The Panopticon (The Traverse: Oct 11 – 19 : 19:30: 2hrs 45 mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” A masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Shows are a lot like types of friendship. Some primarily uplift you; they wrap you up in a distancing blanket from what’s actually out there, or distract you from what can’t be escapes. Others are more of an intellectual affair, where the value comes from what you can glean. A working partnership, maybe, as much as acquaintanceship. Some are good, some are fine, and some you cannot wait to forget.

The Panopticon is a singular type of play: it’s like having a witty, irreverent friend who also spontaneously beats the shit out of you. It’s cool, you agreed to it, and honestly there’s a lot of heart and soul in the neverending chest-stamping and throat-chopping, but nonetheless beaten ye shall be. The Panopticon is a masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy, an important artwork – but if the content warnings plastered around the Traverse Lobby don’t tip you off, it’s not welcome territory for a frail disposition.

The premise of the story is easy to ramp into: a young girl named Anais is put into a home built in the shell of a disused panopticon: a prison wherein all prisoners may be seen from a central tower, and never know if they’re being watched. It becomes a damned succinct example of ‘setting-as-overall-metaphor’, and sets up a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and disorientating lows centred around the lives of the troubled and shunned, and the tragedy of a loveless childhood.

The star of the show, both literally and performatively, is Anna Russell-Martin as Anais: an acerbic, highly troubled young woman for whom the lines between reality and psychosis are not so much blurred as violently shaken together. Russel-Martin offers a masterclass performance in the title role: running the gamut from charming and rambunctious to devastated to utterly destroyed, whilst still maintaining rock-solid continuity of character. Anyone who’s been to a few theatre productions has likely seen grief, rage and joy played out – when watching Russel-Martin, it’s like seeing them for the first time.

Beyond the easy classification of “who is the main character”, the ensemble cast is both a blessing and a curse: a group of performers so uniformly talented that it makes picking a starting point incredibly difficult. Do you start with Laura Lovemore, whose attention to consistent physicality not only makes every one of her characters distinct, but wholly individual? Kay McAllister, who portrays beauty of spirit and acidic tragedy like an angel in a crack den? The wonderfully afflicted bravado and uncertainty of Louise McMenemy’s Shortie, the edge-of-unsettling vibrancy and humanity of Lawrence-Hodgson Mulling’s John, the kaleidoscope-esque multiplicity of Martin Donaghy. There’s simply too much good to unpick here without it turning into a bullet-pointed gush list, but suffice to say, they’re an ensemble cast dream team. Wholly professional, wholly consistent and an absolute joy to watch.

I would be remiss, however, not to highlight my two favourite performers: Gail Watson and Paul Tinto. Tinto, rugged yet approachable, almost singlehandedly carries the light of optimism for the majority of the show with a charisma and earthy crunch that turns what could easily have been a trying, one-note archetype into what may be one of the show’s more understatedly complex roles. And Gail Watson. Gail Watson! Chameleons would weep and don monochrome jackets out of shame. No matter the demands of the myriad parts she plays, each is done with nuance. Personality. Although Eddie Murphy’s Norbit may have traumatised me away from films where one actor plays every part, if Gail Watson were headlining? I might be persuaded to invest in the necessary therapy to enjoy it.

These players would be delight enough on their own, but when cast into sets as well designed and dramatic as those created by the incredibly talented stage team, it only serves to elevate. Not only are they clever to the point of enviousness, they are (much like everything from the lighting to the sound ops) integrated to the point of seamlessness. It’s very much like watching a morbid dollhouse play itself to pieces: a rare treat to watch though perhaps, given the subject matters, not a constant delight. The team behind The Panopticon commit entirely to the concept of theatre as illusion-making, and the results are wonderfully encapsulating.

Of course, perfection is theoretical, and this production proves that fact. Though the viscerality of the acting cannot be denied, the fight choreography felt too floaty and impactless for most of the violent scenes to carry home the needed drama. And although the digitally projected visuals were inspired, oftentimes they felt more like a palate-cleanser to cut the drama rather than an off-angle surprise to elevate it. This is less of an issue with, say, the visualization of the mental sensation of an orgasm, but is fairly noticeable on the subject of psychotic dreams.

It feels prescient to state here that, if you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t a show that flinches when it comes to deeply upsetting events. The plot features things that would certainly warrant thorough show research and consideration for anyone with prior trauma, and even if you don’t, make sure not to go on a bad day. It’s a white hot furnace of dismay, but it forges something deeply important and meticulously well performed.

It might be the darkest show I’ve reviewed for Edinburgh49 yet, but it’s a shining star on the theatrical horizon.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 11 October)

RSNO:SONDERGARD; CARGILL: USHER HALL 4 Oct 2019

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Imperial Palace (Hofburg) Vienna

 

“All in all a promising start to what looks like a first-class season.  Bring it on.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

The Season Opener for the RSNO always gets a buzz going at the Usher Hall and tonight was no exception.  Moreover, the happy occasion was also music director Thomas Sondergard’s 50th Birthday, which the audience and orchestra recognised by singing and playing “Happy Birthday” at the end of the concert, amply led by mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.

For the repertoire we were taken unashamedly and full on into early twentieth century Vienna: Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler.  There is no doubt in my mind that the capital of the once great Austria-Hungarian Empire was the world capital of music from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.  Lots of fabulous orchestration, complex rhythmic and compositional patterns, and brass.  Oh, the brass!  Eight horns for the Mahler.  Seven timpanies.  And the opening Strauss wasn’t shy about using them too.

The evening started with Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, an eighteen-minute escapade if not quite a romp comprising complex and multi-varying patterns of tempo and orchestration, the latter being the composer’s undoubted strongpoint.  Loud and soft, quick and slow, joyful and sinister that amply caught the character of the eponymous antihero.  Considering this was the first piece of the evening the orchestra was well on top of it, although it possibly lacked a little in terms of overall togetherness and smoothness which was perhaps unavoidable in a piece of such variety.  It made a tremendous start to the evening and set the tone of enjoyment and engagement.

Next we heard an early piece from Alban Berg, Seven Early Songs.  These slow, contemplative pieces allowed formidable Scottish mezzo soprano Karen Cargill to show off her beautiful rich and mellow tone along with a perfectly suited vocal range for a piece that could well have suited a contralto.  I was stunned by the quality of her voice. The orchestra accompanied her sensitively and effectively.  This was Berg in early, melodious form (1905-08) written under the instruction of Schoenberg, whose teaching, if not his composition, was decidedly traditional.  However the later orchestration (1928) gave a hint of his subsequent more complex compositional style.  The orchestra accompanied Cargill with sensitivity and empathy.

Following the interval came Mahler’s Symphony No 1 in D Major, the Titan.  An accessible and entirely enjoyable work in four movements it is a useful entry point to the composer, with all the mixture of poignant melodies and crash bang wallops that is his stock in trade.  Sondergard’s interpretation was a breath of fresh air, highly detailed bringing out every nuance of the piece, and the individual sections of the orchestra excelled from the piccolos and leader’s violin solo to the full-on brass and percussion. Yet perhaps because of this, I did not quite get a feeling of ‘wholeness’ from the orchestra because of this detailed interpretation.

All in all a promising start to what looks like a first-class season.  Bring it on.

 

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 4 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

BRITTEN-SHOSTAKOVICH FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA: PIKE; LATHAM-KOENIG : USHER HALL 22 SEPT 2019

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Jennifer Pike

“The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:Outstanding

The Usher Hall’s excellent series of Sunday afternoon concerts from orchestras all over the world commenced its 2019/20 season with an almost unsustainably high standard.  The newly formed Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, the brainchild of Artistic Director Jan Latham Koenig (a British conductor working in Moscow) and our Ambassador over there, Sir Laurie Bristow, with a membership of Russian and British members all auditioned for their posts, and formed to sustain the legacy of the 2019 Year of Music between Britain and Russia, as well as the close relationship between the eponymous composers, kicked off the proceedings.

Whilst not overtly political or peace promoting in concept (one thinks of the highly successful Barenboim/Said Divan Orchestra made up of Israelis and Palestinians) the combination of musician from both countries is not without political relevance in these troubled times and can be only a force for good.

With an itinerary ranging from Sochi to Basingstoke, the band hit Edinburgh towards the end of their tour and were well into their stride.

As with all the Usher Hall’s Sunday afternoon concerts, the programme was immediately recognisable, accessible and undemanding, but none the worse for that.  The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra, emotions were surely touched.

The programme started with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.  I was struck by the clarity of the strings, warm brass tones and relaxed cohesion of the band as a whole.

We were then treated to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and privileged to hear Jennifer Pike handle the violin solo. This young lady has blossomed since her arguably winning BBC Young Musician of the Year too young, and this, the second time I have heard her play it, was a more rounded, secure rendition that let the glorious music speak for itself, the sign of real artistry.  As a violinist of meagre ability myself, I first heard the work played by a school colleague in the Abbey of Dorchester on Thames in the 1960s who went on to be a professor of music at the Royal Academy. I have known it and loved it all my adult life and Jennifer really delivered. Moreover, the orchestra went untroubled into accompaniment mode rather than performing mode, effectively and subtly.

Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra was a delightful raucous romp showing the composer’s lighter side and sent us chuckling into the interval.

After refreshment, something more serious, Prokofiev’s Extracts from Romeo and Juliet.  Six extracts were chosen, starting with the proud “Montagues and Capulets”, later the searing agony of Death of Tybalt, ending with the serene, if troubled, The Death of Juliet.  In all six episodes the orchestra was more than equal to the task which they played with the right balance of restraint and emotion, never brassy nor vulgar, representing their fine musical training and technique.

Our finale was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Plenty of opportunities, but none taken, for brassiness or vulgarity here, but, again, a finely judged performance, in particular with a huge tuba, big bass drum amply representing cannon fire, and the triumphant tubular bells.  All credit to the incredibly versatile and unflustered percussionist, Uliana Scherbakova, and tubaist Grady Hassan.

One wonders why this excellent orchestra was not performing at the Proms, but of course it was not formed when the programme planning took place.  To get such an accomplished band up and running so quickly is a real achievement and shows the energy and vitality that is the international music scene today.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 22 September)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Michael Odewale: #BLACKBEARSMATTER (Pleasance Courtyard, 1-25 Aug, 17:30, 1hr)

“Clearly an adept writer and jokester.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Your reaction to Michael Odewale’s chosen title for his new stand-up hour, #BLACKBEARSMATTER, will likely indicate how amusing you will find the ensuing comedy. The joke, like much of the hour, is witty, but somewhat surface-level, and raises a few more questions than laughs. That being said, Odewale is clearly an adept writer and jokester, whose talents certainly shine from time to time, in between slightly weaker setups and punchlines.

The venue, a small dark Pleasance space, suits his winking, confrontational approach well, letting Odewale lock eyes with audience members who react with mixtures of amused discomfort and pearl-clutching giggles, to good comic effect. His material ranges from daring jabs at consumerism and privilege, to more self-deprecating observations on Black masculinity and some of his own morally dubious personal habits. Each of these topics elicits a good belly laugh or two over the course of the show, including some truly tickling insinuations that terrorism benefits the running shoe industry, and a darkly hilarious story about the etiquette of discussing peanut allergies on a date. 

Many of Odewale’s bits, rest assured, are certainly amusing, but just as many make one feel some more fine-tuning is in order, and perhaps a rethink of comic timing. The comedy is not quite consistent or energetic enough to elicit the kind of enthusiasm needed to make an audience thoroughly recommend this hour to their friends — like the title, a great deal of his jokes are creative, but without much spark. Odewale’s persona, however, of a sardonic, witty, and flawed Black male shrewdly navigating the parameters of modern society, has much potential, and I personally would happily see his next show, assuming the punchlines get tighter, the segments more focused, and Odewale’s energy more palpable. A performer to remember, but a show that could use more bite and verve for now. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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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.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Will Gompertz: Double Art History – The Sequel (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 19 – 25 : 15:35: 1hr)

“A fun hour.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It’s a fairly uncontroversial opinion to say I like art. Art is pretty neat. Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Monet have pride of place in my apartment, but as far as really knowing anything about art goes, I’m basically like if someone put a dog in a high school class. Will Gompertz, of Tate and Guardian fame, assures me that he can change that in an hour.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a straightforwardly constructed piece: a humorous lecture wherein Gompertz teaches the fundamentals to a crowd of mostly drunk Fringe goers, with a ‘big exam’ as the dramatic raison d’être. There aren’t many shows where I find myself holding a tiny pencil, wondering if a joke is going to be on the test – though, it’s not as distracting as one might think.

And, overall, it works. It works better than one might expect, and that’s not simply down to the demureness of Edinburgh’s day drinkers. Gompertz proves to be a compelling core for a one man show, and brings an energy that’s seldom seen on the Fringe stage. It’s difficult to describe: somewhere south of nervousness, east of smug, and altogether interpersonally compelling. Evidence of his knowledgeability is widely documented, and this show merely adds to the pile. The way he handles the material, the genuinely loving lilt of his voice when describing a form of expression he clearly holds dear to his heart. Whether or not you even like art, Will Gompertz probably likes it enough for the both of you.

And, to his credit, I like art a little more after Double Art History. There’s a wealth of material presented in the short hour, and it’s presented well. Gompertz’ approach is highly accessible, aided by the bare smattering of tech, and almost lulls you into a false sense of ignorant security. If you’re irritatingly curious like I am, you’re guaranteed to have your attention held.

However, this is a show that leans harder on the “lecture” side of its composition, as opposed to the “Fringe show” side. The theatrical elements feel more like artifice than fully integrated parts of the production, and whilst lectures are by no means bad, that visible separation sometimes proves genuinely jarring. Key moments of audience interaction felt as if they had no reason to be happening, other than a misplaced sense of theatrical convention. Whilst playing up the cartoonish theatricality of the whole thing is a boon for marketing, I often found myself wishing I could have just listened to Gompertz talk shop for an hour, rather than listen to setups involving an art teacher who doesn’t exist.

That’s not to say the show isn’t charming. It is, and aggressively so. Gompertz and his crew create an atmosphere where, whilst everything doesn’t go right, it’s not for lack of earnestness. There is a fundamental joy about art at the heart of this show, and it shines clearly.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a fun hour, sitting in the presence of someone who knows their field inside out. Whilst it’s not likely to get your pulse pounding, you might come away with a better appreciation for what it means to make art.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Slime (Pleasance @ Central Library: Aug 21 – 25 : 11:15: 1hr)

“A real heart-warming delight.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

Over the years I’ve been to most of the Fringe venues and have watched the major players spin off into new areas. The Pleasance now covers its traditional St Leonard’s location as well as the EICC and, so it seems, Edinburgh Central Library. Who knew?

So the youngest (two and a half) and I trooped off to the wonderfully named ‘Slime’ with little real clue of what to expect. We went because it was on and we were looking for something to do. What a treat we found!

The premise is simple but elegant. The children (and grown ups!) are welcomed into the garden to sit on stones in a foam garden to get a bug’s eye view of the action. The play revolves around two creepy crawlies: a slug and a caterpillar. Over the course of forty minutes or so these tiny beasties enjoy some fairly big adventures.

It starts with a nervous slug coming on stage, pleased to see a slime trail. She stumbles upon some slug pellets which hurt her. She fixes upon a leaf that is too far for her to reach. She needs help.

Then the caterpillar appears. Where slug is nervous, he is bold – in and amongst the audiences and, at points, taking selfies on his iPad. He dislikes slime. Dislikes slugs. But does want the leaf.

There’s lots of fun but little of the outright silliness that makes up many kids shows. When the caterpillar is sad, the slug tries to cheer him up with a sweet wrapper. At another point the caterpillar is mean to the slug. There is a kind-off dance off: why wouldn’t there be?

It an old story in many ways: an odd couple have some ups and downs but in the end just about become friends. Joy, tears, arguments. It is something everyone knows from the toddler in the audience to the grandparent sitting next to them.

Slug understands a little quicker than caterpillar that working together they might get their leaf to share – one to turn into a butterfly, one for grub. Caterpillar has other ideas. Will they get there in the end? There’s heartbreak too when slug realises she can’t turn into a butterfly.

It sounds simple. But it is magically put together. The children are utterly spellbound. A wonderful score supports very little dialogue (I think a grand total of 12 words which are also signed). The actors convey a huge range of emotions through facial expressions and body language. A real, heart-warming delight. They are a talented duo. The audience was utterly charmed. If there is a 2-5 year old in your life: go with them whilst you still can. If you don’t have one, offer to take a friend’s!

This is one of the very best kids shows at Fringe – the hour felt positively scant by curtain call. We both loved it. It is reasonably priced (unlike most children’s shows…) and you get to meet the stars at the end. More than that: the children got to play with slime for the last fifteen minutes – and which child doesn’t want to do that?

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer:  Rob Marrs  (Seen 19 August)

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