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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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

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Reviewer:  Rob Marrs  (Seen 19 August)

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The Showstoppers’ Kids Show (Pleasance Courtyard: Aug 15-18: 12:00 : 1hr)

” A polished, properly silly, properly funny children’s show”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

There are two sorts of shows that genuinely fascinate me. Magic shows and improvisation shows. I mean, every form of show has something interesting or funny or something to love, but those are the two that really get me thinking.

I think it is because deep down we all want to know how it is done. How does the magician saw the lady in half? Where is the bunny hidden in the hat? How do they make up songs about ‘’elderly children’ in London’s sewer system before being transported to a castle by way of a kiss from a unicorn on a pipe-smoking, gin-swilling child called Platypus? How do they not burst out laughing? How do they appear to make the difficult so ridiculously smooth?

With some of these thoughts in my mind (although I only met Platypus later), I set off with my dreadful duo (aged 5 and 2) for the lunchtime Showstoppers’ Kids Show. Neither of them had come across improv before so it was a bit of a suck it and see affair. Would they get the point of it all? Would they get involved? Would they spot the ice cream shop directly next to the buggy park and ask me about it relentlessly throughout the show?

Showstoppers are well-kent faces. They routinely sell-out here in Edinburgh and their show for grown-ups in the West End has won Olivier Awards. Many performers who appear year after year in Edinburgh become jaded or dial it in knowing that they’ll sell out regardless.

For the team in colourful dungarees nothing could be further from the truth – they were anarchic and buzzing from ten minutes before the show started! I walked in and saw them performing, assuming the show had started, and that somehow we’d managed to get the timings wrong. One of the Showstoppers gleefully revealed they were just playing to get into the mood before the show started but got the busy crowd going. This was clever: it got the kids used to the idea of getting involved. If any of the Showstoppers read this, I’d be keen to know who you thought was a better Renaissance painter than Caravaggio. 

The show was entirely constructed by the children. The Showstoppers built a series of songs and dances around the themes, plot ideas and names that were called out. The children did their best to corpse the stars. At one point we were asked to come up with three wishes for a genie to grant. The first two were generic enough. The third – wonderfully –  was ‘have a barbecue’ which just for a moment just about stumped them.

Arguably the stars of the show aren’t the five bouncing about endlessly on stage but the two musicians in the corner who are having to keep up with the hilarity and as you’d expect from West End stars, there are some jokes that fly above the heads of children but make the adults titter.

I spent much of my time mesmerised by the sheer talent of all it all. The cynics will say there are audience plants but I balk at that suggestion: just about every child suggested something after all. It has to be down to months and months of hard practice. It is all seamless and there are enough moments where it nearly spins out of control for you to really understand the hard work they are putting in: this is high-quality, funny stuff in real-time. Imagine how sick you’d be if you are a comic who spent hours trying to write gags and turned up to see an audience of children roaring along to this?

My kids enjoyed it and it was clear from seeing arms shoot up or things called out that other kids loved the outright silliness of it all. I’d guess the ideal ages are 4-9.

I came away with a new found respect for improvisation shows. I’d guess improv in front of adults is easier – it is easy to nod to a political theme or to rudeness or vulgarity. Children’s imaginations are much more fertile than our own and I’d guess the spectrum of possibilities is much wider.

Apropos of anything else, I’d note how generally lovely the Showstoppers were. From their getting us involved in their warm-up through to one of them asking at the end if my littlest one was ok (she’d got a little bit upset when she went up on stage with the other kids and I had to run on and grab her). They threw out large rolls of paper for all the kids to come up and colour in at the end of the show on the stage whilst going round handing out stickers to everyone. None of these things need to happen but it shows the stars know their audience. They don’t make the fundamentals of the show any better but all were appreciated.

This is a polished, properly silly, properly funny children’s show. I want to see the grown up one now.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 14 August)

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One Duck Down (Pleasance Courtyard : Aug 5-19, 21-26 : 10:30 : 1hr)

“A magical, wholesome family show.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It is a not-generally-acknowledged truth that toddlers are jolly good at wrestling. You wouldn’t think, watching them sit shoving Pom Bears into their gob that – at any moment – they can turn into a match for Hulk Hogan.

Each has their own technique. Some favour ‘’The Mummy’’ were they tense every muscle in their body and go completely rigid. Others favour the opposite, and manage somehow to loosen every joint in their body making them impossible to carry. This is the jellyfish. My youngest, whilst not averse to either of these generally favours two similar techniques: either the octopus which sees her grappling around your limbs as you try to manhandle her into a buggy or Ikea high chair; or its close cousin the ‘’cat going to vets’ where she scraps like billy-o and grabs hold of nearby objects with a death grip.

A nightmare of every parent is having to fight any of the above in public. None of us come away from public wrangling looking like parent of the year. Most of us are just desperately trying not to swear.

I was worried about all this because I took my youngest to one of her first shows this morning. She’d been to stuff in previous years but she had – happily for the Marrs wallet – been a ‘’babe in arms’’. The problem with any show is that you just don’t know how they will react to being in a very different environment for an hour. So it was with a sense of trepidation I took my seat at One Duck Down. She looked at me. I looked at her. She promised to be a good girl. I handed over a packet of gingerbread men.

Happily the cast took any lingering worries away. One Duck Down had both of my youngsters entranced from the first moment. The story is one of the oldest in town brought bang up to date: a young man from a small-town fancies a woman who is a wrong ‘un. She sets him a series of challenges to win her heart from making seagulls sing the national anthem through to counting pebbles on a beach. Eventually she sets him the challenge which is the show: find me the 7,000 rubber ducks that have escaped from a shipping container and my heart is yours. Anyone who has seen Blue Planet will know that 7,000 rubber ducks actually did plop into the ocean a number of years ago, and have helped us understand the ocean currents as we see them wash up now and again.

The hero of the piece is the highly likeable Billy, who sets off in a bathtub to track the ducks down. As he does so he meets a series of colourful creatures – some seagulls who are besotted with an albatross who only has eyes for himself; a polar bear who loves rock and roll; some smelly crabs and some pirates in L-plates. He slowly but surely accumulates all but one.

The team behind the show manage manage to make it small-p political without becoming a party political broadcast: balancing important messages (the effects of global warming; plastic pollution; and what we can all do to make things better) with a fun story that the children enjoyed.

There was real cleverness here. Double-entendres, clever word-play, catchy (well-sung!) songs throughout and fun, well-crafted characters. Not many shows will have a bearded lady, a huge blue whale made out of plastic bags (a real highlight) and a sword fight on a carousel. More probably ought to! The cast put in a real shift changing role after role after role.

I enjoyed it all and not just because there were enough jokes pitched above the eyelines of the children to keep the adults amused.

I usually bemoan children’s shows being an hour as most of them could be a little tighter. A 50 minute show would probably lead to fewer casts having to battle with a kid having a meltdown. One Duck Down managed to keep most of the children’s attention for that time – no mean feat. My two were talking about it hours later. Both were bopping away to the songs, clapping at all the right points and enjoyed rocking along to Scozzie the Polar Bear.

Songs, clowning, puppetry and a lot of fun that keeps your kids spellbound for an hour. All in all, a real winner and a magical, wholesome family show.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 5 August)

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Chris Washington: Raconteur (Baby Grand, Pleasance : Aug 5-25 : 20:15 : 1hr)

“His delivery is absolutely superb.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars : Nae Bad

It was a big weekend in Wigan. The local football club had run a competition to design a new mascot. The winning entry was the glorious: Crusty the Pie. Better still, over 50% of the entrants suggested that the new mascot be a pie.

If you have a soul, at this point in reading the review you will be warming to Wigan. Perhaps even thinking of a summer holiday there. Who wouldn’t want to spend a week or so in a place so devout in its worship of pies?

Chris Washington is from Wigan. But he isn’t just from Wigan: he clearly loves and is of the place. It is hard to dislike him. You immediately warm to him – and to warm to him is to warm to the pie capital of the world.

Before the show starts there is a board on the stage which says something along the lines of “if Washington took more risks he would be on his way to the big time”. Later, it is replaced with “#leastriskycomicinthebiz”.

As he puts it, and having recently learned what the word means, he is a raconteur. His show is him telling a series of stories about things that have happened to him over the last year: getting engaged, going to Australia and the culture shock he experienced; his favourite kebab house getting a zero rating for hygiene; his fondness for garden centres and late night petrol stations.

To say he was laid back would be an understatement. He rightly – in my view – mocks other comics who take themselves two seriously pointing out that he has three GCSE’s one of which is in Food Technology. He asks why would anyone want to know his thoughts on Brexit? Why would anyone want any stand-up comic’s view on Brexit? Well quite so. We wouldn’t ask Mark Carney to crack gags so I’m never really sure why comedians feel the need to rant about political issues (especially if everyone in the crowd agrees with them anyway). He then delivers probably the best Brexit joke of the Fringe almost as a throw-away line.

Washington exudes charm. He may lack ambition, but this is a man who used to be a postman. He knows treading the boards is better than tramping the streets. He knows about life, and that there are more difficult things to do than telling jokes. He is acutely aware what a privilege it is to go round the world telling jokes and stories and have the audience laughing along. This is a man who loves his job. It is difficult to be so casual, almost conversational with an audience, but the best comics can do just that – and Washington does so with ease.

There were stronger sections than others. I found an extended tale about go-karting perhaps a little longer than it needed to be but his jokes about mindfulness made me laugh and wince in equal measure. His adventures in Australia were very funny. Rarely has a man cared so deeply about his local kebab shop but all of this – grounded in the local, the mundane – was where he really shone.

His riffing at the start of the show off the audience was top-notch and he clearly has the brain and wit to do more of that if he wished. His gentle mocking of a late comer was done with care and warmth rather than than the sneer and snort elsewhere.

It is easy to see a Northern comic who tells stories of every day life and think of Peter Kay. Washington veers away from ‘remember when’ but isn’t a million miles away from Kay. His jokes about his dad’s jet lag had me guffawing mightily as did his trip to a wedding fare. His accidental views on cyclists brought proper belly laughs from most in the room. An insight into everyday life is never a bad thing.

With a bit of tightening this show could easily go from a 4 to a 5. His delivery is absolutely superb, for the most part. At other points some of the stories ramble or don’t quite hit how he’d like to. I don’t think he needs to be edgier or riskier. He may need to be a little more brutal with what he cuts and what he keeps but that is minor stuff. He even inspired me to get a kebab on the way home.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Rob Marrs  (Seen 3 August)

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Ray Badran: Everybody loves Ray, Man (The Cellar, Pleasance : Aug 5-11, 13-25 : 21:45 : 1hr)

“His highest heights are high indeed.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars : Nae Bad 

I had spent the day watching the world’s superlative sporting battle. No, not Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest – compulsive though it is – but England versus Australia for the latest installment in the immortal tussle for the Ashes. Nails bitten to the quick, beers had been drunk, nerves were shredded. It would be fair to say that my disposition towards our friends from the Antipodes was not imbued with the spirit of friendship which usually binds the Commonwealth.

Of course that old tart, Fate, likes to throw down the odd googly every once in a while to keep us on our tippy toes. So when I booked a last minute show at the Pleasance, I was brought face to face with the old enemy. The thought, however, of Ray Badran secreting sandpaper about his person was unthinkable. Indeed, seeing as at various points he took all of his clothes off I was visibly reassured he was on the level.

But what of his show?

The show was intimate  – maybe 50 people watching – which is probably to Badran’s strength. His self-deprecating humour lends itself to a tight venue, as does his crowd interaction.

It was a curate’s egg of a show. His ‘emergency joke’ was not a show saver as he joked but a showstopper. If it wasn’t so outrageous it would be a contender for gag of the Fringe. I just can’t see the Metro publishing bestiality. More is the pity.

His highest heights are high indeed. A hilarious tale about pretending to be disabled to fool his brother with inevitable results; a good riff on why so few things are measured in inches (I’ll never look at a Subway sandwich the same way again); using a YouTube clip to try and get an NI card; and a misplaced Deliveroo order were all genuinely funny. If he could have kept up that quality throughout we’d have a serious star on our hands and, perhaps, one day we will.

Other moments, though, weren’t quite there. His group work wasn’t as good as it might be. I suspect that he would be much stronger on home turf where he has the cultural references, the jokes about the town are obvious, the links clearer. After all, Australians can struggle in an English summer – or at least, here’s hoping.

Ultimately there’s little point asking where someone in the front row is from if you can’t spin it into a few gags. Given the young lady he picked on was from Aberdeen it wasn’t as though he was short of potential material but the section petered out. There were other moments when a joke didn’t work and he ended up joking about the failure. This is a good save so far as it goes but something you can really only do once per show. More than that and it serves a reminder to the audience that there is trouble at mill. A few of the longer stories fell flat. It really was a bag of revels.

That said, he’s clearly dedicated to the craft and confident enough to tell you what he is doing, telling the audience the stagecraft, and still get the laughs. Whilst the show lacked  a theme, being more a series of riffs, Badran’s final gag brought the show together – and drew both laughter and astonished applause.

It takes a lot in an Ashes summer to get a full-blooded Englishman willing an Ozzie on.  But I did. I liked him enormously and I think the rest of the crowd agreed
In cricketing terms, an Usman Khawaja rather than a Steve Smith. Moments of genuine brilliance amid some baffling choices which make you shake your head. You want to see more of him, you know how good he can be, and you look past the faults simply because you remember the perfect moment earlier on. Certainly – I’m very thankful to say – not a David Warner.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Rob Marrs  (Seen 3 August)

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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.

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 13 March)

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