The Taming of the Shrew (Pleasance: 12-16 Mar.’19)

Michael Hajiantonis as Petruchio and Anna Swinton as Katherina.
Photo: Maia Walcott

“The command to ‘Kiss me, Kate,’ is no tender joke.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

As title challenges go, here’s a biggie: the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company presents The Taming of the Shrew. Rhymes with ‘Me Too’, helpfully, and for my money chimes with Rudimental and Ed Sheeran’s ‘Lay It All On Me’:

 

‘So if you’re hurting babe
Just let your heart be free’

 

Director, Tilly Botsford, would know her audience and on the night that audience was overwhelmingly female and young and had to be with Katherina (Kate) Minola all the way to Padua and back. Right at the start callow and earnest Lucentio is advised to ‘Study what you most affect’ and Botsford takes it from there. This is not the oddball ‘pleasant comedy’ that might ‘frame your mind to mirth and merriment’; no, it’s that other version, where bladdered Christopher Sly and the play-within-the play are cut and Petruchio lectures on misogyny.

 

The idea, of course, is that you walk out of the theatre with Katherina, a ‘foule and contending Rebel’ against Petruchio’s cruel dominion, and much is shaped to that end. An empty set consists of stepped black blocks and shiny scaffolding poles and costumes are kept plain and unremarkable: braces over white shirts and roomy trousers for gentlemen suitors and servants; with gowns for elegant swishing from Bianca (Jessica Butcher) and impudent flouncing from Katherina. The second half features harsher lighting. Nothing here of Italian colour, or period, despite the frequent mention of Pisa, Mantua, Venice. My favourite? Tranio’s sailmaker father is from Bergamo. It looked like a reaction to the vivid, beer stained, palette of last year’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Music, when it sounded, was a necessary relief and was, I think, under-played.

 

If it’s desolate at its close, this ‘Shrew’ still has its several entertaining scenes. Send for Biondello, bag carrier and fixer, and Callum Pope will have you smiling in a moment as he sorts out another fine mess. Thomas Noble’s beard and size give Hortensio unmissable stature and disguised (not!) as music teacher Licio he’s a nimble, comic treat. Will Peppercorn is the smitten Lucentio and also looks a prize chump as the elongated Cambio. Sally Macalister’s Grumio may give a knockabout performance but it’s well turned and always engaging. When Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller eventually turns up as Vincentio, humour gains a suave, ironic, dimension. Standout and habitual tailoring from Milan or DC? Tranio (Levi Mattey) is another more than capable servant-as-master and dear ‘old’ Gremio (Henry Coldstream) has the delightful, crestfallen, tribute to the ‘Great British Bake Off’, ‘My cake is dough’.

 

So, to risk the extended analogy, what does rise to the occasion?  There is no showstopper here; tonally, politically, the play is now a nightmare, and (therefore?) the technical challenge of how to sort its language is significant. ‘Coney catcher’, anyone? There is, notwithstanding, an appalling build to the fact that Katherine has had to marry a brute. Her father, Baptista (Michael Zwiauer), has no conscience. Petruchio is not, in this production, the roistering six-pack article. Michael Hajiantonis plays him straight, out for what he can get. He’s clever and vicious and unlovable, punto e basta! The command to ‘Kiss me, Kate,’ is no tender joke. Katherine is unnerved to destruction and Anna Swinton has that closing, stupefying, monologue to prove it.

 

For my part, I miss Christopher Sly, Madam wife at his side, and with him the opportunity to pretend that ‘The Shrew’ is a piece to enjoy and applaud while the sorry world slips by. All credit then to Tilly Botsford and an excellent cast for going at the real thing, at pace and with conviction.

 

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 13 March)

Go to the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Pleasance archive.

9 to 5 (Pleasance: 5-9 Feb.’19)

“A damn good show .. poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad 

 

l-r: Anna Sheen as Violet, Jemma Lowcock as Judy, & Alice Hoult as Doralee.
Images: Andrew Perry

Dolly, Dolly, Dolly. What is there to say about the undisputed Queen of Country that hasn’t already been said? Other than the fact it’s what I blast during weightlifting 80% of the time (so now if you see me, congrats, you know!), it’s hard to come up with praise that hasn’t been done to death. I thought I’d get lucky when I got to talk about something Parton-adjacent, but unfortunately for me and very fortunately for everyone else in the audience, the praise vocabulary has a lot of overlap.

9 to 5 tells the story of Violet (Anna Steen), Judy (Gemma Lowcock) and Doralee (Alice Hoult): three embattled women struggling to stay strong in a world designed to keep them down. That world is typified by their boss, Franklin Heart Jr, neatly summed up as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. After a chance encounter with the devil’s lettuce, the three heroines find themselves in far deeper than they intended, but with a chance to change both their lives, and the lives of their co-workers, for the better.

From the outset, I need to make it clear: this is a damn good show, with damn good performers. If the star rating wasn’t enough to tip you off, Footlights’ production of 9 to 5 is one to be proud of. The lynchpin of that success was the central trio of Hoult, Lowcock, and Steen. It’s not often that I get to see talent on the student stage that would fit seamlessly into a professional production, but then again, it’s also not often that you see not one but three vocalists who can not only sing to character, hit notes right in their centre zone and (as my opera teacher used to say) throw their voices out so hard you could hammer a nail with them. Even better is the obvious talent at play outside the soundtrack: Steen balanced great comedic sensibilities with an unexpectedly genuine reflection of the struggles faced by powerful women; Lowcock threw levels of vulnerability and hidden nerve into what could’ve easily been a cookie-cutter “beaten down protagonist in a musical” role; and Hoult could basically get a job as a Dolly Parton impersonator – sometimes it was genuinely difficult to tell the difference from sound alone.

‘Around Here’

And that’s even more satisfying when supported by a keenly talented secondary cast. Daniel Stansfield’s Franklin is a wonderfully grotesque, gurning gargoyle of a man, whose revelry in his own personal toxicity is almost a treat (almost); Mhairi Goodwin’s fawning office drone Roz was not only a brilliantly half-sympathetic secondary antagonist, but probably had my favourite performance in the entire production (you’ll know it when you see it); and special props go to Brett McCarthy Harropin a stunningly chameleonic performance as both a dancer, and the show’s sleeper comedy MVP, Josh. Honestly, most of this review could just be praise for the acting. Even if you are not mentioned here, please rest assured: I noticed you, and you were glorious.

Of course, what’s an actor without blocking? And although certain productions on the Pleasance Stage have erred towards A-Level Drama sensibilities in the past, this is certainly a welcome break. I was unable to find a fully-titled choreographer, but whoever in this production created the movement should be very proud of their work: the dancework has the precision of a watch movement. Every part of the stage had its own novel and interesting motions, fully cohesive to the overall pitch and wave of the beat. Darn good to watch, especially the opening number.

To round off the positives, many that there are: this is a musical. Not just a musical, but a Musical. If you’ve watched one or two, you’ll be very familiar with the emotional beats, levels and general plot. But parts of this show felt like I was seeing the familiar tropes for the very first time. When this production gets going and finds its stride, it’s poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress.

Doralee enjoys a Cowgirl’s Revenge

However, this gem is not without flaws. These seem most glaring behind the scenes: whoever was on sound needs to review their operations. The levels between the band and singers were usually abysmal for the first half of most songs, which makes it feel as if whoever was on script watch was distracted. In between the constant volume switching, and a feedback boom in the first half that could have blown fillings out, it ultimately came off as sloppy and far less than what a production like this should be capable of. Although fixed by due diligence, it was disappointing that such a big feature was handled so poorly.

That said, my one large criticism of what I was seeing directly onstage was that the opening number didn’t set my expectations high. I can’t tell if it’s a comparative lack of rehearsal or some mistake on the night, but the all-important 9 to 5 number sounded off key, off time and sluggish for maybe half of the time. Luckily the show recovered soon after, but I distinctly recall being viscerally afraid the rest would be much like it.

I wish I could’ve given the show an ‘Outstanding’, but these two issues  – mostly the former – marred it enough that the entire experience didn’t reach the heights I knew it could have, given the rest of its parts.

However, the above flaws should be fixable, and even if not, I would still recommend this show. The sheer spectacle of a good musical is really hard both to organise and act in, but the levels of talent at play here are exactly what Edinburgh’s come to expect from the university’s Footlights in recent years. Despite the factors holding it back, 9 to 5 is a credit to the cast and team that have brought it to Pleasance, and it deserves every seat sold. In a world that’s all takin’ and no giving, this production definitely bucks the trend.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 February)

Go to 9 to 5 at the Edinburgh University Footlights

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Pleasance.

 

Signals (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 13:10: 50 mins)

“A mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Until we know for sure, which might never be the case, the extraterrestrial is endlessly fascinating. One some level, the entirety of human existence is hinged on this question: is there anyone, anything else out there? Footprint Theatre’s engaging two-woman show Signals asks this question with an intelligent script, grounded performances, and an excellent climax, and while it is not exactly pulse-pounding, this production is a mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.

Eve Cowley and Immie Davies play two data analysts on the night shift at a facility dedicated to scanning the cosmos for alien contact. For the majority of the play, they simply sit and swap comments about their co-workers, life in general, and whether their job is completely meaningless. The set is commendably simple yet effective; with only two desks and a rat king of wires and plugs, the feeling of a dingy office is created very well. Cowley and Davies’ performances are also well-suited to the piece; all their interactions, from casual chats to fiery arguments, are enjoyable to listen to and cleverly written. 

Overall, however, the show itself cannot quite muster any significant feeling other than ‘enjoyable’ for the first two thirds. While the stillness of the show is nicely reminiscent of naturalistic theatre trends, its interludes where nothing happens are overlong considering the theme of the show. Thankfully, the portion of the events when alien contact is actually realised is fabulously crafted, and genuinely thrilling — especially the two workers’ disparate reactions to the possibility that we might actually answer the ultimate existential question. This is, without a doubt, the best part of the show, and I can confidently say the final third is an excellent piece of theatre.

The rest, however, does not do the ending justice, and while the technical and performative aspects are solid, the runtime is not as well-measured as it could be. If the establishing segments of Signals took a few more notes from its ending, this still, gradual approach could have come across with a bit more verve than it currently does. This is a well-made production, but it could be much sharper, and with an injection of just a bit more energy it could be a seriously impressive two-hander. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Ladykiller (Pleasance Courtyard: 3-27 Aug: 13:00: 60 mins)

“Evokes the absolute best of bloodthirsty entertainment.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Why is it the darkest thoughts so often provide the funniest gags? From legendary one-liners (“I’m having an old friend for dinner”) to literary works (calling J. Swift) to entire theatrical movements (the Grand Guignol made this their bread and butter for over 60 years), the most twisted material has consistently charmed audiences throughout centuries of culture. Writer Madeline Gould, making her Fringe debut with one-woman show Ladykiller, appears to fully understand how fruitfully funny and fascinating the macabre can be, and has created a delightful exploration of a particularly bloodthirsty protagonist, played with captivating energy by Northern Irish actress Hannah MacClean. Director Madeleine Moore provides deft, minimalist direction, which provides some splendidly gripping moments and risible humour for the most part — with a slight tightening of the meanderings of the show, Gould’s piece could be a serious golden goose in the Gripping Female Monologues canon.

Ladykiller veers from the dramatic to the iconoclastic to the squeamishly depraved with breakneck speed, which results in both well-timed tone shifts and some narrative whiplash. The piece opens with a body on the floor — as so many excellent things do — and a wide-eyed hotel maid covered in a remarkable amount of viscera and trembling with disbelief and regret. She delivers a heartfelt, hopeless, victimised plea to the darkened audience, and perhaps to a higher judgement, insisting that she would never commit such a heinous act without provocation, and proceeds to desperately lay out how exactly she wound up holding the knife and the deceased wound up deceased. This opener soon slides towards the melodramatic, which ultimately serves Gould’s approach excellently, for MacClean cathartically reels it all back in to explain why we’re really sitting through an hour of this blood-splattered protagonist. For the maid is not at all as she appears, much less a gain-based killer, (simply killing to protect herself), but rather one of the myriad more complex and captivating types of murderer. Over the course of Ladykiller, the maid not only lays out her favourite and most revered killers and killer types, but explains various methods and methodologies in great, gruesome detail. 

In truth, though Ladykiller is frequently very funny — mainly owing to MacClean’s masterful grip on comic timing and goading of the audience — though its subject matter gets possibly too worshipful of the ‘art’ of murder to leave a nice taste. This ought not to be at the front of anyone’s mind going to see a show with quite such a blood-soaked poster, but the casual references to legendary serial killers and their unthinkable deeds start to drift from explanation to hagiography, yet without enough consistency to hold together quite right. The history lesson segments of the piece are at once both too brief to leave a firm impact (unless you too have memorised the gamut of notorious murderers so well you can recall their significance instantaneously) and too long-winded to convince a newcomer to jump aboard the murderer hype train. 

Of course, to a certain extent, the intricacies of murder psychology are reliably fascinating, and Gould has done well to document them so extensively; perhaps some more character work on the maid and her preferences within murder scholarship would make the piece seem less like a TED talk at times. That being said, MacClean is an enthralling presence onstage, with a fabulously personable way of engaging with words and tone. The way the words “students,” or “intellectual masturbation,” or “femininity” slither out of her grinning teeth evokes the absolute best of bloodthirsty entertainment, and rest assured, no matter the subject matter, MacClean’s delivery keeps the audience in good hands the whole way through.

The notion of femininity and its relation to all this is a fascinating undercurrent in Ladykiller, and Gould has included some excellent meditations on how the gender of the killer (or killed) affects understandings of power, victimhood, and responsibility. There are excellent points made concerning why female killers are automatically considered less crafty or intentional than male ones, and even whether these assumptions ultimately enable female murderers more than anything. These questions are excellent fodder for further consideration, and though Ladykiller has its uneven elements, if you are looking for some violent delights delivered by a knockout leading woman, look no further. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 6 August)

Visit the Pleasance archive.

 

Velvet (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“A tour de force from Tom Ratcliffe”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

If the #metoo campaign taught us anything last year, it’s that sexual harassment is far more common than we think – especially in the entertainment industry where (generally) younger and (generally) female individuals are too often coerced into performing sexual favours in the promise of getting some sort of career boost from it.

Velvet (written and performed by Tom Ratcliffe) shows it’s not always women that are the victims in these cases, as it follows the plight of a young male actor longing to hit the big time, and who finds himself questioning how far he’s willing to go to get ahead. After turning down a spurious offer of a drink from an overly familiar casting director, and subsequently being dropped by his agent, Tom thinks twice when he is contacted on an app by an apparent big-wig in the film industry. Should he put his scruples aside to potentially further his career? And what would his partner think if he did?

While perhaps not the most original of plots, Velvet does go to show an honest and accessible account of one actor desperate enough to dance with the devil, with sufficient depth and perspective to make it a balanced and gripping show. It’s a fairly pacey piece, with scenes jumping from one to the next to push the story along, but it’s those where Tom converses with the mysterious man online that are the most disquieting and pleasingly restrained. Something about seeing each message flash up on screen behind the action gives added weight to the dark discourse, and the development of this plot-line in particular is edge of the seat stuff – how would any of us respond given that situation?

As a one-man show it’s a tour de force from Ratcliffe, who himself plays everyone from snooty agents to stuffy actor friends, and even his own mum. Only at rare moments do individual personalities blur, and it would be great to see some more extremes and risk-taking come to the fore to make each and every character unique and identifiable.

There are a couple of convenient coincidences and moments in the script where suspension of disbelief is pushed to its limits, but on the whole this is an honest and heartfelt performance that I could very happily sit through again. It’s only my seventh show of the Fringe this year, but absolutely my favourite so far. Well worth watching if you’re an (aspiring) actor, in particular.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 August)

Visit the Pleasance, Potterrow & Teviot archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Stardust (Pleasance Dome: 1-27 Aug: 16:20: 60 mins)

“Entertains and enlightens”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

While, to many, the Fringe is a place to be entertained, it is also a place to be challenged and to learn something new. I’m not ashamed to say that before watching Stardust I knew very little about the country of Columbia. And that my knowledge extended barely any further than the stereotype it has garnered for being the home of cocaine – another subject about which my knowledge was paltry. Step up, then, this part-documentary, part one-man-theatrical-masterclass which entertains and enlightens on both counts.

In entering the space, performer Miguel Hernando Torres Umba gives each audience member a warm welcome and entrusts a select few to look after mysterious boxes, which go on to become significant parts of the show (nothing scary!). The mood set is one of familiarity and friendship as Umba then explains his Columbian heritage and the purpose of the show he has created as artistic director of Blackboard Theatre.

What follows is a whistle-stop tour through the history of cocaine, how it has become a multi-million pound (and very dangerous) industry, and the wider effects this industry has around the world. With very imaginative use of audience interaction, projections, sound, contemporary dance and many other devices besides, it’s certainly a feat in creative communication. Yet while each section is captivating and powerful, the connection between them often comes across as a little disparate and scrappy, working against the relaxed and open atmosphere at the heart of this show. The game show element in particular is engaging and fun, though rattled through almost too quickly to get the most out of it, and then we’re on to a different aspect of the story.

The joy of this performance, though, is driven by the passion and personality of Umba. His likeability and charm make the learning very enjoyable, and his honesty and communication style are very engaging without going over the top. He shows himself to be adept at multiple performance styles within the piece and knowledgeable and authoritative about his subject.

Overall, Stardust is a well-thought out and compelling discussion, though disappointingly (albeit achingly honestly) leaves a bittersweet taste as there appears to be no resolution or obvious path forward. Well worth watching to learn a few facts about Columbia’s biggest export, though.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 August)

Visit the  Pleasance, Potterrow & Teviot archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Oliver! (Pleasance Theatre: 28 Nov-2 Dec ’17)

1 press

Cast of Oliver! Photo by Andrew Perry.

“FSELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430SELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5FFull of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocalsSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Lionel Bart’s classic musical, Oliver! is an iconic story of cruelty, deceit and murder set in Victorian London, and features some of the best-known songs in musical theatre. Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group (EUSOG) first performed this show in 1988, and almost 30 years on they’re back with a fresh, youthful take on the traditional tale.

While some of the company’s creative and casting choices in this revival absolutely do work in keeping the show relevant to today’s young people, unfortunately others are over-reached and not as well realised. Early on, the choreography and staging seem unnecessarily stompy and frantic, while some of the fight and chase scenes come across as a little under-rehearsed and clumsy.

But let’s start with the positives, of which there are many. In no particular order, Grace Dickson’s Nancy is a real highlight of the show, and her human, emotive rendition of As Long As He Needs Me deservedly gets the biggest cheer of the night. Rebecca Waites shines as Charlie with terrific energy throughout, and Ashleigh More is also excellent as the Artful Dodger, with a commanding stage presence and exquisite voice and physicality. In fact, the whole Consider Yourself scene More leads is the first where everything – choreography, vocals and direction – really falls into place to present the kind of show-stopping number that EUSOG are so good at.

What student productions – and EUSOG in particular – also tend to do very well is unearthing a script’s hidden comedy, especially with smaller characters. In this production, Kirsten Millar stands out as the Sowerberrys’ maid, Charlotte, bringing life and humour to each of her scenes, while Richard Blaquiere gives a hilarious geeky awkwardness to the role of Mr Bumble. Ewan Bruce as Mr Brownlow and Niamh Higgins as Mrs Bedwin also deserve a special mention for bringing a sense of calm maturity and experience to their older characters – a pleasant contrast from the energy of some of the other scenes.

In addition to casting females in some of the other main parts, EUSOG also opt for a female Fagin, which, unfortunately doesn’t prove as successful. Kathryn Salmond certainly gives it her all in this challenging role, though the songs (in particular You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two) are very low in her register, meaning a lot this character’s authority is lost and at times it’s a struggle to follow the dialogue. I almost wish the company had gone one step further to make Fagin a female character to see what dynamic that would bring to proceedings. Yann Davies pleases in the title role with a purity and innocence to his voice, though something about the way this show is put together makes it seem like the character of Oliver is almost a bit part – his presence often gets lost in among everything else going on on stage.

Overall this show is full of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocals, with some wonderful individual performances, but lacks some polish and pace to be a truly spectacular production.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 29 November)

Visit the Pleasance, Potterrow & Teviot archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED