Little Shop of Horrors (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: Aug 19 – 24 : 17:45: 1hr)

“A faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

I’ve always had a weakness for Little Shop. Call me puerile, but there’s a lot of musicals that’d benefit from a giant, bloodthirsty jazz plant. Fiddler on the Roof is an amazing show, but imagine Sunrise, Sunset with Levi Stubbs scatting in the background. It was with glee, then, that I saw a production was to be brought my doorstep.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Little Shop of Horrors is classic black comedy: a nerdy schmuck finds an alien plant that changes his life for the better – the only catch being that Audrey II demands human blood in exchange for continued success. Think Faust, if Faust was a rock opera set mostly in a flower shop.

Bob Hope Theatre stays true to this narrative whilst squeezing the original work into a tight hour – and, in that respect, it’s a real success. As someone who is shamefully familiar with its predecessors, places where material was cut and fused for time was surprisingly seamless, incorporating the dramatic flow into the changes with masterful attention to inter-scene connection. Though a few scenes (especially those reliant on emotional revelations) felt a little pressed for space, it’s a necessary evil of the Fringe business.

Performances are strong across the board, with every player slipping into Little Shop’s caricature cut-out roles with aplomb. Whilst not doing anything particularly new with the roles, there was no place where the demands of the characters were not met. Richard Cooper is wonderfully nebbish as Seymour, in stark contrast to Sarah Leanne-Howe’s Audrey – straight out of the pages of a 1950s Good Housekeeping. Kris Webb’s murderous Audrey II, whilst lacking the booming presence of his predecessors, brought a pointedly creepy smoothness to his role. Managing to look vaguely threatening in a big frond costume is tough, but honest to God it happens.

MVP of the production must go to Andy Moore, with his standout performance as Orin Scrivello. Energetic, gleefully sadistic and uncomfortably charismatic, Moore keenly captures not only the essential energy of the play, but also the essence of what makes his character such a joy to watch. Praise for energy also goes to Paul Stone as Mushnik. Though his accent takes certain peaks and troughs during the performance, he immediately lights up the stage with each appearance.

However, Little Shop demands more than theatrical chops. Rock Opera is a hard beast to wrangle, especially on the small stage. And don’t think for a moment that the singing performances in this show are not incredibly worthy – they are, especially in the case of Chiffon, Crystal & Ronette. However, technical mastery is just one facet of this kind of performance, and unfortunately, the necessary punch and energy required to really hammer home the intensity and spectacle of a rock opera simply wasn’t there. The songs had heart, but (apart from a select few) nothing every really comes in for the killing blow. Tension doesn’t range high enough, sorrow cannot go low enough. This is a cast with the potential to hit the audience like a sledgehammer, and it’s disappointing to see it miss.

It’s deceptively hard to pull off an established show, especially with a smaller budget and Fringetastic time constraints. The performance by Bob Hope Theatre, whilst not bombastic, is nevertheless a faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist (Assembly George Square Gardens: Aug 19 – 25 : 21:00: 1hr)

“A gem of the surreal comedy scene.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

My consumption of Tom Lenk’s work, like many, is limited to his appearances on the small screen. His time as Andrew the reformed(ish) demon-maker-turned-sidekick in Buffy the Vampire Slayer definitely earned him a place in my heart, but that sells him short. He’s made appearances on the Broadway stage, is a playwright in his own right, and now (most importantly) the Edinburgh Fringe, in a show whose brief is impossible not to take a second look at.

Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is one of the most successfully surreal Fringe shows I’ve ever seen. The title both sums it up entirely, and fails spectacularly to capture anything of its substance at all. The premise itself sounds like the setup for a joke: a struggling, suicidal young man (writer Byron Lane) gets a knock on the door, and it’s Tilda Swinton. Everything unfolds from this single origin point, and blooms out in absurd fractals from there.

Don’t be fooled, though. From the moment Lenk arrives onstage as Swinton, that absurdity has justification. As the marketing may suggest, Lenk’s performance is the main event, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Lenk’s Swinton is so unconventionally charming that it’s hard to describe. It’s almost like the cubist version of charisma. Whether blowing in like a winter storm at a bag factory or whispering sweet nothings to an espresso machine, Lenk captivates a crowd like no other. It’s true spectacle, and well worth the price of admission.

This is not, however, a one man show. Walt, Swinton’s project and the main audience touchpoint, is a fine element of grounding in a show that could easily lose its feet. He does a very good job of playing constant foil to Lenk’s fifth-dimensional grandeur, and his puppydog appeal is undeniable – though, occasionally his delivery slipped from “sad and confused” to “disinterested”. Whilst in other shows this might slide, when playing on the same stage as a mad swan-lady from the nth dimension, it shows. As a writer, Lane should be incredibly proud not only of the task he’s undertaken, but the tightness of his script. The joke density is intimidatingly thick, and some sections feel as if the laughs are built in wall-to-wall.

Mark Jude Sullivan fits in perfectly to the heightened reality at both ends of the pole, pulling double duty as self-obsessed Bobby and Walt’s whitebread father. His quiet turmoil later in the show, oddly, is one of the most compelling emotive moments simply due to its relative silence. Opposite him is Jayne Entwhistle, whose portrayal of Walt’s mother is a pitch perfect rendition of the middle-American mom. However, I must particularly praise her as Wanda the line chef, a blink-and-you-miss-it character who (surprisingly) had some of the best lines and delivery of the entire show.

As a comedy, it’s hard to want more from Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist. Though (as is usual) a few jokes drag beyond their apex of funniness, it’s a tightly written and directed piece of absurdist theatre that knows exactly how to work its material. However, there’s an emotive undercurrent beneath the laughs, and it’s there that the show stumbles. Though by the end everything ties into a fairly satisfying pathos, the emotive content of the first half feels vestigial and undercooked compared to the piece’s stronger elements. Whilst certainly not a traditionally dramatic show by any means, it nevertheless lacked the emotional foundation needed to turn what is (admittedly) a great show into an outstanding one. That is perhaps the greatest frustration of director Tom Detrini’s work, which constantly teases at perfection but never holds it hard enough to stick.

Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is a gem of the surreal comedy scene, and very much one to catch while you can. Lenk is a tour-de-force as Swinton, and worth every since flouncing, strange moment. You might not be able to explain what you’ve seen afterwards, but I can guarantee you’ll feel positively about it.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 18 August)

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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.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 14 August)

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Megazoid (Scottish Comedy Festival @ Nightcap: Aug 15-18, 20-26 : 20:30: 45 mins)

“An extremely charismatic, likeable performer.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

There’s a joy to ridiculousness. It’s like Sudocrem for the general psychic onslaught of existing. Innately, I think there’s something worth celebrating in the ridiculous, and Megan Shandley’s Megazoid is certainly evidence of that fact.

A homegrown Edinburgh talent, Shandley’s approach to comedy is that of a temperamental muscle car: smooth riding for the most part, with occasional and unexpected jolts to high speed. It’s easy to be lured into a false sense of security by her sheer laidback-ness, but there’s a wonderful weirdness hiding just underneath, waiting to express itself in an unexpected punchline.

The material is, as you might expect, varied. Shandley embraces the tried-and-tested “scattershot topics, barely-there theme” approach carved out in comedy clubs since before time, and it works. This isn’t a show that needs to be slick or tightly woven together. It’s hanging out with a cool mate who drinks wine from a bag, and has a lot of thoughts on the Lion King – and honestly? That’s all it needs to be. The comedy is relatable enough to keep you anchored and odd enough to keep you guessing, but never volatile or needlessly edgy. Shandley is unabashedly a feelgood comic, even if she doesn’t set out to be.

But even good works are not without fault. It’s a bittersweet criticism in that this was a show which left me wanting more. Though fantastically relatable, Shandley’s easygoing demeanour sometimes meant otherwise excellent jokes were let down by a lack of pointedness in their delivery. Constantly, Shandley gives teases of over the top physicality, high-energy and clownish expressiveness, but pulls back before things can reach their most pleasing apex. Fringe slots are tight but nevertheless, this is material in want of greater variance in pace.

Perhaps my disappointment was amplified by the quality of what was one display, and wondering what it could be. Shandley has some fantastic material at her disposal: unexpected, bright and even surprisingly intricate. Arcs and connected punchlines surface with joyful abandon, constantly layering and re-layering.

It’s clear that there’s a wealth of material bouncing around Shandley’s brain – even the explanation of the show’s title suggests as-of-yet unseen country, full of unexpected turns and left-field observations, waits somewhere underneath her blonde bob, and ultimately I found myself wishing I could’ve taken a longer safari. This is, as before, bittersweet: for although it limits how much I can rate the show, there’s no limit to how much I liked this show. Shandley is an extremely charismatic, likeable performer, and with revisions this is an act that could really seriously turn heads.

Megazoid is a wonderful 45 minutes of staring through the world through slanted binoculars. Despite the shortcomings of her act, Megan Shandley is undeniably one to watch – in person, as well as in the long span of time.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 August)

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Ensemble 1880, Wagner and Brahms, Institut francais d’Ecosse, 13 August 2019

Image result for ensemble 1880

“By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air. “

Editorial Rating:3 Stars

There are many myths and half truths circulating around composers with interesting if not scandalous private lives, and Wagner, along with Liszt, is probably at the top of the list.  An uncompromising man of great passion, he was by no means a modern day commitment phobe and the work we heard tonight, along with its backstory, gives ample proof of this. It is, in fact, a consummation.

Cosima, Wagner’s first wife and twenty four years his junior, was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, herself born of passion.  Married to Hans Von Bulow, a student of Liszt and a celebrated conductor, far too young at 18 and bearing him two children, feeling increasing coldness from her husband, she fell first for Wagner’s music, and then him, having met when the Von Bulows stayed with Wagner for the weekend.  There followed a long term affair siring three children out of wedlock before Von Bulow relented and the couple married.

At the time of writing Siegfried Idyll in what has to be the ultimate birthday present, the musicians settled on the stair that led up to his wife’s bedroom inside their Swiss villa on the birthday morn so they could perform a symphonic poem that Wagner had written as a celebration of her birthday as well as to mark the joyous occasion of the birth of their son Siegfried the year before.  Cosima awoke to the sound of music wafting into her bedroom and at first she thought she was dreaming. Beats being woken up by the radio alarm, doesn’t it?

Why I had always thought this story improbable is that most people hear the work played by a full orchestra of a hundred or so players,or at least a full string orchestra.  How could they all fit on the stairs? Much revised, the version was originally written for an ensemble of fifteen as we heard it tonight (albeit 13 desks, close enough), so the story begins to ring true.  For proof, read Cosima’s diaries.

I tried to get all this into my head when listening to our band this evening, Ensemble 1880.  On paper a supergroup with several principals and past principals of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this particular band has an esoteric approach to the music, neither contemporary nor original instruments, but trying to approximate the sound at the time of early recorded music.  One really has to question this approach; while period instruments and arrangements have their place, who is interested in early recordings with all its sonic limitations, especially in this day of remastering? Moreover, Siegried Idyll was first performed in 1870 and Brahms Serenade No 1 in 1858.  Director Alec Frank-Gemmill explained this approach while showing us his 1920 horn.  The first shellac disc came out in 1895. Is this not all a faux concept?

The reversal of playing order should have been a signal.  Everybody had come to hear the Wagner, hence it was originally put on last.  We were told we were to hear it first. It was thoroughly disappointing and under rehearsed.  Individual playing was competent, but there was no feeling of ensemble, a complete absence of legato with wind and brass in particular failing to gel.  The two horns struggled to hit the note first time, oboe jerky, and the patient trumpet who had to sit there for the first fifteen minutes was too loud when he did make his entrance.  Too much of the heavy lifting of the theme was taken by the first violin, using inappropriate glissando. Only in the closing two minutes of the piece did we get an idea of what this group was capable of.  With the end in sight they relaxed and played in a smooth, together style which one had wished we had experienced from the start.

Had there been an interval I would have left, but I was glad I didn’t.  Now a nonet to reflect the original scoring of the work, the ensemble gave a superb, confident nay exemplary performance of the Brahms Serenade No 1 with some frankly virtuoso playing in particular by Alec Frank-Gemmill on horn and Georgia Browne mastering the tricky wooden flute.  The strings played together like they did every day. Forty minutes of joy.

Such is the nature of live music, a fickle creature.  Something wasn’t working even in rehearsal in the Wagner, I suspect, hence the playing order swap and the look of restrained relief on the players’ faces when it was over and somewhat brief muted applause from the audience.  By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air.

 

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

Reviewer: †Charles Stokes (Seen 13 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Edward Aczel: Artificial Intellect (Heroes @ Boteco, Aug 10-12, 14-25, 13:20: 1hr)

“A damn good time.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

If you’ve ever played Pac-Man, you’ll know that when you reach one extreme end of the maze, you come out the opposite side. I like that fact. It’s a useful metaphor for when something goes so far in one direction, it reverts back to its opposite starting point again. Jeff Goldblum is a good example of the Pac-Man effect: an actor who started out sexy, got weirder and weirder as time went on, then became so weird that he swung all the way back to sexy again.

Deadpan “anti-comedy” is very much the same thing. There is something so unspeakably absurd about good deadpan. When it’s done well, it’s the mark of a performer who understands mirth so well, they can appear utterly mirthless; or when the structure of a good joke is grasped well enough that it can be made to look like a bad joke. In that regard, Edward Aczel demonstrates the Pac-Man effect in spades.

There are many things to love about Artificial Intellect. If the high-energy atmosphere of Fringe is proving too much, Aczel may as well be a shot of Vicodin straight to the neck. Even audience participation seemed completely without pressure, because as Aczel reminds the crowd early and often: it doesn’t matter. There’s an almost calming nihilism to the whole prospect – Aczel appears as a man who is so given over to the dull reality of things, he’s like a Greggs-themed Siddhartha.

Aczel himself is compelling as a stage personality. His persona is somewhere between drunk librarian and divorced uncle, a combination which proves not only pleasing to watch, but unexpectedly charismatic. He when not leaning joylessly against the mic stand, he lazily floats around the stage like a stay dandelion seed, completely directionless inside and out. Better still, though, are brief moments in which he breaks character to laugh at an unexpected answer, and becomes the picture of mirth. There is something very rewarding about watching a performer whose love of their profession shines through, and even moreso if they can express it mostly through shrugging and talking about Dulux.

And the jokes – the jokes! Hard to talk about, even harder to pin down. Aczel is the Winchester Mystery House of comedy performers: there’s no telling whether you’re going to get a punchline or just fall off the face of the earth, and into another joke somewhere else. Deadpan comedy is a test of delivery and timing over pure content, and Aczel has it down to a tee. no hanging punchline ends with yearning or disappointment, because hey – nothing matters.

The usual defects with this species of set also apply here, though small in number: the laid back nature of audience participation meant that in certain sequences, Aczel almost got stuck into an infinite loop with unwitting members of the public, or jokes would trail ever so slightly over the line of outstaying their welcome. Though these moments of slowdown were easily accommodated into tone of the performance, but were nevertheless noticeable.

Artificial Intellect (which, at this late stage in the review, I must point out has literally nothing to do with AI or computers) is exactly what you need in the middle of the day. There is something freeing about Aczel’s approach to comedy, and when combined with his mastery of deadpan, it makes for a damn good time. Spectacle and high stakes are wonderful things, but sometimes all you need is a man slowly talking about nothing at all.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 7 August)

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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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