are a good idea. Hannah Pilkes and Lauren Howard Hayes are damn funny people, and this show is a love letter to the hard work it takes to make that talent into something worthwhile. If you’re in need of laughter, this is the next best thing to nitrous oxide.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 2 August)

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

“This is must-see standup.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

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

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

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

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

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

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)

 

The Flyboys: A Postmodern Swing Sensation (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 1-24th Aug: 22:30: 60 mins)

“The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There’s been a huge rise in popularity of hybrid vintage/modern acts in recent years, with electro-swing becoming cool, and bands such as Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox selling out tours and racking up millions of hits on YouTube. Enter the Flyboys at the Fringe on the back of this trend, mixing up modern songs with a vintage 30s/40s twist.

Taking to the stage in coordinating waistcoats and spats, The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun as they launch into their cool rendition of Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. With a swinging beat and smooth, intricate harmonies the foursome have a real likeability and set the tone for a fun evening of music with a twist. And what follows is a string of popular, up-tempo songs performed in the band’s trademark style.

These are four great singers, and while none of them possess a spine-tingling unique voice to dazzle as a soloist, the blend and balance of voices as a group is what makes each arrangement special and entertaining. And they make it look so easy and fun at the same time, beaming with smiles, busting some daring kicks and flicks, it’s amazing to witness the control and accuracy with which this group performs.

At times it verges a little too close to holiday park singing for me – with some very obvious, crowd-pleasing song choices, cheesy choreography and a few dad jokes in between ditties, but they are a really fun bunch and perform with pizzazz so such flaws seem unimportant on the great scale of what the night is. I’d certainly prefer more variety in the set list and more depth in the artistry – the group’s mash-ups in the second half of the set go some way to achieving this, and the painfully short a capella rendition of Etta James’ At Last shows that this group do have the potential to elevate themselves into a really classy band of musicians, rather than being about entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Overall, this is a good fun night with some fine singing, comedy and choreography, and even the sternest viewer will find it difficult not to indulge in at least a little toe-tapping. One to take your mum to.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

RENT (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 16-26th Aug: 17:15: 2 hrs)

“A production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

RENT is a searing rock musical from the 1990s that was only recently knocked out of Broadway’s top 10 longest running musicals of all time by Wicked. It follows the story of a group of friends dealing with love and loss against a gritty New York backdrop, and is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème.

Local company Captivate Theatre’s version is a slick and minimalist endeavour, editing out many of the smaller roles and songs to focus more on the main characters themselves, rather than the community of artists they move within. Yet what’s lost in pulsing power in some of the bigger moments is made up for in subtle sensitivity and slickness elsewhere, making this a clean and refreshing take on a musical that’s been doing the rounds for decades. This stripped back approach also spawns some interesting interpretations in the musical numbers, such as Today 4 U, which is almost unrecognisable as a nigh-on a capella song, though somehow works within Director Tom Mullins’ overall vision.

Yet while the minimalist ideology of this production creates many unexpected delights, the main downfall of this show is the staging and use of space, which is far too small to effectively mount a musical of RENT’s epic stature – even with the cuts and styling carried out. Unfortunately, this results in too much awkwardness on stage too often, given how important movement and isolation are to several scenes. At times Mullins makes the action work well within the constraints – in Santa Fe and La Vie Boheme in particular, the scale of the choreography matches the music, space and overall mood, but more often than not, the overwhelming feeling is one of potential – how great this show could be in a venue where it could breathe and run free.

Despite this, this is a production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage. Megan Grace in particular delivers a real powerhouse performance in every scene and song as Joanne – not to mention nailing that riff in Seasons of Love. Alex Peters as Roger and Anna Macleod as Mimi combine to create some spine-tingling harmonies in their duet moments, and it’s a shame Grace Cowley doesn’t get more time to sparkle as Maureen after her raw and gutsy Over the Moon.

RENT will always be a fantastic show, and this slick and super-streamlined version is packed with highlights and the heart needed to make it soar. But I’d love to see it return with more depth and detail in a bigger venue to really be blown away.

 

nae bad_blue

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Bowjangles: Excalibow (Gilded Balloon: 1-26 Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more multi-talented group”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Bowjangles are not your average string quartet. Indeed, they extend the well-known triple threat (performers who can sing, dance and act) to a fourth dimension by adding the musical string to their bow. (Sorry). And what’s more: they can do all four at the same time. Prepare to be amazed as these performers act out a dramatic saga while accompanying themselves (more than capably) on their instruments.

Excalibow is Bowjangles’ latest Fringe offering (marking the troupe’s 10th year together) and sees them embark on an adventure to find the magical bow Excalibow, which will enable them to become (ahem) the Lords of the Strings. Yes, the jokes and musical puns are that good throughout. It’s a fairly ridiculous story, that unfortunately come across as a rather hastily put together pastiche of fairytales, but the characters are fun and fantastical, and the ever-changing mood created by the performers and their instruments is nothing short of masterful. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more multi-talented group in all my years of reviewing.

What really makes this performance special, though, is the chemistry and personality that ooze from this awesome foursome. They appear very natural onstage together, and are clearly very well-rehearsed and comfortable in being able to deliver this slick and energetic production. Their smiles never stop beaming, so even if the thought of watching an all-singing, all-dancing string quartet brings you out in a cold sweat, you’ll no doubt find yourself swayed into at least a grin by their charm and charisma.

For me, the overall structure and narrative of the piece is where it all falls a little awry, as the action chops and changes between many locations and subplots that it all gets somewhat confused – though the fun and frolicking nature of the performance makes this relatively unimportant in terms of overall enjoyment. Particular highlights include a snippet from a well-know ABBA song, and a comedic take on a certain moment from the film Titanic.

This is a show that’s bags of fun, packed with personality and great for the whole family (bar the odd naughty word which slips out). A definite for the shortlist as a welcome break from some of the harder-hitting shows out there.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

FCUK’D (Gilded Balloon: 1-27 Aug: 12:30: 60 mins)

“Hints of truly brilliant wordplay”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There’s been a pleasing rise in popularity in spoken word and verse performances over the last couple of years, opening theatre up not just to new audiences, but also new artists who might previously have thought the medium too inaccessible for them. And what makes the Fringe so special is being able to experience stories of those that don’t normally get a stage. FUCK’D is one such verse piece, where a young man from an estate in Hull, who dropped out of school early, longs simply to stop his little brother being taken away from his broken home by the authorities.

Following their mother’s breakdown having being left by their father, the two boys must fend for themselves, and when the clipboarded do-gooders finally arrive in their shiny cars, the elder brother makes the split-second decision for them to both jump out the window and run for it. With no plan and less money, the journey they make is one of desperation, reflective of the plight of many such teenagers around the country today.

Niall Ransome’s script cleverly interweaves narrative drive with descriptive passages to tease out the background and develop the world the characters grew up in. A romanticised view of their home estate and its personalities nestles next to the tense escape scene, while reminiscences of rainy picnics are juxtaposed with hiding under a bridge, to add poignancy and personality. It’s artistic and moving with hints of truly brilliant wordplay.

George Edwards is the performer tasked with delivering this urgent tale, and he commands the stage with power and honesty. It’s a tough task to sustain the rhyme and mood for almost an hour, but this is a commendable effort, supported by a simple yet effective soundscape.

While the narrative and performance quality lacks some of the artistry and finesse of works by similar artists such as Luke Wright, this is a solid and capable outing that is almost aching with potential. It would be great to see a bit more pumping pace and extremes in mood to create more intensity – and while Edwards does very well to carry the performance, more dynamic changes and depth would really make this show zing.

A sterling effort, that with a bit more polish could become something very special.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Rabbie (Basement Theatre, Rose Street: 23-27 Jan ’18)

“It’s almost impossible not to find yourself engaged in every moment”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

For a musical about one of Scotland’s best-loved poets – many of whose works are also well-known songs – it’s hard to fathom why Rabbie hasn’t already been doing the rounds for years. Yet given Captivate Theatre’s impressive revision of it, I’m sure we’ll soon see this show becoming something of a tradition on stages around the country.

Loosely following Burns’ life and loves in chronological order, the action is also punctuated by toasts from a modern day Burns supper, which help give context and relevance to the action. Structurally it’s a fairly whistle-stop tour of the main turning points of the poet’s short life, and it’s a shame not to get more depth and drama from some of these, though the through-line about Burns’ love Jean Armour does go some way to adding that much-needed integrity to the piece.

The action often veers slightly too close to the edge of bawdy and crowd-pleasing for my tastes, but underneath the simple folksy style is a good musical – there’s a pleasantly surprising amount of harmonic complexity and variety in the numbers, and plenty of laughs to be had throughout. It all moves along at a rollicking pace so there’s never a chance for the energy to dip, and while I would have preferred more development in some of the scenes and characters to get to know them better, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself engaged in every moment.

The staging of this production is somewhat rough and ready, and director Sally Lyall’s decision to spread the action around the space perhaps isn’t the best given the setup of the Basement Theatre (if you’re sat in the front you’ll have to turn your ahead a lot!) but in a different space with more… space, and greater attention paid to the overall production values this could very easily be a show-stopping piece.

The cast are a talented bunch, and can’t be faulted when it comes to sheer gusto and conviction in their performance throughout. The nine-strong troupe play numerous characters between them and blend in and out of spotlight very well. A special mention to Charlie Munro who is hilarious as one of Burns’ publishers, Creech, while Meg Laird Drummond brings a wonderful sensitivity to Burns’ long-suffering wife Jean.

Like Burns’ own work, Rabbie may not be the finest example of writing ever to grace Edinburgh, but it’s certainly worth raising a glass to, in this, his celebratory week.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 January)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED